The Mads are Back: MST3K’s Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff
The former mad scientists talk their live riffing show, podcast, and Mystery Science Theater
Feb 15, 2017
For Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff require no introduction – but, we’re doing one anyway. Together through five of the show’s seasons – including several of its most beloved episodes – Trace and Frank played the mad scientists (or “The Mads,” as they were affectionately known) who antagonized the inhabitants of the Satellite of Love from their villainous layer down on Earth. As a comedic duo, the Mads closed out most episodes with one of the series’ most iconic catchphrases, “Push the button, Frank” – an order issued, typically with a threatening tone, by Forrester to his right-hand lackey.
Trace Beaulieu was part of Mystery Science Theater 3000 from the very beginning. From its humble start on a Minnesota UHF channel, Beaulieu was involved in many aspects from writing and building sets to voicing and operating the wisecracking Crow T. Robot. When he wasn’t hunched underneath a puppet, Beaulieu was playing Dr. Clayton Forrester, Joel (later, Mike) and the Bots’ congenial nemesis who, as the theme song explained, would “send them cheesy movies, the worst [he] could find.” Frank Conniff joined the Mystery Science Theater 3000 for its second season on cable, as a writer and playing Forrester’s bumbling assistant, TV’s Frank. He was also responsible for pre-screening many of the bad movies featured on the show.
Both left Mystery Science Theater before its run ended, but continued their work in the television industry on shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos (Trace) and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (Frank). Both managed to strike cult TV gold a second time, with Trace appearing as a teacher on Freaks and Geeks – produced by fellow MST3K alum J. Elvis Weinstein – and Frank serving as a head writer on the far-out animated series Invader Zim. For several years starting in 2007 the two periodically toured as part of Cinematic Titanic, a movie-riffing group made up of former MST writers and performers.
Recently, the Mads have reunited and launched a new touring show appropriately called The Mads are Back, where they riff bad movies in front of live audiences in movie theaters and auditoriums across the country. The show comes to the East Coast for three dates this week, including a sold-out show at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. (For tickets, more information and additional cities, check out their website.) In addition, they can be heard together on their podcast Movie Sign with the Mads, a discussion of film (mostly) new and (occasionally) old.
Trace and Frank had a chat with us about their new live show, the old days at Mystery Science Theater 3000, and other ventures.
Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: From what I understand, everyone knew each other, or was at least aware of one another, prior to Mystery Science Theater 3000. How did the two of you meet?
Trace Beaulieu: Do you remember, Frank?
Frank Conniff: I think we met at a place called the Ha Ha Club in Minneapolis. They didn’t serve alcohol, it was a cabaret theater kind of place. It was the first club I ever performed at in Minneapolis, and my memory is of meeting Trace there. He performed there a lot, and was in an improv troupe there. I think that’s where we met.
Trace: It’s a perfect name for a comedy club: “Ha Ha."
Frank: Yes, exactly.
Was there a magic moment when you knew you two were destined to be poking fun at bad movies together for decades to come?
Trace: That really happened when Frank joined Mystery Science Theater in our second season on The Comedy Channel. We were drawn together as this comic duo, and the world agreed that we were brilliant. [Laughs]
Frank: Trace had already been involved with it for almost two years before I came along. Trace, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Joel [Hodgson] had started the show on the local KTMA in 1988, and then they did it on the Comedy Channel in 1989. I came along in 1990, for its second season, and so I was very late to the riffing party compared to Trace.
You have a series of live shows coming up. Can you describe some of what attendees can expect at your live shows? We know it’s a night of movie riffing, but what’s happening when the movies aren’t rolling?
Trace: We feel like every member of our audience who buys a ticket is a VIP. We do a meet-and-greet before and after the show. We like to meet people, take photographs, sign autographs. We also have some merch that we sell: Frank has a book, and I have a book. Really, we’ll sell anything. We’ve got a whole antiques show going on.
And then, we run the movie and we riff on that. We do a short Q&A afterwards, and people can ask us any embarrassing question they’d like. And then afterward, we’ll meet everyone again. We stick around until everyone’s satisfied. It’s a very friendly evening.
I have to imagine with live audiences that at some point you’d have to have dealt with hecklers. Maybe in this situation they’re called “amateur riffers”? Have people tried to jump in on the riffing, or do they generally leave it to the professionals?
Frank: Sometimes. We do this place in Chicago called @North Bar, which is kind of rowdy. It’s a bar, and an intimate space, too, so I’ve heard people there yelling their own riffs. Generally, though, it does happen. We’re the ones with the microphones, so we hold sway over that. If people are doing it, we usually can’t hear it, but I think generally it doesn’t happen.
Trace: The Alamo Drafthouse has trained their audiences over the years to be very respectful of film. They have a warning before the film. I think you only get two warnings: if your cel phone’s on or you’re talking, you’re out of there. But that doesn’t apply to us! We can say whatever we want.
But we love The Alamo for that. People are there to see a movie. They aren’t there to talk or use their cel phones. We’ve been playing the Alamos all over the country and we love those guys. Can’t say enough about them.
The Brooklyn show is part of a trio of east coast dates. Should fans follow you from stop to stop, like Phish or the Grateful Dead?
Frank: If they want to, we highly encourage it.
Trace: We do get people who travel from great distances to see us, and it’s very flattering. We have a devoted following, and they’re also well-behaved. It’s not like you’re going to see Insane Clown Posse, and getting soaked in soda pop. You’ll be soaked in laughter – that’s our promise.
You do different movies every night. I don’t want you to spoil any surprises, but can you tell me anything about the films you’ll be riffing?
Trace: Well, the one in Brooklyn we’d like to keep secret because nobody has seen this movie. Even if we told you the title you would not know it. It’s an early Chuck Connors movie, which isn’t giving anything away. It’s a film noir, and it’s absolutely one of the strangest movies we’ve done.
Tell me what The Mads’ afterparties are like.
Trace: I’m never invited to the afterparty!
Frank: [Laughs] For us, the afterparty is going to a diner and getting something to eat.
Something I’ve always admired is that despite how you’ve picked apart bad movies over the years, it’s clear that you’re genuinely fans of cinema. What you did on Mystery Science Theater – and in your riffing ventures since – never felt cynical, despite some of the travesties occurring in front of our eyes. Do feel like it’s necessary to have that appreciation for what you’re making fun of, in order for the comedy to really land?
Frank: Oh, yes, certainly. We have real affection for the films that we do. I enjoy a lot of them more than the so-called blockbuster movies that come out. There’s a sincerity to these films that makes them very endearing. Hopefully we’re not just completely trashing the films; hopefully, we’re taking the films and adding another layer to them – a layer of jokes – that makes it into another form of entertainment. We have a lot of affection for these movies.
Looking back, are there any early, formative movie-watching experiences that you can point to – a trip to the theater, or something you caught on TV while young – that really helped you to fall in love with movies?
Trace: Well, we grew up in this amazing time where so many movies were on television. Like, the old Universal horror movies made it to television because they were so cheap. And it was a time where you had to watch something. There was no recording, so you had to watch it and remember. It really strengthened our memory bank of arcane facts and meaningless knowledge on film.
Frank: I think, for me, one of the films that really had a big impact on me, was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which I saw when I was about seven. It had every comedian in the world in it, and I was already interested in comedy, so that movie really helped fuel that. And then I think Dr. Strangelove and A Hard Day’s Night both really influenced my sensibility and my sense of humor. When I think back to when I was young and the films that had a big impact on me, I think those are the ones.
Trace: Yeah, I would agree: those two are tentpoles of my film education. A Hard Day’s Night, in particular. Even though it as a serious movie, it didn’t seem to take itself too seriously. That made it so much fun. Those guys were irreverent; they were like a musical Marx Brothers.
Frank: They influenced me in every way imaginable.
You mentioned Dr. Strangelove, and I feel like your love for cinema is most evident in your joint podcast, Movie Sign with the Mads, where you’ve covered classics like that one and Citizen Kane alongside movies like Suicide Squad. How refreshing does it feel to be watch things together that aren’t garbage?
Trace: [Laughs] We watch a lot of garbage together, too, but occasionally a gem will come along. For example, we just watched Jackie. We do long for good movies. I wish every movie I watched was good.
Frank: Me too.
Trace: I want a lot of things to happen that would be miraculous.
Frank: For me, I watch so many bad movies as part of my job that when I see a good movie, I value it even more. I get more into the experience when I’m watching something really, really good.
You guys have been riffing for such a long time now. Are you able to turn your riffing reflex on and off?
Frank: Oh, yeah. Like I said, I so value the experience of watching a good movie that I don’t want to riff on it, and I don’t want to hear anyone else’s riffs on it. I just want to get into the movie.
Trace: Our podcast has brought me back into the theater. I hadn’t been going regularly for years, but not I’m going. We have to see these films as they’re released, and it’s nice to go and not have that experience where other people are talking. It’s rare that I find that now, mostly because no one else is going to the theater and I’m alone.
On a similar thought, have you ever encountered a movie that was unriffable? Are there movies that are too good to touch?
Frank: I have no interest in riffing good movies. If a movie is really good, it’s totally unriffable.
Trace: If it’s good, you’re not distracted. You’re totally immersed in the experience. It’s when a film doesn’t work well that you start picking it apart.
If a movie’s really bad, is it easier to poke fun at? Or, is there a sweet spot you look for somewhere between competence and awfulness?
Frank: The most important aspect of riffing a bad movie is sincerity on part of the filmmaker. A movie like Sharknado has no interest for us: a movie that’s self-aware, and in on the joke. Those sorts of movies aren’t fun to riff.
The ideal bad movie is something that is really bad, but has at least a level of competency. You can see what’s happening, there’s some sort of narrative, and not too much dialogue so that there’s room for the riffs. So, yeah, there are certain criteria. Some movies are so bad that you can’t follow them, or you can’t see or hear anything in them, and they’re no fun for riffing. It takes a certain kind of film.
Trace, I look at some of these old, behind-the-scenes photos of you slouched behind the MST theater seats, balancing that massive Crow puppet. How does your back feel these days?
Trace: Aw, you’re the first to even care about that. Thank you. My back was completely screwed up from that, especially when we’d go on press junkets and I would sit on the floor. But, thank you for your concern. It’s gotten much better. There’s a clinic for puppeteer palsy I’ve been going to, and they fixed me up.
Frank, I’ve seen your monthly Cartoon Dump show at QED in Queens. At MST, it seems like you guys were good about filtering out stuff that was truly unwatchable, but some of the cartoon shorts you’ve shown have made me feel like my brain was melting. I feel like your riffing acts like a shield for us against the full brunt of their crappiness, but how do you do it? How do you make it through those cartoons unfiltered?
Frank: Well, with cartoons, it’s easier because their short, at least. They’re never longer than seven minutes. When I’m writing, or watching a film for riffing, I just start writing down the riffs right away. I don’t worry about how pleasurable the viewing experience is because, really, I’m doing a job. I approach it that way, and I get through them.
One of favorite things about about MSTie fandom on the Internet is that people have come together and helped explain all of the show’s most obscure references to each other. Are there any riffs or references pitched in the MST3K writer’s room that were just too obscure to use?
Trace: There were a lot of them. With Mystery Science Theater, we could get away with a lot of arcane stuff. Really, our DNA is a lot of useless information. It’s hard to recall any specific stuff that was rejected because so much was rejected.
We’re always cheerfully reminded that there are people who do get our arcane references, which is very, very sweet. With the live show, though, we want people laughing. We will still be obscure, but then it will just be us laughing.
It’s like a TED Talk. We can’t make everything easy to understand – we have to be a little bit obtuse.
Before we wrap, I’m hoping you’ll play along in a little thought association game. I’m going to name three MST characters, and you say what comes to mind.
Joe Don Baker.
Trace: The next president of the United States.
Frank: I wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark alley.
Frank: He was the Trump that wasn’t as bad as the one we have now.
Trace: I would agree with that.
Mr. B Natural.
Trace: Nightmare fuel.
Frank: Androgyny ahead of its time.
The Mads play two NYC-area dates: The Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn on 2/17, and Yonkers on 2/18. Watch their website for more information and additional cities.
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