Being cooped up during a pandemic can make you do crazy things. Things like sort through your old storage unit boxes to find the last extant analog copy of an embarrassing old radio show you did 25 years ago, and then digitizing it and uploading to the Internet. Because, reasons. Also because the Internet.
Radio Theatre For the Masses was… a… thing. That happened. It was aired on the University of Richmond’s college radio station WDCE, but in retrospect I can’t remember if someone at WDCE actually asked us to do it or if we just did it and put it on the radio because we could. Possibly just because the on-air booth was never locked and the DJs were frequently absent on smoke breaks. That latter scenario would not surprise me in any way.
I don’t even remember what year we did this. 1994, maybe? 1995? Many of the UR Theatre folks at the time were involved so I can only assume that some form of intimidation or blackmail was employed. I could tell that Robert Zehner was involved when I listened to it again because he had a Macintosh Quadra AV that was the only personal computer that could do actual digital sound editing. I was absurdly jealous because I had a black and white Mac Classic II that had virtual coughing fits trying to run the “Flying Toasters” screensaver from After Dark.
I think it was part of the plan Paul Caputo and I had to somehow get rich and famous by saturating the marginal media outlets of Richmond, Virginia with comedy and somehow assuming that talent bookers for Saturday Night Live were searching the hinterlands like minor league baseball scouts. They were not.
I… I don’t remember why we did this. If you’re reading this, I can only assume that you were sent a link or you have been terribly rickrolled by someone. If you listen to it and recognize your voice, I’m sorry to have involved you. If you listen to this and were not involved, then 1.) I’m sorry you had to listen to it and 2.) I’m still sorry in general. I do still think that “Bryn MacMuffin” and exploding cats were funny, though.
Click below to listen or scroll down for more information about the guilty parties responsible:
This started out as a Central Bucks West high school student project, although I can’t remember for which class. My friends and I had done a video project for our AP English class, a retelling of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult updated to modern West Virginia. I still don’t remember why that was something that I actually got class credit for in an actual functioning secondary school. It was predictably awful but it merely whetted our appetite to be bad in a more original and ambitious way.
Neil Binkley, Luke Irwin and I started the project in the fall of 1990 and haphazardly recruited assorted friends as actors and extras. Armed with a box of props largely scavenged from Neil’s farmhouse and a budget that encompassed buying 8mm videotape and frequent trips to the Montgomeryville PA Taco Bell, we set out to create an original horror/comedy film.
The title and the titular villain came from a wonderfully atmospheric song on Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy album. The plot, insofar as it can be said to have one, came from my lingering fascination with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The railroad track was a stretch of the SEPTA line between New Britain and Doylestown.
Our actors were chosen based on who was available for filming after school on the particular days we needed someone to get killed, redshirt-style, on camera. Sets were the houses of whichever parents were most willing at the time to tolerate us. The presence of a shower scene was both a conscious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and a shamefully gratuitous abuse of our friend Libby’s willingness to stand in a shower wearing a bikini and be filmed getting killed. Our special effects were high on ingenuity value and essentially nonexistent on production value (pumpkins do not make effective head stand-ins and Heinz’s ketchup is not convincing blood). I got a hat that says “Ernie’s Liquor Barn” from a thrift shop (I still have it) and today I’m amazed that we were able to legally purchase chewing tobacco as 17-year-olds back then.
I think that Luke, Neil and I had collectively gone by the name “Hippy Industries” before this, but the name “Fearsome Symbolism Productions” came out of Man In the Long Black Coat, based on our inserting phallic imagery wherever possible on the theory that it would incite the feminist repudiation of Freudian theory espoused by one of our teachers. (It seemed to make sense at the time.) FSP would go on to be our collective nom du film for the next few years, and I still have a registered business license in that name in case I ever figure out what to do with it. I imagine that a line of FSP merchandise on Etsy is probably the next big project for me.
Our schedule left us time to basically shoot at each location once, and we learned painfully in retrospect how important proper lighting is (We had none, proper or otherwise, so some already washed out scenes were largely rendered invisible.) The “Richard Cranium” who shows up often in the credits was how clever 17-year-olds try to sneak the words “dick head” into the credits of a school project and I’m not sure how that didn’t get edited out when this eventually made its way onto local access cable TV.
It was shot and edited on Neil’s 8mm video camera, so back in that analog world every generation of edits lost some quality. (Not that there was a lot of quality to begin with.) Later this version was transferred to 3/4″ tape for broadcast and a few additional edits, and recorded on VHS. From there I eventually transferred it to interlaced Standard Definition digital video, so alas it won’t be being re-released in a 4K director’s cut UltraHD BluRay anytime soon. YouTube won’t let me show it because of all the copyrighted music we used, so excuse the MP4 video file hosted on my server if it’s slow to load.
All things considered, our first bona fide Fearsome Symbolism Productions effort was a lot of fun, even with all the cringe-worthy elements in retrospect. And if you have half as much fun watching it as we had making it, then we’ve had twice as much fun as you.
Click the image below (or the link below it) to watch:
Fearsome Symbolism Productions Presents was our second FSP show and represents an escalation of cringe worthiness that has not aged gracefully on nearly every front. It starts with the violent armed takeover of the local community access TV station studio by white domestic terrorists to a soundtrack of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” and I think that’s probably the high point of the whole thing.
FSP Presents was our first show done specifically for broadcast on local access cable rather than for school. As a courtesy to our millennial viewers I should explain that local access television was how crazy people distributed videos before YouTube, except that it could only be seen by insomniacs and chemically impaired people tuned to a specific unpopular TV channel late at night.
FSP Presents ended up as a grab bag of topical comedy sketches, TV parodies and three musical numbers thrown in for good measure. Oh, and we even ripped off the David Letterman “Top 10 list” format, too. The quality of content was not measurably improved from The Man In the Long Black Coat, but at least it was all the hell over the place. Yay?
Luke Irwin had moved mostly behind the camera, and Brian Kehs and Doug Klumpp stepped in. Neil Binkley and I carried the bulk of the on-camera embarrassment, although this time around we reached further afield for cast members and included actual grown-ups. We expanded our locations from half a dozen to “wherever in the Doylestown PA area there was not someone in the background messing up the shot,” including an actual Chinese restaurant and a comic book store.
The band “Chromatic Aberration and the Hippies” was a group of friends who were willing to record in front of Neil’s barn in exchange for, I believe, snacks. And yes, the version of “Proud Mary” that runs over the end credits does in fact hold the record out of the more than 1,500 recorded versions of that song as “pitchiest.”
Having Suburban Cable’s 3/4″ video cameras to shoot with and their community access studio for editing meant that the technical quality of the product at least was significantly improved over Long Black Coat. We had to stretch out our ending credits to cover the aforementioned “Proud Mary” rendition so we availed ourselves of the text editor to keep churning out credits to fill up the time. That, for example, is why you find a food & beverage credit for Sung Ik Song, a kindly old Korean grocer in Germantown who only sold malt liquor and thought we were Temple students so he never checked our IDs.
To be fair to ourselves, at the time it was still funny to be suburban white kids obsessed with Public Enemy and wanting to co-opt rap culture and have a whole segment pay off with a joke about an angry Chinese director named Spike Li. I swear that back then it really was actually mostly kind of okay! Or at least it seemed like a good idea at the time. And I got to strap fireworks to the back of a cardboard cutout cat and set it off, which is sort of a life highlight, so there’s that.
Citizen Payne was FSP’s ultimate creation in both a chronological and qualitative sense, as well as in a “oh God I can’t believe we did that on camera please don’t let this get on to Twitter” sense. It was also, hands down, the most fun I have ever had being not very funny with my friends.
Summer 1992 was, for most of my friends and I, our first summer “home” after freshman year of college, and most of us knew that it was likely to be our last time together as a group before we gradually went our separate ways for good. With that added poignancy and urgency to spend our remaining time together in a meaningful way, we then proceeded to dick around and waste most of the summer.
Because the FSP crew were film nerds, we all had greater or lesser fascinations with Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. As a result, we planned to use the summer to make our own epic – and storyboarded an absurdly ambitious plot that touched on Kane, Superman, Saturday Night Fever, Charlie’s Angels and everything in between. Had we actually finished it all, it would have easily run an hour long.
Neil Binkley’s house became the locus of our scattered filming efforts that took place whenever we could coordinate our schedules (in and around our summer jobs), but progress was never adequate to meet our ambitious storyline. By late July it had become clear we would never finish it in time before the end of summer. I went home one night determined to salvage the project and holed up in my parents’ basement with a six-pack of Mountain Dew and my trusty Sears typewriter.
N.B. to our younger readers: a typewriter was like a computer running a very, very old version of Google Docs that had no screen, only one font, required applying viscous fluids to delete words once typed, and couldn’t copy, paste, add images, markup text, change layout, use emojis, save versions, reply, forward or retweet. It basically represented the midpoint in human communications capabilities between cave paintings and WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS.
N.N.B. to our younger readers: DOS was ostensibly an operating system for computers in the sense that it would let you play very blocky pirated versions of SimCity if you entered the proper commands. Sears was like Amazon if Amazon sent you a 400-page book three times a year to order from; also you could drive there and be bored while your mom shopped for clothes. WordPerfect was neither a word, nor perfect; discuss.
At any rate, I emerged with a revised script where we would basically make the show an extended promo for the real Citizen Payne, showing off the bits of the original story we had filmed and adding some new “behind the scenes” features, combined with a few clips from older FSP productions, in order to flesh out our requisite 30 minute slot. We even went so far as to make a trailer for Citizen Payne that ran on Suburban cable that summer – a teaser for a show which was itself a teaser for a longer, nonexistent show. Such meta. So wow.
Click the image or the link below to view the trailer for Citizen Payne:
Just as before, our cast was made up of our friends who would work for tacos, and our prop budget was severely impacted by the overhead costs of malt liquor acquisition. The looking-at-it-30-years-later cringe factor has reached apocalyptic levels, especially due to our taking full (figurative) advantage of our attractive female friends who were willing to run around in bikinis on camera.
Some of the skits are pretty broad parody of common tropes popular in TV or movies at the time. Other parts of it make almost no sense if you aren’t familiar with Citizen Kane or the parodied source material, but pop culture solipsism is a time-honored tradition for teenagers. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a big influence of mine at the time and a lot of the self-referential humor is cribbed from there.
We once again had the run of the Suburban Cable community access video equipment for filming and editing. The closing credits sequence took a disproportionately long time but it was assembled from clips of all the FSP films (including the “lost” Tristan and Iseult) and plenty of outtakes so it functions as a three-minute FSP “greatest hits” themed to the Beastie Boys. The version I put online is a digital transfer from a VHS copy that was recorded direct from the 3/4″ tape deck, so today you’re able to view it in something approximating the interlaced 30 fps Standard Definition glory that it once appeared in to residents of Southeast Pennsylvania (and later Richmond Virginia).
All in all, Citizen Payne was a wonderful experience and a great way to ride off into the sunset for Fearsome Symbolism Productions. By finally making it available online, I hope to introduce a whole new generation of people from all over the world to not care about it or watch it, and probably live happier, more fulfilling lives as a result.
Click the image or link below to watch Citizen Payne:
In the summer of 1996, Paul Caputo and I decided to use our runaway lack of success at The Richmond State to conquer the next rung up the ladder of comedy fame: local access television.
As a courtesy to our millennial viewers I should explain that local access television was how crazy people distributed videos before YouTube, except that it could only be seen by insomniacs and chemically impaired people tuned to a specific unpopular TV channel late at night.
We rounded up our friends Branden Waugh and Julie Amos to co-star, and somehow ended up with a collection of hyper-topical comedy skits that have aged very poorly and a musical number that somehow came out even worse. I am still pretty proud of the opening credits song, however. We assigned Branden to be the salesperson who would enlist local sponsors and I don’t remember how that all turned out except that it somehow involved “Myrna’s Bits ‘n’ Boots” and we only lasted one episode.