Mary Jo Pehl is terminally Midwestern—so much so that, despite being three decades into her career as a comedian, she still doesn’t really like drawing attention to herself. But that’s just too bad, because she’s also terminally hilarious.
A native of Circle Pines, Minnesota, Pehl started off as a writer on Mystery Science Theater 3000 before making the leap to onscreen talent as the diabolical Pearl Forrester. Since MST3K wrapped its initial run, Pehl has stayed in the movie-riffing business with Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, along with writing, stand-up, podcasting, and voice-over work.
Her latest endeavor is her Twitch channel, where she hosts an interactive hour of comedy on the fourth Tuesday of every month. The first episode aired in August, and featured Pehl digging up aborted pilots and abandoned projects for what she dubbed The Failed Film Festival. Answering our 11 Questions was very much in Pehl’s wheelhouse, as The A.V. Club discovered on a very giggly Zoom call.
Mary Jo Pehl: We would drive up to my grandparents’ farm in northwest Minnesota [when I was a kid], and what made it memorable and exciting for me is that I loved animals. My grandparents were from Danish/French/Irish, really composed, kind of cold stock. So it wasn’t about my grandparents. It was the idea that I got to go see all the farm animals.
And every time, I convinced myself that my parents were going to let me bring home a pony—or if not a pony, a cow. I just wanted something in our backyard. And I had this idea that—honestly, I’m not proud of this—I thought I had the logistics figured out in my head, and how we would get the pony or cow home would be to tie it to the back of our station wagon and just let it roll.
The A.V. Club: I love that your thought was, “well, if a pony is too much, we’ll get a cow”—which is way bigger than a pony.
MJP: I had no concept of any of it. It was also because they had fewer horses. They might have only had one or two horses, but they had plenty of cows.
2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career that you struggled to learn?
MJP: Can I say two things?
AVC: Of course.
MJP: Okay. One is the idea—and it took me a long time to learn this—of letting a performance go. I used to take things so seriously that if I had a bad comedy set, I wouldn’t sleep for days. I thought I was a terrible human being. I had ruined the world.
Way back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, I was supposed to do a 20-minute feature set at a sports bar in an outer ring suburb. And those setups are not conducive to stand-up comedy. So I absolutely bombed. I was supposed to get paid $25, and when they tried to pay me, I said, “No, I can’t in good conscience take the $25, because I didn’t deliver the product.” I wish I had come by [the idea] that it’s all experimentation, that it’s all hit or miss, sooner.
I think the other thing that I’m still learning, and may never learn, is the self-promotion. I am on stage, I am doing various screen projects. I’m the person who does this for a living, but doesn’t want to be known, you know? I’m like, “No, no, don’t pay any attention to me. But this is what I do!” [Laughs.]
AVC: Pay attention. Don’t pay attention. Look at me. Don’t look at me!
MJP: That’s exactly how I get off stage. Mortified that I brought attention to myself.
3. Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or get into something you hadn’t before during quarantine?
MJP: It takes me so long to ramp up to do stuff. I kept reading about these people who got their PhDs or decided to have triplets or whatever. And I will say that I was pretty busy—I was so lucky during quarantine because I was still writing and performing with Rifftrax.
The only thing I did learn to do—and became quite popular for—is I learned a chocolate espresso martini recipe. It became the hit of many of my friends and family. I was living with my dad for a while [during quarantine], and I had this living space and it was quite open. So you could have some people over and be still be separated. And it was a great source of comfort to people, I like to think, that they could have my chocolate espresso martinis and not be at home waiting out the quarantine.
AVC: I think that that counts. You became a mixologist.
MJP: For my one thing! [Laughs]
AVC: You’re a specialty mixologist.
MJP: That would be so funny. A bar that only serves one drink.
AVC: You’re like, “It’s all I got, sorry!”
MJP: Don’t even look at the menu!
4. What restaurant do you not live near, but make a point to hit every time you’re in the right town?
MJP: I lived in New York for three or four years, and in my neighborhood there was this little Italian restaurant that I always loved to bring people to. I would make it a treat to go there once or twice a month. I was so broke, but I just loved it.
It was this tiny, family-owned place, and I’ll be damned if I can remember the name of it. But whenever I go back to New York, I always go there.
AVC: How do you find it if you don’t remember the name?
MJP: I can walk it from my old apartment.
AVC: It guides you through the darkness. It reaches out.
MJP: I remember walking there from my apartment, so if I start there I’m still able to find it.
AVC: What kind of place was it? An old school red sauce kind of thing?
MJP: It had some of that, but it was a hole in the wall. It was great. I loved it.
MJP: I would love to have a device that responds to stupid bumper stickers.
If you’re driving by someone and they have a really stupid bumper sticker, or something that you vehemently disagree with, you would be able to respond to it so the person would know you were talking to them specifically.
AVC: How would this work? Would it put up a reply bumper sticker on your car?
MJP: Whoa, whoa, whoa! How it works was not in the question! But I did think of this this morning: Maybe it’s one of those old school LED readouts that spans [the car] on the side of whichever car you’re talking to. I don’t know. You didn’t specify that I had to explain it!
AVC: You know what? That’s fair. This is the realm of imagination.
MJP: Paul F. Tompkins. I was a huge fan of his, and then we ended up doing a Rifftrax show at San Francisco Sketch Fest several years ago. I was such a nervous wreck to meet him, and I’m usually not like that. I was beside myself. He’s funny and kind and I just adore him.
AVC: Did you do any other shows together after that, or just the one?
MJP: We might have done two— there was Sketchfest, and then he might have made a guest appearance at a Rifftrax live show. I know I’ve encountered him a couple of times.
MJP: There have been so many!
AVC: [Laughs.] That’s why I like this question.
MJP: Okay. So. I used to work at a 7-Eleven store in New Brighton, close to where I grew up in Circle Pines, Minnesota. I was working two full-time jobs the summer between high school and college, saving money to go to college. I don’t know how I did it.
The other job was another one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had—I was an aide in a nursing home. Then at the 7-Eleven, I had the overnight shift. And maybe it wasn’t the worst job, because I ate all the donuts that got delivered. I couldn’t do that at the nursing home.
Anyway, I had the overnight shift, and one night a guy came in and held me up at gunpoint. I surmised it was gunpoint because he had his finger under his shirt like this [sticks hand under shirt with finger gun].
So he cleaned out the cash register, and 7-Eleven policy at that time was you did not call the police first. You called your supervisor first. And at that age you have no sense of, “Well, that’s fucked up,” right? So I called my supervisor, and she was so irritated at being pulled out of bed at 2 a.m, so she was huffing and puffing and, “Well, how much did they get?” And I’m like, “I’m fine, thanks.”
AVC: Right, exactly.
MJP: So she shows up and then the police show up and then everyone goes away. And they left me to finish my shift.
AVC: You didn’t even get the rest of the night off??
MJP: It was like 2 a.m...
AVC: Still! They made you finish your shift?
AVC: That’s horrible!
MJP: I was an exceptionally stupid teenager. At that age, some stuff doesn’t click. But for me, a lot of stuff didn’t click. When I got home, my parents were outraged. They were furious, and rightly so.
AVC: When you say exceptionally stupid, do you mean naïve?
MJP: That’s a better word, naïve. A little clueless. I still am pretty literal, and I was really literal then. You have to like walk me through stuff because I don’t always connect the dots. Does that make any sense?
MJP: I take people at face value, and if you don’t know somebody, you don’t know. I know when my friends and my family are full of shit, but if you don’t know somebody, I can be really earnest like that. Like, “oh, okay.”
MJP: I would like to belong to the Byrdes in Ozark, because I think I would be a good counterbalance to all their stress.
AVC: You’d be the chill one.
MJP: Yeah. I’d bring perspective to everything. I’d be able to sit down and listen to what Marty Byrde’s really going through and say, “have you thought about this?” I can have a light heart when it’s necessary.
9. What’s the first piece of art or earliest piece of media that inspired you to go into your field?
MJP: I don’t know that I ever got inspired to go into my field. My field kind of found me when I got fired or laid off from six or seven day jobs in a row.
But I remember seeing Steve Martin in concert in–this probably would have been 1978. I forget which one it was, but it was before the the King Tut tour. He was doing smaller auditoriums with the arrow in his head and his banjo. My sister and brother-in-law took me to see his show, and it blew my mind that you could do that.
His sense of humor was so wild and full of non sequiturs, and it totally connected for me. I didn’t know that sensibility existed in my small town, and then to see him execute it really blew my mind. That must have planted a seed somewhere along the way, that you could do this and and have this wild sense of humor that people dug.
AVC: I mean, you see comedians on TV or whatever, but this is something totally different.
MJP: It was the idea of seeing live comedy, and stand-up. Because that’s basically what it was, stand-up comedy, even though there’s a little performance art in there. I think that’s a good distinction—it was three-dimensional for me in real life. It was not an abstraction, like sometimes television can be.
MJP: This is such a hard one.
AVC: It’s kind of mean.
MJP: I want you to transcribe that in this interview.
AVC: What, that it’s kind of mean?
MJP: Well, yeah!
AVC: Like I said, a lot of comedians do these interviews. And whenever I say, “Who is the funniest person you know, personally?,” I know that a lot of comedians hang out together. That’s the mean part, making you choose.
MJP: You bring up another interesting point, and that is the idea of being non-presentationally funny. Being organically funny one-on-one with people you know who feel free to to be their authentic selves. And funny shit just comes out.
I really do have a lot of funny friends who are funny in their real lives as well as their professional lives. But the first person who came to mind when I think about sitting down with her and hanging out and just laughing our asses off would be my friend Robyn Hart.
And the given is, of course, Bridget Nelson, who I do Rifftrax with, because we have a real connection with our sense of humor. And she’s professionally very funny too, and organic and authentic with her humor. That’s a lot of an answer for one question.
AVC: A lot of answer is good! And please feel free to go on as long as you want with this very important question I’m about to ask you…
MJP: It would be on a brioche bun, and it would be a Cadbury milk chocolate bar with sea salt caramel on top of that. And that’s all.
AVC: So like a croissant.
MJP: Yeah, why not?
AVC: It’s your sandwich.
MJP: The meats and cheeses have already been taken. And what would chocolate taste good on? A brioche.
AVC: So it’s like a dessert sandwich.
MJP: Well, anything can be a dessert. But that actually would be my lunch sandwich, for real.
The Mary Jo Pehl Show returns to Twitch for a free livestream on Tuesday, October 26 at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT.