Derek Hughes has built an impressive career throughout his decades of performing as a “stand-up magician,” who combines joke-telling with interactive magic tricks that shine the spotlight on members of his audience in clubs and theaters nationwide. He’s been a frequent performer on the CW series “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” and helped develop hundreds of tricks during five seasons of truTV’s magic series “The Carbonaro Effect,” in addition to making it to Top Ten finalist status on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
Hughes credits his passion for conjuring to his teen years in Minneapolis, when his mother took him to the former Rib Tickler club, which combined comedy and magic on a regular basis. He brings those experiences full circle to the Zanies stage in Chicago this Thursday and Rosemont on Friday and Saturday as the headliner, and took time to recall those colorful nights of his youth.
“When I was ten, I traded a chemistry set I had for another kid’s magic kit, and in that kit there was a trick where you make a penny turn into a dime,” Hughes recalls. “You didn’t really do it, of course, but it sparked the idea of alchemy in my head and made me think it could make me special. Penn and Teller were just entering the zeitgeist and Harry Anderson was performing magic tricks as the judge on the sitcom ‘Night Court,’ and I was obsessed with it all.
“My mom would take me to Rib Tickler when I was fourteen and fifteen, since it was a drinking club with smoking and everything, but she’d let me sit up front while she took a seat in the back,” he adds. “Watching those amazing talents made me realize that’s the experience I want to create for people someday, and I got to play the Acme Comedy Club—which evolved from Rib Tickler—right before Christmas. I did virtual shows throughout the pandemic to make money, but it’s great to be back in front of real audiences again and feel the energy and have to read the comments to know if it’s going good or not.”
His touring these days is a far cry from his teenage gigs, which included doing magic shows for kids in the parking lots of a chain of convenience stores. His most memorable crowd reaction then came when “a four-year-old girl just completely wet herself in her chair, and the kids all jumped away from her. I just hope that doesn’t happen this weekend at Zanies.”
Hughes learned to master joke-telling as part of his act when, early in his club career, he made a conscious decision to take a couple of years away from performing tricks and worked solely on his stand-up, even though that required him to demote himself from headliner to feature status. But the effort paid off as he developed his effortless blend of the two arts that pay him today.
“I just tried to make the audience have that same excitement that they have with magic, but using words and laughter,” he says. “When I finally wove them together, I’d tell a five-minute story about growing up in a trailer park to help clear the audience’s minds after they were blown away by a trick. It’s a really nice journey to go from laughter and then total astonishment and some more laughter, something requiring interactive audience participation, improv with audience members doing a trick and then back to talking about being an only child and having heart surgery when I was ten. It keeps things interesting every night.”