“The deeper you go, the better you feel. The deeper you go, the better you feel.
Last month, an hour before midnight at the basement theater of the Improv Asylum in Chelsea, a hypnotist made a surprise stop at a comedy show and repeated this phrase while growling over and over again, casting a spell on 20 unknowns.
Asad Mecci, a broad-shouldered charmer in black jeans, stared at 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 sat up abruptly, looking around, looking under the chairs, searching. The audience burst out laughing. Then Mecci, 47, asked a frantic man what he was doing. “I know I had my navel 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 cornerstone of a new comic art?
That’s the ambition of the creators of “Hyprov,” a marriage of improv comedy and hypnotism that formed here this summer ahead of its New York premiere at the Daryl Roth Theater on August 12. “We’re trying to step up the hypnosis of a vaudeville show to the theatrical level,” Mecci said in his producer’s Times Square office, a day after the performance I attended. was its 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 had ‘These People Are Plants,'” Mochrie, 64, said, explaining the skepticism these artists face. “No one wants to believe that what we do, what we’ve trained for in life, is something we actually do.”
Mochrie conceded he was initially skeptical of hypnosis, but after taking ‘Hyprov’ on tour to more than 50 cities in North America as well as the London and Edinburgh Fringe, he now speaks with the zeal of a convert. He pointed to an improvised sketch of the previous night’s show, constructed from suggestions from the audience: the hypnotized novices were encouraged to act out a scene at a wake for a half-penguin, half-beaver creature, and they responded with performances full of moans and even real tears. When Mochrie mentioned that this animal was the product of two different animals, one woman didn’t stop short of adopting a morally outraged posture. “It’s not natural! ” she screamed.
Mochrie wondered if a professional comedian would have made such a strong choice. It’s not just the quality of the line, but the speed and intensity of the delivery that matters. “Improvistors don’t always have emotional content, but when she said, ‘This isn’t natural,’ 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 simply react, as they have “the part of their brain that deals with self-criticism cleaned up.”
It is true that the show I saw featured artists as committed as any improv comedy I had seen. At no time did anyone seem close to breaking up. To be sure, though, there was something odd — even a little creepy — about these performers who moved a bit slowly, their eyes downcast.
If this sounds like a 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 wouldn’t normally do, but I can’t make you do things that you don’t want to do,” he said, drawing a distinction that may seem blurred. He said no one has ever expressed regret about being on one of his shows – but, of course, they’re told the deeper they go, the better they’ll feel.
Asked what was going through the minds of those looking for their navel, Mecci said some would later say they were hallucinating, and others that they were just forced to watch. A 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 subjects act due to 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 choose sides. But its tendency is to demystify, equating hypnosis with mundane moments of extreme concentration, like watching a horror movie or daydreaming.
When he fixes his inquisitive gaze on you, it can be disorienting. Mecci speaks at a steady pace and with authority, but if you listen carefully as he works, you may notice that he prefers statements that aren’t entirely coherent. “By asking yourself questions about what you are asking yourself, you can begin to understand a lot of things, can’t you?” he says so fast you can barely register it.
“Vague 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 2015 class that Mecci took at Second City in Toronto to help him with his stage act. He had done hypnosis shows on cruises, in addition to working with people on stress reduction, weight loss, and other types of therapy. (Rufus Wainwright composed the music for “Hyprov” after Mecci helped her husband quit smoking through hypnosis, Mecci said.)
In Second City’s introductory classes, “many of their exercises engage and confuse the conscious mind,” he said. “They get to a point where the improviser no longer has a chance to think, where it becomes automatic and unconscious.” A common note was “get out of your head”, but Mecci believed he could achieve similar results through hypnosis.
So he asked Mochrie for help. Mochrie was eager for a challenge, though he feared the laughs would come as the audience clucked like chickens. And while he admitted that the crowd might initially laugh at the hypnotized improvisers, they soon lost themselves in the scene and laughed along with them.
“This art form is about acceptance,” Mochrie said of the comedy famous for using the concept of “yes and” to create scenes. “Our first thing as human beings is to say, ‘No, I have a better idea.’ The beauty of hypnosis is this: it’s gone, we now have pure improvisers.
The hypnosis process takes several minutes, after Mecci first brings 20 people onto the stage, runs through exercises, and then chooses five of the most suggestible. He is looking for “physiological stories” and faces without expression. He tells his volunteers to breathe, relax, and close their eyes as his voice shifts from a light baritone to the range of the movie trailer narrator.
While visiting the show, Mecci and Mochrie discovered that hypnosis wouldn’t work as well for more complex scenes. The best moments result from simple and direct goals that can be delivered in a concise way. And they’re keen to reassure viewers that they won’t 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 acting. 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 reaching my deadline and writing the perfect article. His voice was firm, his gaze steady. And if he hypnotized me, I asked, could he influence the story I was going to write? The further I went, the more uncomfortable I felt.
“I’m not sure,” he said, with a rather piercing gaze that made me turn away for a moment.