Inside My Head

the literary rantings of Angie Frissore

Pickin’ Brains: A Moment Inside the Head of Frank Conniff

I will never forget my older brother exposing me to the wonderful world of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in my younger days, and to this day I still credit him with my long-running addiction to the show’s utter hilarity.Like many fans of the show, I can think of nothing more thrilling than the possibility of sitting in that dark little theater on the Satellite of Love, alongside Joel or Mike and the ‘bots, laughing uncontrollably at the clever, little well-timed comments and jokes being made.

Fortunately for those of you lucky enough to be in certain geographic areas, you just may get that chance…or just about as close as you can come, as Cinematic Titanic sets sail on a raucous, cheese-filled, B-movie voyage through five major US cities this winter.

In honor of the event, which provides audiences from San Francisco to Boston the opportunity to experience the original cast of MST3K as they riff the best of the worst in film, I recently took advantage of the opportunity to have a virtual fire-side chat with Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Frank Conniff.

Lovingly known by many as TV’s Frank, Conniff took on the role of side-kick to the mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester in 1990, shortly after meeting Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and Bridget Jones while working the Minneapolis/Twin Cities comedy scene as a stand-up comic.Conniff naturally evolved into the role, adding his brand of burlesque comedy to the show both in his writing contributions and his performance.

But Conniff wasn’t just a pretty face.While he portrayed TV’s Frank for five years during the 1990s, he was also an integral part of the MST3K writing crew and was responsible for selecting the various bad movies 1showcased in the series.Tempted as one might be, in such a position, to seek revenge here and there with a particularly unsettling hunk of movie cheese, Conniff insists he never abused his power.

“Any passive-aggression on my part was probably subconscious,” Conniff explains.“I would just look for the films that would be appropriate for the show.There are millions of bad movies, but not every bad movie is really good to be riffed, for various reasons.”

Citing issues like the overuse of dialog, Conniff struggles to pinpoint the exact process of riff-worthy selection.He may not be able to describe it, but he certainly knows it when he sees it.

“Kind of like the Supreme Court’s definition on pornography,” he chimes.

Conniff was exposed to comedy at an early age, having spent his childhood in Manhattan during the 1960’s.Influenced by comedy legends such as the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Laurel & Hardy, and Abbott & Costello, the concept of making a living with comedy was not an outlandish idea.

“It was an intimidating idea, but it didn’t seem as out of ordinary as it would to someone growing up in a small town that was far away from that,” Conniff recalls.“I grew up in a family that was very tuned in to the media…My father was a journalist, and so the worlds of politics and show biz and the arts were kind of in the air and something I had a lot of exposure to.”

One of Conniff’s latest projects, Cartoon Dump, stems from some of his New York childhood influences; locally-produced, low budget cartoon shows hosted by live action characters such as Captain Jack McCarthy and Officer Joe Bolton.Together with noted animation historian Jerry Beck, Conniff created the live, theatrical show that was a take-off of those old local cartoon shows.Satirically geared towards a childhood audience, however, Cartoon Dump is not your average cartoon show.

“It’s that kind of show but much darker, with really emotionally disturbed characters and not appropriate for children at all,” Conniff details, “but it’s presented as a children’s show.”

frankconniff-101Cartoon Dump can be seen live, monthly at The Steve Allen Theater in Los Angeles, and Conniff and his team are currently in talks to potentially create a television pilot for the show.

“We did shows in New York last year, and doing it as a live show in other cities is a big goal of ours…one thing that would help that, I think, is if we end up doing it on TV.That will build up a bigger audience for it and…would make it more viable for us to do in different cities.”

While we outside of the general Los Angeles area must wait, patiently and hopefully, for Cartoon Dump to come to our hometowns, Conniff’s latest masterpiece is making a triumphant stop in Boston on February 20th and 21st.

Cinematic Titanic, which is probably the greatest concept for a live show – ever, brings the original cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 back together to do what they do best.Riff really, really bad movies.

Shortly after Joel Hodgson took in a performance of Cartoon Dump, he approached Conniff with the idea of getting the old cast back together again.The spark of genius that might have graced us with an MST3K reprisal, however, was quickly smothered and extinguished by Jim Mallon’s lack of interest in the project.

“Jim Mallon ultimately wasn’t interested in it,” Conniff explains,” and he went on and was more interested in doing these flash cartoons for the MST3K website…he just had no interest in it ultimately.”

Unwavering in his drive, Hodgson quickly came up with the idea for Cinematic Titanic, a project in which the crew invested their own funds and maintained ownership of the rights.The first Cinematic Titanic DVDs were released in late 2007, soon followed by a live performance at Industrial Light and Magic in San Francisco in February 2008.Before long, Conniff and crew were taking their project to Minneapolis, St. Louis and Chicago.

“We’re actually going on an official tour and have been working with this theatrical production company who’s producing and booking it,” Conniff states enthusiastically.“We’re doing five cities and then, hopefully if that goes well, we’re going to do more live shows, do more touring later in the year. It’s something we’re all very excited about.”

And we, the masses, are just as excited.

Conniff openly attributes a lot of his early successes to sheer luck, citing the opportunities he had while performing stand-up in Minneapolis as well as his upbringing in Manhattan.But what advice does he have for those of us who may not happen to be in the right place at the right time?news-mst3k-frank-conniff

“The best advice is to just write as much as you can,” Conniff encourages.“Write, write, write, write, write…really devote yourself to that, because…that’s how you learn how to do it, is the process of doing it.Develop some kind of community, some kind of creative community, of like-minded people…then you can kind of support each other.”

Conniff also suggests taking a class – not particularly to learn something new, but to take advantage of the structure a class offers in terms of deadlines and critical feedback.He also stresses the importance of getting your work out there.

“If you’re just in your apartment writing, and nobody ever sees what you’re writing, then nothing is gonna happen,” Conniff advises.“That’s the great thing about the internet…of course, a gazillion people are putting stuff up on the internet, so it’s not like if you put a video out that you’ll necessarily become, like, the ‘Leave Britney Alone’ guy, become a sensation.But other people will see it and you will get feedback, and it will go out into the world, and that is a very valuable thing.”

picture1 So to those of you whose friends refuse to watch movies with you anymore, those who still make sarcastic comments at the movie screen, and those of you who just love a good, belly-busting laugh fest, you don’t want to miss Conniff and the gang as Cinematic Titanic makes its way across five major cities in the next two months. I will certainly be anxiously waiting for the day when I can witness Conniff’s comedic genius live and in-person.


January 30, 2009 Posted by | Pickin' Brains | , , , | Leave a comment