Dave: "We started it in college, and people were saying 'You're never gonna finish this!' Then when we finished, we went, 'You had a point . . . but we got it done!'"

*     *     *

Elsewhere at Vanguard, a fellow student named Ed Portillo formed a comedy troupe, Market Fresh Produce, in 2002, but it really clicked in 2004 when he recruited a hefty actor named Tim Larson and Sunny Peabody, whose sister Heaven starred in Arizona. Joined later by David Leo Schultz—the only non-Vanguard student—the troupe performed in "theaters, churches, conferences and coffee shops . . . It was intended as a springboard to another career," Portillo says. "The goal is never to limit what we're trying to do, but we're not trying to do lowbrow stuff—we're not trying to make American Pie: Beta House 3. The goal is to be funny." Despite the university's built-in religiosity, the troupe isn't above letting a few profanities fly in less-pious settings—after all, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's hilariously vulgar Team America: World Police is one of their favorite movies.

Eventually, Market Fresh Produce and the Holecheks found each other. The opportunity to go forward as a group—along with Tyra, who had appeared in Arizona—came when MTV held a contest to tie in with their annual movie awards, offering aspiring filmmakers the chance to submit their best movie parodies. The Holecheks suggested a riff on 300. "I remember sitting in their living room, going through thousands of ideas, and trying to come up with a way to do it that wouldn't be boring already," Larson recalls. "At that time, there were already millions of 300 YouTube parodies. When you can't go five minutes on the Internet without hearing somebody say, 'Tonight we dine in . . . !'—you just know. So we asked ourselves, what are we good at? What's funny? And the idea of doing a mockumentary came up because we're all big fans of Christopher Guest and The Office. For the short, it had a little more of an Office feel to it. We tried to graft characters a little bit closer to that, but not identical to."

Indeed, in the short, Larson's clueless, overweight Claudius seems patterned after Ricky Gervais from the original U.K. Office series, while Schultz's obnoxious assistant Darryl is a total Rainn Wilson riff, glasses and all. But the comparisons break down after that. Tyra's Testicleese (a reference to both gonads and Monty Python—clever!), the only Spartan of the group with the trademarked chiseled abs, is a deadpan leading man prone to uttering overly earnest absurdities such as "They say you're only as strong as your weakest link. . . . That concerns me." Peabody's Demetrius is a blind lounge singer. And Portillo's Shazaam is mostly a straight man because his character is the gag—he's quite obviously a Persian disguised as a Spartan, but that's never brought up.

"I thought it was good, but I didn't think it was good-good," Schultz says of the short. "We were really last-minute on the project, and I didn't think we had a chance, but I liked what we came up with. Then we didn't win, so I was right!"

*     *     *

The Holecheks posted the short on YouTube, hoping their work would at least get seen. And viewers went crazy.

"It just kinda sat there for a few weeks," says Dan. "And then I came in one morning, logged in, and it was the No. 1 featured video. I thought it was an error at first, but then I got an e-mail from the editor, who said they really liked it and wanted to feature it."

Adds Dave: "Then MySpace said they wanted to promote it. Then we got on VH1's Best Week Ever, and it was even on CNN." The short currently boasts more than 3 million views.

Nate Hopkins, who worked on the visual effects and also plays a Persian emissary, remembers visiting his family in Florida around that time. "My sister-in-law says she saw it on one of the local news stations down there," he says. "They showed the whole short!"

Having cut the short down to five minutes for the MTV contest, Dave intended to reincorporate some additional footage for the YouTube version. "So we put TO BE CONTINUED at the end because we were gonna put the longer version online—which we never did—but that was the intent," he says. "But then we got literally hundreds of messages and e-mails and MySpace comments asking, 'When's the next episode coming out? We wanna see more!' That's what got us thinking maybe we should do something more."

It wasn't just casual fans who noticed. "The first week it was featured, we got a meeting with someone who eventually made their own 300 full-length parody that has yet to be released," says Dan. "We thought they were being nice, but it turns out it wasn't really that."

"They were drilling us for ideas," adds Hopkins.

"So the plan was, let's do another episode, let's expand to maybe a 20-minute thing, and then our imagination got the better of us," says Dave. "We had to call it 305—that was what the original was—and we threw around the idea of a bungling-heroes-getting-together-to-save-the-day, Three Amigos concept, making a full three-act structure out of it. We just got really excited about it and said, 'Let's do it!'"

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