Deep in the woods of Minnesota lives a dedicated… I mean, crazy group of creative types who have spent the last few years creating Transylvania TV, a web-only horror sitcom that has gathered quite the local and international fanbase thanks to some savvy marketing, funny writing and inspired showmanship.
Set deep within the mountains of Transylvania, TVTV follows a bored, old vampire named LeShoc who decides to get with the modern world by starting his own TV station. To that end he hires a yeti named Furry J. Ackermonster to intern alongside handyman/cameraman Dwight Frankenstein and the station manager, Batfink who is, yes, a bat. The resulting show combines the puppetry and irreverence of The Muppet Show with the absurdity of Monty Python.
TVTV co-creator Gordon Smuder has plans for TVTV, including a 60-minute Halloween special to be broadcast on local TV this fall. We caught up with Smuder towards the end of the TVTV’s pledge drive to raise money for the special.
LeShoc gets his Nosferatu on
Gordon, what was the inspiration behind Transylvania Television?
Actually, I can’t tell the true story. My wife has forbidden me for (I thought) strictly (it up) public-relations (in the bathroom) reasons. But about four years ago, I finished up helping a friend out with an independent sci-fi film called Planetfall. After that was over, he was visiting my place and saw these puppets I had built and asked if I’d ever thought about doing anything on video or film with them. Of course I had!
So we started working on a scenario for a show. Originally we had thought to make it a “horror host” type thing… do wraps for old public domain movies. But we played hell trying to figure out the whys and wherefores of getting decent broadcast quality public domain films, so in the end we decided that it’d just be easier (and more fun) to do our own show.
We then started working on half-hour scripts with a group of very good volunteer writers. Of course, we eventually shot the pilot episode at 30 minutes, but without a sponsor or a way to keep money coming in for production, we decided to move to the internet (which is free to distribute on) and scale back on the episodes to make them web-friendly (3 to 5 minutes each).
Furry J. Ackermonster’s name is, of course, a tribute to the late Forest Ackerman of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. To what extent does horror history inspire TVTV?
There’s a lot of pseudo-hidden stuff in the show. Homage things. We try to slide stuff in for the savvy viewer. Most obviously, our vampire, LeShoc, has more in common with Max Schreck’s Nosferatu than Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. That was a conscious decision to try to keep people from confusing him with other puppet vampires like Count Von Count or Count Blah.
In the pilot we had Furry going to Transylvania in a train just like the one in Coppola’s Dracula. In fact, he even fawns over a picture of Winona Ryder!
But there are other things too. We have a couple of characters coming up in Web Season Three and the TVTV One-Hour Halloween Special that have their roots deeply in horror history. One of them is our “nuclear monster” Gorzon the Cosmic Destroyer. He was heavily influenced by the creature from Robot Monster design-wise. I purposely gave him a gorilla body and a spherical domed head to mimic that low-budget sci-fi great! His character back-story is that he really is a movie monster… something constructed by a movie studio to star in a franchise of motion pictures. But the franchise failed and he was “let go.” The kicker is that he actually believes he is an alien being… probably part of his “acting method”!
The other character is the bodacious Kim-Ho-Tep… Princess of Denial. (Get it? See what I did there? Princess of “the Nile”? “De-nial”? That’s the kind of stuff we think is funny). Obviously she’s a mummy character. Her name is homage to the great Universal Mummy (Im-Ho-Tep). But she’s also packin’ a little 1970s Pam Grier action too. It’s that kind of hip nostalgic callback stuff we really enjoy doing.
What’s your own background as a horror movie fan?
Honestly? I’m a total neo. I personally don’t get scared at horror movies about supernatural stuff. I just don’t believe in it. So, while fantasy supernatural movies are fun to watch for me on a technical or story level, I just don’t get the “scare thrill” like some folks do. On the other hand, horror films about guys like Hannibal Lecter… Those creep me out. I think what real people do to other people is far more scary than any imaginary monster.
In terms of the show’s sitcom status, what other situation comedies inspire your team?
Of course, all of us grew up on The Muppet Show. There’s no denying that it influences everything we do.
But strictly from a comedy standpoint, we try to emulate shows we really enjoy. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was the emperor of non-sequitur humour and absurd humour. I’d like us to be able to generate the kind of quality comedy I see on shows like Two And A Half Men and Big Bang Theory. They both take on “adult” material but couch it in euphemistic terminology and make it even funnier by doing so. They talk about stuff on those two shows that nobody should be able to get away with on TV, but because they do it in a very intelligent and sly way, nothing they say can be construed as offensive. I like that a lot.
Early on we realized that people reacted well to puppets swearing. They laughed but only until the shock wore off. Then it was kinda boring. We tried it in a couple of sketches and it worked, but not for long. So I’ve given a new dictate to the writers: If a puppet needs to swear, try to think of a better way to do it. Get euphemistic in its ass and come up with something that’s not only a funny replacement for a swear word, but something that’s just funny to hear all on its own.
Furry gets contemplative
Tell us about the TVTV fundraising drive you have going on and the Halloween special the money is going towards. And where can people donate?
We have less than 12 days left! If you’d like to donate to our fundraising drive to help us produce the Transylvania Television True Meanin’ Of Halloween Special, you can go to http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/transylvaniatv/transylvania-television-halloween-special and make a pledge to our fund drive via credit card. You even get free stuff! Everybody gets their name in the credits of the special, but for as little as ten bucks, you can get buttons, DVDs and T-shirts and cool stuff like do-it-yourself TVTV Shrinky Dinks! There are many pledge levels. And anybody who pledges at the highest level ($340.00) will receive a personalized video greeting from the characters of TVTV! Could be an anniversary greeting, or birthday or bar mitzvah, or whatever. (No commercials for your business, though… we charge different rates for that!)
This money will help us with many different pieces of the production. First, it’ll help to feed our all-volunteer crew. That’s right. Nobody is getting paid on TVTV. Not even me. And I own it!
Second, it’ll help us keep our studio space through the shooting of the special. Third, it’s gonna buy us our airtime on the local CW affiliate in October … even at 11 pm on a Friday, airtime ain’t cheap! And fourth, it’s gonna help us build new sets, make some new puppets, refurbish the old cast, and buy some quality headset microphones just like the Muppets use!
TVTV started on the internet, and I understand that the Halloween special will be broadcast on television. Is there inherently more “legitimacy” to broadcasting TVTV on, um, TV? And what kind of restrictions will you face, given that TVTV, as you warn, is not for kids?
As I mentioned, we’ve really started moving in a “broadcast smart” direction with our scripts. Our material isn’t developing an edge as an “in your face” comedy, but it is developing an edge of its own: a little sly, a little satirical and most definitely smart. And if I have my way, our comedy will be “for grown-ups” only because kids won’t get the humour until they’ve lived life a little more.
Yes, there’s a level of legitimacy to having your product on broadcast TV but mostly because of the exclusivity of it. I was really not interested in putting TVTV on the ‘net in the beginning. But that is a prejudice I have quickly gotten over. The internet has been an incredible tool for introducing TVTV to people. I’m not going to say it’s the “future of all entertainment,” but it certainly has its place as an equal part of the entertainment medium pantheon. Frankly, in the end, I see us utilizing both television and internet distribution. Why not?
What are your ambitions for the show and what can we expect from TVTV in the future?
The funny thing is that my wife is very understanding about this whole “mid-life-crisis-with-puppets” I’m having. The other day she said to me, “I don’t really care if TVTV is a huge success… as long as, one of these days, some convention flies us in as guests! That’s all I ask!”
Go to www.transylvania-tv.com for more info.