Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) is absolutely my favorite show of all time so when I found out, years ago and years after MST3K had ended, that the original cast including series creator Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl and J Elvis Weinstein were launching a new venture called Cinematic Titanic I was ecstatic beyond belief. Now, six years later Cinematic Titanic is coming to an end I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to talk with Trace, Mary Jo and J Elvis about Cinematic Titanic, MST3K and Roddy McDowall.
For the uninitiated, Cinematic Titanic is, like MST3K before it, a movie riffing venture. The group watches old movies and makes jokes about them, something pretty much everybody does on their own but no one does so well. When Cinematic Titanic started, it had a loose narrative involving the group being enlisted to provide commentary tracks for a time tube so they could be preserved. Eventually they dropped that premise in favor of doing live shows and they have stuck with that format ever since.
Now, Cinematic Titanic is on its farewell tour with a handful of shows until the end of the year including two shows this weekend at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee (tickets available here) which I am going up to see. If you can’t make this weekend’s show you can find dates and information on the rest of the remaining shows here.
On a personal note, before we get into the interview, I have to say that this was an amazing experience for me to get to talk to these people as I am a huge fan and have been inspired by each of them. They were enormously friendly gracious and I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak to them. Mary Jo had to go after a half an hour but Trace and J Elvis talked to me for a full hour so the interview is pretty long. It was conducted via conference call and recorded on a phone app that inexplicably required me to have it on speaker phone. I have transcribed the interview in text below with a little editing for ums and the sort of things you say in conversation that don’t translate to text so well. I am also providing the recording of the interview, which was cleaned up by Gentleman Charles so it sounds less like we are talking in a wind tunnel through mouthfuls of tinfoil. It is still a bit rough and includes the sounds of my cats knocking things over, the A/C coming on and a call on call waiting. Sheesh. But it also includes a lot of tone and context and is worth listening to if you have the time and inclination. If you would rather read it, the full interview is presented below. Or could listen and read along and see just how much I suck at transcription. Either way, it was fantastic talking to them and they were awesome. So here it is:
The Buzz Media: First off, I was wondering what made you guys decide to change the format to five riffers instead of three?
J Elvis: I think it was really just Joel Hodgson was the one who sort of got the gang together and I think this was just sort of the gang he wanted to get together.
TBM: Okay, cool, so when you were writing this, I know you guys are all in different cities, did you just write a bunch of jokes for everybody and then separate them out or did you write them for yourselves individually?
Mary Jo: No, I think we did it like we used to at mst3k where we wrote a bunch of jokes and then assigned them later. And sometimes you can hear, when you are writing, you can hear in someone’s voice or sensibility but I never really wrote jokes specifically for me and I don’t think anyone else did either. Did you guys? Trace, Josh?
Trace: No, I think the spirit was to put them in the hopper and then you know some would just be specific as Mary Jo said and go ‘oh obviously that’s a Frank, Frank would deliver that much better than anyone.’
J Elvis: Occasionally you write one where you go ‘I sure hope that ends up mine.’
Trace: It’s always a negotiation too, to that point, was that if you’ve got a favorite you go ‘I think I can really do this one, let me have that one.’ And a very collaborative spirit.
TBM: That’s cool, so you never got into any fights over who was going to say what?
J Elvis: No.
Mary Jo: No.
Trace: No as long as the laughter continues…
J Elvis: Yeah, we all feel that no matter who is saying it and who is getting a laugh with it we all have a sense of ownership about the joke so it’s, you know, at this point none of us are…it’s not our first rodeo.
TBM: Right, so nobody’s precious about anything…
J Elvis: Yeah.
Mary Jo: We just want a good show, you know?
Trace: It’s also a very humbling experience, often times the audience will remember a joke back to us and it might be Mary Jo might have said it but they’ll credit it to someone else and it doesn’t matter anyway, as long as it’s coming off the stage and making someone laugh, we’ve succeeded.
J Elvis: Yeah I think when people have reviewed our shows, as often as being correct they misattribute a joke.
Mary Jo: Mhm
J Elvis: Which makes sense because they are watching the screen and we are five people basically in the dark, you know, so it’s kind of good they aren’t being distracted enough to go ‘Oh that was a Trace joke’
Mary Jo: Right.
TBM: What is your general philosophy on riffing like how you write the riffs in terms of the movies you’re watching?
J Elvis: My general philosophy, and I think to some extent our group philosophy, is to think of the movie as a collaborator instead of an enemy, you know, because really what we’re trying to do is take this thing that someone made and add our thing to it and make this third entertaining thing out of it. So it’s almost like a comedy team with the movie, with the movie being the straight man.
Mary Jo: Yeah, I can’t say that I write with a specific philosophy, I think I try to be more of a technician. It’s gotta fit the space it’s ultimately gotta be funny. I always write with an ear toward ‘is this going to make my colleagues laugh?’ Fingers crossed.
J Elvis: Right.
TBM: Okay, this is mostly for Trace and Josh, how is riffing different when you are being yourself versus playing a character like Crow or Tom Servo?
Trace: It’s always nice to have that character to…you can get away with some things that you might not get away with as a human. There’s that filter, that cartoon puppet filter that you can be…you can blame it on the character, let me say that.
J Elvis: Right. But on the up side you’re not crouching on the floor with your arm in the air.
Trace: Both Josh and I suffer from very bad backs and I blame those years sitting on the floor.
TBM: I imagine Crow was probably pretty heavy.
Trace: We did a lot of resting those robots on the table so it wasn’t complete upper body strength, which I have none of by the way.
TBM: You didn’t gain any over the years, you didn’t get buff from the robots?
Trace: There might have been a peak sometime in my 30’s but now it’s all just a long slide, gravity well into old age.
TBM: Mary Jo, what was the transition like for you from being a writer on the show and playing characters on the show to riffing?
Mary Jo: Well it was, yeah, that’s a good question, it was a little, you know I think it took me awhile to find my legs and find my voice, if you will. I remember when I first started out I think I delivered everything in a monotone which was more or less my stand up comedy persona and then observing my colleagues I realized ‘oh yeah I have to commit to this joke, I have to pitch them.’ There’s a little bit of, you’re kind of an actor in the movie, you have to sell it as Josh pointed out to me. So it took me a couple of movies I think to find that. So there was a bit of a transition as opposed to just putting something on the page and having another actor do it.
TBM: Do you feel like that changed the way you wrote the jokes since you were now doing it yourself a bit more?
Mary Jo: Yeah I think it did, I think my joke writing became a little more organic know that I could possibly be the deliverer of said joke.
TBM: Okay, this is for all of you, when you switched to the live format over the story based Cinematic Titanic format did you find yourself missing the story elements and the sketches and ultimately which do you prefer between the two?
Mary Jo: I did not miss the story elements.
J Elvis: Yeah, for me it is a no brainer that the live shows are really what Cinematic Titanic, I think, ended up being at its best because I think it was different than what we did before with Mystery Science Theater and I think because we all come from the background of standup comedy I think the live shows really bring about the best in all of us as funny people and performers. I think having an audience there is…just makes it something that is so much more fun to do and so much more satisfying as a joke writer even just to know that the joke/laugh equation has been completed right in front of you rather than at someone’s house, you know?
Trace: Yeah CT was always the natural extension of Mystery Science Theater it just seemed to make sense to go to a different level with it than to go back to the same thing. And as Josh said it is so rewarding to go ‘hey I wrote this joke, someone said it or I said it and it got a great laugh’ that’s funny you can make a funny thing and make people laugh and you get to know right away. Frank and I just did a convention in New York and it’s like now we’re hearing people who saw the show maybe 10 or 20 years ago coming back and going ‘Hey that joke you wrote, you know, half of your life ago…I’m now telling you worked’
Mary Jo: Wow.
Trace: It’s sorta like the, what is the space craft that just left the solar system, you know, it’s that kind of lag time that doesn’t help your writing skills.
TBM: It seems like as a viewer, because I haven’t gotten out to one of the live shows yet, I am going to go to the shows in Milwaukee this weekend, but watching the DVD’s it is a lot of fun to see those reactions with the crowd too like particularly in East Meets Watts I really enjoy when they say the N word and you all do the spit take, I almost peed myself, I thought it was really awesome and I don’t think it would have worked as well in the old format.
Trace: Hard to spit through a puppet.
Mary Jo: Indeed.
TBM: Mary Jo, since you are the only cast member who’s done both Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax, I was wondering how do they compare in terms of the preparation, are they kind of the same format since they are the same people doing ultimately or do they go about things a bit differently?
Mary Jo: I am trying to recall, I know that I did the Rifftrax scripts long distance with Bill and Mike so it was more or less writing individually and then combining the scripts and then going to San Diego to record So no, I don’t think it varies significantly in terms of the writing process but those were recorded and I just really loved the live experience so much. It’s hard to know how people are responding or how flat a joke has fallen.
TBM: So, this is for Josh, how did it feel to come back to riffing after being gone for a long time?
J Elvis: It felt very natural to me, I mean, I had done so many other video mocking projects along the way from Talk Soup to Later with Greg Kinnear to America’s Funniest Home Videos so throwing jokes at the TV screen was not something that was foreign to me at all. And frankly with Mystery Science Theater even that was always the way in for me. It wasn’t like I was a huge fan of monster movies or B-movies, this was this is a great comedy opportunity and it was a great way to get a whole lot of jokes into one show without even having premise for them you just threw jokes at things and that appealed to me always.
TBM: That actually leads into a question I had later a little bit which was just if you and Trace approached writing America’s Home Videos the same way as MST3K or if it was different for that format?
J Elvis: You know, any time you are writing jokes with people there is a similarity to it which is everyone’s pitching and you try to find the best ones, you know, I don’t know that I took any writing philosophy from Mystery Science Theater with me, I just think I’ve worked in many, many TV writing arenas over the years and ultimately it comes down to a group of people spitting out jokes until you find the one that everyone laughs and keep it.
Trace: Yeah that is the only rule: Make it funny.
Mary Jo: Yeah, exactly.
TBM: So, this is kind of a geek question here for Trace, which character did you enjoy playing the most, Crow or Dr Forrester?
Trace: Ooh Boy. Crow was more fun because he’s a fun character and Dr Forrester is a jerk so…it brought up both sides to my personality. It is hard to think back on those days because we moved so quickly through production. I think I liked Crow better because there was that filter there but it would depend on the episode really because it was a lot of fun doing those goofy gags, all the silly stuff we did. I liked them both equally well, and also, depending on what I had to do less satisfied with some of the performances.
TBM: Josh I had the same question for you with Tom Servo and Dr Erhardt.
J Elvis: I think based on that I was 18 years old at the time and looking back my comic actor shots were not what I would have loved to have put on TV so I think Servo was probably…I think Servo was definitely a more lasting legacy that I left with the show than Dr Erhardt. I don’t think that Dr Erhardt was ever a very well defined character and that is certainly a large part to me, you know, both not having done it long enough and not really getting any direction, you know, I look back at the Erhardt thing and I of cringe sort of and I also look at the stuff Trace and Frank did subsequently, you know, that’s a much better combination, they were a better team than I think Trace and I were because I wasn’t brining anything defined to the table.
Trace: Well there was no bible for this show, there was no this is this character and this is this character and this is what they do. We were just flopping around looking for a way and in those KTMA episodes, I hope there is a tire someplace we can put those on. We’re doing those mad scientists and they were like you aren’t mad scientists, that’s just Trace and Josh and they just want to get through this sketch so that everyone can go to lunch. You know, we’re literally doing it in the control room and there’s guys standing up and putting their coats on and jingling their keys. ‘uhm…come on!’ So that was sort of the actors’ directions in those days, was ‘we want to go to lunch so just do it. ‘
J Elvis: And the same was true at Comedy Channel too in the sense that they always shot the scientist stuff at the very end of the day. So everyone was ready to go and ‘alright we gotta shoot the mad scientist thing.’
Trace: Yeah it was…I think that’s the same way that any good actor’s director will work. The motivation should be going home or going to lunch.
TBM: ‘We’re very, very hungry. You need to get this.’
J Elvis: Yeah.
TBM: This is kind of a weird question, Mary Jo, but did your obsession with Roddy McDowall color you view on fan interaction at all?
Mary Jo: Wow…no and now I feel like an idiot. You know that is a really interesting question. No, I guess I never connected the dots on that idea. No it didn’t. I think what has colored my fan interaction is doing Cinematic Titanic and meeting the people face to face. It was kind of an abstraction when I was on Mystery Science Theater because we would get fan letters and email and fans calling up the number and leaving messages so it was a real abstraction and I didn’t quite get it and years later I am doing Cinematic Titanic and I’ve had various life experiences in the meantime and I am older and meeting people face to face so it’s been a really different and wonderful connection that has really brought that abstraction to bear into reality to see who people are and be able to meet them if that makes any sense.
TBM: Just to share a little bit I am a really big fan of Roddy McDowall as well. Fright Night is my favorite movie of all time so I got kind of excited to see that you also liked him a lot.
Mary Jo: Well good! That’s great.
TBM: So that kind of leads into the next question for all of you guys, what is your strangest fan interaction, have you had ones that have been weird or have they been generally good?
J Elvis: They’ve certainly been generally good. The weirdness that I encounter is that because I’m, I left the show early, there’s a lot of people whose fandom doesn’t really include me. Which is totally fine by me but they feel more awkward about it than me so there’ll be people who bring MST stuff for us to sign and then they kind of don’t want me to sign cause I wasn’t in that episode but they don’t want to be rude to me and so watching the different ways people try to sort of hide their merch from me or get by me without hurting my feelings somehow, it’s always amusing to me because I don’t take any of it personally I think Mystery Science Theater has a life of its own and people have such personal relationships with it that I don’t want to interfere with that, I think it’s a great thing that’s happening and I don’t want to inject myself into it but its been very fun to watch the different levels of response to me over the years.
Mary Jo: Yeah, I think the fan interaction has been generally, majoritivly very positive. I think where I get frustrated/bemused/amazed is a lot of people I encounter think I was the helper to the men. Like I was the secretary. It used to really frost me. Now I try not to take it personally, I just try to view it through this prism of interest that people would make assumptions like that in this day and age.
Trace: Frank and I just did a convention and we got to spend a lot of time with the fans, normally when we do CT we to a Q and A, well not a Q and A, but a meet and greet and that is a very structured amount of time that fans get to spend with us but we were at this convention all weekend and people could come and go and visit us and spend time and it is a very interesting interaction from getting to spend a lot more time with some people and learning about them and I’m always amazed that they know so much about the show and I know so little about the show and I was there. And it’s like ‘You know in this one movie when you did that…’and I go I don’t remember the movie even. That I think is sometimes disappointing for people when we don’t know the show as well as they do.
TBM: Mary Jo, it looks like we are kind of running out of time with you, I wanted to ask you about your book, in the introduction it sounds like the first one you did sounded like it was kind of a nightmare experience for you a little bit. Was Employee of the Month a smoother process for you and how has your general experience been as an author?
Mary Jo: Well my general experience has been kind of 50/50 that great, yeah. I learned so much from that first outing book. It seems like an exaggerate with that but with Employee of the Month I feel like I just approached it with a lot more maturity and wisdom having been through what I went through and really taking ownership in it. But I had Tom Dupree who was the editor for the Amazing Colossal Guide and we stayed in touch and are friends and just having him guide me through the process and I had it designed and that was exciting. So it has been a much, much better experience. I feel more proud of the work or less loathing of the work, I guess. So it’s night and day. I’m not wholly embarrassed as I was for I Lived With My Parents. I guess that’s the learning curve, the very public learning curve. Have I answered your question?
TBM: Yeah, absolutely.
J Elvis: So you went from shame to slightly less loathing? That’s your journey?
Mary Jo: Yes, yes! And for a Minnesotan that’s saying something.
J Elvis: Yeah that’s an epiphany.
Trace: That is the creative arc for a Minnesota artist or writer.
Mary Jo: Is it not? Is it not?
Trace: Along with drinking in there somewhere too but you bypass that stuff.
Mary Jo: I’m sorry but I’m gonna sign off you guys sorry about that but feel free to continue on. Sorry about that.
TBM: It’s okay, thank you for your time!
Mary Jo: No, no thank you! See you guys later.
(Everyone says bye)
TBM: Okay, for you guys, have you ever had any run ins with actors or directors upset about the riffing, I read in the Amazing Colossal Guide about Joe Don Baker being upset about Mitchell, have you guys had any other stuff like that?
Trace: You know the Joe Don thing, I think, is a myth. We never had that confirmed and none of us have encountered him personally. But everyone that I’ve been in contact with that we’ve done a movie or they have contacted us when we were doing the show, none of them, nobody was pissed at us. There were a few people who took umbrage at particular movies we did like we did ‘Marooned’ which was retitled ‘Space Travellers’ because they failed to renew the copyright so that was sort of fair game but it’s not like we are damaging these movies permanently. They exist on their own and the treatment we do to them exists on itsown and they can be separated, they aren’t conjoined anymore.
J Elvis: I think Peter Graves went on the record calling us idiots.
Trace: And he was probably correct.
J Elvis: Yeah, I think I remember reading an interview where he was like ‘Oh those idiots’ or something like that.
TBM: On the blu-ray special features of the MST3K movie it seemed like some people were kind of bothered by This Island Earth being riffed on at all but as a fan I didn’t really feel like that was the case at all.
Trace: Yeah and it’s not that good a movie. It is sort of one of those touchstones for sci-fi aficionados for when it came out and what it did and what it represented in various technical aspects of, you know, advancement in those movies but it’s not that good a movie.
TBM: So when you watch those movies, have you developed any kind of affection for them over time or have you gotten to hate them even more?
J Elvis: It’s a case by case basis for me, you know. If the movie makes for a great show then I tend to really like it. Some movies are harder to write, some movies are sort of a slog, and you start sort of resenting them but then if it works on stage and turns out to be chock full of jokes that kill then I tend to have affection for them.
Trace: Yeah I don’t feel like we hate these movies, we have an affection for them. We couldn’t spendthis much time with them and completely hate them. And also going into them going ‘I hate this movie, I hate this movie, I hate this movie’ well, then don’t watch this movie.
Trace: It is more of a collaboration. And you know the movie is sort of Margaret Dumont and we’re the Marx Brothers. Although I think we’re mostly Zeppo and Gummo.
J Elvis: But I think in some ways there is a slight difference in philosophy from Mystery Science Theater to now which is Mystery Science Theater part of the premise was that these characters were trapped and forced to watch these movies, you know, so there was that sort of element of ‘oh please get us out of here’ to the riffing and stuff and I think we’ve pretty much shed that because we’re there doing it and people have paid money and everyone is there voluntarily now we don’t have any of the premise of we’re being forced to do this, oh the pain. So I think it is more celebratory now of the movie and the event, the live event, you know?
TBM: I’ve found for me, as a fan, I’ve grown to love bad movies in a way that I didn’t before I started watching MST3K. Particularly, Pod People is my favorite episode and I was at a horror film festival a couple of years ago and a movie by the same director called Pieces was playing and it had the main guy Rick in it and I loved that movie, it was also terrible, but I loved that movie for all the connections to Pod People I was seeing in it. So I feel like my life has been enriched by bad movies now, so thanks for that.
J Elvis: Yeah. Once in a while there’s a movie where even if it’s awful there’s some sort of charm to it that you are kind of just affectionate to it like a loser cousin or something.
TBM: So what’s next for you guys with Cinematic Titanic ending, do you think you are gonna do anymore riffing in the future or do you have plans to branch out into other stuff?
J Elvis: Well I think, you know, some of both. We don’t have any concrete plans but I think we all feel that it’s wide open for us to regroup and try some different angle on it at some point. Right now I think we’re all working on individual projects and it has become harder and harder to stay a troupe with five people in five cities. But I think it is more just Cinematic Titanic itself has run its course and we feel like we accomplished what we set out to do and rather than bleed it dry we’d rather have it end while it’s still a vital thing to all of us instead of a chore.
TBM: This is a fan question from a friend of mine who wanted me to ask if there is a favorite joke you ever wrote?
J Elvis: I can’t answer that even. I don’t know if my favorite joke…I just can’t answer that literally I am a million plus jokes into my career.
Trace: My favorite joke is the next one. That’s the way I would feel if I had children. ‘What’s your favorite?’ ‘The next one.’
TBM: Since you guys all came from the standup background, and you kind of touched on this earlier, but do you feel that really helps you with the riffing? Do you use the same kind of skill set to perform the riffs with the standup or do you feel like you have to do something different?
J Elvis: I think it helps tremendously. I think knowing how to interact with an audience and with a laugh is a crucial skill and I think it’s what makes our live shows something that’s not set in amber but it’s always changing and we’re always looking for a better joke if a joke’s not working and we’re always looking to crack each other up and we’re always looking for new opportunities to get a laugh out of the movie even once we’ve written it and start performing it. So I think all of those skills make us better at doing it and make it, we all feel very at home on a stage trying to make an audience laugh.
TBM: So what would you say your major comedy influences are?
Trace: Oh boy, there’s so many. We’re all so steeped in comedy the list would go on and on and on. Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Python, Mel Brooks…so much.
J Elvis: yeah, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, numerous great standups…it’s all part of a continuum really as far as I’m concerned. I don’t feel like I ever modeled what I was doing after any one person I think it was just the sum of the parts of people I learned from.
Trace: Yeah I would agree. It would almost be easier to look at comedy that doesn’t work for us. And there’s not a lot. That’s the great thing about having five different perspectives is that we are all influenced by different elements in the culture. That’s why we can provide such a rich tapestry of jokes.
TBM: I think that’s one of the best parts of both MST3K and Cinematic Titanic is just how much different, how many different sorts of jokes you guys have. It is pretty amazing.
J Elvis: Yeah the references come from everywhere for sure.
TBM: I have to say I learned a lot watching MST3K because there would be something I didn’t understand so I would look it up and get the joke and that made me happy. So, when you guys are dealing with your content now that you don’t have to be on network TV or cable TV, your stuff is roughly PG13. Does it make it easier to do, do you feel like you have a little more leeway or is it still difficult to do and where do you draw the line as well?
J Elvis: Personally for me, I just want the show to feel like a modern comedy show and not a nostalgia piece. Modern comedy is certainly an edgier…I don’t want to say dirtier but it is, it includes more adult themes. And there is always discussions within our group as to where the edge is and what we feel comfortable with. We do have fans of Mystery Science Theater some of who liked it because it was a family show but like I said, for me at least, I’ve always wanted this to feel like a modern extension of Mystery Science Theater rather than, you know, just a nostalgia show for what the show was 20 years ago.
Trace: And there is also the live element too which sometimes there’s opportunities to get closer to the line or maybe cross it sometimes in a live setting and we’re all, you know we’ve all been standups, some more than others and it’s a different animal, you’re walking into something that is so exciting and changeable and we might surprise ourselves sometimes but to try to limit it is, it’s like putting rules on comedy. It’s like yeah,you know what, Comedy is about breaking the rules…I don’t know if I’ve said anything really but…
J Elvis: It definitely is easier not having the constraints of a network standards and practices department watching over you for sure. There is a constraint that comes along with doing television that we are free of.
TBM: Yeah, so you haven’t had to tone yourselves down too much then I would imagine?
J Elvis: No, I don’t think any of us are filthy minded by nature. I don’t think that’s where any of our comedy if we were doing it individually really goes. You know, Frank is probably the edgiest of us but we’re…I think there’s room for everyone in the group to have their comic identity and still be part of the group so I think everyone’s range of edginess is different but we try not to…well what we don’t want to do is offend each other.
TBM: If you could riff any current movie, like in the past few years or so, is there one that sort of sticks out that you would want to do. I know that isn’t really what you guys do so much. But are there any you would be interested in or like to do.
J Elvis: The one that has always sort of fascinated me is not that recent anymore but ‘Life is Beautiful’ with its maudlin and dark subject matter it seems to me I would love to get in there and knock some of the wind out of it but generally I don’t look at movies that way. I think when we are looking for movies to riff, we are looking for a specific thing that will work with what we do and so it’s not like I feel like every time I watch a movie my instinct is to riff it, you know? Life for me is my instinct to riff it but movies don’t have a particular lure outside of what we do for a living to make fun of.
Trace: I don’t have a lot of patience for a bad modern movie and they are bad for different reasons now. They’re not the kind of ‘oh that was a filmmaker in the 50’s’ you know I can kind of forgive that but if you’re making a movie today and it’s not holding my attention or it needs riffing I’m outta there. I don’t have the time.
J Elvis: Yeah it’s hard to have a feeling of irony about a modern bad movie, you know?
TBM: Yeah. So, Trace, how did the Arrested Development segment come about and what was it like to play Crow after the hiatus of a few years?
Trace: I guess the producer was a big fan of MST and they called us up and asked us to just basically they had a couple of lines they wanted us to read and I pitched a couple other ones that I thought might sound more in the character. And was really literally reading the lines into the phone and sending them the file so there wasn’t really stepping back into any kind of deep preparation. It was neat when it was on but it was so brief…I thought the coolest thing about that episode was that Maria Bamford was in that episode as well, this was supposed to be her movie we were riffing on and she had done a little bit on Mystery Science Theater so it was kind of very folding back in time back in time kind of event. But for me it was just sending a file off my phone.
TBM: Well it was certainly cool to see, I was super excited about it when I saw it in that episode.
Trace: It was fun to do and you know it was certainly easy. It was probably the easiest commute I’ve ever had, I didn’t have to go anywhere.
J Elvis: The weirdest step back in time I think was about a month or two ago Trace, Joel and I did a commentary track Mystery Science style for the movie the Heat directed by our friend Paul Feig.
TBM: Oh wow!
J Elvis: And that had a very throwbacky feel because it was just the three of us pretty much improvising our way through a movie which is very much what we did in the earliest days of the show on local TV so that had a nostalgic feel to me.
TBM: That is awesome, I can’t wait to get that then.
J Elvis: yeah a bonus feature on the DVD.
TBM: Nice. So I only have a few more questions here, I’m kind of winding down, but if you guys had anything to do over again is there anything you would do differently with MST3Kfrom either a creative standpoint or just how you went about it?
J Elvis: Well, in my case, ultimately, my experience at MST ended up negative. Not the whole experience but I think once we went to the Comedy Channel there was just a shift in dynamics that didn’t favor me. So it ended up…there’s lots I would change in some respects but at the same time I don’t really have many regrets, it’s just too bad it ended up bad feelings. I think that Cinematic Titanic has been overall you know, I don’t even think, I know for a fact that Cinematic Titanic has been a way more positive and fun experience for me than MST ultimately was.
Trace: I wish I’d known more about how business works because ultimately I left not particularly happy. And that was a shame thing too but we had such a great, you know workplace, we had this club house and then as rules got imposed and things got ‘figured out’ it was less fun but you know we had such a great opportunity to do something that has lasted this long which is kind of amazing that people are still discovering it. I wish that it had been a show that was under guild rules so we could all benefit from it in that respect.
TBM: Do you guys have a favorite episode of MST3K or CT? Or both?
J Elvis: MST3K I can’t pick one out that really stands out above all others for me, I mean my catalogue much smaller than others. I think with Cinematic Titanic I think it would be either Danger on Tiki Island which we are doing this weekend in Milwaukee or one called East Meets Watts which we’ve done in Milwaukee previously.
Trace: Yeah for me on the MST side any of the shorts, those educational shorts. They were just so much fun and I think the length of them was perfect for my attention span, they were like 20 minutes. On the CT side I’ve fondness for the Wasp Woman for some reason, it’s renewed love with Wasp Woman. That one’s standing out at the moment for me but I change.
TBM: Okay, and this is for my own personal curiosity, do you have any favorite songs from MST3K at all?
Trace: Frank wrote the song called Nummy Muffin Cocobutter that I thought was pretty funny and I always liked the theme song, the theme song sticks in your head. I think Josh and Joel did a great job putting that together and it had the core of the show right there in the theme song.
TBM: That’s my current ringtone actually.
J Elvis: Yeah I think I have to go with the theme song just cause I had a part in it and I remember we also did one called Clay and Lar’s Flesh Barn.
TBM: Okay and this is sort of an ill formed question but that game Darkstar you did, how did that come about and what was that like to do?
Trace: That was a fan of the show was putting this game together and he contacted me and I said I’ll put you in contact with everyone else. It took him so long to put that game together, I think it was like a 10 year process. When we shot our stuff was like in the mid 2000’s somewhere and then it was like eight years before I saw the finished product so it was a very weird disconnect were you do this thing and then it goes away. It was fun to do and I don’t know a lot about the gaming world to know how it did.
J Elvis: Yeah for me I tend to have a policy where if anyone ever asks me to act in something I just tend to say yes. Cause I like acting but hate auditioning. So on that level it was fun but it was a weird thing where it was six years between when I shot it and when I saw it and it was like ‘Wow I’ve lost a lot of hair since then.’
Trace: Space travel will do that to you.
J Elvis: That’s right.
TBM: So this is another personal question for me and maybe a little bit weird and nebulous but I just noticed this recently watching some of the earlier CT episodes it says that you recorded at Laurel Canyon Studios.
J Elvis: Correct.
TBM: Just recently, this past summer like in June (it was actually May but I am a dumbass), I shot a movie there that I co-wrote and acted in and it was going by the name Laurel Canyon Stages but I think it’s the same place where they’ve got the studio with the big green screen and then the next studio they have the spaceship set?
Trace: Yeah that’s it.
TBM: So when I was in the spaceship set we noticed a lot of the set dressing was like found items that they glued on and painted and I thought it had a distinctly Satellite of Love look to it so I was wondering did you, Trace, have any hand in that at all or was it just they had the same idea?
Trace: No, that’s just stuff like surface action. What people in the industry call ‘nurnies’ that’s just a way of dressing a set up with a lot of junk that makes it look like it should look like something and everybody does it. When you’re building a space ship you just go get a lot of crap and put it on a wall.
Josh: Yeah and it always helps to have old TV equipment like even when they blew up the planet Alderan in Star Wars it was with a TV fader.
TBM: Yeah there were definitely a bunch of old VCRs and tape decks and things like that and some old food containers that were on there.
Trace: Yeah it just, you know, it looks good on camera when you have an actor in the foreground and you can soft focus the background and it just looks busy and like it should be important and it’s just…not.
TBM: Right. So just the last couple of questions here, with this current tour you are doing Doll Squad and Astral Factor on some of them, are there going to be DVDs of those coming out after the tour?
J Elvis: I don’t think so, I think we’ve decided we’re just gonna end the project at the end of the year.
TBM: Oh wow, okay. I am glad I’m going to get to see Doll Squad this weekend then. That’s one of the ones you’re doing right?
Trace: Yes. You can’t wait to see these on DVD you’ve gotta see them live.
TBM: Yeah that is why…I actually live in Tucson Arizona so I am going from here to there…at the time when I got the tickets I thought you guys weren’t coming anywhere near but I guess you are going to San Francisco as well but I don’t think I can make it over to that one.
J Elvis: Well thanks for (inaudible)
TBM: No problem. So this is another of my own personal thing, with Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks it’s only available on download right now is that going to ever be on physical media again or is it just gonna be a download situation?
Trace: It’ll be back on DVD, we have to restock our Amazon warehouse space and we’ll be doing that this fall to make sure we’ve got stuff for the holidays.
TBM: Cool. That’s the only one I don’t have so I wanna…my numbers are not lining up.
Trace: I might have a copy here, I could bring you one.
TBM: Wow that would be pretty fantastic if you could do that.
Trace: Aw, I just lost a sale, Josh what am I doing?
J Elvis: What are you doing Trace?
TBM: Well, technically I’ve already paid for the download so…
Trace: That’s true. Castle of Freaks, I’ll check, we might have one. Which night of the show are you coming?
TBM: I’m coming to both nights actually.
Trace: Well I’ll only give you one.
TBM: That’s fair.
Trace: I’m making a note right now.
TBM: Cool, thank you very much. I appreciate that. So this last question is as generic as you can get, but do you have any advice for aspiring standups and writers and performers on just kind of how to get into what they are trying to do?
J Elvis: For me it’s just do it. We live in a world now where the gold standard is people who make stuff I think, you know, and I think…I’m hoping that is the case because I am just finishing up a year and a half work on a documentary that I self-produced and directed. But I think the spirit of MST even, at least what I took away from it, is DIY you know? We made a TV show with eight people and we’re talking about it 25 years later. And I think the time has never been better and people have never been more rewarded for having a vision and finding a way to make their own stuff and finding an audience and I think that people that find their own audience will then get interest from Hollywood and if not, you’ve got an audience nonetheless. So it’s a really good time to be a creative person I think and even though there’s a lot of noise out there because there’s so many people being creative people now I think, you know, I don’t think the percentages of good to bad have ever changed and I think that good will always get noticed and there is always room for it and I guess if you’re a standup do standup and if you’re a filmmaker find a way to make a film and if you’re a writer keep writing because you never know when someone’s going to catch on to what you’re doing and then you’ve got this long tail of material to enjoy once they discover you.
Trace: Yeah I agree with Josh and Josh has got the right philosophy of just do it, just make it. And there’s a lot of voices that are gonna tell you not to but you have to listen to your own voice. I met this documentary filmmaker at this convention that Frank and I were at this weekend and she had been to a seminar or a talk and the filmmakers were saying ‘well unless you’re in New York or LA you can’t make a movie’ and you know that’s just complete crap. So do what you do and make what you love. We did Mystery Science Theater in Eden Prairie Minnesota but you gotta listen to your own voice.
TBM: Alright, well awesome, that is pretty much all I’ve got. Thank you guys so much this was amazing. I really appreciate you guys taking the time out to talk to me about this stuff.
(goodbyes and thank yous)
And there it is. If you can make it to Milwaukee this weekend you should definitely do so and if not, check out their other shows going on until the end of the year. They also have their DVDs on Amazon and you can watch most of the shows on Hulu.