Trickery Flickery Mock
Master Pancake makes the movies hurt so good
Get an eyeful of the tall, bald man in front of the blank screen where sci-fi mindfuck The Matrix has been suddenly paused in mid-Keanu at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz. The man's nearly naked, nothing on his pale and lanky frame but a pair of tighty-whities, nothing in his hands but a live microphone. The theatre's packed on this Saturday night, and the audience is going wild. The audience is laughing itself into conniptions.
The bald man is John Erler: host of KOOP's Elk Mating Ritual Show, college-level professor of Latin, lead singer of Journey cover band Odyssey, and the more towering half of Master Pancake Theater. Now, the less towering and more abundantly coiffed half, Joe Parsons, sits next to Erler at a small table outside Quack's on 43rd Street. They're here for an interview. They're both fully clothed.
Years ago, there were three of them, and they were called Mister Sinus: John Erler and Jerm Pollet and Owen Egerton. They regularly performed an Austin-flavored live version of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 at the Alamo Drafthouse, drawing large crowds and helpless laughter with their mockery of classic (or classically bad) movies. Now it's just Erler and Parsons – and occasional guests such as Mac Blake, David Jara, Ben Bartley, Scott Chester, Buzz Moran, Mary Jo Pehl, Martha Kelly, Zack Carlson, and Leslie (yes, that Leslie) Cochran – bringing the wiseass disrespect and skits that redeem a bad movie and make a good movie even more enjoyable.
Austin Chronicle: So what happened with Mister Sinus?
John Erler: I don't know if I can go into every detail, because some of it's tied up legally. But the three of us had been doing the show for seven years. And it basically came down to we were sick of each other. Especially two out of three of us were sick of each other. And, I'm not gonna lie, there was a lot of conflict between ... two out of the three of us. And I realized, and maybe the other person realized, we weren't going to be able to move forward with the way things were. And we tried, too. We actually went into therapy a couple of times to try and work things out.
AC: Seriously? Therapy?
Erler: Seriously. We'd go to therapy sessions, but after a while we'd lose interest or things would flare up between us, so it ended up going nowhere. And things were really, really bad. I liken it to a weird three-way marriage. I mean, we all knew we had a wonderful thing, but we just couldn't make it work. Another reason was, I think it started getting stale for some of us by that point. In Owen's case, he wanted to move on, to work on his writing. Which he's doing now, writing scripts for Hollywood, which is great. And Sinus was a full-time job, sometimes more than full time, sometimes a double-time job, depending on where we were in the performing process. So, because of the conflict, which was not fun, and because Owen had other aspirations, we figured, well, this is probably as good a time as any to let it go. To move on.
Joe Parsons: Just like in a marriage or any other kind of relationship, it didn't seem that there was any particular reason or event or anything like that. It was kind of, after six or seven years, you don't need somebody to cheat – or whatever, in the same metaphor. You get to a point where you just know it's not gonna work out; no matter how hard you try and hold on to it, it's not gonna work out.
AC: And now there's Master Pancake. And how'd you get involved in all this, Joe?
Parsons: Owen was the guy who started my comedic career entirely. He came to my high school when I was 15 years old and taught me improv. I joined his improv troupe after that, and I've been working with him ever since. So I wound up subbing whenever somebody was out during a Sinus show. I'd replace somebody, learn the jokes, that sort of thing. And eventually, especially while people weren't getting along, I subbed a lot – to the point where I knew the show pretty well. So when the new show was formed, it seemed like a good fit.
Erler: Joe was really good. He made voice appearances offstage before he started writing and performing the shows with us onstage. He'd be the voice coming from offstage, like when we did Flashdance and I pretended to be Stephen Hawking. I was doing a Flashdance sexy striptease as Stephen Hawking, totally immobilized – and Joe was the computerized robot voice. And he was really funny, because he did a really good Hawking, and he had a good attitude. He was like the sassy, kind of mischievous Stephen Hawking.
Parsons: So, the real Stephen Hawking. That arrogant, irresponsible son of a –
Erler: And then we did Showgirls, and Joe was the voice of Kermit the Frog. We had a gigantic Kermit the Frog puppet, who was sort of the bastard manager, the owner of the strip club. I was a dancer, and Owen was a dancer, and Joe did this great Kermit voice – in the persona of a real asshole manager.
AC: Showgirls makes perfect sense. I mean, you guys seem to strip down an awful lot in –
Parsons: I don't know about you guys ... [laughter]
AC: Okay, yeah. John, why are you always out of your clothes?
Erler: Well, there's a lot of angles to approach this answer from. Early on in the days of Sinus, about six months into the run, we did Xanadu, and it turned out to be a huge hit. It was our first big hit, out of nowhere, and we were like, "Why do people wanna come see Xanadu?" But they did, there were lines around the block.
Parsons: The first taste of success.
Erler: And for the halftime skit, I played Olivia Newton-John, and I had a dress that came up tight around my knees. And the first night, I sat down, facing the audience. And I'm not a girl, so I'm not used to worrying about my dress. But when I sat down I got this great reaction from the crowd; they were going crazy with laughs and hoots and groans. And I realized, "Of course – they can see my beaver [laughter]." And I'm not always the fastest guy, but I know when a laugh works, and I took note of that. And ever since then, I've been finding ways to, you know, peepshow the audience like that. But it's not that I just get it out of nowhere. It's in my personality: I'm something of an exhibitionist. I've been doing that since I was a kid, embarrassing my older sister. When her friends would come over, I would, like, flash people – when I was 5 years old. So that exhibitionist streak's already there.
Parsons: And in his defense, it's not that it's premeditated, it's –
Erler: What defense? What defense? It doesn't really need any de –
Parsons: It's not that we necessarily plan to do it every time. Sometimes it's an accident; sometimes a thing will fall off. And sometimes it just works its way into the show without us really intending it to.
Erler: At this point it's become kind of a running gag. Some people are waiting for it. So part of the fun is: When's it gonna happen, if it's gonna happen? So, when we did The Matrix, I was wearing this leather coat, and I had little leggings. I'd cut the bottoms off pant legs and put them over my ankles to make it seem as if I really had pants on, kind of toying with the audience. And then I took off my coat. And I had nothing on but underwear ... and these partial pant legs. It's become almost a meta thing. And for Lord of the Rings, we wrote the whole skit and planned it out, and Joe made these fantastic hobbit costumes where we'd use our hands as feet ... and the whole time I'm going, "Well, when am I gonna get nude? Where's my opportunity to flash the audience?" And they were like, "C'mon, John, you don't have to do it every time."
Austin Chronicle: I was hoping that you'd have Egerton as a guest star for Lord of the Rings and that he'd strip down for it – because he's just so fucking furry. [laughter]
John Erler: I told him the same thing. "If there's any way you can do Lord of the Rings, Owen, please." But I didn't tell him it's because I thought of him as a hobbit. [laughter]
Joe Parsons: And he's got a weird kind of Popeye body hair, where he's got, like, really hairy forearms! And – and shins! But he's got no other hair on his body whatsoever!
Erler: Just freckles! [laughter, tears]
AC: How long is a show in rehearsal before you guys put it in front of an audience?
Parsons: Uh ...
Erler: Give him the standard answer, Parsons.
Parsons: We found that the magic number is, we have to watch the movie eight times.
Erler: It gets into our bloodstreams after eight times.
Parsons: After eight times, it's a combination of rote memorization and backwards-and-forwards knowledge of the movie itself. We kind of know where the jokes are and where the jokes aren't and where there's empty spaces that we can kind of play with when it comes time to perform it. But definitely eight times. Which is usually about two weeks, and then the show's pretty well polished.
Erler: The show is always evolving, even after the first performance. We watch it eight times, making notes, memorizing it, practicing it between each other. And then, if the run lasts a month, we'll watch it another 16 or 20 times. So by the end, we'll have watched it about 30 times – and we'll be really fucking familiar with that movie. I've watched Mac and Me more times than most people have ever dreamed of watching it.
Parsons: More times than most people have heard the title.
Erler: Can't Stop the Music with the Village People, I've watched it like 50 times. Which is a weird side effect of this job, watching movies over and over again. Top Gun, I've probably seen it a hundred times – at least.
Parsons: It's weird, you get to this level where you're so familiar with the movie that you know all of the peripheral characters' names, you know all the lines delivered. You can spot when they're being an actor and when they're actually in character. It's a bizarre level of knowledge.
Erler: And that's the curse but also the blessing, because it allows us to see things that you might've missed the first 10 times you watched the movie, but you catch it on the 11th time. Like in The Matrix, that little disco-finger move that Agent Smith does when he's interviewing Neo in the cubicle at the beginning. It's so fast, and probably everybody knows, subliminally, that it's there ... but they've never stopped to think about it or give it a name. And it really is there. He's like, "Misssster Anderson," and he does this disco-finger move.
AC: What are your personal favorites of the movies you've parodied?
Parsons: Well, there's different ways of assessing that. As far as show quality?
AC: What's your favorite movie as a movie, and what's your favorite movie to fuck with?
Erler: I love The Matrix – for both of those reasons. I love it as a stand-alone movie, and I love it as a mock. And, I don't know, maybe I'm the only one, but I cry. Seriously. Every time I watch The Matrix, I get all choked up. I know it's totally stupid, but when Trinity is trying to bring Neo back to life and they're being attacked by the Rasta-robots and he's been shot and you think maybe he's gonna die ... and she gives him a kiss and brings him back to life. [He pauses and rubs at his moistening eyes.] Ah, just talking about it ... [He shakes his head.] You should ask my girlfriend, she'll tell you what a blubber-puss I am. But if something's done right, then I love it. I mean, there's cheap sentiment, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But if you can do sentiment right, if you can make a movie that builds to this moment at the end where it totally gets you by the heartstrings ... So I love that movie just for itself and the cool special effects and the feeling that I got back in 1999 when I first saw it and nobody else knew about this great new movie. And the fact that Keanu Reeves is the star, and he's such an idiot, yet he somehow pulls it off.
Parsons: I loved Planet of the Apes.
Erler: As a mock?
Parsons: Kind of both. The reason it works so well for me as a mock is that I had such a love for it going in to the movie. It's one of those ones that, the more you watch it, the more you pick up on. You start to get an idea of who the characters are and their relationships and what's really going on. And Owen and I, at least, watched all the rest of the movies – all the sequels and prequels and all the stuff that was going on. There's such a rich mythology to the story that makes it really rewarding. And, as a mock, it was just the perfect confluence of all the right elements. And it was, at that point, the oldest movie that we'd done. And not only was it from the Sixties, it has Charlton Heston, who seemed to be acting in a different movie the next county over with the scale of his performance.
Erler: Those are some of the best ones to do, where there is a total ham or bad actor in the lead – like Keanu or Heston. It's so much fun.
Parsons: So, Planet of the Apes, the movie was famous and infamous. And we had what was probably our best skit in the middle, where we had this big operatic ballet with Little Stolen Moments. They did the show and did a big dance with us at the end – it was wonderful. That, for me, was a big one. And then the flip side of that would be Back to the Future. Which, growing up, was one of my absolute favorite movies. And I still love the movie ... except that, the more I watch it, the more I realize that their time-travel theory is terribly flawed.
Erler: Oh, here we go. This is a pet thing of his.
Parsons: It is a pet thing of mine! I can get really –
Erler: As if time travel is totally practical and scientifically feasible ...
Parsons: No, it's not feasible at all, but there's a ... a science fiction to it –
Erler: But there's an internal logic to it, in Back to the Future. Where's the hole in the –
Parsons: For me, the biggest hole in that movie is, Why doesn't Marty McFly recognize his parents and his brother and his sister when he returns to the future? He wakes up the next day, after the end of the whole thing – we're in the denouement, right? And he wakes up, and his house is all nice and his brother and sister are wearing suits and reading the paper, and his parents come back after having played tennis and they're rich and successful and civilized and whatever. And Marty's like, "What's going on? Who are these people? What happened?" And it doesn't make any sense! Why wouldn't he remember? I mean, who went back in time? Was it the Marty McFly from the alternate universe?
Erler: What does he not remember?
Erler: He knows who they are ...
Parsons: Yeah, he knows who they are, but –
Erler: He doesn't realize that he's changed the future to that degree. That's what's surprising.
Parsons: But why wouldn't you know that you had changed it at all, is the thing. If you arrived ... let's say you go back, you change some things in the past, and then you return. Do you not have the memory of the time your dad made a million-dollar commission off of a sale? Do you have no memory of that childhood?
Erler: But he leapfrogs directly from the 1950s to the Eighties, of course he doesn't remember any of that.
Parsons: Okay, so what happens to the Marty who did? Where is that Marty?
Erler: Ah, I see what you're saying ...
AC: Ah ... heh ... Guys, how do you decide which movies to mock? And do you take requests?
Erler: We do take requests.
Parsons: We kind of used to hate taking requests, but people have come up with some good ones recently. The Matrix was a suggestion, and it's the perfect combination of all those elements.
Erler: I think The Matrix was a suggestion on our Facebook page, actually, because we have a whole thread going there of "What Do You Want To See Next?" Endless amounts of suggestions.
Parsons: And we have a Choose Your Own Pancake Night that we do – there's one coming up – where people will bring in DVDs that they wanna see us mock. And the audience votes on the movie they want us to do – that night, on the spot, totally improvised. And the last time we had it, man, there were 15 DVDs that made it into the finals, and any one of them would be an amazing run of a show.
Erler: Then each of those 15 people got up on stage and gave a short speech to say why we should mock this particular movie, and, yeah, there's so many good picks. Passion Of the Christ was one of them – but we didn't get to do it, because the woman who brought it, when she opened the case, the DVD wasn't in there.
Parsons: In an unopened DVD case!
Erler: It was actually kind of miraculous.
Parsons: It was! It was the Rapture of DVDs!
Erler: It was shrinkwrapped and everything, she opened it up, it was empty. Like God saying, "Thou Shall Not Fuck With This Movie." So the final two movies were Predator and Roger Corman's original Fantastic Four. And it was this short, geeky, balding, bespectacled dude – who I actually know – who brought Fantastic Four. And this very attractive blonde woman who brought Predator.
Parsons: And we couldn't decide, so we gave them one last chance to pitch the audience. And the woman went up there and said, "If you choose Predator, I will show my breasts on stage."
Erler: And she was not unattractive.
Parsons: She was very attractive. And she had, ah, some goods in the storefront.
Erler: So we went to the guy, and we were like, "Well, what's your counter-argument to that?"
Parsons: And the guy said, "If you don't choose Fantastic Four, I'll commit suicide."
Erler: And the people, God bless 'em, picked Fantastic Four.
Parsons: They really did. They voted against boobs.
Erler: Which I think is a testament to how geeky our audience is, to how little they're swayed by the temptations of the flesh.
Master Pancake performs regularly at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz. See www.originalalamo.com for upcoming show information.
Master Pancake, John Erler, Joe Parsons, Jerm Pollet, Owen Egerton, Mister Sinus, Mac Blake, David Jara, Ben Bartley, Scott Chester, Buzz Moran, Mary Jo Pehl, Martha Kelly, Zack Carlson, Leslie Cochran