Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986, Richard W. Haines & Lloyd Kaufman)

For the supplementary interview with actor Robert Prichard
about the making of Class of Nuke 'Em High,

A friend of mine in New York City interned at Troma once. I was
talking to him then about how great The Toxic Avenger was and how Troma would never do anything that great again. He suggested that their immediate follow-up Class of Nuke 'Em High was probably just as good and mentioned it was actually his favorite. I saw Nuke 'Em High shortly thereafter and my enjoyment was fettered by the obviousness of Troma's attempt to create another Toxic Avenger: before the opening credits we see three distinctive cast members returning from Toxic in supporting roles, and a nerd's encounter with toxic waste leads him to dive out a window.

Seeing Nuke 'Em High now, I can understand my friend's preference. What this first post-Toxic Avenger Troma movie lacks in avant-garde shock value that was so abundant in Toxic, it makes up for in being a much better made film overall. Nuke 'Em High was made faster and cheaper but with the surefooted conviction that the filmmakers were onto something good - there's a sense of confidence and assuredness in the silliness that's disarmingly charming.

Class of Nuke 'Em High is not the most unique Troma movie ever made, but it may well be the best effort to synthesize the company's most appealing qualities as an exploitation film studio of the 1980s. Whereas The Toxic Avenger swung wildly between elements of sex, violence and comedy to jostle the audience's expectations, Nuke 'Em High juggles sex, violence and comedy in a way that's much more eager to entertain and please. I can actually imagine a hardcore fan of Toxic watching Nuke 'Em and feeling like Troma had already sold out, like a filthy punk rock band toning down their offensivene sound just enough for a deal with a major recording label. Nuke 'Em High has a lower budget and less graphic violence than its predecessor, but the energy is still going strong.

The biggest difference is the change of comic tone: the connective tissue between scenes of perverted school gangs terrorizing their classmates and special effects monster transformations is a reasonably normal teen sex comedy in which a virginal couple are urged to get it on by their wacky friends. These "normal" scenes are not only passable by genre standards, they're energetic and amusing on their own terms. The supporting Tromaville High Schoolers aren't secretly deranged like the health club bullies of Toxic, they're providing some normal-movie familiarity to contrast against the weirdness. The occasional normality is reinforced by the soundtrack, which is straightforward teenage butt-rock the way Toxic's soundtrack was comprised of cheerful pop tunes - except this time the contrast isn't ironic.

You get everything in this generous movie. The best possible momentum to continue from Toxic Avenger was combining such seemingly incongruous exploitation film gimmicks into one big gimmick and that's exactly what Nuke 'Em does. Later Troma films would instead attempt to ratchet up the weirdness of every detail, but Nuke 'Em simply mashes two or three kinds of genre film together and starts sculpting. The incongruity is briefly acknowledged and thereby smoothed out in a deft dialogue exchange following the opening credits. This exchange establishes the rules of the film and gets me excited for what's about to transpire in a way few other films ever have:

"How do you explain all the weird things going on around here since the (nuclear) plant opened? Remember Mrs. Brooks losing all her hair and breaking out in those scuzzy looking sores overnight?"

"She looked better that way!"

"Oh c'mon guys, look, I mean Chrissy has a point. A lot of people around here have been acting nuts!"

There's no radiation around here! We're too far away from the power plant. At least a quarter of a mile. Besides, even if there was a little radiation around here...who gives a shit?"

At this point, unlike Toxic, you do know what you're getting into as a viewer. The film's dialogue has a snappy patter in its ridiculousness, and with four credited screenwriters it's easy to imagine them seated around a table throwing one-liners back and forth at each other. Haines (who conceived the story), Kaufman, and former Troma sexploitation comedy writer Stuart Strutin adds to the general air of freewheeling humor. There's a lack of hipness involved when adults write dialogue for high schoolers that only makes it funnier; they're free to be complete morons. Fat, wacky supporting character Eddie (James Nugent Vernon) gets most of the best stupid "teenager" lines, like the rejoinder "Gross, huh? You should've seen the girl I picked up in the video arcade Saturday! SHE was gross. What a hairy ASS!" Lines like that prove that Kaufman and crew still had the gonzo magic in them from the days of raunchy comedies at summer camps Troma was making just a few years earlier.

Despite the trashiness of their friends, Warren (Gil Brenton) and Chrissy (Janelle Brady) are so perfectly cast as the archetypal young All-American pure hearted high school sweethearts that you can't help liking their bland wholesomeness. They're like Archie Andrews and Betty Cooper to everyone else's Jughead, before eventually having to take on Mad Max.

All this giddy goofiness seeps out from the normal bounds of high school comedy and into Nuke 'Em High's feature attraction, the punk gang of drug dealers (whom we're told were all honor roll students until the radiation hit) known as The Cretins. Led by former Toxic health club bully Robert Prichard as "Spike," The Cretins are a really singular creation in the history of movie punks and juvenile delinquents that will never be equalled. Last year the monumental reference tome Destroy All Movies!!: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film was published, and one of the most pertinent observations from editors Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly was how punks would invariably be portrayed as either depraved criminals or total clowns. In Nuke 'Em High, they're both! Nuke 'Em was made right when a new kind of acceptance and / or indifference towards the whole "punk thing" was metastasizing into mass culture.

The cartoonish fashion choices of The Cretins were reportedly inspired by an exaggerated "punk" themed Asian fashion spread and are somewhat the distorted summation of punk's first run through pop culture's collective imagination. One Cretin of obvious Japanese design influence and bearer of the most elaborate makeup is Gonzo (Brad Dunker) who wears full blackface makeup, a giant nose ring and a mouthguard as buck teeth. Black people are such an oddity over there that blackface is a fashion statement called Ganguro. Troma was lucky to make this movie when they could still contrast this high fashion against the preppie 80s tastes of satin baseball jackets and tight fitting Levis, and we're lucky they made the film while Troma was still willing to cast normal looking extras.

These are the punk delinquents of a commercial culture in which no subculture is too scary to be eventually packaged, sold and defanged. The Cretins' dialogue is as rife with humor as the "normal" students. One early joke involves a Cretin's love of MTV: the fact no self-respecting punk would watch MTV (The Dead Kennedys sang "MTV Get Off The Air" in 1985) is an inadvertent insight to the fact that this formerly underground idea had entered the homogenization process. Admittedly there is one female Cretin who wears a Hitler mustache and combover - and while that look's not going to worm into the mainstream, it does reference the historical reality that British punks would wear Nazi regalia to frighten their elders. Nuke 'Em High's version of this Nazi-chic shock value actually lampoons the very idea itself of ignorant punks appropriating Hitler.

More importantly than their clothes, the gang's existential absurdity disconnects them from allusions to real life danger in some scenes before gradually escalating to the pantomime psychotic crime of Toxic Avenger. As high schoolers they don't kill anyone at school and most of their violence is of brutal yet bloodless Three Stooges variety. Unlike Toxic the extreme violence is much less mean spirited overall while retaining shock value more judiciously.

The costume design of The Cretins is essentially the most "punk" thing about them: they don't listen to music, their vernacular revolves around a cartoon version of drug pushing (selling radioactive marijuana, they excitedly call it an "Atomic High") and their appearance on the film's poster suggests a futuristic post-apocalypse setting more than anything resembling a real high school. Incidentally, according to Kaufman the sales for Nuke 'Em High were great because people kept stealing the tapes from their local VHS hut and store owners kept having to buy new copies. Punk rock, dude!

Nuke 'Em High's original title was Atomic High School before Lloyd Kaufman noticed how well the international home video sales were doing for Class of 1984 (1982). Mark Lester's story of a punk gang selling drugs at high school is an exploitation classic in it's own right, while actually taking seriously the premise of dangerous white suburban punks in our schools. Led by baby faced Vincent Van Patten, the gang of 1984 are utterly amoral, perverted and psychotic, reflecting the fearful view of punk rock kids initially taken by the American middle class. "I am the future!" shrieks Van Patten, and we in the audience are meant to feel a chill at the nihilistic narcissism that fuels these thrill-crazy youths.

Three or four years later, the bad kids at Tromaville High School are doing the exact same things and it's all a big joke. What a difference a few years of Beastie Boys videos and comparably elaborate heavy metal fashion in heavy rotation on MTV can make. Nuke 'Em High explodes about ten years' worth of societal paranoia about punks - and any self-importance still possessed by punks who like to scare old ladies - in a moment that blows a raspberry on Class of 1984. Temporarily detained for brawling in the bathroom with Warren, The Cretins mock their authority figures with an admonition directly into the camera: "We're the youth of today" says one, with deadpan Van Pattenesque menace.

Dangerous youth exploitation movies go back farther than the punk scene, at least as far as Blackboard Jungle (1955) and any drive-in feature in which beatniks on motorcycles would terrorize mom and pop storekeepers while hepped up on goofballs: I'm gonna carve up some losers with my switch-blade, daddy-o!  Prefiguring Troma's eventual melding of ultra violence and sneering untamed youth, America's original "splatter movie" director Herschel Gordon Lewis actually made a youth-exploitation film called Just For The Hell Of It (1968) in which crazy teens run around committing senseless acts of hilarious cruelty like pushing old ladies into open manholes.

One of the sadder aspects in the death of exploitation cinema has been the loss of a safety valve for such cultural fears.  During the heights of America's societal conflicts, exploitation filmmakers latched onto lightning rods of controversy in films like The Black Klansman or Wild in the Streets knowing that Hollywood wouldn't touch them. Later, after the grindhouses and drive-ins closed and after a decade (the 90s) of mainstreaming punk ethos into the lucrative brands of "grunge" and angry whiteboy posturing, two genuinely dissatisfied suburban teenage psychos put on black trenchcoats and shot up their school. All of society's cultural arbiters (MTV especially) fell over themselves to assume blame and promise less violence in the media. From that day on, violence in schools doesn't exist as far as the mainstream is concerned. Retroactively, Class of Nuke 'Em High is less politically correct today than when it was made.

While The Cretins never go on a school massacre per se, there's a cavalier attitude towards school violence in the film that would take a lot more courage today. As Principal Westly (Donald O'Toole, one of Mayor Belgoody's cronies in Toxic Avenger) is being held hostage, a staffer walks in and a mohawked Cretins' only response before shooting her is "Hey! Didn't anybody ever tell you to knock before entering a room?" It's like Larry Fine was a third shooter at Columbine.

Besides the colorful (literally) characters and dialogue, what makes Nuke 'Em High stand out among Troma's finest work is the rapid-fire editing of co-director Richard W. Haines. The curious part of Haines and Lloyd Kaufman's co-directing credit is that Haines apparently only directed the film's exciting ending before Kaufman stepped in and took over for reasons unknown. His sole directed sequence has Warren rescue Chrissy from The Cretins' leader Spike in the school basement, where they are all summarily chased by a humongous monster spawned from accumulated nuclear waste. 

This is a real monster too, not just a buff burn victim like the "Monster Hero" of The Toxic Avenger. In order to make a ten foot slime mutant plausible onscreen, Haines has to cut around it from every angle nearly every second and does so brilliantly. In any other movie this would be annoying, in Nuke 'Em High it's a necessity which kicks the story's momentum into overdrive: after all the teenage hijinks and punk brawling, a monster on the loose is the one twist which could top everything. The creature rampages through the school and kills The Cretins before exploding and taking the school with him, all while never being seen completely from head to toe.

Haines' machine-gun editing makes the head-rippings work out in your mind just like the subliminal shower stabbings in Psycho, and the same goes for all the fighting or action scenes - it's incredible what he does with only a few angles and closeups. The Cretins' first major scene in which they carouse down the hallways of Tromaville High School to collect drug money from a hapless nerd is nothing less than a ballet of violence - the punks sucker punch innocent bystanders, smooch unsuspecting girls, flank Spike and set out a general air of intimidation all around them. As Spike approaches said nerd, Haines shows just enough of him walking towards the camera to turn him into a force of nature like the slime monster.

The slime monster's amazing origin is Nuke 'Em High's most subversive element in terms of leaving the audience's comfort zone like The Toxic Avenger did so frequently. This sophomore effort is more intent on being fast and fun but nonetheless takes a little time to get under your skin. After Warren and Chrissy unwittingly smoke some toxic marijuana which their friends bought from The Cretins, they become aroused and finally consummate their virginal relationship. Soon afterwards they begin experiencing other, less desirable side effects: hideous mutations like Warren becoming a super-strong vigilante and attacking some Cretins (like the nerd diving out the window, this is somewhat familiar) and in Chrissy's case, an instant mutant pregnancy. The image of her stomach ballooning out with a green tentacle writhing from her belly button is on par with any David Cronenberg "body horror" special effect, and several of his films like The Brood and The Fly involve fears of deformed pregnancies.

The monster is Warren and Chrissy's love child, something the characters never really acknowledge or are forced to come to grips with - it's not an intelligent being, it's an inhuman drooling beast to flee from. Despite removing the emotions, the story of Nuke 'Em does in it's own exploitative way include the problem of children with nuclear deformities - a real world horror from Hiroshima to Chernobyl. The birth of this creature from Chrissy's body surpasses even the gross-out body contamination anxieties of Toxic Avenger wherein Melvin the nerd lost all his hair and skin after taking a toxic bath: not feeling well during cheerleading practice ("Gimme an 'O' !" "OOOohhhh...") Chrissy runs to a bathroom stall and proceeds to puke up her mutant fetus into the toilet bowl, where it screeches at her. A couple scenes later another student finds it, freaks out and flushes it down the tubes to the high school's basement where it can rapidly grow into a man-eater just in time for the final act.

This ungodly mix of teenage pregnancy drama and monster movie hits all the right buttons. Who hasn't heard the one about the high schooler who didn't know she was pregnant and miscarried in the little girls' room? Who hasn't been warned about casual drug use and sex leading to an unwanted pregnancy for a young couple? There's only one clue that all this moral subtext about peer pressure was deliberate: when Chrissy's stomach balloons up the night she and Warren have sex, her friend's words echo in her head: "You can't get pregnant the first time...pregnant the first time...pregnant the first time..."

You'd think that amidst all the non-stop fun, any marginal social commentary would be directed more at the nuclear power industry than teenage promiscuity or drug use. There's a little at the beginning - the corrupt mayor from Toxic, Pat Ryan Jr, returns in a small part as the director of the nuclear plant which causes all the trouble - but I'm a lot harder pressed to say that Class of Nuke 'Em High is a statement against nuclear power. Nuclear power is the reason such awesome stuff keeps happening! Nuke 'Em High really doesn't really give a shit about anything in a way that even Toxic can't claim, because Toxic took the time between gory deaths and dumb jokes to include nonessential scenes where corporate, bureaucratic and labor elites conspired against the common man. The students of Tromaville High School are definitely little people falling victim to the runoff of industrialism, but it's just not as serious. Toxic's opening narration solemnly declares pollution "the unavoidable byproduct of today's society." A quick gag during Nuke 'Em High's opening credits sequence shows Eddie being slapped when a leaky basement pipe spews green slime on his girlfriend's stomach, causing a humorous misunderstanding.

Lloyd Kaufman's environmentalist and political leanings may have simply taken the back seat to Richard Haines' brilliant idea for a movie and the gags of the other writers. His credentials as a bleeding heart are bonafide: for years every Troma VHS played Kaufman's short film "The Radiation March" before the main feature, which is basically an interpretative dance number where children in leotards keel over from the deadly harm of pollution. The one-two punch of Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High put Kaufman in the odd position of having nuclear power be synonymous with his company's brand. I think that's why Troma's next "in-house" original production was Troma's War (1988) - a "war movie" with Kaufman's politics up front and center as little people band together against the dreaded elites. By the time Toxic Avenger Part II came out in 1989, two edicts seem to have been lad down as far as the Troma brand: 1) The conflicts will be drawn along explicitly anti-corporate morality plays, and 2) The "Troma style" is to make everything aspect of the film as ridiculous as possible. By the time Nuke 'Em High 2 came out in 1991 the heroic Warren-figure is played by a professional wrestler and the average female student is wearing a bikini. What a loss. At least the original Nuke 'Em High wrote an indoor beach party into the storyline to justify a flesh parade.

Class of Nuke 'Em High is an absolute classic. As a "Troma film" this was the most all-around satisfying work the company ever made: sexy, stupid, smart, funny, gory, exciting - and while it won't boggle your brain the way The Toxic Avenger's relentless bad taste does, it's as expertly assembled as anything the company ever did before or since. The concept of a zany high school where anything can happen because of nuclear waste's movie-magical properties was a match made in heaven for Troma's blossoming irreverent style. The performances from punks and squares alike are impassioned and the sure hand of Haines in the editing room razor blade never lets any scene limp or lag. The lightning-quick editing also compensates for budgetary restraints around the action scenes better than any low-budget film I've ever seen. At the end of the independent exploitation film era, Troma unwittingly gave the finest sendoff tribute to youth-exploitation films of all kinds that trash fans could ask for.

An Interview With Robert Prichard, Part 2: Nuke 'Em High and Surf Reality

In part two of this two-part interview, actor Robert Prichard recalls the making of Class of Nuke 'Em High and the birth of his video and theater company, Surf Reality. 

Part one of the interview may be read here.

You can visit Robert's website at Surf Reality.com


When did you first hear about Troma's next movie, "Class of Nuke 'Em High"?

I think Rich Haines started talking to me about Nuke 'Em High while we were still doing Toxic Avenger. Toxic was over by the time I got the script, but during Toxic he mentioned to me that he had something he had me in mind for, on more than one occasion. So I was sort of expecting it. It seemed like I went right into it very soon. He showed me the script, and I thought, "Oh, great!" In a way I thought it was funnier than Toxic. I liked the whole Mad Max meets juvenile delinquents story, sort of Mad Max goes to high school, I thought that was fun. It seemed like it was in the same over-the-top universe.

"Oh, say can you see...."

Lloyd Kaufman wrote in one of his books that he felt the need to replace Richard Haines as director, do you know why?

I honestly don't know why Richard was replaced as director, because it didn't seem to be problematic to me the way he was directing scenes. And it didn't seem like a big improvement once Lloyd was directing them. If anything it was more of a rush job. I think they started taking the movie away from him even before he shot the first scene. I don't know, but that was how it felt to me. They were asking him to push harder and faster than he wanted to.

Which of your scenes were directed by Haines, and which by Kaufman?

We shot the stuff in the basement first and that was with Haines. And to me that actually is the stuff that looks the best! The stuff with the girl, the monster, my big pistol and my death scene. To me that was the stuff that looked like a real horror movie! (Laughs) We were just all over-the-top, screaming and yelling and having a lot of fun. Oh yeah, and being really sleazy with each other!

After school activities: with Janelle Brady as Chrissy

I don't think that looked any worse than any other scenes. I guess some of the stuff in the high school is kind of cool. Bullying the kids, the montage where we're trashing the classes - some of that stuff is classic Troma and that was Kaufman.

How was the production of Nuke 'Em different from Toxic Avenger?

They actually had less of a budget for Nuke 'Em High, so there was less coverage and less time to do it. Fewer takes, fewer locations. There were no car chases. What they were paying the actors - this time nobody got anything. The one big location we had that was anywhere comparable to the health club in Toxic Avenger was the high school and I think they got that for next to nothing.

At an inexpensive junkyard location:
"He looked just like...Warren Brandt!"

Brad Dunker, the kid with the nose ring, was actually not an actor - he was someone in their special effects and makeup department and they brought him in because he could ride a motorcycle, so they had him do all the motorcycle riding scenes. And for no money! I think he lived in a house they used and the special effects were done in the closet and he had a mattress or something. (Laughs)

Playing off of a monster puppet was harder than what I did in Toxic. What was easier was that I didn't have to be strangled in a car or anything like that, and most of what we did was interior, too. We'd shoot days and nights. They also had a lot of fun with matte photography; the big nuclear power plant in the background. They created a lot of atmosphere with that. You have to give credit to Richard for a lot of that stuff.

Acting opposite a puppet, under direction from Richard Haines

Were there a lot of changes between the script and finished film?

Originally we weren't going to be that wild with the makeup, we were just going to be like leather punks. And then I think Lloyd saw something from somewhere, Japan maybe, and he decided we should have this crazy look. It wasn't Richard's idea to change the costumes, they sort of superimposed that on him. And that happened shortly after we were cast. I was actually cast without having to audition, but was used as part of the audition process to bring in other actors. Some of the actors dropped out when they found out they had to do something, they'd get cast ad then say "I'm not going to play that!" and they'd quit.

Bad kids: reunited with Gary "Bozo" Schneider

Was there time for rehearsals with The Cretins gang?   

Very little. I didn't really have a partner like with Gary and Cindy and Jennifer in Toxic. I constantly had different Cretins in every scene and there wasn't one I could play off, there was always a different one. It would've been easier and better for me if I'd had a sidekick.

Heather McMahan, who was going to play lead and be my sidekick "Taru," got into a serious car accident right after we shot her first scene. She's still got that scene in the movie. It was basically going to be me and her, so that's what made it difficult, losing her at the top of the film.

What are you saying in German to Jennifer Babtist in her cameo as the German teacher?

I think I said, "You have the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen." We improvised more in Toxic, but that scene was written in because they found out I speak German. We brainstormed on how to get Jennifer into the movie because there was very little sex in Nuke 'Em High after "Taru" was written out - they brought in Jennifer for some sex appeal. It might have been Michael Herz and me brainstorming about that. I remember coming home to Jennifer saying "Hey, you want to be in the movie?"

Wanna be a Cretin? With Jennifer Babtist as Ms. Stein

How did "Thrill Kill Video Club" come about? It's impossible to find, but it was written up in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.

We also got a review in Playboy, actually. How that started out is, one of my best friends from his school is Matt Mitler. And he's a theater director, he's got a brilliant theater group based out of Brooklyn called Dzieci, and they're basically improv actors that do really wonderful soulful work in hospitals and orphanages and for non-traditional audiences. They just do amazing stuff, they're like holy clowns.

Back in the late 80s, he had this idea when video cameras were first coming out to the public: What if we got some talented improv actors together, wrote out a storyline, and picked five or six locations within a five block radius and then we shot in-sequence the outline with the improv actors improvising the actual dialogue, and we'd go from location to location so that in one day, we would have a finished movie, in camera? And all we'd have to do was rudimentary editing 'cause it was already done in order and there'd only be a couple takes, and at the end of the day we'd have this movie. And what if we sort-of spoofed movie genres with this improvisational approach?

Matt Mitler in the 1986 slasher "The Mutilator"

He called it "Movie of the Month." And the first one we did was called "Kid Scarface." And it was basically a teenage version of Scarface. It was comedic actors and writers from the scene back in those days. Todd Alcott was in one of them, he wrote Antz. And Frank Senger, who's in The Professional, the Luc Besson movie. Frank's the one guy at the beginning of the movie who doesn't die. Frank's a brilliant actor and he was one of our actors. Camryn Manheim from The Practice did some of our stuff.

So there was "Movie of the Month," and Thrill Kill Video Club was one of those, Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die was another one. Les Enfants Miserable was another one. We did a bunch. Todd Alcott and Frank Senger were both in Thrill Kill, actually.

Was Jennifer Babtist in "Thrill Kill Video Club"?
No, but she wrote and directed one that we did called Alien Sex Phone Psycho. Which was people calling into a sex phone line and then sort of masturbating themselves to death, because they can't hang up the phone. Sort of a precursor to Infinite Jest, that book by David Foster Wallace, about a guy who makes a movie that's so funny people can't stop watching it and they finally die. You dial up a sex line and then the aliens take over your mind and you hypersex yourself to death.

We did these as something to develop some skills, have some fun, give our actor friends something to do. "Surf Reality" was sort of born out of that, because I was the camera man on a lot of them in addition to being the producer. Jennifer asked me one day, "Well what's it like shooting these improvisations on video?" And I said "It's like surfing reality!" And then we stopped and looked at each other and I said, "'Surf Reality.' That's our name." And so from then on we released them under the title of "Surf Reality Presents a Movie of the Month."

"Thrill Kill Video Club" and "Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die" seem to be the only ones to have found their way into video stores. Were there any others?

A few of the others were featured at Kim's Video here in New York City, but now that they don't do VHS I'm sure they're long lost and gone. We mastered most of them on 3/4 inch tape and I think they're in my storage unit somewhere, I don't know for sure. (Laughs) We sold a handful to people through the mail because we were mentioned in Playboy. We got reviewed in Psychotronic, Film Threat and by Joe Bob Briggs. I also sent a copy of Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die to Rev. Ivan Stang of the Church of the SubGenius, the "Bob" guy, and he loved it. He ordained me as a minister in the Church of the SubGenius so I can put "Reverend" in front of my name if I want to.

I think Dick and Jane is our best one, that one is actually very watchable. Thrill Kill Video Club is okay, but if you can find one, find Dick and Jane. I produced it, my friend Jeff Eyres wrote it, and it was just brilliant. Jennifer's in it and she's pregnant!

"Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die" written up in
The Psychotronic Video Guide

What did Surf Reality become after "Movie of the Month"?

From doing all these videos, people started asking me to shoot their gigs. I'd be going to comedy clubs and little theaters in the Lower East Side to shoot their one act plays, or their improv group or their stand-up act or story reading. I was getting more and more gigs and it started turning into a business. Then we found this loft on the Lower East Side before rents went crazy and we had enough space to live in and have a small stage. Jennifer and I figured, "Well why follow people around with this camera, why not let people come get the whole package from us here?" So we set it up with a nice light and sound package and basically marketed the space to artists to come workshop their material and get a good tape out of it.

And it ran for ten years! A lot of really talented people came through our doors, people who are stars now were on my stage at one point or another. Ben Stiller showed up one day and was interviewed by a towel puppet on our stage. I got busted by his mom Anne Meara, she came the wrong night and was knocking at my loft while I was frying a steak and smoking a joint and then all of a sudden there's Ann Meara at the door! (Laughs) I'm thinking "Great, now I'm busted by everybody's mom."

A lot of great people came through, we also produced our own shows, we did variety nights and brought back a form of Vaudeville that the Lower East Side was actually sort-of famous for inventing back in the day. We sort of brought it back into the late 20th Century, we said that Surf Reality was "Vaudeville for the New Millenium." We also called it "Surf Reality's House of Urban Savages." We featured a lot of comedy, but nontraditional, we didn't do a lot of standup. It was comedy duos, and improv acts, strange comedic storytelling, musical comedy. Upright Citizens Brigade, the very first show they did in New York was at Surf Reality, and Amy Poehler was still part of the troupe at that time, well before she was a big star on Saturday Night Live. Jim Gaffigan used to produce a show at my place every Friday night at 10, and he went on to be in That 70s Show and other shows as well.

Why did you choose to produce avante-garde and experimental theater?

Well for one thing, there's 12 or 15 standup comedy clubs in the five burroughs of New York, easy. So there's plenty of places to go to see that, no reason for us to be presenting that. I was working with my video camera with improv people who had to be fast on their feet, make something happen, who could be real and funny or real and tragic at the same time, and they for the most part weren't stand-up comics. They were doing other things, other interests. And I felt these were my people, so I wanted to open a place that would feature them, and one-person shows that were fully fleshed out, that took you on a rollercoaster between comedy and tragedy and personal reveals of psychic trauma and stuff, where at the end you feel like "Damn, I'm glad I spent that last 75 minutes watching that! That was great!"

Basically, I opened the place for the people I'd been working with. They happened to be really talented people, and happened to not be all that traditional. We got in a lot of traditional people afterwards, and there were a lot of standup comics who came through but, I wouldn't book them in the shows that I produced. They would rent the space. But when I did shows like "Serious Pratfalls" or "The Witching Hour" or "The 101st Congress of Unnatural Acts," they weren't part of that. It was my freaks that were in those shows. A lot of them are actually still doing what they were doing 20 years ago in underground theaters, not in Manhattan anymore because those theaters are gone, but now they're in Brooklyn. Which is where I am now.

Robert in 2000, photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The Village Voice

What are your current projects and where can people learn more about them?

There's SurfReality.com, which features the most recent thing I worked on: "64," which are these paintings that my girlfriend did. She took photos from the New York Times and put them on a canvas and painted on them as a form of collage. And she did 64 of these 16-by-20 inch paintings. Last Summer she was a resident at Djerassi, which is an Artist's Colony in California. There was a playwright there who actually used to come to Surf Reality, he was artist-in-residence of another theater called "Here" in New York City, and saw these paintings and he wrote 64 one-page plays for each painting. We workshopped 35 of them last month at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. I turned some of the scripts into songs, some of them I gave to a video animator and she did some great animation, others were done as straight-up acting theater pieces. There's also an onstage soundscape artist throwing in sounds like a mixmaster throughout the whole thing as well. So it's kind of a vaudeville variety show.

We're going to do all 64 of them at the RE/Mixed Media Festival in October 2011, and then from there we're hoping to do the New York City Fringe Festival next year. 

Thanks again so much for this interview.

My pleasure. It's kind of fun to talk about this stuff. A long time ago now, right? (Laughs)

"Time to diiiiieeeee!"