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 stage 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)