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Stand-up comedian and hypnotist Flip Orley first learned about his craft at age 12 when he bought the book How to Pick Up Girls Through Hypnotism. “Most of the girls in school liked me as a buddy,” he says. “When I would ask them to a dance, they’d say, ‘Oh, but we’re too good of friends.’” In the hopes of winning a date, he tried the book’s moves out on a girl on the playground. “I was trying to be mysterious,” he laughs. “I said to her, ‘Look into my eyes. Take a breath and look into my eyes.’”
The girl kicked him in the crotch.
“I was in the fetal position at the end of recess,” he recalls. “But I could only imagine how the pain would get worse when she started telling people.”
One might think that introduction might have turned Orley off hypnotism, but he wasn’t deterred. “I’d seen a couple of television episodes that featured hypnotists. I thought, there’s got to be something more to this—-maybe this book isn’t the end-all.” Yearslater, Orley is going strong, touring the country with his show that combines a stand-up routine with hypnotizing volunteers from the audience. He’ll be at DC Improv tonight through Sunday.
From his home in Louisiana, Orley talked to City Paper about his love for George Carlin, his social anxiety, and how, unlike many hypnotists, he doesn’t humiliate his volunteers.
Washington City Paper: In college you studied to become a clinical hypnotist, but you then got into comedy. What drew you to stand-up?
Flip Orley: I had an interest in comedy from a young age. In seventh grade, I did 10 minutes of a George Carlin act at a school assembly because I loved it so much. In college, I’d get on every stage I could and do three-minute acts here, five-minute acts there. And when I started thinking about doing eight hours a day as a clinical hypnotist helping people with problems like test anxiety and weight loss, it became less and less appealing. I like people, and I’m sure there’s a lot of satisfaction in jobs like social work, but to listen to problems all day would be tough. I get up and entertain people and help them forget their problems—-that’s therapeutic and fun, too.
WCP: When did you start doing hypnotism on stage?
FO: A roommate in college kept bugging me to do it, so I got a club owner to let me do 30 minutes of hypnosis on a Monday night. I thought I’d fail and look like an idiot, so I didn’t plan a show because I didn’t think I’d get that far! But I got 30 volunteers and three quarters of them got hypnotized. I panicked—-I’d been able to put these people to sleep, but now what? I ended up using bits from [hypnotist] Pat Collins’ show, and it was a pretty big success. At that point, I thought I should write material to accommodate it, and little by little, I morphed hypnosis in with comedy.
WCP: You sometimes use your clinical training to help people deal with issues like smoking and anorexia. How does it work?
FO: From the time you’re born to the time you die, you have both your conscious mind and your unconscious mind. Children work with their unconscious minds a lot; when they play, it’s with their imagination, but they make it seem real. Adults forget, suppress, or ignore that ability, but it’s housed in the unconscious mind. Hypnosis is a way to get a person to access that creative ability and to alter his or her belief system to one that’s more positive. For example, with a smoker, it’s about re-framing the person’s identity from a smoker to a non-smoker. Once you begin to look at yourself as a non-smoker, all the times you crave a cigarette you do something else.
WCP: Has hypnosis helped you with a personal problem?
FO: When I did the George Carlin act in seventh grade, I felt comfortable and at home, which was unlike how I usually felt socially—-which was shy and awkward. That’s still true today. One-on-one I’m comfortable, and I’m fine in front of 300 to 3,000 people, but at a cocktail party, I’m incredibly uncomfortable. I almost have the need to leave. There have been times when I’ve had recurring panic attacks, and at those times I take some time out to get ready for a party. I use self-hypnosis to deal with it.
WCP: You have said that you don’t embarrass your volunteers. How is that possible, when the key to a successful show is to get them to act in silly ways?
FO: I don’t promise my volunteers that I won’t embarrass them, since people are embarrassed by different things. But I’m not out to intentionally embarrass them. When I think of humiliating bits, I think of the ones when people bark like a dog or dance like Elvis. Those things are like getting drunk and putting a lampshade on your head. I don’t want that—-I don’t want people to point their fingers at the stage and say, “I’m glad that’s not me.” I like interaction and creativity. I often use the volunteers as a way to poke fun at popular culture. For instance, I wrote a bit where everyone on stage is on Survivor. Each team has to elect two people to do a fire walk. I roll out a red burlap bag that serves as the fire, and each team roots for their members. Through unusual breathing or through some kind of movement, the fire walkers distract themselves from the imagined discomfort. It’s funny without having someone walk around and cluck like a chicken.