“The deeper you go, the better you feel. The deeper you go, the better you feel.”
Last month, an hour before midnight at the Improv Asylum’s basement theater in Chelsea, a hypnotist made a surprise drop-in at a comedy show and growlingly repeated this phrase over and over, casting a spell on 20 strangers.
Asad Mecci, a broad-shouldered charmer in black jeans, trained his unblinking stare on two rows of seated volunteers — heads slumped, bodies relaxed, eyes closed — and told them they had lost their belly buttons. Then he snapped his fingers and his limp subjects snapped upright, looking around, peeking underneath chairs, searching. The audience erupted in laughter. Then Mecci, 47, asked one frantic man what he was doing. “I know I had my belly button when I got here,” the man said, flabbergasted. It killed.
In the popular consciousness, hypnotism is the stuff of vampires, side shows and watch-waving therapists. But can it be the building block of a new comedic art?
That is the ambition of the makers of “Hyprov,” a marriage of improv comedy and hypnotism that was workshopped here this summer in advance of its New York premiere at the Daryl Roth Theater on Aug. 12. “We’re trying to heighten hypnosis from a vaudevillian show into the theatrical level,” Mecci said in the Times Square office of his producer, 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 television show that introduced many to improv comedy.
“In both of our careers, we have gotten ‘Those people are plants,’” Mochrie, 64, said, explaining the skepticism these performers face. “No one wants to believe the thing we’re doing, the thing we trained our lives to do, is something we’re actually doing.”
Mochrie conceded that he had at first been skeptical of hypnosis, but after bringing “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 improvised sketch from the previous night’s show, built from audience suggestions: 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 mentioned that this animal was the product of two different ones, one woman didn’t pause before adopting a morally outraged posture. “It’s unnatural!” she shouted.
Mochrie wondered if a professional comic would have made such a strong choice. It isn’t just the quality of the line, but the speed and intensity of the delivery that matters. “Improvisers don’t always have emotional content, but when she said, ‘It’s unnatural,’ it felt like something against the core of her being,” he said. He added that while new improvisers take a second to think about what to do, hypnotized performers just react, because they have “the part of their brain that deals with self-criticism wiped clean.”
It’s true that the show I saw featured performers as committed as any improv comic I had seen. At no point did anyone appear close to breaking. To be sure, though, there was something uncanny — even a little creepy — about these performers who moved a little sluggishly, their eyes drooped.
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 onstage that you normally wouldn’t do, but I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do,” he said, drawing a distinction that can seem blurry. He said that no one had ever expressed regrets about participating in one of his shows — but, of course, they are told that the deeper they go, the better they will feel.
Asked what was going on inside the heads of those looking for their belly buttons, Mecci said some would later say they were hallucinating, and others that they were just compelled to look. One woman I interviewed after the show said that while hypnotized, she heard everything and knew what she was doing.
There is disagreement among hypnotists over whether they are putting subjects in a hypnotic state, or if the subjects are acting as a result of suggestibility. Mecci, who has studied stage hypnosis and is a member of the National Guild of Hypnotists, a professional organization that certifies practitioners, is careful not to choose a side. But his tendency is to demystify, likening hypnosis to mundane moments of extreme focus, like watching a horror movie or daydreaming.
When he fixes his probing gaze on you, it can be disorienting. Mecci speaks in a steady pace and with authority, but if you listen closely to him while he is working, you might notice that he prefers statements that don’t entirely cohere. “As you wonder about what you are wondering about, you can begin to understand many things, can’t you?” he says so quickly that you can barely register it.
“Vague and ambiguous language causes hypnotic trance states,” he said, a point that might help explain some political slogans and mission statements.
The genesis of “Hyprov” goes back to a 2015 class Mecci took at the Second City in Toronto to help with his stage act. He had been doing hypnosis shows on cruises, in addition to working with people on reducing stress, losing weight and other kinds 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, “a lot of their exercises engage and confuse the conscious mind,” he said. “They’re getting to a point where the improviser doesn’t get a chance to think, where it becomes automatic and unconscious.” A common note was “get out of your head,” but Mecci thought he could achieve similar results through hypnosis.
So he asked Mochrie for help. Mochrie was eager for a challenge, even if he worried that the laughs would come from making audiences cluck like chickens. And while he conceded that the crowd might at first laugh at the hypnotized improvisers, they soon lose themselves in the scene and laugh with them.
“This art form is about acceptance,” Mochrie said of the comedy that is famous for utilizing the concept of “Yes, and” to build scenes. “Our first thing as humans is to go, ‘No, I have a better idea.’ The beauty of hypnosis is: That’s gone. We now have pure improvisers.”
The process of hypnosis takes several minutes, after Mecci first brings 20 people onstage, runs through exercises, then picks five of the most suggestible. He looks for “physiological tells” and expressionless faces. He tells his volunteers to breath, relax and close their eyes as his voice shifts from a light baritone into the range of the narrator of movie trailers.
In touring the show, Mecci and Mochrie discovered that hypnosis would not work as well for more complex scenes. The best moments result from simple and direct objectives that can be delivered concisely. And they make a point of reassuring audience members that they will not do anything they don’t want to do.
Mecci has ambitions to create a Blue Man Group-like franchise, but he also said hypnosis could unlock other creative pursuits, like 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!”
Making direct eye contact, Mecci calmly explained how hypnosis could help me imagine hitting my deadline and writing the perfect piece. His voice was steady, his gaze fixed. And if he did hypnotize me, I asked, could he influence the story I was going to write? The deeper I went, the more awkward I felt.
“I’m not sure,” he said, with a glance piercing enough that made me, for an instant, turn away.