Interview with Mary Jo Pehl
On her blog she calls herself a writer, an actor, a raconteur and a bon vivant.
However, to many of her fans she will be remembered as Pearl Forrester, the villain in the final years of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K).
Though it has been 10 years since the show was first canceled, many of the same players have returned in Cinematic Titanic (CT).
MST3K told the story of an orange jump-suited worker trapped on a satellite forced to watch terrible movies. With three robots to help keep his sanity, Joel Hogdson spent five years lampooning terrible movies and in 1993, Hodgson passed the lead to Mike Nelson.
And in the final two years of the show, Pehl played the blond haired Pearl who spent her time flying a rocket-propelled Volkswagen Bus across space and time chasing down Nelson.
The show first ran in 1988 locally in Minnesota's KTMA but was picked up nationally on Comedy Central in 1991. And in 1997, the Sci-Fi Channel aired the show until it was canceled in 1999.
In 1992, Pehl joined as a writer, and in 1996 she was cast in the role of Pearl, the mother of the Mad Scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester who was played by writer/actor Trace Beaulieu. In 1997, Beulieu left the show and Pehl was given the roll of lead villain.
Pehl was kind enough to talk with Cosmic Book News about her time on the show and about her newest venture with MST3K alumni on CT which has been running since 2008.
COSMIC BOOK NEWS: On Mystery Science Theater 3000 you worked with crew members like Joel Hodgson [who played the role of human Joel Robinson], Trace Beaulieu [besides Dr. Forrester, he played the robot Crow], and Frank Coniff [who played Dr. Forrester's sidekick TV's Frank] on now you working with them on the Cinematic Titanic project.
I know you probably told this story thousands of times, but how did you come to work for Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in 1992?
MJP: As I've described in many interviews, I had done a lot of standup comedy and other sorts of shows with Joel Hogdson, Mike Nelson, Josh Elvis Weinstein, Bridget Jones, Trace Bealieu and Frank Coniff, so I knew them all from that scene.
I'd only heard of MST3K, however, I don't think I owned a television set at the time, so it was pretty apocryphal to me!
But I'd heard they were looking for an additional writer, so I called Mike Nelson at home one evening (I can still remember my dot matrix printing just starting to print very loudly in my small apartment just as I started to talk to Mike. I was so nervous.)
He ended up asking me to come in for a trial run of two weeks. Nobody said anything one way or the other as the two weeks drew to a close. I was really disappointed, assuming they weren't interested in keeping me on, so I went around thanking everyone for the opportunity.
Kevin Murphy, Trace, Joel and Mike all seemed kind of shocked, there was a closed door meeting and they gave me another two weeks.
Then I just stayed.
They were gonna have to bring in the National Guard to get me out of there!
CosmicBookNews: Joel's last episode was on MST3K was the movie where you guys parodied the Joe Don Baker movie "Mitchell." I read in the MST3K book that in real life Baker was unhappy with you guys.
Do you know if he still is?
MJP: I don't know. We haven't heard and he hasn't kept us up-to-date on his grudge.
CosmicBookNews: Because of that movie, I walk around the house saying "Mitchell" every so often.
MJP: I know! Doing that is exciting!
CosmicBookNews: When you guys did MST3K: the Movie, why not "Highlander Two: The Quickening"?
I mean I saw many fans on the internet begging MST3K to trash it.
[WRITER'S NOTE: Myself included.]
CosmicBookNews: How did you guys choose "This Island Earth?"
MJP: I am sorry I have such a terrible memory and I know there were some other movies in contention. But I think we winnowed it down - it was difficult for the MST3K show to get rights to a lot of movies but it was even harder to get the rights for one to do a movie and I think that narrowed down our choices.
And we need to consider suitability for the big screen and a lot of other factors to make a movie suitable for MST3K.
We also felt it should be a color movie too and if memory serves and we were able to cut that movie without screwing it up too much. And that's what it came down to.
CosmicBookNews: Do you still have your Interociter like they had in "This Island Earth" someplace?
MJP: [LAUGHS] No, I move around a lot and I travel light.
CosmicBookNews: Of course you did many of the background voices, and one of your earlier on screen appearances was that of the "Brain that Wouldn't Die." But do you remember when were you then asked to play the role of Pearl Forrester? And how did it feel to play the lead villain when the series moved to Sci-Fi Channel?
And where you nervous about going out in front of the camera?
MJP: I can't recall exactly, but she'd been on the show here and there, and I know we threw around a lot of ideas. We felt we still had to continue the motivation behind Mike and the 'bots having to watch the movie, and it just came down to that. I was extremely nervous.
I'd done a lot of stage work, acting stuff here and there, but this was new. And it was big shoes to fill... Oh! And there you bring it up in the next question!
CosmicBookNews: When Trace Beaulieu left the show, did you feel you had some tough shoes to fill in?
MJP: Oh, indeed. Trace wears size 12 Jimmy Choos, and not only are they tough to fill, they are notoriously uncomfortable.
CosmicBookNews: You once wrote that writing for the MST3K was one of the best experiences you ever had. Even in that last episode on the Sci-Fi Channel, one could see the emotion on Pearl's face was not just sadness over Pearl Forrester's time with Mike and the robots were coming to an end. It seemed much deeper.
How much of Mary Jo bled out of Pearl in that last episode of MST3K?
MJP: I have a hard time recollecting because it is going on 10 years but I do know I am not such an accomplished actor that I would have been able to separate the two [of Pearl and Mary Jo], so I am not surprised that perhaps I did come through.
You know I spent seven years and though it was the greatest job anyone could hope for. We watched television on big screen TVs. I got to watch wonderful awful old movies together with some of the funniest, smartest, coolest people I know and we got free popl and health insurance and it was a great place to be!
I think I thought it was time to move on and I think we were all getting kind of burned out, but I only will speak myself.
You can get burned out even in the best of jobs.
MJP: So yeah it did show and that doesn't surprise me. I think we had one day after the wrap where we reviewed the movie and did ads and deletes but it was a huge chapter in my life coming to a close.
CosmicBookNews: Did people recognize you? I mean, are you glad that you are able to go the grocery store without being mobbed?
MJP: Of course! Trust me, that has never been an issue. If anyone recognized me as my Pearl Forrester character, I would be upset.
However, people do recognize my voice a lot, and sometimes my name.
CosmicBookNews: I imagine there is a Mid-Western American mentality to be respectful if you are a celebrity.
MJP: Yeah. It is kind of hard for me to describe living in Minneapolis, there is a certain isolation and we very much work independently of New York City and Hollywood.
So it is really kind of neat when you work on an obscure television show, so for the first couple of years I was really flabbergasted that people have even heard of it.
It is really weird when someone you have never met before says, "I loved you in this episode and can you explain to me why this happened in this episode?"
And it is not bad weird, but you are kind of unprepared for it.
In my head I was just doing my job - a great job and I was just going to work every day.
And I guess in my little pea-brain I forgot it got beamed out into the airwaves. Seriously, I would just report to work and do my thing at the best job in the world and it took me a while to go, "Oh right! Through technology other people are seeing this!" [LAUGHS].
CosmicBookNews: Well it seems your "celebrity status" got you into George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). What was "Jedi Central" like?
MJP: We'd been invited by ILM to do a private show which was more or less the launching of Cinematic Titanic.
I can't even begin to describe it!
At every turn I was sure I might have an aneurysm because we'd be shown yet another really cool thing.
It was also kind of hilarious because our friends there [at ILM], Tom, Alex, Jennifer and Bonnie, for starters, were all just as geeky about us as we were about them!
It was tremendous!
CosmicBookNews: Jumping back to the movies you riffed on like "Mitchell," do you find yourself asking, "Did they really make this movie?"
MJP: Yeah! We have said that about many movies.
CosmicBookNews: Speaking of bad movies, Patton Oswalt [on his album "Lollipops and Werewolves"] has this great bit about a movie called "Death Bed" - essentially it is a bed that eats people.
Oswalt talks about he has written many screenplays and he wonders if they are any good.
But then when a movie maker makes a movie like "Death Bed," Oswalt said he is frightened that the movie makers actually wondered, "Is this any good? Should I keep making this movie?"
Do you think any of these movie makers really thought they were making the next "Star Wars" or were they doing just to give actors and movie makers something to do?
MJP: I think Patton is much more generous of spirit than I am. I don't think many of these writers were especially tortured, thinking, "Oh my god! Who will see this vision through?"
I think they just wanted to get a movie made.
Who can blame them?
However, a lot of people have sense of humor about it such as director Rick Sloane, writer and director of "Hobgoblins."
CosmicBookNews: Is there a personal favorite MST3K episode you did?
I am a child of the 1970s, so the movie resonated with me.
Also, "Space Mutiny" cracks me up, what with it's eighties-ness.
CosmicBookNews: Can you guys actually watch television or a movie at home without making wisecracks?
MJP: It is pretty hard not too and even if you are watching a really good film, every so often you want to insert something, just to break the tension.
But it is hard and I think the world has gotten a lot more savvy not just about cinema but media in general and it is hard to take a lot of things that sound serious seriously.
CosmicBookNews: Since MST3K ended are there any movies or television shows you wanted to take a shot at?
MJP: Oh yeah!
People always ask me that question and I need to keep track of the movies I watch because I can never call it to mind when I need to mind.
For starters, "House."
And I also want to start on books because lately I've read some huge blockbusters that I just think, "Wha…??!?!"
CosmicBookNews: As an aside, are there shows you do enjoy?
MJP: We don't have cable and we only watch television with DVD movies, so I really don't watch much television. But when I do, I love to watch "The Simpsons" and I loved "Arrested Development". I cried myself to sleep when it went off the air.
I'm loving "Flight of the Conchords," and loved "Extras." I'm watching "Knowing You, Knowing Me."
And – I'm not proud of this, I'm just telling it like it is – I have to willfully turn off "Rock Of Love," and it's so difficult, like trying to put down a box of chocolates that you've already plowed through three-quarters of and are already sick.
CosmicBookNews: [LAUGHS] Wow!
Now, I have heard sometimes it could be difficult for MST3K to get a particular movie. Does Cinematic Titanic have an easier time getting movies?
MJP: Frank and Joel are pretty much in charge of acquiring movies, but we are going after films that seem to be more accessible, that we know we might have a fighting chance with on our budget.
CosmicBookNews: So there are people who purposely make bad movies to air on show?
CosmicBookNews: It seems like there is something disingenuous about making a bad movie just to give it a second life on MST3K or CT or even RiffTrax, the Michael Nelson movie-riff endeavor you contributed to.
MJP: It is difficult to quantify but I think it has to do with intent. If the film maker sets out with the intent of making a bad movie, and then hopefully give it some sort of life if not on DVD or drive-ins, but with a mocking show, like RiffTrax or CT or MST3K, it just doesn't work. The self-awareness and the pandering makes it almost impossible.
On the other hand, your Ed Woods, your Al Adamsons, your William Castles, were flying by the seat of their pants, however misguided, and that somehow makes the playing field what it is.
CosmicBookNews: That reminds me of the people on "American Idol" who come in to audition outlandishly and purposely sing off key.
MJP: Yeah, it's a set up.
CosmicBookNews: How great is to be back with MST3K crew members like Hodgson, Trace, and Coniff] on CT after so many years apart?
MJP: Oh it's great fun! It's just really wonderful to be back in one's element. I never actually riffed on the movies in MST3K, except for one segment. But it was my role as a writer to mock the movies, so it's in my blood.
And to be able to do it live and do it with people who you think are tremendously funny and smart and raise the bar for you is terrific.
What's not to like?
CosmicBookNews: Did you ever think you would be working with these again or were you hoping for some sort of MST3K reunion?
MJP: I don't know if I was ever looking for a reunion and I think I am friends with most everybody from MST3K so that satisfied a lot of that for me.
CosmicBookNews: So it is not like a classmates from high school or college you will see once ever 10 years or so at some reunion of sorts.
MJP: Right. It was never like I was not gonna see them again. I never really thought about it.
Of course, I would be up for it if it ever happened. And then Joel and Frank and I had lunch when I was in Los Angeles a few summers ago, and voila!
CosmicBookNews: So working with these guys is like old times?
MJP: Yes, to a certain extent, having worked with everyone in the past on the show. Josh and I worked a lot together doing standup.
And yet, it's all new because I'm riffing for one thing, and I'm a partner in the endeavor. And it continues to be a work in progress. We're still figuring out how to do things and how to make the mechanics work.
CosmicBookNews: Before CT, you contributed to two anthologies, contributed to NPR, did a lot of shows and you have kept busy.
MJP: I have been freelancing for the most part and I have traveled.
That was my big dream after MST3K ended was to travel and I traveled on and off for about a year.
Then I moved to New York, which in itself is a job and that was quite an adventure. I moved back to Minneapolis, and moved to Austin, Texas.
Also, I contributed to several books but I only authored one. It's no longer available, and believe me, it's for the best. I'll have a new book out later this year, and there will be an electronic version of a bunch of new stories available for iPhones at the Apple store in a few weeks.
CosmicBookNews: How do you "turn the switch" from book writer to television writer?
MJP: Well, the writing I do for Cinematic Titanic isn't really conventional television writing, so I don't feel like there's much a switch to be flipped.
MST3K and Cinematic Titanic are pretty specific in terms of writing to a movie (host segments and interstitials not withstanding).
My stories and essays are much more rounded out, expanded, because I have the luxury of telling a story and not trying to fit in a quip between dialogue or make fun of an endless car chase.
CosmicBookNews: So it sounds like you kept busy.
MJP: Yeah, I have been doing a lot of acting, writing, and voice over work.
CosmicBookNews: I hear voice over work is extremely lucrative these days.
MJP: Well apparently I am not getting enough of it.
MJP: Put the word out! Anything to avoid a cube job.
CosmicBookNews: So what is next for you? Any new books or TV shows?
MJP: Yes, I'm working on a couple of new books; I'll be editing and contributing to an anthology that I'm starting work on; I've always got a million projects in the hopper...now...if only one of them would come to fruition...
CosmicBookNews: Thank you, Mary Jo!
And visit Mary Jo Pehl's web site at www.maryjopehl.com.
And also a big thank you to Mary Jo Pehl who answered many more "follow up questions." But she was kind and gracious to do so!