Upright Citizens Brigade

“Self-esteem”–a term that meant nothing 100 years ago and may mean nothing in another century–is the late 20th century’s narcissistic sine qua non. How to achieve it is explained by countless new-age psychobabble theories: the idea is to blame the victim, purge guilt by rationalizing crime, and seek out (i.e., invent) the inner child, the natural man, or whatever is the latest cant goal. You are not responsible, these insidious self-help therapies suggest; long ago you were hurt, and now you must love yourself hard and unquestioningly. As for other people, they don’t show up on the solipsistic radar.

Leo Buscaglia fans may rage, but it’s time the con game was exposed–Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley, with his 12-step “Daily Affirmation,” can’t do it alone. Leave it to the Upright Citizens Brigade (creators of Virtual Reality) to concoct a fictitious “comedy experiment,” The Conference on the Future of Happiness, a spoof playing at five different theaters in January. Complete with lectures, audiovisual displays, and audience-participation therapy workshops, the two-hour “conference” reduces feel-good hype to the status of snake oil. And the cost for a lifetime of happiness? Only $145 (or $5 in real money).

Clearly modeled on bona fide self-awareness sessions, the conference proceeds in dead earnest. The session opens with videotaped interviews with “celebrities”: “Moms” Mabley, John McEnroe, and Art Garfunkel (all played by the same actor) testify to the empowerment they experienced hearing the Sentence of Happiness (a configuration of words assembled from the world’s most arcane wisdom). Audience members then put on name tags, take an “Emotional Variance Adaptability Test” (which provides information for the improv scenes), and applaud conference host Downey Perkins (Rich Fulcher), a perky glad-hander whose MO is corporate unctuousness and forced similes. After informing us that we’re less happy than we think, Downey leads the crowd in a cheer (“H-A-P-P-I-N-E-S-S!”) and introduces his “experts” on self-improvement.

Using an overhead projector, Professor Gregory Besser (Matt Besser) shows how avoiding guilt requires the elimination of parents; he advocates wilderness “prelife camps” where children will be forced to grow up into individuals, not replicas of their progenitors. As evidence, an audience member (perhaps a plant) is called onstage to participate in a conference call with her mother, whose phone number was divulged in the adaptability test. The mother described the woman’s childhood traumas (oversleeping and spoiling family outings), a memory that was then acted out, something like psychodrama.

Ian Roberts (played by Roberts) is the founder of the Institute for Linguistic Happiness; his goal is to reduce conflicts by replacing negative language with positive words. Roberts offers genteel alternatives–“darn” for “crap,” “phooey” for “shit,” and “puppy maker” for “bitch.” During his workshop he taught an audience member a euphemism for the curse she gave a cat that wrecked her Christmas tree. Adam McKay, cult leader of the Vision Church and a self-appointed “demagogue,” explains how he fulfills himself by exacting blind obedience from mindless followers–294 of them at last count–generously answering their need to follow. Then audience members read aloud an incoherent feel-good litany whose very opacity is revealing.

The funniest bit is a videotape showing the results of a behavior-modification regimen imposed on two “audience members” who had earlier been removed from the conference for having low adaptability scores. Regular (Armando Diaz) is an “attitude cleanser” who forces weird therapies on the hapless duo, for example by requiring them to give away their negativity–symbolized by a $1 bill–to strangers.

Exasperated by all the theories, host Perkins dares the experts to test them in the real world. At this point the entire conference trooped out onto Belmont Avenue, where Besser urged a little boy (a plant) to disobey his parents and distrust adults, Roberts launched into a prepared dialogue with a passerby that illustrated how to avoid potential fights by using positive terms and a hug, and power-crazed McKay dared two men wheeling a TV down the street to smash it. At last, cold but rapt, we heard the experts read the Sentence–after which they lobbed wet paper wads at us.

Of course I dare not divulge the Sentence–but it was what we deserved for believing happiness could be taught.

Practical jokes don’t get much more elaborate than this. Not all of it clicked: the improv sequences went on too long, and a celebrity appearance by “Penty Pentagon,” the supposed symbol of next year’s World Cup soccer game, was a bust. But overall the Upright Citizens succeed in translating a good premise into marvelous straight-faced absurdities, staying in impressively humorless character throughout. Tom Cullinan provides a witty aural backdrop for all the happy talk.

Their first venue was the nifty new ImprovOlympic Theater at 1218 W. Belmont, a comfortable 60-seat space created from an empty lot. The January venues are the Eclipse, Urbus Orbis, Mary-Arrchie, Red Orchid, and Transient. You may not cure yourself by going–but you can find out the Sentence and whether they smash a television at the other sessions.