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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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Getty Images

Fred Rogers—who was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1928—remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of what would have been his 90th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.” (Bonus fact: he's getting the Funko treatment!)


According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.


Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”


Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.


It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.


Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.


Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."


A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.


If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.


Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.


According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.


Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.


It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”


In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.


Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.


In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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18 Timeless Will Rogers Quotes
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Penn Adair Rogers ranks among the finest performers, comedians, and social commentators in American history. So today, let’s all find an excuse to recite some of his best remarks.


“Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.”


“Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years we will have the smartest people on earth.”


"I was born on November 4, which is election day ... my birthday has made more men and sent more back to honest work than any other days in the year."


“When I first started out to write and misspelled a few words, people said I was plain ignorant. But when I got all the words wrong, they declared I was a humorist.”


“Live in such a way that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.”


“Best doctor in the world is a veterinarian. He can’t ask his patients what’s the matter. He’s just got to know.”


“It’s great to be great, but it’s greater to be human.”


"This Einstein has proven a great comfort to us that always knew we didn’t know much. He has shown us that the fellows that we thought was smart is just as dumb as we are."


“There is nothing as easy as denouncing ... It don’t take much to see that something is wrong but it does take some eyesight to see what will put it right again.”


“A fanatic is always the fellow that is on the opposite side.”

11. ON AGE

"Eventually you reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it."


"Everything is changing in America. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke."


“This would be a great world to dance in if we didn’t have to pay the fiddler.”


“[Get] a few laughs and do the best you can… Live your life so that whenever you lose, you’re ahead.”


"I was born on election day but never was able to get elected to anything. I am going to jump out some day and be indefinite enough about everything that they will call me a politician, then run on a platform of question marks, and be elected unanimously."


"Finding things to tax is becoming quite a problem. You see when taxes first started (who started 'em anyhow?), Noah must have taken into the ark two taxes, one male and one female, and did they multiply bountifully! Next to guinea pigs, taxes must have been the most prolific of animals."


"Everybody is ignorant only on different subjects."


"We don’t know what we want, but we’re ready to bite somebody to get it."


“I never met a man I didn’t like.”

Ironically, for somebody who came up with so much Grade A material, most people associate Rogers with a long-lived misquote. In actuality, the full, unaltered line was: “I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like.” A few years before his death in 1935, Rogers proposed it as an epitaph for his tombstone. However, the shortened version does appear chiseled upon his final resting place in Claremore, Oklahoma.  


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