Under the spell: Improv genius Colin Mochrie teams with hypnotist for unpredictable show

“It’s just been amazing watching these people who have had no improv experience all of a sudden become amazing improvisers,” says Canadian comedy veteran Colin Mochrie.

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At a recent U.S. show of Hyprov: Improv Under Hypnosis with hypnotist Asad Mecci and improv master Colin Mochrie, one young woman’s talents stood out from the rest.

Mochrie does not remember her name or even what city they were in at the time — the show has been touring throughout North America off and on since 2016 — but says she was the star of the night. Like all ‘hyprovisers,’ she was a newbie to improvisation. She was among the 20 would-be performers plucked from the audience and hypnotized by Mecci. Each night, he manages to turn three to five of these volunteers into skilled improvisers worthy of being on stage with Mochrie.

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“She was our superstar,” says Mochrie, in a phone interview alongside Mecci. “She was a young woman and [afterwards] said, ‘You know, I have crippling anxiety. I still don’t know why I volunteered but that was the best hour of my life. I never felt so relaxed, so in charge of my life.’ So she was planning to take improv classes and see if she could find an improv group in town.”

This heart-warming tale of overcoming anxiety is not the norm at Hyprov shows, nor is it really the goal. But it does nicely illustrate how the high-concept and decidedly odd premise of the show tends to create unlikely, one-night-only stars.

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Mecci created Hyprov with Mochrie and the comedian’s manager, Jeff Andrews, nearly a decade ago. The hypnotist was already a veteran of corporate events, college shows and cruise ships when he decided to take improv classes at Toronto’s Second City. Students were often being told to “get out of your head” or to “stop consciously constructing comedy” to get their best improv impulses flowing freely. Improv seemed to involve engaging the conscious mind “to get an unconscious reaction from the students, a knee-jerk reaction,” he says.

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So he had an epiphany: Would it be possible to turn someone with no improv experience into a master improviser through hypnosis?

“The answer has been a resounding yes,” says Mecci. “The part of the brain that deals with self-reflection becomes disconnected when somebody is hypnotized. They no longer reflect on their behaviour. First-time improvisers will often play to the crowd; they’ll look nervous, they’ll hesitate, they’ll use filler words. But these people are hypnotized, they just immediately react and are fully committed to the scenes and react to every single one of my suggestions without hesitation, without question.”

So Mecci contacted Mochrie, who he calls “the world’s greatest improviser,” through his website. Andrews intercepted the message and Hyprov was born.

“I pretty much thought, right way, that it was insane,” says Mochrie. “I didn’t know a lot about hypnosis at all. In fact, I make the joke that everything I knew about hypnosis came from The Flintstones. It was interesting coming up with this show and it’s just been amazing watching these people who have had no improv experience all of a sudden become amazing improvisers. Every night as I watched Asad hypnotize the people, I’d go, ‘How can this possibly work?’ Every night we find a group we can work with.”

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Second City start

An alumnus of Toronto’s Second City, Mochrie is certainly comedy royalty in Canada. He had a short stint on This Hour Has 22 Minutes in 2001, but is arguably best known for starring in the British version of the improvisation series Whose Line is It Anyway? and its American reboot hosted by Drew Carey. So, he knows improv. Throughout the years, he’s been among a rotating cast of improvisers — including Stephanie Courtney, best known for playing Flo in the Progressive commercials, and Let’s Make a Deal announcer Jonathan Mangum — who join Mecci and a group of hyprovisers on stage each night.

There remain quite a few misconceptions about how hypnosis works. The Hyprov shows do not involve people clucking like chickens or barking like dogs. Mecci calls this an “antiquated” view of hypnotism performance. Furthermore, a person’s susceptibility to hypnosis has nothing to do with intelligence. Mecci says 20 per cent of the population make “really good hypnotic subjects for a stage hypnosis show.” Mecci brings 20 volunteers to the stage, hypnotizes them and does a quick study of their physiology to find the ones that fit.

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Hypnotic checklist

“I’m looking for a checklist,” Mecci says. “If I see these indicators, then I’ll keep the people onstage and if I don’t, I’ll remove them. The people who are the best subjects are the ones who are able to disassociate from their surroundings and get so caught up in what they are doing that they are moved to a physiological response. I’ll give you an example: Two people watch a horror movie in the theatre. One person during scary scenes in the movie screams and jumps in the chair. Another person watches the show with a critical eye and says, ‘That’s kind of fake, it’s bad acting.’ The person who jumps and screams in the chair is going to be a great hypnotic subject on stage.”

The show has become a critical hit, with the New York Times, New Yorker and Wall Street Journal offering rave reviews during its 2022 off-Broadway run. It debuted in 2016 at Toronto’s Second City and later travelled with Just for Laughs London, Just for Laughs Montreal and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Most recently Hyprov had a residency at Harrah’s in Las Vegas.

What’s the appeal? Well, improvisation has always been a high-wire act, but this element adds even more unpredictability and chaos to the mix, Mochrie says.

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“With the Who’s Line Is it Anyway? guys, even though we’re all making it up, I have a general sense of where they are going to go in a scene,” he says. “We’re all working towards making a scene happen, working towards some kind of ending. I don’t have that with these people. They are truly improvising in the moment. So that’s as far as they have. They are not looking forward and saying, ‘Oh, maybe if I say this, it will lead to this and a resolution.’ They are just giving me great, funny information. So that makes it interesting for me trying to weave a narrative together using all of this information and trying to have it make sense, trying to get to a satisfying ending.”

Mochrie and Mecci will be appearing with Hyprov in front of a sold-out crowd at Festival Place Thursday.

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