Arts & Culture News

The MST3K Mads Open Up About the Reboot and Popularizing the Act of Talking Back to TVs

Comedians Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu, who played TV's Frank and Dr. Clayton Forrestor on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Comedians Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu, who played TV's Frank and Dr. Clayton Forrestor on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Courtesy of Joe Martin

Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu will perform at Alamo Drafthouse April 28 and 29

Mystery Science Theater 3000
is more than just a universally beloved TV show; it sparked a comedy phenomenon. The show is about a lowly janitor trapped in space with two wisecracking robots who are forced to watch the worst movies ever made as part of a mad scientist's insane experiment. It has led to live comedy riffing shows across the country, and some habits you've probably displayed on your own couch.

"I think the show had an influence on popular culture, and I think the technology and the internet and Twitter have given people the ability in their homes to just comment on whatever's going on whether it's a live show or an awards ceremony," says MST3K writer and comedian Frank Conniff, who played the lovable, white-haired henchman Frank for six seasons. "The technology lends itself to that kind of thing, and MST3K was at the forefront of talking back to culture, which people do now all the time."

Of course, that doesn't mean that movie riffing has become a novelty. Ever since the show's final episode ran in 1999 on the Sci-Fi Channel, fans have been clamoring for more. They haven't just been asking for a reboot of the original MST3K concept, which they'll finally get this month thanks to Kickstarter and Netflix. They've also been crying out for the show's original cast members and writers to return to their movie-riffing art.

Conniff and Trace Beaulieu are currently touring as the movie-riffing duo The Mads. Beaulieu is another longtime MST3K writer, who played the evil Dr. Clayton Forrester and provided the voice of Crow T. Robot during the show's original nine-season run on Comedy Central as well as the 1996 big screen MST3K movie. Conniff and Beaulieu will appear live at the Alamo Drafthouse Richardson for two shows on Friday, April 28, and Saturday, April 29.

The creation of The Mads, the nickname that MST3K's Joel Robinson (MST3K creator Joel Hodgson) gave to his evil captors, came after Conniff was offered a chance to make a live appearance in a movie-riffing show in Memphis. Two years after MST3K, Conniff and Beaulieu had worked together on another project created by Hodgson called Cinematic Titanic, and Conniff offered Beaulieu a chance to re-team for one more show.

"There was a bit of lull after Cinematic Titanic, and I got offered a gig in Memphis and said, 'Would you want it to be me and Trace to come along,' and of course they jumped at that offer," Conniff says. "That's how we started doing it, and we've been doing it ever since. The last couple of months, it's been every weekend."

The live movie-riffing concept got its start in Minneapolis, where in 1988 Hodgson and company first launched MST3K on a local TV station before making the jump to Comedy Central the following year, Beaulieu says.

"We actually did a few live shows back in the 1990s locally in Minneapolis and we knew pretty early on that this was a big hit with live audiences, but we just never went down that road," Beaulieu says. "With Cinematic Titanic, that really was clear that people love this as a live show format."

Cinematic Titanic gave Conniff, Beaulieu and MST3K fans a way to scratch the itch that the show caused when it went off the air, but then in 2013 Cinematic Titanic also went on indefinite hiatus because of scheduling conflicts among the show's cast and because "Joel just didn't want to tour anymore," Beaulieu says.

"We missed performing on the road," Conniff says. "We were anxious to get back to doing that in a slightly different format."

Beaulieu and Conniff formed their own team in 2015 and have been touring as a two-man riffing show ever since then. In their most recent incarnation, they've teamed up with the national chain Alamo Drafthouse.

"We lucked into this Alamo venue circuit, and they're perfect for us," Beaulieu says. "They love movies the way we love movies and the art of film. Well, maybe 'art' is a lofty term."

The Mads' live shows offer a hearty menu of six classic, B-grade or below films as well as some cheesy educational shorts that you might see on an old MST3K episode. Peppered in is Beaulieu and Conniff's witty, well-timed banter.

"We're always adding new movies to our repertoire," Beaulieu says. "We do the kind of low-budget B-movies that we would do on MST3K. They're usually black and white, low-budget and public domain, but they are very much in the spirit of Mystery Science Theater."

Beaulieu and Conniff say they've occasionally heard from the stars and filmmakers of the movies they've riffed on over the years, such as actor Robby Benson, who starred with James Earl Jones and Kim Cattrall in the horrible post-apocalyptic sci-fi action film City Limits, and Zombie Nightmare star Tia Carrere.

"Actors know when they're in a bad movie, so it's not a surprise to them," Conniff says. "They have a sense of humor about it, and they do the best with the material they have. They don't have any illusions about the movies being better than they are. So in most cases, they enjoy what we did."

Beaulieu says it's also because the shows and projects that he and his MST3K brethren have done over the last 30 years aren't about cutting down films or the people who made them.

"The spirit of the show is about celebrating movies," he says. "It's not about hating movies. We're all in the same business of entertaining people."

The Mads, 8 p.m. Friday, April 28, and Saturday, April 29, Alamo Drafthouse Richardson, 100 S. Central Expressway. Tickets are $27.06 at
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.