Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a Peabody Award-winning cult classic sci-fi comedy TV series from Minnesota that ran on and was canceled from four-ish different networks between 1988-1999, and has been producing new episodes on Netflix since 2017. Featuring laughably low budget mad scientists, robot puppets, styrofoam spaceships, and terrible movies, it contains all the elements needed to stir up an incredibly devoted, undying multi-generational fan base. A fan base that, since the time I was a depressed 15-year-old who desperately needed a good laugh, I am proud to count myself a part of.
In June of 2016, the cast of MST3K reunited for a live show for the first time ever at the State Theater in Minneapolis. As agent, promoter, and assistant to two of the stars, Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu, I was given an all-access pass to every backstage and VIP event. This is an account of how I abused that privilege.
Episode Two: The Crows’ Nest
The house was beautiful.
Permeated by lush greenery and pulsing with a vibe that said the neighbors shared cups of sugar and hot dish recipes in the wintertime, the neighborhood lit up sideways with the soft golden glow of the summer sun’s dying light. I grew more and more quiet as Frank, Trace, Katy, Carolina and I navigated the streets, and the conversation floating through the rest of the car slowly faded to the back of my awareness. My limbs became tense with nervousness as we finally pulled up to the curb by the driveway – who knew which of my personal heroes, still unmet, were clinking beers and laughing in that house? Which combination of the comedians who pulled me from a deep depression were sharing the inside jokes that saved me all those sparkling years ago?
I didn’t have long to ponder as I stepped, lighter than air, up the driveway behind Trace and met Bill’s wife Virginia at the door of their lovely home.
A woman of notable warmth, Virginia smiled at me like we were old friends, though I had never met her in person. After some brief shrieks of greeting and hello hugs, we were lead through the tasteful foyer to the backyard, my heart nearing coronary status with every step.
The light on the back porch seemed tinted in lilac, as beyond the wood beneath my feet stretched towering trees and beautiful homes in every direction, bordered on every side by more of that unreal sprawling greenery. Mary Jo stood talking to her husband three feet to my left, by the red plastic tubs of ice chips and beer sitting invitingly on the deck; Kevin was across the way chatting amicably with some Rifftrax-affiliated faces I didn’t recognize; Bill greeted us at the patio door.
Now, there’s a decision that you must make when facing your heroes. A critically important, gut-wrenching decision that, no matter how many hours over how many years you’ve spent daydreaming about the moment you meet your idols, no amount of anticipation can adequately prepare you to make:
Do I treat them as a person or as a hero?
Both options seem equally and desperately critical to achieve. In my experience, one or the other can be realized, but not both. At least, not at the same time.
And so I was faced with an impossibly difficult decision that evening, and I made a choice: I chose not to gush.
And I was very lucky that it was the right thing to do.
The party was simply too casual and laid back to allow my inner fangirl to run as rabid and unchecked as she was aching to. Kevin was dressed in a lavender Hawaiian shirt, laughing with his friends as Frank settled into a wicker chair by the grill and Trace popped open a beer. This wasn’t the place for anyone to be famous, I thought. This was the place where famous people came to be normal.
And now I was a part of it.
So I decided to try to be normal with them. I chatted with Mary Jo about the move she’d made a couple of years back for about two minutes before the forces of my introverted nature pulled me to Trace’s vicinity, because I knew him better than anyone else there. I’m not exactly a social butterfly, so I stick with who I know at parties. As Katy so eloquently put it that night, she and I both are the type of person who makes friends with the host’s dog.
Katy and I hovered happily in the corner of the deck for a while. She had just reassured me my lipstick looked fine when I caught sight of a new guest arriving through the kitchen: Jonah Ray, the new Mystery Science host. My breathing hastened, and I attracted weird looks from both Beaulieus as I almost spilled my drink: If Jonah is here, I reasoned, so must be Joel.
For reasons that are better saved for another time, Joel is my greatest personal hero. It’s Joel who had the heaviest impact on my depression when I was a gasping, directionless high school sophomore, because it was Joel who made me laugh when I thought that was impossible.
As Jonah smiled and laughed his way through the kitchen, I stood on my toes to get a glimpse through the screen door at the ventriloquist who I knew must be following in his wake, a man I had only met twice before, briefly, and never in such a private setting. I had no words prepared for him this time, no eloquent soliloquies and speeches about gratitude, but I was desperate to use the opportunity of the Corbetts’ party to at least make a good casual impression on him.
A horrible, fist-clenching minute passed, and my puppeteer was still absent.
“Are you alright?” Trace asked quietly, with the slightest touch of a teasing edge in his voice. I smiled and in hushed tones explained my nervousness to him and Katy. Trace laughed and shook his head, which was actually quite reassuring; Katy was quietly sympathetic.
“That was a practice heart attack,” I said with choking laughter, once it was clear Joel hadn’t arrived at the party. “The real one hasn’t happened yet.”
But happen it did, and not ten minutes later. By then my hands were starting to quake with dually frightened and excited anticipation.
I heard his iconic voice float in from the kitchen before I saw his face. Turning, prepared and oddly calm, I watched as Joel greeted his way up through the kitchen to the deck. As the mesh screen door slid open, I happened to be standing closest to him.
“Joel Hodgson,” I said matter-of-factly, as if he didn’t know his own name, and grasped his hand with what I hoped was a warm smile. He grinned his hello and was gone, pulled into the middle of the crowd by the social undertow. I followed his hand gestures with a surreptitious eye for a moment, startled but reassured that they were the same as they’d been for the past thirty years.
Trace was still looking at me funny, like the whole encounter was a soap opera in a language he didn’t speak.
It’s weird only knowing someone through TV.
I spent the next couple of hours mingling, feeling as directionless and frenetic as a silver pellet in a pinball machine. My only goal for the evening was to talk to everyone at least once, starting with Joel, because my sentiments regarding him made talking with him the trickiest. After several minutes of what felt like crouching in the Beaulieus’ quiet, comforting, and familiar corner of the deck, I ventured into the house and managed to recommend the cheese platter to Joel without telling him my life story. We spoke for several minutes, but for the life of me I can’t remember what about; the recollection is lost to time and the special kind of anxiousness only a true fangirl can generate. I am, however, proud to report that it probably went well, because Joel still talks to me sometimes.
The transitions are fuzzy, but eventually I found myself in the kitchen talking with Jonah, who was so impressed with the meteorite I gave him (as I have done to all of MST3K’s makers over the years) that he presented me with a Tom Servo lapel pin in return, which I cherish. He seemed just as overwhelmed and sightly confused to be there as I was.
Some incalculable amount of time later, Kevin and I, expanding on the topic of meteorites, found ourselves inexplicably talking at length about Moldavite, otherwise known as impact glass. Kevin is about the most genial and welcoming person I have ever encountered, and I sincerely believe that he would have talked with me for any length of time about anything at all (freaking impact glass) if left to it, even though we had just met. Relaxing a bit now, I laughed internally at how close to drunk I was during my first real conversation with one of the men who was (and, honestly, always will be) Tom Servo.
As the sun began to set and the air turned cooler, I kicked off my shoes as Virginia perfumed the deck with the enticing smell of barbecue chicken skewers, in which Frank and I happily indulged together. To this day, it’s still the best chicken I’ve ever tasted. Bill and Trace and I absentmindedly slapped away mosquitos while chatting about various trade secrets, to which I listened with rapt attention but have since forgotten; I was around friends, some new and some old, and I found myself not caring what we talked about so long as we could spend the time together. (For a week afterward I bragged about those mosquito bites to anyone who would listen.) Finally, I was relaxed.
Slowly the neighboring houses’ windows lit up yellow and the trees beyond the deck faded from forest green to navy blue to black. Bill suggested we head in, so Virginia moved the chicken skewers onto a plate, and I took one more. I was tired from the all-encompassing emotionality of the day, and had no energy left to speak, though I still had everything in the world to say. My goal of talking to everyone met and my inner MSTie satisfied – at least for now – I was ready to go home.
I get to keep the memories, but I wish I’d gotten to keep the chicken, too.