Fame? It’s a Mystery.

An MST3K writer gets her “15 minutes”—as a crossword clue

SOMETIMES it kept me awake: was I famous? Sometimes people would ask me, Hey, did you used to be on that one show? Did that make me “famous”? If I were the topic of flame wars in online chat rooms, was that “celebrity”? And to what should I ascribe being a crossword clue? Did that make it official? Still, the question that kept me up at night remained: What if nobody knows I’m famous?

Before the turn of the last century, I couldn’t hold a day job, so I started doing standup comedy. I didn’t think that being a comedian would be my big break in show biz—it was just that I’d been fired or laid off so many times, standup comedy started looking like a stable means of income. Then I was hired as a writer for Mystery Science Theater 3000, a television show produced in the Twin Cities in which three characters poked fun at old, bad movies. You might recognize the show by the silhouettes of its characters—one human and two robots—sitting in movie-theater seats while terrible films played on the screen.

A fellow comedian, Joel Hodgson, created the show for local television. Its premise was that a human (Joel) had been sent into space aboard a satellite by a deranged scientist and his numbskull assistant, and they were forced to watch bad movies as part of an evil experiment. Joel built two robots, named Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, who were fashioned out of a lacrosse mask and a gumball machine, among other things. The trio ridiculed the cheesy sci-fi movies by talking back to the characters on screen and mocking the absurd plots, hilarious flaws, and cheap production values. Filmed in the Twin Cities, the show was picked up by national cable a few years after its local debut, and it developed a cult following. I guess what I really want to know is, if one is “famous,” shouldn’t one be less broke than I am?

I’d never heard of Mystery Science Theater 3000 before I was asked to audition as a writer. But I caught on quickly, especially to the part where we watched TV. It was a regular 9 to 5 beat, but when I punched in, I’d park myself on an overstuffed leather sofa with my fellow writers, the big-screen TV would buzz to life, and we’d watch wonderfully awful movies with titles like the Giant Spider Invasion and the Attack of the Giant Leeches and crack wise with each other. And we got health benefits and free pop! We were in flyover land, between the entertainment capitals of Los Angeles and New York City, and I had no idea the fandom that was building as we toiled away on those couches. I’d forget that our work was beamed out over the airwaves, and I was always taken aback to meet people who even knew of the show, much less were devotees.

The show’s goofy, offbeat humor and decidedly low-tech nature (the set looked like it was littered with garage-sale remnants) seemed to catch on with people. It appealed to anyone who ever wanted to talk back to the movie screen, and the show’s following ranged from young kids to their grandparents. Fan clubs materialized, and devotees gave themselves a nickname: MiSTies, derived from the show’s acronym, MST3K.

All this was aided by the nascent World Wide Web. At the show’s peak in the mid- to late-’90s, there were hundreds of fan websites. Certain jokes became catch phrases among enthusiasts; fans exchanged videotapes of episodes; memorabilia changed hands on eBay. Some people even built their own versions of the puppets we used on the show.

Sometimes we heard from actors who had been lampooned on our show. Kim Cattrall, late of Sex and the City, delighted in being wooed by Crow. Only a few years after the success of Walking Tall, Joe Don Baker had the misfortune to make a movie that was bad enough to end up on MST3K. We heard through the grapevine that he was not pleased. Believe you me, you don’t want to cross Buford Pusser.

Many fans were experts on the show. They had the kind of questions that arise only after scholarly examination. A fan might recognize my name on a check or overhear my voice in a restaurant and then lecture me on storyline gaps or the laws of physics: how, how could there be a vacuum tube long enough to send movies from Earth to the satellite?

There were cast changes as the show went on, and each change met with rousing debates and flame wars on fan sites; mail flowed into the office and irate messages accumulated on the answering machine. Mike Nelson, the head writer, replaced Joel Hodgson, and when the actor who played the mad scientist left the show, I took over as the villain, playing an over-the-top character named Pearl Forrester. Both Pearl and I were the topic of heated chat-room and discussion-board debates. Someone once declared that I was the Yoko Ono of MST3K.

We were invited to sci-fi conventions and even gatherings specifically devoted to MST3K. At one, a woman raised her shirt over her stomach, and asked us to sign, um, her. At another, a young man said tersely, “I’m sure you’re fine, but I hate Pearl Forrester,” and he clutched his autograph book tightly to his chest as though I might wrestle it out of his hands and force my signature upon him. Sometimes, fans would dress like the characters on the show, and I’d suddenly see myself: a woman—or a man—dressed in Pearl’s bright green pantsuit and frightening makeup (sometimes complete with padding to emulate my own, ahem, fullness).

So what if 15 minutes of fame is spread out here and there over 12 or 13 years, in two or three minute increments? Is it still “fame”?

After being on the air almost 10 years, MST3K was cancelled in 1999. But it still haunts me. People who have remained steadfast fans or have discovered the show on DVD still corner me with questions. (Many of them know the show better than I ever did. In fact, I had to consult several websites to research this story.)

Reminders of the show pop up in odd ways. A few years ago, while living in New York, I was sitting in a mostly empty movie theater. Several rows in front of me a couple was chatting loudly during the movie—something that, believe it or not, drives me absolutely batty. In front of them sat a woman, utterly irritated, who turned around and hissed, “This isn’t Mystery Science Theater, you know!”

What if you’re a crossword puzzle clue? Is that fame?

There it was in the April 18 to 24, 2004, issue of TV Guide. On the cover, two lovely ladies—with the caption, “Why Can’t He Find His Own Date?”—flanked the handsome, tanned, and toothy star of The Bachelor. And the clue for One Across in the crossword read Mystery Science Theater’s Mary Jo ____. A friend called me with the news . Could there be a more obscure clue than moi? I had to know how I made the cut.

I contacted Michael Fell, director of editorial research at TV Guide, who said, “There is a regular group of puzzle contributors who are big television fans with an impressive store of TV lore and trivia.” (No kidding.) He told me that TV Guide has “literally millions and millions” of readers, so I could no longer think of myself as obscure. Finally I had my answer: I was famous.

Friends and family bought multiple copies of that TV Guide, then invariably presented them to me with the declaration, “You’ve finally made it!” I, too, thought it was my big break. Frankly, MST3K had been a hard act to follow. What do you do after your dream job? What could I list as my skill set—watching TV and making jokes?

Thirty-five or so identical TV Guides sat in my closet for a few years, then last spring I decided the time had come to sell out and cash in on my fame. So I did what every famous person does: I had a yard sale.

One fine Saturday morning I hauled my junk down to the front of my apartment building. It was mostly a means of getting rid of the TV Guides but I didn’t want to look too desperate, so I threw in some old purses, an end table, an air conditioner, several vases, and an “I Survived Y2K” T-shirt. I put up a sign that read “Collector’s item TV Guide! Featuring Mystery Science Theater’s Mary Jo Pehl! Will autograph!” I had no idea what constituted a “collector’s item,” but I had to attempt some sort of marketing. Surely, some fans would come my way, become crazed with such a find, and offer me two or three bucks for each issue. I mean, I’d practically seen bidding wars on eBay over the screws used in the construction of MST3K puppets.

All morning, people dawdled by, coming from the coffee shop or competing garage sales down the street. The magazines were picked up and perused, the signs regarded quizzically. I felt more and more foolish as the hours wore on.

Then a woman walked by with a couple of kids. One, a teen, grabbed the TV Guides and looked at his mother, speechless and eyes wide. The woman laughed. “Hey, cool!” she said, smiling at me. “We love the show.”

She pointed toward her son: “He grew up watching the tapes my husband and I collected.” The boy came up to me. This is it, I thought. He’s going to ask for my autograph. Even today’s kids have a thing for Pearl Forrester.

But in a moment my hopes were dashed. “Do you have any of these with Joel Hodgson or Mike Nelson?” he asked, breathless, hopeful. I shook my head. They left empty-handed.

How do you know you’re famous? Have a yard sale. For me, that cleared up everything.

Mary Jo Pehl, who shushes people who talk during movies, is a writer in Minneapolis.