Rebelling is an adolescent rite of passage to adulthood. But 30 years after his own coming of age, my dad was still giving authority the finger. A teenager myself, I faced an existential crisis: How could I rebel against the ultimate nonconformist?
My dad, Lloyd Kaufman, is an irreverent filmmaker. He founded Troma Entertainment, a production studio known for low-budget, controversial and campy titles like ”Tromeo and Juliet,” ”Surf Nazis Must Die” and ”The Toxic Avenger.” Subversive themes run through Dad’s movies. He uses violence, bad words and naked breasts to shock an audience into paying attention to his message.
I grew up at the collision of two worlds: New York’s ritzy Upper East Side and the counterculture Tromaville misfit universe. I spent my summers acting in Dad’s gory films. On a daily basis, arms were ripped off and blood rushed out like an open hydrant, intestines were pulled from a stomach like a long string of sausage, or a cantaloupe wearing a wig exploded, creating the effect of his signature “full head crushing.”
Then, come September, I tried to blend in at my super-strict all-girls school. I imagined that there was a big glamorous club of investment bankers and all the other parents were in it. The Moms & Dads Club wore tailored suits and waved goodbye to their daughters from the backseat of chauffeured cars idling in front of our school. My dad was a low-budget filmmaker who made R-rated films I wasn’t allowed to watch. He wore a sweatsuit and humiliatingly walked me all the way into the lobby.
Dad got a rise out of any opportunity to diverge from convention and standing out at my school was low-hanging fruit. One typical fall morning, he waltzed into my school wearing a mask of “The Toxic Avenger,” a superhero he created. “Toxie,” as we called him around the house, was a 98-pound weakling who fell into a vat of toxic waste and transmogrified into a pollution-fighting superhero.
The fact that my peers cheered my father on infuriated me.
Unlike my dad, I wanted to fit in. Most kids hated uniforms. I embraced ours. In my navy skirt, I was indiscernible from my classmates. But then every time Dad did something outrageous, like dance around in a superhero costume, I very clearly became the odd one out.
The weirder Dad got, the more obsessed I became with being normal. An arms race blossomed.
Dad made outsider B-movies. I exclusively watched big-budget romantic comedies. When Dad posted rants on his blog against “devil-worshipping corporate conglomerates” I applied for summer internships at S&P 100 companies.
In college, I fell in love with writing. My adviser encouraged me to apply for a Master of Fine Arts. But I was sure nothing would ruffle my dad’s feathers more than my pursuing a mainstream career. So I went to work on the commodities derivatives desk at an international investment bank.
I embraced the corporate world in all its mundane glory. Dressing up in a boxy suit each morning was exhilarating. I had joined the prestigious Moms & Dads Club, and I was sure it would drive my father nuts.
But Dad wasn’t shaken in the least.
“Good for you,” he congratulated me over the phone one morning. I could picture Dad calling me from his cheap Buffalo motel room. He was undoubtedly wearing a polo shirt tucked into hiked-up explorer-style khaki shorts with a zillion pockets. There was probably a 2-liter bottle of diet orange soda on the bedside table next to last night’s leftovers ― a meatless hotdog and a rolled-up bag of nacho chips.
“You’ll make some money for yourself,” Dad continued, “It’s the only way to be independent and have a little freedom in life.”
I stewed. Dad was the poster child for refusing to work for “The Man.” He was supposed to be shocked by my stable income, not proud. I was even profiting from the very same pollutants that his fictional “Toxic Avenger” fought against.
I wasn’t passionate about pricing oil options, or forecasting natural gas futures. But I brushed these concerns aside every time that my weekly paycheck auto-deposited into my bank account. Still, in the back of my head, I wondered, was my rebellion worth it?
Then Dad asked if I could come to Buffalo to act in ”Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead.” His latest movie was a play on the film ”Poltergeist.” Only ”Poultrygeist” was about zombie chickens. The film was a political satire sex-comedy. And, it was a musical.
“Fine,” I conceded. “I’ll come. But I’m not wearing a weird Troma costume.” Dad had loved to disturb the peace in my world by dressing me up as his characters. I’d give him a taste of his own medicine. I’d show up looking like a totally normal person.
Two weeks later, I rolled up to Dad’s movie, defiant in pearls and a sweater set. As usual, Dad was unfazed. He handed me a bucket of fried chicken and placed me on camera next to bikini-clad women and feather-sprouting mutants.
My scene involved fast-food patrons transforming into zombies by way of projectile vomit. On “Action!” everyone began throwing up. I was literally up to my knees in puke in a run-down McDonald’s, shielding myself from a powerful stream of fake vomit.
Between takes, the crew shared a cigarette. I eyed their tattoos, colorful hair and ripped tights held together by safety pins. It was painfully clear to everyone that I didn’t fit in with this artsy group of aspiring filmmakers. No wonder no one offered me a drag.
I had thought that flaunting my preppy mainstream side would make an anti-establishment statement against my father. But in reality, I simply felt lonely.
And It wasn’t just my outfit that set me apart. I lacked the authenticity to pursue the creative profession of my dreams, and they could sniff me out a mile away. Each member of Dad’s crew had a fiery determination. One had sold his car in order to spend the summer working for peanuts. Another had hitchhiked from Colorado. Everyone was sleeping on a basement floor. All for the love of Troma.
Back on the trading desk later that week, I watched Joey, the junior gas trader, line up jumbo buckets of fried chicken. Today he would become a man if he could eat 100 Chicken McNuggets in five minutes.
Human gorging is a coming-of-age ritual on any trading floor. Novelty food was the most popular: three pints of Ben & Jerry’s; a Boar’s Head turkey breast purchased whole from the sandwich store downstairs; the giant phallic sausage from the holiday gift basket.
Crumbs, food, ketchup and spittle dripped down Joey’s shirt. He shoved chicken into his mouth, egged on by a chorus of traders chanting: “Ninety-seven! Ninety-eight! Ninety-nine!”
Joey froze. The trading floor fell silent. He spewed a perfect arc over the top of the computers. At least that’s how I remember it happening.
What I saw on the trading floor that afternoon wasn’t so different from Dad’s ”Poultrygeist” set. I had thought a mainstream job in finance would be the antidote to my dad’s monster mania. But it turned out, the corporate world I aspired to was just as disgusting as the B-movie films I had been rebelling against.
What’s more, I realized that I didn’t belong in the corporate world any more than I had fit into the “Poultrygeist” set. On the trading desk, I was just another extra dressed up in wardrobe, hair and makeup, playing the role of a commodities dealer.
Mutiny had enabled me to step out from Dad’s shadow. However, I had been so fixated on being different from him, that I hadn’t given myself space to explore who I was. The next step would be figuring out what I actually wanted to do with my life.
When I eventually left my job on Wall Street, it was to pursue a career in the arts.
I called my dad to tell him I’d landed a production assistant job on a big-budget Hollywood show.
“I guess I’m going to follow your footsteps after all,” I offered Dad my version of a peace offering. “I’m going to become a filmmaker.”
“Are you nuts?” Dad was beside himself. “You’ve worked your whole life to achieve a terrific career on Wall Street. Why would you leave?”
I had been operating overtime, literally, to shock Dad with my mainstream job. Turns out all I had needed to do to get a reaction out of him, was pursue a career in film.
A week later, I began a production assistant job at the very bottom of the Hollywood food chain. I left my suits, my paychecks and my own assistant, for the opportunity to make coffee and Xeroxes for someone else. But at last, I was being true to my own self.
I may not share my dad’s passion for blood and guts, but I am a creative after all, and that’s OK. As they say, you can take the girl out of Tromaville, but you will never take Tromaville out of the girl.