Comedian Rusty Z discusses his history in hypnotism -- and puts me under

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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.

How so?

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.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse