One Saturday night in the summer of ’76, I abandoned a group of pot-smoking friends (I didn’t inhale) to watch the weekly Creature Feature that played on UHF Channel 20 in Washington DC. I don’t recall what the feature was, but I’ll never forget what followed it. Count Gore De Vol, the program’s vampiric host, had introduced a new segment: amateur horror/sci-fi movies made by local filmmakers. Even though I’d refused the pot, I found myself getting high on Attack of the Paramecium Men. It was a silent, black-and-white slapstick short (with jazzy music), featuring three leather-clad greasers who first evade and then defeat the humanoid paramecium. It was, in the word of Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride, “inconceivable.”
One month later, on Pre-Orientation Day at the University of Maryland, I began my inevitable future as the compleat film auteur. I was enrolled as a film major and found myself in the company of a single fellow “auteur.” He was a Woody Allen-type, only taller, and looked just as bewildered as me. We struck up a conversation, and he casually mentioned that he’d made a number of 16mm shorts. One of them had even aired on Channel 20. It was, of course, Attack of the Paramecium Men. I hailed him like a brother, and from that moment on my life took a turn for the comedic.
My new friend, Pat Caroll, was the comic genius behind the shorts. They featured himself and fellow Good Counsel High School buddies Jim Phalen and Larry Zabel as the Langley Punks, a trio of hooligans who, when not drinking beer, have encounters with different extraterrestrial menaces. In Insurance Salesmen From Saturn, the title creatures fail in their mission to bore earthlings to death and end up being bored into oblivion by the Punks’ endless, detailed descriptions of their cars. Pat’s inspirations for these early films were the Three Stooges, Chaplin, Keaton, and the masked Mexican wrestler-turned-movie star, El Santo.
It was an amazing, exciting time, when a group of friends could get together, lug an unwieldy 16mm camera out to some godforsaken location and shoot a cohesive, if chaotic, short film crammed full of aliens, zombies, hotties, and oblivious, hedonistic “heroes.” Later on, Pat would share writing duties with one of my best friends, Tom Welsh, and the hilariously brilliant Dave Nuttycombe. After years of guest-starring as various menacing creatures, another Good Counsel alum, Bob Young, graduated–or flunked–to fourth Punk, and I became the recurring guest star. One cold, windy Saturday afternoon we were shooting Hyatsville Holiday in a closed-down drive-in theatre when a police car screeched onto the “set,” responding to a 911 call. Spotting four scantily clad girls being menaced by several straight-jacketed insane-asylum escapees (myself among them), the patrolman almost called for backup. It took a lot of explaining on our part to stay out of jail.
The Biograph, a local repertory theatre, began promoting and playing the Langley Punks shorts. A huge following developed and an appreciative, if inebriated, audience regularly filled the theater to laugh and cheer the Punks on. Commercial film production executive Rich West took note of the phenomenon and offered to partner with the Punks, promising to help them turn out a technically more sophisticated product–possibly even something with sound. Thus, Travesty Films was born, its motto, “So that others may laugh.”
Intestines From Space, the first Travesty production, faced many of the same challenges comedies in the late 20s dealt with when making the transition to sound. Actors used to a breakneck pace and gag-a-minute slapstick, were forced to slow down and deliver actual dialogue, often requiring multiple takes to get it right. In a scene where four sexy girls introduce themselves to the Punks as “Candy,” “Honey,” “Sugar,” and “Taffy,” Jim mugged, “Boy, I’m glad I’m not a diabetic.” Despite growing pains on the production, Intestines From Space became a monster Biograph hit, and it appeared as if Travesty was well on its way to bigger things, certainly color.
Alcoholics Unanimous, a short sporting both decent sound and color, was followed by the inspired comedy album, Teen Comedy Party. After the album was played on the radio during The Dr. Demento Show, it became clear a decision had to be made about the company’s future artistic direction. Tom and Dave wanted to attempt a more sophisticated “Animal House” type of feature, something they could use as a calling card in Hollywood. I fully endorsed them in this move, but Pat was adamant about continuing on the same zany course they were on.
Unfortunately, their next project The Travesty Show turned out to be a kind of last hurrah for the Langley Punks. It was a throwback to The Honeymooners and was made in black-and-white as a cable TV pilot. Complete with gag commercials, it was hysterically funny.
The internet, with all the media opportunities it offers today, was still ten years in the future. In the early 80s, there was no way for Travesty to reach a larger audience, leaving the Punks with very little in the way of options. Looking back on those days, there’s no doubt the Travesty vision was way ahead of its time.
Well aware of this, on June 7th, the American Film Institute honored Travesty with a tribute entitled From Here to Obscurity. The night was a tremendous success, and a sold-out audience filled the large, prestigious AFI Silver Theatre. Pat finally got the chance to be on the same screen as his idols: Chaplin, Keaton, and the Three Stooges, although not El Santo.