Kaufman knows his enemy. He started as an assistant to director John G. Avildsen (Joe), and worked on major-studio features such as Rocky and Saturday Night Fever. Despite his impeccable vulgarian credentials, he served as production manager on that highbrow '80s fetish object, Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre. But he says that the waste and blubber of big-budget shoots pushed him over the edge. He and Herz co-directed several zero-budget comedies, but it wasn't until The Toxic Avenger in 1985 that they found Troma's winning combination of T&A, splatter, and beyond-the-pale gross-out gags.
This formula is celebrated both in Kaufman's book and in Citizen Toxie, Troma's ultimate bad-taste bombardment. Set in the town of Tromaville and its parallel universe, Amortville, Citizen Toxie pits the scabby superhero against his evil twin, the Noxious Offender. Body parts fly, feces are flung, a penis monster attacks, lots of icky sex ensues, and cameos by porn mavens Ron Jeremy and Al Goldstein lend a whiff of class. Say what you will about the repulsive content: Kaufman's direction has improved vastly since the original Toxie. Nobody rips apart a roomful of Nazis with more gallons of red food dye, or stages a more poignant "Take a Mexican to Lunch Day" at a school for the developmentally disabled.
Today, Troma stays afloat thanks to overseas TV, DVD sales, and Kaufman's own multimedia barnstorming. "It's harder and harder to be an independent in this country," he says. "We're at risk, there's no question." But the company continues to distribute its own movies, as well as those by like-minded auteurs. Only Kaufman had the nerve to pick up South Park creator Trey Parker's early film Cannibal! The Musical (August 23, 27, and 28), which marks the historic intersection of Troma and the late experimental-film titan Stan Brakhage (who has a cameo).
To support other up-and-comers, Kaufman and Troma are sponsoring their own version of Lars von Trier's back-to-basics DV movement, Dogme 95. Theirs is called Dogpile 95. "Dogme 95 has a 'vow of chastity,'" Kaufman explains. "We have a 'bow-wow-vow' of 'fast-and-shitty.'" The first Dogpile movie, Tales from the Crapper, is already underway. (The finished film will contain songs by Rochester, Minnesota-based band the F*#k Ups, who'll play a gig in Kaufman's honor on Saturday at St. Anthony Main.) Still, Kaufman predicts that his company will continue celebrating its 30th-anniversary year with tried-and-true elements that carry the familiar aroma du Troma. Indeed, with zombie chickens and a period piece entitled Schlock and Schlockability: The Revenge of Jane Austen on the way, who needs an Oscar?
"There has never been a movie studio that lasted 30 years without a hit," says Kaufman proudly. "That tradition will continue unblemished for as long as I'm president of this institution."