SIFF Interview: The Mads are Back talk about Mystery Science Theater 3000, Ed Wood, b-movies, and more
This year, one my favorite events at the Seattle International Film Festival must be the duo of Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu (of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” fame) riffing on the Ed Wood film Glen or Glenda?
Conniff and Beaulieu are touring across the country as a duo called “The Mads are Back!,” where they provide a live soundtrack of jokes and one-liners accompanying b-movies. It’s a live version of what they helped popularize with MST3K. Their next event is a Mystery Science Theater 3000 reunion in Minneapolis later this month. The tour makes somewhat infrequent stops, but it is very much worthwhile keeping track of their calendar.
With “Mystery Science Theater 3000” being such an important part of developing my sense of humor through my teenage years, it was a joy to get the chance to talk with Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu when they stopped in Seattle to perform their comedy act to one of Ed Wood’s most well-known films.
I was wondering if you could talk about your tour, and what you guys are doing with the Mads Are Back tour.
Frank: We’ve been going on the road with Trace. As you probably know, Trace and I were part of a thing called “Cinematic Titanic.” Which was Joel Hodgson and Mary Jo Pehl and J. Elvis Weinstein, and Trace and myself.
We toured all over the country doing a live movie riffing show. We love doing it, but Joel broke the band up a few years ago. Trace and I we wanted to keep doing this, so now we’re doing it as a duo.
We do a live show where we take a movie, we take some shorts, cartoons and we do live riffs on them.
Trace: If Cinematic Titanic was the big band version of riffing, this is the jazz combo.
The acoustic duo?
Trace: Right, and then we’ll get down to just one of us with just a snare drum on the corner of a street somewhere.
I know tonight you’re going to do Glen or Glenda? How do you choose the movies that you want to do? I know that there’s …
Frank: It’s based on what’s available to do, what has a good print. We very much like to pick films that are very much in the vein of the kinds of films we used to do at Mystery Science Theater. We tend to like older fifties and sixties, sci-fi and horror.
There’s an un-self consciousness to those kinds of b movies that really lend itself well to movie riffing.
Trace: Glen or Glenda? was chosen because we have a great fondness for Ed Wood. We had done Plan 9 in this format before. We wanted to do something that was kind of contemporary, that the subject matter was relevant to today.
If you look at Glen or Glenda?, its such a lovely treatment of the subject matter. Which was exploitation back when it was made but today it is, and then it goes batshit crazy. The core of it is beautiful.
Frank: I think a really exploited filmmaker in the fifties, making a movie about transgender people, would have made it about crazy psychopathic transgender person. This is a movie that asks its audience to have compassion for these people. The fact that it was made in 1953 I think is pretty extraordinary. Its only about sixty years ahead of its time.
I first became aware of Ed Wood through the Tim Burton movie and then through MST3K also. I was wondering if you think that there’s a reason why he kind of lives on I guess, being named the worst filmmaker ever? I don’t know if I believe that.
Trace: We proved it with “Mystery Science Theater” that he is not the worst filmmaker.
Frank: It’s that there are worse filmmakers.
Trace: He’s competent, its just his resources were limited. His heart was in a lot of those films.
Frank: Yes, I think that’s why his movies have lived on. His movies are very soulful I think. They’re badly acted, badly written, badly directed, but they have a soul to them.
Trace: They got a heart.
Frank: They’re not mean spirited or anything, and its not like a modern bad movie like The Room. Which is a fun kind of movie to riff, but that’s a mean spirited movie. Ed Wood isn’t like that at all.
I’m wondering, what movies do you have that you’re coming up with on the tour? The one you’re going to do on the next stops.
Trace: We kind of keep all of that under our hat until we get to the venue. We like to change our mind and see which film is more suited for the audience that we’re playing to. We do love the Ed Wood genre, his entire catalog. We’ve tried some other things, we tried Robot Monster in Chicago because that was a favorite with MST. That might appear again, but its such a dark print and the soundtrack is so muddy.
Frank: Yes, the soundtrack is just atrocious.
Trace: That we need to live with these films for a long time on the road. Its not like “Mystery Science” where we tape them and then discard them. These are our friends and we like to travel, so we have to be careful what we choose. Like Glen or Glenda?, we have great affection for this film. Its a welcome companion on the road.
Is this an anomaly then, where people know in advance what movie you’re going to be riffing on?
Frank: Yes, its actually unusual. This particular gig, Seattle Film Festival, people know the film. Yes, that is an anomaly. We don’t often do that, we just make it a surprise.
Trace: We’re trying ourselves as The Mads Frank and Trace, come and see us. The movie is sort of lower in the billing.
Right, I understand. What can people expect from you guys from the shows? From either tonight or the subsequent ones?
Frank: For any show that people come to they can just expect something very similar to the “Mystery Science Theater” experience. Just the two of us just doing a ton of jokes. Riffing films, a barrage of one liners to a movie. We also do some short films, too.
We learned from this experience and from “Cinematic Titanic” that, for a live comedy experience it’s just nonstop laughter.
Absolutely. Can I ask how you guys became involved with Mystery Science Theater? How you guys became involved with it?
Trace: Well, we were all doing stand up in the eighties in Minneapolis. That’s where we meet and Joel and Josh, J. Elvis Weinstein. Josh and Joel and I were in a writing group, and Joel came in one day and said, “Hey, I’m doing this TV show idea at this local television station. Would you mind helping?”
That was the audition right there, that was the invitation and audition. We went over the next day and he said, “Grab those puppets.” There’s some piles of plastic … there’s no long development period. There was no bible to the show, it was just like…
Frank: The development period was the show.
Trace: Yes, exactly. We did twenty episodes at KTMA in Minneapolis, then made a sell tape of the best jokes from that. Joel had a relationship with the Comedy Channel, and we got a contract. They were hungry for programming and after season one Frank came aboard, and then we started pulling people from the stand-up community.
The comedians in Minneapolis, to build the staff and build the show. Very organic, very not the way stuff happens in Hollywood. I think that added to the charm and the heart of the show.
I remember watching it on Comedy Channel or Comedy Central, when I was a young teenager. I just thought it was hilarious seeing you guys. It was like one joke after another, and it was always so much fun to watch. I think it did bring a new life to a lot of those movies that had been kind of forgotten.
Trace: Absolutely. Some of those films you would never have heard of again. You would not have heard of Manos: The Hands of Fate had Frank not been the guy to pull it out of a cardboard box.
Frank: God help me, I’m the one who found it.
Trace: You released the Manos virus on us.
Frank: I did.
Trace: On the world, and now it has a life of its own. Manos: Hands of Fate is what people are doing. They do musical versions of it, they do puppet show versions of it. Someone’s making a sequel.
Frank: They restored it.
Trace: Yes, they restored it. It has a whole life of its own beyond Mystery Science Theater’s. Its kind of amazing. The film Contagion is actually based on Frank pulling Manos out of the box.
Are there any other favorites you have that you kind of pulled out of obscurity?
Frank: A favorite? I don’t know. Most of the films I guess were sort of pulled out of obscurity. I have a few favorites. I Accuse My Parents is a film, its a favorite of mine. I like Skydivers which is a horror movie, Coleman Francis film.
Trace: The shorts are fantastic, among my favorites.
Frank: The shorts, Mr B Natural and What To Do On A Date. Appreciating Your Parents … Microcosm of the culture that they came out of. The attitudes in the culture, so those are really interesting to watch.
How are you able to find some of them?
Frank: Its very easy. People ask us all the time about how we found the films, as if it was some kind of mysterious. Like we were Indiana Jones. It was just Comedy Central sent us screeners. There were various companies that at the time on VHS released those films, on VHS.
Sinister Cinema is a company, Something Weird Video is another company. A lot of the films we did were from some weird company like Marooned and Cave Dwellers. They all had those same weird credits at the beginning that were different from the actual movie, because for contractual reasons, whatever.
They re-did the credits and changed the title. I don’t know how they led the right slaps to Marooned, which was the only really big budget Hollywood film we ever did. Marooned with Gregory Pack and Gene Hackman.
Trace: Academy Award winning or nominated?
Frank: I think it won for its special effects. It was at least nominated, and that was like re-titled Space Travelers. There all these weird companies that attained rights to things, and put them out. It was just a very simple process of Comedy Central sending them, us.
It was my job to screen the films and look through them. I would get these big boxes of VHS tapes and just start watching.
I’m also kind of curious, you said that the audition was just being asked, “Do you want to help out with this?” What was the process like for each episode? Was it really impromptu or did you spend a lot of time working all of the jokes out.
Frank: No, every episode was very tightly scripted. We had like a nine day production process. He first day we … Riffs, we’d stop, type the riffs in. Start the film again, yell out riffs, type the riffs in.
Do that all day and then the second day we write sketches, we write post segments, the rap around segments. We brainstormed in the morning on ideas, decide what we want to do and then in the afternoon we write sketches.
The next day after that was the second day of watching the movie and riffing on it, like taking a second pass at it. Then after that Trace and Joel would go off and build props, and designs sets and stuff for the sketches. It was my job and another writer, Paul Chaplin and Mary Jo Pehl.
We would each take a section of the script we had put together for the movie, and we would assign the lines to characters and edit the riffs. For one particular moment there might be six different jokes, and then choose which is the best joke.
Then we’d assign the joke to a character, then we’d have our script ready. Then we’d do a table read of the script with everyone, and then as we were doing that lines would be changed. Then we’d film the movie segments and then sometimes we’d go into editing and post, and change lines, improve things.
Its a very tightly scripted, very methodically prepared product. That ended up seeming very spontaneous, which is what we wanted it to seem like but it really wasn’t at all.
I thought you guys watch these movies a bunch of times and then came in and it was real spontaneous. I thought it really was.
Trace: Yes. Very tightly scripted, but the way we wrote the jokes was very improvisational. We could carry those reads with us into the performance, and be very comfortable with making them fit our mouths, so to speak.
Its a great compliment to hear people go, “I just thought that was improv.” We went and wrote a lot of jokes.
How does that compare with what you guys are doing now with the Mads Are Back tour?
Frank: What we’re doing now is a little looser. We do prepare a script. Trace and I live separate places. Trace lives in Minnesota, I live in New York City and we each look through the film, and we write a bunch of jokes. Then we get together and kind of figure out which jokes we want to do.
We do it live but because its just the two of us, there’s more an informal fell to it. Its live but there is a lot of improvising and stuff like that. Some of our best jokes I think is from just writing on stage, in the moment. We wouldn’t go in just to improvise.
Trace: They’re fully scored and we have freedom to trade fours, is that the phrase?
Trace: That’s the jazz phrase, trade fours.
I’ll just ask if there’s any other projects you guys are working on that you want to talk about?
Trace: You can follow us on The Mads Are Back Facebook page. Also on themadsareback.com Facebook and Twitter (Frank; Trace) for all of us. Frank’s got a ton of stuff.
Frank: Not really, but I’m on a radio show every day that I do out in New York, on SiriusXM radio. Its called “Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang,” John Fugelsang’s the host I’m his wacky sidekick. Its on two to five eastern time every afternoon, Monday through Friday. That’s a lot of fun.
I still do a lot of stand-up comedy shows. I have my own podcast which is a scripted podcast called Podhouse 90, which is an anthology off original radio plays that I write and produce and direct.
My brother Tony and I write songs for it, and its a very elaborately produced thing. My podcast schedule so far has been one episode a year.
Trace: Those are on iTunes?
Frank: Yes. You can find them on iTunes and frankconniff.com and I just completed negotiations with Trace last night. He’s going to be in the next one. Trace is a previous one I did called “Dracula Has Risen In The Polls.” I’m very involved with doing that.
We also have physical companies that are conventional and sell the CDs.
Okay, are you going to have those tonight?
Trace: No merch tonight. Tonight is all about heart. This is a film festival, we just want people to focus on the craft of film making.
Frank: In other words we were too lazy to bring them.
Trace: Yes, exactly.
Yes, I totally understand. I know you said on your website you kind of like playing, you only want to do smaller venues because you want to be able to meet everyone.
Trace: We don’t do like a VIP kind of thing, separation at our show. We’re around before, during and after the show to mingle with the fans and talk to them.
Frank: We love just meeting the fans and talking to them and stuff.
Frank: Yes, we love that. Although if we became more popular we’d be …
You’d be fine with that too?
Frank: Make more money doing bigger. Right now we do venues that we feel are realistic for us to fill up. Cinematic Titanic I think we could play fifteen hundred seat places. We’re more in the three hundred to five hundred seat range. At this point we hope that it grows.
Trace: At a certain point the size of the venue doesn’t help the experience. If its too big there’s too much lag time between joke and audience response, and then you miss the rhythm of the whole joke structure.
Trace: Smaller venue is better for the riffing experience. You won’t see us playing stadiums.
Frank: Not yet, I mean I hope. I would love to do Shea Stadium. That would be a great experience. We’d be like the Beatles, we’d have to stop touring because nobody hears the riff because the girls are screaming all the time.
Trace: That’s the problem, yes.
Originally published at thesunbreak.com on June 7, 2016.