Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer
For Derek Hughes, stand-up comedy, acting and magic are more connected than one would think.
“Being a magician is acting and stand-up is acting,” he says, “when the stand-up is on stage, they’re acting their persona.”
Hughes brings his funny, larger-than-life persona to his residency, “Bag of Tricks,” running from now until Feb. 16 at Liberty Magic.
Hughes first became interested in magic as a kid in Minnesota, where he swapped a “messy, stinky” chemistry set for a friend’s magic kit, called “The Hundred Greatest Tricks in the Last 50 Years.”
The back of the magic kit box described the Magic Castle, a Los Angeles nightclub for magicians and magic enthusiasts. But for Hughes, the back of the box told a prophecy.
“I’ve been nominated now for Stage Magician of the Year by the members of the Magic Castle. It’s just funny, the seeds that are planted in a child’s mind and how even without it being an intentional goal, it’s funny how life’s path led me to that place that I sort of envisioned on the bottom of that box as a child,” he says.
Growing up in a Minnesota trailer park, the son of a single mother, Hughes also always had a sense of humor.
“Levity has always been a big part of my personal expression. [It was] not the most positive environment from an outside perspective. But as a kid, I didn’t see it that way,” he says.
Hughes’ mother would sneak him into the Rib Tickler, a Downtown Minneapolis club, which featured a stand-up comic and headlining magician every week. The 14-year-old Hughes continued to cultivate the seeds that had been planted when he was younger.
“My interest is magic, but I was also turned onto these incredible stand-up comics,” he says.
Hughes’ magic mentors told him to study acting to help the budding magician improve his craft. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in theater, Hughes moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting full-time.
Despite receiving steady work as an actor, Hughes felt restless, uneasy and depressed.
“It hit me that I wasn’t performing in front of live audiences anymore, so I set the intention, ‘Okay, I’m going to get up at least three times a week and perform at different clubs and comedy venues around L.A.,” he says.
Soon, Hughes received more comedy gigs than acting jobs, and began to transition to stand-up full-time. However, he hadn’t completely added magic to the mix just yet.
“For a handful of years, I would book myself at clubs doing just stand-up to develop that voice and work on that muscle. Then, I would integrate that material into my own show, going from stand-up material into original, amazing magic and then back into hilarious autobiographical standup, sort of weaving them together back and forth,” he says.
Now, Hughes has performed his magic and stand-up act on MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, the CW’s “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” and appeared in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” He’s currently a consulting producer on TRUtv’s, “The Carbonaro Effect” and was a finalist on season 10 of NBC’s America’s Got Talent.
Hughes says living by a “yes, and” philosophy and not resting on laurels has allowed him career success. For example, Hughes never sought out to be an author, but leaning into a joke inspired him to write a children’s book, “Humpty Dumpty Lived Near a Wall,” just released by Penguin Random House.
Hughes says that each opportunity he’s given leads into another, similar to how he came across magic in his childhood.
“I’m really into setting goals, but they tend to be more short term. Magic has led to acting gigs and acting gigs have led to magic gigs, and it sort of unfolds as I strive for excellence in each opportunity that I’m presented with,” he says.
However, Hughes says making it was never his intention when becoming a stand-up magician.
“I think the intention has to be getting up in front of an audience as often as possible and powerfully affecting them as best as we can. It’s not a difficult path if it’s your only path,” he says. “If it’s your only path than it’s just the path.”
For his six-week residency at Liberty Magic, Hughes hopes to make audiences feel the same way he felt when he discovered magic.
“I think standup is very important as a sort of a vehicle for exploring the human condition,” he says.
But, for Hughes, it’s all about leaning into the philosophy that guides him.
“I love the moment where it feels like I’m failing. It feels like I may be out of control, and then the magic happens anyway,” he says.