Five years ago, San Luis Obispo entertainer Rich Ferguson lost his head — and found his second calling.
It started with a YouTube video featuring one of Ferguson’s signature pranks. In the video, Ferguson pretends to sneeze so violently in San Luis Obispo’s Bubblegum Alley that his head seemingly falls off his shoulders — shocking shoppers and tourists strolling by.
Viewers have watched that video more than 13 million times since 2012.
“The views I’m getting on YouTube now are unbelievable. They’re huge,” said Ferguson, whose YouTube channel reaches more than 2.3 million subscribers and has garnered upwards of 294 million total views. Although he still performs in person as a magician and mentalist at parties, wedding receptions and corporate events, he estimates half of his income now comes from online.
“I’m making as much on YouTube as I am with my magic, which is crazy,” Ferguson, 46, said.
An award-winning entertainer who’s performed on “Today,” “The Ellen Degeneres Show” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” Ferguson says he’s self-taught. “I haven’t read a magic book in my life,” said Ferguson, who calls himself a “very dyslexic” learner who didn’t learn how to read until age 11. “I don’t like to study magic. I like to study people.”
Ferguson, who grew up on a ranch in rural Pozo, originally planned a different career path.
“I went to (Cal Poly) for engineering because I loved to build stuff. I didn’t realize that engineering was crunching numbers for somebody in a room,” said the Atascadero High School graduate, who left the university before graduating. “That was seven and a half years of a waste of my time.”
Then, while working as a UPS driver, Ferguson met San Luis Obispo hypnotherapist Katin Imes and saw an opportunity: “I said, ‘Dude, you’re making 85 bucks to help people quit smoking. ... Why don’t you do hypnosis shows? You can get five or 10 grand a show.” The two teamed up, with Ferguson designing sound effects and building props.
“I was like, ‘This is so fun to get in front of a group of people and mess with their heads and show them the power of the mind.’ That was the seed” for a journey into magic and mentalism, Ferguson said. “I quit UPS a year later and did that full time.”
Ferguson, who bills himself as “The Icebreaker,” described his act as equal parts street smarts and sleight of hand. “Ninety percent of the magic I do is psychological,” he explained, incorporating elements of comedy, card tricks, pick-pocketing and playful mind games.
“I like to create things that mess with your head and make you puzzled for a second, or scared,” Ferguson said.
He started his YouTube channel about a decade ago.
At the time, “It was nothing more than a means to an end for me,” he said, a place to stick promo videos for his act and products such as DVDs, playing cards and copies of his 2010 book, “Trick to Pick Up Chicks.”
“All of the sudden, these big things started happening in my career. All of the sudden, there were fans on YouTube requesting more magic,” Ferguson said with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘Who are you to tell me what to do? Shut up!’ ”
Finally, the success of two viral videos — one featuring Ferguson’s famed “head drop prank,” the other a scary “human chair” gag he created for NBC’s “Today”— persuaded the performer to devote more time and effort to his YouTube offerings.
Ferguson now splits his time equally between video production and in-person performances at events such as the Halloween Harvest Costume Ball, Oct. 27 and 28 at Tooth and Nail Winery in Paso Robles. (It’s a rare local gig for Ferguson, whose act usually takes him out of the area.)
With the help of a cameraman and editor, Ferguson creates a new episode every week that’s posted on his YouTube channel along with daily extras. (He also occasionally teams up with other YouTubers such as prankster Dennis Roady, whose main channel has 3.4 million-plus subscribers.)
Most videos take the form of how-tos, with an emphasis on do-it-yourself pranks, magic tricks, life hacks and social experiments.
“Every waking moment is (spent) tinkering and building props and getting ready for the next video. It’s nonstop,” said Ferguson, who operates out of the basement of the 4,000-square-foot home that he shares with his wife, real estate agent Traci Ferguson, and their two-year-old twins, Eden and Evan.
“The whole downstairs is all mine,” Rick Ferguson said, serving as a studio, storage space and workshop where he manufactures props.
Ferguson’s most popular video to date is “10 TOP Halloween Pranks on Family!” Posted nearly a year ago, the video, which finds Ferguson demonstrating how to freak out your loved ones using ordinary items like ketchup and kitchen knives, has garnered more than 21 million views.
“I make all my stuff ad friendly and family friendly,” the entertainer explained. “Even though they seem extreme, my pranks ... are kind of silly.”
So how does Ferguson make money from YouTube?
“That is the absolute trickiest thing,” he said, noting that he leverages the traffic he gets from his YouTube channel, which boasts about 10 million views a month.
“That’s a lot of eyes on me. That’s equivalent to several episodes of any major TV show,” said the entertainer, who estimates he adds 2,500 to 3,500 subscribers every day.
In addition to selling his own products and licensing content to talk shows and other outlets, Ferguson earns dollars through advertising, product endorsement and incorporating items ranging from smart phones to fidget spinners into his pranks. Even simple shout-outs — such as mentioning a company, or including a link to its website in the comments section of the video — are worth a few thousand dollars.
“Last October I made $57,000 on YouTube just off of ads alone,” Ferguson said. “I’m making good money on YouTube. ... I make six figures (a year) doing magic, and I make six figures doing YouTube.”