Interview: Mary Jo Pehl of MST3K and Cinematic Titanic

When The Sword-Edged Blonde was released in hardcover in 2007 (it’ll be out later this month in paperback; see sidebar for more info), its high-concept idea–sword-and-sorcery fantasy written as hard-boiled detective fiction–led a lot of people to think it was a parody of its two genres, using one (detective) to mock the other (fantasy). This was never my intent. Although I hope there are some humorous moments, I wanted to tell a serious fantasy story, about larger-than-life characters and events, in a way that let the emotional moments reach past any genre tropes and thus truly affect the reader.

Mary Jo Pehl has faced this same issue, in a much more public way. As a writer and performer on one of my favorite TV shows ever, Mystery Science Theater 3000, she helped bring cutting mockery to new heights. As part of the Cinematic Titanic cast, she has continued this. But she’s also written a book, a play and a one-man show (literally written for a man).

She was kind enough to talk to me about how having a knack for comedy affects her more serious intentions, and the way the writing process changes depending on the format.

Alex: You have a lot of experience with “comedic deconstruction” (i.e.,
making fun of things); what sort of effect has that had on your other

Mary Jo: I think it’s taught me to be more analytical. With that, I think my writing has become more honest, both intellectually and psychically. Sometimes I can’t enjoy things at face value, because my mind is busy knitting on how a joke, situation, or denouement was set up and how it paid off. It’s heightened my sense of irreverence. It’s also made me take care with paying attention to my own voice; I try not to be snarky just for the sake of being snarky.

Do you consider your theatrical writing to be essentially comic in nature, or serious with comic elements? And is there an underlying theme that links your writing?

You know, I don’t think I’ve done enough theatrical writing to sense a trend. All writing, to me, is a grand experiment. I’ve only written two or three short pieces for other performers, and a couple of solo shows. In considering them, I think they are serious with comic elements. But I love bathos and pathos, which, to me, is life. Many people have said that my writing has made them both want to laugh and cry. I don’t know if that’s a compliment, and I don’t know if it’s due to ineptitude or actual skill!

Do you worry that your public persona as a comic performer influences the way audiences and/or readers comprehend and accept any serious intent you might put into your work?

I used to worry about that, but then the fretting only got in the way of my work. I think you start short-changing your work when you start worrying about who might think what about it. It’s a just a version of “The Editor” we all have. The creativity starts to be hassled and crippled by the demons of what will people think. But yeah, I suspect I have been passed over for grants and awards because I’m viewed as a comedy writer, and comedy can’t be seriously on its own merits. I’ve written about very serious topics, some of which have had some honest, dark humorous things happen as a part of them, and I feel like they might have been dismissed wholesale because I’m a “comedic” writer.

Oh, well.

What’s different about writing material strictly to be read (“I Lived with My Parents”), for yourself to perform (“Here, There and Underwear”) and writing for others (“Man Saved by Condiments”)?

I don’t know if I know exactly, because I’m not sure I’ve succeeded! Like I said, it’s always a work in progress. I think when you’re sitting alone with a book and words on a page, your head takes it in differently than when you’re in a live performance environment, so I try to write accordingly. I get more specific and illustrative in language, because I want to try to bring the reader into what’s happening. It’s an attempt at verbal 3D, I suppose. In performance, obviously, you can use body language, intonation and facial expression to get a point across or to illustrate a situation. Writing “Man Saved By Condiments” was difficult because I was writing it for a male, and I got really hung up on how a man would speak, act and react to something. Then I realized men were human, so I used that as a starting point!

I read in another interview that “Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of your favorite books. I couldn’t tell if that was a joke, but if it’s true: why?

No joke -it is one of my favorite stories ever. Two reasons: I’m a big Melville fan, and, for starters, I think it’s an especially interesting from him because he is mostly known for his adventure stories. It’s both quite spare and very evocative; I love the economy of language. But here’s this story about an office worker, from the perspective of someone who’d seen the high seas and remote islands, the life of an adventurer to be sure.

Second, there is something about Bartleby and his situation that I very much identify with. There’s a real absurdist quality in it, and a subversive response to the capitalistic and industrial forces that were coming to bear in that age. While I still continue to contemplate the story, I completely understand Bartleby’s response: “I would prefer not to.” And by the way, if you get a chance to see Sam Ita’s Moby Dick, do. Astonishing.

Thanks to Mary Jo Pehl for taking the time to answer my questions.

One Comment on “Interview: Mary Jo Pehl of MST3K and Cinematic Titanic”

  1. Interesting to see how much writers of "genre" fiction and "funny" (like ha-ha, not uh-oh) writers have in common. Cool!

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