From an Era When Going Viral Took Some Real Effort
Pat Carroll couldn’t find Dupont Circle on Tuesday. I’d asked the members of the Travesty Films comedy group, which released a series of cult-favorite short films in the 1970s and 1980s, to grab a drink ahead of the 30th-anniversary screening of their 1981 piece Hyattsville Holiday tonight at the AFI Silver Theatre.
Though it was short notice, two members of the group, Dave Nuttycombe, Washington City Paper’s former Webmeister, and Tom Welsh, made it to the bar. Carroll, the founder of the group, said he’d join us on his way home from work in Largo. But when he transferred at Metro Center, he hopped the Red Line train taking him home to Wheaton instead of our direction. This was Travesty’s “artistic genius.”
The nine members of Travesty Films got together 15 years ago when the old Biograph Theatre in Georgetown closed down. At the time, Sean Daly wrote in a 1996 history of the group for City Paper that their “collective reaction” to a retrospective of their work was “understandably mixed.” It hadn’t been that long since Travesty’s last gasp of the '80s—The Losers, a sitcom pilot that was supposed to be directed by Sam Raimi until the director was inked to direct Darkman and other big-budget films. Enough footage was shot for a six-minute trailer that lives on via YouTube. Anyone noticing similarities with Dumb and Dumber should be cautioned that this was made well before the Farrelly Brothers movie.
With another decade and a half, the nostalgia has only thickened. Tonight’s AFI retrospective will feature the entire Travesty roster, including Larry Zabel, who sat out the 1996 reunion. Hyattsville Holiday, a suburban comedy of horrors the group considers to be its best work, has finally been transferred to DVD along with other Travesty titles, preserving digitally films that, Nuttycombe admits, didn’t exactly receive the best care.
But Travesty did its classic work before filmmaking got so easy. Even in 1996 they were still re-editing on three-quarter-inch videotapes. The band’s gotten back together occasionally in the past few years, for the 48 Hour Film Project. But it’s never lost that they grew up in the pre-digital age.
“We did our only feature which was that fake documentary thing,” Nuttycombe says referring to 2003’s Government Approved!: The Films of Warren G. Spaulding. In the '80s, “there was all this talk of, ‘Oh, let’s do a feature,’ while junior-high kids are on their third or fourth now.”
Thanks to channels like YouTube and Funny or Die, new viral videos pop up every day, generally made on the cheap using digital video cameras or, more recently, cell phones.
“Part of the appeal back in the '70s and the '80s is that it was technically difficult to do,” says Welsh, who is now a software consultant. “You had to spend money, thousands of dollars to buy film, get it edited. Part of the charm of going to the Biograph was to say, ‘Look at what these 20-year-olds did.’ If there had been YouTube we would have been lost among millions.”
Now that the old movies live on a hard drive, they might make their way to YouTube or a DVD, though audiences loved the Travesty oeuvre because of its throwback feel. Hyattsville Holiday is a black-and-white silent featuring a zombies, shamanic devil worshippers and other baddies that pay homage to the Universal Monsters of the 1920s and 1930s. Hell, Travesty didn’t even make a talkie until Intestines From Space in 1978.
But the old-timey nature of Travesty was, and still is, Carroll’s passion. He and Nuttycombe disagreed over using sound, shooting in color, and the overall scope of the thing. The short that preceded Hyattsville Holiday—Alcoholics Unanimous—was a Technicolor musical.
“Then Pat said, ‘Let’s do a black-and-white’ thing and I said ‘no, more color, bigger, bigger!’” Nuttycombe says. Though it might be Travesty’s best, Hyattsville Holiday actually lost an audience award at the Biograph. “I remember lording that over Pat.”
Nuttycombe and Carroll’s creative preferences will never be totally united, but there’s no lingering tension. They still collaborate on Travesty’s 48 Hour Film Project entries and are good friends, they’ll just never bridge the gap between color and sound (Nuttycombe) and Old Hollywood (Carroll).
The silent era is still where Carroll lives artistically. In the past few years, he’s struck up regular correspondence with Jean Darling, the last surviving member of the original cast of the Our Gang series of serials in the late 1920s. But while Carroll, who called me the morning after getting on the wrong Metro train, embraces a lost era of filmmaking, he says that the Darling, who is 88 and has lived in Ireland since 1974, is up on modern pop culture.
“She doesn’t live in the past, she’s very into what’s on TV, movies, music,” Carroll says about Darling, with whom he struck up a relationship after contacting her through her website a few years ago. “And we text all the time.”
But as one of the Langley Punks, the original Three Stooges-like group around which Travesty Films coalesced, Carroll has always had a knack for the past. It was Nuttycombe and Welsh who led the effort to go bigger in the 1980s, presenting Travesty to as many Hollywood types as they could meet.
“I think I saw it on Rainn Wilson’s Twitter account, that the most meaningless phrase in Hollywood is, ‘I just had a great meeting’,” Nuttycombe says. “When we got back home we found out that everyone we had talked to had lost their jobs and were never heard from again. But Sam is a great guy.”
He’s referring to Raimi, who had to walk away from The Losers but kept contact with Nuttycombe and Welsh. In 2001, Raimi invited Nuttycombe and Welsh to the filming of Spider-Man in Forest Hills, Queens. Nuttycombe even made it into the movie as a neighbor of Mary Jane Watson taking the trash out in the background, though the shot was cut.
“[Raimi] wanted me to be in Spider-Man,” Welsh says. “He was going to shoot a scene of the police looking at mug shots, so he said I could be one of the mug shots. He studies Dave’s face for a second and he says, ‘Too kind.’ Then he looks at me and says, ‘I can use you’.” But Welsh couldn’t hang around the set long enough and the scene was cut anyway.
Welsh and Nuttycombe had a few other brushes with Hollywood, including some that paid fairly well. Several years before David O. Russell made Three Kings, the pair wrote a treatment for a Gulf War heist movie. It was to star the early-'90s rap outfits Kid ‘n Play and Salt-n-Pepa.
“It’s a script that would be better for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby,” Nuttycombe says. “It had no street cred at all and just some embarrassing fake hip-hopisms.”
The Travesty members, now in their 50s, are decades removed from their heyday as cult-comedy hellions. Though they don’t crank them out like they used to, there are still opportunities like the 48 Hour Film Project, Nuttycombe says. And who knows? Maybe someday they’ll finally make a real feature.
“Pat said he had this dream where we’re all together in an old folks home,” Nuttycombe says. “One of us is chasing the other down the hall in a wheelchair saying, ‘No, but it’s great exposure’.”
From Here to Obscurity: A Travesty Films/Langley Punks Retrospective, at 7:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. (301) 495-6700. $11.