The Mads Are Back

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When the phone rang, I was not too proud to say aloud, “The Mads are calling.”

Because they were.

The Mads are writer-performers Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff. For a better part of the 1990s, they played Dr. Clayton Forrester and his bumbling henchman, “TV’s Frank,” on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Beaulieu also created and performed the role of Crow T. Robot).

The premise of the show involved virtuosic displays of movie mocking. It also involved robots and outer space and incompetent supervillains. It created a lot of devotees and not a few detractors.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 spawned a new definition of riffing, a term that had previously been used to describe jazz improvisation.

Riffing now encompasses movie-inspired quipping.

After leaving Mystery Science Theater 3000, Beaulieu and Conniff wrote for other comedic series and then toured with Cinematic Titanic, another movie riffing venture with a huge cast of established riffers.

The men subsequently formed a double act and are performing in theaters nationwide under the rubric, The Mads Are Back.

They will riff an as-yet-unnamed movie on Saturday night at the first annual Hall of Heroes Comic Con in Elkhart.

I interviewed both men recently. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I interviewed Conniff separately late last year about his hilarious bad movie memoir, Twenty Five Mystery Science Theater 3000 Films That Changed My Life In No Way Whatsoever.

I ran out if time to write it up then, so I will now attempt to combine both interviews in a manner that is no more than mildly jarring.

Conniff joined Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (aka MST3K) before the start of its second season on Comedy Central.

He replaced J. Elvis Weinstein as Forrester’s sidekick and it quickly became evident that Beaulieu and Conniff shared a rare chemistry.

“I think the thing that really inspired TV’s Frank’s relationship with Dr. Forrester is that Trace and I are both fans of comedy teams like Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers,” Conniff said. “We wanted it to have that kind of a feeling to it: one guy’s a stooge and the other guy takes advantage of the fact that he’s a stooge.”

The characters that Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk played in the 1965 film, The Great Race, Professor Fate and his hapless crony Maximilian Meen, also influenced the Mads, Conniff said.

Conniff said that he and Beaulieu share “a common worldview.”

“We’re very in sync in terms of our comedic sensibilities,” he said. “The things that make me laugh are usually the things that make Trace laugh.”

The name “TV’s Frank” grew out of a convention of print advertising in the 1960s and 1970s.

“When I was growing up,” Conniff said, “you would read in TV Guide – if someone from a TV show would do an ad for something – it would say, ‘Mike Connor, TV’s Mannix’ and that’s kind of where it came from. People just started saying it. It was just another one of those things from the show that came very naturally. Not a lot of thought went into it.

“I probably shouldn’t admit how much ‘TV’s Frank’ is based on the real me,” he said, laughing.

It was Conniff’s job on the show to vet and cull the films for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This meant opening box after box filled with VHS tapes and viewing hours’ worth of the worst cinema ever created by well-meaning incompetents.

This was not at all akin to ditch digging, Conniff said, but it was not a fun job.

Mere badness was not enough to qualify a movie for comic disqualification on MST3K.

Some bad movies unfold like gridlock, like slow WiFi, like sorting socks, like waiting in a long line to buy stamps.

If the movie lacked a followable plot, it did not lend itself to riffing, Conniff said,

“When you can’t tell what’s happening at all, it just doesn’t lend itself to an entertaining experience,” he said. “Even a movie like ‘Manos’ has a plot to it that you can sort of follow.”

“For every 20 films,” Conniff wrote in the aforementioned memoir, “there were usually one or two that would be deemed appropriate for our needs. ‘Are there films that were too awful even for MST3K?’ is a question I have often got and the answer is: yes, dear God, yes, heaven help me, have mercy on my soul, yes.”

Conniff left the show after the sixth season and Beaulieu after the seventh.

Both men say they wanted to try their hands at other sorts of comedy writing.

Beaulieu spent many years as a staff writer on ABC’s America’s Funniest Home Videos and Conniff was head writer on the acclaimed Nickelodeon cartoon series, Invader Zim.

After MST3K creator Joel Hodgson decided to shut down the Cinematic Titanic project, Conniff received a request to do a one-off live show and he and Beaulieu decided to see if they could turn that into multiple bookings.

The cardboard box method for finding riffable films has been replaced by web surfing, Beaulieu said.

“We’ve been dealing with the Ed Wood catalog because we love his movies so much,” he said, “and then just searching on the Internet for films that are appropriate to our needs. We need a movie that’s got some kind of plot to follow and plenty of room for us to add our comments.”

It’s got to be “the right type of crap,” Beaulieu said.

They try to find good prints, he said, but they’re now riffing a bad print of “a film noir starring Chuck Connors” and the shoddy quality of the copy seems to be working in comedy’s favor.

Of course, when you’re talking about “a film noir starring Chuck Connors,” comedy already has a significant head start.

The shows are tightly scripted, Beaulieu said, but there is room for improvisation.

“The audience is so important for us to keep the films fresh and vital,” he said. “There’s nothing that I have experienced that is as fun as doing these live shows.”

“We love performing live more than anything,” Conniff said. “We love performing in front of audiences. We love meeting our fans.”

As Conniff and Beaulieu tour the country together, Netflix is preparing to debut Hodgson’s MST3K reboot, which features a new cast and crew.

In the interview I conducted with Conniff last year, he admitted that there were some bad feelings about the project among some of the show’s progenitors.

“You know,” he said, “we had all worked with Joel on Cinematic Titanic. When he finally got the rights back to Mystery Science Theater, he kind of just went forward and it was his own thing.

“I can only speak for myself,” Conniff said. “I can’t speak for the other guys. There were some bad feelings on my part that he didn’t include me in the creative process. But the thing is about the reboot is (that) I’m friends with most of the new people who are involved in it: Jonah (Ray) and Patton (Oswalt). I think all the people involved in it are really great and I think it’s going to be really fantastic. I feel like I want to be supportive of it because I really like all of those people.”

Beaulieu said he was asked to “come in and do some work” on the new show but “the offer was not a creative offer.”

“That wasn’t appealing to me,” he said. “Writing for other people – I have done that for the last 20 years. I’d rather write my own jokes and perform my own jokes.”

Conniff said he was not asked to be a part of it at all.

“And that’s outrageous, frankly” Beaulieu said. “Not to ask ‘TV’s Frank’ to participate?”

“We’re not upset about it,” Conniff said. “We’ve got our own thing going on.”

Beaulieu said the duo is booked through fall at this point. The project may progress to the point where they’ll be able to offer digital downloads of the shows to fans. But, for now, “you’ve got to come and see our show,” Beaulieu said.

It seems likely that Conniff will always be known to most people as “TV’s Frank” and he said he is OK with that.

“I don’t see any downside to it,” he said. “I’m very grateful to have been a part of the show. I’ve done a lot of things since Mystery Science Theater and I’m doing a lot of things now that are very creative, that are very engaging to me and that I’m very proud of. But I know that Mystery Science Theater is the thing that people will associate me with and I have no problem with that.

“I’m very grateful to have been a part of what we can now say is one of history’s classic shows,” Conniff said. “And I’m old enough now to be a part of history.”

(A version of this article can be found at http://whatzup.com)

 

Alt-Synopses: “Logan”

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After 17 years, nine films and countless, unrelated musical numbers that have proved deeply confusing for comic book fans, actor Hugh Jackman has said that “Logan” will be his last go-round as the razor-taloned superhero known as Wolverine.

Never again will the movie makeup man apply the iconic claws and sideburns, Jackman has vowed, especially since he mixed them up that last time.

As “Logan” opens, Wolverine has been living a peaceful life and limiting the use to his claws to the piercing of tough hides (namely, plastic clamshell packages and Capri Suns).

His once remarkable healing powers have largely abandoned him. He numbs his pain with alcohol, and if a superhero does that, aren’t we all superheroes?

A fly in the ointment (Logan goes through a lot of ointment) arrives in the form of X-23, a feral child who seems to have the same abilities as Wolverine.

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Chaos ensues, but there are a few heartwarming scenes, such as the one where Wolverine and X-23 paint each other’s nails.

The appearance of X-23, who was first introduced in the animated series, “X-Men: Evolution” and “Jim Henson’s Mutant Babies,” opens up a can of worms that forces Wolverine to use his claws to open one last thing: A can of whoop-ass.

“Logan” is loosely based on the comic book series, “Old Man Logan,” although not much of the source material could be used.

Disney owns the screen rights to most of the characters from “Old Man Logan” and is acting all stuck-up about it if you ask Fox.

For example, the climax of “Old Man Logan” features Wolverine being devoured by a villainous and super-colossal version of the Hulk. Since Fox isn’t allowed to depict the Hulk at all, this cannibalism will have to be committed in the film by some other character, perhaps the X-Man known as Pixie.

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Fox should be credited with having the courage to release “Logan” with an R rating, and the R-rated “Deadpool” should be credited with giving the studio $754 million worth of courage.

So courageous has Fox become that it is promising an R-rating for its forthcoming film, “Ice Age 6: Tear Someone a New Ice Hole.”

“Logan,” which opens tomorrow, promises to be the saddest movie about a tragic hominid with giant claws since “Bigfoot’s Tears.”

Duane Eby: A Gift Who Will Keep on Giving

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When local singer-songwriter Duane Eby succumbed a week ago to the cardiac problems that had plagued him for many years, the outpouring of grief and disbelief on social media was like a shockwave.

“Duane always made people feel at ease in their own skin,” fellow singer-songwriter Sunny Taylor said. “Whether I was listening to him perform, or talking with him one on one, he always allowed plenty of room for me to be my own weird self. He validated it and encouraged it. It still doesn’t seem real that this world doesn’t have Duane Eby anymore.

Local music booker and booster Brad Etter recalled a time when he was in the hospital suffering from some heart issues of his own.

“Duane had been a patient at various hospitals off and on for the past five years for chronic cardiac conditions,” he said. “This time, though, I was not visiting Duane in his hospital room. Duane was visiting me in mine.

“Duane, armed with only his ‘mighty uke’ and carrying a large black notebook, entered my hospital room,” Etter said. “He told me to pick any song that he had in his big notebook. There were hundreds of songs with lyrics, music notations and charts – literally hundreds of songs, if not more, neatly organized and categorized in his notebook.”

Etter chose “Across the Universe.”

“To this day, every time I hear this popular Beatles song, I immediately think of my lovely, gentle friend Duane,” he said.   “What a treat. What a thrill to have Duane share a solo, mini and private concert for me while I was a patient in the hospital.”

Fans, friends, collaborators and well-wishers will gather at 1 p.m. Saturday at Wunderkammer Company, 3402 Fairfield Avenue, to appreciate Eby’s life and legacy through song.

Local producer Jon Gillespie, who worked with Eby on his 2005 album, “It’s what’s inside that counts,” said his imagination was always pushing his musicianship.

“There are a lot of people who have great chops but not so great imagination,” he said. “Duane was always pushing himself to be better and he made great stuff because of that.”

Gillespie said “It’s what’s inside that counts” was his gift to Eby and, after his death, he knew that “someone had to do a tribute album.”

Unsurprisingly, that someone turned out to be Gillespie.

“People hold him in such high regard,” he said. “And my attitude was “Well, nobody else is going to do this so I’d better do it.'”

Gillespie said he currently has 12 people signed up to perform Eby’s songs and another dozen-or-so sidemen who say they want to play backup.

The idea, he said, is not to do a “cover band” tribute to Eby, but to allow people to interpret his material as they see fit. It’s an approach that Eby would have very much enjoyed, Gillespie said.

“We’re trying to do stuff with a fair amount of variety,” he said. “Everything from neoclassical to electronica to folk and rock.”

For example, Gillespie is arranging Eby’s “Overcome” for string quartet. The tribute album version will feature Hope Arthur on vocals and Jane Heald, Felix Moxter and Derek Reeves on strings.

Gillespie doesn’t want to let the project marinate too long.

“I want to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak,” he said. “I don’t want it to come out a year from now. I’d like it to be a few months. But it’s a huge amount of work to do.”

Gillespie is open to having more folks get on board.

“I want anybody who was very moved by Duane’s music,” he said. “Some of the people who are involved knew him really well and a few people didn’t know him well but were big fans of the music.”

Gillespie said people can contact him about the project via his Facebook page.

Any proceeds from CD sales and downloads will go to Eby’s widow, Janine, Gillespie said.

A secondary goal of the project is to give people a creative way to express and process their grief.

“It’s rare that you see this kind of outpouring of grief and love and admiration for a 65-year-old local songwriter,” he said. “What it’s doing for the community in terms of bringing us together and allowing us to collectively grieve is crucial;”

Asked to assess the musician independent of the man, Gillespie said the two can’t be separated.

“He was such a gentle, encouraging, nurturing soul,” he said, “and that went along with his music. It seems like everyone he came in contact with came away the better for it. Everyone came away more passionate about music.”

Above Average Joe

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Joe Bonamassa first picked up a guitar at 4 and he was playing with B.B. King at 12.

But don’t call him a child prodigy.

Bonamassa, 39, said there was nothing magical about how or why he got good.

“I always kept to myself,” he said. “Truth be told, I still do. All I ever do is practice. That hasn’t changed. I never thought I had anything special. I just worked hard and tried to make the best music I could. Nothing has changed.”

Bonamassa performs Dec. 2 at the Embassy Theatre.

His reputation is that of an indefatigable and dauntless promoter of the Bonamassa brand and of blues music in general.

Bonamassa has never been afraid to buck whatever the conventional wisdom is at any given moment.

In 2006, he grew tired of playing the small clubs, and of promoters and venue managers who didn’t see him expanding beyond the small clubs.

So he rented out two theaters with his own money: The Florida Theatre in Jacksonville and the Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne.

Bonamassa stoically reasoned at the time that if he only drew a few hundred concertgoers instead of a thousand, then he’d know it wasn’t time to step things up after all.

“If we had only drawn 200 or 300 people, we would have been back at Piere’s at the end of the day,” he said.

But Bonamassa ended up drawing 1300 or 1400 attendees locally.

“Fort Wayne has always been good to us,” he said. “We rented out the theater because we thought we could do a bigger venue and nobody wanted to take a chance on us. I mean, how do you get to those nice places if nobody is willing to take a chance on you? The way to do it is to take a chance on yourself.”

The 2006 theater experiment became the Bonamassa touring model: a strategy Bonamassa refers to as “the four wall.” The four wall concept means Bonamassa continues to rent theaters himself and maximize profits by cutting out middlemen.

Given Bonamassa’s courage and creativity, it should come as a surprise to no one to learn that the bluesman formed his own label long before it was clear to everyone that the music industry as it had been known for decades had collapsed.

Bonamassa had worked with a number of established labels before launching J&R Adventures in 2003 and his experiences had been less than satisfying.

“The pressure is that you have to sell units,” he said. “To sell units, you actually have to find an audience. And a lot of times, a label will give you really bad advice on how to find that audience.”

It soon became clear to Bonamassa that the traditional model was not going to work for him.

“My manager of 25 years and I, we decided we needed to something really different and it’s been great,” he said. “To be able to set your own hours and make your own rules and control the creativity of it all – that’s really valuable.”

Bonamassa said most musicians have since come to understand that there’s no money in pursuing a career the traditional way.

Musicians today have to be savvier about everything their music touches, he said.

“A lot people forget the business aspect of the business,” Bonamassa said. “It’s really important that you learn all sides of the business. Just because you know how to make a plate of spaghetti doesn’t mean you know how to run an Italian restaurant.”

A few years ago, one of the biggest obstacles to success as a professional musician was illegal downloads. Now it’s streaming.

Bonamassa doesn’t see much difference between the two.

“How to make something illegal, legal? You just refer to it by a different name,” he said.

The streaming of recorded music doesn’t bother Bonamassa. Streaming live concerts, however, strikes him as counterintuitive.

“Some artists think streaming concerts is the coolest thing in the world,” he said. “Ultimately, they find out that they don’t have enough money to get two of the three beans that Jack was purchasing.”

Artists like Bonamassa pride themselves on giving live performances that can’t be reproduced or duplicated successfully anywhere else in any other way.

If you want the best of Bonamassa, you have to buy a ticket.

Even as Bonamassa was devising new ways to succeed, he also devised a new way to pay it forward.

He launched the Keep the Blues Alive Foundation, which helps raise awareness about the blues genre and music in general.

“It’s a way to give new instruments and money to schools that need resources,” he said. “It’s a way for me to give back to the fans that have given to me, to give back to their kids.”