In his Tony Soprano New York accent, comedian and hypnotherapist Rich Guzzi recalled the moment in his life when he decided to be a performer. What he didn’t know then was that that moment would later transform his act into a public service.
“My dad was a car mechanic,” Guzzi said. “I was learning the family business. I loved being with my dad. One day, he wasn’t feeling good, and — and he’s this mountain of a man so I wasn’t sure what was wrong — we were driving to the doctor and he says, “˜Nope, you’ve got to take me to the hospital, this is way worse than that.’ “
Turning the car around to head toward the hospital, Guzzi got caught in the New York City traffic. Next thing he knew, his father had died in the passenger seat. Guzzi was 20 years old.
“When you’re a 20-year-old kid it’s not the best thing.”¦” Guzzi trailed off. “I was screwed up for a while.”
Guzzi’s father died from smoking-related heart disease. Without his father in his life, Guzzi rethought his career path.
“Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be a comedian,” he said. “I dropped everything and went for it.”
Comedians don’t make much in the beginning. Once, Guzzi drove to Pittsburgh to do a 10-minute spot for free. Joey Kola, a stand-up comic on Comedy Central who also opens for live television shows, mentored Guzzi, showing him the ropes of the business.
“I owe it all to him,” Guzzi said. “This guy was the world’s greatest comedian. He was a real slugger.”
Things went well once Guzzi started booking his own shows. But one night his crowd was stale.
“It was going nowhere,” he said. “I knew how to hypnotize from reading books. It was just a trick I would do at parties. And so I brought some people on stage and the crowd starts going wild.”
People flocked to Guzzi’s show for the hypnosis. He once got a man to promise to buy everyone drinks — and when the guy woke up, he did it. Guzzi went to school and earned his certification for clinical hypnotherapy. That’s when it clicked.
“If the suggestion to buy drinks for everyone worked,” he said, “why couldn’t I suggest to them that they’re not going to smoke anymore?”
Roughly one in five Americans smokes, and smoking is the largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the country. Washington mirrors the national statistics with a 20 percent smoking rate.
Thursday is the American Cancer Society’s 38th Annual Great American Smokeout Day, encouraging smokers to kick the habit. It’s also the first day of Guzzi’s “Start Joking! Stop Smoking!” tour, a yearlong series of shows that Guzzi hopes will get 100,000 people to quit smoking through hypnosis.
Guzzi performs roughly 300 shows a year. He opens with a bit of comedy, and then asks for volunteers. Hypnosis, he said, can work with anything you know you should do but don’t have the motivation to accomplish.
“Every person knows exactly how to lose weight: to exercise more and eat less food,” Guzzi said. “Yet there’s millions of people across the world who don’t lose weight, because their conscious mind knows they want to but their subconscious still wants that chocolate ice cream. So hypnosis turns your subconscious mind on and puts it to use.”
Weight loss is Guzzi’s most popular program.
“Smokers love to smoke,” Guzzi said. “They feel fearless, they’re breathing fire every day. You go to the carnival and pay to see that.
“But the thing with smoking is that it’s pass or fail. You’re either a smoker or you’re not. So it’s very easy to keep up with the people and find out if they’re a nonsmoker or not.”
Guzzi said he’ll keep up with the people he’s hypnotized in order to count to 100,000. Sometimes, he said, they relapse, but “it still works” if they quit for six months at a time. Guzzi sells CD audio programs for smoking and weight loss, since he can’t always do in-person sessions.
Veterans, however, are a different story. For those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, Guzzi’s program can be an alternative to prescription drugs.
“We get hundreds of emails from people all around the country, but the big ones are the military guys who are getting their life back,” Guzzi said. “I didn’t realize it was as much of a problem until I started seeing these stories. They come back and they’re mentally fatigued with the stuff that they’ve seen and done. We’re not doing enough to help these people out. I feel like it’s my duty because I have a tool that they’re not using.”
It’s been 30 years since Guzzi’s father died. Guzzi started comedy because making other people laugh was his “therapy” — and today he’s a therapist for thousands of people who want to better their lives.
“I would never want anybody to go through what I went through,” Guzzi said. “I couldn’t write a worse movie script to happen. To have it happen right in front of you.”
Getting people to stop smoking is as much about a healthy lifestyle as it is about Guzzi’s father.
“My dad was one of those blue-collar guys who never made any money,” Guzzi said. “It would have been kind of cool if he was around to see this, to see me follow my dream, and be a success.”
Guzzi doesn’t have a stop planned in Washington, but he’s selling his program for a penny online to get people to try it.
“My goal is to help a lot of people, and to put hypnosis on the map,” he said. “If I can do it through helping people, then that’s even better.”