The Insider | Rob Zabrecky

By Damian Jennings - Monday, February 11, 2019


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Zabrecky was the first magician to make me cry laughing. I'd never seen anything like it. Never considered magic could be performed like that. It was astonishing. He danced. He drew on his face with a Sharpie. And he fooled me to boot!

Zabrecky interviewed on The Insider

In this episode of The Insider, I talk with Rob about a whole host of things. Character. Acting. And, importantly, what's inside the box.

We also discuss his new book, The A to Zs of Magic. Which will be released on the 15th of February as part of our Astonishing Essays series.

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Transcript of the podcast

The Insider: Hello and welcome to a new episode of The Insider podcast brought to you as ever by the delightful Vanishing Inc. Today I am lucky to have on the line Zabrecky all the way from Los Angeles. Rob how are you today?

Zabrecky: I'm fine thanks for having me, Damian.

The Insider: Thank you for getting up early in the morning to chat to everybody. We'll kick off, what's your origin story? You have 53 seconds, go.

Zabrecky: Well my origin story starts in Burbank, California born and raised right here just about 10 minutes from Hollywood. I started off my life as a musician and I stumbled into magic in my mid-20s and discovered a whole new performing art in magic and for magic I've kind of found my way to become an actor.

The Insider: Good I think you got it right on the time as well. The first time I saw you was at the very first genie bash and you made me cry with laughter in a way that nobody ever has before. The cutting the little man, the marker on the face I'd never seen anything like it. You came out on stage with a mysterious box. You gave it to someone to look after and after you finished your act you took it away with you and nothing happened. Can you tell us the story of the box?

Zabrecky: Yeah everything went wrong that night so the effect that I had that was supposed to, the big revelation, the confabulation with the double reveal-

The Insider: The kicker-

Zabrecky: Yeah the exploding, the confetti cannon didn't go off so I was like oh, let me just get out of here so I grabbed my box and I ran. No, that's actually kind of the opposite of the way most magicians think where you introduce something and then later on there's the big payoff that no one saw coming. So I of course understand all that and appreciate that and for the most part that's how you want to think as a magician because that makes people surprised and you can line up all those theatrical elements but for me the box was a symbol of a way to get into the theater. I had this vision where I was falling asleep one night and I thought wouldn't it be nice to just walk into a theater like you didn't even know there was a show going on and you just wandered in almost as a curious outsider. Some person walking down the street and here's this theater full of people and they're waiting for something to happen.

Zabrecky: So you walk in with whatever you're holding onto in your life and in the case of my magic character, the Zabrecky character he just always wears a tuxedo, it's how he goes through life and he carries this box with him because there's a very important things in there. So when he stumbles in the theater he can't bloody well walk down the stage with a box so he hands it off to somebody and he has them hold it and of course it's not theirs so they're just going to hold onto it. It's none of their business what's inside of it. Then he goes on stage and magically some things of his appear. There's a bit of a disconnect and maybe error as far as technically that plot because if you just walked in the theater his things wouldn't be there, but he's a witch.

The Insider: Sure.

Zabrecky: The Zabrecky character is a witch so he summons a few of his little handy things that he likes like scissors and paper and such and does a little performance for these people who look like they're in need of something. Then at the end it's like he's got to get on with his life and go talk to the moon so he's got to get his box and get out of that theater so he can get on with bigger things, better things.

The Insider: So obviously you've got a love and respect for acting and now indeed a job doing it, so I assume that a lot of the Zabrecky character is born from your theatrical experience how to convey emotions, what the motivations are for doing things as well as all the aspects of physical stage craft. So how did that act come about?

Zabrecky: That's a good question because I unlike many actors, unlike many magicians I didn't start off as an actor or a magician, I came to these things much, much later. Starting with magic without any real, maybe an acting class or two. One in junior college and that was about it. I really didn't have acting training. Just didn't fascinate me in any way. So as I started performing at The Magic Castle and I had this burning desire to reinvent myself as a magician, I was performing in the basement. Not as a scheduled performer but just-

The Insider: Like The Hat and Hare.

Zabrecky: Exactly down at the hat and hare and I would load up some card tricks and I would go down there and perform them very poorly, not speaking very clearly. Not having any idea of what a good trick even was. I just went to the magic shop and whatever someone showed me, whatever I could maybe find in the one book that I had that I came across would find in it ways to do little bits and pieces of tricks and I had this conceit that I could do it. But it wasn't good, but when I started seeing acts up there and started differentiating the ones that were good, I hate to say good and bad, but the ones that were strong versus, poor theatrically.

The Insider: Not so strong.

Zabrecky: Not so strong, yeah. I went to-

The Insider: Strong challenged.

Zabrecky: Right. Strong, no not strong. Sucky I guess you could say.

The Insider: Yeah.

Zabrecky: Terrible, terrible.

The Insider: Terrible, terrible acts.

Zabrecky: Disgusting, awful.

The Insider: Name them, name them all.

Zabrecky: Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

The Insider: Well I never thought you'd say him.

Zabrecky: Well there's too many lists and there wasn't enough good ones. There was a handful of some really excellent ones but the thing is the ones that were good all had these things in common. They had a theme, they had a sound theatrical character that all of the material was wrapped around when you went oh, that makes sense that guy's doing that. Oh, that joke fits in there because the type of person he is would do that kind of little aside. Everything lined up beautifully and it's like listening to a good song that had a nice flow to it or seeing a good film or a good play or a good fashion outfit. Everything kind of goes, oh, yeah that all works.

Zabrecky: So I started studying those acts and The Magic Castle can be a small community and if you're not a total jerk you can meet these people that are performing in the showrooms. They're a little more approachable. It's not like you go to a film and you see Robert De Niro but after the movie you don't get to meet Robert De Niro.

The Insider: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Zabrecky: But if you go to The Magic Castle and you see Mike Caveney after the show there's a pretty good chance-

The Insider: They'll be hanging out.

Zabrecky: Out at the bar yeah, you might actually get a chance to go up and say hello to them. So that's what happened for me and I started to along with my wife who was right there with me from day one, just kind of tripping out on the whole magic world together. We really just stumbled down this rabbit hole, hand in hand. It's really a thing of beauty, so we got to meet these people and we're trying to understand okay that works because blank and this works and so on and so forth. But there was a few people that really held my hand along the way in magic and early on one was John Lovick was just a tremendous force and showing me why magic worked really well and how it worked. So on and so forth and so John was this really big influence in showing me.

Zabrecky: He has a Masters in Theater Arts, so it was really through him that I can attribute presenting magic as theater was seen through his world early on and then he was able to point me in the right direction many ways along the way and still does. So that's how that worked and then one afternoon he said to me you're creating this character and this is all working and things did start to change for me. I started becoming a more competent performer with a character with a point of view based on things that I liked from my life. Came from music and art and things like that.

The Insider: Sure.

Zabrecky: Then one day he said you know you're doing all this stuff, it's working for you, you're certainly growing in the art, why don't you be an actor? It was as simple as that and I looked at him and was like I don't know.

The Insider: This is Lovick?

Zabrecky: Yes Lovick. One night after a show. I said I don't know I never thought about it. He said well think about it. So it took about 10 minutes on the car ride home and I thought you know what I'm here, I'm in my 30s now why not? I love the theater of magic, why not try acting? So I came home and I woke up the next morning and my wife's name is Tommi and I said so Lovick was saying last night that I ought to think about acting and whatever that means, maybe try an acting class or become an actor I don't know.

Zabrecky: So it was crazy, she looked in my eyes she said that's a great idea. Now this is coming from a woman who married a musician.

The Insider: Sure.

Zabrecky: This is a very cool and hip I guess you could say insider on the L.A. scene. She managed the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip and was really tied into the night life and the cool world.

The Insider: A very cool rock lady.

Zabrecky: Yeah, yeah. She's a cool rock lady and at that point in magic you had Siegfried & Roy were at the helm of magic. So there wasn't a real young or David Copperfield these people that weren't exactly associated with maybe what was cool. They were magic people and they were respected in that field and they were certainly revered in their own way and I get all that and understand and do respect them for that. But it wasn't like Lou Reed or something like William Burroughs or the people that we had really thought were out there and cool.

Zabrecky: So when I got into magic she was like fine, I get it. Follow your passion I can see you finding your way in the art, and then with acting she did the same thing and it was a testament to how incredible she was to just say yeah do it Rob go for it. The next week I'm scrubbing toilets at a theater. I went in and I found a local theater company and I said hey what do I got to do to jump into your theater group and the answer was clean toilets and pick up programs in exchange for classes.

The Insider: Okay.

Zabrecky: So I figured that was a pretty honorable way to learn, I knew I could pay for classes and take other shortcuts probably to do that but I wanted to really dive into and fall in love with acting like I did with magic so I thought that would be one way to do it. So I jumped into the theater and I really did figure out how to live on stage and learn scripts and basic blocking and stuff like that and everything I learned in acting applied directly to what I was doing in magic. So, director says hey you're moving too much. Hey your voice isn't loud enough. Oh, can you find your light. So then I go up to The Magic Castle on that Friday night and I'm doing my hideous show in The Hat and Hare but I was finding my light and I was a little more still.

The Insider: Sure.

Zabrecky: My voice raised and people were chiming in, in ways that they weren't before. So all these things started coming together at the same time and bang with the kind of facade that I have in my make up as a human that I was going to be this...people see me as this dark foreboding character so it's seemingly natural to try to take an approach to weave that into the narrative and really a lot of my character there is some Zabrecky in that character but a lot of it is fantasy and it's like how out there do I want to go and how strange can I be? In real life you can't really get in someone's face or walk out in the world and color your face in with magic marker. You can, but the consequences-

The Insider: There are consequences.

Zabrecky: You know, so that's kind of what happened.

The Insider: Have there been any gigs where people just didn't get it or they were like appalled or scared by you?

Zabrecky: I don't know. I try not to ask, I try not to after the show I try to-

The Insider: Get in the car and go? Say give me the money I'm out of here.

Zabrecky: Exactly yeah because it's a slippery slope. Talking to people afterwards and hearing you remind me of blank and then you start getting in your head about that stuff. So I really try to-

The Insider: Okay, no but you know when you're on stage if people are laughing or like if the room is completely dead and everyone is going what the heck is going on here?

Zabrecky: Yeah I find myself, for the most part I do connect and I think that's why I get hired to do stuff because so far I've been hitting pretty good. That said, there have been a few shows where people have looked at me like I've had two heads and they do not understand what that means and all that does is to drive me to drop the pace in half and go slower and just really give them an experience that they will probably hate and just want to forget.

The Insider: Sure, sure.

Zabrecky: That's a certain kind of magic where you're just like let's drag out the agony for both of us. That makes me real excited too because when you feel like someone's not connecting with you your instinct is naturally uh-oh I want to fix this or I want to get out of here. I want to tear off my shirt and run down the street and throw my magic props in the dumpster. So I've learned to embrace, oh they're not connecting, this is terrible for them. Let's just make this terrible, let's see how terrible it can be on a whole other level.

The Insider: That's part of Vanishing Inc.'s 10th anniversary we're releasing a series of essays and one of yours is that A, B, Zs of Magic. See I said 'zee' I can even translate for you. A, B, Zed of Magic doesn't really work. A, B, Zs of Magic is the essay that you're contributing and there's an amazing quote in there from your first acting coach S.A. Griffin. He said that concentration of energy away from yourself is the source of all creativity. That's an amazing quote but how does that apply to magic?

Zabrecky: Well that quote applies to magic in every way that you can apply it and what I mean by that is when you have your lines and your material so down packed and you're so prepared that you can walk into a theater and really look around and look at the space and suddenly when people see you looking and they see you listening with your eyes you become really interesting and this is applicable to any performer close up, parlor, stage, silent act that's it. If you can invest your true attention to a prop people go oh, wow what is that thing. It's a stupid pencil. That guy is holding a pencil, but he's really looking at that pencil. So suddenly I become interesting because I'm focused away from myself and there's no ego in that.

Zabrecky: So there's a vulnerability you see, to the idea of putting your energy into a prop or a spectator when you bring up a spectator for example and you greet them and you're looking at them. The fact that you're just looking at someone else and you're invested in that person makes you interesting.

The Insider: Okay.

Zabrecky: It gives you a certain since of pathos and empathy and that means the whole thing...it gives it a creative vibe, it gives it a tone and it puts the art in it you see.

The Insider: Absolutely.

Zabrecky: It's one of the four pillars of a great magic performance is vulnerability and when you see for example a performer who has a big ego and they're so puffed up on how awesome they are or oh, I'm Johnny Incredible or whatever they are. Those things, those types of performers don't have vulnerability and they do make me want to run down the street and tear my shirt off and throw my magic props in a dumpster. But when you really are focused on something else, concentration of energy away from yourself as a source of all creativity, it's putting yourself and your being out there you're giving it all away to your audience and you're giving them things to take and absorb.

The Insider: Sure, tell us a bit more about the essay if you can.

Zabrecky: Well the essay was a brilliant challenge by of course Josh and Andi who I greatly admire both for a zillion different reasons and they had reached out and had seen a lecture that I have called the Alphabet Talk.

The Insider: Is this the one you did at Magi-Fest?

Zabrecky: Correct. I presented it at Magi-Fest and a number of magic conventions, festivals, The Magic Castle. I performed it probably on I don't know five or so continents. I've done it all over the world and it's been a great learning experience for me because the origin of it was a really fun thing. My friend Jon Armstrong close up, now he's more of a parlor comedy magician, who's really smart and creative. We were talking about magic one day at lunch and he said you know Rob I'd love to see you do a talk the way you really break down your act. Just from the beginning to end every little aspect of putting together an act.

Zabrecky: That put the A, B, C, E which Lovick said A, B, Z thanks to him for the Z. That concept came up and suddenly like gee what would A be, acting duh. It was that fast, it was like oh, well A's got to be acting, of course it does and I could talk a little bit about acting. I can't teach people to be good actors, but I can tell them or beg them to go out and take an acting class and then what would B be and then you start, you start creating these lists of all the things that could be for B. Then an hour later I have an outline for a talk and at first it was really crude and I was working off queue cards. The thing about the alphabet talk it was always evolving because I would have three ideas for D. I couldn't decide on this one or that one.

Zabrecky: One talk I would try it with one topic and one with another and it was just a real joy to do that and it was a great labor of love and over about seven or eight years I refined it to what it is now and I never put it on paper in a way that...it was in a document that I could read an explain and there were a lot of bullet points where I would riff and take questions along the way. So when they said that they were doing these essays it was a challenge to put something on paper that was readable and get something that I could share with people. So that's how it came about and now it's coming out and I'm really excited to share with people and they look, they're beautiful. The paper is in good quality, there's lot of handsome pictures of me inside so people can cut them out and paste them on their wall.

The Insider: Cool.

Zabrecky: It's all there, yeah.

The Insider: For the Zabrecky shrine?

Zabrecky: Yeah you just add to it.

The Insider: Okay of course.

Zabrecky: You know just little additions. So if you buy two copies, one to cut out and then one to put on your shelf.

The Insider: Smart move, smart move. What are you working on now? What does 2019 look like?

Zabrecky: Boy, 2019 is an exciting year for the Zabrecky world. Well I'm creating a show that will live in computers and televisions. That is the Zabrecky character in your TV world. So the idea is to try to reach a slightly larger audience from the world of Zabrecky from the inside out. You know at this point I didn't create the character to become a famous magic character and to become well known in magic. All that stuff happens is a byproduct of just doing what I loved. It's amazing and it was all meant to be live. For me it was the ephemeral thing I love that people could say hey, I saw this weird guy last night at The Magic Castle and they have to describe it you know?

The Insider: But like an amazing rock gig. There are rock gigs, they're there and gone-

Zabrecky: Exactly right.

The Insider: In a breathe, you know.

Zabrecky: Yeah that's brilliantly put and you had to describe those things so maybe you could see a picture in a magazine of some, this is talking of course pre-internet and dating ourselves but and certainly at The Magic Castle where you can't take pictures. That's where my first thousand performances were. So to say there was this weird guy and then he danced around whatever. They had to sort of describe what they had seen, like same thing I did when I was describing shows to my friends things that I had seen, describing Fitzgerald or Tina Lenert's act or John Carney whatever I had seen. So it was that but now I think it's time for me to try to create a picture of what the Zabrecky world looks like where he lives and what he inhabits and the people that he comes across. So I'm making the show now and it's really fun and I'm making it with my wife and we've created the show and we just created the first four episodes and we're going to be launching it in January, February, so.

The Insider: On what platform? Just the internet?

Zabrecky: Let's call it the internet, yeah. The thing is we took it around and we pitched it to various networks and each one of them looked at me like you are crazy, this is the weirdest idea I've ever heard. Go. The thing is we had pitched it properly with-

The Insider: Collateral?

Zabrecky: Yeah certainly friends that were cosigning that I was a competent performer and a production company and went to all the big networks and they all turned us down and at the end of it, it was the best thing that ever happened to me because I went, I don't need the approval, I don't want the approval of someone in a suit to tell me that my idea is good-

The Insider: Just like the music industry man, how the music industry has changed.

Zabrecky: Precisely.

The Insider: Back when you were in politics and all the majors and now screw you guys we're going to do it ourselves.

Zabrecky: That's exactly, I'm revisiting that mind frame that I felt in my early 20s and I'll tell you something, Damian, it is the most refreshing and great thing that I felt in years. One network said oh, well maybe we can get a YouTube star to cohost your show with you and I just looked at them like are you fucking crazy? Like no way. I'm not sharing 18 years of this thing that I created for, no. Oh, yeah like hi I'm Julie I do makeup and I'm here with Bobby Zabrecky and I'm new to the world everyone oh my God, no.

The Insider: I might pay money to watch that actually.

Zabrecky: Yeah well I would be in a pool of blood somewhere. I would have jumped out of a window by that time. So anyway like I'm saying getting sort of turned down by all these networks was the greatest thing that happened because now we're creating something that's unique and it's true to form and we're doing it on our own. So it's low fidelity and has all the style choices and music are ours and I'm creating music for it.

The Insider: Low fidelity but no compromise.

Zabrecky: Zero, yeah. I mean that's a style choice for me and I'm writing my own music for it and I'm diving in. So now everything's coming back to this idea of do it yourself world that I first got started in and it feels really good.

The Insider: That's exciting. Although we're recording this in the past but we'll be releasing it in the future as the astonishing essays drop, this will probably just be about to drop. Where should somebody look if they want to find it?

Zabrecky: Well I think Josh and Andi have a great social media presence. Vanishing Inc. is all over the internet, pop those words and your favorite browser and it'll take you right to. Hopefully they'll be doing some promotion for it and sharing these essays with people because they're wonderful and they've got some really talented people. I mean great company with this and putting this out. So I think Vanishing In. is probably your first site to check out.c. The Insider: End it with a beautiful segue plug for their website. Thank you Zabrecky.

Zabrecky: Yeah. Of course and if you're in L.A. I think the brick and mortar shop The Magic Apple, they're wonderful people over there and they stock great stuff and will probably have some copies available. But yeah I'd say widely probably order it through them.

The Insider: Beautiful, thank you so much for your time Rob I really appreciate you getting up after a gig to talk to me this early in the morning for you. Thank you very much indeed.

Zabrecky: The pleasure was all mine, thanks Damian.


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