You Can Say Stuff With a Puppet You Can’t in Person: Trace Beaulieu in Orlando, Florida, 2004

Editor’s Note: The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 5 (1997-1999) was released by Rhino on 9 March 2004.

I had my first chance to meet Trace Beaulieu — the man who gave the evil Dr. Forrester his scowl and Crow T. Robot his voice during Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s KTMA and Comedy Central years — at an offbeat conference at a Sheraton hotel in sunny Orlando, Florida. The conference assembled puppeteers as well as professional and amateur mascots from Florida and from as far away as Great Britain and the West Coast of the U.S. Also in attendance were sundry sci-fi and fantasy aficionados and MST3k buffs like myself — who in many cases had gone hundreds of miles to meet one of the creators of one of the best TV shows ever to grace the air.

Having been an MST3k fan for more than a decade, I couldn’t help having high expectations of Mr. Beaulieu. Even so, he didn’t disappoint. At all times gracious, self-deprecating, and funny, Mr. Beaulieu gave freely of his time and attention the whole weekend. In fact, he seemed one among the fans, standing and sitting alongside them, often as puzzled and intrigued by the MST3k phenomenon as they were.

Mr. Beaulieu spent Friday, the first day of MP3, sitting in an audience of a few dozen in the Sheraton’s Hollywood Ballroom as the convention’s in-house talent did stand-up routines and improvs. It was Saturday before he took the stage, for a mock-up game of Hollywood Squares — where, amazingly, one of the contestants fumbled when he asked the un-mustachioed Mr. Beaulieu a question for the center square.

“I’m sorry,” the contestant said, “I have no idea who the guy in the middle is.”

The audience shifted and groaned, embarrassed at the contestant unable to make the Guest of Honor. But Mr. Beaulieu deftly dissipated the awkward moment, adopting a faux look of confusion and quipping, “You mean this isn’t the bus to Universal [Studios]?” It would later crystallize that this is vintage Trace: unflappable, modest in an easygoing way that makes it hard to take him by surprise.

Later in the afternoon, he sat down for about two hours of Q&A, fielding various queries about MST3k, his current gig at America’s Funniest Home Videos, and what the future holds. Those who didn’t already know learned his favorite mistied movie (Manos, naturally), his least favorite movie (Sidehackers, notorious for a grueling murder scene that was cut from the mistied version), and the best-made movie MST3k ever did (the award-winning, and yet still not actually that good, Marooned).

For most of the shots in Deep 13, Dr. F.’s moustache was real, he admitted. And the conference’s most scandalous revelation? He liked playing Crow T. Robot more than Dr. F. — because, he said, “You can say stuff with a puppet you can’t in person.”

Although it was cancelled several years ago and recently left the airwaves, MST3k still stokes enthusiasm and fascination for its many enduring fans. Part of the reason for this is probably the show’s six-decade-long library of fetid movies and its often-obscure pop-culture allusions. MST3k taps into a more sophisticated language than do shows of lesser scope — those that revolve around the exploits aboard a cruise ship, say, or a group of friends in a Manhattan apartment. MST3k‘s history is our history. Its arcane references make it nearly as complicated as our lives are, and it harkens as far into our past as our grandparents’ childhood memories.

Near the end of the Q&A a fan asked Mr. Beaulieu if he had any advice for the next generation of writers and performers, those wanting to live as creatively as he is doing. His answer embodied the spirit of ingenuity, breadth, and humor that I always thought typified the eclectic TV show he helped to make. “Go to school, read movies, read books,” he said. “Be a person in the world.”

After the Q&A, Trace Beaulieu signed miscellaneous memorabilia, much of it a little quirky — such as an exact replica of Crow, or my notes for an MST3k-related writing project. Mr. Beaulieu’s signatures are generous — they’re typically accompanied by chubby caricatures of Crow that he spends some time on, always chatting affably with the fans as he scribbles away.

The Q&A was the most formal forum of the conference. The afternoon of the last day, Mr. Beaulieu mingled more casually in the common area, where he bandied observations with another group of fans. They offered up MST3k-related rumors and arcana — were Torgo’s knees really what made him a monster, or wasn’t it really more his thighs? — which he alternately verified and denied. And sometimes begged off, it being one of the mysterious laws of fandom that performers rarely recall as much about a show as those on the other side of the screen. I listened in for a while, but got spun off into a different conversation, as a high-school student with a souped-up laptop played the latest MPEG movie going around the ‘net, and another group of high-school and college-age kids looked on, making comments.

The movie borrows, convincingly, the sophisticated noir style of the Hollywood action blockbuster: in an alleyway, Batman battles H.R. Giger’s Alien and the monster from the movie Predator; rain splattering off the karate blows fires up the scene with kinetic energy. It has the look of a $50 million picture but was done on digital video by amateurs for only a few thousand bucks. The MPEG drew Trace Beaulieu’s attention back to our circle and he looked on. “Oh,” he said, “I’ve heard of this.” He and the guy with the laptop started speculating about what it took to make the scene: how much work might have gone into the costumes, whether it was shot on a soundstage, whether the rain was fake. It was the afterglow of television history, unfolding right in front of me: here was the man who had given Crow his voice so many years before, talking back to the movies once again.

But this wasn’t about making jokes. Instead, the circle of spectators around the laptop was figuring out how people who aren’t millionaires can still use the movie camera to express themselves, what tools are needed to speak in the language of the moving image. And this was a good theme for the whole convention, a place where everyone used the movies as their language. Earlier I talked with an EMT who moonlighted as a big, furry raccoon at children’s hospitals because he’s hooked on the way the kids’ faces light up when they see him, and an artist who dreamed up characters in the style of animated movies to tell her autobiography in pen and ink. Adopting the movie image, using it to do work, is what fandom is about. It’s also what MST3k has always been about: talking back, and in so doing making it your own.