The Art of Bad Movies: Watching with MST3K’s Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff

Hate-watching, good-bad movies, guilty pleasures. There’s a whole culture of watching “bad movies” right now and at least some credit is owed to the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. The show (which aired for more than a decade on various channels) showed just how fun watching WTF movies can be…when in the company of comedians providing a riffing commentary and a Meta B-movie storyline to frame the entire premise. The show, and several of the films they aired, gained long lasting cult status, and spurred further ventures including The Film Crew, RiffTrax, and Cinematic Titanic (and the Netflix reboot from creator Joel Hodgson).

But the show’s legacy goes even beyond those intimately involved in the series. Fans that grew up with the series have seen the emergence of bad movie parties, theatrical revivals (like 2003’s The Room), there are podcasts (How Did This Get Made, We Hate Movies, The Flophouse, to name a few) and live comedy commentaries shows (The Doug Benson Movie Interruption, Master Pancake); all formats inspired by and paying tribute to the series. But one thing that can be overlooked is the amount of work and skill required to become masters of riffing. With decades of experience, MST3K co-stars and writers Trace Beaulieu (who voiced the Crow T. Robot and mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester) and Frank Conniff (henchman ”TV’s Frank”), who now host live movie events as the comedy group “The Mads”, offered a behind-the-scenes peek at what really goes into bad movie riffing.

Their Origins were Humble

If the show had a quality of “homemade” anarchy, it wasn’t fake…at least not initially. The show took considerable time to find its niche because “The origins of the show, were very organic” says Trace, who started with the show from the beginning at local channel KTMA. “We started in a little television station and had access to their film library. We’d all grown up on science fiction films and so those worked best in the science fiction framework the show was being presented. But we had no intention of riffing on them. We were originally just going to talk about them. And then we quickly learned, being comics ourselves, we were going to have to fill dead air…a lot of it. Those early days we were really trying to figure out the show, and it wasn’t until we got the time to script them that we honed the craft. That’s when Frank came along, and brought a huge amount of comedic sensibility to the show.” Frank joined as “TV’s Frank” when it moved to Comedy Central (then The Comedy Channel).

You Can’t Just Wing This

It can be hard to watch a good movie multiple times. But professional riffing requires multiple viewings of bad films. Frank believes on average they had to watch that week’s movie “at least half dozen times” to write and plan out the show. “One day, we spent riffing it, another day just writing sketches, another day we would rewatch and start riffing again. Then we’d do a read-through and have to watch it again. Then, when we actually filmed it, we watched it and we were still rewriting on set. And then we watched it again when we’d edit it, which is kinda re-writing.” The endurance it took to “get through the movies” might have helped them come up with some of their best material because “we were really trying to entertain ourselves and make ourselves laugh, just to get through another watch” says Trace “That viewing experience is what transferred to the viewers at home, and happens at our live shows now.” As for selecting the bad films, Frank was often responsible for that job, which meant putting himself through bad movies they wouldn’t even get to riff on. But he has a positive outlook about the sometimes tedious task, because “I’d remind myself that I was getting paid to watch TV.”

Not all Bad Movies are Created Equal

Even if a movie’s terrible, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth watching or riffing. “We tend to avoid grotesquely violent or sexual films” says Frank about the movies they selected for the show and select now for their live shows. “We like to stay in the 50s or 60s. Those are the movies we have the most fondness for. And there are some movies that just have too much dialogue, so there’s no room to riff. And some are so poorly filmed you can barely hear or see what’s going on. And even for a bad movie, some kind of a narrative is very helpful, and some movies don’t even have that. Those are all things we had to learn along the way.” And as for movies like Snakes on a Plane or Sharknado, movies made and promoted as “bad movies,” don’t interest them either. “Films that are self-aware and designed for riffing, we have no interest in those” says Trace. “The films we like, a lot of the movies from the 50s and the 60s, had a lot of heart put into these films. Ed Wood wasn’t the worst filmmaker of all time, he had a lot of heart, was a dedicated filmmaker. A lot of these films were just made with a bit of naiveté and love for making films. They weren’t trying to be ironic, which makes them more fun to watch.”

What Films Work

Considering the premise for the original Mystery Science Theater, low budget horror and science fiction films consistently provided opportunity to riffing. The sheer number of B movies made to appeal to the genre boom in the 50s and 60s (the same boom that captured the imagination of Spielberg and Lucas) resulted in some hilariously bad (and cheap) movies. But according to Trace and Frank, every film genre could be (and has been) riffed by them in some iteration. Trace recalls “we became known for showing a lot of science fiction and horror, but one of our most iconic episodes was Mitchell, a detective thing which was a genre we rarely tackled. Sci-fi and horror fit so well because the show itself was a sci-fi comedy.” Trace does admit musicals feel like the hardest to riff on (although MST3k did riff on Catalina Caper), but Frank wouldn’t mind tackling La La Land (although the exhibition fees might be a bit too high). Cost was always a big issue, as copyright laws resulted in them picking films inexpensive to show (and manipulate) or films which had already lapsed into the public domain.

Know Your Power

Some of the public domain movies which had previously fallen into obscurity, they ultimately revived as cult films, branded with the Mystery Science Theater stamp of disapproval. One of the movies that made it on the air, they felt didn’t deserve its new legacy is Space Travelers AKA Marooned. Trace thinks it’s “a pretty good movie, although sometimes it’s just kinda dull because the version we had, had some really terrible video effects added to it. But it’s a pretty good movie, with great actors (including Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, Gene Hackman and Lee Grant). I felt a little bit guilty about doing that one. But it was available to us because the copyright had lapsed. And it turned out to make one of the better MST3K episodes.” One director with his own affection for good-bad movies, Joe Dante, apparently came to the film’s defense and told someone associated with the show “you should have never picked that film.” But a movie they do (sort of) apologize for reviving, is bringing the terrible Manos: The Hands of Fate, back to life after its unimpressive release in 1966. Frank selected the movie for the show, and launched it into the Bad Movie Hall of Fame (right next to The Room and Troll 2). Despite the book “Hollywood’s Most Wanted” listing it as the second worst film of all time, just behind Plan 9 from Outer Space, Trace disputes that factoid “there are much worst movies than Plan 9 from Outer Space. I’ve seen Manos.”

The Universe of Bad Movies is Infinite

Audiences have changed since they started, thanks to social media and internet, and now “There are these famously bad movies like The Room, Troll 2, or Birdemic, that people were aware of those movies and then people started riffing on them” explains Trace “Back in the old days we could kind of take pride and ownership about discovering them, but now other people seem to lead the way in discovering these bad movies.” Even now, neither comic can pick the dream movie to riff on, because they’re still finding new movies worth their attention. “I don’t know if there’s a holy grail of movie” says Frank. “I just keep hoping to find more movies I’m not aware of, like the one we’re doing Friday that Trace found. When we performed with Master Pancake, they take audience suggestions, and I’d never heard of the film they picked. It was Never Too Young to Die with John Stamos and Gene Simmons from KISS. That movie’s just wonderful, and we’d never even heard of it.” Trace promises their performance Friday Night at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn will feature one of their best picks. While he won’t share the title (for obvious reason) he found it during a random search for film noir movies and was intrigued because it starred TV’s Chuck Connors. “The film we’re going to show at the Drafthouse is from the era we love, and it’s something people in the audience have never seen before. We’ve shown it at a couple of Alamos across the country, with audiences that are pretty savvy about movies, and we stump them every time with this movie. It’s as if we’re introducing a new virus into the world with this one.” Frank, who was introduced to the movie by Trace as well, promises “It has every element we love to attack.”

They Know Their Legacy

The guys are well aware of the reach MST3K has had on the popular culture and embrace their status as the veterans of this new comic artform. They know about the podcasts and comics inspired by them, and even perform with some…they’re even scheduled to perform again with Master Pancake (John Erler and guests in Austin) in a few weeks. “It’s come full circle” says Trace, “Because they’re at the top of their game, but were inspired by us. And it’s not unusual, there seems to be a riffing group in every city, almost the way improv groups were specific to cities. It’s just another form of comedy.” Frank, who also hosts on SiriusXM and performs stand-up, has seen many comics inspired by him first hand “I see a lot of comics riffing on movies in their acts. A lot of its really great material and I’ll participate with them too. As someone still in the comedy community, I hang around with a lot of younger comedians who were influenced by the show. That’s very gratifying to see and most of what I’ve seen are comedians who have been influenced and inspired in a positive way. It can be a little scary for an older guy like me.” And they know they aren’t the first to riff on movies too…fans can just watch WTF movie Hellzapoppin’ for an example of pre-MST3K screen heckling, “25 minutes into the film, not only do they riff on their own film, but they also start to add dialogue” says Trace “So they were way ahead of us, and I don’t think any of us had seen that movie before. Olsen and Johnson are kindred spirits of ours.”

Embrace the Social Movie Watching Experience

One of the biggest impacts they’ve made on culture has been revitalizing the social aspect they brought back to movie watching after the impact of the VHS boom in the early 80s. MST3K showed the value of getting through the bad movies together, and that remains in effect to this day. “I think people have really picked up on the idea of getting together with friends and watching something that might not be that great, but would be fun to watch in a group” says Frank “I notice a lot of people on Twitter or Facebook will list who they are and what they love as ‘I love great books, music, and bad movies.’ I’ve seen that a few times and I think that’s our influence on people, the idea that it can actually be a fun experience if you watch together.” Today, plenty of people now host their own movie nights and have found a community of like-minded fans. These are the fans Trace and Frank find at their shows, like-minded people looking for a live version of the experience they grew up watching. As Trace says “It’s just a room full of people wanting to have a good time with a movie that needs a little help.” Frank explains that while riffing on riffing is discouraged “We don’t encourage them to join in the riffing because we have the microphones and it is our job” But the interaction with a live audience still adds to the experience immensely because “we do get great interaction just from their laughter. And what they laugh at or don’t laugh at determines some of what we do. And if we make a mistake we’ll comment on it or riff on that. Our live shows are scripted, but we keep it very loose and always make way for spontaneity and improvisation.”

Today, the men of “The Mads” prefer the live performance over TV because “live is better because we can hear the audience. “There isn’t another comedy show that has as much laughing in two hours. At least I haven’t been to one” says Trace, as Frank adds “Doing it in front of a live audience, took the great experience of Mystery Science Theater and made it even better because we can hear the laughter while doing it. We can’t get enough of it.”

The Mads appear Friday at Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn and Saturday at the Drafthouse in Yonkers

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Lesley Coffin is the Features/Interviews Editor for the movie site Filmoria. She has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Look for her brand new podcast, "Lake Shore Drive to Hollywood" part of the Second Wind Collective podcast network. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.