Mary Jo Pehl on comedy writing, MST3K, and “Man Saved by Condiments” (a true story)


Mary Jo Pehl is on fire lately. A writer on Mystery Science Theater 3000 for seven years, she’s been touring with Cinematic Titanic, a live show employing the same comedic technique with the same cast, since 2007. She’s also got a new book out, called Employee of the Month and Other Big Deals, and Theatre Arlo is producing her play Man Saved by Condiments starring Tim Uren and directed by Bill Stiteler. I talked with Pehl about writing, being a female comic in a male-dominated business, and what’s coming up next.

What is the focus of your new book, Employee of the Month and Other Big Deals?

One of the things I talk about in this book is how I wrote a book several years ago and it was just a disaster. I had such mortification, such shame about being in over my head and being delusional about what it entailed It was a bad match with the publisher. To give you an example, the publisher spelled my name wrong. When I asked him about it, he said, “Well, we fact checked it.” It was surreal on that level. It was not a good partnership. I was so seduced by the word book. I planned out a bunch of words and it was not very intentional…I was just writing. I’m so embarrassed to admit this: I thought 10,000 words would be like history of civilization, but it’s barely a pamphlet. There were lots of typos. I sent him the corrections, and he never made corrections. He wanted me to go on tour with it on a Greyhound bus.

What was that first book about?

It was called I Lived with my Parents and other Tales of Terror. It was several short stories revolving around the time of my life when I had to move back in with my parents for a few months. I’m not proud to admit it there was a lot of padding when I saw how pamphlet-sized it was.

Since that experience I did a mentorship with Barrie Jean Borich, who wrote My Lesbian Husband, and that really transformed my writing. I also had a gig with Minnesota Monthly where I had a monthly column. So my writing really grew and transformed. This new book is my do-over.

How did you start writing for MST 3000?

It was doing standup in the Twin Cities. I knew all those guys doing standup comedy. I had heard about the show through our circle; I didn’t have a TV at the time. I had no idea really what it was. They got picked up by Comedy Central…I approached Mike Nelson and asked if I could audition. They brought me in to write a show with them and forgot I was there on a trial basis. Nobody said yay or nay. I thanked them all for the opportunity. They kept me on for another writing session. It meant I didn’t have to do standup comedy on the road.

Did transitioning from standup to writing make you miss performing?

I did, but then when Cinematic Titanic came along—we started doing that in 2007—I forgot how much I missed performing. We love that connection with the audience. Yes, I did miss it. What I didn’t miss was playing to a crowd in a really small town where the main industry is hog butchering. People yell things at you because it was such an anomaly to see a woman on stage. With Cinematic Titanic, the whole show doesn’t rest on my shoulders…it’s such a much more fun way to do it. This endeavor is artist-owned and -operated and as a partner I have much more say on where we go. These communities actually welcome us.

What is it like being the only woman?

I’ve known these guys for so long that at this point I’m not sure if I have any perspective on what it’s like. We’re very comfortable together. The perception here and there is that I am the helper of the group. People will acknowledge them—the men—but will assume that I’m the secretary or the PR woman or some sort of ancillary role. I don’t have a high profile with a lot of people. I don’t like that it’s just assumed. I encounter that a lot. Sometimes if I’m brave I will read the discussion board or chat rooms. There’s an interesting assumption about what I do or don’t bring to the table with the group. For instance, people assume I make all the female jokes. It’s a really interesting thing: my male colleagues are just as likely to make lipstick jokes or purse jokes.

I suppose you got that even more as a female standup comedian?

Oh yeah. Women are considered a novelty act. Jackie Cashin—she is really amazing—she’ll get unplugged about it. She encounters the same thing. You can’t have two women on the bill. If you have two women you might as well have three.

Now you’re a playwright too. Have you been very involved in Theatre Arlo’s production of Man Saved by Condiments!?

I wrote it and they are taking it over. That’s mostly the nature of playwriting, You give birth to your baby and give it to someone else to raise. I don’t want to get in their way. Bill Stiteler has been wonderful. I keep in close touch with them about how the Kickstarter campaign is going. I’m aware of what’s going on but as far as what they are doing I’m not really very involved.

Are you working on any new writing?

I’m collaborating with an illustrator, working on a kids’ book. You know, you get a million ideas, it’s just a matter of executing them.