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frankconniff-01.jpg

-by Ken Plume

Though he’s worked as a writer in Hollywood for the past 12 years, those outside of the business that know the name Frank Conniff probably know him for a gig that lasted five far-too-brief seasons on a cow town puppet show called Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Even though he was one of the show’s exclusive group of core writers, fans of the show know him as the loveable henchkick to Trace Beaulieu’s Dr. Clayton Forrester, TV’s Frank.

Since leaving the show after its 6th season and moving west, Frank has been a writer/producer on shows including Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Invader Zim, and The Drew Carey Show.

He’s recently launched a brand new creation entitled Cartoon Dump - think of it as a sort of dumpster diving heir to Captain Kangaroo - which is presented by hostess Compost Brite (Erica Doering), who’s surrounded by a colorful menagerie of characters… One of those characters being Moodsy the Owl, played by Frank. During the show, an awful animated short from cartoon historian Jerry Beck’s extensive library of the worst cartoons ever made is also presented. Performed live in LA every month, Cartoon Dump is available as a podcast from CartoonBrewFilms.com, and be sure to visit their MySpace page at myspace.com/cartoondump while you’re at it.

Now, however, here’s my in-depth chat with Mr. Frank Conniff…

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frankconniff-02.jpgKP: You’re a New York City native, right?

CONNIFF: Yes, I was born and raised in Manhattan.

KP: Would you say that, even at that point, there was a creative inclination, or an inclination towards performance?

CONNIFF: Yeah. Absolutely. For performance, it was just to be in show business - probably from as long back as I can remember, from watching the Ed Sullivan Show. I was staying up late and watching Johnny Carson at a very early age and, you know, I just love comedians and I love television, so I was very inclined. And I was, you know, considered funny by certain people…. Certain misguided people. And so the idea that I could be a comedian - or the idea also that I could be a comedy writer… the minute I knew that that was a job description, I think I always thought, “Oh, I really wanna do that.”

KP: What was it like growing up in Manhattan during that period of the 60s?

CONNIFF: Well, it was very interesting, and I think I might have had kind of a troubled childhood, but at least it was a troubled childhood in New York. Being in Manhattan and growing up in New York was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the positives of my childhood.

KP: I’m assuming - even more so than someone who might have grown up in the Midwest or somewhere outside the northeast or the west coast - that showbusiness, as an entity, must have seemed much more attainable since so much of it originated from New York.

CONNIFF: Well yeah, that’s true, and also my father was a newspaper man, and had a newspaper column in the Journal American newspaper in New York, and he wrote mostly about politics. He wrote about sports, also, and moved in show business circles, as well. He was friends with Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers, and he knew Ed Sullivan very well, ’cause Ed Sullivan was also a newspaper columnist. So I was very privy… I didn’t get to meet those people, but I was very aware of that world from a very early age.

KP: Where there any encounters that you do remember having?

CONNIFF: Um, not a lot. Every now and then my father would take me to Toots Shor’s, which is where a lot of show business people hung out. I was very young, and I don’t remember specifically meeting those people, but I was very aware of who they were and I was very aware that my father knew them.

KP: During that period, growing up, could you name a single person that, to you, represented show business or what you wanted to do?

CONNIFF: Well that’s hard to say. I mean from as long as I can remember, I guess Woody Allen was always my favorite comedian, you know, from when I was a kid, and I also loved Jonathan Winters and Bill Cosby. But I don’t know. I guess, in a way, Johnny Carson was kind of the passageway into that world - just watching him every night. And also what had a huge impact on me was watching the Mike Douglas show every afternoon. That was a very showbusiness oriented show. So I think those two things, and then everything else, had a big impact on me.

KP: Would these sort of creative instincts ever play themselves out at home or at school? You touched on having some troubles in childhood…

CONNIFF: Well, that has more to do with just my family situation that I had. My father got very ill when I was very young, and my mother also had medical problems. And so we ended up not being a very normal household. It ended up being kind of a chaotic, turbulent existence in many ways. So that’s why I say a troubled childhood.

KP: And were you the only child?

CONNIFF: No, I have three brothers and a sister.

KP: And have any of them pursued a creative career?

CONNIFF: Yes, my brother Tony, my oldest brother, he’s a musician in New York. He plays the bass and he writes music and produces records and works with a lot of different musical artists, and he teaches. My other brother Mike works at a newspaper in Aspen now, and he spent a long time involved with computers, but he started in journalism and he’s recently gone back to journalism. And he’s always written and stuff. Our father was a writer, and we grew up very, very much immersed in newspapers and magazines and writers and literature, to an extent. It was just very prevalent in our household growing up.

KP: I mean, if you were to choose what appealed to you more, would it be the creative aspects or the performance aspects?

CONNIFF: I don’t know. I think I always… I think my main ambition was always to write for television, but I also harbored ambitions to be a comedian as well. But I’ve spent most of my career - I mean, I perform a lot, but I’ve made my living as a writer for almost my entire career. I’ve made a living in show business as a writer. I did make a living as a stand-up comedian in Minneapolis in the late 80s up until when I was on Mystery Science Theater, but other than that, my income always came from writing. And I’ve continued to perform all this time - I perform at a lot of coffee houses and book stores and art galleries in Los Angeles, but I really do it out of a love of it. It hasn’t been really a big source of income for me at all. I love doing it, but I also love being a writer, and being a writer has been my livelihood. You know, being a TV comedy writer has been my livelihood for almost 20 years now.

KP: And it seems the bulk of your jobs - and you can tell me if this is mischaracterizing - it seems like you’re often brought in as something of a fix-it man on a lot of projects…

CONNIFF: Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I mean, I’ve had a couple of jobs like that, which are called consulting jobs, but what that means is usually that you’re not there full time. Like, I was a consultant on The Drew Carey Show, and that was just because I only came in two days a week - a lot of the staff is like that. So I don’t know if I’d call myself a fix-it man. I know that I am good at pitching jokes, and punching up scripts I think I’m very good at, but to say that I fix it could be too grandiose.

KP: So would you say you’re a good tweaker?

CONNIFF: I’m a very good tweaker, and I’m good at if a scene needs a funnier line or something, or needs a funnier exit line. I’m good at stuff like that, but I also like to think that I also have skills at storytelling and character development too, you know?

KP: Was there any point that you could have considered a different career path?

CONNIFF: Um, you know what? Absolutely not.

KP: (laughs)

CONNIFF: For better or worse, this is the only thing I’m good at, you know? So I never really, at any point in my life, ever considered anything else.

KP: Was there ever any pressure to go down a different path?

CONNIFF: I don’t think there was, because I was always just kind of a space case, and not really good at anything. Nobody ever really thought to consider that I’d be capable of anything, you know?

KP: So, you’d say you never really got on people’s radar?

CONNIFF: Yeah, well, that whole fallback position that you mentioned - that it’s a very sensible thing to have - I don’t really have. It’s either show business or work at Arby’s, and I wasn’t even very good at that, so that’s the situation.

KP: (laughs) How would you describe your high school period? Was there any sort of direction then?

CONNIFF: In those years, I really went down a very misguided path. I became, like, a total stoner, and was just kind of a hippie stoner loser kind of a guy, and I didn’t even have the ambition to be a comedian and stuff. That kinda fell by the wayside for awhile. I got involved with drugs and stuff, and I took a really bad detour there for a while. You know that - miraculously, and I’m very grateful that - I came out of that. And once I sobered up and stopped taking drugs and stopped drinking, then I was really able to really pursue my path in life.

KP: Well when you look at that sort of mid-seventies period when you were in high school, where were you culturally at that point? Were you pretty much in synch with where everyone else was in your peer group, or did you see yourself and your influences differently?

CONNIFF: In my peer group. I think I was in synch with my peer group, but that’s like a really pathetic thing to be in synch with my peer group… Those kids, you don’t really want to be in synch with. But, you know, I was very into music and I played in a band. I played drums in a band…

KP: I didn’t know that. How long did you do that?

CONNIFF: When I was in high school I was a drummer. Our band never got any gigs or anything, but it was an excuse to get high…

KP: So was it a garage band or a basement band?

CONNIFF: To call it a garage band is to give it an elegance that it didn’t really have, but it was like your basic garage band…

KP: What type of music was it?

CONNIFF: Oh, you know, we played, like, just bad rock. We did covers of stuff and, um… I mean, it’s so long ago it’s all a blur to me, but the point of it is just that I was playing music and stuff, but I wasn’t really disciplined about it - like the way my older brother was, who really pursued it and was disciplined and actually got a career out of it. Having a career as a musician entails incredible discipline, and I just didn’t have the focus for that, ’cause I was too screwed up back then. So like I said, it was like a big detour.

KP: Have you ever played an instrument since?

CONNIFF: Not really, although I’ve written a lot of songs in my day. At Mystery Science Theater, I wrote a lot of songs, and I’ve written a lot of the lyrics for songs. I’ve written songs that I’ve done in my stand-up act, and I’ve written songs for Cartoon Dump, and I’m writing songs for this other project that I’ve written on. And I actually am in ASCAP as a result of the various things that I’ve written for TV shows through the years. I wrote the words for a couple of songs that were on Sabrina Teenage Witch. I’ve kinda developed, mostly as kind of a dilettante, a songwriting thing, but I haven’t played an instrument.

KP: What kind of inspiration will strike you when it comes to a musical piece? Is it through lyrics or is it through the music - or is it a combination?

frankconniff-03.jpgCONNIFF: No, I’ll come up with lyrical ideas. Like for Cartoon Dump, I wrote a bunch of songs for it and then I hooked up with this guy, Brad Kay, who wrote the music. On Mystery Science Theater, we’d come up with sketch ideas and say, “Hey, this should be a song.” Like the song “If Chauffeurs Ruled the World”, I specifically remember the idea for that song was Joel (Hodgson)’s idea. He actually came up with the title “If Chauffeurs Ruled the World”. and I think he came up with the line, “Everyone would take a back seat to me.” But then I actually wrote the words to the song. And then Mike wrote the music to it, you know? From my memory, Mike (Nelson) would always do the music, and sometimes he’d do the words, sometimes Kevin (Murphy) would do the words. Sometimes Joel would and sometimes I would. So we all kinda contributed in that way.

KP: Were there any other major ones that you remember besides “Chauffeur” that just kinda came?

CONNIFF: I think I wrote the “Pants” song. The tribute to pants. And I wrote a few others, but it’s all a blur to me. I can’t, um… oh, I wrote the janitor song, too. Which I don’t know if you remember…

KP: Oh yeah, definitely…

CONNIFF: I think it’s usually credited in the credits, the person who wrote the lyrics, I think, is usually credited, so if people want to know who wrote which song, I think they can just check the credits on the show.

KP: When you look back at that high school period, did you have any plan whatsoever after exiting high school?

CONNIFF: Um, yeah, as a matter of fact - my plan was so good that I exited it before I graduated.

KP: (laughs) Now that’s a go-get attitude.

CONNIFF: Yeah, exactly.

KP: (laughs) So, was that a difficult decision to make?

CONNIFF: Well, it was a stupid decision to make.

KP: (laughs)

CONNIFF: You know, there wasn’t any Hamlet like thing involved in it, it was just being an idiot, and not really taking care of myself, you know? So that’s how I describe that.

KP: So when you find yourself having exited high school - and I’m assuming the bulk of your peer group is still in high school…

CONNIFF: Mm-hmm.

KP: What do you do then?

CONNIFF: Well, then I went to a high school in Long Island, and my mother, after my father… my father died when I was 14, right before I went into high school. And my mother moved us out of Manhattan to Southampton, which is where her family was from. So I went to high school there. And after I left I kinda came into the city, into Manhattan, with the idea of writing and becoming a comedian. But it took me a long time to really get my focus and get my shit together to where I finally was able to do that. And I wasn’t even… you know, I did do stand-up comedy in New York and stuff. I did open mic. But I really didn’t pursue it in any consistent kind of way until I was sent to drug rehab treatment in Minneapolis, and then I got out, and then I stayed in Minneapolis and then I started doing comedy in Minneapolis and that’s when my life got a lot better and I was really able to start living the life I always should have been living. You know?

KP: Now was this the late 70s, early 80s, or…

CONNIFF: No, no. Well, the early 80s was in New York, but I didn’t get to Minneapolis ’til, like, ‘85… In my late 20s.

KP: What led them to send you to a facility that far away?

CONNIFF: Minneapolis, or Minnesota, is actually very well known for its drug rehab community. And I think it was just recommended that I be sent there, and it turned out it was a good idea.

KP: I’m assuming these were quite serious circumstances to be presented with that option. Or was it not an option? Was it, “Well, you have very few choices…

CONNIFF: Yeah I was presented with just like, “You know, this is what you need to do,” and I had reached a point where I was willing to do it.

KP: And was this an institutional recommendation or…

CONNIFF: My family did an intervention on me. And they had a professional drug rehab person do the intervention with them. And on her recommendation they had this intervention and they sent me to Minnesota.

KP: From a performance and a writing perspective, how would you describe yourself during that New York period in stand-up?

CONNIFF: Well, I mean, I think I did some pretty funny things back then, and the people who saw me always remembered. As a matter of fact, Rich Jeni, god rest his soul, who just tragically died, I knew him in New York in the early 80s, when he was an open mic act, and I met him at this club in Brook, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, called Pip’s, which is like the first ever comedy club. And he was very encouraging to me back then. And then, you know, I drifted into my thing, and in the meantime he became a great comedian and he ended up years later… I didn’t see him for years, he ended up headlining in Minneapolis and I was his opening act. And this was like, you know, seven years or so after I’d last seen him. And he totally remembered everything about my standup act from back then, and he was very complimentary about it. The point is, even though I didn’t really have my shit together back then, I know that I did do some funny things on stage, but I didn’t have the focus then to really develop my act until I’d hit bottom, and then I ended up going to Minneapolis and then just kinda started all over again.

KP: How much of a culture shock was it, making that transition to Minneapolis?

CONNIFF: I don’t think it was a huge culture shock. The Midwest is very different from New York City. It’s not nearly as ethnically diverse and all that, but it wasn’t that much of a culture shock, though, because Minneapolis - and the Twin Cities - is such a great place to be and people there are really smart and, you know, it’s not like I was deprived in any cultural way by being there. On the contrary. Like, I met all these great creative people there, and it was just a wonderful place to be at that time in my life.

KP: And it certainly was a sort of golden age for the comedy scene.

frankconniff-04.jpgCONNIFF: Yeah, it was an incredible scene back then, and that’s where I met Joel and I met Mike and I met Bridget (Nelson) and I met Trace and I met Josh (Weinstein) and we all used to hang out. We all knew each other in the clubs back then, and that whole period in my life, in the late 80s - even before I got on Mystery Science Theater - just that time in Minneapolis doing comedy… and I wasn’t really making any money, I was like practically broke most of the time. But, in my mind, that’s like a golden era to me. That’s one of the great periods in my life.

KP: So were you mainly based in Minneapolis, or did you go on the road as well?

CONNIFF: Well, I was based in Minneapolis, and I did go on the road, but it was all in the Midwest - Iowa and North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin. I would do these one-nighters with other comedians on these little circuits for very little money, but it was a really valuable experience. Although sometimes the shows didn’t go that well…

KP: What would you describe as “not going well”?

CONNIFF: Well, you know, you do these one-nighters and sometimes there’d be really drunk audiences, and not going well is, to put it as simply as possible, bombing…

KP: (laughs)

CONNIFF: People not laughing would be the description of that.

KP: And how would you handle bombing? What would be your mechanism for dealing with that?

CONNIFF: I don’t know, I just… just walk off the stage in utter shame.

KP: Were you the type to blame yourself or blame the audience?

CONNIFF: Well, I would… you know, I mean, if the audience is really drunk and they’re heckling you and they’re noisy and they can’t hear anything you’re saying, then you can’t really blame yourself. It’s not a question of blaming yourself - it’s a question of, like in any gig you do, “Well, which jokes work and which didn’t work?” And the jokes that don’t work you drop and the jokes that work you keep in the act. So that’s just the constant learning curve of being a comedian.

KP: And how would you describe your type of comedy? Was it character, was it situational, was it largely improv…

CONNIFF: Through the years, I’ve kind of gone through different phases. But I think I’ve always been essentially a very silly, shtick based comedian. Silliness has always been the high priority to me. I think I’m a frustrated Burlesque comic, is what it comes down to. Although I do very modern kinds of things, there’s a part of me that’s just a lowdown Burlesque guy. If I ever considered myself a really good Burlesque comedian, that would be something well worth aspiring to as far as I’m concerned.

KP: So you’re like a postmodern Burlesque comedian.

CONNIFF: Well, I wouldn’t say that. Once you say postmodern, there’s an element of pretentiousness, so I don’t wanna say that. But I would just say I’m just a guy who really likes to be silly and goofy on stage.

KP: And, at your tightest, how long would you say your act would’ve run?

CONNIFF: I didn’t really headline that much at all, ever. I was more a middle act, which in those days was like a 30 minute act. There was the opening act, which is 15 minutes, and the middle act would be 30 minutes, then the headliner would be 45 minutes to an hour. And I never rose above middle act.

KP: And were you comfortable as a middle act, or did you aspire to headline?

CONNIFF: It is a comfortable position, because it’s kinda the best time in the show. You’re getting the audience before they have a chance to get tired or before they’re being asked to pay their bills and stuff. But I did aspire to headline, but I always had in my mind that I was gonna end up making a living as a TV comedy writer, and miraculously that happened in a way that I could never have predicted, when I got hired to be on Mystery Science Theater in Minneapolis in 1990. I was a middle act as a comedian then, but once I got on Mystery Science Theater, any ambition that I might have had to become a headliner and tour and play clubs all over the country kind of fell by the wayside, and I’m like, “Well, now I’m really where I want to be.” Like, I’m on a TV show and I’m writing for it and I’m on the show. I still continued to do stand-up comedy, but I think from then on stand-up comedy was always just a creative outlet for me, as opposed to a lifetime career plan. My career goals were being met beyond my expectations once I got on Mystery Science Theater.

KP: How archetypal now is that job you held at Arby’s?

CONNIFF: (laughs) I don’t know. I used to talk about it in my stand-up act a lot, and then I think we referenced it on Mystery Science Theater. I think my character on the show, if I remember right, we mentioned that he worked at Arby’s. And that, unfortunately, was very autobiographical.

KP: Was it merely just a means to make your bill payments and such?

CONNIFF: Yeah. I think when I started doing stand-up in Minneapolis, I was in a halfway house after I got out of rehab, and part of the thing at the halfway house is you had to get a job while you were there. So I went out and saw what was available, and White Castle turned me down but Arby’s hired me.

KP: Did White Castle give a reason?

CONNIFF: (laughs) They just decided to go in a different direction.

KP: They had hired Tom Arnold they week before.

CONNIFF: Right, right. So I had that job at Arby’s, and then at night I was doing stand-up comedy, so that was like a job I had to take. And like I said, I didn’t have any skill to go and work in an office or to work at a computer. I didn’t even type that fast. As a matter of fact, I didn’t learn to type until I joined Mystery Science Theater and management there very kindly bought me a computer program called Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing

KP: I remember it quite well. (laughs)

CONNIFF: Yeah. So That’s where I learned to type, was on the job at Mystery Science Theater.

KP: So you became good friends with the home row.

CONNIFF: Yeah, exactly!

KP: I’m kinda curious… Coming out of rehab during that period, was there ever any concern, with your counselor saying, “You know, maybe the stand-up scene, and what goes on in that, might not be the best atmosphere to stick around in…”?

CONNIFF: There was a concern on my part about it, because I was really worried about being around alcohol which, of course, all comedy clubs have. Although when I first started in Minneapolis there was a club called the Ha Ha Club that was nonalcoholic, just a theater. I started there, but I knew that the Comedy Gallery was really the place to get work and stuff. So it took me a couple months, but I finally decided it’s just very important to me to pursue this, so I’m going to risk it. And then it turned out once I got into the clubs and stuff, the temptation to drink, very fortunately for me, never became an issue.

KP: And as far as when you would go out on the road, did you do it in groups or did you mostly do it alone?

CONNIFF: Yeah, we would always be, like, three comedians. - the headliner, the middle, and the opening act. And I didn’t drive, either…

KP: A true New Yorker. (laughs)

CONNIFF: Yeah. I didn’t learn to drive ’til I moved out to L.A. So it’d always be the three comedians in the car going out on the road.

KP: So who would be the comedians you’d go out with the most?

CONNIFF: I don’t know. It was different. There were headliners… there was a guy named Bill Bauer who was a really funny comedian, and he’d get gigs as a headliner and he’d take me along as his middle. And that would happen to me with Lizz Winstead a lot, who’s basically my oldest friend in stand-up comedy. And Lizz Winstead actually…

KP: Creator of The Daily Show

CONNIFF: Yes. And she actually, literally, discovered me because she saw me on an open mic in Minneapolis. She was headlining at the club that week and she said, “Oh, how would you like to be in my show this weekend?” And that was the first time I ever did a comedy thing that wasn’t an open mic. That was my first real gig. So she would take me on the road with her sometimes and stuff. And then you’d just work with whoever… you know, these comics from out of town. They’d be on the road and they’d be booked and you’d be booked with them, so you’d just meet them when you hooked up to get in the car to go to the gig. That would be when you’d meet them.

KP: So how accurate are the numerous after-the-fact portraits of the horrible comedy condos and road horrors and so forth… (laughs)

CONNIFF: Well, as far as the comedy condos go, I don’t know that much about them. For me personally, as someone who just lived a very financially marginal existence, for me it was always a treat when I’d be on the road and I’d be in a Super 8 Motel room and they’d have cable. That would be like… I would feel like I was living like a king. That was like my favorite part - besides doing the show, if the show went well - but I just loved being in the hotel room and watching cable. That was like a total… it felt like luxury to me. I don’t have those kind of horror stories… I mean, there were a couple of bad places and they’d put you up at crappy accommodations and stuff. But usually, if you put me in a Motel 6 or a Super 8, I was in heaven.

KP: Anything with a “Free HBO” sign.

CONNIFF: Yeah, absolutely.

KP: So who was the first of the sort of MST group that you met? And what were the circumstances?

frankconniff-05.jpgCONNIFF: It was I guess probably… I think I met Bridget. And I may be wrong about this, but I think I met Bridget before I met anyone, and I became friends with her. And I remember - and this was a long time ago so I don’t know if I have all this right - but I met her and then Mike came along. And I think Mike and Bridget met at one of my open mics. I think I might have been there, like, the first time they ever actually met. And so I knew them and I knew Josh. It was all around the same time. I knew Josh. And I knew Joel… I met him a couple times but, you know, I knew him mainly more from reputation, because he was already kind of on another level back then in terms of… he didn’t come down to the open mic because he was writing a TV special with Jerry Seinfeld. He was in our circle, in a way, because he was a great guy and he was very humble and he hung out with everybody, but he wasn’t in our little group at that point. And at one point I was kind of the open mic tsar of Minneapolis. I ran two or three open mics, and so when Mike and Bridget came along, I thought they were really funny, so I always encouraged them and I always gave them really good spots on the open mics. And I did favor them along with the other comedians who I liked. I remember there was resentment from other open mic acts about that.

KP: How would that express itself?

CONNIFF: I don’t know exactly. That’s what happens in comedy - there would be little rivalries and resentments and stuff. And I definitely always gave Mike a good spot in the show. I always gave Bridget a good show. This other guy, Russ Rogers, who was a good friend of Mike’s from college, I always gave him good spots. In my whole career in show business, in a way, that was the most power I ever wielded. When I ran open mics in Minneapolis - and I did have my favorites - we’d do the shows and we’d hang out and stuff. We were like a clique. Like I said, those were really fun times.

KP: Would you associate with anyone outside of the show night?

CONNIFF: Yeah, yeah. We would do a show… you know, we would perform, and we’d always go out afterwards. We’d get something to eat or we’d go and just sit around. And we would have a great time. I think that, partly because of my encouragement of them, and also because of their encouragement of me… like we really encouraged each other - me and Mike and Bridget, at a time when you need all the encouragement you can get. Because you’re not really getting a lot of it from any established authority figures, so we really were very supportive… All of the comedians that we all hung around with back then, we were all very supportive of each other.

KP: There was no group enemy that you fought against? (laughs)

CONNIFF: Well, we had those, but we were on one side and our enemies were on the other side.

KP: So it was very much a mutual support group.

CONNIFF: I think so. I mean, that’s how I remember it. We all were fans of each other. We all thought each other were really funny. And then I know that, when the opportunity came up - when there was an opening at Mystery Science Theater - I know that my name came up right away, and Mike and Joel both knew me and they were the ones… and Trace knew me too. Trace was around back then, too, in the stand-up scene.

KP: What was your initial impression of Trace?

CONNIFF: Oh, I just thought he was hilarious. He was very kind of, like, introspective, not gregarious, but yet very easy to be around - like an easy guy to hang out with and very unpretentious, as he’s always been. And he just really made me laugh, too.

KP: So what was the first inkling you got that they were doing this project called Mystery Science Theater? Were you aware of the KTMA shows?

CONNIFF: Yeah, I’d heard about it. I didn’t really watch it. I don’t remember watching it on KTMA, but I had heard about it. And then Mike went onto the Comedy Channel. Mike got hired for that, for a season on the Comedy Channel, and I remember being really happy about that. In the first season, I remember going over to Mike and Bridget’s apartment and they played me a tape of one of the episodes, and they fast forwarded to the parts that were references to people that we knew. There were just a couple jokes that were in there that only I and maybe two other people would have gotten, and they fast-forwarded and showed me that, and it was, of course, so incredibly delightful to hear that and I just laughed so hard, you know?

KP: So what was your initial impression of the show itself when you finally saw it?

CONNIFF: Yeah, I thought it was really funny. It was totally up my alley, and I liked it a lot.

KP: So when did you first get the call that they wanted to bring you in, and how was it presented to you?

CONNIFF: Well, I actually remember very specifically that I was on the road and I was in, I think… I know I was in North Dakota. I’m not sure which town. Maybe Bismarck, but I’m not sure. And I was in my hotel room, and I got a call from Mike. Maybe he left a message on my machine at my apartment in Minneapolis. And then I remember talking to him in the hotel room and him telling me that the show got picked up for a second season and that they were looking to hire someone and that they had pretty much decided that I was the guy. And I remember that specifically because, I have to say, that that moment was one of the most exciting moments in my whole career. That was a moment of just being on the road doing stand-up comedy and then being told on the phone that I was getting this great opportunity. It was just a really… I’ve had only two or three moments like that since then.

KP: So what was the initial presentation, as to, “This is what we’re bringing you in for…”?

CONNIFF: Well, I was brought in as a writer. That’s what I was officially hired for. I don’t know if those other guys told you this already, but the first month on the job for that second season was just everybody building the set. That was literally the first thing… that was the first job before we could do any writing, was just building the new set for the show.

KP: That’s got to be an odd feeling to come in as a writer, and your first job is to build a set.

CONNIFF: Yeah, I mean, it was… there was nothing… nothing about it seemed weird, because I just knew that this was the kind of way they did things. But the thing, (laughs) about it that was weird is that I… of course, out of everyone, I was the most incompetent at that job. All these other guys that grew up in the Midwest, they grew up with fathers who had garages with tools and stuff, and they all had some kind of natural inclination towards that kind of thing. The only power tool in my father’s house was his martini shaker, so I was just completely out of my element. Although they were really nice about it and they helped me out. But that was probably the only moment on the show that I ever felt like, “God, I’m really not carrying my weight here,” was when we were building the set, because I was pretty bad at it.

KP: Do you remember specific areas you worked on?

CONNIFF: I don’t know. I remember Mike and I had to go get wood one time and we came back with green treated wood and it was the wrong kind of wood. I remember Joel looking at me and going, “We sent a boy to do a man’s job.”

KP: (laughs)

CONNIFF: So just stuff like that, where I would just try to do what I was told and I would try to hammer things, but I just had no talent for it whatsoever. And that was the only moment that I was ever on the show where I was thinking, “God, maybe they’re just gonna decide that I’m not cut out for this.” Once we finished the set and once we were in the writing room, then everything was fine.

KP: So what was that feeling like, if you recall, being in the writing room for the first time, knowing that this was your job?

CONNIFF: Well, it was just a great feeling, and it just felt very comfortable right from the start. It was just really fun right from the start. It was really a case of, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.” And back then the pay was incredibly low, but it didn’t matter because it was just really fun. I was just waiting for someone to come along and say, “You can’t make your living doing this. We can’t allow this to happen. Something this great can’t happen to you.” You know, and be taken away.

KP: Yes, they were gonna show up at the door and say, “Mr. Conniff you have to come with us.”

CONNIFF: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

KP: “Everyone else can play but you, you’re coming with us.”

CONNIFF: Yeah. But I think all of us kinda felt the same way, though, like we felt so blessed to have this job.

KP: Do you recall what your first quip was in the room?

CONNIFF: You know what? I really don’t. I remember my first movie was Rocket Ship XM, but honestly, that I don’t remember.

KP: Do you recall it being easy getting into the groove of doing that?

CONNIFF: Yeah, it was, because everyone was like.. You know, I think Joel created this feeling in the room that it wasn’t a high pressure thing. It was really… I think Joel has this attitude that the more fun you have, the better the end product is gonna be.

KP: Right.

CONNIFF: And so that was how it was. And actually, that first year, the writing room was just Joel, Trace, Mike, and myself. Most of the time. Because Kevin was still spending a lot of time editing. I think the writing staff officially was Joel, Mike, me, Trace, Kevin, and Jim. But Jim and Kevin were always really busy with all the other stuff they had to do, so Kevin wasn’t in the writing room as much as he would have liked. But once the next season came and then we had the budget to hire another editor, then Kevin was in the writing room all the time.

KP: So when was it presented to you that it would not just be a writing job, but also a performing job?

frankconniff-06.jpgCONNIFF: That came up pretty quickly. I knew that I was officially replacing Josh as a writer, and I think the general idea is that I was gonna replace him as a performer as well, but it wasn’t a forgone conclusion when I started. I knew that when I was hired, I was being hired as a writer, and I didn’t just take it for granted that I was gonna be on the show. But pretty quickly, once we got around to that - I don’t remember there being any discussion or anything about it - I think it just kind of happened.

KP: Were there any sense or anything related to you about what had prompted Josh’s departure from the show?

CONNIFF: Not that I can remember. He moved out to LA and I think he… Josh was just in a different place at that point, and had other ambitions. He was 16 or 18 years older, something like that. That was my understanding of it.

KP: But you never got a sense of anything beyond that.

CONNIFF: No. I mean, not really. No.

KP: As far as the atmosphere during that second season, did you get a sense of any of the conflicts that were brewing and would arise in later seasons?

CONNIFF: No, not that first year I was there. It seemed like we were all there just having fun.

KP: When TV’s Frank came to the fore, what was that dynamic like the first time being on camera?

CONNIFF: I think, because it was with Trace, it was just always… it was just a very comfortable thing that felt right, and just working with Trace, being part of that team with Trace, was just so great right from the start. I don’t remember feeling a lot of nervousness about it or anything, because he and I just really, as performers and as those characters, we just really clicked with each other. It was totally, totally on the same page as to the kind of vibe we were trying to go for and what we were trying to achieve in those segments.

KP: When you talked about your stand-up sort of being Burlesque, you two were an incredible double act…

CONNIFF: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, and that was… the great thing about that is we were really… not to compare myself to Abbott & Costello or Laurel & Hardy, not for a moment to say that I’m on that level as Three Stooges, but that was exactly the style of performing that Trace and I were doing. In that tradition.

KP: Well, I think you’re underselling your performance. (laughs)

CONNIFF: Well, thank you.

KP: How quickly into the job did the responsibility of choosing the films come in?

CONNIFF: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t remember if that was the next season or the season after that. I don’t remember exactly when that came about, but that just was another thing, too. I don’t think there was a lot of discussion about it or a lot of thought into it. I think that when the day came, they decided, “Well, we should give someone the specific task of looking at the movies before we look at them.” I think it was just a matter of that, just like it seems like it would be the practical thing to do, and it would streamline the process. And then the job was given to me for whatever reason, but I was very willing to do it.

KP: Who was doing that prior to that?

CONNIFF: I think prior to that we just would all look at the movies. You know, we’d get a bunch, and we’d either during lunch, or we’d take some time out, and we’d just pop the videotapes in while we were eating, or whatever, and we’d watch a few minutes. It was usually pretty apparent pretty early in a movie whether it might be a possibility or whether it was absolutely we weren’t gonna do it. So we would watch a few minutes of each movie, and it was pretty much a group thing from what I remember. And then just one day, I think maybe because, as the show grew, maybe there wasn’t as much time for Joel or for Trace or for Kevin or Mike, who were gaining other responsibilities, for them to have the time to just sit down with everyone and watch. I think it was decided that someone should have that job, and then I think I was just the one that didn’t have a lot else on my plate like those other guys did.

KP: Did you ever regret having to look at all that?

CONNIFF: No, no. I always enjoyed that. On the days when I did that, that was my job - was just to come in and watch TV all day. So how could you not like that?

KP: Is there anything you regret never being able to do, either through rights issues or other problems? I know that’s an odd sort of regret. (laughs)

CONNIFF: Yeah. I do know that sometimes I would recommend things and then the other guys wouldn’t sign off on it. And the one specific movie I remember that I really wanted to do and nobody else wanted to do was Bela Lugosi Meets the Brooklyn Gorilla, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with that movie, but it stars Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, who were a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis clone rip-off act. It was, like, Sammy Petrillo, who was a total Jerry Lewis rip-off, and Duke Mitchell’s a total Dean Martin rip-off. And I really wanted to do that one, but I was, (laughs) I was overruled.

KP: Who was the most vehement one overruling it?

CONNIFF: Oh, that I don’t remember. I think, for one thing, because it was a comedy. We didn’t like doing comedies.

KP: The only one you ever wound up doing was Catalina Caper, wasn’t it?

CONNIFF: Yeah. I think there might have been one or two others, but that’s the one that jumps out as being a comedy that we did. So I think that was the main reason. And plus, you know, the other guys on the staff were not as enamored as I was of watching a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis rip-off act - which for me was something very exciting, but nobody else really shared that excitement.

KP: And I guess there were other films that you later regretted choosing - the largest one being, what, Radar Secret Service?

CONNIFF: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know if I remember that as a big regret. I think it was just because it ended up being… I remember that when we first screened it, and I think that was from the era before I looked at it first. I think that was one I remember we all looked at once, and we were all riffing like crazy on it and having a great time and thought this would be so great. And then I think what happened was we couldn’t get the rights to it. And then a couple years later we did get the rights to it. And it was like, “All right, we can do Radar Secret Service!” and then it was as tedious as any other movie to do. But I don’t remember that as standing out as being a big regret as compared to other movies.

KP: So at what point did MST become a full time job for you?

CONNIFF: Well, it became a full time job right away, although I didn’t make enough money from it in the first year to really make a living, so I had to continue taking gigs as a stand-up comedian to supplement my income.

KP: But you did quit fast-food, though.

CONNIFF: Yeah. I actually had quit fast food several years before that, because even though I made a very meager living as a stand-up comedian, I did make a living as a stand-up comedian.

KP: That threshold was crossed…

CONNIFF: Yeah, so the minute my stand-up comedy income matched my Arby’s income, then I was a professional stand-up comedian. That is something I was really grateful for when it happened. You know, when I was just making an incredibly meager living as a stand-up comedian, I was just so thrilled that I was making even any kind of living at it, you know?

KP: Did you ever worry, during those early times, that you’d have to go back to it? Or that type of job?

CONNIFF: Um, no. I didn’t worry back then… I worry now, but…

KP: (laughs) I’m sure they’d love to have you. You’re one of their MVPs.

CONNIFF: No, actually, I think I did worry about it. From the moment that I first made a living in stand-up comedy and made a living in show business, I think I’ve always felt so grateful and so lucky to be making a living doing this, that there’s always stuff here in the back of my head that it’ll all be taken away at some point. But luckily I’ve been very blessed for 20 years now, so it hasn’t happened yet.

KP: I’m sure they’d be happy to have you back.

CONNIFF: Right.

KP: (laughs) You’re their most famous alumni.

CONNIFF: Oh, I doubt that, but at least I’d get free horsy sauce.

KP: At least.

CONNIFF: Right.

KP: Mozzarella sticks for at least the first week.

CONNIFF: (laughs) Right, right.

KP: Is there anything performance-wise, on camera, that you ever balked at doing?

CONNIFF: That I ever balked at doing?

KP: Yes. Or were not terribly comfortable doing…

CONNIFF: Um… I really don’t think so. If you look at the stuff I did…

KP: (laughs)

CONNIFF: … it’s like, what could I possibly have objected to doing? You know, after all the things I did?

KP: Well, the book (the MST Amazing Colossal Episode Guide) mentioned that you were not terribly comfortable in a dress. Or the thought of being in a dress.

CONNIFF: Yeah, that might have been the case, but I don’t think I raised any kind of big stink about it. Personally, I’ve never been afraid to look silly and ridiculous on camera or onstage.

KP: And certainly you had Trace right along there with you.

CONNIFF: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

KP: How easy or difficult were those filming days for you?

CONNIFF: They weren’t difficult for me. They were fun, really. I can’t remember anything difficult about it.

frankconniff-07.jpg

KP: At what point did the idea of pursuing the MST feature film enter the picture? Because that certainly was during your period there, that the idea of it came about.

CONNIFF: Yeah, that kind of came in, I think, maybe after the second season. I really don’t remember specifically. I know that it went back to when Joel was there. I remember Joel was involved in the talks about it and stuff like that. So I think it was discussed for a few years before they actually pitched it and sold it to Universal, which I guess was probably ‘94 or something like that.

KP: And during that early conception, what was your role in the film? I’m assuming that there are drafts, or at least ideas, that had TV’s Frank in it…

CONNIFF: Well, I mean, I was involved in a lot of discussions. The extent of my involvement with the film really boiled down to the fact that I worked on the live version of This Island Earth. We did it as a live show.

KP: That was during the first convention, wasn’t it?

CONNIFF: I think it was the second convention. I think the first convention we did World Without End was the movie.

KP: I think that was just the live show, wasn’t it? It was just the MST Alive

CONNIFF: Yeah, did we just do a live show?

KP: Yeah.

CONNIFF: I think we did a convention where we did This Island Earth.

KP: Yeah, because I think This Island Earth was the one that you did the dance in.

CONNIFF: Right, right. Yeah, that was the convention. So I was involved in the writing of that movie, but by the time it got to the screen, I think it had probably changed from then. I think there were still a few of my jokes in the movie, but those other guys definitely did all the heavy lifting as far as writing the movie and stuff.

KP: How many of the various attempts at pitching and developing outside shows for Best Brains were you involved in?

CONNIFF: Not any, I don’t think, because developing outside shows for Best Brains was not something that really happened that often while I was there. I think if they did go out and pitch other shows. I think that happened after I left. I don’t remember that being something that was any… I think the movie was always the big part of the agenda, and developing other shows did not come to the forefront until my last few months there, I think.

KP: So what was your perspective on the difficulties that led to Joel’s departure?

CONNIFF: I don’t know. It was a long time ago. I do know that there were conflicts between him and Jim Mallon, and I think they were getting to a point where they were having a hard time working together. So I think that came at a time when I think Joel was ready to move on anyway, and he had other things, other projects, he wanted to work on and he was ready to go back to L.A. But I think that Joel, when he did leave the show, I think that that, in a way, saved the show, because if he had just held his ground and if he and Jim had continued their conflict, it might have made the whole company fall apart. But Joel was willing to say, “Okay, I’m gonna just go and move on and do other things.” That resolved the situation.

KP: Well, Joel did mention when I spoke with him about the fact that he did feel that if he had stayed, he knew it would have torn the show apart.

CONNIFF: Yeah, yeah, it was a bad… it was just one of those things that happened where these conflicts between two people who run a company… I remember we were worried at the time when the conflict was going on that is this gonna end the company, you know, but I think Joel’s decision to just go to L.A. and move on really saved the company.

KP: Did any of that conflict affect you in any way, as far as first hand, or was it all just blowback of concern?

CONNIFF: No, I don’t think it affected… it just was… you know, I was sorry to see Joel go. I think we all were. But I think things kinda calmed down, and then Mike took over and that worked really well, too, so then I think we just were kind of able to get back into a groove.

KP: How different was the dynamic after Joel left?

CONNIFF: In what sense?

KP: I’ve heard various stories of Jim interjecting himself in the writing room at various points.

CONNIFF: I think he did that, but he didn’t do that a lot. I don’t think he did it to a point where it really affected the creativity of the show, because obviously the show was still good.

KP: I have heard the concept of the umbilicus cited as a point of contention.

CONNIFF: I remember there was the umbilicus and we did it, and I think the thing about the umbilicus is it just really didn’t catch on. It didn’t become one of the great icons of the show. But, you know, it was an element that we added, for better or worse.

KP: So when did you start to feel an inkling that you wanted to move on, and what prompted that?

frankconniff-08.jpgCONNIFF: I don’t know if anything specifically prompted it, but I had been at the show for five years and I was just restless, as I tend to get sometimes in my life, and I was just kind of wanted to try something different. As great as it was there. So I just kind of knew that I was gonna make that move at some point, so I just chose a moment to make it and I told everybody in advance. So I felt like it was all handled very professionally and I left on very amicable terms. So I feel like I did it at the right time, because it just all kinda happened. There were no bad feelings, at least on my part, about it. And it seemed like it worked out pretty well.

KP: What was the reaction everyone had when you told them?

CONNIFF: You know, I think, on the one hand, they were sorry to see me go, but on the other hand, I think they understood where I was coming from and they were very supportive of it.

KP: Who had the most extreme sort reaction - sort of, “You can’t do that, please don’t do that…” kind of reaction?

CONNIFF: Nobody. (laughs)

KP: (laughs)

CONNIFF: Nobody really said, “Oh my god, you can’t do this, it’ll ruin the show!”

KP: So no one locked you in a room and just cried in front of you?

CONNIFF: Yeah, and just said, “Please don’t do this.”

KP: If they had, do you think you would have stayed, or do you think your mind was made?

CONNIFF: Oh, I don’t know. That’s such a hypothetical thing.

KP: Of course it is. And if you had super powers at the time, would you… (laughs)

CONNIFF: Right! It’s such an alternate universe kind of concept, but I think that the show… you know, Joel left the show and the show still thrived, and it’s like the show itself was bigger than any one element on the show. And that’s part of the strength of it.

KP: How sentimental were you towards the show and, obviously, the character that you had created?

CONNIFF: Well, I think I was very sentimental then, and I’m still very sentimental about it. That’s never left me.

KP: Was it a decision, at any time in that period after you had made it, that you felt you could have reversed, or that you regretted?

CONNIFF: I don’t know if I could have reversed it. Although, when I came out to LA in my first year, I kind of - as I frequently do in my life - I did it in not the smartest way, in the sense that the amount of money that I had saved up to live on while I was out in L.A. looking for work was, I thought, a substantial amount of money…

KP: So it was substantial if you’d have stayed in the Midwest…

CONNIFF: Yes, exactly. So that my first year in L.A., there was financial stress about, “Oh my god, I had a steady job and now I don’t have a job, and I’m running out of money.” So I did have moments like that. But, as it turned out, I came out to L.A. at a very… it’s like the mid 80s when I started doing comedy in Minneapolis, which was like the boom time for stand-up comedy, and then when I came out to L.A. in the mid 90s that was the boom time for comedy on television.

KP: Sitcoms were all over the place.

CONNIFF: Yeah, and at a certain point, everybody I knew had a writing job. When I got hired to be on Sabrina, everyone else that I knew also had a writing job on a TV show. There was a lot of work, so it was a very fortuitous time for me to come to L.A. - because when I got there, I was very frightened about it, but I didn’t realize at the time that it was actually the best time to go there in terms of there being plenty of opportunities.

KP: So was Sabrina your first job in L.A.?

CONNIFF: No. I had a couple of jobs before. I did this Elvira TV special, this one-time thing, and I wrote an episode of a show on HBO called Perversions of Science. The episode I wrote never was filmed or aired, but I did get paid for writing the script.

KP: Always a good thing. (laughs)

CONNIFF: Yeah, and I wrote a script for Disney TV Animation, a thing that was supposed to be for home video called Twisted Fairy Tales, and I wrote a Three Little Pigs script. The premise was the Three Little Pigs done in the style of the real world, and that was an animated thing that I did. So I did those things before I got the staff job on Sabrina.

KP: How much of a calling card did you find MST to be?

CONNIFF: You know what? It was not a completely effective calling card in Los Angeles. Not as good as say… as far… and I’m just talking, like, from an agent’s point of view…it wasn’t as great a calling card as, say, writing a friend’s spec script. Like, that would be considered a better calling card.

KP: Did you do that at any point? (laughs)

CONNIFF: No, I didn’t, because once again I’m stubborn and I try to do things my own way. But the thing that MST really did open doors for me was in the alternative comedy scene in Los Angeles. When I first moved out here, as far as I was concerned I was retired from stand-up comedy. You know, I was just gonna make my living as a writer. Then I saw there was this great scene out here of great places to do comedy that weren’t comedy clubs, and that were much more fun than comedy clubs. I started performing at these clubs, like Largo and bookstores and stuff - you know, all these alternative comedy rooms. Because of Mystery Science Theater, that door opened wide for me. I got booked in all these rooms. It wasn’t a thing where I made money, but I got to perform and meet all these people. That’s another time that I look at my life - even though I just told you it was kind of stressful financially - but when I first moved out to L.A. and I was going out every night to all these rooms and doing stand-up comedy and meeting all these people, that was another time that I look back on and it’s just a really great period in my life.

KP: Did you get a sense of just how much of a fan base you had and an appreciation for the show?

CONNIFF: It’s just the fact that I had done it. I got booked into rooms that a lot of other comedians - and equally worthy comedians, I might add - were having a hard time getting booked into.

KP: So it gave you a cool cache.

CONNIFF: Yeah, exactly, exactly. I was kind of accepted into that circle very quickly and I made a lot of really great friends with a lot of other L.A. comedians at the time, who are still my friends. So that was a really great thing.

KP: How many people would ask you to push the button?

CONNIFF: (laughs)

KP: (laughs)

CONNIFF: Not many.

KP: (laughs)

CONNIFF: They were geeky, but not that geeky.

KP: (laughs) Would it have been an awkward moment if they had?

CONNIFF: Um, no. You know, the thing is, and I actually… I saw Joel last week. We had breakfast and we were talking about that when we’re approached by fans, it’s almost never an awkward moment. People are always really nice and they always seem very respectful… they’re very cognizant that they don’t want to bother you, they just want to tell you how much they like the show. So it’s always really great when someone comes up. And that’s the nature, also, of cult fame as opposed to fame-fame, where cult fame - I can say from experience - is not only the best kind of fame you can have, it’s really the only kind of fame that you should have, because you get approached by people every now and then. It’s never intrusive. It’s not like you can’t go places without getting mobbed. It’s just every now and then someone comes up to you and says something really nice.

KP: So no one’s taking your picture at dinner…

CONNIFF: Not that I know of, but if they do that, it’s no big deal because it’s not like it happens every day. It happens once a month or something.

KP: So it’s not some onerous burden to bear.

CONNIFF: Yeah, it never is. And Mystery Science Theater fans - and I think the other guys would agree with me about this - they’re just always really pleasant and really nice people. It’s always just delightful when they tell you how much they like the show.

KP: When you went into a staff job on a network show like Sabrina, creatively how different was that from MST?

CONNIFF: Well, creatively it was a lot different. A show like Mystery Science Theater, you know, my sensibilities were very similar to everyone else’s sensibility in the room. We were all very much on the same page. And on a sitcom, there’s this other level of agendas going on from the network and all that stuff, and from the studio. So it’s a different vibe. Although I have to say that the Sabrina experience, while different from Mystery Science Theater, was also mostly a very fun, really happy thing to do.

KP: And, in a weird way, reuniting you with Joel…

CONNIFF: Yeah, ’cause Joel… well, Joel helped me get the job in the first place, because he was the writing partner of Nell Scovell, who ran the show. She’s the one who ultimately hired me, so Nell is the one who I really owe a lot to in terms of her hiring me for that show. But yeah, Joel was around too. And Nick Bakay was on the writing staff, who had worked at the Comedy Channel and was friends with Joel. Nick was someone that we, at Mystery Science Theater, would always talk about as someone we thought was really funny, and Joel would talk about things he did that were hilarious. So then for me to be in a writing room with Nick Bakay was just so much fun, and he made me laugh so hard, it was just great.

KP: And I’d say, if there was any breakout star that Sabrina produced, it would have been him.

CONNIFF: Well, as the cat.

KP: Yeah. (laughs)

CONNIFF: But also Paul Feig was on the show that first year too…

KP: As the science teacher.

CONNIFF: I just ran into him at Joel’s party, and he’s like one of the nicest guys ever. And he went on to create Freaks and Geeks and now he directs movies and stuff…

KP: And he’s just a good guy, to boot.

CONNIFF: Yeah, he’s become a star in his own right, and that’s like a really wonderful thing to see.

KP: So what led to your on-camera appearance on Sabrina? Was that sort of a surprise?

frankconniff-09.jpgCONNIFF: It was a surprise to me, but that was just… it was another thing where, just in the writing room, we were developing this idea, and I think Nell just turned to me one day and said, “You know you’re playing the baby, right?”

KP: (laughs)

CONNIFF: I mean, I think it was literally presented to me that way. And I’m like, “Okay, fine.” And that’s another instance of where there’s nothing too silly or ridiculous for me to do on screen. And actually, when we filmed that episode, some friends of mine came to the set because it was my 40th birthday. So on my 40th birthday I was sitting in a crib on a set wearing a onesy.

KP: You should have felt younger than you’d ever been.

CONNIFF: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So that’s just the nature of my career.

KP: It could have been worse. You could have been in a onesy at home on your 40th birthday.

CONNIFF: Right. Well, that we won’t go into…

KP: (laughs)

CONNIFF: But yeah, so that was a surprise, but that was another great thing - and I still get checks for that, so that’s another good thing about it.

KP: So what was the reason for your departure from Sabrina?

CONNIFF: Well, Sabrina went through two show runners while I was there. Nell left after the first season, and then I had to get kinda hired all over again for the second season. Then I was there through the fourth season, and then the show went to the WB and they brought in another show runner, and I think that person just hired all new people, or mostly new people. That was a case, too, where I was ready to move on and do other things, but I would have had to have left anyway, I think.

KP: Now, was that around the same time that Joel was developing Statical Planets?

CONNIFF: I think Statical Planets was more like in the first or second year of Sabrina. The first year of Sabrina, I think, is when he was doing Statical Planets. It was around ‘95 or ‘96, I believe.

KP: Which you would have had quite a pivotal role in.

CONNIFF: Yeah. I barely remember anything about it, ’cause it was so long ago, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it since then.

KP: I’m sure you must have loved the idea of having an entire army of you.

CONNIFF: I know, how can you not love that?

KP: (laughs) This was also around the same period as Invader ZIM, wasn’t it?

CONNIFF: Right, right. Yeah, right after I left Sabrina, I got hired to work on Invader ZIM.

KP: Now, that was a show that was certainly filled with a bit more conflict, wasn’t it?

CONNIFF: I don’t know. I think there was conflict between Jhonen Vasquez and Nickelodeon, although I wasn’t privy to a lot of that. I was just there for, like, six episodes. I was hired to be the head writer, and I think the thinking on the part of Nickelodeon was, “We’ll bring in an experienced comedy writer guy.” But Jhonen, I think, had just a very singular vision for that show. They didn’t really need me there that much. Although I was there the whole time. I was employed there. But my point is is that, you know, any contribution I made to that show was minimal compared to the contribution of Jhonen, who is brilliant, I think - and the show is really great, but it’s all because of him and because of the artists and the animators and the designers there who, I think, did amazing work on that show, and I can only count my contribution to it as very small compared to all the great stuff that Jhonen and all those other people did.

KP: So when did Drew Carey come into the picture?

CONNIFF: Well, that came after I was done on Invader ZIM. On The Drew Carey Show, the show runner that year was Holly Hester, who had been a show runner on Sabrina and was a really good friend of mine. She brought me in as a consultant, and I was just there the year that she was the show runner there. So that was a really good job, because it was like two days a week, and there was a lot of real talent on that staff, too. A lot of really funny people that were fun to be around.

KP: And then I guess after that was O2Be

CONNIFF: O2Be was a show Lizz Winstead and Brian Unger created on the Oxygen Channel. That was a blast to work on. We did six episodes of that and I have to say it was just… the fact that it didn’t get picked up for more episodes - and it was a very well-received show, it got really good reviews - that was kind of a heartbreaker when that didn’t get picked up, because that was a great experience. That was similar to Mystery Science Theater in the sense that it was a really fun experience with all like-minded people, all my friends. Everyone else who worked on it was already my friend, you know, and I got to be on that show, too.

KP: So what do you think led to its lack of pickup?

CONNIFF: Well, I think if you look at the cable TV landscape - what it was becoming then, and has become since - I think that satirical comedy is just not at the forefront. It’s more reality shows or shows in terms of comedy shows that are much broader, you know?

KP: Right.

CONNIFF: Of course, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report being a huge exception to that… Being like the two beacons of great, intelligent, high level comedy.

KP: Almost the exception that proves the rule.

CONNIFF: Right, right. So that just isn’t the direction that cable - not just the Oxygen network but cable TV in general - has gone. I mean, we premiered on the Oxygen Channel the same night as a show called Girls Behaving Badly premiered, which is just a show of people playing pranks.

KP: Well, that’s a nice one-two…

CONNIFF: I’ve never really seen it, so I’m not saying that it’s bad or anything like that, but I’m just saying that that show went on to have a long run and was very successful for Oxygen. But that’s just a much broader kind of thing, where it’s just hidden camera playing pranks on people, whereas O2Be - which was a very satirical show - the people at Oxygen, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t their cup of tea.

KP: Wrong network, wrong time?

CONNIFF: Yeah, I guess so. But all of us who worked on it look back on it as just something we really treasure a lot.

KP: So how did Tom Green come about then?

CONNIFF: That was just something I got sent out on by my agent. They were looking for people, and the guy who was the head writer, Gabe Abelson, is just a really funny, really nice guy. I had never met him before, but the material that I submitted to him he liked and he hired me. That was a very fun experience. It was very chaotic and we worked under kinda crazy conditions, but I enjoyed it.

KP: Was this also around the same time that you did Dark Star?

frankconniff-111.jpgCONNIFF: I guess so. Dark Star… when you say, “The time I did Dark Star,” you mean the last ten years?

KP: Yeah, (laughs). They just keep bringing you back in for that, don’t they?

CONNIFF: Yeah. Every year or two, I get called in to do a voiceover or something.

KP: So it’s the wine of projects for you.

CONNIFF: Yeah, exactly. (laughs) “We’ll serve no Dark Star before it’s time.” So yeah, that one I’ve just been… that’s been an on and off thing forever.

KP: And literally is probably about as close as people will come to a reunion of MST.

CONNIFF: I guess. You never know, but we’ll see.

KP: How do you view even the thought of… I mean, could you ever perceive of a reunion, creatively?

CONNIFF: I could see it happening in terms of people involved in the show wanting to do it again. I don’t know where it would go on the air now. I don’t know what network would put on a two hour show like that. It’s just a completely basic cable or television world than what it was like 17 or 18 or 19 years ago when the show first went on the air. It’s just completely different now, so I can totally see everyone wanting to do it and everyone being excited about doing a reunion, I just don’t know which network would pick it up in this day and age. I could be completely wrong about that. Maybe there’s people - executives or whatever -who would love to do it. I know that, because of the DVDs, it’s still very popular and stuff.

KP: Well, you would think a network that sort of caters to things like that and has a lot of disposable income, like a G4…

CONNIFF: G4, yeah… although, you know something like G4 is so into what their demographic is, in getting like young males, or whatever, between the ages of 16 and 24. Like, are they really gonna want to put on a show that has a lot of Adlai Stevenson references?

KP: (laughs) You never know until you try.

CONNIFF: Yeah…

KP: Well, Mike, Kevin, and Bill are pursuing the direct-to-video route…

CONNIFF: Yeah, that seems to be working for them…

KP: And Mike obviously has RiffTrax…

CONNIFF: Yeah. So maybe someone at some point would want to do a direct-to-video Mystery Science Theater, but I don’t know if that would work economically. I mean, you’re asking the wrong guy about stuff like that.

KP: Would you still be comfortable on camera, reprising the role?

CONNIFF: Yeah, well, my new show that I’m doing now, Cartoon Dump, I’m on camera on that. I’m still as big a ham as I’ve always been.

frankconniff-10.jpg

KP: (laughs) Could you see working with the guys, in general? Could you see and enjoy doing stuff with Trace again, and Joel, and so on?

CONNIFF: Yeah, well, I actually am kind of in the process of doing something with Joel again right now, because we’re doing Cartoon Dump as a live show on the last Tuesday of every month at the Steve Allen theater. Joel has agreed to build a puppet for the show, so in that sense Joel and I are gonna be working on that together.

KP: So how do you describe Cartoon Dump?

CONNIFF: Cartoon Dump is like a take-off on a low-budget kids’ show from the 60s. But it takes place in a garbage dump, and the cartoons that are shown on it are really awful cartoons. It’s on CartoonBrewFilms.com

KP: It’s also subscribable via iTunes isn’t it?

CONNIFF: I think so, yeah. I think you can pay for it to download it. But it’ll be available to watch for free on that site, and then people can post it wherever they want. So hopefully it’ll be all over the web.

KP: And this is a co-creation of yours and Jerry Beck’s?

CONNIFF: Well, I created it, but it began as Jerry Beck and I having discussions, and he does this show - Worst Cartoons Ever - that he just did at the Comic-Con and that he’s done for years, so we were just trying to figure out a way to turn that into a show, and then I came up with this idea.

KP: Was it always intended to be both a podcast and a live show?

CONNIFF: Yeah, yeah, right from the start. Well, actually we were just gonna do it as a podcast, and then Jerry inquired at the Steve Allen Theater if we could film it there, and the people at the Steve Allen Theater said, “Yeah, you can film it here, but only if you do a live show as well. So that would be our payment, you doing a live show, and our cut of the door.” So we ended up filming six episodes in the daytime and then doing the live show at night, which was an absolutely crazy, insane thing to do. But it ended up working out really well, the live show went really well, and the podcasts are gonna turn out good, too. So far, it’s working out.

KP: How does it feel to be working in the realm of new technology? And new paradigms for distribution?

CONNIFF: Well, I’m, like, so not savvy about that kind of stuff. I’ve always been very incompetent when it comes to technology. I can still barely log on and check my email.

KP: (laughs) Would you rather log on or use power tools?

CONNIFF: You see, now you’re already going over my head. But I do love the internet though, and I’ve actually come to the conclusion that the internet might be the one thing that will save our democracy at this point…

KP: There’s gotta be something.

CONNIFF: Yeah, because the media is just controlled by three companies now, and the only thing that’s really bumping up against that is the internet, where anybody can put anything on. That’s a great thing. That’s the only media going on right now that isn’t controlled by one of just a few corporations. Even though I’m so not technologically savvy, I am very much a big fan of what the internet represents and what it is and what it hopefully will continue to become.

KP: Have you found your mind turning more and more towards creating concepts for that model of distribution?

CONNIFF: Well, the thing about it is, if you want to do a really independent project - which is what Cartoon Dump is - then you kinda have to do it for the internet. It’s an outlet for independent programming and just people using their creativity in the way they want to. But my bread and butter these days is still the stuff that I do for television. I’m currently writing a pilot for Nickelodeon. So stuff like that is still how I make my living, but I’m kind of investing in my own creativity now in doing stuff like Cartoon Dump, and I hope I get the opportunity to continue to do stuff like that while I continue to also work for the man - which, believe me, I’m still doing.

KP: (laughs) Well, anytime that you’re able to get back in front of things is always good.

CONNIFF: Yeah… Thanks. Thanks.

KP: So, at this point, are there any plans to eventually release a Cartoon Dump DVD collection?

CONNIFF: Oh, well that… I think we’ve got to wait until it gets out there and see what the reaction is.

KP: Oh, the internet, if nothing, iss about reckless abandon. Why wait?

CONNIFF: (laughs) Right. Well, as far as Cartoon Dump goes, we’re gonna just see what happens, and then we’re open to anything. I mean, wherever it might lead us.

KP: Could you have perceived, 20 years ago, that you’d be in this position?

CONNIFF: Well, I didn’t even know… I hadn’t even heard of the internet back then, so I doubt it. I didn’t even hear of the internet until a few weeks ago.

KP: Finally, someone told you.

CONNIFF: Yeah, exactly.

KP: So, at this point, would you say that you’re pretty happy with where you are and what you’re doing?

CONNIFF: Yeah, in general. You know, I mean, I feel very blessed. I’ve managed to work steadily for a long time now, and I’m very grateful for that. It’s a real blessing. And I’ve always managed to get work and make a living doing this. I’m very grateful for that, and I’m in a place right now where I’m just very excited about certain projects and what the future holds. I feel like I’m in a very creatively fertile time right now.

KP: So, you’re saying that Arby’s can wait a bit longer for you.

CONNIFF: Um, yeah. (laughs) Although, you know, with all the alternate forms of programming, I might be doing a show that’s broadcast on the Arby’s microwave.

KP: Or they may sponsor Cartoon Dump.

CONNIFF: Right, exactly.

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Comments:

4 Responses to “Interview: Frank Conniff”

  1. Joseph Marcincuk Says:

    I went to high school with Frank Conniff and my only regret is not saving his stories from Creative Writing class in 1974. His story “Soft-On” had the baseball team in stitches back then, even if his handwritten dittoes were a little hard to read.

  2. Torgo Says:

    Easily the best and most in-depth interview with any of the MST3K bunch I’ve ever read. Never dreamed Frank Conniff was a recovered drug addict. Pretty broad-minded of Hodgson and Mallon to have hired him in the first place, and he was one of the best things about the show!

  3. The Curse of the Working Classes: Joe Don Baker is Mitchell! (1975) | She Blogged By Night Says:

    [...] a film that was all silence, either. Frank Conniff talks a bit about how MST3K chose their films here and here. They avoided comedies, usually, and films with particularly offensive content, and looked [...]

  4. The “Writers” of MST3K | hauntedtorgo Says:

    [...] http://asitecalledfred.com/2007/09/18/interview-frank-conniff/ Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogleLike this:Like Loading… « Previous post [...]

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