The Mads Are Back
When the phone rang, I was not too proud to say aloud, "The Mads are calling."
Because they were.
The Mads are writer-performers Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff. For a better part of the 1990s, they played Dr. Clayton Forrester and his bumbling henchman, "TV's Frank," on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Beaulieu also created and performed the role of Crow T. Robot).
The premise of the show involved virtuosic displays of movie mocking. It also involved robots and outer space and incompetent supervillains. It created a lot of devotees and not a few detractors.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 spawned a new definition of riffing, a term that had previously been used to describe jazz improvisation.
Riffing now also refers to movie-inspired quipping.
After leaving Mystery Science Theater 3000, Beaulieu and Conniff wrote for other comedic series and then toured with Cinematic Titanic, another movie riffing venture with a huge cast of established riffers.
The men subsequently formed a double act and are performing in theaters nationwide under the rubric, The Mads Are Back.
They will riff an as-yet-unnamed movie on Saturday night at the first annual Hall of Heroes Comic Con in Elkhart.
I interviewed both men recently. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I interviewed Conniff separately late last year about his hilarious bad movie memoir, Twenty Five Mystery Science Theater 3000 Films That Changed My Life In No Way Whatsoever.
I ran out if time to write it up then, so I will now attempt to combine both interviews in a manner that is no more than mildly jarring.
Conniff joined Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (aka MST3K) before the start of its second season on Comedy Central.
He replaced J. Elvis Weinstein as Forrester's sidekick and it quickly became evident that Beaulieu and Conniff shared a rare chemistry.
"I think the thing that really inspired TV's Frank's relationship with Dr. Forrester is that Trace and I are both fans of comedy teams like Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers," Conniff said. "We wanted it to have that kind of a feeling to it: one guy's a stooge and the other guy takes advantage of the fact that he's a stooge."
The characters that Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk played in the 1965 film, The Great Race, Professor Fate and his hapless crony Maximilian Meen, also influenced the Mads, Conniff said.
Conniff said that he and Beaulieu share "a common worldview."
"We're very in sync in terms of our comedic sensibilities," he said. "The things that make me laugh are usually the things that make Trace laugh."
The name "TV's Frank" grew out of a convention of print advertising in the 1960s and 1970s.
"When I was growing up," Conniff said, "you would read in TV Guide - if someone from a TV show would do an ad for something - it would say, 'Mike Connor, TV's Mannix' and that's kind of where it came from. People just started saying it. It was just another one of those things from the show that came very naturally. Not a lot of thought went into it.
"I probably shouldn't admit how much 'TV's Frank' is based on the real me," he said, laughing.
It was Conniff's job on the show to vet and cull the films for Mystery Science Theater 3000.
This meant opening box after box filled with VHS tapes and viewing hours' worth of the worst cinema ever created by well-meaning incompetents.
This was not at all akin to ditch digging, Conniff said, but it was not a fun job.
Mere badness was not enough to qualify a movie for comic disqualification on MST3K.
Some bad movies unfold like gridlock, like slow WiFi, like sorting socks, like waiting in a long line to buy stamps.
If the movie lacked a followable plot, it did not lend itself to riffing, Conniff said,
"When you can't tell what's happening at all, it just doesn't lend itself to an entertaining experience," he said. "Even a movie like 'Manos' has a plot to it that you can sort of follow."
"For every 20 films," Conniff wrote in the aforementioned memoir, "there were usually one or two that would be deemed appropriate for our needs. 'Are there films that were too awful even for MST3K?' is a question I have often got and the answer is: yes, dear God, yes, heaven help me, have mercy on my soul, yes."
Conniff left the show after the sixth season and Beaulieu after the seventh.
Both men say they wanted to try their hands at other sorts of comedy writing.
Beaulieu spent many years as head writer on ABC's America's Funniest Home Videos and Conniff was head writer on the acclaimed Nickelodeon cartoon series, Invader Zim.
After MST3K creator Joel Hodgson decided to shut down the Cinematic Titanic project, Conniff received a request to do a one-off live show and he and Beaulieu decided to see if they could turn that into multiple bookings.
The cardboard box method for finding riffable films has been replaced by web surfing, Beaulieu said.
"We've been dealing with the Ed Wood catalog because we love his movies so much," he said, "and then just searching on the Internet for films that are appropriate to our needs. We need a movie that's got some kind of plot to follow and plenty of room for us to add our comments."
It's got to be "the right type of crap," Beaulieu said.
They try to find good prints, he said, but they're now riffing a bad print of "a film noir starring Chuck Connors" and the shoddy quality of the copy seems to be working in comedy's favor.
Of course, when you're talking about "a film noir starring Chuck Connors," comedy already has a significant head start.
The shows are tightly scripted, Beaulieu said, but there is room for improvisation.
"The audience is so important for us to keep the films fresh and vital," he said. "There's nothing that I have experienced that is as fun as doing these live shows."
"We love performing live more than anything," Conniff said. "We love performing in front of audiences. We love meeting our fans."
As Conniff and Beaulieu tour the country together, Netflix is preparing to debut Hodgson's MST3K reboot, which features a new cast and crew.
In the interview I conducted with Conniff last year, he admitted that there were some bad feelings about the project among some of the show's progenitors.
"You know," he said, "we had all worked with Joel on Cinematic Titanic. When he finally got the rights back to Mystery Science Theater, he kind of just went forward and it was his own thing.
"I can only speak for myself," Conniff said. "I can't speak for the other guys. There were some bad feelings on my part that he didn't include me in the creative process. But the thing is about the reboot is (that) I'm friends with most of the new people who are involved in it: Jonah (Ray) and Patton (Oswalt). I think all the people involved in it are really great and I think it's going to be really fantastic. I feel like I want to be supportive of it because I really like all of those people."
Beaulieu said he was asked to "come in and do some work" on the new show but "the offer was not a creative offer."
"That wasn't appealing to me," he said. "Writing for other people - I have done that for the last 20 years. I'd rather write my own jokes and perform my own jokes."
Conniff said he was not asked to be a part of it at all.
"And that's outrageous, frankly" Beaulieu said. "Not to ask 'TV's Frank' to participate?"
"We're not upset about it," Conniff said. "We've got our own thing going on."
Beaulieu said the duo is booked through fall at this point. The project may progress to the point where they'll be able to offer digital downloads of the shows to fans. But, for now, "you've got to come and see our show," Beaulieu said.
It seems likely that Conniff will always be known to most people as "TV's Frank" and he said he is OK with that.
"I don't see any downside to it," he said. "I'm very grateful to have been a part of the show. I've done a lot of things since Mystery Science Theater and I'm doing a lot of things now that are very creative, that are very engaging to me and that I'm very proud of. But I know that Mystery Science Theater is the thing that people will associate me with and I have no problem with that.
"I'm very grateful to have been a part of what we can now say is one of history's classic shows," Conniff said. "And I'm old enough now to be a part of history."
Friday, April 28
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Click header for complete Things To Do calendar
Concordia Comedy Festival — Concordia Lutheran High School presents a showing of comedy films from middle and high school students, 7 p.m. Friday, April 28, Room 101, Neff Hall, IPFW, Fort Wayne, free, 483-1102
Tapestry: A Day for You — Day of inspiration, renewal and education for women in all stages of life with keynote speaker Ann Curry, 7:30 a.m. Friday, April 28, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, $75, 483-1111
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Blooze Faktor — Blues at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., cover, 483-1311
Chris Worth & Company — Variety at Arena Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 557-1563
Classic Voice — Variety at The Venice Restaurant, Fort Wayne, 7-10 p.m., no cover, (260) 482-1618
Cougar Hunter — 80s glam rock at The Venue, Angola, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, 665-3922
Expanding Man — Variety at Club Soda, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 426-3442
G-Money Band — Blues at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Hubie Ashcraft & Travis Gow — Country at Billy's Downtown Zulu, Monroeville, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 623-3583
The Illegals — Rock at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., no cover, 483-5526
IPFW Bands & Choirs w/Fort Wayne Children's Choir — Classical at Auer Performance Hall, Rhinehart Music Center, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 7:30 p.m., $4-$7, 481-6555
Joe Stabelli — Jazz at Don Hall's Gas House, Fort Wayne, 5:45-9 p.m., no cover, 426-3411
John Curran & Renegade — Country at American Legion Post 241, Waynedale, 8:30-11:30 p.m., no cover, 747-7851
Kat Bowser — Variety at Don Hall's Guesthouse, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 489-2524
Rebecca Rego — Americana/country at Two-EE's Winery, Huntington, 7:30-9:30 p.m., no cover, 672-2000
Secret Mezzanine — Variety at Deer Park Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 432-8966
String Theory — Acoustic variety at Friendly Fox, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 260-745-3369
Todd Harrold & Nick Bobay Duo — R&B/blues/variety at O'Sullivan's Italian Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 422-5896
Trichotomous Hippopotamus w/Trackless, John Fishell — Rock at Brass Rail, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., cover, 267-5303
The Why Store — Rock at Mitchell's Sports Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, (260) 387-5063
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Big Dawg Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Bucca Karaoke w/Ashley — Variety at Tower Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-6310
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Pine Valley Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 490-9464
Dance Party w/DJ Rich — Variety at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 10:30 p.m., cover, 422-5055
DJ dance party — at Rum Runners, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., ,
DJ Shawn — Karaoke/variety at Club Paradise, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 833-7082
Fort Wayne Karaoke — Variety at Tap Haus, New Haven, 9 p.m., no cover, 493-6622
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Jay — Variety at Coconutz @ Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Scott — Variety at JR's Pub, Leo, 9 p.m., no cover, 627-2500
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., ,
House DJ — Variety at Early Bird's Ultra Lounge, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 483-1979
House DJ — Variety at Flashback on the Landing, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 422-5292
Karaoke w/DJ Chuck — Variety at DW Bar & Grill, Churubusco, 10 p.m., no cover, 693-8172
Karaoke with Rooster — Variety at Portside Pizza, Columbia City, 9 p.m., no cover, 691-3333
Karaoke — Variety at Coconutz @ Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 9-11 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Karaoke — Variety at Hamilton House, Hamilton, 9 p.m., no cover, 488-3344
Karaoke — Variety at Beamer's Sports Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 625-1002
Karaoke — Karaoke at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Karaoke — Variety at Crooner's Karaoke Bar, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., no cover, 486-1979
Rockstar Karaoke & DJ w/Scotty — Karaoke at Backway Lounge, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 665-5081
Shooting Star Prod. w/Barbie — Variety at Uncle Lou's Steel Mill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-5787
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ — Karaoke at 4 Crowns, Auburn, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., no cover, 925-9805
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ w/Kevin — Variety at Danny's Italian Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 484-4444
SureShot Karaoke w/David — Variety at The Green Frog Inn, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m., no cover, 426-1088
Three Rivers Karaoke — at Bottle and Bottega, Fort Wayne, 8:30-10:30 p.m., no cover, 494-1020
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Funny Little Thing Called Love — Romantic comedy by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Home and Jamie Wooten, 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Friday-Saturday, April 28-29 and May 5-6 and May 12-13, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622
The Little Mermaid — Fort Wayne Civic Theatre musical based on the Disney movie, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 8 p.m. Friday, May 5; 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, May 6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7, Arts United Center, Fort Wayne, $17-$29, 424-5220
Little Shop of Horrors — IPFW Department of Theatre performance of Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical comedy, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29, Williams Theatre, IPFW, Fort Wayne, $5-$18, 481-6555
Next to Normal — Tony Award- and Pulitzer-winning musical about coping with mental illness, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 4-6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7, Three Rivers Music Theatre, Fort Wayne, $10-$20, 498-2270
The Taming of the Shrew — William Shakespeare’s now somewhat controversial comedy about the battle between the sexes, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29 and Friday-Saturday, May 5-6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 12-13, First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne, $12-$20, 426-7421 ext. 121
A Wrinkle in Time — all for One productions’ adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s young adult science fiction novel, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 5-6; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 7, PPG ArtsLab, Auer Center for Arts & Culture, Fort Wayne, $11-20, 422-4226
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37th National Print Exhibition — Juried exhibition featuring contemporary printmakers from around the nation, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
41st SOCA Student Exhibition — Works from students currently enrolled at USF’s School of Creative Arts, daily thru April 30, Weatherhead Gallery, USF Rolland Art Center, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
Jan Krist-Finkbeiner — Exhibition of ceramic reliefs, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
Juxtapoz Magazine: 25 Years Under the Influence — A chronicle of the iconic magazine’s evolution into one of the most influential magazines of art of the counterculture, Tuesday-Sunday thru July 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Kathy Funderburg & Diane Schafer-King — Acrylic paintings (Funderburg) and works in marbled paper and fabric (Schaefer-King), Monday-Saturday thru April 29, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Norman Bradley and Friends — Exhibition of works by friends and colleagues of the late Fort Wayne artist, Tuesday-Saturday thru May 20 , Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, Roanoke, 672-2080
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Perspectives Live Butterfly Display — Up close and personal perspectives of the Conservatory’s newest collection of live butterflies, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 25, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Rhoda Gerig: The Hope of Eagles — Photographic images of eagles, daily thru June 4, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102
Robert Williams: SLANG Aesthetics! — An exhibition of new work by the artist considered the godfather of the lowbrow, pop surrealist and colloquial realism art movements, Tuesday-Sunday thru July 23, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
SOCA Graduate Program: Student Highlights — Juried exhibition of works by students enrolled in USF’s School of Creative Arts graduate program, Monday-Friday thru April 30, Lupke Gallery, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Exhibition of works by IPFW graduation seniors, daily thru May 3, Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery, Main Library, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Senior thesis projects from Bachelor of Fine Arts candidates Brenda Drayer (sculpture), Derek Hibbs (printmaking), Ellen Mensch (painting), Nathaniel Morris (sculpture) and Kyle Snodgrass (sculpture), daily thru May 7, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring Palette — New original works by more than 50 nationally recognized artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru May 20 (Cinco de Mayo Fiesta featuring mariachi music by Mark Meussling 6-10 p.m. Friday, May 5), Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568