The Coast City Comicon boasts a convention-hall full of great guests this weekend, but for me, the real draw was the chance to talk on the phone with Mary Jo Pehl, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. For MiSTies (fans of the cult classic TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000”), like me, those names (also known as, respectively, Pearl Forrester, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot) are comedy gods. Cracking courageously wise at the expense of the worst movies ever made on “MST3k” until 1999, and continuing to the present day in movie-mashing crews like Cinematic Titanic (www.cinematictitanic.com) and Rifftrax (www.rifftrax.com), these three have, alongside their “MST3k” colleagues, mined the cinematic landscape for unlikely laughs for decades. Before their trip to Portland, they were kind enough to share some with us:
Q: What are the essential qualities that make a movie ripe for the MST3k treatment?
MARY JO PEHL: Winnowing down the bad movies became an art form. You needed technical things – like you have to be able to see it, and hear it, for example. Also there needs to be a je ne sais quoi – such as maybe John Agar in tiny, tiny swim trunks (in “Revenge Of The Creature.”) Something to sink your teeth into, so to speak.
KEVIN MURPHY: The best ones are the ones that take themselves really seriously – no matter how competent or incompetent, that’s when we can really have have fun with it. Anything from “Twilight” to “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”
Q: Is there a special kind of wisdom that the MST treatment provides that traditional reviewing does not?
BILL CORBETT: I think we spend more time with a movie than a reviewer does. Sometimes I come to resent it, but maybe respect it more than I would otherwise – it’s an intensive way to approach it. And these experiences are not all the same. Seeing the umpteenth “Transformers” movie (for Rifftrax) makes us belligerent, frankly. But a cheesy local filmmaker – I have a little more affection for those things. At least they’re a little more sincere or grassroots.
MJP: I think what it did for me was to start analyzing films a little bit more – you can give a movie so much power because they are so self-serious (and I am so impressionable).
KM: We do a really close reading of the film – for hours and hours. So putting just about any film on the autopsy table like that, it changes it.
Q: Do you find yourself providing commentary even on things you do like?
MJP: Oh yes. Sometimes you can point out something dumb to deflate the intensity of a specific scene. My husband and I might look each other and made some crack – sort of leavening it or deflating the intensity of it
KM: On Rifftrax, we’ve done good movies like “Lord Of The Rings” or “Casablanca”, or “Jaws,” but we approach them more like a roast than a execution. We use the film as a foil to make jokes about ourselves, the world at large. The films end up being our Margaret Dumont.
BC: With Rifftrax, we all operate under premise that something good and classic will not be harmed by what we do – we’re just gnats nibbling at it. We have to be nimble about how we go about it – it’s like doing jazz riffs, but it’s all about the joke. It has to be funny.
Q: The movie-mockery formula MST3k created has proven incredibly durable. What’s so attractive that almost everyone involved is still doing it after all these years?
BC: First – it’s still fun to do and satisfying knowing a lot of people like it. At a certain point, I imagine we’ll be too decrepit for people to want to look at us, but for now we have parents bringing their kids, college students – it’s a narrow slice, but people still respond to this form of comedy.
MJP: For me, I just have a limited skill set. When the opportunity arises, I have to take advantage of it. I get to work with people who are tremendously funny, super smart, and whom I adore, and I get to make the funny with them.
KM: It can either be that we’re experts on subject, or we have bleak, lonely lives. It’s fun, we’re pretty good at it, and it’s a unique world to be the true only experts at it. And there’s still a demand.
Q: OK, what’s the single worst movie you ever did on “MST3k?”
KM: I really hate “Manos. The Hands Of Fate.” It’s just really hard to watch. We’ve done it on “MST3k” and Rifftrax and I’m happy I never have to see it again. Ray Dennis Steckler’s “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies” might be second. It’s almost unwatchable and not in a fun way. Also “Red Zone Cuba,” which is so depraved – it doesn’t have even the stylistic verve of “Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer.”
MJP: I hate to jump on the bandwagon but “Manos” was pretty unbelievable. Just incomprehensible and weird – but not in a good way. At least it has something compelling about it, though. Some, like “Radar Secret Service,” with guys in their big ‘40s suits are just incredibly boring.
BC: “Manos.” We re-riffed on it for Rifftrax. It’s not only bad, it’s so depressing to spend time with.
Mary Jo, Kevin, and Bill will be on hand throughout the Coast City Comicon. Check coastcitycomicon.com for details.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer from Portland.