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On Hold with Atchka! and Mary Jo Pehl

June 14, 2012

Y’all prob’ly don’t know this, but I’m a huge fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I consider to be the greatest contribution to society known to mankind.

MST3K provides Veronica and I with nearly nightly laughter, even after the 1,000th viewing of Pod People or Space Mutiny or Deathstalker.

And it isn’t just the incredible riffs and high-precision comedy that makes this show a national treasure, it’s each and every one of the cast and crew (known collectively as Best Brains) who contributed to this once-in-a-lifetime show that is unlike anything in the history of television.

What has always struck me as the core of MST is its humanity, which was baked right into the show from the beginning. Rather than uprooting itself for Hollywood or New York City, as the networks requested, Best Brains remained in Minneapolis and capitalized on its Midwestern sensibilities.

The result is a show created for the love of the show, rather than the love of money or ratings or glory. Perfect example: for most of the seasons at the very end of the credits you would see variation of the following:

And “KEEP CIRCULATING THE TAPES” we did for ten solid seasons, watching VHS versions of our favorite episodes, cheesy 90s commercials and all.  V and I have dozens of rapidly-degenerating tapes, which have now become a shrine to the show in lieu of the fact that “KEEP CIRCULATING THE TAPES” has been replaced by “KEEP CIRCULATING THE LINKS.”

Unlike most American shows, almost every MST3K episode is available in its entirety on YouTube.

MST3K was also one of the first shows to merge onto the information superhighway, inspiring a brutal usenet war over Mike vs. Joel (the two human “hosts” of the show). Later, when Comedy Central canceled MST3K after the seventh season, and the Sci Fi channel picked them up for another three, one of the show’s most beloved stars, Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Clayton Forrester and the voice, and soul, of Crow) left as well.

Into Beaulieu’s oversized, lime green sneakers stepped one Mary Jo Pehl, who had been a writer and occasional alien on the show up till then. After the Mike vs. Joel debacle, Pehl knew that fans would react strongly to the fact that she replaced Trace.

On top of it all, Pehl is fat.

As you can imagine, the blowback from stunted fanboys included quite a few attacks on Pehl’s weight. But Pehl stood her ground and helped to carry MST3K through an awkward 8th season that included a “story arc” at the insistence of Sci Fi executives (who can all jump up my butt).

By the 9th season, the story arc began to fade, and MST3K returned to its free-form beauty, while Pehl’s character developed into a natural replacement for Beaulieu.

This isn’t the first interview I’ve done with Pehl, as a few years back I interviewed every cast member and nearly every writer from the show for a 20th anniversary article that never saw the light of day. Again, that Midwestern sensibility was present in every conversation, but none more so than in my conversation with Pehl.

This conversation returns to that familiar territory and Mary Jo’s warmth, humor and wisdom shines through in every way. Plus, as an added bonus, she’s a fan of Health at Every Size, which we discuss, as well as Pehl’s body image issues growing up.

Mary Jo has a new book out called Employee of The Month And Other Big Deals, which I highly recommend, particularly if you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. And be sure to check out Cinematic Titanic, the awesome movie riffing revival project from Joel, Mary Jo, Trace, Frank and Josh.

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