It’s neigh impossible to find a fan of comedy who isn’t also a fan of the legendary Mystery Science Theater 3000. Starting out on a local TV station in Minnesota before moving on to Comedy Central and then the SciFi Channel, this show brought “riffing” (witty commentary during a movie) to a whole new level of art. While it’s no longer on the air, episodes can be found aplenty on YouTube and the spirit of the show continues in projects such as RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic.
Mary Jo Pehl was a writer on the show for years and eventually took over the role of the main antagonist for the final few seasons (as much as a show about a guy and his robot friends making fun of bad movies can have an antagonist). Since the end of the show, Ms. Pehl has relocated, with her husband, to Austin. She took some time to talk to us about her time on the show, her current projects and her thoughts on Austin itself.
Austin.com: Hey, Mary Jo, whatddya know? How’s the world treating you?
Mary Jo Pehl: Let me just say the world really needs to work on some things. I’ll be bringing up some“needs improvement” in its annual review.
AC: I was surprised when I found out you lived in Austin as I was under the impression that everyone who was involved with Mystery Science Theater 3000 was legally obligated to live in Minnesota for the rest of their lives. How long have you been living here and what prompted the move here in the first place?
MJP: About seven years ago, I told Minnesota that I had to run an errand and that I would be “right back.” The Husband and I moved here on New Year’s Eve 2006, he from Dallas and I from Minneapolis. We were conducting a long distance relationship and we decided to live together.
The only question was where. With my work, being a freelance writer and performer, I was pretty flexible. My only requisite was NOT Texas. We’d pretty much ruled out Dallas, where he was living. But he had limited options as he planned to transfer within his company. One weekend when I visiting him in Dallas, we decided to drive to Austin.
We stayed at the Austin Motel, walked down the streets to see the bats, I picked up a [copy of the Austin] Chronicle to get the arts/culture vibe and that was it. It just clicked. Suddenly, I understood what people were talking about. I remembered everythingpeople had said but that I blew off because it was, ya know, Texas. I was excited about the vibrant cultural scene Austin had – theater, writers, creative community. etc. whichwas enormously important to me.
So it kinda came down to, “Wellll, what the hell!”
And now I’m one of those Austinites who is annoyed that everyone is moving here.
AC: Speaking of MST3K, I believe I am also legally obligated to ask about it, so let’s just get it out of the way. Tell us about how your role on that show progressed over the years, as both a writer and performer.
MJP: You seem kinda fixated on everyone’s “legal obligations”.
AC: I get that a lot.
MJP: I joined Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the beginning of its fourth season. The show had just been picked up by Comedy Central from a local channel in the Twin Cities. So they finally had a real budget and were looking for another writer to add to the staff.
I knew everyone on the show because we all came up together doing standup and sketch comedy in the Twin Cities, but I had no idea what the show was. I didn’t own a television at the time.
A friend of mine in the know encouraged me to approach head writer Mike Nelson and let him know I was interested in the job. Ya know, even though I didn’t know what it was! I was intrigued because I’d been doing standup comedy on the road for several years and I was really quite ready to NOT be doing the road gigs!
Even though I knew Mike, I was freaked to call him. I just remember getting him on the phone and at that moment my dot matrix printer immediately started printing really, really loud in my tiny apartment. I felt like such a dope. I think I said something like:
I hung up and collapsed on my fainting couch.
So I submitted a script, they invited me in on a trial basis, and honestly, I think theyforgot that I was there on a trial basis.
As for how my role on the show progressed, well, we always very much “in house”, and pretty laid back and it was usually the path of least resistance. So we’d write a part in the host segments, and it’d always be someone already on staff or maybe a friend of ours. “Let’s have Beez (McKeever, the prop and set wrangler) play the robot!” So, too, I started getting silly bit roles, such as a detached head in a pan, a rowdy party girl, and a Midwestern space mom.
Eventually Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu, the evil mad scientist and his sidekick who were the driving forces behind the premise (TV’s Frank and Dr. Clayton Forrester, respectively), left the show. There needed to be a new adversarial force. I’d played Trace’s mother in past episodes so we writers decidedto make the mother the new antagonist.
AC: You’re also involved with Cinematic Titanic with a number of your original castmates. How did that get started and is there any news on it?
MJP: The latest news is that we’re winding up the end of this year. So yeah, I guess that’s all the news! Our last show will be in Philadelphia on Dec. 30. We’ve been touring for six years.
How it got born: in 2007 or so, Joel [Hodgeson, the creator of MST3K] called me and asked if I’d be interested. Well, natch! Several months later it really got off the ground and we started out just doing direct to DVDs. We happened to do live show at ILM in San Francisco and we all just kind of look at each other and realized we should be doing this live. We still put out some DVDs, but we started making live shows the thing. It’s an artist owned and operated venture, and we’ve done a lot of figuring it out as we go. Not always easily or elegantly.
We are five people all in different cities and after six years, it’s just gotten harder and harder to get [all of us] together to tour. It’s had a good life, and it’s been a blast.
AC: We’ve got a local riffing crew of our own here in Austin, Master Pancake Theater – as you well know. What do you think of the work they do and what’s it been like working with them from time to time?
MJP: When we first moved to Austin, The Husband and I went to the Alamo Drafthouse to check out Master Pancake. It was our first time for both, and it was at the old South Lamar location. We saw “The Day After Tomorrow” and good gravy, we almost threw up it was so funny.
It was really interesting to see the movie-riffing concept done live like that. When I was with Mystery Science Theater, I never actually riffed on the movie, I just wrote jokes. And when you’re taping episodes in a studio, it’s kind of a vacuum. So we had an absolute blast, and we introduced ourselves to John Erler, Joe Parsons and Scott Chester afterwards. A few months later they invited me to do “Halloween” with them. I was pretty intimidated. They are super-funny and super-smart, and so much better at thinking on their feet.
I tend to be more methodical, and improvisation is not my long suit. I couldn’t believe they could REMEMBER all their lines and not work off a script and a movie with a time code on it. The way we wrote MST3K and now Cinematic Titanic is much more methodical and systematic. There’s a real exuberanceand immediacy in the way the connect with the film. Master Pancake also plays with the form-they’ll take a movie and mashup music, other films or photo stills.
So not only was this an opportunity to riff on the movie, it was doing it live. We ended up doing “Halloween” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, so by the time Cinematic Titanic came around, and we started doing that live, I felt like Master Pancake had given me some chops.
Since then, I’ve done “Twilight: New Moon”, “The Sound of Music”, and “Hunger Games” with them. It has been great to get out of my comfort zone. I can be kind of tentative, and each and everyone of them totally commits to something and brings it all the way to an eleven. It’s taken me awhile to get in the groove with that. But selfishly,I consider it to be a real bonus for me to have had that learning experience, if you will, and take chances.
Later this month, we’ll be doing the October chestnut “Halloween”.
And get this: when Master Pancake was in its Mister Sinus iteration, years ago, my boss at MST3K had sent them a cease and desist. And now here we are.
AC: Obviously, you’re a busy lady but when you need to unwind, what are some of your favorite places in town to relax? In other words, where can creepy, obsessed MST fans most likely find you around town?
MJP: Fans?!?! I have fans?!?! Wow! Creepy and/or obsessed?!!? Who cares – they’re FANS!
Now that we live in Austin, we’re quite popular with out of town friends who want to see the city. We are aggressive hosts and they leave exhausted and relieved to be going.
I swim a couple of times a week in the very early hours at Barton Springs. I love to be there when the sun is coming up.
I love to walk and hike, and so will take my dog, Seymour, to any number of parks and trails ‘round these parts. The Husband and I also love to kayak on Lady Town Bird Lake.
Lately I’ve been hitting up the Hideout or Institution Theater for any number of their great offerings. It is so fun and so inspiring to see what these performing and improv groups are doing. We also try to go to a lot of other theater/performance offerings – just so many great theater companies, like Trouble Puppet.
I often rendezvous with friends at coffee shops to, ya know, coffee and brainstorm new show ideas. A readers theater version of the VH1 hit and Brett Michaels vehicle “Rock of Love”, anyone?
We love checking out the outlying small towns. I had no idea Hill Country even existed,much less was so beautiful.
The LBJ Library and I were recently married in a private ceremony. I’m a presidential libraries nut and have been there at least ten times.
BookPeople. ‘Nuff said.
From May to October, I spend a great deal of time bemoaning the summer heat, so I really don’t have a lot of spare time in the summer as you can imagine.
AC: You had a fun spoken word night at Cafe Caffeine called “People Saying Things” not too long ago. Are you planning any other local events like that in the future?
MJP: I’m always doing things here and there with folks who are kind enough to invite me to be part of their shows, but I don’t think I’m an impresario! It was a great evening of storytelling, to be sure, but we just could never get it off the ground. The hilarious and wonderful Marv Pratt (iScream Sandwich) and I came up with the idea, and really worked hard to get it going but… alas. The thing I loved about it was getting people who might not be performers to tell their stories connected to the theme. Like you!
I’ll never forget the night we had five people in the audience, barely more than the number of performers, and a huge crowd compared to most nights! Four of those fiveaudience members were sitting in the front row, and I just got this vibe that they didn’t know that there was going to be a show. Right in the middle of a great story being delivered by Marv, they realized they didn’t want to be there, and to much scraping of chairs and fussing to pick up purses, they walked out. It was such a bummer, I just had to laugh. That encapsulates the whole experience. Fortunately, there are lots of excellent like events, and executed much better! The Encyclopedia Show, for starters.
AC: Finally, what are you currently working on? This is free, shameless plug time, so go all out.
MJP: I’m working on a CD of original music from bad movies, and working on an IndieGoGo campaign for it, which is its own damn job!; I’ll be making the comedy festival rounds this upcoming year with a “solo and a half” show I debuted at Sketchfest in 2011 and continue to develop; I’m also working on another book. Here’s the first one, of which I am not too terribly ashamed.
On October 20, I’m doing a Stool Pigeon improv show as part of their anniversary celebration. They’re great. I can’t wait.
On October 23, I’ll be talking to the folks on ReMix on KOOP. It’s a sort of mix-tape/desert island discs show and I’ll be talking about music, which is something new and different for me! I hope they don’t mind that I only have one album and it’s WHAM!