“King Turd”: John Harrison’s absurdist short film “Ubu” aired on Night Flight in July of 1984

By on August 8, 2017

Night Flight Plus is possibly the only place online where you can see some of the independent short films we originally aired on “Night Flight” back in the 1980s, including director John Harrison’s Ubu, which was adapted in 1973 from the late 19th Century absurdist play by Alfred Jarry. You’ll find it in our full episode from July 14, 1984, over in our collection of full episodes on Night Flight Plus!

Harrison’s 12-minute film begins with a rambling intro spoken by a marionette, before the story segues to show us Ubu, a white-faced, conical-headed, odd-shaped tyrant whose grand plans for governing include ordering the execution of every aristocrat and government official working for him (he believes he can do everything himself, including collecting taxes from the befuddled citizenry).

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Read more about Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and John Harrison’s career below.

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Alfred Jarry

Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi — which translates to both “Ubu the King” and, weirdly, “King Turd” — told the story of a revolutionary despot named Père Ubu, who first kills the good King Wenceslas of Poland (literally translated, Poland means “nowhere”) before he begins running the country himself with disastrously absurd results.

The play — which prefigured modernism, Surrealism, Dadaism, and the Theater of the Absurd — was a vicious, farcical satire about greed, royalty, religion, stupidity and abuse of power by the wealthy.

It also parodied the gullible dim-witted middle class commoners who continued to show their undying devotion to their King Turd, a fatso whose scepter is a shit-smeared toilet brush, even as he prepares to rob them all blind.

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Ubu Roi actually began life as a set of sketches that Jarry and some of his school friends had written to lampoon a much-hated grotesque-looking physics teacher — Mr. Félix-Frédéric Hérbert, calling him Père Ebé — who they believed was the epitome of grotesqueness.

They insulted him throughout, the language lewd and crude, making scatological and puerile jokes about flatulence and describing him having lurid sex with his “exceptionally ugly” shrew of a wife, Mère Ubu.

By the time Jarry was twenty-three, the play had become a macabre political-tinged parody of Shakespeare’s plays (with murder and ghosts plot points found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth).

Jarry also added more fictional elements to his “Ubu,” a nonsense word evolved from the French pronunciation of “Hérbert,” while keeping the potty jokes and attacks on authority figures, royalty, religion and respectable society.

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Jarry set up a two-night staging of Ubu Roi at Paris’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, where it was considered so offensive by the first audience to see it performed on December 10, 1896, that fist fights were said to have broken out among the orchestra after the utterance of the play’s first word, “merdre,” which was deliberately close to the French word merde, or “shit.”

The bourgeois French were so outraged by the scandalous attack on their rules, norms and conventions that they continued booing loudly for the first fifteen minutes of the play. It was revealed later that Jarry had recruited his drinking buddies to cause a disruption during the premiere.

Irregardless, Ubu Roi closed the very same night it opened, and it wasn’t performed again for another two years (with marionettes instead of actors).

Jarry — a drug addict hooked on ether and absinthe — was just 34 when he died of tuberculosis on November 1, 1907.

Ubu Roi was first professionally produced in the U.S. in 1952, by the Living Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Today, the infamously satirical play about a cowardly schlub who tricks his way into becoming king is being revived by theater groups again in order to lampoon and mock the ascension to power by president Donald Trump, who often says and does exactly the kinds of things that Ubu does.

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John Harrison

Harrison’s film was produced by a small Pittsburgh-based production company, BuDuDa, formed in 1973 by Harrison, cinematographer/cameraman Dusty Nelson and sound engineer Pasquale Buba (theirs are the only names you’ll see in the end credits for Ubu).

BuDuDa — later rechristened The Image Works — produced commercials and industrials that were many broadcast locally on Pittsburgh’s WQED, where Nelson and Buba worked.

This partnership eventually also led to the film Effects (1980), which Harrison produced (he also appears in the film as “Lacey Bickle”), working alongside FX legend, actor and director Tom Savini, and Joe Pilato (Day of the Dead), as well as with both Nelson and Buba (who worked as an editor on several of George Romero’s films).

Ubu is included in the DVD release as a bonus feature.

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George Romero and John Harrison

A few years before shooting Ubu, John Harrison — born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — had seen the late, great George Romero‘s Night of the Living Dead as a theater student at Boston’s Emerson College.

After he moved back to Pittsburgh — where he earned a master’s degree in film and television from Carnegie Mellon — Harrison directed a couple of short films of his own, including Ubu, before he got in touch with Romero.

They became friends and Harrison ended up working with Romero as his assistant director on the anthology film Creepshow (1982) and also Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985). He also appeared (uncredited) in Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead as a “screwdriver zombie.”

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John Harrison wrangling some zombies on the set of Day of the Dead

Harrison later moved to Los Angeles to continue his writing and directing career (his extensive credits as a director in both TV and film can be found over on IMDB).

As we’ve mentioned previously, one of the many reasons our full episodes on Night Flight Plus are proving to be so popular is that they often feature short films and independent featurettes that you can’t see anywhere else! Have a look, they’re all streaming over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.