SAN DIEGO — In 1966, during the pre-staging phase of his film career, Woody Allen took a cheap Japanese action film and made over its sound track with some very clever, very irrelevant and very funny dialogue of his own and called the movie "What's Up Tiger Lily?"
Two decades later, the L.A. Connection comedy troupe has turned the technique into an art form.
With new dialogue and sound effects added by the group, "Attack of the 50-foot Woman," a classic piece of cinema art in its own right, becomes the story of a very, very large American athlete out to do battle in the Olympics with a 50-foot-tall Russian athlete, described as "a bald Mr. Clean, Hare Krishna-type."
Tonight, the group will take over the Ken Cinema for a presentation of "Cyrano de Bergerac," beginning at 8:30 p.m. The new Cyrano, says L.A. Connection founder Kent Skov, is just "a guy with a big nose who can't get a job."
Cyrano does get a job at a doughnut shop, but he becomes frustrated when he thinks they want to use his nose to make holes in the doughnuts. He gets a job as crossing guard, "because he looks good in orange." He even starts a dating service, but Cyrano, who always seems to die in the play and the movie, doesn't fare much better in this version, either.
This silliness has become a lucrative venture for the comedy group, now known as the unofficial kings of movie dubbing. They have their own television show, "Mad Movies," which airs on the Nickelodeon cable channel. They recently completed a video for Orion Home Video, "Crocodile Gandhi," and signed a five-picture deal with Pinnacle Pictures to produce movies for theatrical release.
The group also has a verbal agreement to do a segment for Eddie Murphy's pilot for NBC, Skov said.
The improvisation group "can make a living" from dubbing movies, something they can't always do from improvisation, said Skov, who owns the L.A. Connection improvisation theaters in Sherman Oaks and Westwood.
"It got us into the unions and brought us to the forefront of a lot of households we couldn't get in before."
Skov's background is in radio. Using his arsenal of voices and impersonations, he worked in San Francisco in the '70s with Norman Davis at KSAN-FM, a popular hard
rock station. He worked a variety of comedy gigs in Los Angeles before forming the L.A. Connection troupe in 1977. A year later, Skov and his improvisation group took over a theater in Hollywood, which eventually led Skov to open his own club in Sherman Oaks a few years later. The Hollywood theater was closed in 1982, but Skov opened an "L.A. Connection West" in Westwood in 1987.
During the early '80s, Skov's group occasionally played around with dubbing movies at the clubs, but Terry Thoren, who worked for the Landmark Theaters chain, is given credit for bringing the idea of movie dubbing to Skov. They did a version of "Attack of the 50-foot Woman" at Landmark's Nuart Theater in Los Angeles in 1982.
It was not a new concept, but L.A. Connection took the idea to new extremes, precisely lip-syncing the movies with wild, yet semi-plausible story lines.
"Anybody can just write jokes," Skov said. "To write jokes, lip-synch and give some semblance of a story line--and keep the audience's attention--is the real trick. The novelty of the humor wears off after 10 or 15 minutes."
The movie dubbing became more than a silly lark for Skov and Co. when it became a regular feature, "Flick of the Night," on Alan Thicke's ill-fated late-night talk show, "Thicke of the Night."
"Flick of the Night" led to "Mad Movies." A parlor game had turned into a consistent gig for the comedy troupe.
"I never dreamed I'd be doing this," Skov said.
L.A. Connection does live shows two or three times a month, usually at one of the several Landmark theaters in California. Four or five members of the group sit in the front row of the theater, facing the screen, along with a sound man and keyboard player.
They tailor each show to the audience, dropping in the names of local people, places and events.
"It definitely makes for something unusual," said Landmark Theaters president Gary Meyer. "On TV, the gags can run dry. But live there is an interaction with the audience. They get more and more into it."
Skov maintains a group 18 to 20 actors who have been trained to do movie dubbing. It's not as easy as it looks, he said. The primary challenge is the lip-syncing, the art of making the new dialogue look like it might actually be coming out of the mouths of the original actors.
"If you say potato and it looks like the guy is actually saying potato, the audience will laugh," Skov said.
The story lines also become a creative enterprise for Skov and his compatriots. They are not satisfied with simply mimicking the movies.
"When the audience begins to forget what the original movie was about, when they get to that level, we know we've succeeded," Skov said.
The L.A. Connection is scheduled to return to the Ken on Aug. 12 to present a version of the "The Blob."