Life is full of ironies, not the least of which is the fact that Brian Kaufman breaks the law every time he goes to work. He's not a drug dealer or a Mafia boss--he's a magician with a penchant for stand-up comedy and an endless well of material on growing up Jewish, surviving college and being at the mercy of balloon animals. His traveling act takes the 20-year-old, DePaul University student across the country twice a month in the midst of shooting episodes for his yet to be snatched up TV series Brian Kaufman's Magic Warehouse, taking midterms and trying to squeeze in a few hours of "regular guy" time. And in a few months, he'll be able to buy a beer in one of the clubs he's been working since he was 16.
Kaufman's career began when he broke his neck. At the age of 5, he dislocated his first and second cervical vertebrae, leaving him virtually immobile for over a year. His parents bought him a Milton Bradley magic set to keep his mind and fingers busy, and the more Kaufman dabbled, the more obsessed he became with the world of illusion.
"What a great idea. I'm stuck in the hospital in this contraption that looks like something Mengele dreamed up, and Chanukah Harry gives me a magic kit. I got so attached to it," Kaufman said.
Even after being released from a year in traction, Kaufman's thirst for magic could not be quenched. It became routine over the next five years for his parents to take him to the magic store for new tricks that involved a lot of skill and practice but were easy to perform.
"My dad would sit down and learn the tricks with me and then watch me do them and pretend to be amazed," Kaufman said. Both of his parents encouraged him to share his talent, so he started working birthday parties at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) for $10 when he was only 10 years old. "I did a 30-minute show with a card table and all the props--we schlepped everything in the station wagon, and of course I wouldn't let my parents come in. I wanted to look professional," he laughed.
Word began to spread about the prodigious trickster, and Kaufman's asking price matured with his abilities. $10 turned into $50, $75 and finally $500 for 40 minutes of original material, and the stage transformed from an empty room in the JCC to a small theater built specifically for him at one of the Busch Gardens theme parks. Mitch Kutash, one of the original founders of the national Funny Bone Comedy Club franchise, was instrumental in these leaps. He brought his family to see Kaufman perform a few times before signing him on as the youngest member of the Busch Entertainment Corporation. Kaufman was 15. His charm soon earned him his own show, then his own stage and a personal theater in his third year, windfalls he credits to a natural connection with audiences.
"A lot of people don't like magicians, cause they might as well come up to you and say 'I'm smarter than you.' But I was always so close in age to the kids that we could relate, and I still try to make it so the magic is happening to them and me," Kaufman said, adding that incorporating jokes and audience members into the act makes him seem more human and thus more approachable, likeable and entertaining.
Before he joined the comedy club circuit, Kaufman's act was more about magic, but his father kept pushing him to reveal his natural wit. So with the help of Kutash, Kaufman got a chance to try stand-up at the ripe old age of 17. The 20-minute episode still lives in infamy.
"I totally bombed," he said, admitting that when he waved his magic wand, his lovely assistant wasn't quite free of the trapdoor. Despite the trauma of this first attempt, he continued to hone his hybrid performance art until the interplay of jokes and tricks felt natural. "You don't want to have a joke and then a trick and then a joke and then a trick--you don't want magic that's funny. It takes somebody who can make the jokes and also make the tricks work so that magic that's funny becomes funny magic. There's a difference," Kaufman said.
He looks up to celebrities like Penn and Teller (who also happen to be personal friends) and tries to mimic their style of letting the audience in on the "secret" only to surprise and amaze them in the next breath. And he has found a way to please audiences in any age bracket, saving the sillier, more educational shows for the kids and the smarter more involved tricks and gags for their parents.
"I've been performing for kids since I was a kid, so I know what it takes, and parents feel comfortable bringing them to see live entertainment that they can both enjoy," Kaufman said. "The adult show is completely different, but they shouldn't be leery of blue material--it's not dirty, it's more intelligent with a higher level of involvement." Such intelligent humor includes an attempt to swallow a balloon animal, a trick that, according to Kaufman, requires "a lot of practice and a lot of trips to the emergency room."
In addition to his amazing repertoire of illusions and practiced sense of humor, Kaufman is eerily accustomed to crowds. At an age when most people are still trying to make sense of their own hormones, he is a seasoned veteran of the stage and juggles higher education at a prestigious theater school, a rigorous live performance schedule and writing and producing short films and television. Knowing all of this, it makes sense why intimate shows make him nervous.
"I'd much rather be talking to 3,000 people than three. I can feel the audience, and I'm more relaxed and comfortable. That's how I know this is what I want to do," Kaufman said. "But even if there are only five people, one of them could be somebody in the position to give me a chance, so whether I'm in Hollywood, Denmark or Boise, I give it my all."
Brian Kaufman performs his children's show Saturday, December 4, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., $7 in advance, $10 at door, Funny Bone Comedy Club, 405 S. 8th St., 331-2661. For more information on Kaufman and tricks behind the tricks, visit www.briankaufman.com.