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Interview with Trace Beaulieu of MST3K and Cinematic Titanic

A two-part exclusive interview with Trace Beaulieu, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and now with Cinematic Titanic

Crow T. Robot enjoying the latest issue of mental_floss magazine

Many of you have experienced Trace Beaulieu's work as an actor on Freaks & Geeks and as a writer for America's Funniest Home Videos, but most will remember him as mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and the wisecracking Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000. You probably haven't heard about his other real-life roles: Trace the artist, Trace the ice show roustabout, Trace the chicken farmer, or Trace the child who refuses to grow up.

Beaulieu currently tours with several other original MST3K stars and writers under the moniker Cinematic Titanic. The crew is still riffing on movies, the older and the cheesier the better, and they're doing it live. mental_floss research editor Kara Kovalchik interviewed Trace a few days ago to talk about the troupe's upcoming shows in Detroit and Durham, NC (where the _floss was founded), the origins of MST3K, and how he earned the label of "Renaissance Man."

Kara Kovalchik: You did some kind of presentation in L.A. on [February] the 16th. Could you tell us about it?

Trace Beaulieu: That was [with] Dana Gould, who's a stand-up comic and writer. We've known him for years and years. He has been a huge fan of the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space, and has a very personal relationship with that film, and actually was a very good friend of Maila Nurmi, who portrayed Vampira. And so he asked Frank and Josh and I to come out and riff on that with him last night at Meltdown Comics.

KK: Was it scripted like Cinematic Titanic, or off-the-cuff?

TB: Frank and I joined Dana in Seattle a few months ago, and we did this same film. We kinda walked through it once. It was pretty free-wheeling and impromptu, very much different than CT. You know, it's really going back to the roots of Mystery Science Theater, too, because that was all improv'ed at KTMA when we first started out. It's kinda come full circle.

KK: You're kind of the "Renaissance man" of the CT crew. You used to do stand-up, you were part of an ice show, you helped build the sets for MST, you've written for America's Funniest Home Videos, you appeared on Freaks & Geeks...
At left, Beaulieu on TV's Freaks and Geeks

TB: I think I get pinned with the "Renaissance man" title because that's the type of clothing I prefer to wear. It's a little embarrassing for the others, but, tights and couplets and...

KK: And the codpiece, too.

TB: Absolutely! (laughs) That's what makes the man.

KK: Do you have a favorite amongst those jobs? What did you want to be when you grew up?

TB: No, I don't think I've ever really decided what I want to be. And I don't think I've grown up. So it's still a journey. I like a blend, and that's why I loved MST so much, because I got to do all of that stuff. It's all challenging; it's all problem-solving. I like that aspect of whatever project I'm working on.

As we'll learn later in the interview, Trace spent a lot of of his youth creating things, but he also managed to find time to plant himself in front of the television and absorb the pop-culture fodder that he'd later use in MST3K and Cinematic Titanic.

KK: Back when you were doing MST, many of the references were so esoteric, they could only come from someone who'd spent far too much time watching TV (like I did). Did you ever get outdoors as a child?

TB: It didn't take as much time to watch television when we were kids, because there were only three networks. And television ended – it wasn't a continuing 24-hour thing. It was refreshing, actually. "It's over. I can't stay up any later. Thank God!"

KK: But your parents were okay with it?

TB: I would find myself watching stupid shows like Batman or Time Tunnel, and would turn the channel over to the news when my folks came in the room 'cause I didn't want them to see the crap that I was watching.

KK: But when you parlayed that into making a living, your dad encouraged your career.

TB: Very much so. Even more than I would encourage it.

A perfect storm came together to spark life into Mystery Science Theater 3000. Creator and inventor Joel Hodgson worked with Trace to develop the show's sets in a way that gave them freedom to focus on the show's content. While the robots attracted and the bad movies repelled, the jokes kept the audience coming back week after week. And the home of it all was a set Beaulieu helped build: the Satellite of Love.


Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy on set at MST3K

KK: Each episode of MST3K gave "special thanks" to Skyline Displays [a Minnesota-based manufacturer of trade show displays]. You and your brother were involved in that, right?

TB: Everybody in my family was involved [in Skyline] at one time or another. And we thanked them in the credits because they gave us access to this warehouse and office that Best Brains [the production company behind MST3K] was housed in. They let us be in there for a year or so without paying rent. It allowed us to have a studio that we could build out to our own specifications. Also, we could have standing sets. All these other places we looked at, like real television studios, wouldn't allow us to keep the sets up. So it was a real boost to what we did, and how the show was formed. It's little mentioned and I'm glad that you picked up on that. A great deal of credit is deserved in that direction, because it gave us a home.

KK: So your work there prepared you for building sets?

TB: We grew up making stuff. There's this "maker movement" now. Well, we were doing that as kids. We had a workshop, and access to tools, and there was never any question that ... if you want something, you make it. Or you can fix stuff, and we picked up the skills as we went along.

KK: For the first five or six seasons of the show, Joel and the Mad Scientists participated in a weekly "invention exchange." Did you Mads come up with your own, or was that all Joel?

TB: Those were all really left over from Joel's [stand-up comedy] act. When we ran out of stuff to steal from his act, either he came up with more of them, or we as a group discussed what we would do. And the invention exchanges became weirder and weirder; the Mad Scientists dressed as pirates... I think we even did a Billie Jean King thing.

KK: Oh, yes.

TB: We strayed a bit from the invention exchange. (laughs)

The focus of both MST3K and Cinematic Titanic is the art of "riffing," or interacting with a motion picture in a humorous but somewhat unobtrusive way. Unlike the action at a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the comments are mostly made in between the dialogue and action.

KK: As mental_floss researchers, we have a hard time watching a TV show or movie without analyzing it for trivia or quiz use. Do you have the same trouble in those situations, always going over riffs in your head?

TB: I don't really watch with an eye towards harvesting something for CT. When looking for something to write, we're really working in a specific area. When I watch movies for just sheer entertainment, I can just get lost in just whether they're good or not.

KK: You've long expressed a fondness for monster movies. Do you still try to push those in Cinematic Titanic?

TB: We really look for a movie that has a plot that you can kinda follow, and spaces in the dialogue for us to insert what we need to do. And then all of those elements – bad acting, bad sets, bad production values. You should be able to see it. It should be lit at least reasonably well. You should be able to hear it, and it should have some coherency to it. Otherwise, you just go "What? I don't know where we are!" You're put down in a hedgerow maze.

KK: In the days of MST3K, the writers' room was where you watched movies and wrote the scripts and bounced material off one another. Do all of you still get together like that, or are you too spread out?

TB: I live in Minnesota. Josh and Frank live in L.A. Joel's in Pennsylvania, and Mary Jo's in Texas.

KK: So how does the procedure work?

TB: We each do a pass on the film on our own, and then all of that's combined into one big script, and then we tape sections of that and we go through and edit out the jokes that aren't particularly good for that moment of the film. When that pass is done, that goes to Josh, who'll do a final look-see joke pass on that, and then we'll all get it back again and make notations or corrections. And when we get together when we're going to perform it, we do a full rehearsal and rewrite session. And we're constantly working on it. As we go from town to town, we're making improvements, or finding things that work better.

KK: I would imagine that on MST3K, your jokes could be more esoteric because you had a much larger TV audience, whereas CT performs live in front of smaller crowds.

TB: Well, we want the immediate feedback, so we want the jokes to work and to land right away. But we still find ourselves thrilling in really obscure and really just-for-us jokes. In this one joke Josh and I were talking about last night, we make a reference to Pat Paulsen wine. [Deadpan 1960s comedian Paulsen tried his hand as a vintner in the early 1980s.] It just does not get a laugh at all. But in spite of the fact that it didn't get a laugh, he called it back later in the show, just to further prove that it wasn't funny.

KK: Isn't it weird that Josh is now known as J. Elvis, and your last name is the same as Priscilla's [Elvis Presley's ex-wife]?

TB: It's creepy. And I often dress as Lincoln.


The cast of Cinematic Titanic: (L-R) Joel Hodgson, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Frank Conniff.

In addition to his behind-the-scenes work on MST3K and his role as Dr. Clayton Forrester, Beaulieu was also the voice and puppeteer behind Crow T. Robot, he of bowling-pin beak and hockey-mask hair. Beaulieu's seven seasons in character were the most of any actor. (The role of Crow was taken over in Season 8 by Bill Corbett.)

KK: When you riff – now, or like you did as Crow – do you put on a "mask" of sorts that allows you to act and react in a different way?

TB: I think it's all an extension of my personality. Crow was more of the character, and I was able to get away with a lot more through that character, because robots can say anything.

KK: So you're not the life of the party like Crow?

TB: I'm probably quieter. Yeah.

KK: I've handled a life-size Crow puppet before, and it's a difficult thing to control. Joel designed the robot, but you helped fine-tune it, especially on the inside. How did you bring him to life?

TB: I had a little bit of experience puppeteering, just being around theater and making goofy props for friends and for myself, but nothing that formalized.

KK: Crow was pretty heavy, right?

TB: Yes, I had forearms like a major-league pitcher. We had the advantage, we could rest it on the table a little bit. It did get pretty heavy. It was like puppeteering a car jack.

KK: When Bill Corbett took over as Crow, he mentioned that for the first couple episodes, the robot looked like he'd had a stroke since he was still learning how to maneuver the eyes properly.

TB: I kind of figured out how to work it because, building the mechanism and having worked it for such a long time, I could figure out how it was supposed to operate. But I was gone long before Bill picked up the puppet. I think he did a fantastic job given the nature of that pile of plastic. It wasn't easy to operate when I was doing it. It was unwieldy.

Click here for Part 2 of Kara's interview with Trace Beaulieu, where he reveals his skills as an artist and children's poet, talks about his brother's amazing work with green housing, and what to expect at a Cinematic Titanic show.

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© 2017 USPS
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Speedy Delivery: Mister Rogers Will Get His Own Stamp in 2018
© 2017 USPS
© 2017 USPS

USPS 2018 Mister Rogers stamp
© 2017 USPS

After weeks of mailing out this year’s holiday cards, postage might be the last thing you want to think about. But the U.S. Postal Service has just given us a sneak peek at the many iconic people, places, and things that will be commemorated with their own stamps in 2018, and one in particular has us excited to send out a few birthday cards: Mister Rogers.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers’s groundbreaking PBS series that the USPS says “inspired and educated young viewers with warmth, sensitivity, and honesty,” the mail service shared a mockup of what the final stamp may look like. On it, Rogers—decked out in one of his trademark colorful cardigans (all of which were hand-knitted by his mom, by the way)—smiles for the camera alongside King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Though no official release date for Fred’s forever stamp has been given, Mister Rogers is just one of many legendary figures whose visages will grace a piece of postage in 2018. Singer/activist Lena Horne will be the 41st figure to appear as part of the USPS’s Black Heritage series, while former Beatle John Lennon will be the face of the newest Music Icons collection. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will also be honored.

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15 Surprising Facts About Steve Buscemi
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

With his meme-worthy eyes, tireless work schedule, and penchant for playing lovable losers, Steve Buscemi is arguably the king of character actors. Moving seamlessly between big-budget films and shoestring independent projects, he’s appeared in well over 100 movies in the past 30 years. But if you think he’s anything like the oddballs and villains he regularly plays—well, you don’t know Buscemi. In celebration of the Brooklyn native's 60th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about the Golden Globe-winning actor.

1. HE WAS BORN ON A FRIDAY THE 13TH.

It only seems appropriate that Buscemi, who dies on screen so frequently, would be born on such a foreboding date. Growing up in Brooklyn and Valley Stream, New York, Buscemi also experienced plenty of real-life misfortune. As a kid, he was hit by a bus and by a car (in separate incidents). On the plus side, he used the money from the legal settlement following the bus accident to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York City.

2. HE WAS A NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTER.

As a teenager, Buscemi worked a series of odd jobs: ice cream truck driver, mover, gas station attendant. He even sold newspapers in the toll lane of the Triborough Bridge. When Buscemi turned 18, his father, a sanitation worker, encouraged his son to take the civil service exam and become a New York City firefighter. Four years later, in 1980, the future star became a member of Engine Co. 55, located in New York City's Little Italy district. While he answered emergency calls during the day, at night Buscemi played improv clubs and auditioned for acting roles.

After four years working for the FDNY, Buscemi landed one of the lead roles in Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), a drama set during the early days of AIDS in New York. Buscemi took a three-month leave of absence during filming, and afterwards decided not to return.

3. HE FORMED A COMEDY DUO WITH SONS OF ANARCHY’S MARK BOONE, JR.

For a brief while, Buscemi tried his hand at stand-up comedy (he bombed). In 1984, he met fellow aspiring actor Mark Boone, Jr., and the two began performing together. Part improv, part scripted comedy, the two would often carry out power struggles that pitted thin-man Buscemi against the larger Boone. The New York Times called their act “theater in the absurdist vein.”

4. HE DID NOT AUDITION FOR THE ROLE OF GEORGE COSTANZA.

Like any hard-working actor, Buscemi has had his share of failed auditions. His tryout for Alan Parker’s Fame lasted less than 30 seconds. In the late ‘80s, Martin Scorsese brought him in four different times to read for The Last Temptation of Christ. (Buscemi ended up reading every apostle’s part before being turned away.) He also auditioned for the part of Seinfeld’s George Costanza—at least according to numerous sources, including Jason Alexander himself. But it turns out this tidbit—fueled, no doubt, by the thought of a very twitchy, bug-eyed Costanza—isn’t true. On a recent episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Buscemi addressed the rumor in his typical good-natured way: “I never did [the audition] and I don’t know how to correct it because I don’t know how the Internet works.”

5. TREES LOUNGE WAS BASICALLY HIS LIFE AT 19.

After gaining momentum with roles in Mystery Train, Reservoir Dogs, Barton Fink, and other films, Buscemi took a turn behind the camera with 1996’s Trees Lounge. The movie, which he also wrote, follows a bumbling layabout named Tommy who spends most of his time at the title bar in the town where he grew up. It’s a classic flick for Buscemi fans and, according to the actor, it was pretty much his life as a teenager living on Long Island. “I was truly directionless, living with my parents,” Buscemi said in an interview. “I was driving an ice-cream truck and working at a gas station… The drinking age was 18 then, so I spent every night hanging out with my friends in bars, drinking.”

6. HE IS FULLY AWARE THAT HIS CHARACTERS OFTEN DIE.

Steve Buscemi in 'Fargo' (1996)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

He’s been shot numerous times, stabbed with an ice pick, riddled with throwing knives, tossed off a balcony, and fed to a wood chipper. Yes, Buscemi’s characters have died a variety of deaths, and the actor isn’t without a sense of humor about the whole matter. He’ll often joke in interviews that he’s living longer and longer as the years go by. Before the 2005 release of The Island, in which the aforementioned balcony-tossing occurs (and into a glass bar no less), Buscemi said he was happy his character lived almost a third of the way through the movie. Buscemi admitted that he will actually read ahead in any script he receives to see when and how he dies.

7. HE HAS A FAVORITE DEATH—AND IT ISN’T FARGO.

For connoisseurs of Buscemi's movie deaths, the demise of Fargo’s Carl Showalter by way of axe then wood chipper is the crème de la crème. But when asked about his own favorite onscreen death, Buscemi references another Coen brothers film: The Big Lebowski. In that movie his character, Donny Kerabatsos, succumbs to a heart attack. It’s a surprise for viewers, and so out-of-the-blue that Buscemi can’t help but be tickled at the randomness of it. “They thought, ‘Well, Buscemi’s in it, so we’ve gotta kill him,'" the actor said in an appearance on The Daily Show.

8. HIS CHARACTER IN CON AIR WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR HIM.

In Con Air, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action movie filled with muscled-up prisoners, Buscemi played the most dangerous con of them all. His Garland Greene—a serial killer whose exploits “make the Manson family look like the Partridge family,” according to one character—enters the film strapped to a chair, Hannibal Lecter mask affixed to his face. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, a friend of Buscemi’s, wrote the part with him in mind, and was tickled when Buscemi accepted the role. To this day, fans will still serenade the actor with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

9. HIS CHARACTER IN DESPERADO IS NAMED AFTER HIM.

Steve Buscemi in Desperado
Columbia Pictures

Although he inevitably dies (courtesy of Danny Trejo’s throwing knives), Buscemi commands the opening of Desperado, Robert Rodriguez’s stylish revenge movie, regaling bar patrons with the story of the title gunslinger, played by Antonio Banderas. Because his character’s name is never mentioned, Rodriguez decided to have some fun and name him "Buscemi" in the credits.

10. HE WON’T FIX HIS TEETH.

Buscemi’s crooked smile has helped him portray lowlifes and losers throughout his career. Dentists have offered to fix the actor’s teeth, but he always turns them down, knowing how valuable those chompers are to the Buscemi brand. In a guest starring role on The Simpsons, Buscemi poked fun at the matter after a dentist offers to straighten his character’s teeth: “You’re going to kill my livelihood if you do that!”

11. THERE’S SOME CONFUSION OVER HOW TO PRONOUNCE HIS LAST NAME.

Many people pronounce his last name “Boo-shemmy,” but it turns out Buscemi himself pronounces it “Boo-semmy.” In interviews, Buscemi says he’s following his father’s pronunciation, and says he doesn’t begrudge anyone who says it differently. It turns out, though, that his fans have it right—or at least mostly right. On a trip to Sicily to visit family, Buscemi recounted recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he noticed everyone saying “Boo-SHAY-me.”

12. HE GOT STABBED IN A BAR FIGHT.

Steve Buscemi in 'Trees Lounge' (1996)
Live Entertainment

On April 12th, 2001, while filming Domestic Disturbance in Wilmington, North Carolina, Buscemi, co-star Vince Vaughn, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg went out for late night drinks at the Firebelly Lounge. After Vaughn traded insults with another patron (whose girlfriend had apparently been flirting with Vaughn), the two stepped outside, and a brief scuffle ensued before the two were separated. Buscemi, who was among the crowd that had gathered, was then confronted by a man who, after a brief exchange, attacked the actor with a pocketknife. Buscemi suffered stab wounds to his face, throat, and hands, and had to return to New York to recuperate. His attacker, Timothy Fogerty, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. In typical good-guy fashion, Buscemi declined to press additional charges and instead insisted Fogerty enter a substance abuse program.

13. HE REJOINED HIS FIRE ENGINE IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

After the horrific attack on New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, Buscemi—like many Americans—was desperate to help. Although it had been nearly 20 years since he had strapped on his fireman’s gear, the actor reunited with his Engine 55 brethren and for days scoured the towers’ debris for survivors. Buscemi didn’t want his actions publicized; when people asked to take his picture, he declined. It took more than 10 years, in fact, before word got out, thanks to a Facebook post from Engine 55. “Brother Steve worked 12-hour shifts alongside other firefighters digging and sifting through the rubble,” the post read. “This guy is a badass!”

14. HE NARRATES THE AUDIO TOUR AT EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY.

People who take a tour of the historic Philadelphia prison may notice a familiar voice coming through their listening device. So how did Buscemi end up lending his talents to such a seemingly obscure place? It turns out Eastern State is a popular location for film and photo shoots. Scenes from Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys were filmed there, as were album covers for artists like Tina Turner. In 2000, Buscemi scouted the penitentiary for a film project. The location didn’t work out, but the actor fell in love with the history and grand architecture of the 190-year-old prison. When officials asked for his help to celebrate the prison’s tenth year running tours, he agreed.

15. HE DIDN’T BELIEVE TERENCE WINTER WHEN HE OFFERED HIM THE LEAD IN BOARDWALK EMPIRE.


HBO

After years of playing disposable villains and losers on the periphery, Buscemi had grown accustomed to being passed over for leading roles. So when Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter offered him the part of corrupt politician Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in the award-winning HBO series, Buscemi offered his usual reply. “When Terry did call me and he said that he and Marty [Scorsese] wanted me to play this role, my response was, ‘Terry, I know you’re looking at other actors, and I just appreciate that my name is being thrown in,’" Buscemi recalled. "He said, ‘No, Steve, I just said we want you.’ It still didn’t sink in.” Eventually, of course, reality did sink in, and Buscemi went on to win a Golden Globe and Emmy Award across the show’s five seasons.

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