|Mary Jo Pehl is a former writer and performer on the immensely popular television show Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Prior to that, she had a career in acting and stand-up comedy, and, most importantly, worked as a temp. Her articles Crossing Bridges and A Guide to Guided Tours have appeared in Ironminds, and she's also written for the Minnesota Women's Press and Funny Times, among others. When MST3K ended after its tenth season, Mary Jo did some globe trotting around China, Africa, and Europe, then settled in New York city, where she works as a freelance writer, as well as a contributing editor for Our Precious Essence, part of the Ministry of Cultural Warfare.|
Not My Desk: So, how is New York (or, as you called it in your hilarious Ironminds article, "The Apple Called Big") treating you?
Mary Jo Pehl: Let me say that it's been an intense adjustment. Intense. Sublime and surreal. I had culture shock that I was unprepared for. I felt like I was atop the waste barge of humanity called New York City. I have learned that New York is not a good place to be if you're not a "people person". In an absolutely surreal incident as I was walking home from work, I had just run into an old boyfriend who told me he had a new girlfriend of six weeks. And how long had we been broken up? Six weeks. I was soooo happy that our relationship had not gotten in the way of his finding a new girlfriend. So I was despairing about life in general, crying a little bit, it was hot, I was trudging down 6th Ave., in bad shape all around, and I approached a panhandler sitting on a plastic crate singing out to people in a most solicitous way, "Sir, ma'am, if you have any change to spare, I'd really appreciate it. You're very kind, thank you so much." I was passing him and he growled as I passed, "I ain't even gonna ask you, you old pig." I started crying -– not only was it so un-called for –- I hadn't even looked at the guy! It was so bizarre! Then I got mad. So I stormed back in a fury and I took a dollar bill from my wallet, crammed into his cup, and said "Have a nice fucking day, you asshole." He thanked me very warmly. And that's New York. It makes me, a rational, kind human being turn monstrous and take on homeless people. I felt like I had amazing insight into why people go insane. I had traveled around the world for a year after MST closed up shop, then moved to New York only a few months after I got back, so maybe it was just all too much too soon. But I've gotten my footing, if you will, over the past several months, and I'm really enjoying it. I'm taking it on its terms, which I may never understand but can appreciate. But if you must know the truth, I'm growing my bangs out and my parents sent me away so I could do so at a special girls' home.
NMD: Now, since my site will no doubt soon be flooded with sci-fi geeks looking for some MST3K skinny, I guess I should ask you about the show. Do you miss it? Any future projects lined up with the old gang?
MJP: I do miss MST3K. But I also knew it was time to move on, that 10 years is a good life for a TV show. I am incredibly grateful and blessed that I got to have that experience. I got to work with incredibly funny, wonderful people most of whom I adored and with whom I'm still friends. I got to watch bad movies and laugh a lot every single day; and I was challenged in ways that I never was when I was temping! But life moves on, and truth be told, I probably would have stayed there forever if it had continued. It was a perfect gig. But such stasis isn't necessarily good either, as perfect as a gig as it was! I'd love to work with my compeers again, but when and what projects will emerge remains to be seen. I do believe our creative paths will converge again. I'm really hoping to get everyone together to work on a bio-pic about me.
|"Now, of course, I secretly thrill to the fact that I drove companies into the ground. Choose one thing and be good at it."|
NMD: Okay. Out with it. Honestly, who was a better host: Joel, or Mike?
MJP: I had really only just started when Joel left the show; although I knew Joel casually from the stand-up comedy circuit (he is gut-ache hilarious), I really didn't get to work with him that long. Both of them are awfully smart and funny. Mike was great to work with – he's funny, smart, and just a good sort all around. I adore the guy and I thought he was great as host and his taking over as host was very organic.
NMD: You know, I was working for Nickelodeon Studios when MST3K was looking for a new network after leaving Comedy Central. In fact, we received a package with lots of MST goodies in it, and a letter hoping to sway us into making Nickelodeon MST's new home. I don't really have a question here, I just wanted to point out how our lives are eerily intertwined, as if by fate or necromancy.
MJP: So I can blame you personally for Nickelodeon not picking up MST? Sure, go ahead and wail your shibboleth, "I'm just a temp!" But no doubt you had far-reaching powers that you wielded only when it suited you!
NMD: Actually, I was glad that MST didn't come to Nickelodeon, because anything even remotely resembling a sexual reference would have been cut. Also: "shibboleth." Excellent word!
MJP: Ah, but MST never, ever had anything remotely naughty! If anything was interpreted as sexual innuendo it was because the viewer had a filthy mind!! We often talked about doing a blue version of MST, calling it MST Nights or something like that. We'd do one of our regular bad movies and make everything a sexual reference no matter how forced or un-related it might be. Sort of like people who make EVERYTHING a sexual innuendo just by the tone of their voice, no matter how innocuous the comment is that they construe to be a set up for their lame attempt.
NMD: On the show, Mike often muttered about his past experiences as a temp. In Timechasers, Crow even went back in time to find Mike, circa 1985, temping in a cheese factory. Did these temping references come directly from you, or did Mike have his own experiences with temping to draw from?
MJP: I think this was a cumulative language of all us writers' awful job experiences; I could specifically and with great detail speak to the temp experience. The cheese factory is definitely from Mike's work history, but no matter where each of us worked, the horrible, soul-sucking experience was universal.
NMD: How did you get started as a temp?
MJP: I had lost the latest job as a secretary for a non-profits arts organization through a bit of mischief. I was awfully frustrated, feeling as though the staff of 12 that I worked for treated me like a secretary and the irony that I was their secretary was lost on me. That was my job title! So in the course of typing up memos and such, I would entertain myself by making up nasty names for nasty board members to whom the memo was being sent; for instance, Wayne Johnson became Wayne Fuckson. Then I would put in their proper names when it came time for the memo to be proofread by my superior… in theory, that is. There came a time when I forgot to put in the real names, and, through a sequence of oversights, the memo got sent out to Wayne Fuckson, the head of the board. Needless to say, end of job. But at that point, I was doing a 4 month run in a comedy showcase in Minneapolis and with that and temping, I could eek out a living. Naturally, temping was my first love, but I was able to supplement it by doing stand-up and the occasional commercial or play.
NMD: What was your stand-up act like? I know Joel was a bit of a prop comic, but I've never seen any clips of your act.
MJP: My stand-up was a lot of surreal, made up scenarios about my bizarre family or encounters. I can't even remember most of it. I know that my opening joke was to the effect of recounting an issue of a Supergirl comic I had read and how she had died fending off some superhero foe: I phrased it in an arcane, sci-fi comic book vernacular, and the punch line was, "And it just really upset me because that's how my grandma died." I'm telling you, people loved it! It was my favorite joke. I also did some fat jokes, self-deprecating humor, which I wouldn't do now. It's too easy, and that's what people expect from large people – self-deprecating comments that are really a way of apologizing for their existence.
NMD: According to your bio in the MST3K Episode Guide, you were named Employee of the month for Norrell Temporary Services in 1990. Can you tell us how that happened? With frantic arm gestures, if possible?
MJP: This was a very sad day for me. I had tried so hard to succeed at jobs that I actually wanted to KEEP, and kept getting fired or laid off, and then to excel in a system I despised! Oh, the awfulness of it! I believe – and I will not be disabused of this notion – that a major reason I was named EOTM was that I actually showed up to work. I was quiet which was mistaken for aptitude and efficiency. I was devastated when I received this award. I really struggled with the idea that perhaps temping was to be my life's work, what I was put on this earth to do, and how I fit into the Big Plan. I received a plaque embossed with a lady with a briefcase striding purposefully into her destiny. As part of the award package, I got to have lunch with my "caseworker" at the temp agency. Well, I'm sure those people were very nice but it seemed like more of a disincentive to me. I barely knew them, our interactions were business transactions, and I barely had time to see the people I wanted to see in my life, and then to have lunch with people who were essentially my bosses. So I called them to decline the lunch offer and they sent me $25 gift certificate instead.
NMD: The bio also mentions that four of the companies you worked for (and were fired or laid off from) declared bankruptcy. That must have been intensely satisfying.
MJP: It was NOT satisfying at the time because I was young and lacked any introspection as to how I was a square peg trying desperately to fit into a round hole. I was trying so hard to figure out how I fit into the world and I wish I would have had the open-mindedness to realize there are many, many ways to create one's life – it doesn't mean you have to work at some corporation! And I thought I was the last straw in each company's foundering. Everything was going fine until I was hired. Then complete ruin! Now, of course, I secretly thrill to the fact that I drove companies into the ground. Choose one thing and be good at it.
NMD: Jennifer Lopez is now referred to as "J-Lo." Maybe you could be "M-Jo?" Other stars seem to benefit from nicknames, like Sean Combs calling himself "Puffy" and Sinbad calling himself "a comedian." Ever think about having a catchy nickname?
|"The woman who was training me and was showing me around would point to the pop machines and say in a very didactic manner, "That's the pop machine..." Then she patted the water fountain and said, "This is the water fountain…"|
MJP: Yes, all the time. Actually, I can't speak to the "catchy" part, but I like pet names. My friends and family call me M.J., my name being Mary Joseph because I was born into an intensely Catholic family; and now an elite group of first tier friends call me "Midge" as a sort of pronunciation of my initials. My dad calls me ""Blondie" or "The Blonde One". I'm often called "Fancy Jo Pehl" after a stand-up comedy gig where I was to follow a comedian named "Fancy Ray McCloney" and the MC got mixed up and introduced me as "Fancy Jo Pehl." I have a friend who always calls Miss-whatever's-big-in-my-life-at-that-time-girl. For instance, Miss Living in New York Girl or Miss Biking Girl. He always has such an endearing way of executing it that I started following form and labeling my friends in kind. One day I blurted out to my dearest friend Kris, "Come on, Miss Cold Sore Girl." I didn't mean it unkindly, I just blurted it out because SHE had been so obsessed about it. That's why I keep my mouth shut from there on. I have learned the hard way to always, ALWAYS err on the side of silence. I'm trying to trick people into thinking I'm deep and mysterious and NOT lame-brained.
NMD: Maybe you could tell us about your worst experience as a temp. Or your best, provided you have one.
MJP: I've had many "worst" temp experiences! At one job I had to go to a tool and die company to do some data entry. The office was a room the size of a handicapped bathroom stall, and I was stationed at one end of the foreman's desk on a little stool doing data entry, while he was doing his work at the other "end" of the desk. We were essentially sitting side by side. There were no windows in the office, and the guy smoked constantly. He didn't even put out the current cigarette before he started a new one, and he'd have both of them going, switching off absentmindedly as they burned in the beanbag ashtray. He talked on the phone, yelling and cursing up a storm, talking about his c*** ex-wife, and then he'd turn and be really solicitous of me, like, "How you doing, hon? Can I get you anything?" Meanwhile, in the shop, there was the constant, loud whirring grinding machinery and a heavy metal station blasting in for the guys to listen to. I left after 4 hours during which I managed to go deaf and contract emphysema. Then there was the time where I went to NSP, which is the electricity company in the Twin Cities. The woman who was training me and was showing me around would point to the pop machines and say in a very didactic manner, "That's the pop machine..." Then she patted the water fountain and said, "This is the water fountain…" and so on to just about everything we encountered. "And this is the coat-rack…" Then we got to the desk I'd be working at (not my desk!) and showed me some filing that needed to be done. At this point she looked at me and asked if I'd ever done any filing before and if I was "familiar with the alphabet." I shit you not.
NMD: Holy crap. I think you deserve an Temp of the Month Award just for not burying a Rolodex in her head.
MJP: Well, you see, I was so stunned – and I'm actually fascinated by people like that, so I was secretly laughing at the situation and observing her in action. I'm always watching to see how it will all play out too, so I keep my mouth shut because I enjoy watching human behavior. Just don't make me mad – then I'm taking on all-comers!
NMD: Word on the street is you are doing some freelance writing, as well as working as a consultant for a PBS show called Mental Engineering. Freelancer, consultant... aren't these just fancy names for "temp?"
MJP: Gulp. Self-conscious cough. Shifting aversion of eyes. You got me. Allow me to point out these important differences: consultant and freelance sound cooler and glamorouser. Both allow me to wear jeans to work and make my own hours. Both pay much better than temping! Oh, and "free-lance" creates the impression that you're in demand.
NMD: Damn. Is it too late to pretend this is a face-to-face interview? Because then I could punch it up with phrases like: "I caught up with the vibrant Miss Pehl at Mojo's in Manhattan" and "Miss Pehl quizzically raised an eyebrow, peering at me over her Ferragamo sunglasses and chewing thoughtfully on a bite of her smoked turkey and bean-sprout sandwich while considering a reply" and "Despite repeated warnings, Miss Pehl kept trying to grope me under the table."
MJP: See Vanity Fair article with Lara Flynn Boyle, February, 2001. The one with Keanu Reeves on the cover. Substitute Mary Jo Pehl for Lara Flynn Boyle. THERE'S your interview, kid!
NMD: Ah, see how things go full circle! Lara Flynn Boyle was in the crappy 1993 movie "The Temp"! And, I'd like to point out that substituting you for her in that movie would have actually made it watchable.
MJP: Fer WEIRD! I didn't even know that she was in "The Temp"! I was just amazed at her voluminous ego in this article. So I amuse myself by pretending that I, a corn-fed, mild-mannered, unassuming gal from the Midwest, would be so cock-sure of my place in the world and say things like, "I'm the kind of women that other women hate. I walk into a room and all the other women disappear." Yep. That's me. AS IF!!
NMD: We saw in the news recently that Microsoft is paying nearly 100 million dollars to settle a long-standing legal case brought by thousands of temporary workers who claimed they had been denied benefits while working for the software giant. About 8,000-12,000 people who worked for Microsoft after December 1986 could be eligible for payments in what is believed to be the largest settlement of its kind. My question for you is, as a temp, did you steal a lot of office supplies?
MJP: I'm trying to get in on that Microsoft suit. After all, I have used Microsoft products and I think I'm entitled to something. Um, okay, yes – I pilfered the occasional paperclip, the odd letter-opener, a candy machine here and there. What's the big deal? Nobody misses these things! It's factored into the cost of doing business! I suppose now you're going to imply that I shouldn't have taken that IBM mainframe computer? I assure you - I forgot that it had fallen into my purse when I left the building on my last day…
NMD: How about dating? Ever get any dates out of temping? Give me hope, here.
MJP: Yes! That's the beauty of temping! It's not really an "office romance" per se, with all its attendant potentially impolitic situations! (Another beauty of temping is that the end of the job is already built in – you don't have to waste precious emotional and psychic energy wondering when the axe is going to fall. You KNOW it is!)
NMD: When all is said and done, would you recommend temping as a career choice to someone?
MJP: Hmmmmm. No. Yes. It depends. Chris, you're a case in point – you've made it work for you; and to an extent, it worked for me to, to allow me to pursue a different lifestyle. You have to understand the trade-offs, I suppose, as with any job choice or career endeavor.
NMD: Mary Jo, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview! Any final thoughts or comments?
MJP: Thank you for not asking where we got our movies for MST. I can't tell you how many times we've had to answer that question.
NMD: Soooo, you don't have any comments on my smoldering good looks and sparkling wit?
MJP: Actually, I was going to comment on your smoldering wit and your sparkling good looks, but I'm shy and I blush very easily. And I didn't want to appear as though I was compromising your objective participation as a journalist in this interview. That said…
|Photo credits: The largest photo is reprinted here with permission of Satellite News, at www.mst3kinfo.com, and is copyrighted 2000-2001. The two smaller pictures I kinda borrowed from somewhere.|
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