An Interview with Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff
Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff have been “riffing” movies for nearly 30 years. From their days together on Mystery Science Theater 3000, to their live Cinematic Titanic shows, to their current The Mads are Back tour, these two funny fellows have been making mincemeat of bad movies to the delight of audiences. I sat down to have lunch and talk to them about their time working on MST3K, their post-MST3K projects, their Movie Sign with the Mads podcast,
Oh, and by the way, for a pair of mad scientists bent on world domination, Trace and Frank were pretty nice guys…but don’t tell anyone!
Scott Muller (GNN): I guess we’ll start, for the uninitiated, folks might know you two gentlemen from a show called Mystery Science Theater 3000, which ran for how many seasons?
Trace Beaulieu (TB): I think 10 altogether.
GNN: And, Trace, you were on the show from the beginning. You started in 1988.
TB: That is correct…back when it was on KTMA, a little crappy television station in Minneapolis. We did like 20 episodes, 22 depending on who you talk to. And that was really the pilot season for the show. And then it went on, of course, to fame and fortune.
GNN: So, the starting group was yourself, Joel Hodgson, Josh Weinstein…am I missing anybody?
TB: Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon.
GNN: Kevin Murphy was there from the start, huh?
TB: Yeah. Kevin and Jim both worked at KTMA, and Kevin did a lot of the editing and technical stuff and camera work in the beginning. And Jim was
GNN: So, who pitched it to you and how was it pitched?
TB: Joel joined a writing group that Josh and I were in, and Joel said, “Hey, I’m doing this thing at a TV station tomorrow. Do you want to come over and help?” And we went over the next day, and he said, “Go pick up those puppets.” They’re plastic puppets, piles of plastic on a stage, and we just started doing the show. That was the audition. That was the hire. That was the whole process.
GNN: So, trial by fire?
TB: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it wasn’t really figured out. People look back at it now and go, “Oh. It’s pretty well nailed down.” But in those days, it was freewheeling, and we didn’t even know we were going to be joking on the show. We were just going to talk about it and make comments about the movie occasionally, but just be there physically at the bottom of the screen to watch the show with you. We’re all stand-up comics and we don’t like a vacuum. We don’t like silence, and we had to start joking just to make it bearable for ourselves to get through. Because we had never seen these films before. We sat down, they showed the films to us, and we made comments in real time. And if you go back and look at those you’ll see how rough they are. They’re very spartan with the commentary, but it was all improved at that point.
GNN: And Frank, you joined the show in the second season.
Frank Conniff (FC): In the second season of when it was on the Comedy Channel, which then became Comedy Central. So, it had been on one year on KTMA and then one year on the Comedy Channel.
GNN: I guess, before I continue, it would be helpful to describe the premise of the show. Basically, two mad scientists shoot a janitor (played by Joel Hodgson and later by Mike Nelson) up into space and they’re doing an experiment to show him bad movies to one day conquer the earth.
FC: Right. Exactly, yes.
GNN: And to make the bad movies more bearable, Joel builds some robots to help him riff on the movies. And you two gents played the mad scientists who sent him up into space.
FC: Originally, J. Elvis Weinstein was the other mad scientist…
GNN: Right, Doctor Erhardt.
TB: And Josh was also playing Tom Servo and Gypsy I believe at that time.
GNN: So, Frank, I asked Trace this, and now I’ll ask you. How was the show pitched to you?
FC: It wasn’t pitched to me (laughs). It was already a show. It had been on the air for a couple of years already. I had seen the show. And one day I was in Grand Forks, North Dakota on the road doing comedy and I got a call in my hotel room from Mike Nelson.
TB: Were you with the Westward Ho?
FC: The Westward Ho, yes. And I got a call from Mike Nelson saying, “The Comedy Channel has picked us up for 13 more episodes for another season, and Josh has left the show, so we have an opening. Would you like to join the show?” And I was like, “Of course, I do. I’m a middle act on the road in North Dakota. Of course, I want to be on this TV show.” So that’s how it happened for me.
GNN: You said you watch the show. Were you a casual fan or were you really closely following it?
FC: No, I’d seen it a couple of times. I didn’t watch it regularly because it was all my friends doing it, and I was viciously jealous. So, I never watched it (laughs).
GNN: So, when you two started, I mean, you have very good chemistry on the show…very unique and very quirky. Trace plays the mad scientist (Dr. Clayton Forrester) and Frank is the sidekick (TV’s Frank) and it works really well. Some of the stuff you guys come up with is incredible. Did you click right away or was that something you developed over the years?
TB: Yeah, we both have a lot of the same comedic influences. And the cool thing about the show was that there was a double act. It was Frank and I doing the double act, and then there was a triple act with the robots and Joel and Gypsy, although Gypsy was sort of the Zeppo [Marx] of that triple act (laughs); not to downplay Gypsy. She was great.
FC: No disrespect to Zeppo. He was a really good agent.
TB: Yes, but it gave us an opportunity as writers and performers to really play with those classic formats. And Frank and I are steeped in Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello and all those great duos. So, we just kind of incorporated all that. And, we liked each other. I mean, so that helped.
GNN: How well did you know each other before the show?
FC: We’ve done stand-up comedy. We’ve been on the road a couple of times. We’ve done a lot of shows together. I was a fan of Trace.
GNN: And you, Trace? Do you want to share the love?
TB: Yes, I was a fan of Frank.
GNN: Okay, I wanted to make sure.
TB: I was always trying to kiss up to get into Frank’s Chop House (laughs). He had his own standup show. But we were all friends, you know, even when we weren’t. On the show, we would hang out or we would see each other at clubs and that’s for the whole group, Mike [Nelson] and Bridget [Jones].
FC: I met Mike on an open mic that I ran. So, I met Mike and Bridget. I introduced them to each other.
GNN: How many of you had a standup background? You both did, and you’re saying Mike did…
FC: All of us did. All of us did except Kevin and Jim.
TB: They had a television background.
FC: Yeah. So that was like a good combination of people, the television background, people with a standup background, getting together and making it happen.
GNN: So, I once wanted to become a video game developer and the general opinion of the field is, “Oh, that’s not real work, you’re just playing video games all the time.” So, when you’re writing this show, is it more like fun or more like work? What is the process for creating a show, with so many talented people in a room?
FC: Well, it was all of us in a writing room and just watching the movie, slowly throughout the day, it would take the whole day to watch the movie and yell out riffs and then someone would type them down. And we did two runs of it that way, with just everybody in the room for a full day, two days all together doing that. And then, once that had happened, myself, Paul Chaplin, and Mary Jo Pehl would take a third of the script each and we’d go off to our cubicles and just assign the riffs to characters and edit out and decide the best jokes. Maybe there’d be five jokes for one moment and this is the best joke, and that’s something Crow would say, or that’s something Mike would say, and then, we’d compile a script. And then we’d have another read-through of it. It was always being kind of modified and changed all the way up until after we film it, even in the editing process, we change lines…
TB: And you can see some of that in, mostly in Crow; if you see his mouth flapping and there’s nothing coming out, it either means I blew a line and we just took it out or we didn’t like the joke or sometimes I would just miss the line and I would just make his mouth flap, knowing we could put the line back in.
GNN: So, I guess to wrap up the second part of this question, was it as much fun as it sounds or was it ever like work?
TB: Well, yeah, it was a lot of fun, but also real work. People think, “You guys must have been stoned all the time.” And it’s like, no, it took a full day of work to do all that stuff.
FC: But it’s like, I’ve worked on a lot of different TV shows and it’s the same thing, if you’re enjoying the work, you’re working really hard but you’re enjoying it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
GNN: So, one thing the show was known for
TB: Well, I think we all grew up with a lot of the same influences, and in those days, you had to absorb it like a sponge. There were no VCRs; there was no way of recording this stuff. And a lot of us had different interests. We had a really great writer, Colleen Henjum, who came from an art and jazz background, and she was always bringing in fashion things that none of us had the references for. So, having a diverse group of writers was really beneficial to the show and why it’s so impactful.
GNN: So, how many people did you have in the writing room at any one time?
TB: Eight or ten at the most.
FC: When I started, it was four, basically, because although Jim and Kevin wrote on the show, in the season I was there, Kevin was also the film editor there. So, a lot of times he’d be in the editing room. Before, a group was just sitting in the room and going through the movie…that was me, Joel, Trace, and Mike. That first season was basically that group, but Kevin and Jim would add their stuff too.
TB: And we had home writers too.
FC: Dan Hart was a home writer.
TB: Dan Hart was a home writer. We’d send him a tape and he’d send a script back.
FC: And then the second season that I was there, by then they were able to hire a full-time editor then Kevin was in the room all the time just like everyone else.
TB: And other staff members would drop in from time to time like Jeff Maynard would pop in. He’d sit there for a while.
FC: And then when our friends were in town– when Dana Gould was in town, he’d come in and he’d come into the room. Jake Johannsen did it one time I think. So, yeah, it was fun.
GNN: I know this is a pretty stock question, but I have to ask it. Do you have a favorite movie that you did for MST3K? Most brutal movie?
TB: I like the shorts. Mr. B Natural, Here Comes the Circus…
GNN: So, you liked the shorts. Any films in particular?
FC: I liked I Accuse My Parents.
TB: Teenage Caveman and Teenagers from Outer Space were very strong.
FC: Teenagers from Outer Space was really good, yeah.
GNN: So, back to the writing process…so people would shout out ideas and everything would get written down?
FC: Yeah. Everything would get written down, yeah.
GNN: If only we could do that kind of brainstorming in corporate America. Where I work, we get three people in a room and there are arguments…
TB: There was no wrong joke at that stage of the process. It would get edited later.
FC: If anyone didn’t like a joke…if anyone had any objections to any joke, it automatically got dumped from the show, regardless of the reason was for why. Some people would find a joke going too far or were uncomfortable with how scatological it was or whatever, or if it seemed insensitive. We were actually PC ahead of our time.
TB: Yeah. But never vetoed for being too obscure. And there’s a lot of room in those shows for every kind of joke.
GNN: As a fan of the show it’s cool when you get the obscure references. I’ll readily admit that I don’t get 100% of the references, but when I do get them, especially when you refer back to other shows, it’s awesome. For example, “Watch out for snakes!” from Eegah, pops up quite a bit…
TB: Yeah. Some of those things just become catchphrases. Either we made them catchphrases ourselves, or the fans have picked them up and done that. But that’s really fun when the fans pick up on it.
GNN: Current movie you could have riffed? What’s the last bad movie you wish you could’ve riffed?
FC: We get asked this question all the time. We’re not really interested in any of the current movies. We prefer the movies from the ’50s and ’60s. There’s an innocence to them. There’s a lack of self-consciousness.
TB: And they’re dedicated filmmakers. Ed Wood has been branded as the worst filmmaker of all time. And he is not.
FC: Not by any stretch of the imagination.
TB: He’s just a lovely, lovely filmmaker and really caring about his product, and did what he did with very limited resources.
FC: Yeah. Made like a half a dozen films against all odds.
TB: Yeah. One of the best films we do is Glen or Glenda. And it’s got a beautiful message. It’s batshit crazy, but in a loving way (laughs).
FC: It’s poorly written and acted. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a great movie.
GNN: So, from what I’ve read, I’m just curious, you did
TB: That’s the rumor. We think it’s substantiated, but who knows.
GNN: So, he’s never grabbed either of you guys by the shirt and…
FC: I think if it’s true at all, I think it’s something he thought about for one minute and forgot about immediately.
GNN: So, any of the other writers or directors? Burt I. Gordon? Anyone?
FC: I haven’t heard of any.
GNN: No beefs from anybody?
FC: No. The people that we have heard from all love it. Trace is good friends with Kim Cattrall.
GNN: Really? I know Trace did a song as Crow having a crush on her…
TB: Yeah, and she sent flowers to Crow after that. Not me, she sent them to Crow.
FC: I’m allowed to say that I’m friends with Kim Cattrall, but I’ve only hung out with her a couple of times. Trace has known her for years, but she did come to
GNN: Anyone else?
FC: Miles O’Keeffe [from MST3K episode Cave Dwellers] loved it. He called up the show, said he really like it. Beverly Garland [from several MST3K episodes, including Gunslinger and Swamp Diamonds] who I adore, I’ve adored since I was a kid, she loved what we did with the episodes she was in. It’s all just people being very positive.
TB: And we had great fans across the board. Frank Zappa was a big fan. He called us up and the best quote was from Frank Zappa. He said we were the funniest f***ing thing on TV. You can’t get any better than that.
GNN: I’ll tell you what, I can’t think of a show that I’ve laughed as hard while watching. Two of my favorites are The Magic Sword and Mitchell. I’m sure everyone probably has their favorite episode. Now, Trace, you were on the show for eight seasons?
TB: I think counting KTMA, yeah. That makes sense. And then the movie too.
GNN: Ah, the movie! That movie was fantastic, by the way.
TB: Frank wrote on that film, too, and he should have been in the film. It was just a very, very bad decision to not have Frank in the movie. Because Forrester’s alone and it’s sort of pointless.
GNN: So, Trace, after eight seasons, you left the show and after that, you were on Freaks and Geeks. You wrote for America’s Funniest Home Videos and then in 2007 you Frank, worked on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch…
FC: No. I worked on Sabrina from 1996 until 2000.
GNN: Okay, and then Invader Zim?
FC: Invader Zim was right after Sabrina.
GNN: And then in 2007, the two of you reunited for Cinematic Titanic.
FC: Yes. We did.
TB: Yes. With Mary Jo Pehl, Joel Hodgson, and J. Elvis Weinstein.
GNN: And that was similar concept to MST3K, but live, correct?
FC: Basically, the same, but live. So just like what Trace and I are doing now.
GNN: And how was that?
TB: It was great. We did that for six years. I think we did a little over 100 shows and we loved it. It was fun. That’s why Trace and I are still doing it.
GNN: Now you’re doing this.
TB: We’re doing this. We’ve been doing this for three years. We’ve done 150, I think this will be maybe 155th or 154th show tonight and we’re showing no sign of letting up. We’ve played London and all over the country. So, we will come and play your living room if you’d like.
GNN: Is it still the same writing process? You still watch the movies and make comments?
FC: Yeah. We’ll watch what we do separately. It’s a little different from MST3K. We write a script separately and then we get together and pull our jokes together and then as we perform it live; it evolves and changes and there’s always new jokes every night. Trace ad-libs stuff. I come up with stuff.
TB: It’s very freewheeling and very energetic and the audience is a huge component of the success of the show. That’s why we love doing it live. There’s nothing better than having written a joke or thinking of a joke on the spot and getting an immediate response.
GNN: That’s what I was going to ask. I’m sure that that’s a plus. I was going to ask about the pros and cons of doing it live versus taping it. I know a pro is
TB: It would be like doing heroin and then having a high about four years later (laughter). That’s television, but a live experience is so much more fun.
GNN: But you’re not telling people, let’s get this on the record. You’re not telling people to do heroin.
FC: Don’t do heroin.
TB: Don’t do drugs.
GNN: Now we have a PSA. Don’t do drugs readers!
TB: Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.
GNN: Oh, crap. That muddies the waters. Anyway, let’s see. You also do a podcast with another comedian, Carolina Hidalgo called Movie Sign with the Mads. Are you still working on that?
FC: Yeah. We do it every week.
GNN: And that isn’t so much riffing, that’s just talking about movies…
FC: There’s no riffing at all.
GNN: I listened to a few and on most of them I notice you do one movie per podcast.
FC: Yeah. We do one movie and then we just go on whatever digression we want to go on. It can be about a good movie or a bad movie, depending on what we individually thought of a movie. So, we’ve disagreed on some films. It’s just a free-wheeling discussion every week about whatever movie we happen to be talking about.
GNN: And if people want to listen to that, where can they get it?
FC: Last Podcast Network, SoundCloud, iTunes.
GNN: And, again, it’s Movie Sign with the Mads. Now, back to the riffing, how easy or hard is it to turn off the riffing?
TB: Really easy.
GNN: Really easy?
TB: A good movie does not need riffing.
GNN: That makes sense.
TB: Although there are people that are doing like the RiffTrax guys have made a big business of doing modern movies, big blockbuster things. But most of their targets really deserve the riffing.
FC: And if you go to a movie theater and you’ve paid, and other people have paid to see the movie, even if you don’t like the movie it is completely inappropriate to riff it in the movie theater.
GNN: You can riff it in your mind, though, right?
FC: In your mind. To yell them out loud, it’s completely wrong to do that.
GNN: Yeah. At the price of movie theater nowadays, it is. Yeah. I guess we talked about it a little bit earlier, but let’s make sure we bring it to the forefront. The reason I’m interviewing you here is that you’re in town, doing The Mads Are Back. Why don’t you give everyone a little bit more of a description of what this show is about?
TB: We’re at the Sun-Ray Cinema here in Jacksonville, Florida. Tonight, we’ll be doing a film called Choppers, which if you’re familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Eegah, you know the Arch Hall family of filmmakers. That’s one of their epics.
FC: So, people who are reading this interview a couple weeks from now, be sure to come down tonight to see us.
GNN: Well, there will be more shows in the future. Where can they go to learn more about your tour calendar? What site can they go to?
TB: Go to our Facebook page, The Mads are Back (@themadsareback), and also our website TheMadsAreBack.com. And you just missed the greatest show in Florida in this Jacksonville location. So sorry.
GNN: And these are in more intimate venues, right?
TB: They’re in movie theaters. Movie theaters are the best venue for us. They’re usually a couple hundred, 200, 300-seaters.
GNN: And for a ridiculously low price, you do meet-and-greets after the shows. There’s no extra price for the meet-and-greets, right?
FC: We sell our own merch that we sign, but if you give us anything to sign, we’ll sign that for free. We’ll take a picture with you for free.
TB: All for the price of admission. There is no VIP status. Everyone who comes to our show is VIP.
GNN: I mean, that can’t be beaten. I know I couldn’t pass up the price, so, I’m here for this evening’s show!
TB: Come and support terrible business people (laughs). That’s us.
GNN: So, the one last thing I noticed as I read up on you two, you’ve done some authoring. You’ve written some books. Trace, you’ve done a poetry book?
TB: A poetry book for children.
GNN: You need to let the audience know the title of the book, it’s quite funny.
TB: It’s called Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children. All the artwork is done by our good friend, Len Peralta, who also illustrated all of Frank’s books. Frank’s got a shelf full of books that you can purchase at our shows. And on Amazon too, right?
FC: Yeah, and on Amazon.
GNN: Yeah, how about your poetry book, Trace?
TB: My poetry book is only available at our live show…to our very good friends who come to our live shows. Because Amazon takes too much (laughs).
GNN: Apparently, Frank doesn’t believe that.
FC: Well, I mean, the thing about Amazon is it’s easy, so.
GNN: Right. And your books, Frank? I know that you have How to Write Cheesy Movies.
FC: How to Write Cheesy Movies. I have 25 Mystery Science Theater Films that Changed My Life in No Way Whatsoever.
GNN: I have that book.
FC: And Cats V. Conniff.
GNN: And your new one.
FC: My new one is a novel called Codename D.O.U.C.H.E.B.A.G.
GNN: Now, it has periods between it. Does D.O.U.C.H.E.B.A.G. actually stand for something?
FC: Yes, it does (laughs).
GNN: Oh, but you’ll have to read the book.
FC: You’ll have to read the book.
GNN: No, absolutely. We don’t want spoilers. And that’s, like Trace said, available on Amazon now, correct?
FC: Available on Amazon and on our merch page.
TB: If you come to our live show, Frank will sign it for free. You’ll pay for the book, and then he’ll sign it for free.
FC: That’s right.
GNN: Like you said, you get everything with these shows. So, one more question before we call it a day. I always like to ask this question in my interviews. Since this is an interview for Geek News Network, what do you like to geek out on? We know you love movies…anything else?
TB: Oh, man. Music and–
FC: Yeah, music.
TB: Everything that isn’t a sports thing.
GNN: Man, I tell you what, I’ll have to take you to a baseball game. Since we’re in Florida we can go to a Tampa Bay Rays game.
TB: What kind of food do they serve?
GNN: They have excellent barbecue.
TB: Barbeque? Okay, yeah. Barbecue’s good. I will sit through a sports thing as long as I can eat.
GNN: Okay. All right. We’ll set that up. So, Frank
FC: I geek out on music, specifically jazz music, and pop music from the ’60s. I love music from the ’70s. And there are some really great people in this day and age who are making great music.
GNN: You guys watching any good TV?
TB: The only media I absorb every day is the radio, and that’s because Frank’s on SiriusXM.
FC: That’s right. SiriusXM channel 121 at noon Eastern time, until 2:00. It’s called Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang. And I’m on the show as well, and we have great comedians and great guests. Movie stars like Holly Hunter, political writers, and musicians like Brian Wilson and David Crosby and John Fogerty. And Willie Nelson has been on twice. So, it’s a great show. People should check it out.
TB: And sometimes Carolina and I get to be on too.
FC: Every Wednesday, Carolina and Trace are on the show too. We talk about movies. We call it Humpday Matinee (laughs). A listener gave us that title. The hours are noon until 2:00. And when Trace is on, it’s usually 1:00 until 2:00 PM on Wednesdays with Carolina.
GNN: So, before we go, to thank you for your time, I’ll let you get your plugs in…
GNN: Other than hair plus, is there anything else you’d like to get the word out about? Shows?
TB: Well, come to our live show. We’d love to see everybody there.
FC: I also have original music and comedy radio plays that I write that can be found at frankconniff.com. They’re called Podhouse 90. I’ve written five of them. We have a great cast. Trace is in it. Dana Gould, Eddie Pepitone, Laraine Newman, Julie Klausner. Too numerous to say right now.
GNN: All right. Well, gentlemen, thank you. Good luck tonight at the show. I’m looking forward to it!
TB: Thank you. We appreciate it.
FC: Thank you.