Comedian Rusty Z has hypnotized tens of thousands of people over the last fifteen years. So when I was talking to him about his Comedy Works South shows this weekend and then asked him to hypnotize me, it was nothing out of the ordinary. For him, at least.
I had never been hypnotized before. And while today I am a cynical atheist who rolls his eyes at anything outside the logic of science, my rural Pentecostal background taught me to believe that hypnotism would lead to all kinds of demonic possession and an eternity in Hell. Yet despite all this (and despite the heavy dose of Adderall I'd taken beforehand), Rusty Z unquestionably placed me under his dominating spell. Thankfully, we were alone in the Comedy Works green room, with only the CW publicist on hand to take pictures of my unconscious behavior. Keep reading for my interview with Rusty Z, as well as my experience being hypnotized.
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Westword: So what is it that's going on in the brain when someone is under hypnosis?
Rusty Z: It's a closing down of parts of the frontal lobe, the portion of the brain that makes a lot of decisions. It's the bullshit factory of the mind. Once that relaxes, then the subconscious takes over. We're all hypnotized at different times in the day.
Well, say you're watching something on TV that you're really interested in, and someone comes in and tries to talk to you. You hear them, but you're not really paying attention. And then later they say, "Don't you remember me telling you about that?" And you don't, not really. You were entranced by what you were watching.
Some hypnotists think we're hypnotized all of the time, except when we're sleeping. I'd say it's about 90 percent of the time. Usually we're not really aware of what we're doing.
Is there ever a danger in hypnotizing someone who is mentally unstable? Say, someone with schizophrenia or severe bi-polar disorder, something where they could lose control and become unpredictable?
It's very rare. It's happened once. Once of out maybe 10,000 or 15,000 people I've hypnotized. This guy had post-traumatic stress disorder. He started having some sort of tremors, and I stopped the show for a minute, told people to just order drinks and wait while I talked to this guy. And I did some hypnotherapy with him, and then brought him out of hypnosis and he was fine.
He came back the next day and said he'd never felt better in his life. And the people at the show got to see something they'd never seen before.
So the hypnosis had unearthed something buried in his mind?
It had nothing to do with the show. But he'd had something he'd forced himself not to think about, and it came to the surface that night. But that's the only time something like that has ever happened at my show before. I'm glad it happened, because it forced him to deal with something that had been repressed for years.
I come from a rural Pentecostal culture in the Midwest, and I remember people telling me my whole life that hypnotism was a form of Satanic worship or surrender, that opening yourself up to it will lead to demonic possession. I know that's ridiculous today, but do you ever get people preaching that stuff to you?
Well, I do a lot of shows in the rural Midwest, high school lock-ins and stuff like that. But I've never had a problem with that. Hypnosis is really not anything different than being awake. Though most of my work comes from Iowa and Nebraska, which is weird.
Is it obvious if someone isn't hypnotized, but is going along with your direction out of social pressure?
Yeah, and that's fine if they want to do that. Some people want to try and pull one over on me. What happens a lot of the time is that people will do some things in hypnosis, but not other things because that action is too close to their conscious mind. But then they'll go a little deeper and let something happen.
A lot of the time with those people, I'll ask them, "Do you want to come out of trance or do you want to take a little nap up here?" And most of the time they say they'd like to take a little nap on the stage. When they wake up, they say they've never felt so good. It's crazy.
So which came first for you, comedy or hypnotism?
I'd been doing standup for about twenty-seven years, but about fifteen years ago I decided to add something a little different to my show. I'd seen some other hypnotists perform and I thought it looked like fun. So I went to several different hypnotherapy schools around California, Utah, Santa Fe.
I'd seen so many hypnotists billed as "The Great and Powerful!" And I didn't want that. I wanted to do a Playboy After Dark kind of lounge party. I started to get to know a lot of the people in the audience, whether they came on stage or not.
Is the comedy element of your show us laughing at you or us laughing at the people hypnotized on stage?
No, no, it's not so much laughing at the people on stage. At first you're just laughing at me, because I'm an idiot. But then there are a lot of jokes built into hypnosis. The people on stage make me laugh sometimes, but you have to be respectful of them.
Is there a certain type of personality, or maybe a certain type of biology of someone who's difficult to hypnotize?
It took me a long time to be hypnotized. When I started my first hypnosis training, my instructor got pretty frustrated with me because I was like, "Nope, I don't feel anything." But then he started asking me questions like, "Is there anything specific you'd like to accomplish with this?"
And I told him, "Yeah, I'd like to find out why have trouble finishing anything I've started." So he did some age-regression therapy. It's a common thing where you go back year after year through your memory, and eventually we got back to when I was five years old. I was being baby-sat by these two sisters, coloring in a coloring book. I could remember very clearly an orange crayon in my little hand, coloring a picture of a clown.
And then my mother drove up, and she said it's time to come home. And I said I wanted to stay and finish my drawing. And she said, "If you stay and finish that you're going to be in big trouble." So from that I had problems finishing anything.
Most of my corporate shows have been really good, but I did this one show with a group of presidents of large CPA firms, and they just weren't into it. They didn't want to let themselves be hypnotized in front of their peers.
I imagine that's a world where you construct your image very intently. And that image is one of power, never showing vulnerability.
Yeah. And I've had groups of accountants who were really into it, and we have a blast. For some people, I put out my hand and I'm like "Hi. Sleep," and they're right out.
That does sound like some black magic.
Keep reading for my hypnotism session with Rusty Z. As I said, was somewhat skeptical about my ability to be hypnotized. But I was willing to try, and considering it was just me, Rusty Z and the Comedy Works publicist in the green room, I had no hesitation about getting into a weird place. Though the pictures that were taken of this session show that I definitely entered a very weird and vulnerable place.
Here's a picture of me and Rusty pre-hypnosis: First, Rusty took me through a series of exercises involving focusing on a corner of the room, then closing my eyes and imagining a helium balloon attached to one hand while the other holds a heavy phone book. He explained that I wouldn't know when I was under hypnosis, that I wouldn't be in a coma and I would still be very conscious of his voice and the room. "This is just concentrating very heavily on something while allowing your body to go into a state of deep relaxation," he said.
After a few minutes of this, we went into some countdown techniques involving deep-body relaxation. I was surprised how quickly I fell into an incredible drowsiness, not unlike going under anesthesia before surgery. We went through several different exercises like this, my body falling deeper and deeper into lethargy until I was vaguely aware that my chin was now resting upon my chest. "Let your eye muscles become heavy. You don't want to open your eyes. In a moment you'll find it very, very difficult to open your eyes."
After taking me to "a beach that you own, with no one around," where I'm intently watching a series of three different clouds drifting by, Rusty attempted to make me act on his first suggestion: "I'm going to count down to one, and when I get to one you'll think you forgot to turn your tape recorder on. In the back of your mind you'll think you missed this whole interview and need to get up and check your recorder."
This is something I constantly fear in interviews; I didn't need any hypnosis suggestion to worry. I didn't need to get up and check, either, because I'd already positioned the recorder to face me so that I could see the red light blinking. I was still very much aware of who and where I was. But then Rusty stood up and snapped his fingers in front of my eyes, and suddenly I was out like I'd just received a left hook from Sonny Liston.
He then took me deeper into a state of hypnosis, where my body became as numb as a rock and my typically overwhelming sense of self-awareness stepped out the door for a minute. In that moment, I was as vulnerable and loose as if I were in my own bed at 3 a.m, wearing nothing but my boxers and an open-mouthed grin. "In just a moment Mel is going to take a picture of us," he said. "And you're going to give her the biggest smile, just like when you were a little kid. It's going to be the biggest smile you've had in a long time. Three, two, one: 'Say Cheese.'"
I say cheese, though instead of smiling like I'm a hyper toddler at a McDonald's birthday party, I give a lopsided grin with one eye closed, looking like I'd just received a blowjob after peaking on ecstasy for several hours.
Fingers snapped again. Out. Gone.
Earlier in the interview, when Rusty had said that some people voluntarily nap on stage after hypnosis, the idea sounded unlikely to me. I hate taking naps, and certainly couldn't picture doing it in front of a crowd of strangers. But in that moment, sleep sounded wonderful. The two of them could've left me in that green room and I'd have slept the day away, ignoring my plans to meet up with friends later. Ignoring the fact that I had a deadline on a story. Sleep sounded like a winning lottery ticket.
"On the count of one, whenever I say the name Westword, your left shoe will tell you a little joke that will make you laugh. You won't know why your left shoe is talking to you, but you'll laugh and tell it to shut up because it's ruining the interview. Three, two, one."
"So you work for Westword, right?"
". . . Uh . . . uh-huh. . . . Heh."
"You know, back in 1985, I was in a band. And we were listed Westword's number one dance band."
My left shoe was making noise at this point, but it wasn't telling me jokes. I know that's what Rusty Z's suggestion was, but at the time my shoe was laughing louder than I was. Not necessarily a flat-out schizophrenic hallucination -- more of the loose ideas you convince yourself of during a mild psilocybin high. It was a giant, booming chuckle, sounding exactly like the menacing belly laugh of De La Soul in The Gorlliaz "Feel Good Inc." I was giggling to myself, but all I could hear was this huge black rapper inside my left shoe falling apart in hysterics.
For the most part, I just sat there throughout the whole experience looking like that kid in the YouTube clip after dental surgery.
Later, Rusty asked if there was any area of my life that I feel could use some kind of improvement. Looking back, this probably wasn't part of his normal comedy routine, but earlier in our conversation I'd asked a lot about psychology and hypnotherapy. Apparently Rusty had some background in this, convincing large numbers of people to quit smoking or overeating.
I wasn't interested in quitting smoking (thank you very much), but in this state I did mumble out the words "writer's block." I'd been working on a short story the last few weeks that kept splintering off and losing focus -- it had been tapping at my mind all day. "I want you to put your finger to your brain, like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz having a thought. And from now on whenever you have that writer's block, I want you to put your finger to your head like that. And you'll find that the words and the story will flow more freely. Then you'll take your finger from your temple and start typing. This will trigger a new thought process."
I have yet to test out this theory. Soon after he told me how to deal with writer's block, Rusty Z brought me out of hypnosis, we shook hands and I wished him luck on his shows. For me, being hypnotized wasn't an out-of-body experience or a metaphysical safari into the back-catalogue of my memories -- though there was a lot of surrender and influence involved. So if I still believed in demons, it would seem very likely that Rusty Z was up to some dark arts shit with his hypnosis comedy.
Ironically, it really just made me want a cigarette.
Rusty Z will be performing at Comedy Works South Friday through Sunday, June 28 through June 30. Tickets are $12 to $20. For more information, visit www.comedyworks.com.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.