“The deeper you go, the better you feel. The deeper you go, the better you feel.”
Last month, an hour before midnight in the basement theater of the Improv Asylum in Chelsea, a hypnotist unexpectedly dropped by at a comedy show and growled and repeated this phrase over and over, bewitching 20 strangers.
Asad Mecci, a broad-shouldered charmer in black jeans, turned his gaze to two rows of seated volunteers—heads slumped, bodies relaxed, eyes closed—and told them they had lost their navels. Then he snapped his fingers and his limp subjects jumped to their feet, looking around, peeking under chairs, searching. The audience burst out laughing. Then Mecci, 47, asked a frenzied man what he was doing. “I know I had my belly button when I got here,” the man said, bewildered. It killed.
In the popular consciousness, hypnosis is the stuff of vampires, side shows, and watch-wielding therapists. But could it be the building block of a new comic art?
That’s the ambition of the makers of “Hyprov,” a marriage of improv comedy and hypnosis held here this summer ahead of its New York premiere at the Daryl Roth Theater on August 12. “We’re trying to elevate the hypnosis from a vaudevillian show to theatrical level,” Mecci said in his producer’s Times Square office a day after the performance I attended. Sitting next to him was his co-star and co-creator, Colin Mochrie, a star of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, the TV show that introduced many to improv comedy.
“In both of our careers, we’ve been given ‘Those people are plants,'” said Mochrie, 64, explaining the skepticism these artists face. “Nobody wants to believe that what we do, what we’ve trained our lives for, is something we actually do.”
Mochrie admitted he was initially skeptical of hypnosis, but after taking “Hyprov” on tour to more than 50 cities in North America, along with London and the Edinburgh Fringe, he now speaks with the zeal of a convert. He pointed to an impromptu sketch from the previous night’s show, built from suggestions from the audience: Hypnotized novices were encouraged to play a scene at a wake for a half-penguin, half-beaver creature, and they responded with performances full of wailing and even real tears. When Mochrie said that this animal was the product of two different animals, one woman didn’t pause before taking a morally outraged stance. “It’s unnatural!” she cried.
Mochrie wondered if a professional comic would have made such a strong choice. It is not only the quality of the line, but also the speed and intensity of the delivery that counts. “Improvisers don’t always have emotional content, but when she said, ‘It’s unnatural,’ it felt like something that went against the core of her being,” he said. He added that while new improvisers take a moment to think about what to do, hypnotized performers simply react, having “wiped clean the part of their brain that deals with self-criticism.”
It’s true that the show I saw featured performers as committed as any improv comic I’d seen. At no point did anyone seem close to breaking. But just to be sure, there was something eerie — even a little creepy — about these performers moving a little slow, their eyes cast down.
If this sounds like comedy from a zombified future, Mecci was quick to point out that the biggest misconception about hypnosis is that people have lost control. “I can make you do things on stage that you normally wouldn’t, but I can’t make you do things you don’t want to do,” he said, making a distinction that may seem blurry. He said no one has ever regretted taking part in any of his shows — but of course they’re told that the deeper they go, the better they’ll feel.
Asked about what went on in the minds of those who searched for their navels, Mecci said some would later say they were hallucinating, and others that they were simply forced to look. One woman I interviewed after the show said that while she was hypnotized, she heard everything and knew what she was doing.
There is disagreement among hypnotists as to whether they put subjects into a hypnotic state, or whether the subjects act as a result of suggestibility. Mecci, who studied stage hypnosis and is a member of the National Guild of Hypnotists, a professional organization that certifies practitioners, is careful not to take sides. But his tendency is to demystify, comparing hypnosis to everyday moments of extreme focus, such as watching a horror movie or daydreaming.
If he focuses his penetrating gaze on you, it can be disorienting. Mecci speaks at a steady pace and with authority, but if you listen closely to him as he works, you may find that he prefers statements that don’t quite line up. “If you wonder what you wonder about, you can start to understand a lot of things, can’t you?” he says so fast you can barely register it.
“Blurred and ambiguous language causes hypnotic trance states,” he said, a point that could help explain some political slogans and mission statements.
The genesis of “Hyprov” dates back to a class Mecci took in 2015 at Toronto’s Second City to help with his stage act. He did hypnosis shows on cruises, in addition to working with people on stress reduction, weight loss and other forms of therapy. (Rufus Wainwright composed music for “Hyprov” after Mecci helped his husband quit smoking through hypnosis, Mecci said.)
In Second City’s introductory courses, “many of their practices involve and confuse the conscious mind,” he said. “They get to a point where the improviser doesn’t get a chance to think, where it becomes automatic and unconscious.” A common comment was “get out of your head,” but Mecci thought he could achieve similar results through hypnosis.
So he asked Mochrie for help. Mochrie loved a challenge, even though he feared the laughter would come from making the audience cluck like chickens. And while he admitted that the crowd might initially laugh at the hypnotized improvisers, they soon lose themselves in the scene and laugh along with them.
“This art form is about acceptance,” Mochrie said of the comedy famous for using the concept of “Yes, and” to build scenes. “Our first thing as a human being is to go, ‘No, I have a better idea.’ The great thing about hypnosis is: that’s gone, we now have pure improvisers.”
The process of hypnosis takes a few minutes, after Mecci first brings 20 people on stage, goes through exercises and then chooses five of the most suggestive. He looks for ‘physiological narratives’ and expressionless faces. He tells his volunteers to breathe, relax, and close their eyes as his voice shifts from a light baritone to the reach of the narrator of movie trailers.
While touring the show, Mecci and Mochrie discovered that hypnosis wouldn’t work as well for more complex scenes. The best moments come from simple and direct objectives that can be succinctly achieved. And they make it a point to reassure members of the public that they won’t do anything they don’t want to do.
Mecci has ambitions to create a Blue Man Group-esque franchise, but he also said hypnosis could unlock other creative pursuits such as stand-up or theater. When I asked Mecci if hypnosis could help me finish this article, Mochrie whispered in his ear, “Do it! Do it!”
Mecci made direct eye contact and calmly explained how hypnosis could help me imagine meeting my deadline and write the perfect piece. His voice was firm, his gaze fixed. And if he hypnotized me, I asked, could he influence the story I was going to write? The deeper I went, the more uncomfortable I felt.
“I’m not sure,” he said, with a look so penetrating that I turned away for a moment.