Mary Jo Pehl is best known to most people as Pearl Forrester on Mystery Science Theater. Those who think that Joel and Mike and the rest of the testosterone gang were solely responsible for the brilliant humor of that show and its spinoffs, are about to tool their Harleys down a pothole-pocked little road filled with surprises that I like to call Surprise Road.
You are a very funny person in an estrogen-challenged world and I’m talking about both comedy in general and MST3K specifically. Has it been difficult for you as a woman to stake out a place yourself in this big and small world?
Mary Jo Pehl: Yes, but I’m not sure that that can be directly correlated to being a woman. Since I’ve never been a man trying to make a go of it, I can’t really compare. It’s a tough business all around.
That said, when I first started doing stand-up comedy, women were more or less freak acts. I remember being introduced like this: “Our next comedian is a female comedian…” and you could hear the collective gasp of the audience! Men were never introduced as “male” comedians. There was also the idea – and it is still prevalent – that you can only have one woman in a lineup. But never more than one, unless it was some sort of freak show: the all-girl comedy lineup!!
At the time, it was also prevalent that as a woman, you had to work extra hard to make the audience like you, which meant making them comfortable, which meant making self-denegrating jokes. Now I got nothin’ against teasing myself for my foibles, and I don’t take myself too seriously, but it was really important that a woman make fun or her appearance. I realize that can be a part of male humor too, but women’s humor seems to pivot on it. I’m inspired and thrilled to see that that’s not the case anymore. Roseanne took it and owned it and said screw you to audiences and their expectations; Janeane Garafolo
simply wouldn’t play that game. And those are just for starters.
There’s also that blanket idea out there that “Women aren’t funny.” So you have to work twice as hard, I think, just to get the acknowledgement that maybe you aren’t so unfunny. So it just seems that men are given the benefit of the doubt straight-away, while women have to prove it.
I just try to get out there and do the work. I can’t really spend a lot of time worrying or fixating on who will respond how!
What was the reaction of your parents when they realized that your career plans meant you’d be the girl from funny?
Mary Jo Pehl: My parents, bless ’em, are very pragmatic. They always wanted to make sure I had something to “fall back on”; they wanted to make sure I knew how to type. My siblings, while all incredibly smart and creative, seem to have taken more conventional career paths: one of my sisters is a wonderful, amazing adaptive phys ed teacher; my other sister is the county manager for the second largest county in Minnesota; one of my brothers is a nurse anesthetist; my other brother is a sound engineer. Those are careers that have more of a linear progression.
On the other hand, what I do is all over the map and often catch as catch can. I don’t think my parents understood how you did something where you didn’t show up at a company at 8 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. and not get a paycheck every other Friday and didn’t offer health insurance. They didn’t know how to encourage that, or just be supportive with the failures and rejection that come with it.
That said, when it started looking like this was indeed what I would be doing – whatever “it” is! – and I was getting work and supporting myself and discovering how to navigate it, they really got on board. Then they thought there was nothing I couldn’t do even though they didn’t really get what I did! I distinctly remember my Mom telling her friends that I was on TV, and although when asked what the show was about or its name, she’d say “I don’t know!”
Several years ago my mother told me I should consider going to Atlanta and being a news anchor on CNN. I wonder if she thought television was television was television. I asked her why and she said, “Because you have such a beautiful complexion and all those news anchors have such nice skin!” My dad told me I should go to Las Vegas and “Be in a show!” I have always loved my wonderful parents but no more so for those statements!
I think now, they’re mostly relieved that I’m happy. That was always their bottom line.
Upon discovering the discarded clothing of Calista Flockhart, few people would suspect that they were yours. I’m trying to say that you look like a normal human female rather than one of those pre-fab stick figures that the media tries to dupe us into believing are the most beautiful women alive. Do you think it is easier for a woman to break into comedy who is not the image of the traditional female celebrity?
Mary Jo Pehl: Wow, I don’t know. My guess is that if you’re a beautiful woman breaking into comedy, it comes with its own set of audience expectations.
And that is what we do with women: as a culture, on the whole, it comes down to what you look like. If you’re considered, by popular or vocal appraisal, traditionally pretty, then we don’t really want to hear from you and we’ll automatically consider you unqualified to talk about whatever it is (see Erin Andrews, Jessica Valenti, etc.).
Yet, if one is considered “unattractive” – again by our arbitrary and artificial standards – we expect you to know your place. So we’ll allow you to make fun of yourself, but then please shut up. You cannot get too uppity or demand too much or have opinions or call people on shit, lest you alienate people. And we’ll still not give you any credit for anything because, hell, you’re just a desperate woman.
But I think it’s really cool to live in a time when women in many professions are messing with assumptions and expectations all the time. I never had the courage to do that in my standup act.
As I stated earlier, I personally don’t find the Mystery Science Theater host segments with Dr. Forrester funny at all and usually fast-forward through them. However, I think the host segments featuring you as Pearl along with Prof. Bobo and Brain Guy are hilarious. Since you acted in them, did you have a greater hand in writing them or did you have an equal hand in writing the host segments on both the Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi (only now it’s called the so totally cool and hip SyFy) Channel? Or, hey, maybe you had nothing to do with the host segments.
Mary Jo Pehl: All us writers wrote all the host segments over the life of the show. We’d brainstorm as a group, then we’d each be assigned a segment. I didn’t have a greater hand in the Sci Fi Channel episodes than any of the others.
Another thing I touched upon in our initial discourse was my interest in just how large a contributor to MST3K you really were. There is this tendency among most, I imagine, to think that the guys doing the riffing were the ones who actually came up with the bulk of the material. How true or untrue is that assumption and how much of the laughter the show produced does trace back to you?
Mary Jo Pehl: Did you know that once a fan called me the “Yoko Ono of MST3K”? Would that I’d had that much power over the show, fer cryin’ out loud!!
I keep meeting people who have had the impression that I was the “helper” to the real writers on MST3K: Joel, Mike, Kevin, Trace, Frank, Bill. I often encountered people who implied that I was more or less the secretary! I could tell you many stories to illustrate this and I certainly understand that the fellows were higher profile than I, having more screen time which naturally registers with viewers, but one thing I get a lot when people find out that I wrote for MST3K is, “Those guys are really funny!” Indeed, they are really funny! But we were all writing on the show.
In addition to being funny, you can also sing. “When Loving Lovers Love” is one of my all time favorite musical moments from the show in addition to having a title plagiaristically homageaic to the Aquabats’ “Lovers of Loving Love”. Your voice almost seems capable of hitting as high a note as Kevin Murphy can hit. Do you have any training in singing and have you done any singing away from MST3K?
Mary Jo Pehl: Alas, my only training comes from being in choir in high school. The only singing I’ve done away from MST3K is around the house and in the car whilst listening to radio. I’d love to do a literal version of a video, though… and I do dream of being lead singer in a rock band. Oh, no – have I revealed too much? Too pathetic?
Why does Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax seem like Wings and the Plastic Ono Band to me? (Not necessarily respectively.) Is there some kind of a family feud at work here between Joel faction and the Mike faction?
Mary Jo Pehl: I have no idea if there’s some sort of family feud between the Joel vs. Mike factions. If there is, people ought to find better things to do with their time, like debating which way the toilet paper should hang on the spindle, or if if the opening of pillow cases should face the outside of the bed or the inside when placed. RT does their thing, and Cinematic Titanic does theirs.
Okay, I’ve been looking to find this out for a year or two now: Is Michael J. Nelson really an ultra-right wing nut? C’mon, give us the truth?
Mary Jo Pehl: I think there are probably plenty of places on the internets that you could read about his views. Draw your own conclusion.
What would you say is your proudest comedic accomplishment that has nothing to do with making fun of movies?
Mary Jo Pehl: I’ve made my husband laugh on a number of occasion. That is one tough
audience. And I’ve made my little neices and nephews laugh many times – again, another tough audience!
Any more books in your future? A novel perhaps?
Mary Jo Pehl: Yep: I’ll have a book of stories and essays coming out from Dalton Publishing in Spring 2010. I’m also editing a volume of collected stories, and I have a couple of other projects in the pipeline.
Aside from writing and Cinematic Titanic, what is in your future?
Mary Jo Pehl: Lunch and a nap.
Beyond that, more touring with CT and other projects for CT. More books, more writing, a show I’m producing here in Austin. Traveling, scuba diving and more fencing lessons.
Okay, let’s say that a mad scientist injects Joe Don Baker with an invincibility potion. Joe Don Baker is invincible; he cannot be ivincibled. This unbeatable Jon Don Baker shows up at an MST3K reunion and, provided the bloody feud that has been taking place among members is healed, everybody from Weinstein to Corbett is there. Who does Don Baker go after first and who does he go after worst?
Mary Jo Pehl: Jim Mallon, I hope.
And no matter who it is, I know Bridget will soothe the Joe Don’s savage beast in her kind, gracious, humorous and altogether inimitable way!
Psst: Wanna see some magic? Click on this word right here, Presto-Chango, and you’ll travel through time and space and wind up at Mary Jo Pehl’s very own web site.