You are getting verrry funny
by Sally Mitani
Exploiting hypnotism for its comic potential is at least as old as vaudeville, and when vaudeville died, it had a good second run as a sitcom subplot in the 50s and 60s. In vaudeville and sitcoms, the audience laughed at victims made to bark like dogs, cluck like chickens, and what not; the hypnotist was the straight guy, cloaked in a shield of science, even if from one of its cheesier precincts. But what, you might well ask, is a hypnotist doing at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase?
The club under any circumstances is an extraordinarily good entertainment deal. For little over the price of a movie ticket, you get a couple hours of live performance by seasoned stand-up comics on the national circuit, and there's no two-drink minimum like some big-city comedy venues impose.
But back to this particular comedy act-it's not what you normally see at the Showcase. Conrad doesn't look like a New York hipster. He doesn't wear jeans, leather, hip-hop accessories, cowboy boots, or any other costume device to prove he's tuned into the cynical and absurd energies of the big city night. A ruddy, middle-aged guy, he has a Willy Loman-esque affect. His rumpled suit and hardened carnival-barker delivery suggest he's not lying when he says he does 400 performances a year.
I don't believe it's my job to give away what happens on his stage. In short, he calls for volunteers, makes them do things that they would not ordinarily do, and simultaneously delivers a passable stand-up act. Louie CK he's not, but then Louie CK can't even make his own kids be nice to grandma.
What I can do, because I stuck around after Conrad's show in Ann Arbor a few years ago, is answer two questions I think most people will want to ask afterward. What does it feel like to be hypnotized? And were they really hypnotized, or were they shills?
Several of Conrad's subjects were also hanging around after the show. They didn't seem to be
shills, unless they were also great Method actors, because they all had complete back-stories about being workmates at the Campus Inn. They remembered being hypnotized-it wasn't some sort of amnesia-producing trance-and seemed, in a dazed way, to still be processing what they had just done. Several of them spontaneously volunteered this odd detail: it had distorted their perception of time. They had spent an hour onstage, but it seemed to have passed in an instant.
I posed the shill question to Conrad. His answer: "A woman said to me the other day: 'I know you pay them.' I said, 'Okay, how much would I have to pay you to get up there? Five hundred bucks?' Now, I got ten people up there-at five hundred bucks per person? It doesn't make sense, does it?" Yep, probably easier to just use hypnosis.
Gary Conrad returns to the Comedy Showcase on May 24-26.
[Originally published in May, 2012.]