EST and The Forum in popular culture
Werner Erhard and his self-improvement courses have been referenced in popular culture in various forms of fictional media including literature, film, television and theatre. These courses, known as est, were delivered by the company Erhard Seminars Training (EST, or est). Under the name The Forum, they were delivered by Werner Erhard and Associates. Also, the Landmark Forum, a program created by Erhard's former employees after purchasing his intellectual property, has had an influence on popular culture. Some of these works have taken a comedic tack, parodying Erhard and satirizing the methodology used in these courses. Other works have taken a more direct approach, and analyzed and questioned Erhard's early life and controversy through fictionalized accounts.
Both est and The Forum have been depicted more often in film and television than in literary works. The 1977 film Semi-Tough satirized Erhard and the est Training, through the fictional "Bismark Earthwalk Action Training." Bert Convy portrayed the Erhard parody character. est students Diana Ross and Joel Schumacher incorporated Werner Erhard's teachings into the 1978 musical film, The Wiz. The 1990 film The Spirit of '76 also parodied est, where Rob Reiner portrayed an abusive trainer for the est-like "Be, Inc. Seminars." Movie critics have also drawn parallels to est and Werner Erhard, in reviews of the films Fight Club and Magnolia. Concepts from the Landmark Forum were utilized by the The Wachowskis in their film The Matrix Revolutions. Werner Erhard's training programs have been parodied in television. The 1979 episode of Mork & Mindy, "Mork Goes Erk", and the 2002 episode of Six Feet Under, "The Plan", are the most notable. In the Mork & Mindy episode, the Erhard parody character was played by David Letterman.
Madison, Wisconsin's Broom Street Theater produced a play about Werner Erhard and The Forum in 1995, called Devil In Paradise, The Fall and Rise of Werner Erhard. This piece presented a fictionalized version of controversial issues surrounding Erhard.
Werner Erhard (born John Paul Rosenberg), a California-based former salesman, training manager and executive in the encyclopedia business, created the Erhard Seminars Training (est) course in 1971. est was a form of Large Group Awareness Training, and was part of the Human Potential Movement. est was a four-day, 60-hour self-help program given to groups of 250 people at a time. The program was very intensive: each day would contain 15–20 hours of instruction. During the training, est personnel utilized jargon to convey key concepts, and participants had to agree to certain rules which remained in effect for the duration of the course. Participants were taught that they were responsible for their life outcomes, and were promised a dramatic change in their self-perception.
est was controversial: critics characterized the training methods as brainwashing, and suggested that the program had fascistic and narcissistic tendencies. Proponents asserted that it had a profoundly positive impact on people's lives. By 1977 over 100,000 people completed the est training, including public figures and mental health professionals. In 1985, Werner Erhard and Associates repackaged the course as "The Forum", a seminar focused on "goal-oriented breakthroughs". By 1988, approximately one million people had taken some form of the trainings. In the early 1990s Erhard faced family problems, as well as tax problems that were eventually resolved in his favor. A group of his associates formed the company Landmark Education in 1991, purchasing The Forum's course "technology" from Erhard.
Fictional inspiration for est
Werner Erhard drew on non-fiction sources when he developed Erhard Seminars Training, including the self-help course Mind Dynamics, cybernetics, the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, Scientology courses and the writings of its founder L. Ron Hubbard. However, Erhard's self-awareness courses were also influenced by a science fiction book he read shortly before forming est, called: est: The Steersman Handbook, Charts of the Coming Decade of Conflict, by L. Clark Stevens. Though est is also an abbreviation for Erhard Seminars Training, usage of the term in all-lowercase lettering was borrowed from est: The Steersman Handbook. Shortly after reading the book and becoming very familiar with its contents, Erhard had an epiphany while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, and he later cited this inspirational moment as the beginning of his development of the est coursework. The book later became required reading for associates on Erhard's Mind Dynamics sales team. R. Buckminster Fuller, mentioned in the book by L. Clark Stevens as one of the "est people" that would bring about social transformation integral to Earth's survival, later helped Werner Erhard found The Hunger Project.
est and successors in literature
Depictions of est and The Forum in literature have dealt with direct references to these trainings, and have provided educational background on the larger term encompassing these trainings, known as "Large Group Awareness Training." Erhard and est are parodied in the March 1980 issue of the Marvel Comics Howard the Duck series, titled: "The Dreadcliff Cuckoos". In "The Dreadcliff Cuckoos", the character "Werner Blowhard" heads the organization "Bozoes Eagerly Serving Tyrants", abbreviated B.E.S.T. In his first appearance in the comic, Blowhard states "I've got It, Have you got It?". The "Werner Blowhard" character was later referenced in D. Keith Mano's 1982 novel, Take Five.
In Pressure Points, a 2001 novel by Larry Brooks, one of the book's protagonists asserts that the programs developed by Werner Erhard, William Penn Patrick, and Alexander Everett all came from the same source. The Program, a 2004 novel by Hurwitz, described a fictional large group awareness training called "The Program", and characters also used the term "LGAT" to refer to the course. In the novel, the seminar leader had "married two cult models," which one of the protagonists described as a blend of the "psychotherapeutic cult," and the "self-improvement cult." The character then tells his friend that "The Program", is similar to a combination of the Sullivanians and Lifespring. Werner Erhard is quoted, prior to the opening of the prologue.
Werner Erhard and his est Training programs and later The Forum have been parodied in films, both directly and through more subtle references. Still in other films that did not directly intend to parody the subject matter, other reviewers have found elements of the est movement as applied to the genre of fictional self-help films. The 1977 movie Semi-Tough, starring Burt Reynolds, parodied the est training. Bert Convy played "Frederick Bismark," a caricature of Werner Erhard. Bismark's organization and its training went by the name "B.E.A.T.", which stands for: "Bismark Earthwalk Action Training." A form of Rolfing was also parodied in the film, and Lotte Lenya's character "Clara Pelf" was described as: "a Rolf like masseuse." The press caught on to this satire of Erhard in the film, and gave these sections of the film positive reviews. The Wall Street Journal did not give an overall positive review, but did appreciate the portions where Werner Erhard was parodied: "The movie isn't much - an erratic ramble - But it has some pleasant moments, and a delicious send-up of The self-improvement guru Werner Erhard." The Charlotte Observer praised Bert Convy's portrayal of the self-help guru Frederick Bismark, writing: "Bert Convy is a hilariously smug consciousness-raiser with a more than passing resemblance to EST's Werner Erhard." After the film's release, Bert Convy appeared on The Tonight Show and discussed his experiences when he attended an est training seminar in preparation for his role as Frederick Bismark. During actual filming on Semi-Tough, Convy received a late-night phone call from actress Valerie Harper, known in Hollywood as a devoted student of Werner Erhard. She related to Convy that Erhard was "pleased" with the role, and she wished him success in the film. However, Convy suspected that her real reason for calling was to subtly pressure him to go easy on his parody of Erhard in the film.
The Grove Book of Hollywood wrote that the 1978 film, The Wiz was influenced by Werner Erhard's teachings and est because actress Diana Ross and writer Joel Schumacher were "very enamored of Werner Erhard." The film's producer Rob Cohen noted that: "before I knew it, the movie was becoming an est-ian fable full of est buzzwords about knowing who you are and sharing and all that. I hated the script a lot. But it was hard to argue with Diana because she was recognizing in this script all of this stuff that she had worked out in est seminars." Schumacher spoke positively of the results of the est training, saying: "I will be eternally grateful for learning that I was responsible for my life," however he also complained that: "Everybody stayed exactly the way they were and went around spouting all this bullshit." Of est and Erhard references in the film itself, The Grove Book of Hollywood notes that the speech delivered by the Good Witch, played by actress Lena Horne, at the end of the film was "a litany of est-like platitudes," and the book also makes est comparisons to the song "Believe in Yourself."
In the 1990 film The Spirit of '76, Rob Reiner plays "Dr. Hedley Cash" (only referred to as "Dr. Cash" in the film), an abusive trainer for the est-like "Be, Inc. Seminars" who traps time-traveler Heinz-57 (played by Geoff Hoyle) in one of his seminars and continually refers to him as "Heinz Asshole." In the DVD commentary for the 2003 release of the film, director Lucas Reiner stated that the "Absentee, oblivious, self-involved parents who don't notice their kids have a spaceship" was a reference to the self-involved nature of adults during the 1970s and their propensity for self-improvement. Lucas Reiner stated that these scenes were meant to symbolize the "'70s hunger for self-improvement," and the extreme ends that people would go to in order to improve themselves. Lucas Reiner had never personally attended one of Werner Erhard's seminars, but had heard that attendants were not allowed to leave, often peed in their pants, and were called "assholes" and insulted publicly. Reiner noted that once his brother Carl put on the "Dr. Cash" costume, he played his character perfectly. Heavyweights is a 1995 comedy film about a fat camp for kids that is taken over by fitness guru Tony Perkis, played by Ben Stiller. In a review of the film in The Washington Post, Hal Hinson described Stiller's portrayal of the Perkis character to Erhard, and called him "the Werner Erhard of slide aerobics".
Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk was a graduate of The Landmark Forum, or "The Forum", for short, and this later influenced his work. In his review of the 1999 film adaptation of the book, Roger Ebert likened the character Tyler Durden to Werner Erhard. Ebert wrote that Tyler Durden was: ".a bully--Werner Erhard plus S & M, a leather club operator without the decor." Fight Club film producer Ross Grayson Bell believes that his "creative synchronicity" with writer Palahniuk was due to their shared experience of attending The Forum. In the 1999 film Magnolia, Tom Cruise played a motivational guru named Frank T.J. Mackey, who was the author of a self-help book called Seduce and Destroy. This work was meant to teach men how to get women to sleep with them. The Frank T.J. Mackey character in the film has been likened to: "a sort of pop-TV blend of Werner Erhard and Bob Guccione, strutting around a stage with cocksure arrogance, indoctrinating his acolytes in the arts of machismo and seduction." The Frank T.J. Mackey character has also been compared to another motivational trainer influenced by Erhard, in Details Magazine. In an ironic twist, Tom Cruise has later been referred to as "the new Werner Erhard."
In her 2004 book Life Long Learning: Transforming, Learning Discovering Through Living Life in Unlimitless Possibilities, Patti Diamond writes that filmmakers The Wachowskis got the inspiration for the screenplay to The Matrix Revolutions while participating in a Landmark Forum "seminar series." Diamond also analyzes The Matrix Revolutions and the messages imparted in the film, in the context of her own personal experiences in the Landmark Forum. She describes a tautologous exchange between Agent Smith and Neo in the film, where Neo is asked by Smith: "Why do you continue to do this, Mr. Anderson?" and Neo responds: "Because I choose to." Diamond uses this example to explain the Landmark Forum's discussion of "choice and decision." Diamond provides further analysis of other Landmark Forum concepts utilized in The Matrix Revolutions in her book Stepping Into Spiritual Oneness: Spiritual Rememberings of the Soul Through Life Experience, including the concept that: "we all choose to BE who we are being in each and every moment of our experience."
Mork & Mindy
Parody and satire of est and The Forum in television has taken a more direct approach than in literature and film. Characters have been shown attending seminars, and having negative outcomes as a result. Mork & Mindy dealt with this in a lighter fashion, dealing with a small introduction of individuals to the training in a home environment, in season one, episode seventeen: "Mork Goes Erk." In the episode, David Letterman portrayed an Erhard-like character by the name of "Ellsworth" offering ERK or Ellsworth Revitalization Konditioning. In a 1982 article in the journal Theory & Society, Lewis & Clark College sociology professor Robert Goldman compared and contrasted Letterman's "Ellsworth" character and his training program to that of Werner Erhard. Goldman noted that the episode spent time: "lampooning Werner Erhard and est-like commercial pop psychologies." However, Goldman went on to note that the inherent problem with "Ellsworth Revitalization Konditioning" was not the training - but Ellsworth himself. Ellsworth is seen not just as a parody of Werner Erhard, but also of consumerism: "As the self-help entrepreneur, Ellsworth is portrayed as a walking collection of lifestyle-status points and sign-values ("I've got my Rolls-Royce!"). Conspicuous consumption and commodity fetishism define his personality." Goldman explained that the Mork and Mindy episode succeeded in distinguishing between criticism of the Ellsworth training, and criticism of Ellsworth, citing Ellsworth's character traits of: "tyranny, selfishness, open greed, and flaunting of the accoutrements of his vulgar money-making." In the end of the segment of the episode parodying est, Mork wins out over the Ellsworth philosophy by instead calling to mind universal humanistic moral values. David Letterman received positive praise for his portrayal of "Ellsworth" in the episode.
Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under Episode 16, of Season 2, "The Plan", featured a seminar-delivery organization called "The Plan", which the character Claire Fisher immediately compared to est. Actress Alice Krige portrays "Alma" the seminar leader of "The Plan" - who uses jargon related to the "blueprint" for building a house in order to convey concepts about self-improvement. She singles out the character Ruth and berates her for "tiptoeing around her own house like she's afraid of waking someone up." Ruth begins to use jargon from the course in her conversations with family, and complains to her daughter that she cannot yet go to sleep after coming home from her seminar because she must first do "homework" from the course. This homework includes writing a letter to her dead mother forgiving her for "all the terrible things she did to me", and writing a letter to herself, describing how she will "renovate" her life. During the following day of "The Plan", the seminar leader gives the group a new assignment: to go outside to ready banks of phones, and call their family members to inform them of specifically how they wish to "renovate their homes" together. In the seminar, the leader asks everyone to close their eyes and imagine that everyone else is laughing at them for being stupid, and then asks the participants if they get the joke. Everyone does, except Ruth, who rants at the course instructor. After her rant, the leader congratulates her for "knocking down her old house", and proceeds to tell her that now she can rebuild a new house.
Analysis in secondary sources and books on Six Feet Under have compared the training in "The Plan" to the current incarnation of Erhard's trainings, Landmark Education. Reading Six Feet Under: TV to Die For by Akass et al. have compared "The Plan" to est and The Forum. Akass cites the episode while analyzing the phenomenon of self-improvement, and notes that: "Repairing her shingles often leaves Ruth in shackles." She writes that: ".the series performs the logic of self-help, both its silly and seductive sides." However, she also points out that Ruth's rant at the end of her seminar is cathartic for Ruth, and she ends her analysis of the episode by asking: "So, what do we make of our times when all this supposed nonsense actually works?"
In 2008, Climate Theater in San Francisco, California showed a play called The Group, written by Robert Quillen Camp and performed by Ryan Eggensperger, and inspired, according to Climate "by the largely American tradition of packaging and selling self-empowerment, from EST and the Landmark Forum to Norman Vincent Peale and The Secret". The play is an immersive performance piece where audience members sit in a circle and wear audio headsets, through which they listen to the charismatic leader's voice and sound effects. The production ran from May 29, 2008 to June 14, 2008.
Robert Avila of the San Francisco Bay Guardian called The Group: "in-your-face comedy in a droll send-up of EST-like self-actualization programs," and a spoof of "recent incarnations" including The Secret and Landmark Forum. Avila gave the play a positive review, noting its "inspired writing, sharp humor, and simple yet slick production". In a review of the play for the San Jose Mercury News, Karen D'Souza wrote: From est to 'The Secret,' this is a playful lampoon of 'healing philosophies'". D'Souza also reviewed the play positively, writing: " Writer-director Robert Quillen Camp slyly pokes fun at reducing the human experience to one-size-fits-all platitudes and besmirching belief systems with "cash-only" workshops." Pat Craig wrote in Contra Costa Times: "After a lifetime of enduring various human potential programs, from the chanted mantras of transcendental meditation to the institutionalized loathing of est, 'The Group' seems a bit tame for satire to a veteran of the high-profit mind games." In a review for the San Francisco Examiner, Leslie Katz said, "In the end, the show provides excellent therapy. As those who aren't swayed by expensive self-help seminars know, laughter is indeed the best medicine."
- Human Potential Movement
- Large Group Awareness Training
- Parody religion
- Popular culture
- Religious satire
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- Werner Erhard, Web site of "Friends of Werner Erhard"
- "Six Feet Under" The Plan (2002) at the Internet Movie Database
- The Spirit of '76 (1990) at the Internet Movie Database
- "Mork & Mindy" Mork Goes Erk (1979) at the Internet Movie Database
- Semi-Tough (1977) at the Internet Movie Database