Nerdbot Exclusive Interview: Mary Jo Pehl – Actress and Writer from Mystery Science Theater 3000
Most people who follow my writing know I’m a huge Mystery Science Theater 3,000 fan. The show appeals to me on so many levels. Dry, quick comedy. Quirky characters. Robots. Phenomenal writing. But one of the performers stood out to me and quickly rose to become my favorite character on the show. I’m talking about Pearl Forrester, the original Lawgiver. The woman behind the makeup is Mary Jo Pehl, a writer and stand up comedian who joined the cast long before Pearl made her appearance on camera. So when I put on my brave-girl pants and asked Ms. Pehl for a Nerdbot Exclusive Interview (to which she said yes!) I knew my phone call with her was going to be an amazing experience.
And trust me, I was not disappointed.
Hi Mary Jo! Thank you so much for giving Nerdbot this interview. So, while researching some of your other interviews to make sure I didn’t accidentally ask any generic questions, I discovered that there hasn’t been any published recently. I saw a bunch from around 2013-2014 but nothing much since. Is that accurate?
Oh wow, that’s entirely possible. To tell you the truth I lose track and don’t always keep record of them. Like my husband will say “I just heard this interview, why didn’t you tell me you did it?” and it’s because I don’t like to listen to myself or read about myself, so I’m just onto the next thing. So yes, that is entirely possible. There have been life events where I’ve just kind of shut down for a while and needed to just hibernate.
With that, would you consider yourself post-hibernation right now?
Oh sure! I’m in a good non-hibernation place right now.
What are you up to professionally or personally that you want to share?
Well, last fall and over the winter I shot a little web series with a friend of mine and he just finished editing it and putting the finishing production touches on it. We’re going to launch that in a couple of weeks, which I’m really excited about. Mostly I’m just thrilled that I finished something. I have a to-do list a mile long and then I get discouraged with myself. I will work ten minutes on something and then be mad that it’s not finished, that my bestselling novel isn’t done yet, and then I abandon it. So I’m delighted with myself that I saw it through. It’s about a product demonstrator in a midwestern supermarket chain who gets fired from her job. It’s pretty basic, stylistically and production value-wise, but the first episode is out now!
I do RiffTrax with Bridget Nelson; we’re working on a new movie. I’m also working on a memoir about my mom, who died in 2014. She left behind this amazing little card catalog of all the books she had read. Because she read so much, she started forgetting some of the books. Her little card system is so hilarious because she made comments about the books that were just so funny and insightful. I was just at CONvergence, which is a great sci-fi/fantasy con here in Minneapolis every July. I also do a podcast with some friends of mine called 3rd and 40 – it’s a sports podcast. None of know anything about sports, so we plumb the depths of what we don’t know.
I am absolutely so happy to hear about all of those project that are happening for you! If I may ask, what platform is that web series going to be available on?
I think YouTube; I have my YouTube Channel set up. It’s still a work in progress because I’m not nearly as adept with technology as I could be. There are other forums and platforms where I should be launching it, but this is my start.
I think it’s great! I mean, you of all people have a great foundation.
I hope so!
In addition to the work you just mentioned, you were also involved with Mystery Science Theater: The Return (for season eleven). What were your feelings not only when you heard it was successfully revived, but you were invited back to play Pearl Forrester again?
It was great fun! Bill and Kevin were there doing Bobo and Brain Guy, and I always enjoyed working with them. They’re hilarious and old friends – what’s not to like? I think that there was a little bit of a disconnect because the production was so enormous. Back when we did Mystery Science Theater it was such a stripped-down, garage band version of television. It was way low-tech. The Kickstarter for the new seasons was enormous, way more than the old series’ budget ever was. To walk into the studio for the reboot and see the scope of it. The studio in Minneapolis (for the original version) was so small that we’d have switch and redress as needed. The studio for season 11 in L.A. had maybe three or four setups on one soundstage – that sort of blew my mind. And millions upon millions of people scurrying back and forth. I mean, someone brought me a bottled water and everything!! It’s fascinating that the show just continues to thrive, that people still dig it so much.
Which is funny, because even by the time you were onscreen playing Pearl the show seemed like it had significantly more budget than those early days.
It was always a pretty small budget. That’s why we kept getting renewed. We were cheap programming. The original series was pretty ‘skin of our teeth’ in the way it was produced.
Since we already spoke about MST3K The Return, and RiffTrax, which by the way, the episode that drew me in to the series was the one you did with Mariah Carey’s ‘Glitter’…
Yes! Yes! (laughing)
I’m not going to lie, RiffTrax was frustrating to watch back in those days! You had to sync it up yourself and it was a lot of trouble. But when my friend informed me that she was bringing a pizza and by the way, Mary Jo riffs Glitter, I snapped to attention and was like “I’m there!”
Oh! That’s delightful, thank you!
You’re welcome! Like you said, MST3K was off the air for a while and when you did RiffTrax you helped bring me back to my people! May I please ask you a little bit about your experience doing Cinematic Titanic?
Yes, that was with Joel, Frank, Trace, and Josh. We started out recording and doing movies in the studio. Then we started touring with it. I feel like those recordings were great, they were fine, but we were still finding our groove working with each other.
And in a studio setting, which is kind of artificial, the five of us had never worked as a team before. Josh had left Mystery Science Theater long before I ever came on board, although I knew him from the Minneapolis comedy scene. Although through the show there are different iterations of cast members.
Then when we started doing live shows. I think that’s when we came into our element. It really gelled. We all had backgrounds in live performing and it just really felt like this really great, hilarious conversation with audiences.
Those shows started getting recorded for distribution. The studio recordings had a fictional framework to justify why the five of us were making fun of the movie.
In the live version, we abandon that and just trusted that the audience was on board. I think it really streamlined the show. We also had Dave “Gruber” Allen doing the pre-show which was always so funny, he’s so inventive and engaging and it was a perfect fit. I loved traveling and doing those shows with all those guys. We also did meet and greets after the live Cinematic Titanic shows. I’d never experienced meeting audiences en masse before then.
I’d done conventions here and there where people would come to the autograph table and introduce themselves. But before Cinematic Titanic, I was living in sort of a vacuum with the show. On the original TV show, I wrote and acted on it and I knew intellectually it was going out on the airwaves. But I had no sense of how beloved it was. I just had this job I loved. I mean, I didn’t even own a television! I knew it was a TV show but I never saw it beyond creating it at work inside the studio. And I was always amazed that people were fans, or the degree of fandom.
Then meeting so many fans in person at the Cinematic Titanic shows really opened my eyes about what the show had meant to people. People would say things like “I had a significant loss in my family and Mystery Science Theater got me through it,” or “I was really depressed at this point in my life but I sat down with Mystery Science Theater and I got to laugh.” Some people told me they’d watch while getting chemo treatments. I really loved the people who would say, “I fall asleep to MST every night.” I loved to give them shit about that: “Thanks??” They’d always assure me it was because it was comforting.
To hear it all in person just sort of blew my mind. It just was a really profound shift in my perception of fannery. Meeting so many people face to face, I finally started paying attention and really hearing people. And most of them knew more about the show than I did or do! I’m sorry I went on for a really long time, but it was such a huge epic time in my life doing Cinematic Titanic.
Please don’t apologize! You deserve to be praised for the work that you do. You were on the inside, and now you understand the outside. And honestly, when I have conversations with my friends who are also Mystery Science Theater fans, we agree it’s probably the most positive fandom with the fewest gatekeepers.
Oh! How do you describe a gatekeeper? Tell me more about that!
Sure! A gatekeeper in fandom is someone who always tries to correct you. You see it a lot in the Star Wars and Sailor Moon fandoms. They’re the “well-actuallys”. “Well actually, your details are wrong. Well actually, you don’t understand this.”
(laughing) Ahh, the well-actuallys. Got it!!
Gatekeepers are also the ones who arbitrarily decide how much of the source material you have to see in order to be a fan. But that’s where Mystery Science Theater fans are different. They don’t shame you for what you haven’t seen. They want to share their favorite episodes, jokes, and riffs with you.
Oh wow, Loryn. That is fascinating. Listening to you I realize that one of the reasons I had this shift in my understanding of the fanbase was that when I was on the television show I was really self-conscious about having gotten the job. I have imposter syndrome. I didn’t feel like I lived up to the show. My colleagues were so funny and so smart and I was always working extra hard to make myself worthy of that. Along with that was not trusting myself. I diminished the experience for myself – I’d be telling myself “I’m stupid, this is stupid, I’m dumb”, and so by association, how could anyone like anything I was connected with? Because I’m stupid, I’m dumb, everything I do is stupid and dumb.”
When I had the Cinematic Titanic experience I think I had matured enough as a human being (I HOPE!) where putting names and faces with all these wonderful folks, and having great conversations, and being able to make people laugh – I was tremendously honored and moved. I am not worthy!!
But that’s how it is as a creative! One minute you feel like everything you do is awesome and you’re funny and the next day you look in the mirror and think “I’m trash, I’m trash, I’m trash!”
(laughing) I know! I have a stand-up show tonight that a friend who runs it asked me to do. Every time she asks, I’m like “I don’t know, I’m going to quit stand up!” If I have a good show, I’m going to quit. If I have a bad show, I’m quitting. But I keep doing shows! Every now and then there’s comedy rooms and show runners I’ll always say yes to. In the last year or two I’ve been working out a lot of new material. I don’t know that I’ll ever get booked in a club again. But when I get that Netflix special, I am ready to go! And it’s always fun to see who is doing what and enjoying other people’s comedy. So, I’m not sure I could ever be separated from that world. Even though that wasn’t the question.
You said that you are not, or have not in the past, been involved in any specific fandoms. Are you consuming any media these days that’s really exciting you?
Oh wow, yes! I think the most recent thing I watched was Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’. It just blew my mind. I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet, but I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s a woman being rageful on stage. I know that sounds intimidating, but for a lot of us women it was so freeing, where she deconstructs the idea of having to be nice and funny on stage and she takes you places that I did not expect. I’ve been reading a lot, I’m reading Louie Anderson’s latest book. I love Baskets, I think it’s so offbeat but it’s got heart and I love that it got made and I love that Louie Anderson plays the mom. I love Martha Kelly in it. I’ve been watching a lot of British police dramas! I see a lot of theater. I’m always always always trying to catch up on movies. What else have I been doing? I can never remember. Do you know??
Here, let me just get out my stalker checklist.
(laughing) I’m sure I’ll remember once we get off the phone and email you with everything I watch. But in the summer, I do a lot of hiking and biking so I’m more in that place, just hanging as I walk the dog or bike or go swimming.
I’m so happy to hear and know what you’ve been doing in your spare time. I’m still so happy and delighted that I get to be the first written interview that you’ve done in a couple years. And I’ll be honest, I interview and reach out to people all the time. But when one of my friends suggested that I reach out to you, I felt so unqualified like you wouldn’t take me seriously. But I’m so flabbergasted and happy right now.
Do you have imposter syndrome!? Very sweet of you. And here I am!
I just have to repeat one more time just the impact your work and your writing had on me. And the impact that your character Pearl had on me. She was a hero to me! I don’t know how else to say this without sounding schlocky.
No, I love this! Tell me more!
Well, all right. It’s just that I’ve always been a loud show off, just quirky and one of the guys. And then I saw Pearl. Physically, I felt like you and I kind of resemble each other, even if it’s superficially. But I saw YOU and I saw Pearl and I for the first time ever in media, I could see myself. And representation for everyone is so important. But it’s not just physically. Pearl was so in your face and just goofy, but it was always about the character, the personality. It wasn’t that Pearl was a woman, it was that Pearl is Pearl because she’s crazy. I feel like if the show had aired today you would have been hailed as a feminist figure and I don’t think that was addressed back then because people weren’t in that head space…but that’s how I feel.
Wow, that’s really interesting. One of the things I liked about Pearl is that she was unapologetic about everything. We didn’t have to, nor did we, try to couch her in niceties or emotional accessibility which is something I feel like a lot of women characters have to do. There’s an element contextualizing so nobody gets too upset with this woman who is megalomaniacal and off her rocker. Pearl is just all in.
When I first started doing Pearl there was a lot of backlash to Trace leaving the show. I stepped into the role as the arch-nemesis, sort of the person continuing to generate the experiment. This was happening around the beginning of the ascendency of the internet, and on chatrooms – whatever they were back then – people were very vocal, disparaging my personal appearance, hating that a woman was taking Trace’s role, and so on. It got pretty personal. Someone called me the Yoko Ono of MST3K. It really bummed me out. I did and have always struggled with not looking the “right” way. I feel like it’s really changing, but at that time and that age in my life I was still really buying into it. So, it was really shaming – especially on top of my imposter syndrome in the first place!! It really bummed me out. Then I kind of turned around, like, whoa, I have this job that I love and I get to do, why should I let people take that away from me? I feel like it made me grow up a little bit. And then I pulled out all the stops with Pearl.
Please just know that for every entitled internet fanboy jerk at the time watching it saying that you should be more like Trace or look more like whatever, my girlfriends and I were over here saying “That woman is a goddess.”
Wow! I love that! That is so cool! It goes back to what you were saying about representation. I never realized how important that was until I started seeing body types where it wasn’t the thing of the character. Like, “Oh, you’re the fat friend who is demoralized about her life because you’re not skinny”. I never connected with how important that was until I started seeing it. Part of it too was that I didn’t want people to know I was fat. Yes, I know, it’s ludicrous, but I felt like, just keep your head down, no one will notice. And then I just started to own it.
But that’s the most amazing thing about it! Yes, we saw you and we saw Pearl but it was more like “Look at her gaudy makeup! Look at her fun nails. Look at the cool hair.” It was never “Look at the woman. Look at the body type.” It was everything encompassing was this powerful PERSON that could keep up with “the boys”. And you’re phenomenal. You the person. Pearl the character. Everything that came together that was the same, that was different…I hope it was magic for you because it radiates.
Wow…that is…that gave me a little chill. That is beautiful to hear.
Thank you, because this is about twenty years pent up I’m expressing to you right now.
Well I’m glad you have an outlet now! (laughing)