Mystery Trekkie Theater 3000 and the Long, Leisurely Chat

 

Peter David, Bob Greenberger, and Michael Jan Friedman have been writing and performing Mystery Trekkie Theater 3000, their Mystery Science Theater 3000 Alive!-style live-show featuring Star Trek universe experiments nearly every year at the Shore Leave scienty fiction convention in Baltimore, Maryland for neigh on 25 years.

The doors opened on their first performance, featuring the Star Trek original series episode Turnabout Intruder, the morning of Sunday, July 12th, 1992. Ever since, they’ve been wrangling their friends, an innocent bystander or two, and usually a cameo from a celebrity, onto the stage. In the early days, noted letterer of comic books Bob Pinaha and scienty fiction writer Brad Ferguson served time as the opening-skit mad-scientists who forced them to watch bad Star Trek episodes. After a while Shore Leave regular T.A. Chafin came aboard and he’s been playing the mad scientist ever since. Eventually, the Sunday evening slot came open and MTT3K turned into a regular Sunday night thing that closed out the con.

MTT3K is arguably the first ever homage to Mystery Science Theater 3000; beating Ryan K. Johnson’s fanvid by a few months. (Interestingly, both featured experiments from Star Trek.) And, it was nearly the first ever live MST3K-style show! When MTT3K first started, MST3K had been going on television for five years, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 Alive! was nearly not even yet a thing. But, two days before P, B, and Jan (and pals) performed their first live-version homage of MST3K, Best Brains (the folks that produced the original show) performed their own live version of MST3K in Minneapolis, Minnesota — at the first Conventioconexpofestarama, which shared a weekend with Shore Leave.

Come this Sunday evening, Peter David, Bob Greenberger, and Michael Jan Friedman will have enjoyed a long and well-received run of their MST3K-inspired live-show, with what will be 24 total performances of Mystery Trekkie Theater 3000. But, come this Sunday evening plus about an hour, Mystery Trekkie Theater 3000 will be no more. They’ve decided to retire the show.

Why would they do that? Why now? Quick! Someone email them a torrent of questions and compile their answers together into what will then appear to be one long, leisurely conversation about a show the last 25 years have trained us to expect would never leave us!

Someone did.

Let’s “listen” in:

 

BINDING POLYMER: What inspired you to start doing a live Mystery Science Theater 3000-style show? Who brought it up first?

PETER “PAD” DAVID: It was pretty much my idea.  It was a chance to do something every year with Mike and Bob, who are long time friends and collaborators.

BOB GREENBERGER: It’s Peter’s fault. He conceived of it to have some fun with two of his regular collaborators and friends. He was also seeking a way to ensure he’d be invited back year after year.

MICHAEL JAN FRIEDMAN: It was Peter’s idea. And since we were friends and had already collaborated on books, it seemed like a natural team-up.

 

BP: Why Shore Leave?

MJF: It was the biggest forum where we were all likely to show up together. And as Peter will tell you, it was a way to ensure that we were always invited.

BG: It was the one show of the year that we were all guaranteed to be at. Additionally, there was a cadre of performers under the umbrella name Cheap Treks that would mount musical parodies of whatever genre material was in vogue. Peter even wrote one and I appeared in another. When they chose to retire, we were asked to shift from a Sunday morning slot to the closing event, cementing our place in Shore Leave.

PAD: In the old days, Shore Leave didn’t always invite me as a guest.  So I came up with MTT3K as an idea that would prove so popular they would have to invite me back year after year just to get the show.  I took pains to make it clear that we would never do it anywhere else, so Shore Leave would have an exclusive thing.  And believe me, we’ve been asked.

 

BP: Why Star Trek only?

BG: Shore Leave started out as a Star Trek con in the early 1980s when they were largely the only game in town. When the original syndicated series boom came, followed by the explosion of basic cable offerings, I suppose we could have added other shows, but with five iterations of Trek, we never thought about it. Of course, Peter suggested we use the William Shatner pilot for Alexander the Great as a surprise and it remains one of the best received shows we did.

PAD: Well, it IS called “Trekkie Theater.”  But we haven’t done only Star Trek.  One year in the opening sketch, Mike complained about how he was sick of trashing Star Trek, and the Mad Scientist suggested “Alexander,” which startled people because the Brad Pitt “Alexander” film was still in the theaters. And we started running this old black and white TV program, and the audience had zero idea why we were watching it…until Alexander came riding up, and it was a pre-Trek William Shatner.  The fans went nuts.  They were finally going to see something on Mystery Trekkie that they’d never seen before.

MJF: Trek is the best known of the sci fi screen products and it offers the most possibilities. Plus our attention spans don’t go any longer than 45 minutes, so movies weren’t an option.

 

BP: How did you guys meet?

PAD: Bob I met through Howie Weinstein.  Bob was editing a magazine called “Comics Scene” and he hired me to write a story about the comic book direct sales market, which led to my becoming Marvel Comics’ assistant direct sales manager.  Mike I’m pretty sure I met at a convention.

BG: Peter and I may have crossed paths at the old August Parties, but we were formally introduced when Howard Weinstein called me at Starlog Press to ask if I could assign an article to Peter, who just lost his job at Playboy Press. I called, he did a superb job, we struck up a friendship and have been watching one another’s backs ever since. During the 1980s, Dave Stern was the Star Trek editor at Pocket Books and he began hosting cocktail parties for all the local authors including me, since I was editing the comic for DC. That’s where we met Mike, who turned out to be a kindred spirit although he’s way too athletic for his own good.

MJF: In thunder, lightning, and in rain. No, wait, that’s someone else. I’m pretty sure it was at one of Pocket Books’ Christmas parties. I’d been avoiding these guys for as long as possible and eventually my luck ran out.

 

BP: In a nut shell, what is Mystery Trekkie Theater 3000?

PAD: It’s Mystery Science Theater but with Trek.

BG: We lovingly skewer the weaker episodes from across the Star Trek franchise, pointing out story flaws, bad acting, bad scene continuity, and have developed a recurring set of responses that audiences have come to expect and even join in on (such as fart sounds every time someone sits down). We replicate the MST format complete with puppets, opening skit, mad scientist, and “Movie Sign!”.

MJF: The end-product of six thousand years of Western civilization. Seriously…we sit behind a screen and mock an episode the way MST3K mocked sci fi movies.

 

BP: [From the not too distant future] What was the experiment? How did the show go?

PAD: We’re actually bringing it full circle and doing the very first experiment we ever did:  “Turnabout Intruder,” the last episode of original Trek.

MJF: It was the best performance of anyone, ever.

 

BP: Will it be a second performance of the original script from 1992, or did you guys write all new stuff?

PAD: We definitely no longer have the script from a quarter of a century ago.  I remembered a handful of lines, but we wound up doing it the way we always do it, from the beginning.

 

BP: You guys are already pretty well known to the Shore Leave crowd, but if you got to talking with an uninitiated stranger in an elevator, how any floors would it take to explain what you do for a living?

PAD: I’m a writer, so less than a floor.

BG: One floor: I’m a writer/editor/English teacher.

MJF: One. I write science fiction and fantasy. Oh, and I teach. And I…okay, maybe two.

 

BP: When you started doing MTT3K, had you heard of any other fans doing versions of MST3K?

PAD: Nope.  Then again, it was before the rise of the Internet, so it’s possible that there were others doing it and we never found out.

BG: Not me. I do want to note that even earlier than that, a fan named Lynne Stephens took ST:TMP and managed to reedit it, adding sound cues and TOS footage to shorten and enliven the turgid film.  She showed it at a few cons in the very early 1980s and may be the first time I saw any one mock the original material.

MJF: No. At least, I hadn’t.

 

BP: Were you able to use Star Trek in your show because of your relationships with Star Trek and Paramount, or is it because Shore Leave has blanket permission from Paramount to show Star Trek during the show?

PAD: I honestly have no idea.  Since we never sell any of our shows on DVD, there’s no copyright issues because no money is being made.  As long as no one is profiteering off stuff, Paramount generally doesn’t care.

BG: It’s parody, which is legally protected, and since we three (and Alan Chafin, our Mad Scientist) do not personally profit from the event, nor does Shore Leave charge a separate fee that can be construed to profit from it, Paramount and CBS Consumer Products ignore us.

MJF: As one of my compadres has said, it’s satire.

 

BP: Has anyone at Paramount contacted you to express an opinion (hopefully positive) about what you guys have been doing with their franchise?

PAD: Nope.

BG: Not that I can recall.

MJF: I don’t recall any such contact.

 

BP: You’ve had some Star Trek actors participate in your show (e.g. Takei, Picardo), but have any other actors expressed a desire to participate but it never came about?

PAD: Never.  We always approach the actors and they’re happy to participate.

BG: None have sought us out, but we have been able to invite other guests to participate on an as-needed basis and once the actor agrees, Peter tweaks his opening skit script to accommodate them. In addition to Trek actors, we’ve also had Andrea Thompson and Kevin Sorbo among others to kindly play with us. They show up, do their lines and leave, making the fans, and us, very happy.

MJF: No one in their right mind would offer to take part in our shenanigans. They generally have to be dragged in kicking and screaming.

 

BP: Over the history of performing MTT3K, what memory stands out in your mind the most?

PAD: As I mentioned, probably “Alexander” because the audience was caught so flatfooted.  I doubt any of them even knew the show existed.  And the best moment was when the opening credits were running, and I said, “You gotta hand it to the mad scientist.  This could not possibly get any worse.”  And then it said, “Co-starring:  Adam West,” and we chorused, “It’s worse” as the audience howled.

BG: Our skits got increasingly ambitious […] Riverborg and a stage full of red shirts doing “Red Shirt Riot” stand out as particularly strong ones. Robert Picardo’s surprise appearance was perhaps the best received cameo.

One year we were doing our final late night rehearsal and were making so much noise with laughter that the next door guest banged on our door. We opened it to find an irritated Ann Crispin who saw it was us, complained, sighed, and went back to bed.

MJF: I get kicked in the nuts a lot. There, I said it. I mean a lot.

 

BP: Do you remember any jokes or skits that went over particularly well? Any that didn’t get the reaction you expected?

PAD: RiverBorg went over pretty well.  “Star Trek Boulevard” in which we riffed “Sunset Boulevard” and climaxed with our Mad Scientist, T.A. Chafin, having a heart attack on stage.  We ran to him and I shouted, “Is there a Doctor in the house?!” Several people actually started to stand up and then Bob Picardo stepped out and said, “What is the nature of your medical emergency?” I also loved “Fairy Home Companion” in which we recreated “Prairie Home Companion” with Bob, Mike and I wearing fairy wings.  What didn’t go over?  We were the backup singers for George Takei, and unfortunately George was horribly off key, so it was kind of awful.  Unfortunately that’s one of the few opening sketches on Youtube.

BG: We would individually watch the episode then meet some time in June to compare notes, rewatching the episode. Often things occurred to us during the group watch that were unanticipated and made it into the final script, which I would type on my laptop. Over time, it got eerie how often we came up with the same gag, perhaps worded differently. We’d practice timing the jokes with the time code and refine accordingly. Usually, on Saturday night, after the con’s Masquerade, we’d sit in a hotel room and do a final run through where jokes were refined or added.

What always surprised me was that some of the things that made us laugh the loudest, literally fall off our chairs funny, went over poorly with the crowd while throw aways we had went over far better.

MJF: I thought our rendition of Sunset Boulevard went over especially well. We pre-produced a video of me floating face down in the hotel pool and then I wore the same clothes to the live skit, so it was particularly convincing.

 

BP: Any particularly special memories of any of the celebrity guest stars who participated? Did anyone give you more than you could have hoped for?

PAD: Andrea Thompson did a fantastic job.  She played a reporter and she wound up flirting with Chafin.  She smiled at him and said, “You’ve been looking up naked pictures of me on the Internet, haven’t you.”  He grinned and nodded and she wound up seducing him away on stage.  To this day he says that was his favorite sketch.

The one who went over the top in expectations.  Corin Nemec joined us when we did “Fairie Home Companion” in which we riffed on the famous radio show.  Corin played the lead role in one part of the sketch in which he was hard-boiled detective investigating a case.  His dramatic reading was absolutely terrific.  Then the sketch climaxed with Katie Greenberger and me singing a take off of “Cotton Eyed Joe” called “Rotten Old Q.”  We had a bunch of dancers on the stage (including a Mugato) and Corin, unscripted, came bounding out on stage and started swaying to and fro right behind me.  I spotted him out of the corner of my eye and started swaying in counter to his movements, and the audience loved it.

Actually the Mugato was a set up for one of my favorite Mystery Trekkie moments.  We were doing “Private Little War” and I kept referring to the creature as a Gumato.  Bob and Mike corrected me with growing frustration, but I kept insisting it was a Gumato.  When the final credits rolled, Mike said, “See?  See?  Right there, in the credits.  Janos Prohaska as…the Gumato?!?”  I smugly said, “Told you.”  The audience went nuts, because sure enough, the credits had been getting the creature’s name wrong for forty years and apparently no one had noticed.  But I’d spotted it somehow when reviewing the episode and knew I could have a ton of fun with that.  That was the second best audience reaction we ever got.  The best was when we were watching an episode of Enterprise and the theme song started.  I said, “I hate this theme song.  Could we get another one, please?”  And it cut to Eric Cartman singing “Come Sail Away.”  The audience was in hysterics because it actually fit quite well to the visuals.

MJF: Are we talking during the skit…or after hours?

 

BP: Are there any Star Trek episodes you were itching to use as an experiment, but now won’t get to because this is MTT3K’s last year?

PAD: Nah.  If there was a show we were itching to do, we did it.

BG: One of the reasons we considered ending things before realizing it was the 25th anniversary and a good time to call it a career was multifaceted. One, with Mike’s teaching schedule and my move to Maryland, getting us together was getting problematic in addition to a sense we had skewered the shows most deserving.

MJF: No, I think in 25 years we covered everything we wanted to cover, and then some.

 

BP: Were there any episodes you thought needed to be an experiment, but for whatever reason they just didn’t lend themselves to riffing?

PAD: “Omega Glory.”  I was geared up to go after that one, but we watched it and frankly it just didn’t lend itself to parody.

MJF: Occasionally some episodes didn’t work out as well as others. Hard to say why.

 

BP: What was it about Alexander the Great that made it the only non Star Trek experiment you did?

PAD: It was an incredibly young Shatner, the audience didn’t know about it, and it lent itself to great moments.  I remember one point where Alexander’s men were in battle and they had their shields up as archers fired on them.  And in a Scott’s brogue, I said, “The shields canna take much more of this!”

MJF: It had the audience baffled at first…till the rider’s horse wheeled and we saw that it was Shatner. Adam West, Joseph Cotton, John Cassavetes…it was a fascinating artifact that few fans had ever seen before. Our contribution was just icing on the cake.

BG: William Shatner and Adam West. ‘Nuff said.

 

BP: The announcement on the Shore Leave website suggests that you guys have decided to stop doing MTT3K because Mystery Science Theater 3000 was returning. Is that true?

PAD: Not really.  With Bob moving down to Maryland, it became more a matter of logistics than anything else.

MJF: It’s a combination of things. We never wanted to outstay our welcome, so we’re not. Also, with Bob down in Maryland, the logistics were getting insane. This year we actually had to meet in a neutral state for our rehearsal.

 

BP: What sort of reaction have you been getting since announcing that your show was ending?

PAD: So far?  None.  I figure I’ll get reactions at the convention though.

BG: A lot of surprise and disappointment and complaints from friends and family they had to learn about it from the website.

MJF: None so far. I imagine we’ll get some at the con.

 

BP: What did you think of the new season of MST3K? Favorite new episode?

PAD: I’m loving it so far.  I’ve seen the first five episodes so I don’t have a single favorite yet.

BG: Here’s my dirty secret: I have never seen an episode of MST3K, old or new. Ironically, I will finally pop my cherry with the live performance in Washington D.C. that evening.

MJF: Um…I…actually…haven’t seen it yet…

 

BP: Has it always just been you three watching the experiment during the show? Were you ever able to wrangle a celebrity into watching with you?

PAD: Never happened, because the celebrities are always off at their autographing.

BG: When we settled on rehearsing at Peter’s house, his wife Kathleen always joined in as did Peter’s daughter Ariel and then their daughter Caroline. When my son was ill, the two kindly [travelled up to] Connecticut where we did the rehearsal in Robbie’s hospital room. He got to make some suggestions we used. Alan Chafin would join us for the final run through and would also make suggestions.

MJF: One time I couldn’t make the con and Keith DeCandido sat in for me. But never a celebrity.

 

BP: Are you three the only writers for MTT3K? Were there any guest writers or stray lines friends or family threw at you that you used because they were too good to pass up?

PAD: T.A. Chafin has contributed ideas, as have my wife and daughter, Kathleen and Caroline.

BG: We’ve never had guest writers although, when circumstances demanded Mike or I miss out [on the show], we were able to recruit Pocket Books editor John Ordover and Keith DeCandido to fill in for us.

MJF: Since our rehearsals were usually at Peter’s house, sometimes his wife Kathleen or daughter Caroline would come up with a bon mot.

 

BP: Were all of the opening skits written solo by Peter?

PAD: Pretty much, yeah, although last years, “Dating Game of Thrones,” was suggested by a friend of Kathleen’s, Angelo.

BG: Yes. Mike and I just aren’t twisted enough.

MJF: Those were Peter’s? Not Andrew Lloyd Weber’s? Are you sure?

 

BP: Did you ever toy with the idea of taking the show to other conventions?

PAD: Nope.

BG: Not that I recall. There was once discussion of going down to Florida to perform a special event at the movie theater run by Peter’s daughter Shaina, but we decided to keep it a Shore Leave exclusive.

MJF: Nope. It was always going to be a Shore Leave exclusive.

 

BP: How would you feel if a new set of enterprising writers started a new MST3K live-show at Shore Leave? Would you rather that it was left as a special thing that used to happen?

PAD: I would not be thrilled with that.  MTT3K is our thing and I would not want to see someone continuing it.  Especially at Shore Leave.

BG: Once word got out we were done, Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore, and Dave Mack began brainstorming ideas to become our replacements with something new and different. I’ll be very curious to see if that becomes something.

MJF: I’d rather that field was left fallow. But then, we don’t own any rights to it.

 

BP: Now that Mystery Trekkie Theater 3000 is ending, do you think you’ll release the scripts (skits and riffs) for each of the shows? Or, will the script for “Beat the Klingon Geeks” remain the only script ever released publicly?

PAD: Christ, I don’t even remember that script.  Why the hell did I release it?  I have no plans to do so at this moment, but maybe I’ll start releasing them on my Patreon account.

BG: Peter wrote them and that’s up to him.

MJF: I’ve given out my skit scripts over the years so I don’t have any of them. If anyone has the files, it would be Peter. As far as I’m concerned, that’s up to him. As for the riffs…I don’t know if Bob has preserved them or not.

 

BP: Did you record any of the performances for posterity? Do you have any plans to release the recordings? (Or, to have them playing in a video room at Shore Leave in future MTT-free years?)

PAD: Many of them were recorded by Shore Leave, but I certainly don’t have any plans to release any of them.  If Shore Leave wants to run them in a video room, they’re welcome to.

BG: The cons may have recorded these, but I doubt a complete set exists which I now realize to be a real shame.

MJF: We’ve never recorded the shows in their entirety. There may be some skit videos, though.

BP: Have you seen any other MST3K fan-made live-shows or fan-made episodes?

PD: No.

BG: No.

MJF: I have not.

 

BP: What was the usual process for writing each year’s script?

PAD: I would write the opening sketch and choose the episode.  I would get copies of the episode to Bob and Mike.  We’d all watch it individually and make notes.  Then we’d gather, usually at my house, and screen the episode while tossing out our jokes.  Bob would type them all up on his computer.  He would produce a script and give them to me and Mike at Shore Leave and we would have our final run through on Friday night of the convention.

MJF: We each wrote separately. Then we came together and rehearsed at Pete’s house. I’ve seldom laughed as hard as I have at those rehearsals. At the con, we do a run-through Saturday night. Then we perform Sunday morning. That’s when I get kicked in the nuts.

 

BP: Who decided which episode to take on next? Why did it take so long to do Spock’s Brain?

PAD: I always said that Spock’s Brain was unquestionably the worst one and could not be topped, and if we ever did Spock’s Brain, it would be the last one.  I kept to that.

BG: Usually, by Farpoint in February, we’d have settled on a show with lots of suggestions. Eventually we’d reach a consensus and get to work. Peter always felt “Spock’s Brain”, perhaps the easiest show to mock, would be our finale.

MJF: We decide together. It just felt like time for Spock’s Brain–and we always said that when we did Spock’s Brain, we’d be done.

 

BP: Why no MTT3K in 1995 or 1999?

PAD: I wasn’t available and Bob and Mike didn’t want to do it without me.

BG: Really? I don’t recall that.

MJF: Don’t recall missing those years.

 

BP: In 2004, Peter “totally lost it” when Mike did his tongue-less Tom Paris imitation. Are there any other instances where any of the cast totally lost it and the others had to cover for them?

BG: Mike or I usually flubbed a line or a cue, causing adlibbing or awkward silences. That was never fun.

MJF: I think we’ve all lost it a bit from time to time, and when that happens, we’ve got each other’s backs.

 

BP: When T.A. Chafin filled in as a mad scientist for Bob Pinaha in 1997, was that the last time Bob Pinaha and Brad Ferguson were a regular part of the show? What is your relationship with those three guys and how did they react when you asked them to be a part of the show?

PAD: Yes, I think it was.  They just didn’t want to continue for some reason, and Chafin was happy to continue in their place.

BG: Bob and Brad stopped attending the show for their own personal reasons and we adapted. Bob was my letterer on the Star Trek comics and a good pal while Brad became one of the Pocket regulars and lived locally so was someone we could count on for the shows.

MJF: I’d worked with Bob Pinaha in the comics industry, where he was known as a terrific letterer. Brad was a Trek author like Peter, Bob, and me. They liked being part of the show. Then they stopped coming to Shore Leave and we had to seek out new talent.

 

BP: How far before Shore Leave were the scripts usually finalized. Were there ever any last minute changes?

PAD: The night before.  But there are times when we would actually come up with something while on stage and we’d just ad lib stuff.

MJF: Seldom last-minute changes, but some. Scripts were usually finalized at our initial rehearsal at Pete’s house.

 

BP: How much rehearsing were you usually able to get in? Did you ever just wing it?

PAD: Never.  Aside from occasional ad libs, everything was rehearsed.

MJF: Never winged it. We always had two rehearsals–at Pete’s and then Saturday night at the con.

 

BP: Did the opening skit always include an invention exchange?

PAD: Initially it did, yes, but we dropped it pretty quickly.

MJF: No, not always an invention. Seldom, in fact, if I recall correctly, and less so as time went on.

 

BP: Peter’s life was affected by MTT3K because one year you guys needed a prop for the skit and he bought a Klingon puppet from a lovely young lady that eventually became his wife. Michael/Bob, has MTT3K affected your life in such a significant way?

BG: I have newfound appreciation for how well Mike can take a knee to the groin. Other than that day’s applause, no not really.

MJF: Did I mention I got kicked in the nuts a lot? Outside of that, not really–other than it gave me an excuse to do one of the things I like best, which is have some laughs with Bob and Peter.

 

BP: What will life be like without Mystery Trekkie Theater 3000?

PAD: —I dunno.  Ask me in a year.

BG: Well, we regain a few hours in our lives before the show and it allows us more flexibility to go home. It will certainly feel very odd not to rehearse and deepen our bonds of friendship in this unique way.

MJF: Good question. I really don’t know. I’m sure I’ll miss it, and all the fun we had, a great deal. But then, to borrow a phrase from Next Gen, “All Good Things” must end.

 

Thanks to Peter, Bob, and Michael Jan for taking the time on the eve of the con of their final performance to sit and have a long, leisurely “chat” about Mystery Trekkie Theater 3000.

 

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