Tony Lee

The king of aggressive hypnosis places Miles Johnson under his spell

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 7 minutes
Published 19 Aug 2007
There have been some mighty strange noises emanating from the Udderbelly in recent weeks. After festival virgins have got over the initial shock of seeing a 30 foot upturned purple cow, glaring menacingly into the Edinburgh sky, they may well be thrown backwards by the decibel level of the venue’s beat boxing circus act, Tom Tom Club. Walk past at a different time and there is the ‘slow jazz’ voice of a certain Reginald D Hunter, soothing its way out of its bovine home like honey dripping from a pot, or the demented, demonic cackle of magician-comic Jerry Sadowitz. Each is distinctive enough to almost tell the time of day by the performance schedule. But there is one sound that trumps them all; a voice that has the power to temporarily turn an upstanding citizen into a chair-humping, crotch-licking, brain-frazzled moron. All in the name of good fun, of course.

Tony Lee, the Canadian hypnotist who has brought his particular brand of “XXX” mind control to the Fringe this year, is a man who takes no prisoners. Volunteer at one of his shows and you could well find yourself engaging in acts that make Puppetry of the Penis look like Madame Butterfly. But, just like doctors, barmen and superheros, with great power comes great responsibility. “I would never do anything that would harm anyone,” says Lee in his low boom of a voice, the one time body builder’s tree trunk arms wrapped around his chest as he sits on a café sofa. “When I perform or teach, I always do it with equality in mind, treating people the same regardless of their gender or sexual preference. But on stage there are also things I would do with the blokes I wouldn’t do with the women. I wouldn’t get a girl to pull a moony [a recurrent theme in his set] because we’d probably see her cracker and that wouldn’t be funny. Your average guy, he’ll pull a moony with just a couple of beers down him.”

It is this particularly North American brand of humour, struck in a similar key to Jackass, that has been causing a fair bit of controversy since Lee hit the Scottish capital some weeks back. Normally the sight of a predominantly male drunken midnight crowd baring their behinds would be little more remarkable than the average Saturday night stroll down the Cowgate. But it is Lee’s showmanship, how his hypnotic skills seem to allow the participants to do things they secretly want to do - rather than simply embarrass them - that transforms his set from the puerile into the fascinating. “People come, often more than once, looking to have a good time, to enjoy themselves,” he says. “After they have stepped up on stage they have already done half the work for me because they are in a mind state that means they are open to suggestion.”

Such niceties however were lost on the Edinburgh City Council when Lee’s promoters got a call informing them in all seriousness that his show contravened the 1563 Witchcraft Act, a bill that “makes the death penalty liable for invoking evil spirits and using witchcraft, charms or sorcery whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed”. In order to make his opening night, seventeen forms had to be signed to satisfy the Council, Home Office and police. “I just find that funny,” says Lee. “Some religious types seem to think I’m the devil or something. We’ve also had noise complaints about how loud my voice is and threats of closing us down but I’m operating at a much lower volume than normal. Other shows can see my voice being ten times louder.”

It must at this point be said that I, as with almost everyone I know, am highly sceptical about hypnotism. The very word conjures up images of dangling pocket watches and audience plants, the hypnotist being viewed by most as a scam artist of the highest order. But this was before two colleagues went along to Lee’s show. The stories told the next day were of a normally mild mannered man engaging in a conga line of arse licking in front of over two hundred strangers. Shocked but still sceptical, I went along the next day and lo and behold, Lee had done it again; a group of twenty or so volunteers licked whipped cream from the crotches of strangers, waking up at the end to scream at their friends for leaving because they thought the show hadn’t yet begun. Speaking afterwards to a girl who was on stage, still desperately trying to find a rational explanation to the debauched circus I had just witnessed, the answer was an interesting one. “I could hear all the people laughing around me and I was aware of what I was doing the whole time. The really weird thing was though, I just didn’t seem to care.”

Lee himself was also once a sceptic. “I used to think hypnotism was some guy in a tuxedo bringing bus loads of plants to put in the audience. But one night I was with my girlfriend, just taking the piss out of hypnotism, and she asked me to try to hypnotise her. After about ten minutes she just fell over and I thought she was just playing with me but I started to give her some simple suggestions and it just started to work. I was completely shocked.”

After this comic book-like discovery of his powers, Lee tried to find out more, looking for schools and reading books, but there was little available at that time for budding mind meddlers. “Back in the mid-80s there was nothing apart from a few outdated books. But I ended up joining a society for therapeutic hypnosis and learnt the medical basics, later creating new techniques and honing my skills.” Conveniently he was also managing a Hard Rock Café at the time and used his position to put on shows that quickly saw their popularity snowball. The rest, of course, is history.

In twenty years Lee has played to over a million people, his show having toured across the world from locations ranging from the United Arab Emirates to Central America. “More and more people are hearing about us from word of mouth because we make sure people go home thinking they had a fun time and not regretting anything they did. That’s why people keep coming back and telling their friends, and that’s what we plan to do here. We’re coming back next year to hit the Fringe in an even bigger way.”

As Lee departs from our company to prepare for another night of mayhem, what strikes you most about the man who in only two short weeks has become popular enough for Paul Mckenna to start bad-mouthing him, is his charm. Possessing none of the self-importance seen in some Fringe performers who revel on their month long celebrity status, he is possibly one of the friendliest men you will meet in Edinburgh this summer. But of course, I could be just saying that. Hypnosis can be a dangerous thing, and if you see me rolling around Bristo square sniffing my own back side, be sure to lodge a complaint with the man himself.