When you think of Troma, a few famous titles come to mind. Almost immediately, thoughts of poor Melvin Junko and his date with some nuclear waste comes to mind. Indeed, The Toxic Avenger put the company on the fright night map, showing early horror geeks that terror could be splattery, slapstick, and socially aware at the same time. From the moment that movie hit, creating a massive cult following that’s resulted in sequels, spin-offs, and an entire corporate persona, Troma seemed to forget the films that actually forged their first reputation. You see, everyone’s favorite exporter of independent art didn’t start with monsters, mucus, and mayhem. Instead, Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman initially decided to follow in the footsteps of famed exploitation kings Dave Friedman and Harry Novak and mix nookie with nuttiness.
Indeed, Troma was originally known as purveyors of satiric titillation, post-modern inventors of the equally updated sex comedy. With rare exceptions, past carnal creations avoided the inclusion of jokes, the better to accommodate the self-serve needs of the 42nd Street raincoat crowd. Friedman and Novak hoped the inclusion of humor would increase their fanbase. Instead, they both wound up heading over to harder skin flick material, recognizing that X-rated pornography was more profitable. Elsewhere, drive-in diversions like The Pom Pom Girls and Caged Women took their smut peddling seriously. Kaufman and Herz were the first to marry the traditional facets of onscreen funny business with random acts of raunch. The results were a precursor to every ‘80s Hollywood hackjob, from Porky’s and H.O.T.S. to more recent examples like American Pie and Sex Drive.
It all started with Squeeze Play (1979), a battle for gender equity between a group of softball widows and their sports-obsessed husbands and boyfriends. Figuring that the best way to teach their men a lesson is to beat them at their own game, the gals get together and form their own team. Naturally, all the pratfalls and sight gags lead to an eventual squaring off, the dames vs. the dudes in a winner-take-all attempt to prove who the biological better is. With a no name cast, a lack of any real production value, and a surreal smattering of irrationally included local talent (got to love the horrid disco divas at everyone’s favorite sports bar), Kaufman and crew set the standard for the rest of the genre to come. Indeed, throughout the course of the recent Sexy Box set from the company, you can see how Troma redefined the seedy cinematic category, breathing new life into its often ludicrous designs before abandoning the wit for material far more wanton.
Indeed, Squeeze Play does something few sex comedies even attempt. It strives to craft characters we can care about (or at the very least, identify with), offers up a reasonably logical narrative, and puts everything into dramatic perspective with a last act stand-off that offers a decent amount of emotional investment. We want the ladies to whip up on their lunkheaded lovers, if only because their chauvinistic beliefs are so arch and hissable. Similarly, Kaufman champions these proto-feminists, making it very clear where his artistic allegiances lie. Sure, there’s not a lot of skin here, and the humor is very much aimed at the vaudeville/burlesque level, but Squeeze Play succeeds, both as its own unique update and a perverted roadmap for the next few films.
Waitress! (1981) takes everything Kaufman and Herz learned on Play and puts it to far better use. The material here is more outrageous, the jokes moving beyond the obvious and into the range of the esoteric and the outlandish. Indeed, this could be considered one of the first true gross out comedies, the bevy of bare naked beauties counterbalanced by a desire to dig deep into the bad taste tenets of hilarity. The story is relatively simple - a group of hash slingers, each with their own hopes and dreams, goes to work for a highfaluting NYC eatery with a myriad of issues all its own. When the daughter of the owner finds herself busing tables, it’s not long before the shiskabob hits the fan.
Of all the films in the Sexy Box set, Waitress! is definitely the most madcap. It’s like Airplane! set inside Tavern on the Green. Sure, the restaurant business material is all made up, no dining establishment able to withstand the numerous health code violations and sloppy customer service presented here. But because our heroines each have their own individual career paths - actress, reporter/writer, spoiled urban princess - Kaufman is able to expertly shift between storylines. There’s a real anything can happen feel to this film, a happy Hellsapoppin’ persistence that really amplifies the entertainment value. Again, the nudity is kept to a minimum, Troma still trying to find actresses eager to willing bare it all. All MPAA battles aside, Waitress! works better than you’d expect.
Stuck on You! (1982), however, starts to show the wear and tear of semi-success. Even with the marvelous Professor Irwin Corey on hand to guide the goofiness, the movie’s vignette-oriented approach grows old quickly. The main plot has an arguing unmarried couple suing each other for palimony. Put in front of a freak show judge, they are called into chambers and asked to explain their love life. Over the course of 90 hit or miss minutes, the duo bitch, moan, and accuse each other of everything under the sex manual sun. There’s some funny stuff here, including the frequent forays into History of the World Part 1 territory (the promotional material even acknowledges the debt to Mel Brooks). But with a couple that seems strident and strangely detached, Stuck is wildly inconsistent.
Kaufman manages to milk quite a few laughs out of male lead Mark Mikulski’s career in a chicken factory. There are lots of jokes about his half-baked inventions and several sequences (including a porn spoof) that supply pure comedic gold. But the lovely Virginia Penta is a lox, as lovable as a shrew and twice as untameable. Since she strips down to her skivvies frequently, it’s clear why she was cast. But without the period piece insanity, the entertaining looks at Adam and Eve, Columbus and Isabella, and Napoleon and Josephine, this movie would be mediocre at best. But as they will prove throughout the Sexy Box, Herz and Kaufman sense when things are going astray. They can almost always be guaranteed to salvage a sex comedy before it goes completely off track…
…Unless of course said movie is The First Turn-On! The last true flesh farce the guys ever bankrolled, this sad excuse for a laugher loses much of its luster early on. When we learn that we will be following some stupid summer campers on a forced nature hike into hilarity, we cringe at the concept. When a fat dude with hygiene issues unleashes an unhealthy blast of gas, four fake teens and an adult counselor are trapped in a cave. It’s not long before they are regaling the audience with tales of their “first time”, each one playing like a quasi-comic lift from the Penthouse Forum. After everyone bears their soul, an actual orgy takes place, our directors forgetting the funny bone they where tweking at the expense of the camp to showcase the main cast friggin’ in the riggin’.
It’s actually hard to hate The First Turn-On! , even with its decision to forgo most of what made the other three films entertaining. Some of the bits aren’t bad - the musky man moron who tries to score with a sensible prostitute, the uptight counselor’s story of parentus interuptus - but for the most part, Herz and Kaufman fall into the same trap that doomed the exploitation genre. Toward the end, when producers felt that humor was hampering the audience’s ability to “concentrate” on what mattered, the aardvarking was advanced to the detriment of everything else - production value, smart scripting, and viable performances. Indeed, we often feel that The First Turn-On! is one of those Skinemax comedies that XXX stars like Evan Stone and Nicole Sheridan pump out in between pop shots. Sadly, these updated oddities are a lot funnier and fresh than this tired take.
As with most box sets, the best material here is the added content. Kaufman steps up to speak for both himself and his usually silent partner to offer up a history of Troma’s time in the T&A biz. While they haven’t completely abandoned the sleazy and the scatological, Uncle Lloyd makes it very clear that money drove these titles…and it was their ultimate lack of commercial appeal that brought them to an end. Battles with censorship are highlighted as well as the mantra of making the female actresses attempt their nude scenes the first day of filming. Kaufman even name drops Frank Capra several times during the Stuck on You! discussion. Loaded with anecdotes that would help anyone make their own damn movie and some wonderful backstage stories about the company itself, the commentaries included as part of the Sexy Box Set function as a full disclosure on how Troma went from sex to scares as their comedic counterpart (other material includes a Q&A with Herz and some background on the backing of these particular movies).
Indeed, when The Toxic Avenger became an international smash, striking a chord with a bored and alienated fanbase desperate for something to sink their fright flick teeth into, thoughts of going back to the days of blackouts, one-liners, and sex-based slapstick were quickly forgotten. Indeed, Troma got much more traction out of incorporating said silliness into its terror titles. That’s why such latter day masterpieces as Tromeo and Juliet and Poultrygeist were loaded with nudity, nastiness, and as much lesbian naughtiness as possible. Still, as the Sexy Box illustrates, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz truly understood the adolescent mindset in all its hormonally challenged marketing potential. While films like Squeeze Play, Waitress! , Stuck on You! and The First Turn-On! rarely turn up on lists of Troma’s best, they are definitely the company’s creative calling card. Everything they are today is wrapped up in these ridiculous, raunchy marvels.