The Sensational Saga of Mr. Sinus
In Which Three Funny Guys Trash the Movies of Our Childhood and Sell Out the Alamo Drafthouse
Austin Chronicle: So if you guys were naming this article, what would the headline be?
John: How about "Mr. Sinus Is Awesome. Come See Us"?
Owen: How about "Owen and Those Other Guys"?
AC: I was thinking more like a really bad pun -- "Sinus Fever." "Sinus Relief."
Owen: "The Crowds Are Congested."
Jerm: "Will Any Movie Production Company Ever Sign Us"?
Owen: "They Think They're Cool, But They're Snot."
John: "And They Take a Lot of Dristan ..."
[Looks around. This is not a pun.]
"... You Very Much."
AC: How much time do you guys spend together?
Owen: Too much.
Jerm: Come on, not enough!
I was a skeptic once. At some point, most people are.
Maybe we loved the old show, or maybe we loathed it, or maybe we never even thought about it long enough to care. Regardless, the conclusion was the same: A live version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 didn't sound like a good time. So when Mr. Sinus Theater 3000 premiered last September at the Alamo Drafthouse, we stayed away. When we heard it was funny, selling out every night, we stayed away. Because, well, come on. Three guys drinking beer and goofing on bad films -- couldn't we just do that in our own living rooms? Couldn't we just watch reruns on Comedy Central?
And yet: Things happen at a Mr. Sinus show.
Like when they did Nude on the Moon, and the Hill Country Nudists arrived totally naked. Or at Xanadu, when women showed up in roller skates and leg warmers and people sang all the songs out loud. Or the Christmas show when the Mr. Sinus guys passed out milk and cookies and solicited holiday memories from the audience to turn into a chorus. Someone shared how his Christmas presents were destroyed in a fire; the resulting ditty was "What I Got for Christmas I Never Learned, 'Cause What I Got for Christmas Just Got Motherfuckin' Burned."
Mr. Sinus Theater isn't just a movie, it's an Event -- part hoot night and part public flogging, in which the performers play the audience and the audience occasionally performs. Lines for the weekly show snake around the block, and people crowd the wings of the theatre on fold-out chairs. That's because the guys behind Mr. Sinus -- John, Jerm, and Owen -- don't just rip on a film. They rip on each other, they get up onstage, they play music, they lead audience sing-alongs. Also, they wear dresses.
I was a skeptic once, but then I saw the show. After it was over, I turned to my friend.
"I want to see those guys again," I said.
"I don't just want to see those guys again," she said. "I want to be their best friend."
Like so many great ideas, Mr. Sinus Theater was born in the mind of Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League. When Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans asked him to screen old television episodes, he knew he could do better than that. Brainstorming with Karrie, his wife and partner, League conceived of the live show, not only to please MST 3000 fans but also to give the late-night hecklers at the Alamo a place to unload. "It would be the time when people who couldn't shut up during a movie could go ahead and join in," League writes by e-mail. "The Sinus guys are so fast and furious with the commentary, however, that there really isn't much of that going on."
-- In Which We Meet Our Heroes
League pitched the idea to Jerm Pollet, whom he'd seen in a local mockumentary called Butcher's 15. And Jerm is not the kind of guy to say no.
A comic actor who has been on the local music scene for a decade now (see "Playing the Violin," p. 54), Jeremy Pollet renamed himself Jerm in the ninth grade. The nickname "was founded in subjugation and taunting from my second grade peers," he writes in an e-mail, "but like any good comic book character, I turned their mocking around and used it to empower myself."
Jerm brought the men of Mr. Sinus together, and -- perhaps drawing on his experience as RuPaul's road manager -- he manages the group as well. He wrote the group's theme song ("Well the concept's not so original, it's true/But that other show stopped making new episodes, and we didn't know what to do") and picked out the group's bat kite logo -- "simultaneously tough and goofy, cheap but cool," he explains. "It also makes a terrific and sickly flapping noise when it flies, as if it's struggling to perform after a long evening of smoking and drinking." He also came up with the name Mr. Sinus. (Rejected names include Mister Salty Theater, Milky Substance Theater, and Miso Soup Theatre. "I thought maybe we could sell miso soup. Wouldn't that be funny?" says Jerm. "And of course everybody said no.") It doesn't take long to realize that Jerm is a 24-hour Big Idea Factory.
"Hey, Mr. Sinus could open for a rock show," he says one night.
"That would be a long opening act," says Owen.
Jerm met Owen Egerton while working in improv comedy troupe Comedysportz (now called National Comedy Theatre). Owen raps about Popeye's chicken on Jerm's solo album It Ain't a Party Until Someone Gets a Haircut; he also put out his own CD of comic songs, Big Thick Wooden Board, and wrote Marshall Hollenzer Is Driving, a book about the intersecting lives of lonely people searching for a spiritual path. Yes, Owen is a Christian -- a fact which he is casual, but comfortable, about -- and he has held jobs as a secret quality tester at Jack in the Box and as host of a local home shopping network. Small and compact, with red hair and a smile that scrunches up his entire face, Owen is the most physical comedian, the one who takes the pratfalls and plays the clown: For the Chesty Morgan exploitation film Double Agent 73, Owen wore breasts sagging to his knees. To play some wrinkly troll named Gwildor in Masters of the Universe, he stuck two Danishes to his cheeks.
And then there's John, a classics graduate student who teaches Latin at the University of Texas.
"One of the reasons we thought of John was that he is super smart," says Jerm.
"You wouldn't guess it," says Owen.
"We're goofy," says Jerm, "but John's really sharp. And so dry."
Tall, bald, and bearing a striking resemblance to John Malkovich, John Erler hosts the radio show The Elk Mating Ritual Hour (KVRX, 7-9am Thursdays), on which he has lampooned venerated radio personality John Aielli (host of KUT'S daily morning program Eklektikos) and this publication, among other things. He can explain his love of good-bad movies by invoking French literary critic Roland Barthes; he also karaokes to Jimmy Buffett songs in the voice of Skeletor.
Together, John, Jerm, and Owen leak irony and silliness, and a conversation with them can leapfrog from sincerity to analysis to bad puns in a matter of minutes. They are also fearless performers, never hesitant to shed their pants or their dignity. They are funny in different ways, physically and temperamentally varied, and quite, quite fond of each other. Also -- and this is important -- they are game for anything.
"Like anything when you start out," says John, "you're always relying on the models that other people set up for you. We were relying on the Mystery Science 3000 model, and we thought, 'We'll pick science-fiction movies from the Fifties and Sixties, B-movies, low-budget, because that's what they did.'"
-- In Which Our Heroes Bust a Move and Find Their Groove
So in their first six months, Mr. Sinus did cheesy exploitation films like Doris Wishman's Nude on the Moon, Herschell Gordon Lewis' The Gruesome Twosome, and Denis Sanders' Invasion of the Bee Girls. They started moving in a more personally nostalgic direction when they sent up 1987's Masters of the Universe, which showcased the aforementioned Skeletor impersonation. But when John suggested taking on Xanadu -- starring his eighth-grade crush Olivia Newton-John -- the floodgates opened.
"That's when girls started coming to our show," says Jerm.
"And then Star Trek V really brings in the girls," jokes Owen.
What the sold-out crowds at Xanadu proved, however, was that if people liked seeing bad movies torn apart, they loved seeing bad movies from their childhood torn apart.
On Friday, Aug. 10, Mr. Sinus unveils their new project: Red Dawn, John Milius' 1984 escapist Cold War fantasy in which Nicaraguans and Russians invade a small Midwestern town and a handful of scrappy hunklets -- including Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, and Patrick Swayze -- save the world from the scourge of communism.
"It's almost like propaganda for the NRA," John says.
"But at the time," says Owen, "it felt like reality. Like this could really happen."
"But now it looks ridiculous," says John. "Someone pointed out to me a good formula for Mr. Sinus. If you enjoyed this movie as a kid, but now, as an adult, you realize how bad it is, that's a good movie to do. On one level, you can enjoy it, even in a guilty way. On another level, you can be like: God, this movie sucks."
After Red Dawn, Mr. Sinus takes on Top Gun, another military wet dream.
"Some people are like: You can't do Top Gun," says Owen.
And yet they will, poking fun at every homoerotic exchange, every ludicrously back-lit love scene, every ride into the danger zone.
After Top Gun, they plan to do Anaconda, and then Footloose. In the reject pile are movies like Reefer Madness and Coyote Ugly and Roadhouse -- too obvious, too boring, too ridiculous. In truth, it takes a very special film to be a Mr. Sinus film, and some movies might even be too bad for Mr. Sinus. Case in point: Showgirls (see "Private Dancers," p.48).
"For every movie we pick," says Jerm, "we've probably rejected 20."
"Not only do we see and reject a lot of movies," says John, "but we rehearse the ones that we do a hell of a lot more than people realize, I think. It would be nice to say, 'Oh we just go in and improv it.' But ultimately, I think we're looking for that kind of feel.
"I think if you're going to make fun of somebody," says John, "you should make fun of somebody in a position of power, somebody who deserves to be mocked. The other movies we've done don't really deserve to be mocked. They're just like us -- people with a little cash, trying to do their art. But these huge budget monsters that come out of the Hollywood factory -- that deserves to be mocked."
Of course, not everyone agrees. "There are people who think that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the worst thing that ever happened to movie watching," says Alamo owner Tim League, adding that "Mystery Science Theater 3000 behavior is the bane of my existence at the theatre. I fight it all the time, usually making announcements before each non-Sinus midnight screening, basically saying, 'shut up or get out.'"
-- In Which Legitimate Objections Are Made
Then there's the opposite problem: fans of the original who think Mr. Sinus aren't worthy of the Mystery Science 3000 crown.
When you get down to it, there are plenty of complaints you could make about Mr. Sinus (too much audience participation, or too little), not the least of which is that the entire concept, like too many Generation-X pastimes, is based in tearing things apart.
"We don't go out to insult the movie," says Jerm.
"Yeah we do," John and Owen say at the same time.
But they do, and they don't.
Take Xanadu, for instance. The guys rip on the stillborn dialogue, the mechanical acting, and the absurd set pieces. And yet when the ELO music kicks in, and the muses come to life off of the mural, John can't help bouncing in his chair and singing along. "Every time I watch that movie," he says, "I get a rush at the beginning."
More than mere mockery, the Mr. Sinus treatment is mockery-as-homage. It is like roasting someone you love.
"When you make fun of a friend, it's different than when you make fun of someone you don't like," says Owen. "If we didn't learn to love these bad movies, we would grow bitter and sad and grumpy."
"I think a lot of the reason people are having a good time is that we're still having a good time," says Jerm. "I hope that we turn the Alamo into a big living room space, a big theme party."
... In Which Our Heroes, or at Least the Audience Members, Finally Find Love
Stand in the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse and watch people leave a Mr. Sinus show. They are intoxicated. Not just with booze, although often that's true too. But it's a different kind of lightness, the way you feel when you are just happy to be there, to be together, to live in Austin.
"Mr. Sinus has started a lot of romances," says Jerm.
"It's a great place to meet a hottie," says Owen.
"Are girls throwing themselves at you?" I ask.
"All the time," says Owen.
"Throwing garbage," says Jerm.
"How do you define 'throwing self at'?" asks John. "Somebody kind of tripped next to me one time."
"But our audience is definitely getting some," says Jerm. "From what I hear, big orgies happen. For sure. We get people laid."
Mr. Sinus will present Red Dawn Friday, Aug. 10, through Thursday, Sept. 13, at the Alamo Drafthouse, 409 Colorado. Check Film Listings for showtimes. For even more information about Mr. Sinus, see www.mrsinus.com.
Sarah Hepola is studying Spanish in Quito, Ecuador. She misses the Tamale House.