Wednesday, January 23, 2008

An interview with Cinematic Titanic's always awesome Mary Jo Pehl

Remember how I said I was looking forward to 2008 because I would get to see "Cinematic Titanic" and would love it? Hey, guess what? 2008 came, I saw "Cinematic Titanic" and I loved it. For anyone who adored "Mystery Science Theater 3000," hearing original cast members Joel Hodgson, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein back together again, riffing their way through another God-awful movie, is a trip back to our collective comedy happy place.

In fact, I enjoyed "Cinematic Titanic" and its first offering, "The Oozing Skull," so much I asked writer, performer and Texas bon vivant Mary Jo Pehl if she would mind talking to The Park Bench and giving us the scoop on "Cinematic Titanic," the writing life and what it's like to get a back rub from Harrison Ford. She was kind enough to agree and the results of our confab are below. Enjoy!

What was it like getting back together with the guys again?

Terrific and interesting: we're old, most of us are married, our lives are different. It was like putting on old, comfortable shoes, only less stinky. And it was a bit different for me personally because although I wrote on the show for many years, there was only one brief movie segment where I actually riffed on the movie. Here I get to riff on the movie in front of the camera, and durn it if I don't work with some of the funniest people ev-ah!

Could you tell us a bit about how the CT writing process works?


Oh, all right.

We each get a copy of the movie with a time code on it, telling us each second of the movie so we can write for that specific moment. In the old days of MST3K we all sat in the writing room together, watching on a big screen TV. Now we're each doing it alone on these newfangled computers. Frank, Joel and Josh might get together since they all live in L.A. but those of us in the field offices, Trace in Minnesota and me in Austin, we're writing alone. When we got together to shoot the first episode, we rehearsed it a couple of times, tweaking and adjusting along the way.

Do you eventually just become inured to the pain of watching the movie over and over?

No, I have never become inured to the pain of watching a bad movie over and over again. Sadly, I become outraged and indignant all over again with every viewing. On the good side, sometimes these movies are so convoluted that with repeated viewings one is able to figure out plot points. So there's some sort of payoff!

As a writer, how do the experiences of writing solo and writing collaboratively compare?

I think the collaborative thing can be tricky. It's a difficult dynamic to navigate, but man, if you find someone that it works with, it can be gangbusters. (Former MST writer and cast member) Bill Corbett and his writing partner sold a screenplay that got made and will be released this spring.

I work alone because that's the kind of writing I do mostly. Freelance magazine and radio pieces are not really conducive to partnering up. I think MST3K set the bar very high for me to work collaboratively. These were funny, smart people and on the whole, the feeling in the writing room was about making the show better and not pursuing individual agendas. Also, there was a rule that if any line or joke made someone uncomfortable, it was out. It could be lobbied for and a case made for it, but it might still be gone. It was a great learning experience for me to learn how to make a case for something!

But with RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic, writing these gawd-awful films is very hard. You don't have a "jamming" environment, where the energy of the group helps you to go on, and build on each other's jokes. It's just you and the movie -- and it can feel like an anvil on your head.

What's it like being the lone woman writer with a group of guys -- do you bring a different take on things?

I think anyone coming to the table has a different take on things, because everyone has such diverse experiences, gender being only one of those experiences.

Believe it or don't, many of the shopping, makeup and boys jokes are made by the fellows, with an alarming insight! And I have been known to make the occasional political or sports jokes.

You debuted the show live at Industrial Light and Magic, which I've always envisioned as a sort of nirvana where Harrison Ford gives delicate massages and George Lucas uses the Force to put coasters under your drink. First of all, what was it like doing that show, and second, what was it like to get a massage from Harrison Ford?

It was a total geekfest. First of all, I felt dizzy and lightheaded to be there, and I wished I had a personal assistant to tote a fainting couch behind me as we toured the facility. We were thrilled to be there and they were thrilled to have us there, so you can imagine us all falling over each other like clumsy lovers! And I have to keep this short because Harrison is still administering my massage, and Darth Vader and I are having lunch in a bit.

Do you have any favorite "Oozing Skull" moments? (A question you'll never hear on Oprah...)

I love the moment at the very end when Amir is having the press conference about how great Kalid is going to be from now on, with the help of the new "surgeon general," the evil Dr. Trenton. The camera goes to Dr. Trenton, and he has this wonderful, cocky, jaunty, smug little smile. I loved Dr. Trenton because he showed up for the movie. He knew what he was doing there and was actually a capable actor. Did you know he was a supporting lead in a lot of "A" movies?

Another moment that cracked me up is when Mohammed and Dr. Nigserian are driving along, and Mohammed is just plain cranky about the plan to take the body to get the brain transplanted. His country's fate hangs in the balance, he passionately swears he would give his life for Amir's reign to continue, but when push comes to shove, he's just pissy about it. It's a moment in the front seat in the station wagon when he sort of whines, "Are you sure this will work?" "Why are we doing this?" A few scenes later, they are being run off the road in a low-speed action chase, and it seems like Mohammed isn't so much terrified but aggrieved that his nap has been interrupted and they might not get to stop at Cracker Barrel as planned.

I think I have a crush on Trace's silhouette. Should I be concerned?

No. Crush away. Even though it's probably not my place to give you permission to do so. [Ed. - I'm taking that permission and running with it anyway.]

A big thanks to Mary Jo for taking the time to talk with The Park Bench. If you'd like to own a piece of comedy gold, order your "Cinematic Titanic" DVD now by going here.


Stacia said...

Great interview! I think we're all going to have to fight over Trace's silhouette.

Jessica said...


Joel was always my favorite. :) I never held the same affections for Mike...

Mickie Poe said...

Awesome interview, as I told you earlier today. I'm so excited about C.T. now! More than before, even!

Courtney Suzanne said...

Thanks for the great interview!