"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“Uncle Morty’s Dub Shack,” which just finished its first season on the ImaginAsian cable network, is the “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ of bad Asian films, and like its predecessor with the then-unknown Comedy Central, it could help put the obscure iaTV on the map. The conceit of the show is that four loser friends — Trevor, Aladdin, Jimbo and John — earn a little extra cash dubbing martial arts, action and Bollywood films into English at the Dub Shack, run by an old crank named Morty. Uncle Morty doesn’t have the translated scripts, so the friends turn the movie scenes into sketch comedy. For those of us who didn’t warm to MST3K, “Uncle Morty’s” is easier to love, because it’s only half an hour long (the films are significantly, and mercifully, edited down), and the writers create believable alternate narratives for the flicks instead of merely smirking at them.
For example, in “Blowback 2,” a 1991 Japanese action film, a wannabe vigilante completely botches his revenge fantasy. The dubbers play the scene for laughs but keep the story going:
“So your plan didn’t go so well, huh?” the vigilante’s girlfriend says.
“No, it didn’t.”
“Well, maybe you should think of a different strategy, or something like –”
“No, I think I just need a bigger gun. A bigger gun, a partner, and really cool-looking dress suits. Yeah, that should do it.”
And then the film cuts to the protagonist with a new partner, both of them wearing white suits. (The bigger gun makes its appearance in the last scene.)
But what surprised me was the consistent hilariousness of the between-dubbing skits, where Trevor, Aladdin, Jimbo and John step away from their roles as behind-the-scenes voices and become silly, B-movie-worthy characters themselves. The friends stave off global financial collapse by accidentally inventing a hug-based currency, join a cult with ties to the oil industry, and, one time, accidentally turn into women (it’s a long story). In the cliffhanger first-season finale, the four losers try to get jobs at a rival recording studio, but the required drug test poses an obstacle — because of Trevor’s addiction to Reddi-wip.
ImaginAsian starts rerunning shows from the first season on Friday, Oct. 14, at 11 p.m., and on Halloween, iaTV will feature a marathon of four favorite first-season episodes starting at 9 p.m. The second season will start in February. (Watch the clips on the iaTV Web site, and you’ll see why it’s worth the space on your TiVo.) Salon spoke by e-mail with the Dub Shack’s Jimbo Matison, who does double duty as the creative director at iaTV, and Trevor Moore, who also writes and produces for the show, both of whom live in New York.
How did you two get to do “Uncle Morty’s Dub Shack”?
Jimbo: We don’t have a lot of money to produce original content; it’s not that we’re cheap, we just don’t have it. I noticed we had a great deal of B kung fu and Bollywood movies, some we just couldn’t air. I had made a pilot for a show a couple years earlier, when I lived in San Francisco, that was similar to the “Shack,” where I stripped the sound out and added my own stuff. I showed it to the other guys at the network and we decided we could make a funny show for cheap. Trevor and I came up with the whole Dub Shack scenario and we ran with it. Really, the great thing about ImaginAsian is that we are small, and an idea like this gets the “OK” much quicker than at regular networks.
Why couldn’t you air those old kung fu and Bollywood movies? Were there copyright issues?
Jimbo: No copyright issues, they just lacked quality. They stank on the shelf. There were a couple that were so bad, we couldn’t even goof on them. We have some Japanese B action films that are just wrong. Truly painful to watch.
What differentiates a film that you can’t even goof on from a film that you can chop down to a goofable 20 minutes?
Jimbo: I think it’s the actors. In some of the movies the writing might not be the best but the actors are great character actors, so their performances are really big and exaggerated. They’re like cartoons without the proper voices. We give them the servicing they’ve been needing. [Laughs] But some movies, oh, the acting is so bad and the plots are so thin, there’s just not much to work with. In “Blow Back 2,” we really didn’t change the plot much. The big running scheme was, the main guy just wanted a bigger gun to beat the bad guy. “Blow Back 2″ was pretty hard to goof on, but we like that one for what it is.
Trevor: I like the films that have a lot of scenes with just two or three characters having a conversation, because then you can just throw whatever words you want into their mouths and completely twist the story’s plotline. The films that are tricky are the ones with a lot of action and not a lot of dialogue. There’s a difference between “bad/funny movies” and “bad/bad movies.” We’ve had to scrap movies a week before our deadline because we didn’t realize it was a “bad/bad movie” until we were halfway done writing it.
Is it easier to write funny commentary for Chinese kung fu/action movies or Bollywood musicals?
Trevor: I think they each have their advantages. The kung fu films tend to have these great, expressive, comic-relief characters that are just so easy to write jokes and come up with voices for. And the Bollywood films have all of those musical numbers that you can write songs for.
Jimbo: I love writing new songs for the Bollywood musicals. It’s great to watch with the sound off and think, “What are they just not singing about?” and then have them sing about it. With the kung fu films it’s fun to figure out the most absurd reasons for them to fight each other. It’s also dang fun to throw on the goofiest sound effects when they hit each other. Usually it starts with lots of fart sound effects, just to get it out of our system, and then on to better sound effects like foghorns that sound like really big farts. We’ve really been aching to get our teeth into some bad anime. I think we’re getting some for the next season. Oh, it’s gonna be so nice.
In addition to rewriting Bollywood songs, you’ll even put songs in martial arts movies where there originally weren’t any. And the original conceit for the show has the four friends as members of some sort of band. Have you written or performed music before?
Jimbo: Oh yeah, I’ve been in a ton of punk bands since way back when. I’ve also been a director for a long time — commercials, animation, etc. — and I’ve always written my own music for whatever I’m doing. It’s a lot more fun that way. We love the music aspects. It lets us jump up and down in the office. We have guitars and basses and amps and drums and when we get the disco ball rollin’ it gets bananas.
Trevor: I used to do a sketch comedy show on a couple of PAX TV stations and we would write and perform little songs every show for that, but I’ve never been able to really play anything. I rap some but that’s it. Jimbo does all the instrumental stuff.
Jimbo: I will say Trevor is not so much a musician but is great at writing rhymes. Dude’s got hella flow.
Why do you think your sketch comedy works when so much other television sketch comedy sucks?
Jimbo: I think our sketch comedy works because we dare to be dumb. I love writing the stupidest thing I can think of. It’s like a contest I have with myself. That’s not to say I try to write something unintelligent, though. I don’t enjoy unintelligence. The cast is easy to write for, too. I can write jokes and scenarios for Aladdin, John, Trev and Morty with my eyes closed. Everybody is funny in their own right, too. Just Aladdin standing next to Trevor is funny. They are so opposite — we really are all so different it’s kooky. I think Trevor and me writing together is a good combination. I tend to write the absurd stuff while Trev writes the darker side. But when we’re done with a script there are scenes where we honestly don’t know who wrote what joke.
You say other TV sketch comedy sucks. That makes me think, “There’s got to be something good out there.” I can’t think of any, though. I think the best writing on TV now is in animation. “South Park,” “The Simpsons.”
Trevor: I think we sort of bask in stupidity. We are sort of proud when we’ve written something incredibly stupid and juvenile, but then every now and then we’ll throw in a point or social comment and that just gives the show a very weird feel. It’s intentionally stupid and I think that just appeals to some people.
Jimbo: We do think very hard about the writing. We’re ruthless with each other, too. If I’ve written something bad, Trev will hand it back with the words “useless waste of time” on it. Equally, I will write “bag of shit” on his work.
Oh! I know what works for us: dares. We dare each other to do the most stupid stuff on TV. Aladdin dared me to put him in a dress for an episode and that’s why I made him not turn into a girl. [In an episode where an animated fairy turns the other main characters into women, the spell simply turns Aladdin into a cross-dresser.] He loved the idea of it. That was until we actually had to go buy him a dress. That’s when reality set in. The saleswoman at the dress shop was very pretty and Aladdin wanted to make a move. I picked out dresses I knew Aladdin would look just outrageous in. I had to yell at Aladdin to get him to come out of the dressing room to show the nice lady, who just giggled into her hand. She asked if Aladdin was my boyfriend. I knew he was listening inside the dressing room. I immediately shook my head no and told her “Yes!” Aladdin howled. Needless to say he didn’t get a date.
You said that, in your pilot, the show was just you dubbing over the movies. Why did you and Trevor add the other characters and the whole back story with the Shack?
Jimbo: We added the characters because I didn’t think just watching the shows dubbed would hold an audience. MST3K had Joel, Mike and the robots to break it all up. I also thought it would be better to have a face connected to the voice that’s goofing on the film. I think it helps the senses to make it funnier. Whoa, deep. Also, I just wanted to be on the show. [Laughs] It’s true! What a dork. Yeah, I’m a big-ass hambone.
Trevor: We wanted to set up a little more of these characters’ world so that we’d have more stuff to play with. And we’ve changed a lot of it from the beginning of the season! Originally we were going to the same bar in every show and checking in with the goons who torment Morty at the end of each episode, but as we got a couple episodes in, we decided not to limit ourselves with “segments” that we had to do each show. So now the characters leave the studio more, they turn into girls, the world blows up — it’s become kind of like a live-action cartoon show. And I’m sure the show will change and evolve in the next season, we’re just doing whatever interests us at the time and seeing where it takes us.
I really wanted to do an episode about Aladdin being stuck in a bathroom stall next to Katie Couric while she is having really painful diarrhea and she’s crying and making deals with God and telling Aladdin all of her secrets, like it’s her deathbed or something — then later she tries to hunt Aladdin down and kill him so that her secrets will be safe. So, who knows what the next batch of shows will be like.
Do you think it’s odd that two white guys are the ones writing it, when you’re making fun of Asian movies on the ImaginAsian channel?
Jimbo: I actually don’t think it’s odd that we’re making fun of Asian movies. To me, that’s America. One second generation Latvian [Jimbo], a Taiwanese Canadian [John was born and raised in Ontario], a third-generation Irish guy [Trevor] and one Bengali [Aladdin] goof on bad movies from Asia. What a great mix! That’s America.
I actually don’t like the term “white guys.” I’m proud of my Latvian blood. Latvians are nuts! If you go to France and then Ireland you won’t come back thinking they have the same culture. Same as if you went to Japan and India. Big difference. Maybe that viewpoint is also from my growing up in San Francisco in the ’60s and ’70s. I love everybody, baby. Don’t get me wrong, though; I do use the term “white guys,” but I use it for predictable consumers who lack culture. [Laughs]
I think we respect the films, too. We would never want to goof on a film that was a classic and endeared by the country of origin. We also don’t come from the viewpoint of, “Hey, let’s make fun of Asian people!” That would be screwed. For instance, we never use outrageous Asian accents on our characters. That would just be lame, predictable and insulting. We do, however, use outrageous French accents and such, because it’s just absurd and silly. The French have a right to be offended at our show! We consciously don’t use stereotypes as humor, because to us it’s just not funny. Our viewpoint is, “Hey! Let’s have some fun with these old B films!”
I’m not that good at talking about my own writing. I don’t have much of an ego with all of this. I just want to make some funny TV that no one has ever seen before. I don’t really like TV, and I want to make it a better place.
This story has been corrected since it was originally published.
Sumana Harihareswara lives in San Francisco and maintains Cogito, Ergo Sumana.More Sumana Harihareswara.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)