Exclusive Interview – MST3K’s Trace Beaulieu Looks Back on the Satellite of Love
Trace Beaulieu, best known as Dr. Clayton Forrester and the voice of wisecracking robot Crow T. Robot on ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000,’ was one of the prime architects of the beloved cult TV show. From the program’s formation in 1988 as a low-budget local show created by Joel Hodgson for a Minneapolis TV station until his departure in 1996, Beaulieu served as co-writer, co-star and one of the most admired guys in all of nerdom.
‘MST3K’ was all about one man (Hodgson in the show’s original incarnation) lost in space aboard the Satellite of Love, where he’s subjected to “experiments” conducted by the evil mad scientist Forrester. The doc forces him, remotely, to watch bad movies in the interest of gauging their effects on Joel’s sanity. The ever-cheerful Joel is joined by two chatty robots (Crow and Kevin Murphy’s gumball-machine-shaped Tom Servo) who join him in the S.O.L.’s theater to riff on the cinematic atrocities forced upon them.
Shown in silhouette in theater seats at the bottom of the TV screen, the three primaries would make fun of each episode’s featured movie while TV audiences sat back and laughed at the team’s snark-filled jabs, which combined pop-culture references and basic sarcasm to send up the awful flicks in real time.
The show was picked up by the Comedy Channel (later known as Comedy Central) before moving on to the Sci-Fi Channel. During its decade-long run, ‘MST3K’ won a Peabody Award, was nominated for two Emmys and secured a spot on Time magazine’s ’100 Best TV Shows of All Time.’ It’s still a cult favorite, gaining new generations of fans, even though no new episodes have aired in 15 years.
‘MST3K’ would undergo several cast changes throughout its time on the air. Joel, the main human, was replaced by Mike Nelson in 1993, but Beaulieu stayed on in both of his roles through the eighth season. Dr. Forrester and his sidekick, known affectionately as TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff), joined Joel (and then Mike) for the host segments that broke up each episode’s featured movie, to participate in “invention exchanges,” silly songs and ridiculous skits that, in some episodes, were funnier than anything going on in the theater.
Beaulieu, who published a children’s book, ‘Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children,’ not too long ago, recently chatted with us and looked back on the classic show.
You’re responsible many of us knowing so much more about bad movies and directors like Coleman Francis (‘The Beast of Yucca Flats’) than we ever would have otherwise.
Yeah, it’s information I’d like to get rid of. This was long before you could go to the Internet and look up anything, so we were really shooting in the dark to get these movies to use on the show. We didn’t know who Coleman Francis was. We were aware of some of the more prominent [B-movie] directors, like Ray Dennis Steckler (‘Wild Guitar’), Russ Meyer (‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’) and Ted V. Mikels (‘The Corpse Grinders’).
All of those “psychotronic” directors . . .
Yeah, Michael Weldon’s ‘The Psychotronic Video Guide’ was our bible. We sat on the floor and read it to each other for a week. We’d circle movies we thought sounded good — ‘Oh, we want this one!’ — thinking we could just submit this list to the Comedy Channel and they’d get them for us. But the reality was they’d send us a big box of tapes and we’d just sort through them. We thought we could say, “Well, we like these two . . . these over here are great . . . ” But then they would come back to us and say, “Well, you’ve got to take these three, and these other two that you don’t like,” because they were all from distributor licensing agreements. And sometimes the ones we didn’t request were the most painful and probably made the best episodes . . . because we were actually living the pain.
What was the most painful movie to get through and make an ‘MST3K’ episode from?
‘The Un- . . . ‘ something. ‘The Unearthly’? I think maybe that was the title. It was this black and white, boring, awful movie. That and . . . ’The Melting Man’?
‘The Incredible Melting Man’?
Yes! Thank you. I couldn’t remember if he was incredible, or amazing, or colossal. That one is so bleak! By the time we get to the end where he’s melting to nothing next to a garbage can, I thought, “Yes, that’s how I feel right now. I feel that uplifted.”
You and the rest of the cast met and came together because you were all stand-ups in Minneapolis. Is that right?
Yeah, in the ‘80s anyone could do stand-up. It wasn’t hard to get into. I only did it a couple of years, and then ‘Mystery Science’ took off and that really met all of my creative needs. So I didn’t really go out on the road much after that. But Frank still does stand-up.
You not only voiced Crow, you were his puppeteer also. Had you done much puppeteering before that?
I’d done a little bit. I’d done some puppets in school but never as intently as we did on the show. Joel developed the puppets’ first versions, and then we worked together to add some stuff to them as the show went on. Each puppeteer took their puppet and made it their own. We’d do our own maintenance and stuff. It’s like when the army gives you a gun, and that’s your gun. You name it. You maintain it.
Am I right that the cast was responsible for the sets or at least the look of the sets on the Satellite of Love?
The initial sets, Joel and I built, and then Jeff Maynard and Patrick Brantseg came on board and they kind of took it to another level. Their talent and professionalism was unsurpassed. The idea for the look of the set was [the 1972 science fiction movie] ‘Silent Running’ — the bio-pods from that movie and even the idea of a guy marooned in space with two robots — that’s what happened to Bruce Dern in the film. Also, we all liked to make stuff, so it was fun for us. I’d always wanted to make a spaceship for a movie and I got to do that [for 1996’s big-screen feature ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie’].
Do you riff at home and maybe drive friends and family crazy because the instinct is so ingrained and second nature that you can’t help yourself?
Well, it’s not called riffing anymore. It’s called complaining . . . and my wife doesn’t really appreciate it all that much.
If you could give the ‘MST3K’ treatment to any movie, and licensing wasn’t a concern, what would it be?
I don’t really have one, but Josh [Weinstein, who played Dr. Forrester's sidekick, Dr. Erherdt, during the show's first season] always cites ‘Life Is Beautiful.’
The Italian Oscar-winning Roberto Benigni holocaust drama comedy?
That’s the one. And I’d never seen it before so I decided to watch it, and you know what? He was right! I was stunned! It’s terrible, and there’s so much to make fun of. I do like bad movies. I have a fondness for them, and right now I’m finding that I love Netflix because they’ve got so many bad movies for streaming. Netflix right now is sort of like that bad VHS store every neighborhood used to have. You’ve watched all the good stuff so you find yourself going through the back catalog of a lot of people’s so-called careers. In fact I just watched ‘Solar Crises.’ It’s an early ‘90s forgotten sci-fi movie. And it’s kind of epic. It stars Charlton Heston, Tim Matheson, Jack Palance . . . and it’s stunningly bad. The special effects are awesome, but the movie . . . it’s got a great pedigree. But my poodle has a great pedigree and it still craps everywhere. . . . I actually don’t have a poodle. I lie. I lie for the joke.