Er, something like that. How the scrappy Texas Travesty—now in its 15th year—takes the edge off campus life, rivals the Harvard Lampoon, and lands its alumni at the Onion and beyond.
“Drop into our new office. We have moved to a clean lay-out in the journalism building but we promise you that it will soon be just as dirty as the old joint… you’ll feel at home all right. Just come on over, bring a carton of cigarettes and we’ll work till the wee hours of the mawnin. Then you take the editor over and buy him a nice hot breakfast, cut a couple of classes and you’re a full fledged staff member. Hell, there just ain’t nothing to it.”
Truancy, folksiness, and smoking (the coolest of all journalistic pursuits): this bulletin could easily describe UT’s official humor publication, the Texas Travesty. In January, the Travesty moved from its longtime headquarters in an old apartment building on University Avenue to its new digs in the Hearst building near the Daily Texan, where the two papers share the same worn-out desks and ’80s-era office docks.
But the words above don’t come from UT’s official satirical magazine, one of the best of its kind in the nation and a regular rival to the Harvard Lampoon. They come from the November 1933 issue of the Texas Ranger, an early student humor publication that ran until the late 1970s. The Ranger provided the chief inspiration for the Travesty, illustrating that whatever the era, UT has a long and storied history of hot breakfasts, cut classes, and oh yes—student comedy.
Birth of a Prankster
The Travesty may not be a direct descendant of the Ranger—there was a 20-year gap surrounding the ’80s during which UT students were wearing preppy clothes, registering for classes by phone, and apparently, laughing less. But the Travesty is certainly the Ranger’s comedic heir.
“My main sources for inspiration were the Texas Ranger, which I managed to see a late issue of, and the Harvard Lampoon,” says Kevin Butler, the Travesty’s founder and first editor-in-chief. The Ranger was broken down into sections like “Powder Burns,” a series of digs at campus offi- cials, and was peppered with one-liners, like: If at first you don’t succeed, well, so much for skydiving.
College students being college students no matter the decade, the humor was often off-color. The dirtiest joke the Ranger ever printed, according to Bill Helmer, who edited it during the ’50s, was in a column that appeared in the final issue:
There once was a man from France
Who waited years for the chance
Then he muffed it
Along with feature articles and fake letters to the editor, each issue also featured a “Girl of the Month,” the Forty Acres version of a centerfold.
Inspired by the Ranger, the Travesty began its life, as do so many wonderful things, on the Internet. The first issue was an e-zine that included such favorites as Bitter Horrorscopes and Alice from the Brady Bunch re-imagined as a cannibal (The Bradys Munched, The Bradys for Lunch, and so on). Sadly, because of a few technical snafus, the first issue is lost somewhere in the webs of the Net. Its absence leaves future generations tragically unaware of UT students’ mockery of the Spice Girls and other major cultural institutions of the late 1990s.
Generating an audience in those early years was tough. “I didn’t know how to reserve a URL—I had just gotten email as a freshman for the first time in ’95,” Butler explains. “We put ads to write for us everywhere. We would even go into lecture halls in between large classes to leave little scraps of paper with this long Travesty URL on the desks.”
The litter-based strategy worked. The Travesty’s shameless self-promotion and guerilla marketing tactics rewarded those early writers with an impressive number of hits. The next year, 1998, they used those traffic numbers to make a case that the Travesty deserved to be an official UT publication. The Travesty ended up winning that critical contest by a single vote, undoubtedly because of its transcendent humor—or possibly because it was so far down on the agenda that, by the time the vote came, many of its principal detractors had already left.
Making the (Fake) News
Think of the Travesty as UT’s Onion. It has the same fake news style, same emphasis on headlines, and even a similar process for creating and pitching ideas. Like the Onion staff, the dozen or so Travesty writers are expected to arrive each week with 10 headline ideas, which they read aloud in front of everyone until something hits— or empathetic silence shames them into sitting.
The headlines are winnowed down to the strongest few and redistributed among the writers to flesh out as full articles, with everyone coming together in small groups to develop the “features” (larger, often image-heavy jokes that cover half a page or more). The process can be grueling: other comedians with critical eyes make for a tough audience, and receiving criticism from a “Funniest Person in Austin” finalist (as at least one Travesty staffer has been) doesn’t make it any easier.
The Travesty prints four issues per semester, 7,000 copies at a time. But like the Onion, the Travesty is always looking to push the boundaries of its print arm and expand its media reach. Current editor-in-chief David McQuary has made that his mission, dedicating a paid position on staff for a social media coordinator, starting a sports blog, and hosting more live stand-up and sketch comedy shows featuring local and Travesty talent.
Like many newspapers and magazines out there, UT’s humor rag has had money troubles. “The Travesty has always been a very small part of Texas Student Media’s budget,” explains Alyssa Peters, a design major who served as the Travesty’s 2010-11 editor-in-chief. Last year the operating budget of the Travesty was around $30,000 ($20,000 of which comes from ad sales), while the Daily Texan’s was nearly $600,000. To put that in perspective, Peters says, the combined wages for all Travesty staff are less than the compensation paid to the manager of KVRX.
It wasn’t always this way. The health of the Travesty’s revenue stream can be measured, almost like a tree’s rings, by counting its pages. Since the Travesty is designed to support itself via advertising, an issue’s length is typically determined by how much ad money it brings in.
During the Travesty’s heyday in the mid- 2000’s, issues got as long as 32 pages; now some come as short as 12. Distribution also used to be much wider and has declined from near 25,000 copies per issue to its current 7,000. But despite everything, Peters and others remain hopeful. “The good thing about having such a small bud- get is that TSM wouldn’t really save that much money by cutting it,” she says. “Sometimes it’s good to be small.”
Semi-Fame and Potential
Like most 15-year-olds, the Travesty is short on cash. But unlike most 15-year-olds, surly and unpleasant as they are, the Travesty has accomplished a great deal during its short life. It’s gotten famous—or at least semi-famous. “The name is well known in L.A,” says Kevin Butler, who now lives in California, “and more than one alumni employer has recognized the Travesty during an interview.”
But then, the presence of Travesty alumni in the entertainment capital is nothing new. Ross Luippold (editor-in-chief from 2008-10) worked on Late Night with Conan O’Brien before being picked up by the Huffington Post for a stint as an associate comedy editor. And founding brother Brad Butler is now in LA working at Mayhem Pictures, the folks behind Invincible and Secretariat.
The Onion is not only a fan of the Travesty— the national paper regularly employs the college paper’s writers, too. Last year the Onion’s editor- in-chief sent a letter to the magazine’s two managing editors personally asking them to apply for a summer writing fellowship. When it came down to picking between the final job candidates, who just happened to be UT’s two Travesty leaders, the Onion chose both. Though Jermaine Affonso won the fellowship, Dan Treadway was hired as a contributing writer for the Onion’s sports section, a post he holds in addition to being an associate blog editor for the Huffington Post.
Both Affonso and Treadway say working at the Travesty changed their career prospects forever. “Working at the Travesty has helped me a lot in my other writing endeavors because I’m not intimidated when put in a situation that requires me to be creative,” Treadway says. “There’s a lot of content out there these days, and it’s produced by the second, so without the ability to pump out a steady stream of creative thoughts and takes in a short period of time, you’re going to get lost in the shuffle.”
But of course Treadway doesn’t end on that, can’t end on that. “Oh, and you can say I was on quaaludes the whole time to spice things up.”
The Travesty’s new office may seem too shiny and new to its vets now, with a conspicuous lack of the Craigslist couches and boy-band posters the scruffy old office had. But like its Ranger predecessor predicted: give it time and it’ll feel more like home. Though UT humor publications have come and gone, the Travesty has seen lean times of its own. And fickle as the student body may be, the Travesty (or something like it) has all the scrap and moxie it needs to stay around for a long time. In the words of its founder, “UT is too big to not have a humor publication—not to have the Travesty.”
Choice Bites of the Travesty
Overheard Around Campus
- We got a complaint of some ruckus in here. You kids smokin’ ruckus?
- A business student will make a crack about it being more like a “bored meeting,” then realize his personality has no distinguishing features whatsoever.
- Nobody admires you for saying ‘gyro’ correctly.
- People in co-ops will find themselves asking, “Am I too good to drink out of a mayonnaise jar?”
- People who claim they are taking it easy tonight secretly wish you would invite them downtown to get blackout drunk.
- The best way to sneak alcohol into a UT game is to place it in your stomach.
- We should all demonstrate our dedication to green initiatives the same way UT does: by artificially re-sodding the same acre of South Mall every semester.
- Trust me bro, with every second of awkward eye contact on the bus, you’re winning her over.
- Poll: 29 Percent of Boyfriends Unaware of Relationship
- Man on Double Date Realizes He’s the Fourth Wheel
- Urban Kids’ New Dance Moves Useless in Prison
- Area Woman Has No Idea How Hard She Almost Got Laid Last Night
- Elderly Woman Continues Decade-Long Correspondence With Mailer Daemon
- Action-Packed Army Ad Inspires Americans to Play Video Games
- Man Sheds Pounds By Carrying Emotional Burden
Story and Briefs
- Report: Drumline Actually A Really Good Movie About Drumlines
- Economy Forces Friends To Lose Benefits
- Sports Good Way For Children To Find Purpose Before Crushing Reality of Adulthood
- Colt McCoy Suffers Shoulder Injury In First Sentence of Proposal To Girlfriend
Travesty cover images courtesy Texas Travesty. Ranger cover image courtesy Briscoe Center.
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Sharon Watkins Plemons:
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