To be able to score another interview with one of the Cinematic Titanic crew after having the good fortune to interview Mary Jo Pehl was not something I had expected. But right after Pehl expressed interest, so did Frank Conniff. Conniff, another original MST3K cast member and writer, was best known as TV’s Frank on the show. After MST3K ended, Conniff diversified into various TV projects, including work on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and Invader Zim. In addition to his current involvement with Cinematic Titanic, he serves as host and performer for Cartoon Dump, a monthly show at Hollywood’s Steve Allen Theatre that aims to feature “live comedy, great music and hilariously bad animation“. We got to talk about both new projects briefly this week. My thanks to Conniff for his time, and to Josh Opitz for arranging both Cinematic Titanic interviews.
Tim O’Shea: You recently wrote about Skidoo (the Otto Preminger film with Groucho Marx as a gangster named “God”). I have seen the film as well and I wonder would that be a film that the Cinematic Titanic gang might like to tackle? Or is it just so weird on its own merits that to mock it would dilute the potency of its sheer badness?
Frank Conniff: I don’t think we could ever get the rights to “Skidoo.”
On the one hand, it would be a fun film to riff on, but on the other hand, it is, as you say, bad on its own merits and maybe it doesn’t need the Cinematic Titanic treatment to be enjoyed.
O’Shea: What kind of criteria do you have for selecting a film for consideration for the Cinematic Titanic crew? Is your criteria much the same as it was during your MST3K days or do you think your standards have evolved (for lack of a more apt term)?
Conniff: It’s pretty much the same standards as the MST3K days. I think we have a little more leeway as far as “adult content” goes, but otherwise all of the films we’ve done so far at Cinematic Titanic would have fit right in at MST3K.
O’Shea: As a writer/performer in a collaborative effort like Cinematic Titanic, what do you consider to be the strengths you add to the dynamics? Do you think your humor works best in some sort of tandem
with particular cast members or does the humor just benefit equally from all cast members?
Conniff: I think the humor benefits equally from all cast members. As was the case at MST3K, at Cinematic Titanic our sensibilities are all in synch with each other.
O’Shea: What do you enjoy most about the visual comedy potential gained from the multi-tier silhouette (versus the standard single row format)?
Conniff: Well, in this case I get to be one of the silhouettes, so I really enjoy that aspect of it.
O’Shea: Of the Cinematic Titanic projects you’ve done to date–is there one line that a cast member has said that no matter how many times you hear it, you can’t stop laughing? For me it was a Casey Kasem scene in Doomsday Machine, when one of the cast said (in perfect Weekly Top 40 tone): “Now here’s Steely Dan”.
Conniff: I think the line in “Oozing Skull,” “Is that a small desk, or wooden pants?” was brilliant.
I don’t remember who said it, but I do know that Trace [Beaulieu] wrote it.
O’Shea: To fully enjoy comedy like Cinematic Titanic, I think it helps to have a Dennis Miller (in his prime/pre-9/11) level of pop culture knowledge. The gang pulls references from anywhere and everywhere. So, in the Doomsday Machine installment of Cinematic Titanic, one of the cast (yea, I’m lousy with voices, sorry) says “A gumball machine head on a robot? I’m sorry…that is lame.” Was that the first time the gang jokingly reference MST3K?
Conniff: It might be; I don’t really remember if we did other such lines before that.
O’Shea: In a recent blog post you noted that Neil Patrick Harris is a longtime MST3K fan. In all the years doing things like MST3K and Cinematic Titanic, can you think of your best encounter with someone famous and/or that you respect–that turns out to have been a longtime fan of your work?
Conniff: The fact that brilliant comedians like Dana Gould and Patton Oswalt love MST3K has always been very gratifying to me.
O’Shea: With the increasing popularity of Adult Swim type shows–is there ever any chance that Cartoon Dump could make it on to television–or is that a project best suited for live theater?
Conniff: We will always do the live show, but we would love for Cartoon Dump to be on Adult Swim one day.
O’Shea: How did Cartoon Dump come about–and what is it about the project that appeals to you most?
Conniff: The project came about after my friend Jerry Beck and I began talking about a new way to present the cartoons he uses in the “Worst Cartoons Ever” lecture that he gives at Comic Con and other venues.
What appeals most to be about “Cartoon Dump” is the freedom I have to write anything I want to write for the show. Also, the audience response that we’ve been getting at the Steve Allen Theater has been very gratifying.
O’Shea: Comedy is an ever-evolving craft, as you well know. MST3K and Cinematic Titanic-type comedy clearly influenced many comedians of today. Is there ever a movie or TV show that you watch and you realize the creators have clearly been influenced by your work?
Conniff: I think our influence has been real but subtle, so I don’t usually notice it overtly.
O’Shea: Creatively, what else is on the horizon for you in the near to long-term?
Conniff: My goal is to keep working on stuff like “Cinematic Titanic” and “Cartoon Dump”: projects where I am free to express myself with complete creative freedom.