by Michael Henley
If you’ve ever found yourself watching a truly terrible movie and have ever felt the urge to try talking back to the screen, then you know the unmistakable allure of movie riffing.
As popularized by the long-running cult show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999), movie riffing is the art of slipping jokes, references, alternate dialogue and off-the-wall commentary into old crummy films, adding a gleefully sardonic edge, turning B-movie straw into grade-A comedy gold.
At its best, riffing has a strangely sportsman-like quality to it, as the inherent level of playfulness can often belie the degree of professionalism and skill that goes into making it work. And much like a sports fan, if you have a hunger for movie riffing you have two options: either try it yourself, or leave it to the professionals. If going with the former option, hopefully you’re doing it in the privacy of your own house. But if you want to seek out the pros, then the more the merrier.
On Saturday, May 20, The Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, PA will host a comedy extravaganza called “The Mads Are Back,” a live showcase for the talents of two crucial figures in Mystery Science Theater history: Trace Bealieu and Frank Conniff. For more than half of the show’s eleven-year original run, both Beaulieu and Conniff played, respectively, the mad scientists Clayton Forrester and “TV’s Frank,” with both doing double duty as writers and Trace also performing puppeteering and voice duties for the irascible Crow T. Robot. For Beaulieu, to return to a popular structure that he helped invent is as invigorating as it is comfortable. “It’s a fun format for us and the audience is a huge part of that chemistry. It’s a very unique kind of entertainment experience. We essentially started this form 30 years ago. We kind of feel like it’s very much in our wheelhouse. We’ve been doing it for so long, it just comes so naturally to us.”
Phoenixville’s historic Colonial Theater in recent years has been no stranger to the movie-riffing family: Mystery Science creator Joel Hodgson has hosted numerous events and specials there, culminating with a 2012 expo for graduates of a movie-riffing class that Hodgson taught at Bucks Community College at the time. But as Hodgson now celebrates the rebooted Mystery Science currently on Netflix, it is a telling detail that even with the original MST back, hunger for movie riffing opportunities has only gone up, with spiritual successors to the Mystery Science format like Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic (the latter of which Beaulieu and Conniff performed and wrote for) finding bigger and bigger levels of success, perhaps fulfilling a greater, almost societal hunger. “I think movie riffing has morphed into live tweeting and things like that.” Suggests Conniff. “It’s kind of been influential in other mediums. But the kind of thing we do has really stayed the same since we’ve started doing it.”
With “The Mads Are Back,” both Beaulieu and Conniff are enjoying the comfort and chemistry that can only come from years of collaboration (it’s no secret that some of the most successful of Mystery Science’s skit-like “host segments” depended upon the vibrant interplay and comic timing between Beaulieu and Conniff). Conniff, a New Yorker, and Beaulieu, a Minneapolis native, met during production of Mystery Science Theater and instantly found, despite their different upbringings, a nicely simpatico rhythm. “I think one of the reasons why Mystery Science Theater gelled so well,” says Conniff, “is because we came from different parts of the country but we had similar sensibilities right from the first take. We all grew up watching Monty Python and SCTV and listening to Frank Zappa. We both had that very similar taste in popular culture. It was just a natural fit right from the start.”
Beaulieu agrees: “I knew that Frank and I were on the same plane when I mentioned [50’s and 60’s comedian] Morty Gunty to him and he knew who that was. Another example was when we were writing jokes for Plan 9 From Outer Space and we’d get together and rehearse and compare notes and see what overlap we have. And we had both written the same joke about Stubby Kaye. The exact same moment, the exact same joke.” He pauses for a moment of mock-reflection. “It also proves that we’re really old.”
Conniff left the show at the end of its sixth season, while Beaulieu departed a year later, but both have stayed exceptionally busy since as both writers and performers. (Beaulieu appeared, memorably, during the short-lived but much-cherished television series Freaks and Geeks while Conniff has written for, among many other things, cult classics like Nickelodeon’s Invader Zim.) Starting last July, both men began hosting a regular movie podcast together, Movie Sign With the Mads, which, if anything, “The Mads Are Back” can be seen as a humorous companion piece to. But both men point to the exhilaration of the live format as a singularly unique experience. “I think we have the most fun performing in front of an audience. Nothing beats that. We’re writing and performing our own material. It’s incredibly satisfying to present materials that we’ve created and give it to an audience and have their feedback be immediate. We know right away that we’re funny.”
A major difference between Mystery Science and the Mads, though, is the writing staff, or more to the point, the lack of one. “We don’t have a writing staff,” says Beaulieu. “We are the writing staff. But the process is very similar to when we were both on Mystery Science Theater. Frank and I will both do a pass on the film and write our jokes and then when we get together in a city, in a hotel room we go over that material quite meticulously. And then we keep adding. We’ve performed these films now 20 times on the road. And they keep evolving and we keep adding and improving off one another. They feel so improvisational and off the top of our head because we’re so comfortable and rehearsed with them. We’re constantly upgrading, refining. Something will happen in the news that fits a moment in the film and we’re kind of obligated to make those changes.”
Conniff agrees: “The difference between what we do now and Mystery Science Theater is that the writing process actually continues as we perform. We add new jokes in every show. We take out jokes. There’s always new stuff that Trace says and I say in every performance. The writing doesn’t really stop at the script stage. It continues as we perform.”
Of course, the films themselves help, and are curated very carefully. Beaulieu reminisces about the MST years: “We started out doing sci fi and horror but it really branched out into every genre. We do one in our repertoire that’s a film noir. But we’ve also done biker films and blaxploitation…I think we’ve covered practically every genre.”
“One of the most iconic Mystery Science Theater episodes,” says Conniff, “is Mitchell, which is a 1970s police detective film. Not something you’d expect from us—we were known for sci-fi and horror. You never know what kind of film is just gonna pop. It depends on each movie, really.”
Any Mystery Science Theater fan knows Mitchell, a potboiler crime thriller starring Joe Don Baker as a detective bumbling his way through investigating multiple Los Angeles drug kingpins. “I kinda feel that Mitchell IS sci-fi and horror,” smiles Beaulieu, poking fun at Baker’s titular character, for whom the label “slob” would imply a substantial upgrade. “Mitchell,” says Beaulieu, speaking of both the character and the movie, “is lovable like an old worn-out couch that sits in the basement.” However, both Beaulieu and Conniff are quick to dispel a preconception about Joe Don Baker. “Terrific actor,” they both say, with full sincerity.
Another hallmark of Mystery Science was always the predilection towards the esoteric. Comedian Patton Oswalt and others have remarked about the specificity of their bank of references, sometimes zinging local businesses, obscure comedians, lesser-known politicians, baffling literary references, and the like. This tradition continues in “The Mads are Back,” and it’s one the two men enjoy with relish. When asked if they’ve ever removed a joke for being too obscure, the answer is a definitive “no.”
Says Beaulieu: “We’re not afraid of being obscure. People really enjoy us repairing our mistakes as we go along. Like what Johnny Carson used to do. Some of the most fun parts of his monologues was apologizing for how bad his jokes were. Not that we do an evening of bad jokes, of course.”
Conniff agrees. “I’ve done a Henry Cabot Lodge reference, because two old people in the audience will laugh at it.”
But of course, when movie riffing is your game, it’s important to remember what gives you happiness. When asked how they recharge their batteries, both men state their fondness for the audience experience. Says Beaulieu: “What really invigorates is the laughter of the audience. It’s the greatest drug if you can get ahold of it. Being in a theater full of people and laughing for two hours. That’s better than crack.”
Conniff, with sublime timing, jumps in at this point with his tongue firmly in cheek: “And I’ve tried crack. It’s great.”
Both men take time to praise things they’re fans of. Says Beaulieu: “I’m a big fan of British television. I’m watching a series now called Inside Number 9. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are the writers and performers on it. It’s an amazing show. Every episode is a different story.” Conniff namechecks his two favorite shows: HBO’s Veep and AMC’s Better Call Saul, which he says is the best American show on television. (Full disclosure: I wouldn’t have been doing my job, or making this site proud, if I hadn’t taken this moment to heartily and enthusiastically agree with him. So I did.)
But one of the most crucial aspects of movie riffing, both Conniff and Beaulieu suggest, is the sneaky affection that they have for their targets, which prevents the material from getting too acidic. “We love these movies,” stresses Beaulieu. “We couldn’t travel with them on the road as much as we do and do them up to 20 times and more. I don’t think it’s an enjoyable entertainment device if you hate the movie. Just don’t watch it if you hate it that much. We’re doing a lot of the Ed Wood catalogue. And he’s got a warmth and a very dedicated-to-the-craft sensibility. And I don’t mean that to be facetious. He was a filmmaker that was passionate about making movies.”
Conniff is even more contemplative with this thoughts on the matter. “Bad movies are now just a genre that people like. People enjoy watching them and watching them with their friends. It’s a very positive thing. These movies, even if they’re not good, they’re giving people a lot of enjoyment if they watch them with the right attitude. I wish Ed Wood had lived to see how much enjoyment his movie gave to people.”
Perhaps within that statement lies the undeniable appeal of movie riffing: the chance to rehabilitate failed art into something more humorous, enjoyable, and lasting. But such a thing can’t be done if it comes from a place of pure contempt. Says Beaulieu, with all the passion of a self-aware enthusiast who has a keen sense of humor about his own interests: “These movies are very lovable. They’re not terrible movies.”
He pauses and it hangs in the air.
Tickets for the event can be found here. Special thanks to Josh Marrazzo for his assistance with this piece.