Whatever happens at Voodoo Comedy Playhouse this weekend, it will definitely come as a surprise. “They like to keep it a secret,” says Voodoo head honcho Steve Wilder of the mockable movies on the menu for Friday and Saturday, when Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff, stars of TV’s iconic 1988-1999 Mystery Science Theater 3000 series, will return to Voodoo for a live movie riff – with a different feature film each night, along with selected shorts.
This duo is one of the many recombinations of the core personnel who crafted the highly successful MST3K. Wilder, who’s managed the club through its fifth anniversary, first contacted Conniff in March 2015 about bringing a variation on the theme to Voodoo. “When they brought the show here, it was the first time they’d ever done it that way," Wilder recalls. "The shows last year were uproarious, and they are really easy to work with. They had so much fun, they said they’d come back.”
The urge to mock films is as old as the dawn-of-sound sequence in Singin’ in the Rain, Woody Allen’s 1966 comic overdubWhat’s Up, Tiger Lily? and 1982’s It Came From Hollywood. Shows that riffed on TV — such as 1963’s Fractured Flickers, the L.A. Connection’s 1985 syndicated Mad Movies, and the following year’s The Canned Film Festival, as well as Denver’s famed High Street KFML-AM radio show, simulcast with KWGN’s Monday night movie during the early 1970s — exploited the same premise.
MST3K still holds up 25 years after its debut. Solid writing, memorable characters and strong host-segment sketches made it a perennial favorite with Saturday morning viewers. Beaulieu was the original portrayer of whimsical sidekick Crow T. Robot, as well as evil scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester. Conniff played his henchman, known as TV’s Frank. As “the Mads,” their double act still packs a punch.
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“I’m pretty sure the entire cast of MST3K got started doing standup comedy,” says Beaulieu from MST3K’s point of origin in Minnesota, which is still his home. “This was during the comedy boom of the '80s, when they let anybody on stage. We were working Holiday Inns, and you know, they’d just re-aim the heat lamp from the buffet toward a mike in the corner, and you were on. I stopped doing standup when Mystery Science Theater got started; I was getting my creative fix that way.”
From a spot on local station KTMA in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the show got picked up by the Comedy Channel and began its national run. The series wound up a dozen years later, after a brief sojourn at the Sci-Fi Channel. Since then, post-MST3K projects have included Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, as well as the usual array of individual efforts.
“I’m working on a web series called Vermin, where I play a scientist who works in a lab that’s full of rats, and the rats are puppets,” says Beaulieu. “Frank’s still doing standup, he’s on John Fugelsang’s program on Sirius XM; Paul (Paul Chaplin, another MST3Ker) has his ghost movie.... Hey, wait a minute, why the hell am I promoting these people?”
Beaulieu says he loves Voodoo, not the least because it’s near Biker Jim’s funky late-night hot dog emporium. Wilder sees clear advantages in being an established part of a rapidly developing downtown area.
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“This is really a neighborhood, one you can be part of,” he says. “There’s a ton of foot traffic now, and it’s nice to have a local population that participates in the nightlife.”
Now one of two Denver improv comedy clubs — along with the venerable Bovine Metropolis — Voodoo relies on improv performance and training as its bread and butter, but sketch shows and standup take place in its intimate confines as well. Other innovations are coming, including the experimental series Live Nude Improv in September, which “is going to change things. It’s going to push improv in a new direction,” Wilder promises.
Beaulieu is just happy to get out among the fans. “It’s such a great feeling,” he says. “We thought the crowd would just be a bunch of old folks, but there are young folks there, too. Funny is funny. For years and years, we never ventured out of the studio. We finally get to meet the people we’ve been entertaining for so long.”
Live Movie Riff with MST3K’s Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu will start at 9 p.m. Friday, July 29, and 8 p.m. Saturday, July 30, at Voodoo Comedy Playhouse, 1260 22nd Street. For tickets and information, visit voodoocomedy.com.