In the decade or so since MST3K went off the air, a number of would-be acts have come along with dreams of that crew. Until now, none have been able to stick the landing. Enter: Austin's Master Pancake Theater.
Texas is a pathetic state to live in, all wacky Republicans, gun-nuts, soccer moms, and some of the flattest landscape you've ever seen. Somehow, though, amidst all of that lame territory, Austin has managed to remain one of the coolest places in the entire country. Whereas Dallas is a city built on commerce and Houston is a city built on oil, Austin seems like a city built on the sort of ideas that occur during a heavy drinking session: performance art, intentionally bad cover bands, and some of the country's best comedy shows are located here, and they've conspired to make Austin one of the state's— hell, the country's— greatest cities.
One of the best reasons to live in Austin is the Alamo Drafthouse, a small chain of theaters that attracts visiting film geeks from all over the world with the promise of brand-new movies playing alongside obscure little gems like Boss Nigger, Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, and Pink Flamingos (and that's just recently), not to mention its neverending series of awesome film festivals, film-themed parties, and steady supply of booze. It's a mecca for those that worship at the feet of film, and anyone that considers themself a film geek should make a pilgrimage to one of the Drafthouse's locations— preferably the South Lamar location— at least once in their life.
Among the many special screenings that the Alamo offers— the "Quote-alongs", the "Weird Wednesday" screenings of stuff like Twilight People, the "Hecklevision" screenings (which allow you to text your heckles at a bad movie, which then show up onscreen like subtitles)— Master Pancake Theater is easily the most entertaining. John Erler— the de facto leader of Master Pancake Theater— and his crew have taken the formula that we'd thought Mystery Science Theater 3000 had perfected all those years ago and turned it into a weekly live event that is without compare. Furthermore, it may be even better than what MST3K was giving us back in the 90's.
A bold statement, I know, but having seen several of Master Pancake Theater's live shows— and having spent years parked in front of the TV watching Crow, Joel, and Tom Servo wreak havoc on Mitchell and Gamorrah— I feel qualified to make the call. MST3K remains one of the greatest "simple ideas turned into something incredible" we've ever had the privilege of watching, but seeing an amped-up, potty-mouthed, rowdy live version of the show— aimed not at old, crappy B-movies but at relatively recent Hollywood offerings like The Matrix and The Happening— is something else entirely.
"The story goes," John Erler tells me, seated next to me in a way-too-yellow margarita-slinging bar next door to the Drafthouse's South Lamar location, "that Tim League (ed. note—the owner of the Alamo Drafthouse) had people coming up to him all the time back in 2000, telling him that he should run old episodes of MST3K. Tim, being the brilliant entrepreneur and open-to-new-ideas kinda guy that he is, thought, 'Well, instead of doing that, why don't we have our own shows and do it live?'"
MST3K took what you and your drunken college buddies did for free and turned it into a wildly successful TV series, so why not "tweak" the same idea (as It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Mac and Dennis might say) for a series of screenings at the Drafthouse? Once League decided to put the plan into action, he rounded up a few local comedians— including Erler, who had a radio show and performed standup nearby at Sixth Street's Velveeta Room— and gave them free reign. The first dozen screenings were spent trying to get a formula established.
"It was fun, very DIY. We didn't have a lot of people coming," Erler says of the early days. "We really were kinda figuring it out as we went along based on the model of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Besides doing it in a new format— live, with microphones, in front of people— we had fun just figuring out what worked and what didn't. Eventually, we got better and better at it, word got out, and we started selling out screenings. And, well, we've pretty much sold out every screening for the past ten years."
One of the biggest turning points came when the crew realized that they could take on films that MST3K might not have gone anywhere near. They gave He-Man and The Masters of The Universe a shot, and when that proved relatively successful, they booked Xanadu, which resulted in a string of sold-out performances. Once they cracked that part of the code— that more people would show up to see movies they'd actually seen before getting ripped on— the tickets seemed to sell themselves.
Another turning point came when Erler got a letter from the people behind MST3K, asking them to change their name. When the group debuted, they were performing under the name "Mister Sinus Theater 3000", and the MST3K guys had some (understandable) concerns about this: not only did they want to protect their brand, but they'd heard that Mister Sinus was using a whole bunch of swears in their performances, and they wanted some distance in between MST3K— which was always family-friendly— and what Erler, League, and the rest of the then-Mister Sinus crew were up to. Thus: Master Pancake Theater (Erler says the name doesn't really mean anything, but that it "just made us laugh a lot when we were tossing names around").
Each Master Pancake production follows the same basic setup: there's an opening sketch, followed by the audience being asked to select a key phrase that can be shouted at the screen during specific moments during the film. It's a drinking game of sorts, but it's also meant to encourage the rowdy atmosphere that permeates an average Pancake show. Prior to this past weekend's production of The Happening, Erler— in character as a bewigged M. Night Shyamalan obsessed with "twists"— told the audience they needed a phrase to shout whenever wind was shown onscreen (we were also compelled to drink whenever this occurred, which "M. Night" told us might result "in a different kind of 'twist ending' on the ride home"), and the audience happily chose "Leaf me alone". From there, about half the film is screened, and then there's a mid-movie sketch that breaks up the show. After that, the rest of the film unspools. Obviously, this is very similar to the format of MST3K— with some obvious exceptions.
"We like playing with the audio," Erler says. "We did Beyond Thunderdome awhile back, and— I dunno if you remember this or not— but there's the scene where they find a record album, and through the whole movie you're wondering what's on the record. Eventually, they find a turntable, and when they finally get it going, we had it play The Black Eyed Peas' 'My Humps'". Erler assures me that this "killed", and I have no trouble believing him. They also edit the film with pieces of other movies, like the time they edited in some of Gandalf's entrance into Hobbiton from Fellowship of The Ring into the scene in Braveheart where Mel Gibson rides a horse back into his beloved's town. It took a moment for the audience to catch on, but once Gibson wandered past a "Happy Birthday, Bilbo" sign, the punchline hit hard.
While some of the jokes are as simple as a Fergie reference, and while there's definitely no shortage of swearing and lowbrow material factoring into the average Master Pancake show, there's a definite intelligence at work behind the series. For example, Erler's got an M.A. in Latin and until very recently was teaching at Texas State in-between MP shows. Erler took awhile to finally devote himself solely to Master Pancake— forsaking what many would consider a "real job" to pursue comedy full-time— and he's clearly happy to have made that call, even if it did take him close to a decade to work up the nerve to do so. The rest of the crew is just as quick-witted and intelligent, and all believe that a well-timed use of the word "fuck" is invaluable.
"Surgical swearing, I call it," Erler tells me. "I got that from my mother. She was a very proper, very academic woman, but she would sometimes bust out with this very creative string of vulgarities, and I always loved that. You couldn't just have us swearing through the entire show, but there's definitely something to be said for it in careful doses". The rowdy audiences that turn out for their shows seems to agree: at a Master Pancake production of The Matrix a few weeks ago, the audience chose "Thunder Cunt"— a phrase that was to be shouted whenever something shiny appeared onscreen— as their "phrase of the night". It's an obvious— and welcome— difference between Master Pancake and MST3K, and once you've seen it in action, it'd be hard to argue that it does anything other than improve the MST3K formula.
In October, Master Pancake will finally get their chance to mock a movie that they've been trying to get the rights to for a long time: Twilight. Erler tells me that they'd been petitioning Summit— the film company they had to go through in order to get permission to screen Twilight in a public forum— for over a year, only to be turned down time and time again. Out of the blue, however, they agreed, and Erler appears visibly excited about the chance to tear the movie to pieces. When I tell him that some writing I've done in the past that openly mocked Twilight's fans resulted in a string of death threats, he gets even more excited, and we discuss how satisfying it'd be for an oblivious Twilight fan— one that might get a little bent out of shape about their preferred vampire franchise being mocked so openly— to buy tickets to the Master Pancake production of the film.
There's something universal and liberating about mocking bad movies en masse, and while Rifftrax is doing essentially the same thing that MST3K did— and with newer movies, as Master Pancake have done— seeing the process live, with an audience, and with a cold beer in hand is makes for a truly awesome experience. If you're going to be anywhere near Austin during the month of October, I cannot stress this enough: buy tickets now for that Twilight screening, because there's no doubt that they're going to sell out.
Scott Wampler is a standup comic, humor writer, entertainment blogger, and man of constant sorrow from Austin, TX. When he's not mainlining vodka tonics, he's contributing articles to a variety of entertainment websites— Chud.com, Collider.com, Gawker.com— and operates primarily as the National Comedy Examiner for Examiner.com, where he specializes in a form of entertainment reporting that can best be described as "frequent jokes made at Jay Leno's expense". If you feel like contacting Scott about anything—advice, naming your child, learning who your favorite character on Arrested Development should be—feel free to contact him here.