Derek Hughes is a magician, comedian, and actor. Turns out he’s also a bit of a historian, at least in regards to his craft. He recounts the career of a 19th century French magician named Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin: “He was super influential for the craft. Think of a magician in your mind, with the top hat, tuxedo, and maybe a three-legged table. That wasn’t always what people thought when they thought of a magician.”
Up until Robert-Houdin’s time, magicians dressed more like wizards, complete with the pointy hat. “Robert-Houdin became incredibly popular in affluent circles, performing parlor magic. What he did that other magicians weren’t doing at the time was wearing the attire of his audience.”
Hughes notes that magician David Blaine used this approach in the late '90s, when he did his first Street Magic special. “He’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, so when he walks up to you, you don’t assume he’s a performer. That makes the magic seem more impossible, because he looks just like you or me. But he has these powers.”
Robert-Houdin’s influence can be seen in the craft to this day. “He is the archetype of a magician and he was so imitated,” Hughes says. “An American magician even borrowed his name.” That American was named Erik Weisz, but the stage name he chose was Houdini, which he thought meant Houdin-like. “Every magician today is a derivative of Robert-Houdin. He was an actor playing a person who had special powers.”
It was this notion that inspired Hughes, who had been interested in magic since the age of 10, to take acting classes. In fact, he went on to major in theater at the University of Minnesota. “I found out acting is a whole new magic kit. It’s the power of make believe; to tell a story, and move people.”
Hughes is now becoming a much-sought-after performer, having been given a boost by his appearance on America’s Got Talent, as well as Penn & Teller: Fool Us. He gambled a little when appearing on the latter, as it nearly conflicted with AGT. Had his episode of Fool Us run while he was still on AGT, he would have been disqualified. “I was so nervous, because Fool Us started airing in July,” he explains. “I went on it, but didn’t tell anybody at AGT, and my fingers were crossed that it would air after I got voted off or won AGT, because the contract is strict and scary.”
Hughes tries to recall some of the stipulations. “’We own all your material in any known medium now or to ever be invented in all the known universes.’ So, I can’t ever go to Mars and start a show based on what I did on AGT,” he laughs.
He got away with it, and used AGT as a learning experience — not only as a national platform, but also listening to everything the judges had to stay, particularly Howard Stern. “He was amazing and so supportive,” Hughes says, corroborating the perception that Stern is, in fact, a mensch. “He really is. After one performance, he compared me to Doug Henning.” Stern couldn’t have made a bigger compliment, as Henning was an early hero of Hughes.
“I was 12 when I went to see him at the Orpheum in Minneapolis,” Hughes says. “And it was one of those pivotal moments. I had been into magic for about two years at that time, and I raised my hand when he needed an assistant from the audience. It was like the quickening, that rush, I just knew he was going to pick me.” And Henning did just that.
Once onstage, Hughes informed Henning that he too was a magician. “And Henning, so beautiful and supportive says, ‘I’m sure you are.’” Looking out at the crowd, Hughes knew he had definitely found his calling.
“So Stern comparing me to him was so thrilling,” he says.
IF YOU GO:
Acme Comedy Co.
708 North First St., Minneapolis
8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, plus Friday; 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
For more info, call 612-338-6393 or visit www.acmecomedycompany.com