For the uninitiated, riffing—in the comedic sense—is a type of observational comedy. You see something funny and then point it out in some sarcastic manner.
The cult of riffing on crappy movies is a strange yet lovely thing to watch. For Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu, it’s the perfect mash-up of career and hobby. Their decades-long careers in the field began with the ever-popular ’90s cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000—a popular choice among college kids and film geeks alike.
Along with their other comedically talented MST3K cast members, Conniff and Beaulieu would spend 90 minutes watching the most cringe-worthy B-movies they could find, simultaneously riffing on them. Conniff and Beaulieu played the villainous duo of Dr. Clayton Forrester (Beaulieu) and TV’s Frank (Conniff).
As the mad scientists—“mads” for short—of Gizmonic Institute, Frank and Trace would force Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson), a janitor trapped against his will on a spaceship called the Satellite of Love to watch crappy B-Movies as part of their plot to take over the world. Think A Clockwork Orange’s brainwashing scene, but with a lot less eye-clamps and morbid imagery and many more robots and Ed Wood.
After Conniff left the show toward the end of season 6, and Beaulieu after season 7, the duo continued to work together collaborating on podcasts and live appearances. When 2007 rolled around, bringing with it Joel Hodgson’s new Cinematic Titanic, Conniff and Beaulieu once again got to do their thing, this time live and on stage touring around the nation.
As Conniff put it, “The only thing more fun than doing Mystery Science Theater movie riffs is doing movie riffs live in front of an audience. You actually get to hear the laughter and we just basically got addicted to that.”
When the Titanic crew split up in 2013, Conniff and Beaulieu didn’t feel like stopping at that juncture. After being invited to do a gig in North Carolina, Conniff had the idea of inviting Beaulieu along for the ride to pick up where they'd left off in 2013. Since starting The Mads Are Back Tour in late 2015, Conniff and Beaulieu have been sighted popping up in cities from coast to coast, and this week they're in Jacksonville.
Their touring show is of the same complexion and strain as MST3K and Cinematic Titanic, Conniff and Beaulieu pick a few movies to screen at each location and begin the process of writing the script for their performance—leaving some room for improvisation.
As Conniff and Beaulieu pointed out, they live in two different parts of the country, so the creative process usually happens individually until they're able to get back together and make the show.
“We work with a script but I think we’re a little looser with it than we were with Cinematic Titanic and MST3K,” said Conniff. “Over the course of performing a movie live, a lot spontaneous moments can happen … and that’s kind of part of the fun of it.”
However, apart from actually performing and feeding their addiction to laughter, the two creatives say that experiencing each individual city’s film culture is one of their favorite parts of touring.
“It’s … very encouraging how many people out there that we meet, people a lot younger than us—that’s most people in the world actually— … are just really into film,” said Conniff. “They just love movies, are film buffs, and it’s great to see how film culture is really alive and well in the United States.”
And that’s really the point to what Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu are doing. It’s kind of like picking on your brother or sister. They don’t hang around and poke fun at movies because they hate them—they do it out of a deep and appreciative love for film.
The Mads Are Back, the live show 7 p.m. Sept 29 & 30, films screen 9:15 p.m. Sun_Ray Cinema, 1028 Park St., 5 Points, 359-0049, sunraycinema.com, $30/one night, $50/both, meet-and-greet before and after. Get your tickets early.