You might know Mary Jo Pehl best as the one woman in the sea of guys who produced, wrote, and generally created the movie commentary genre with Mystery Science Theater 3000. But since the show went off the air, Pehl has been working on numerous other projects, from her own stand-up, to appearing regularly on NPR, to being one of the masterminds behind the MST3K spin-off, Cinematic Titanic.
But her biggest solo project by far is a recently released collection of short essays titled Employee of The Month And Other Big Deals. The book was originally self-published through Amazon.com’s CreateSpace site, and was a big enough success that it will be released for the Kindle on February 24th. To find out more about the book, as well as a look behind how the process of making fun of movies has changed over time, read on:
MTV Geek: To kick it off, what can you tell us about Employee of The Month And Other Big Deals? Where did the idea come from, he asked stupidly?
Mary Jo Pehl: “Employee of The Month And Other Big Deals” is a collection of stories and essays about some of my adventures and misadventures through life.
It’s kind of an amends, a “do over” of something I published several years ago. I had been contacted by a small specialty publisher about writing a book, and I was utterly seduced by the word “book”! I was ill-prepared, however, for all that entailed, and the company mostly published small graphic novels – so in many ways, it was just not a good fit.
Though both the publisher and I had good intentions, the end result was rushed, amateurish, riddled with typos, and ridiculously short. It’s basically a pamphlet! The poor fellow had to enlarge the font to something like 28 just to make more substantial than a Christmas newsletter! So I was pretty abashed and pretended like it never happened.
The whole story of my publishing misadventure is the introduction to “Employee of The Month.”
Geek: Why self publish the book? What advantages - and disadvantages - have you discovered from releasing the book this way?
MJP: For years I’ve come thissss close to getting an agent and/or publisher, and nothing ever came through. I got tired of it all hinging on the decisions of others, decisions that often seem random.
I got to do it the way I wanted. There are illustrations throughout the book by Len Peralta, and I’m not sure I would have been able to experiment with the format like that. I was lucky too, in that I had an editor, Tom Dupree, who worked for years at a major publishing house, and a great designer, Steve Schirra.
One of the disadvantages is that you don’t have a publishing house behind you with its imprimatur and its resources. But even that model is changing, and has changed considerably. Another disadvantage is that you can’t pass the buck! You have to take responsibility for the project. You can’t be passive, waiting on your couch for the publisher to take care of everything. You are very involved in the process.
Geek: If this hasn’t been covered already, what has the experience been like, self-publishing? Is it something you’d want to do again?
MJP: Definitely. I plan to do it again. As I mentioned, it allows me so much room for experimentation. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going for, and I have to test it or throw some things out there to discover what I want. So I think it’s really cool for people who work the same way.
I had to learn a lot, and I’m still learning. Steve Schirra, the designer, walked me through the process, and was always there to answer questions. He also understood the look I was going for, even though I didn’t speak the “designer” language, so I was really fortunate to have people like Steve and Tom on my side.
There’s also the thing about resources. I had neither the inclination nor financial resources to print a lot of copies and then sell them on my own, a process that some self-publishers will do. With CreateSpace, you can print-on-demand. People can order it through Amazon or other outlets, and I can have a bunch with me when I tour with Cinematic Titanic.
Geek: You’ve tackled so many different mediums at this point... When you have outlets for stand-up, video, etc., what makes an anecdote specifically become prose, like the ones in this book? Is it just that they’re, you know... Longer?
MJP: Aw, rats! Ya got me!
Yeah, that’s a really good question. And yeah, I really had to work against the “quip” rhythm that I’d acquired doing Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Cinematic Titanic – short bursts of commentary inserted around the movie “set-up”. I also had to work against the rhythm of traditional stand-up comedy, which I spent many years doing: that is, a set-up, set-up, punchline rhythm.
In the ensuing years after my first, um, foray into publishing, I had lots of opportunities to get better at writing. I contributed to several anthologies, and I had a monthly column in a magazine for several years. Those things helped.
I think it becomes prose when there’s more to the story – that it’s an actual story, that there’s some sort of narrative arc to it, when you have enough to contextualize it and sustain it. At least I hope so.
Geek: Why publish a book at all? I don’t mean that in an attacking way, but you can take it like I’m attacking you if you want. Up to you.
MJP: Why, why must you attack me so?!!
Okay, fine, I’ll UN-publish it if that’ll make you happy!
Well… why not publish a book?!?!
There’s this great quote by Robert Cormier: "The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon."
It all comes back to trying to get it right! There are 500 or so folks out there with copies of my previous booky-thingy, and they’d come up to me at shows or contact me online and tell me how much they loved it. I figured maybe there was some salvageable material. I wanted a sense of satisfactory completion, and for me, that was an actual three-dimensional book. Having it in a tangible format like that also helps my mother understand that I do actually DO something.
Geek: Let’s chat about Cinematic Titanic a bit... What’s that experience been like? How has the process changed from MST3K until now?
MJP: The experience has been terrific. We get to take the MST3K format of riffing on bad movies and do it in front of live audiences. We – Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, J. Elvis Weinstein and myself - all come from a stand-up comedy, improv, and/or theater background so we really love that live experience, that connection with the audience, the instant feedback.
We are also riffing on the films as ourselves. No Tom or Crow. We also write the movies separately, as we all live in different cities. In the MST3K days, we’d all sit in a writing room together. We don’t have that energy of a writing room, feeding off each other to come up with lines.
And air travel. Sheesh. Barbaric. Don’t get me started. But the great crowds and the really fun shows make it worth it.
Geek: Do you ever say, “You know what, I don’t want to watch bad movies anymore.”
MJP: Yes--everytime I’m right in the middle of writing a movie for for Cinematic Titanic.
Sure. But I also think I ought not complain. I have to watch bad movies with some of the funniest, smartest people I know and poke fun at them (the movies, not my colleagues, although that’s been known to happen). People should have such problems.
Geek: When you go to see movies, do you find yourself writing commentary track in your head anyway? Or are you able to tune it out?
MJP: Ya know, if the movie’s really good, I’m usually engrossed and able to shut that part of my brain off. Plus, I’m kind of a simpleton, so if it’s loud and actiony, I get swept away. I succumb to the moving pictures.
But even before I worked on MST3K, there was always a part of my brain that was preoccupied with the logistics of world presented in the movie. I will get hung up on, “How did the Joads afford gas? Did they stop at motels along the way?” Or I start perseverating on the interpersonal dynamics: “How did Dorothy end up coming to live with Auntie Em?” I’ll never be able to shut that part of my brain down.
Geek: Talk a little bit about the legacy of MST3K... So much has changed since it came out, but you can see the influence on everything from SyFy still being around, to podcasts.
MJP: The first thing that comes to mind is people who come to Cinematic Titanic shows with their children… who are college age or better! How did THAT happen?!? It’s wild to see one generation indoctrinating the next.
I’m also struck by how just about everything is not permitted to stand on its own. Everything is comment-able, everything has a meta-observation opportunity to it. I lack any perspective to know if that’s MST3K’s legacy or not, but I suppose it has informed it.
Geek: Do you think there’s room for the “funny commentary” form to grow and change? Is there a place you’d like to see it go?
MJP: Oh, sure. A couple of ways that I know of off the top of my head are events like live texting a film by the audience at a movie theater; Master Pancake Theater here in Austin riffs on movies ala MST3K, but there’s a mashup element to the films they do. They will cut in different songs or scenes from different movies to great effect.
Geek: To get back to your writing, now that you have the first book out of the way, do you think you’ll work on more? Is this something you’d like to keep exploring?
MJP: Oh, yes. I’m working on one right now with illustrator David Levy, for starters. However, after your attack on me, I may hang the whole thing up for awhile. You’re right – why publish a book? Who the hell do I think I am?!
Geek: I know, right? For those who only know you from MST3K or Cinematic Titanic, why pick up the book?
MJP: They probably shouldn’t, now that I think of it.
Well, hey, there are worse things you could lay your eyes on.
Wait, how’s this: with every book purchase you get 40,000 free words contained therein! Words like “pants” and “the.” Extra bonus word if you act now: Wookiee.
Geek: Lastly, what else is coming up for you? Anything you want to plug?
MJP: Come see Cinematic Titanic in a city near you! You can check out our touring schedule at www.cinematictitanic.com, and more dates will soon be added. I wrote a play called “Man Saved By Condiments” which will be part of the FrigidFest in NY and the Montreal Fringe Festival. More stuff at www.mjpehl.com.
Employee of The Month And Other Big Deals is now on sale through Amazon.com, and will hit the Kindle Store on February 24th!