The moment was pure Matt Besser. Performing two years ago in the Upright Citizens Brigade’s partly improvised comedy Conference on the Future of Happiness, he was distracted by a gray-haired man in the audience who was quietly taking notes. Still in character, Besser stepped off the stage, waltzed over to the man, and after a brief struggle pulled the notebook out of the man’s hand. He was about to read the notes out loud when he noticed the name on the front cover.
“Richard Christiansen!” he gasped, as the elderly gentleman blinked confusedly. “We don’t want critics. We don’t need your approval!”
Then he started reading from the notebook. “He was like totally ripping into the show, listing every little thing that had gone wrong,” Besser remembers.
The man stood there, getting angrier and angrier, and finally Besser threw the notebook in his face. The man shouted at Besser, then pushed past him toward the exit. Besser remembers him shouting as he left, “You’ll never work in this town again!”
“The audience was like freaking out,” says Besser, snickering.
Of course it was a put-on. The man was a plant, and the shouting match had been contrived to create that bizarre blurring of reality and fiction that Besser and his brainchild, the Upright Citizens Brigade, live for.
UCB cofounder and Saturday Night Live writer Adam McKay calls Besser a guerrilla ontologist, a term coined by science fiction writer Robert Anton Wilson to describe people who deliberately undermine simpleminded, often manufactured consensus views of reality to reveal seamier, more complex truths. In a sense, all comedians do this, but few do it with as much glee as Besser–even when it means turning an audience against him.
Once when he was the emcee at the Comedy Womb in Lyons he brought a toilet onstage, pulled down his pants, and sat down. He then informed the audience that there was a car battery in the bowl and that he had jumper cables attached to his testicles. “I said that anytime I failed as a comic I would shock myself.” He then proceeded to deliver a painfully unfunny warm-up act, screaming in pain between each DOA gag. “I ended up clearing half the audience before the first comedian came out.”
Born into a comfortable upper-middle-class family in Little Rock, Arkansas, Besser was forced to take tennis lessons at the local country club and attend cotillion when he was a teenager. He says he hated his privileged culture, but he went off to Amherst anyway, where he got his first taste of performing during a late-night college radio show he did with some buddies. “We would get real wasted while we were doing the show. And we thought we were pretty funny when we were wasted, so we would turn on the microphone and just start talking.”
After a while he began doing stand-up comedy in clubs around Amherst, and for six months after he graduated he tried to make it as a stand-up in Colorado. He hated that too.
Then he happened on Jeffrey Sweet’s oral history of Second City, Something Wonderful Right Away, and decided to move to Chicago and get into the troupe. Soon he was taking classes with Del Close at ImprovOlympic, and within six months he, McKay, and Ian Roberts, also Del Close devotees, had founded the Upright Citizens Brigade. Like Devo and Church of the SubGenius the three preferred impersonating the people they mocked.
In UCB’s first show, Virtual Reality, which opened in 1990, Besser and McKay were representatives of a giant semifascist corporation demonstrating a new form of group virtual reality. Woven into the show were several outrageous audience mind fucks. In one bit a “random” audience member was dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the theater–“No! Wait! I am here to see my friends perform! Please! This is my only day off!”–and taken on a crazed virtual road trip.
Such moments soon became a trademark. Conference on the Future of Happiness, UCB’s send-up of EST-like seminars on self-esteem, ended with the actors leading the audience members out of the theater on a trek through Bucktown, then laughing at them for being such sheep, then running away.
Sometimes this reality twisting backfired. When Virtual Reality was playing at the now-defunct Rudely Elegant Theater, its virtual town meeting erupted in a virtual riot that spilled out onto North Avenue–where it was broken up by real Chicago Police who had no idea that the people armed with torches and plastic guns and calling for Rostenkowski’s head on a platter were just kidding. One UCB member, Horatio Sanz, was arrested. McKay remembers proudly that Sanz never broke character, even when he was handcuffed and tossed into the back of the car. “I’ll never forget him leaning out the window shouting “The revolution will live on without me!’ as the car pulled away.”
UCB’s newest show, Millennium Approaches, will twist reality more subtly than previous shows, being based on the premise that the company members are the Illuminati of improv, responsible for every clever thing that happens in improvisational comedy scenes. And for lots that happens in the world at large. “We are the invisible government,” says Besser, snickering. Millennium Approaches refers to “the days ahead of human perfection which the UCB are responsible for. A lot of the Christian sects think it’s God. But no, the fact is that we’ve been planning this for a long time.”
Millennium Approaches opens at 8:30 Tuesday, December 12, at Second City E.T.C., Piper’s Alley, 1608 N. Wells. Tickets are $5; call 642-8189.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Taylor.