HUMOR | MEMOIRS
Zero Gravity Productions
I am not a regular consumer of user-generated content, so I was tickled to learn of the latest trend on TikTok: sea shanties. When I first heard about it on NPR, I was immediately transported back to my youth. Neurons crackled to life and sent me not to my college sailing trip in the North Atlantic, nor to my earliest memories of my mother’s Clancy Brothers albums, but rather to a bizarre scene in between.
Four young men are crowded into a Honda Civic with the windows rolled down. I serve as the chanty man, singing a line, and the rest of the “crew” responds with the following line. But instead of hoisting a sail, we are rolling up the windows.
Me: We’re a bunch of stupid sailors!
Crew: ‘Hoy, laddies! [crank]
Me: We don’t know our left from right!
Crew: Kick’em in the rear! [crank]
Me: When we eat we’re always sloppy!
Crew: Hey, maties! [crank]
Me: We are such a gruesome sight!
Crew: Guzzle down a beer! [crank]
Let me explain.
It was 1985, my senior year of high school. My AP English class was tackling heady works, such as Billy Budd, Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, and The Stranger. Our teacher, Mrs. Romano — not her real name — was leading us on intellectual journeys into Christ-figure imagery, historical metaphor, and underlying symbolism.
In the midst of this setting of highbrow class discussion was a small collection of science students straight out of central casting. This was my posse. We took classes together, ate lunch together, argued politics together, and planned our future academic success. We were, to put it plainly, a big bunch of nerds.
One day, my friend Daniel — also not his real name — shared with us a skit he had written titled Billy Budd Lite. It was a clever parody of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, making fun of the many, many digressions in the storyline. In the script, Billy Budd Lite is accused by Master-at-Arms Kegger of introducing digressions into the plot. Billy kills Kegger by kicking him in the groin. Captain Beer is forced to execute Billy by the law of the sea, but at the last moment, the true villain is revealed to be Herman Melville himself.
My friend Matt got excited and started blocking out the script, scene by scene, convinced that we could turn it into a tangible video production. Matt and Daniel hunkered for days, planning locations, tweaking lines, and finally convincing the rest of us that we were going to be stars.
Mind you, few of us, Matt and Daniel included, had any real talent for acting, directing, or videography. Our technical equipment was a rented camcorder from the local Blockbuster, a Commodore-64 home computer, and a makeshift video editor comprising two VCRs hooked together. But Matt and Daniel were determined. They snookered our friend and classmate Tom into joining the cast so we would have someone with acting bonafides, and we added Patrick, a junior and another member of the drama department. Patrick became our Billy Budd Lite and had the task of silently emoting throughout the entire length of Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer without cracking up.
After that, it was a matter of marshalling our resources. Matt’s father was the principal at a nearby high school, and he gave us the run of the school on Saturdays. John had access to a priest’s robe from his Catholic parish, a bit of costumery that became an essential part of all our videos. “Don’t ask how I got it,” he said. We didn’t. I brought my baritone horn from band class as well as location access to my mother’s biology lab. Sam brought his computer skills. We added music from Devo, Talking Heads, and P.D.Q. Bach.
Our first video was absolutely horrible. And hilarious. Mrs. Romano showed it to our English class, and our classmates loved it, including and especially the scene in which we appeared to run over Samuel with a Volkswagen Beetle.
Thus was Zero Gravity Productions born. Decades later, I asked Daniel what gave him the courage to turn his script into an actual movie. “I think it was watching Monty Python,” he said. “Their show was a bunch of random funny stuff that kind of hung together, so I figured how hard could it be?” In other words, none of us knew enough to be deterred.
When our English class tackled Hamlet, we were beseeched to create a new video, and Daniel wrote Spamlet: Prince of New Jersey. In a long rambling speech, the ghost of Spamlet’s father explains that he was killed by his brother Santa Claudius, who placed the juice of the dreaded henbane on his finger while he slept.
Ghost: When I, my finger, into my nose, did insert, the noxious poison spread to mine entire body.
Spamlet: Gross, gross, most gross!
After that, the video got weird. Tom played Spamlet as only he could, emoting like a combination of Sir Patrick Stewart and William Shatner. I played the fair Orthodontia, declaring my madness through a song about spit glistening on the sidewalk. John played a Shakespearean scholar who comments on the scenes until he, like everyone else, is killed. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were both played by a Mr. T action figure, who is eventually dropped into a blender, turned into a smoothie, and drunk by Daniel, who is dressed in a priest’s robe.
Again, our English class loved it. We were getting high on our own celebrity.
When we read Crime and Punishment, I offered to write the script. Daniel agreed wholeheartedly, mostly because he never actually finished reading the book. My script, Crimesky Andovitch Punishmentikov, was a tale about Radio Romanosandvich Rapscalascoobydoo-nikov-nikov-nikov, who spends most of the video neurotically debating the pros and cons of every choice, coming to a final decision, and then doing the exact opposite. Over and over again.
Daniel accepted the script, but he didn’t catch all my clever references, so he added a subplot about an unrelated mystery cheese contest. Someone else wrote an additional script about a poor family celebrating Christmas without any food who end up cannibalizing a Swedish hitchhiker, who stumbles into the scene. The youngest child — me — smiles at the camera with a blood-stained face, and says, “God bless us, everyone.”
It wasn’t our most coherent production.
It did, however stand out in two important ways. First, we added our only female to the cast. Second, we convinced Noboru, a Japanese exchange student with a very poor command of English, to say, “Vhich vay to Sveden?” Classic.
We decided to raise money for our next production with a raffle. First prize was “an evening of rapture” with one of our friends, who was not in our English class. We didn’t bother to tell him he was being raffled off, and he didn’t actually find out about it until one of his friends bought a ticket and posted it at his work.
Our final video started as a spoof of The Stranger by Albert Camus, then transitioned into a completely unrelated movie called Summer Games. It was just that, a random collection of bizarre competitions. Pig calling. Harassing the vagrant. The drug trip race. A Grand Prix in which we blocked off a residential street with four cars lined side by side, put our cars in park, gunned our engines, and occasionally flicked on our turn signals. We also added a spoof of Rambo in which the friend we raffled off — playing himself — escapes from Russia. What can we say? Senioritis was hitting us hard, and we were kind of done with literature.
Eventually high school ended, and we went our separate ways — our real-life version of American Graffiti. Two of us became software developers, two ended up in the pharmaceutical industry, one became a navy chaplain, one became an open-source computer systems advocate, and one became a VP of college admissions. No one pursued careers in the performing arts.
Yet, I can’t help but feel that some part of ZGP followed us into adulthood. These are the lessons I learned from making the videos:
The arts are for everyone.
Although highly regulated forms of artistic expression (i.e. band, orchestra, choir, and drama classes) existed for the masses, only the students with true talent and courage found their way to open mic nights, stage performances, and local access television. ZGP taught me that anyone with a creative vision, a killer script, and a working knowledge of technology could be an artist.
Generation Z has grown up with social media and user-generated content. Professional-grade production tools are now within everyone’s reach, and emerging artists have nearly unlimited access to the public. The only true obstacles to fame and fortune are talent and the shifting whims of the masses. The only true obstacle to artistic expression is a lack of vision.
Talent is relative.
My friend John said, “I remember that it was during ZGP that I determined I was completely incapable of acting or performing. I had no skills whatsoever.” And yet that never stopped him from showing up, helping out, and, when absolutely pushed, getting on camera.
Talent, we discovered, came in all colors and shades. Daniel and I had a talent for writing scripts, but we were mediocre actors. Tom and Patrick had a talent for acting, but had mediocre computer skills. John and Samuel had killer computer skills, but they…well, they had killer computer skills. I could sing, throw a fake punch, and imitate my high school biology teacher. Daniel could straight-face the most bizarre dialog. Matt could mug like no-one’s business. Even Daniel’s kid brother Craig, who joined us in the last movie, had a talent for making us laugh.
YouTube star David Dobrik isn’t worth $15 million because he is the next Robin Williams. He earned his fortune by being the only David Dobrik.
There is always an audience.
Indie rockers They Might Be Giants found a targeted audience with their nerd rock. Jonathan Coulton found an even more targeted audience with his nerdier rock. I once saw Coulton open for They Might Be Giants in concert, and the house was packed.
ZGP found a very small audience of intelligent English students grappling with classical literature. Imagine what we could have done with YouTube. We might have been the darlings of literary students worldwide, all of whom would have loved our blend of sophomoric humor and intellectual critique. Our spoofs of pop songs would have gone viral. A man can dream.
Waste not, want not.
Every movie director who comes up the hard way knows the importance of parsimony and innovation. Robert Rodriguez once said, “Low budgets force you to be more creative. Sometimes, with too much money, time, and equipment, you can over-think. My way, you can use your gut instinct.”
One Sunday, while filming in a public park, we were approached by a policeman, who had received a complaint from a resident. We politely explained that we were working on homework for English class. The policeman reluctantly left and even more reluctantly let us film him driving away in his police car. This bit of footage became an impromptu sketch that I am rather embarrassed about and will only admit to under duress or excessive amounts of tequila. But the important thing is, and I can’t stress this enough, we weren’t wasteful.
Satire is harder than exposition.
My friend Tom said to me, “you can fake a book report, but you can’t fake lampooning something you don’t understand. We had an informed perspective that comes with being able to think critically and poke fun at man’s foibles.”
Imagine a world in which English teachers didn’t assign five-paragraph essays but rather encouraged students to create scathing satires of highly respected literary works. Nothing develops an appreciation for fine literature like being able to make fun of fine literature. Nothing builds comprehension, analysis, and interpretation like getting to poke someone in the metaphorical nose.
Friends are your best resources. Always.
My friend Tom again. “High school cliques can be pretty impenetrable, yet we were a nice swath of different backgrounds and perspectives. We respected each other and had creativity dripping from our well-crafted comedy. And I think that if we got the band back together, it would pick up exactly where it left off.”
He’s not kidding. I can imagine all the ZGP alums in our mid-50s, gathering together post-pandemic for a final hurrah, writing skits, goofing off, laughing hysterically, skewering political figures, debating classical literature, spoofing 80s pop songs, and loading the whole mess onto YouTube.
Except maybe this time, we’d film it on an iPhone 12.