When thinking of Tarzan, a cartoon man in a family of gorillas, a treacherous hunter or a Phil Collins soundtrack might come to mind. But as one new comedy group on campus is trying to show, there’s much more to the character than meets the eye.
Instead of focusing on live material like Duke University Improv or Inside Joke, Freshly Squeezed Pulp produces a weekly podcast series, satirizing the original 24 “Tarzan” novels in the style of an old style radio series, named “Tar-zaan.” The group’s name is a play on pulp fiction, which usually refers to low-quality literature.
“I would describe our ambiance as ‘George of the Jungle’ meets ‘Monty Python,’” sophomore Mac Gagné, who plays Jane Porter, said.
Gagné and sophomores Brock Foreman and Daniel Eggito first conceived of their idea when discussing how much the Disney version of Tarzan differed from the original character.
“So I go Google it, and the answer is Edgar Rice Burroughs, and he wrote 24 ‘Tarzan’ books, we were delighted to learn, and each of them is successively zanier than the last,” Foreman said.
For one thing, the G-rated movie left out some of the more scintillating details, like the existence of a New Rome in Africa, a matriarchal society devoted to human sacrifice and Tarzan eventually traveling to the center of the earth.
A modern update
Perhaps the biggest challenge parodying the original “Tarzan” series posed was how to work with its blatant racism and misogyny. Burroughs wrote the novels in the early 20th century, and like most pulp fiction of that time, conformed to many traditional views of the day. But for Freshly Squeezed Pulp, this difficulty just posed an opportunity to think about the characters creatively.
“FSP has become an interesting experiment in including tradition and new social values,” Gagné said.
The writers have developed many of the female characters, including Jane, to have their own interests and ambitions, and have flipped some characters’ genders or sexualities to better suit their vision.
Gagné feels Freshly Squeezed Pulp differs from other comedy groups on campus in terms of the lower barrier of entry.
“If anyone’s interested, we’ll find a way to work you in to voice a character,” she said. “It’s very much easy comedy, both for people to participate in as well as for people to listen to. And unlike DUI or Inside Joke, you can just go to the App Store and listen to our skits.”
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Anyone interested — with no experience necessary — can stop by to voice a few lines or even help write.
“We’ve had people come on board and voice three lines, and we’ve had people come on board and their character turns into a part of our main plotline,” Foreman said.
Pulp fiction at Duke
The group has attracted a wide range of participants, including both students and faculty.
“It’s been a really unbelievable experience, with everyone getting on board,” Eggito said.
The group records Saturdays in the Multimedia Project Studio sound booth. They received approval to upload the podcast to iTunes and funding from Duke Student Government.
The project also functions as an independent study for Gagné and senior Daniel Zhu, who plays Tar-zaan, and is taught by academic dean Jenny Wood Crowley. In class, they modernize different works of pulp fiction and learn more about the genre in general.
“You hear people say that the main thing that defines good fiction is relatability, and nowhere is that more true than with pulp fiction,” Zhu said.
In addition to the independent study, other Duke faculty and clubs have supported the project.
“We’ve had teachers and deans voice characters, we’ve had professors at the law office advise us on how to properly parody to avoid any kind of trademark or copyright infringement and we’ve been supported by the Duke Marketing Club and Hear at Duke all the way,” Gagné wrote in an email.
The group hosted one live performance February 28, and plans to host two live shows per year. But “Tarzan” won’t be the only series Freshly Squeezed Pulp satirizes. In addition to a number of original one-offs — keep an eye out for “The Chilling and Peculiar Happenings of Indrid Cold the Mothman" — they’ll be picking another pulp fiction to parody once “Tarzan” wraps up.
Freshly Squeezed Pulp also tries to cut through Duke’s culture of effortless perfection.
“The wackiness, the absurdity, the lack of even basic logic, it’s a really great way to break through the perfectionistic culture we have both on campus, as well as around the world,” Gagné said. “You can escape into a world where you don’t need to be absolutely perfect at everything. Nothing needs to make constant sense.”