Sign up for our free newsletter
Something very strange is going on in a small, air-conditioned editing room at Media General Cable in Merrifield, Va. A trio of fortysomething funnymen, Dave Nuttycombe, Tom Welsh, and Rich West, is splicing together a wild ride of interviews, film clips, and edgy gags that has everyone in the cramped space laughing. The off-the-wall docucomedy they’re putting together is Travesty Films: From Here to Obscurity. The film, which will be shown June 10 and 11 at the Biograph, is a retrospective of D.C.’s own Travesty boys, an offshoot of the affable “Langley Punks” that in the late ’70s and early ’80s grew into a nine-man gang of self-deprecating (and often self-flagellating) comic madmen that was loaded with energy, improvisational skills, and, well, usually just plain loaded. The editing room, however, is packed with millions of dollars of high-tech audio-visual equipment, and the blatant irony of it all, as pennies’ and nickels’ worth of grainy Travesty film stock splatters on the wide-screen monitors, isn’t lost on anyone. Hans, a garrulous twentysomething technician helping the middle-aged filmmakers prepare their past, is whooping it up as black-and-white images of less-than-frightening monsters stumbling after long-haired beer buddies fill the screens.
“Whoa! This is great!” Hans guffaws. “Wait’ll my friends see this!”
The men pacing behind Hans laugh too, taking the praise in quiet stride. They’ve seen and heard this reaction to their bizarre slapstick before, even if the last time was 12 years ago, when what everyone thought would be the final Travesty retrospective appeared at the Biograph. As an elated Hans continues to push the blinking array of green and red buttons before him, the men watch their younger selves having one hell of a time: running through forests, flailing their arms and legs, wearing ridiculous masks, and of course, drinking lots and lots of cheap suds. Their collective reaction to all this celluloid glee, however, is understandably mixed. To the local paying public, Travesty films are cinematic gems. To the men that made them, these are home movies.
“It’s fun and painful,” Welsh remarks. Still, it’s obvious that the Travesty members on hand are more than proud of their work. Twenty-plus years later and most of the cheap gags still get laughs. Loyal fans pop up here and there. And the quick and clever way these men work off each other is no fluke: Travesty will always be a comedy team—one that for a short, sweet time had a shot at the big time.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Travesty Films’ hellzapoppin’ 16mm spoofs of sci-fi flicks and sendups of suburban sprawl had sellout Biograph crowds doubled over and coming back for more. Bits from Travesty’s 1982 album, Teen Comedy Party, were favorites of Dr. Demento and WHFS. People magazine and the New York Times raved about the group’s promise. And in what seemed at the time to be the final link to fame and fortune, Hollywood director Sam Raimi started filming these guys for a possible cable sitcom.
Then, in 1986 the talent, the relative genius, and the seemingly foolproof road to stardom began swirling down the proverbial crapper. Within a year, there were nine individual fragments of Travesty, and the Langley Punks were suddenly sober. But now, with the retrospective looming, questions surrounding the troupe’s demise are surfacing again: Was it a clash of egos that brought about the breakup? Creative differences? The microbrewery revolution? What really happened to D.C.’s clever gang of idiots?
While the vast Travesty oeuvre had many contributors, the most notable absence in the Media General editing room today is Pat Carroll, the originator of this band of loonies and a man considered to be the “guiding spirit” of the group. Nuttycombe says Carroll had to work this evening (he’s a customer-service rep at District Cablevision), and was unable to help. After speaking with Carroll, however, I get the feeling he might not have shown even if he could, and that out of all the members, he took the crumbling of success hardest.
“I never had a negative experience doing the Langley Punks series. Never,” says the now publicity-shy comedian. “But with Travesty we were never good at managing money ourselves, and were never in the right place at the right time, and…well, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.” He pauses, takes a breath: “But I’ll always have a place in my heart for those days. They really were some great times.”
As a freshman in high school in 1968, Carroll, already a master of the double take and an avid supporter of Mack Sennett–style comedy, hooked up with fellow Super-8 junkies Larry Zabel and Bill O’Leary. In ’73, Jim Phalen and Welsh joined the club, and the group produced three 16mm shorts featuring Carroll in the inspired lead role of Ace Nardface: Phantom of the Beltsville Drive-In, Bones in de Graveyard, and It Came From Marlow Heights. Each film was the product of an all-male Catholic-school upbringing: There were plenty of beer jokes, a few unsubtle gay jokes, and lots of unfettered aggression.
In 1975, thanks to a Carroll-scripted farce, The Invasion of the Paramecium Men, the Langley Punks (Carroll, Zabel, and Phalen) were born, three besotted suburban burnouts who made an art of smoking, drinking beer, getting rejected by women, and finding trouble. (The Langley Punks would be featured in several Travesty movies and are the centerpiece of the troupe’s work.) Shot by O’Leary and featuring two more Travesty members, Bob Young and Don Hogan, The Invasion of the Paramecium Men eventually took third place at the Biograph’s “Expose Yourself” competition for local filmmakers. This film would start a seven-year winning streak, which included other 16mm movies: Curse of the Atomic Greasers (1976), Cloning Around (1976), Insurance Salesmen From Saturn (1977), and Neurotic Psychotics (1978).
The Travesty group found its Terry Gilliam-of-sorts when West, a technically minded behind-the-scenes performer, entered his own film, Hunter’s Trap, at the 1976 “Expose Yourself,” at which the Punks were showing Cloning Around. “These guys were having so much fun,” West says, “and I just wanted to be a part of it.” In 1978, West approached Carroll with the idea of a joint film to be produced in sync sound. The result was Intestines From Space, and the Travesty team spoke on film for the first time.
“We would go into the editing room and everyone would kill a six-pack,” Carroll recalls with a hint of wonder. “That was our nightly routine. Intestines From Space was our first movie with Rich, and he had never seen anything like us. But we were still in our early 20s, and that was our modus operandi.”
Nuttycombe (who today is Washington City Paper’s Webmeister) rounded out Travesty in 1979, when the group went “semimusical” with Alcoholics Unanimous, which marked another first for Travesty: color. He produced and arranged a rendition of “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along” for the film and remained a member until the group fell apart—a split, Nuttycombe admits, in which he played a significant, if not the most devastating, part.
With the entire cast in place, and its motto, “So That Others May Laugh,” looming large over everything it touched, Travesty hit its stride from ’80-’84, filming what is considered its best film, Hyattsville Holiday (1981), a 15-minute blur about suburbia gone way wrong, and recording Teen Comedy Party, a full-length, 26-cut album (featuring, amazingly enough, the final performance of the Starland Vocal Band) that the New York Times called “a truly funny recording.” One of the album’s bits, the Nuttycombe-penned “Rock and Roll Doctor,” made it onto two Dr. Demento greatest hits collections. To this day the men of Travesty get royalty checks from Rhino Records.
“Hyattsville Holiday was our best movie for sure. Everyone was in full gear,” Carroll remembers. “Our movies were always longer than they should have been, but with Rich there, he really took over and cut it his way. He knew what he was doing and didn’t want anyone messing around. The films took a step up when Rich came on board….Those were good days. We were all pretty motivated then.”
“The older films were almost entirely ad-libbed, but when Rich and I came in, there would be more scripts when we went out [to shoot],” Nuttycombe says. “Everyone got writing credit, and everyone would have one little gag that they wanted to do.”
“The only reason we never made any money wasn’t because we were artists, but because we were completely lacking in business sense,” says Welsh, adding that at the time Travesty was happy simply for all the attention, and would give copies of Teen Comedy Party to record stores to sell—no serious distribution, no serious money—just for the laugh of it.
“When a film would premiere at the Biograph, that would be the highlight for me,” Carroll explains. “You had your favorite little gag that would go over well, or sometimes it wouldn’t. But the one guy who would always get a laugh would be Larry Zabel.”
When approached with the idea of a retrospective to coincide with the closing of the Biograph, Zabel told members (well, the ones he was speaking to) that he wanted no part of the reunion. Carroll may be the lead in many of the films, but it’s Zabel’s nonstop Don-Knotts-in-the-electric-chair mugging that catches your attention. He radiates pure energy, playing the role of the doofus with reckless idiocy. It was his brand of talent, though, that Nuttycombe and Welsh wanted to de-emphasize after the success of Hyattsville Holiday and Teen Comedy Party. They wanted to go with a new brand of dumb, but Zabel was happiest with the old style of dumber.
“Larry blames Dave [for the breakup],” Welsh explains. “Well, I guess he blames Dave and me together. We wanted to get beyond the Langley Punks, and Larry didn’t like that.”
“Tom and Dave were always more cerebral. They wanted to move on…do more sophisticated things,” Carroll reasons, always the diplomat. “There were real professional differences there. But the reason the films were as funny as they were was because of Larry. That guy was a riot. I’d love to do something with him again.”
With all the talk of success but very little money to show for it, tensions began to build in ’85, and members started craving life’s other offerings: money, families, and something unheard of for Travesty, stability. In 1986, after a planned black-and-white feature film, It, the Thing!, never got off the ground financially, Nuttycombe resigned, sick of the direction the group was headed. Soon, Travesty as a body of talent disintegrated. When the bank closed the group’s account, a whopping $9.10 remained. Comedy may have been a damn fine party for Travesty, but the laughter didn’t pay shit.
About a year after the falling out, Nuttycombe and Welsh formed Over Productions, and via a generous amount of schmoozing and tweaking local connections actually courted Sam Raimi to direct The Losers, a cable sitcom project, at a cost of $14,000 (in comparison, Intestines From Outer Space had a budget of $1,500—beer included). Carroll and Zabel joined the Raimi project as well, and consequently were given the lead roles, something that probably increased the tension among the troupe’s members. The production values of The Losers are almost too slick for the former black-and-white boys, and many of Raimi’s quick cuts and fancy angles hinder the comedians’ improv talents. Still, he was a big-name director, and the project was as close to stardom as they’d been. But bad luck caught up to Travesty soon enough, and in the middle of production, Universal Pictures courted Raimi with a multipicture deal. The director was obligated to take his name off the project, and The Losers died. Before Raimi left, it had begun to look as if Travesty was rising from an early grave, but afterward, even the group’s funhouse spirit was gone.
Hans cues another clip and, big surprise, all hell is breaking loose: Sexy girls are being chased by devil worshipers, asylum escapees are being chased by the living dead, and the cause of this melee is—what else?—a bunch of guys drinking caseloads of beer.
“Editing was always by committee,” Welsh, now the president of a software firm, laughs, shaking his head and watching the chaos explode on the screen.
“Yeah, and the committee was usually drunk. The alcohol budget was always more than the film budget,” Nuttycombe adds, the look on his face equal parts melancholy and thirst. “It was brilliance by accident.”
The three men continue to watch their former selves screw around, and you can’t help feeling a little sorry for them (even though Travesty now boasts two doctors, two attorneys, and a Washington Post photographer among its alumni). Too close to stardom too many times. All those lingering “what ifs?” An abundance of bad luck. And hell, probably too much beer. Somewhere in that mess of good times and inspired filmmaking silently sits the truth: Travesty and the Langley Punks were funny enough to take a city, but too damn disorganized to sweep a nation.
Hans brings up another clip. More mania. More laughing. More beer.
West, his thick brown hair turned gray, nods his head. “Yes,” he says, “it certainly was a different world, wasn’t it?”
Travesty Films: From Here to Obscurity will screen June 10 & 11 at 7:15 and 9:00 at the Biograph.