This is an extended Q&A version of my recent phone interview with Trace Beaulieu, one of the original cast members of the cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Joel Hodgson created MST3K back in 1988, so the show is marking its 20th anniversary. The “Mystery Science Theater 3000 20th Anniversary Edition” box set was released this week to commemorate the milestone.
From 1988-96, Beaulieu played the evil scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester, who scheme of world domination involves shooting a hapless guy (first creator Joel Hodgson, later head writer Michael J. Nelson) up into space and forcing him to watch horrible B movies until his spirit is shattered. Beaulieu also operated the puppet and provided the voice for the sardonic robot character Crow T. Robot.
In the interview, Beaulieu not only reminisced about MST3K, he talked about the new riffing project “Cinematic Titanic,” which involves Beaulieu, Hodgson and fellow former MST3K cast members J. Elvis “Josh” Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff.
For those of you who read my expanded Q&A with Hodgson, which was posted Thursday, you might note that Beaulieu seemed more open to the prospect of a “Cinematic Titanic” crossover with RiffTrax, the movie-mocking audio commentaries created by Nelson and former MST3K cast members Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.
Q: Where am I calling you at?
A: I am in Minnesota. I am on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, as a matter of fact.
Q: Is this like your house?
A: This is like my house, yeah. (with amusement in his voice)
Q: It’s like your house or it is your house?
A: It is my house.
Q: Just making sure you weren’t standing on the border with your cell phone on a dare.
A: No. It’s an exact replica of my house in cardboard. So it’s like my house. And you’re in Oklahoma, I’m assuming.
Q: I’m in Oklahoma City, yeah. I’m in a building that’s very much like my office. And I just wanted to talk to you about the 20th anniversary of MST3K, which sounds funny to me. When you started this did you ever imagine that it would become the kind of phenomenon that would warrant a 20th anniversary celebration?
A: You know, really I was surprised we’d make it through the first week. We were doing it in this little crummy TV station, and nobody was getting paid much. It was just fun to do. It was such a lark at the time that (I) never thought that we’d be talking about it now.
Q: So it was just fun to do?
A: Yeah, exactly. You know, it was guys hanging around that liked each other and having fun. It was such a great idea that everybody just kept saying yes to it. And that’s a huge factor in its success, I think, because there’s so many people in the world that are ready to say no. “Oh, you can’t do that.” And had we pitched the idea rather than just made it, I don’t think it would have taken off because it’s a fairly hard concept to explain it to somebody.
Q: I remember the first time somebody had to explain the concept to me, and I believe my comment was like “Why is there a reindeer and a gumball machine watching this weird movie at 2 a.m.?” It was one of those conversations with my friend who became my boyfriend who became my fiancé who is now my husband. He was like, “Oh, that’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and I was like “I have no idea what you just said.”
A: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. (laughing)
Q: What is it about the show, is it the idea that caused it to touch a chord with so many people? Because I thought I was going to have to fist-fight some people over the box set when it arrived in my office. [Yeah, I mean you, my sister and my colleague Matt Price.]
A: Oh, really? You know, at first I said it was a bunch of people having fun together and making a fun thing, and I think that really carried through out into the world, and into your TV set, and out into your living room. Or wherever your TV set might be. I think that spirit of having fun carried through.
And it’s something that everybody has done; everyone has talked back to the television set. We just, we put it on TV.
Q: So you talked back to the TV while on TV?
A: Yeah, but you know, everybody’s done that. You know, the TV common room in a dorm or in the student hall on campus, that’s what people did: They’d watch soap operas and make snarky comments back to ‘em. Except for people who were there just to watch the soap opera, then it was really annoying for them.
Q: Exactly. What was the actual moment for you – if you remember it – when the whole idea clicked for you and you thought it might work and be cool? Because it is a different concept that takes kind of a mind shift to get a hold of it.
A: You mean like when did it actually, like, this was real for us?
A: I think when we started getting paid. When someone actually paid us money to do the show and not try to talk us out of it. And probably when we started making real money with the Comedy Channel (which later became Comedy Central).
Q: How long did it take for you to actually get paid?
A: Well we did 20 episodes at KTMA, and I don’t want to brag, but I was making $25 a week.
A: Yeah, that’s before taxes. And those are 1988 … dollars, so you know, that was a lot more money back then. (laughing)
Q: Yeah, but it wasn’t that much money even back then.
A: And it was only one day of work. You know, we did the entire two-hour show in one day. We’d go in in the morning, write the host segments – if you can call what we did writing – and then perform them. And then we would go to lunch and then come back.
And in the afternoon we’d sit two feet from a green screen wall and watch these movies for the first time as they were played in front of us.
And I think out of desperation and wanting to fill the holes, we started riffing on it, talking back to it. So there was never a plan to go “OK, we’re gonna take these movies and we’re gonna comment on ‘em and make funny pop culture references.” It was really an organic growth. (pause) An organic growth? That sounds like something that should have been cut off.
Q: Not something that should have been allowed to flourish for 20 years certainly.
Q: Was there a moment in the early development of the show that was a particular moment that you felt like made a huge difference in how it went on from there, any particular thing about the show or characters or whatever that really set the stage for it to be more successful?
A: Once we got our chops and we really had the show nailed down with the mad scientists and the types of movies we could get our hands on and also rounding out the writing room. We added quite a few writers in I think the second season. And then as we went on, we kept adding writers with different backgrounds that would come in either full time or part time. So we were pulling from quite a diverse group of people, and we were even getting scripts sent to us by groups around the country. I think some of the Madison group, the early Onion people …
* At this point, the phone line went dead, so I had to call Beaulieu back to resume the interview. Here’s how it went after we once again greeted each other:
Beaulieu: At what point in that tirade did I lose you?
Q: Are you sure you have phone lines up on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border?
A: Yeah. (with a laugh)
Q: You were talking about scripts being sent to you guys from groups around the country. You mentioned specifically the Madison group, the forerunner to the Onion.
A: Yeah, we’d send them a videotape and they would send us back a script, and we would add that to the mix. So a lot of interesting people worked on the show, wrote on the show.
Q: So you would add what they wrote to the mix of what you guys were coming up with?
A: Yeah. Yeah. And that was really when we were cruising then. Everything was up to speed and we had it pretty much figured out and had created a family of characters that were just really fun to write for.
Q: What was the genesis of the two characters that you played: Dr. Clayton Forrester and Crow T. Robot?
A: Well, they both had an evolution, I guess. The early days, we really were just throwing everything that worked at the show. And Crow I think came out of a lot of my own snarky, wisecracker-y comments.
And Forrester in the early days, (there) wasn’t a lot of thought put into that character. In fact, if you see some of those early KTMA’s, I’m pretty much in street clothes. You know, there’s no attempt at costuming or makeup.
In fact, you can see us reading the script; we had absolutely no time to rehearse anything, so the scripts are laid out in front of us.
And then when we got more money, that was another great leap forward. We said, hey let’s make these guys a little more, you know, mad science. You know, that icon of mad science, you know, give ‘em crazy hair and a mustache and make them a little bit more visual. But you know, then Forrester was more based on those archetypes of mad scientists you’d see in movies.
Q: So Crow would be the one that was a little more like you since the character was kind of based on your own sense of humor?
A: Yeah. I think, you know, my range is not great, so I tended to stay right around what I knew. (laughs) So (Crow is) probably closer to me, and then certainly influenced by a lot of comics. I think probably the strongest influence in delivery is probably Groucho (Marx). He’s got that kind of snarky aside kind of delivery.
But beyond that, the writing really fleshed out the characters and gave them back stories that would just entertain us. You know, we’d go, ‘Oh, Crow’s written screenplays. We didn’t know that. And not very good ones.’ You know, ‘And Tom Servo has an underwear collection; I didn’t know that.’ As the show progressed, everybody threw in bits and pieces that added to the characters.
And you know, Frank and Forrester’s relationship was never really clearly explained. (little laugh) But it was always alluded to that they had some kind of weird relationship.
Q: Well they were kind of weird; you could have just stopped there. Tell me, is it strange that you’ve introduced this kind of concept into the cultural lexicon, this concept of riffing on things, in the sense of making fun of them. Is that weird to think about? I guess that puts you up there with Dr. Seuss in that you invented a word.
A: Well, you know, riffing kind of came from the jazz lingo that people would go on riffs, you know, musical riffs. And how it got applied to comedy, I think other people had been doing that, like Lenny Bruce had used that term riffing. Riffing or mocking, you know, I don’t know if we really added that word to the world.
Q: What was it like to come together for that 20th anniversary reunion panel? Had you all been together all of you like that in years?
A: We’d been together in bits and pieces. You know, we’d run into each other at wedding receptions and things like that, or at parties, but a lot of us had moved to Los Angeles and then started hanging out together. So the complete blend of cast and crew didn’t really happen until that reunion. And I think we had a lot of like trepidation going into it. You know, ‘cause it’s like a family reunion but you haven’t seen, you know, Uncle Bert in like 20 years. And “Oh, that guy just got out of prison and what do you say.” Not that anyone was in prison; that’s really a bad analogy.
But once we got together it was sort of like we’d never really been apart. Everybody got along well and played well together. It seemed awfully short, though. You know, the panel was only an hour long, and it’s like we just got there and then it was done.
Q: So it felt really short?
A: Yeah. Yeah. I think they could have at least gone an hour and 15.
Q: So there was no throw-down or fist-fighting or anything like that?
A: No, nothing like that. We’re all from the Midwest, and you know, we just don’t do that.
Q: Was it interesting for you to be back in that world, since, of course, you left the show before it ran its course? Or was it like you never really left?
A: Well, you know (I) never really left. The fans have kept the show alive really. And Mary Jo and Frank and Joel and Josh and I got together about a year ago and created a show called “Cinematic Titanic,” which we’re doing now. So it’s the original cast of MST, plus Mary Jo and Frank, and we’re back mocking movies. So we had kind of started back into again. So, we’ve never really left that world, and that world really won’t let us leave.
Q: Obviously, this is a concept that has resonance, because as you mentioned, you guys are doing “Cinematic Titanic” and Mike is doing something similar with RiffTrax. So it’s a similar concept of riffing on these bad movies. So do you think it’s something that people have a tendency to do themselves that makes it something that people want to keep seeing?
A: I think so. You know, for me, it’s just a lot of fun to be in a room with people who are really smart and really funny and are making comments about whatever it happens to be, whether it’s a movie or a television show or the political race. Any of that.
It kind of reveals what everyone’s really thinking and kind of lets the air out of some of the pomposity that is projected by these projects or films or TV shows. It’s sort of like a public acknowledgement of ‘Yes, that’s dumb. And we all see it. We can see the strings.’
Q: I don’t think I know the story: Was there a particular reason why you left the show?
A: Well, I had done about 150 of them, and although I really loved doing it and working there and we had a great deal of freedom, it was sort of like, well, OK, I got this, let’s do something else. And it was clear that we weren’t going get any other projects going and you know, I got “Mystery Science.” I had done a bunch of them and just needed a change. So that was the primary reason.
Q: That’s not sordid at all. I guess you guys don’t have any sordid stories. As you said, I guess you guys are from the Midwest, so you don’t that sort thing.
A: Yeah, you wait until all the guests are gone and then you talk. You talk about it: ‘Did you see that hat she was wearing? And those shoes, come on.’ (laughs)
Q: It’s like the family reunion again. When you get in the car on the way home, it’s like, ‘Oh, that was a nightmare. I can’t stand any of those people; let’s never see them again.’
A: (laughs) Exactly. Yeah. ‘We’re related to them?’ ‘On your side.’
Q: Do you have any sort of favorite story about a reaction that you got from someone involved in a movie that you guys did or a movie that was so bad you couldn’t get through it? Do you have your all-time favorite MST3K story of craziness?
A: You know the actors on these movies knew exactly what they were doing. You know you’re not working on gold, but it’s a paycheck. And you know, an actor keeps working and works on a lot of different things, so you know, no one was really, that we’ve met, was that really offended by what we did. In fact, a lot of them were like tickled that we had done one of these movies.
Some of these movies that’s the only place you’ll ever really seem them. You know, we’re kind of responsible for resurrecting “Manos” which Frank (Conniff) found in the bottom of a box of videotapes and said “Hey you guys, look at this thing.” And it’s like had he not reached down for that last dirty little tape, the world would not have “Manos.”
Q: Do you have kind of mixed feelings about bringing some of that to the fore? I mean, did the world really need an unearthed “Manos: The Hands of Fate?” Do you ever think about that? (Laughing, of course)
A: We’ll let history judges us. Hopefully, they won’t be unkind. But you know, it’s not like Oppenheimer where you know now we can destroy the planet.
Well, maybe it is. Maybe one of these movies will destroy the world.
Q: Dr. Forrester would say it’s possible.
A: Well, yes.
Q: I know that fans are wondering: Is there any opportunity that we might see a crossover with ”Cinematic Titanic” and RiffTrax or some of the projects that you guys are working on that are similar themed?
A: You know, anything is possible. I would have said absolutely not, but I’ve seen too many things happen, that I would leave it open that anything’s possible.
Q: The Eagles are playing together, you can’t rule out anything.
A: (With mock seriousness, or maybe not. Maybe he just isn’t into that 1970s cool California style.) Did they break up?
Q: Oh, yeah, for forever. And then they got back together and kicked some guy out and then got back together again …
A: How come I have to hear this through you?
Q: I don’t know. Why do you have to hear this through me? Maybe they don’t come to the Minnesota-Wisconsin border where there are no phone lines?
A: Yeah. …
Q: Is there anything else about the show that you want to mention? Anything you want to say to the fans, about the fans, about your colleagues?
A: You know, it’s really the fans, I think, are largely responsible for the success of the show, and if that wasn’t mentioned, it should be, because we would not be doing this – we certainly wouldn’t be doing it or talking about it today – if it were not for the fans.
And I might have to come knocking on their doors and asking for work or a bacon sandwich or something in the future if the economy keeps going in the tank, so I want to maintain good relationships.
Q: And you’re getting ready to turn 50. Do you have any big, fun plans?
A: Well, I’m not getting ready for it, but it’s gonna happen. There’s really nothing I can do to prepare. It just will happen. I don’t know. I might go out to dinner. That’s as exciting as it gets.
Q: Anything else I should know about the show or about yourself?
A: I think we’ve covered a lot of it. ‘‘Cinematic Titanic” has our world tour coming up. We have a live show … in December we’re in Chicago.
Q: One of my friends said, “Ask if he’ll bring “Cinematic Titanic” to Oklahoma City.’” And I’m like, “I don’t know if I have that kind of pull with him, but I’ll ask.”
A: Well, it’s on the list now. We’ll see. If we can find a suitable venue, we’ll be there. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Oklahoma City.
Q: It’s on the list now? I put it on the list?
Q: All right. Nice to know I have a little bit of pull. I have clout. If you come to Oklahoma City, I’m taking credit for it. I hope you know that.
A: All right. All right.
Q: All right and as far as “Cinematic Titanic,” besides the live shows, you have your DVDs coming out?
A: We got the DVDs. We just released another one … called ‘Legacy of Blood.’ And we have an extremely controversial Christmas movie coming out Nov. 20.
Q: And do we have a name for it?
A: It’s the “extremely controversial Christmas episode.” (laughs)
Q: Ah. Wow. OK. So it’s a secret.
A: We’re not releasing the title yet, although it might get leaked soon. But not by me. I’m zipping my lip.
* NOTE: Satellite News, the official MST3K fan site, said Thursday that the suprise Christmas movie will be “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” which Hodgson and the robots riffed in Season 3.