When J. Medicine Hat answered my phone call on a Saturday afternoon, he was sitting in Columbus, Ohio, watching the History Channel and wondering if he would get a call saying his knee surgery had been rescheduled. Before I asked him any questions, I made him promise he wouldn't hypnotize me during the interview. I know about his act: He calls it "hypno-comedy." He invites audience members on stage, takes them into a semiconscious state and persuades them to behave in ways they probably never would (at least without copious amounts of tequila or ecstasy). Participants dance, sing and say outrageous things. And they simulate sex acts. His shows are always sexual in nature, and there's usually at least one night during an engagement when the show is tagged with an X rating. This is a club's way of warning its patrons: On these nights, Medicine Hat is going to pull out all the dirty stops. But he's genuine, and though a bit bawdy, off stage, he seems like a pretty nice guy. He says that before each show, he asks those who volunteered to be hypnotized what is one thing they'd like to get out of their hypnosis such as losing weight or help to stop smoking. At the end of each show, he gives each participant what it was they asked for.
At 46, Medicine Hat has been performing for nearly a quarter of a century. In the early '80s when he began his career in comedy, he did straight stand up. For 10 years, it worked. "The comedy business was hotter than hell between '83 and '93," he says. "And then the bottom fell out. People stopped coming because it was on TV and it was everywhere on TV. Caroline's half-hour comedy show; MTV's half-hour comedy show, A&E, Evening at the Improv, Star Search. Every network was riding the wave. For people watching the best six minutes of the best six comedians in the country, that was enough of a comedy fix for them. And that's what happened. I saw it coming."
Medicine Hat says it was impossible to do long term-bookings, because clubs and venues weren't sure they would be able to stay open. Some of them weren't.
"I had a house payment. The worst possible scenario for me was to go back to what I had been doing, which was working in a slaughterhouse," he says. "There was no way I was going back. By the grace of God or whoever, I got a job as an opening act for this hypnotist, and he said he'd show me how to do what he did for $5,000.
With two and a half kids and a mortgage, Medicine Hat was taking a huge gamble.
"I can close my eyes and see my first wife on the couch bawling her eyes out," he says. "That was all the money we had in the world. I said, 'I know I can do it. And I know I can do a better job getting work.' I had my first show 10 days after I met [Dr. Jim Wand], and I never looked back," he says. "That was 14 years ago."
Medicine Hat's decision to specialize turned out to the right one. At the time, there were approximately between 3,000 to 5,000 people doing straight stand up between the United States and Canada, he says. There were less than 40 hypnotists performing on stages.
"Some dabbled a bit off their clinics but they were doing shows that were clinical in nature, kind of methodical, sort of low-key and they played more on the drama and mystery of hypnosis, the freaky kind of black tux, 'Look into my eyes' kind of bullshit. I was like, 'Get over yourself and make it a riot.' The mechanics of doing clinical hypnotherapy and what I'm doing are basically the same. Putting people out is the same damn thing. It's what you do with them after that makes the difference." And though Medicine Hat wasn't sure how audiences were going to react, he decided right then to see just how far he could go: "I said, 'Let's kick this thing in the ass, squeeze it as hard as I can, push it out to the line and see what happens.'"
What he needed now was a place willing to let him do that let him. "I had an opportunity to do a job at the Funny Bone in Davenport, Iowa," Medicine Hat says. "The manager of that club at the time was Lisa Young [the Boise Funny Bone's previous owner]. Lisa was the first person that said, 'I'll give you a try.' I was doing three hypnosis shows, four shows opening for Tommy Chong and then another hypnosis show on Sunday. Lisa gave me a shot. It boosted my confidence because it took off. And it became so sexual and erotic and lewd in nature so fast. Nobody was doing that. They might have said they were dirty but they weren't even close."
Medicine Hat says that over the years, people have admitted things while under hypnosis they would probably never have voiced otherwise. A couple of the most memorable for him include a show where a woman stated she preferred women to men and was only engaged to her fiance because of his money. Her fiance was sitting in the audience. At another show, a young woman claimed to have learned a particular sex act from her junior high school history teacher. Her parents were watching that show. It seems Medicine Hat has a knack for bringing out of people things they would probably rather remain deeply hidden. He's received some bad press and admits his life has been threatened after some shows. So why does he do it?
"The other day this kid who's doing straight stand-up came up to me and said, 'Do you have any advice for me?' I said, 'First of all, you've got to get the rule book.' 'There's a rule book?' he asked me. 'Fuck no, there's no rule book. If you're funny enough, you can do whatever you want. You can go out there and bang hookers all night, do drugs and drink your ass off. As long as you show up at 8 o'clock with your A-game, that's all they care about."
August 15-August 20; Wed.-Thurs. and Sun.-Mon. 8 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. and 10:15 p.m.; X-rated show on August 20; $15 regular, $18 VIP. The Funny Bone, 405 S. Eighth St., 208-331-2663.