WISDOM OF A COMEDIAN: AN INTERVIEW WITH MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 ALUM MARY JO PEHL by Brian Blackmon

26 Feb

[The following interview was originally published in the February 3rd, 2010 issue of Monmouth University’s The Outlook]

One of the funniest and most creative shows to come out of the cable induced television renaissance of the 1980’s and 1990’s, Mystery Science Theater 3000 allowed viewers access to the brilliance of its cast of writers/performers as they executed what have become the definitive roasts of some of the greatest and most infamous b-movies of all time; including everything from Pia Zadora’s first film role Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, to my personal favorite Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders.  

This past December, MST3k alum Mary Jo Pehl took the time to answer some of my questions concerning her creative and diverse career. Like the late Gilda Radner on the original Saturday Night Live, and Catherine O’Hara on SCTV, Ms. Pehl’s tremendous skill and individual personality repeatedly stood out during her involvement on MST3k; clearly marking her as an identifiable talent.

Brian Blackmon: You are both a talented writer and performer, and were one of the important creative forces behind the hilarious Mystery Science Theater 3000. How did you get your start in the field of comedy and who are some of the individuals whose work inspired you early in your career?

Mary Jo Pehl: I was trying to go the corporate route and I worked at various ad agencies and media companies in non-creative roles, hoping to get onto the creative side.  At one job, an entry-level position at K-Tel International, one of my colleagues was into comedy and going to open mics. He dragged me to one. I memorized 3 minutes of material, and forgot almost half of it in my panic, but something clicked. I started doing open stages regularly and began getting work immediately. This was in the comedy boom of the late 80s-early 90s, and every bar, every church basement, every utility closet put a mic in the corner and an overhead light and called itself a comedy club. They needed comedians and I was lucky to be able to work my chops in the trenches. 

When I was just starting out, I was greatly influenced by my friends and colleagues in theater and standup comedy in the Twin Cities. They were, and continue to be, hilarious, daring, and creative.  At the time I had no idea one could make a living being creative – onstage, writing, various creative projects – beyond a corporate structure. I feel blessed and humbled that I fell in with a bunch of people who opened up my little pea brain.

I was, and continue to be, influenced by Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, Ruth Buzzi, Gracie Allen, Janeane Garofolo, Laurie Metcalfe, Joanne Worley, Monty Python, Gary Larson, Madeleine Kahn, Steve Martin… and I could go on and on!

Blackmon: What do you feel was the biggest lesson that you learned from your experience working with the other writers/performers on MST3K?  What was it like collaborating in a group environment, in which there is probably a lot of give and take; and how did it influence your concept of writing and creativity?

Pehl: Some of the biggest lessons I learned were how to think more analytically and critically; how to pitch jokes; and how to defend lines and/or sketches.  I learned better how not to take things personally – and this continues to be an ongoing education!

Ultimately, I learned how to collaborate: how to lead, how to follow, and how to pitch in. I learned what my strengths and weaknesses were, and how to play to my strengths and work on my weaknesses.

I was also inspired by some might fine and funny, brainy, creative folks.  I think collaboration can be a tricky thing.  I was in a great environment at MST3K,  and now again in Cinematic Titanic. But I also do many creative projects independently.  It’s difficult to find writing and/or creative partners with whom one has an effective creative synthesis; so many of the great writing partnerships can be fractious. It’s always going to be a push-pull, yin-yang dynamic – that can also be a great thing.  But I know lots of folks who have great collaborations, and right now I’m exploring other collaborations myself.  I’m learning that it’s actually an opportunity to work in a field or genre that I might not be very familiar with.  For example, I’m working on a couple of projects with Blue Water Comics. 

Blackmon: I know that there are many students who hope to one day see their work published and/or performed. What do you feel is the best way to start that journey toward making one’s dream a reality? What advice would you like to share on dealing with the ups and downs of getting a start?

Pehl: Forgive me, but here’s an “in the old days” story. When I was first starting out, I’d have to send my work snail-mail to newspapers, magazines, wherever I was hoping to be published. You’d enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope so they could reject you more conveniently and you got to finance your rejection to boot.  You were at the mercy of other forums, other venues to be published – all opportunities controlled by others.  And it was a pretty limited variety: magazines or newspapers.

Then ‘zines came along; published and run by people from their homes about whatever they wanted to write about.  And then there was the so-called internet, where people can blog and have their own websites.  And make their own short films. And podcasts. And any permutation thereof!

The point is, the environment is completely different.  You have many opportunities to create your own thing. You can blog, twitter, Facebook, make your own recordings, podcasts, videos, etc. without a lot of special equipment, and the list goes on.

If you want to be published in print media or posted on specific sites, I suggest getting your feet wet by volunteering content. Write a column or story for a local paper, or for a blog you like. Know the forum for which you’re writing and what they’re looking for. There are so many places looking for content. Then you’ll get a feel for the process, and you’ll learn how to work with an editor. But do not work for free forever. If you feel like it’s an excellent learning experience that will give you a new skill set, great, but watch out: it seems writers and actors are expected to work simply because they love what they do, and the marketplace is glutted with writers and actors.  Don’t. I have worked really really hard to get some footing in my career, and I continue to work really hard to be good at what I do.  If I’m not going to get paid for something, I’ll stay home and watch TV and not get paid for that.

Try to make the editor’s or person in charge job easier – follow their instructions.  If they want a story via email, send it email.  If they only want one or two of your best photographs, do that. 

Be awed and intimidated by people whose work you admire, and then be inspired, and then always do your best, and with heart and zeal. Dare to fail.

Blackmon: What would you suggest is the best way for someone to handle rejection in relation to their art? What is an example of your own experience with this type of adversity and the way that you were able to persevere?

Pehl: Don’t take it personally! Forget about it and move on!  There are times when an editor or project curator might have valuable criticism or insight, but more often than not, they are just incredibly busy people who are just moving things off their desk (or computer), so they might not have considered the piece very much. So just move on.  Learn from your experience if you’re able; but try to distinquish input from people who get what you’re trying to do and support you, and the multitudes of voices who are trying to shut you down with various ill-considered or silly input. 

For instance, many years ago I was commissioned to write a one-act play.  So I did. It was about three sisters who were trying to come to terms with the death of the child of one of the women.  The play had a reading at a regional playwrighting organization, and anyone was welcome to attend.  In the feedback session that followed, one fellow stood up and said that he wished there had been a dog in the play.  This was completely irrelevant to anything in the play, and that’s the sort of thing that when you’re first starting you starting thinking, ohmygod, why didn’t I have a dog in the play?!  Then, if you’re lucky, you start realizing some people don’t get it. And that’s fine.  Because other people will get it!

So, as you can imagine, my experience with rejection is myriad. Two instances come to mind: I submitted some work to some publication or perhaps a book anthology. The editor rejected my work but then asked if any of my former MST3K colleagues might be interested.  As if I were supposed to coordinate it. Terribly insulting.  It’s one thing if you’re not keen on my work, but please don’t ask me to be your secretary to people who’s work you prefer.  I once submitted some stories to a book anthology and the editor remarked only on my brightly colored envelope and nice handwriting. Argh!  So don’t waste your time, move on, keep working and love what you do.  

Blackmon: What was the inspiration for your performance of Dr. Pearl Forrester? She is certainly a memorable villainess who often stole the show.  

Pehl: She’s kind of a hyperbolic combination of my very funny, very wonderful Mom and a beloved aunt, also funny and acerbic.

Blackmon: Out of all of the B-movies that you parodied over the years on MST3K, do you have any favorites?

Pehl: Lately I’ve been enjoying The Alien Factor which we’re working on for Cinematic Titanic and will be release in early 2010. My favorites from the MST3K years are always changing as I become reacquainted with some things we did, like

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die; Human Duplicators; and San Francisco International Airport. 

Blackmon: What was the reason for concluding Mystery Science Theater 3000? I know that it still has a strong following? Is it similar to Jackie Gleason’s desire to cancel The Honeymooners while they were still on top?

Pehl: It was not our decision to discontinue the show, so no, it was not like The Honeymooners. New programming management came aboard at the Sci-Fi Channel and retooled their line-up, which did not include MST3K.  Not uncommon in television and we’d had a great ten year run, which IS uncommon in television.

Blackmon: With your current work alongside other MST3K alumni on the Cinematic Titanic DVDs and stage show, do you ever feel that the Satellite of Love could one day take orbit again, possibly in a second feature film?    

Pehl: Who knows?

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