ONE QUESTION the Langley Punks will probably never have to answer: Has success spoiled them? Success hasn't even spotted them yet.
They're Washington's best-known filmmakers (emphasis on the known). They've been hailed as "slapstick auteurs" and "spawns of the suburbs." They've made 10 mercifully short films in 10 years, starting with "Phantom of the Beltsville Drive-In," "Invasion of the Paramecium Men" and "Curse of the Atomic Greasers," and continuing undaunted with "Insurance Salesmen From Saturn," "Intestines From Space," "Alcoholics Unanimous" and last year's "Hyattsville Holiday."
"Some cried genius," says Dave Nuttycombe, who's been contributing a touch of musical dementia to the group since 1979. "Some just cried."
Tonight, the Biograph features its second retrospective of The Travesty Group (the Punks are to Travesty what the Three Stooges were to Columbia), including the world premiere of "The Travesty Show," a 30-minute tribute to classic sit-coms like "I Love Lucy" and "My Three Sons." It was originally done for Storer Cable, which has yet to find the courage to expose it. The Punks, meanwhile, have been exposing themselves at the Biograph since 1974, when "Phantom of the Beltsville Drive-In" snuck out the door with third place in the Expose Yourself contest for local filmmmakers. Since then, the Punks have won three firsts, and three seconds.
One thing's for sure: Nobody's cried all the way to the bank. According to proto-Punk Pat Carroll, who's worked with fellow Punks Larry Zabel and Bill O'Leary since they were together in a Wheaton high school in 1968, "We've never made any money. We've spent a total of maybe eight-to-ten thousand dollars over all the years and maybe gotten a couple of thousand back."
Travesty doesn't have budgets for its films; it has a basket for bills. And corners are cut so tightly that sometimes the only thing left is the corner. In "Insurance Salesmen from Saturn," the Saturnians plot a takeover of the Earth by disguising themselves in three-piece suits and boring people to death with insurance talk (the Punks defeat them with even more boring talk about their cars). At the end, the script had called for another spaceship to land and disgorge an army of nuns.
"But it would have cost fifty bucks rent per costume," laments Carroll. "So we bought one and Bob Young dressed in a duck mask and robe. We had a cheap spaceship land behind a bush so we wouldn't have to have a big spaceship, then we cut to a shot of the bush. And we wanted to have a special effect which would have cost $350, but that's how much we spent on the whole movie."
That was in the old days, 1977, and over the years, Travesty's films have become a little more high-tech, though thankfully seldom longer than 25 minutes. "Intestines From Space" (1978) featured sync-sound, and 1979's "Alcoholics Unanimous," well described as "a semi-musical centered around a sleazy seaside bar," added color and Travesty's first Busby Berkeley-style production number, "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along." Those films, incidentally, marked the arrival of filmmaker/recording technician Rich West, who brought a hitherto-unseen professionalism to the operation.
The Punks have been together for a decade now: that's when Jim Phalen and Tom Welsh joined up, after Carroll, O'Leary and the rubber-faced Zabel had graduated from high school, at about the same time they moved up from 8 mm to 16 mm. Bob Young and Don Hogan, who complete the Travesty team, joined in 1975. The first few films ("Phantom of the Beltsville Drive-In," "Bones In De Graveyard"--so bad it's been all but buried--and "It Came From Marlow Heights") centered on the adventures of one Ace Nardface, but the subsequent films have been ensemble jobs.
Those films, incidentally, have done for Prince George's County what John Waters has done for Baltimore. And there's nothing either locale can do about it. "PG County is kind of a mythical place," says Bob Young. "What other county do people call by its initials? M County?"
"The world shall hear of PG County," adds Nuttycombe, vaguely.
The county has been a gigantic back lot, its residents have been extras. And its historic landmarks have been liberally featured: The Beltsville Drive-In, for instance, has starred in two movies, including the recent "Hyattsville Holiday," a silent-film-with-audio-track. "The second time, we were chased out by the owner," Carroll confesses. "The guy jumped out of his truck while it was still moving. We were relieved when the cops showed up. Well, there were about 500 beer cans on the ground, and we had neglected to get permission to film there."
Adds Phelan, "Pat tried to explain to him that he called five times during business hours, nine-to-five . . ."
"Well I did," Carroll says.
All The Travestites share a passion for film, especially bad film. They can drop the names of quality films and filmmakers (they all admire Frank Capra), but it's obvious they relish B's such as "Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow," "Mars Needs Women," "The Amazon Women vs. The Aztec Mummy" ("incredible" they chant, believingly). " 'They Saved Hitler's Brain' was on recently," says Carroll. "I taped that. And 'Swamp Creature' was on over the weekend. It's one of the worst. Within this group, I think we've seen every bad horror film there's ever been." And the rest they're planning to make.
The Travesty approach is rooted in such models as Mack Sennett, Laurel and Hardy and especially the Three Stooges. They revel in zombies and mutants, and are surrounded by beer cans, either empty or in the process of being emptied (when the University of Wisconsin had a Langley Punk festival, they were flown up and paid off in cases of beer). If they were to name themselves after influences, they might be called Larry, Curly, Cheech and Chong.
In the script stage now: "Party on Death Island," "Beach Planet Bingo," "Mars Needs Mudwrestlers." Travesty even has a Hollywood agent, which might have helped a few years ago when they were trying to broker a script called "Horror High." According to Nuttycombe, "That was our clever attempt to cash in on the slasher craze. We were going to do a comedy/slasher. But while we were working on it, two or three bad parodies came out, as well as 8 million bad genuine slashers."
Travesty hasn't just not made money in films. They haven't made it in the record business, either. Like much of their humor, the checkbooks have long been unbalanced. Last year, Travesty recorded "Teen Comedy Party," a hilarious Firesign Theatre-style album that garnered lots of praise and airplay and even sold out its initial pressing. Unfortunately, they couldn't afford to press more. A videotape offer including all the films to date got some response--well, six orders. A T-shirt offer did less well: one order. They had to send the money back. Other schemes were nixed when lawyer Hogan joined the group: Says Nuttycombe: "He kept mentioning the words 'federal violation.' "
"After we make a film, the bills pile up and then we spend years paying them off," says Phelan. "We do one, sit around for two years, need therapy and go out and do another one."
Still, things are looking up. Travesty recently shot a video for the Slickee Boys that ended up on MTV and other music cable shows. And "The Travesty Show" was "the first production where we didn't have to spend a lot of money," says Carroll. "That's a step in the right direction."
Shot in two days at the new Storer cable facilities in Hollywood, Md. (typically, the studio wasn't finished and Storer had to shoot from its remote truck), the show comes complete with a laugh-track, guest stars (The Wanktones and Dynettes, record entrepeneur Joe Lee and Root Boy Slim as pretty much himself), and a script that could be subtitled "My Four Bums."
Also typically, Travesty found a way to spend money it didn't have: They had the video transferred to a kinescope "so that it looks really old. We're hoping people will call it 'Zeligesque,' " says Nuttycombe, humbly.
Travesty films have been used as opening acts in rock clubs like the Wax Museum and New York's Danceteria. They've also been seen on public television, on Channel 26's "Independent Eye." Of course, that's not enough to take their makers out of the real world. To do publicity, most of the guys have to take extended lunch breaks from full-time jobs. O'Leary works for "a major retail concern," Nuttycombe for a big ad agency, Young for a local broadcaster, Carroll for a record store. Welsh is into computers, while West has a recording studio that specializes in audio effects. "Jim Phelan's work is classified," says Nuttycombe. "He's part of the American death machine."
It's also meant that Travesty films have been shot mostly on weekends and have starred many friends . . . and relatives. "Everything gets written for 50 people, parties full of naked women," says O'Leary. "But it always ends up with my sister and Pat's sister and Dave's sister. Of course, you can get just about anything when you tell people you're making a movie. The Family Fish House gave us the entire furnishings off the wall, nets and stuffed fish. We gave them a huge credit."
And Jef Hyde, the manager of the Biograph, has had some bit parts in Travesty films. "The Biograph has been a good home," says Carroll. "If it wasn't for people like Jef, there'd be no reason for continuing these things. Morale would probably have sunk the business years ago."
Hyde has a role in "Hyattsville Holiday," but at least one local yokel didn't make it to the final cut. The film is sort of "a day in the life of the Langley Punks," which means encounters with zombies, mutants and mountain men, a la "Deliverance." "There were going to be two mountain men chasing us," says Carroll, "but one couldn't find the location, so we just used one.
"We've learned to be very resourceful over the years. We do it so that others may laugh."