If you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, you surely know the manic and maniacal Pearl Forrester, played with incessant intensity by the hilarious Mary Jo Pehl—or you’ve spotted Pehl in one of her smaller parts, like Jan in the Pan, Magic Voice, or Minnewegian Amazon. Her presence has been felt even when she wasn’t in front of the camera, as she was also one of the show’s funniest writers. Those who missed MST3K in its heyday might be familiar with its spiritual successor, Cinematic Titanic, in which Pehl’s comedic skills shone even brighter. But all good things must come to an end, and so on December 14, 2017, the comedian bade farewell to the limelight in a single performance at Strike Theater in Northeast Minneapolis entitled Everything Must Go.
Pehl did not trade just on the audience’s knowledge of her in the above-mentioned roles—in fact, she purported to believe that her “fame” arose from an appearance as the answer to #1 across in TV Guide’s April 2004 crossword puzzle. (Naturally, she had copies, which she passed out to the audience.) It was a clever way to accomplish several goals at once: one, establishing the premise of the show, which was that she was cleaning out her storage space and thus reevaluating her presence on the stage; two, distinguishing herself as a very funny woman in her own right, independent of her previous collaborative work; and three, preventing the MSTies among the audience from falling into our usual talk-back mode. Reinforcing the latter, early on she handed out prewritten heckling responses to those who thought they might shout things out of turn. Naturally, I got one: “Thank you for not sharing.”
I call Everything Must Go a show, but it was equal parts comedy set, garage sale, confessional, and—no kidding—dramatic scrapbooking. Pehl set the tone right at her first appearance by relating the advice of her fashion magazine to, once dressed for the evening, look at yourself in the mirror and remove one item. Cue a slow glance down and a visible realization that she is without pants. “One accessory,” she cried, running backstage to change. “Remove one accessory!” That is Mary Jo Pehl in a nutshell: self-deprecating to the nth degree, yet unafraid and always funny.
Despite her years as the aggressively domineering Pearl, Pehl told us she is more like the Service Turtles (complete with adorable orange vests) that she pulled out of a fish tank on the prop table—slow moving, easily startled, and of course in need of help to right herself if she is flipped over. Her humor was inclusive, understated, but sly and skillfully crafted, reflecting her long years of comedic writing. (Long years indeed—at one point, she read a passage from her literal junior-high notebook, the authenticity of which was indicated by its crumpled edges, bent spiral binding, and faded cover.)
Throughout the evening, she fulfilled her double goals of getting rid of clutter and making us laugh. Those who didn’t receive the copies of TV Guide or leftover Halloween candy got to take home one of the Service Turtles, a copy of Pehl’s tater-tot hot dish recipe, or one of her CDs (Songs in the Key of B Movies). One audience member even received a small red overstuffed chair. (Much to my cat’s dismay, that audience member was not me. I’ll try him on the hot dish and see if that makes up for it.) How many shows can you go to and receive free swag from the performers?
The evening ended in a touching manner, as another actress sang a rendition of Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell” to a tearful Pehl. (Keen MST3K fans will have recognized the song as the same one Kevin Murphy, as Whittaker, sang in the Puma Man episode before Pearl beat him with his own guitar.) Yet even this moment was not allowed to pass without a comedic touch. Several times while the song was progressing, Pehl attempted to interrupt, but the singer wasn’t having it; finally, song over, she managed to get out “That was lovely, thank you . . . but . . . I’ve been offered a five-minute bit on an upcoming comedy special!” So perhaps, with luck, this farewell isn’t final after all. Let’s hope not, and wish Mary Jo Pehl all the best.