by gavin dahl
For nearly a decade, one comedy troupe has ruled the Austin film scene, packing theaters nearly every weekend for screenings of popular movies ripped apart by live hosts seated in the front row.
Master Pancake Theater pairs bad movies with live comedy and beer. MPT's John Erler and his friends regularly sell out four shows each weekend at Austin's iconic Alamo Drafthouse. Currently, Erler's co-host is local improv veteran Joe Parsons.
Whereas their inspiration, Mystery Science Theater 3000, was about making fun of obscure B-movies, Master Pancake focuses on many of Hollywood's biggest films. During SXSW, Master Pancake is mocking the gloriously trashy James Bond movie,Goldfinger(1964).
Daily Juice owner Matt Shook picked me up on 6th street after my awful experience at one of the opening night films at SXSW. The Alamo Ritz gets taken over by festival films, so we drove north away from the traffic jam that downtown Austin becomes every March to The Alamo's suburban Village location.
When we got there, the 10:15 p.m. show was sold out. When MPT performs downtown, they pack the 180-capacity house. The Village auditorium they used Friday night only held 120.
"The Village is a slightly different world than the Ritz," John Erler told me on the phone. "There were four ladies doing their knitting before the show, which I think is great."
When Erler's crew has their timing down, crowds tend to grow tired of laughing so much within the first hour.
"What we've started doing is cutting movies down," he said. They generally stop for an intermission skit after one hour. "We also take scenes out or edit new music over scenes." For the Miami scenes in Goldfinger, they employed a familiar Will Smith song, which caused Friday night's audience to crack-up.
"I've been doing this for 10 years now," Erler told me. "A lot of it seems stupid and off the cuff, but it is a surprising amount of work. Through rehearsals and performances, I will end up seeing each movie 40 times. I'm never satisfied until we leave the crowd gasping and laughing and uncontrollably guffawing."
Erler is notoriously unafraid of ridiculous and unflattering costumes and does a great moonwalk. "I can't get enough of the moonwalk," Erler said. "I overuse it in the break, and in the gold suit. That's a tight gold suit."
MPT's take on Sean Connery's version of Bond is kinda stupid and kinda clever. Erler plays macho Bond for laughs, but also works in repeated references to a homoerotic Bond. One of the funniest lines is when macho Bond jumps onto a ladder to avoid Korean henchmen and Erler takes us to his inner monologue. "Let me get away from these racial stereotypes. Misogyny is one thing!"
Master Pancake seems to take pride in standing up for Korean caddy, driver and top henchman Oddjob. "They are essentially voiceless characters," Erler says. "We get to give them a voice."
It's disturbing to watch Bond get away with forcing himself on women. The character seems to behave outside the boundaries of mainstream movie heroes. Still, Bond belongs to the category of leading man that best serves Master Pancake's work, the "Macho Idiot."
"We get suggestions of movies to mock that we don't use, but I don't think we've ever thrown out a Macho Idiot," Erler said. "The silent type who eventually gets things right. We don't do comedies. The more serious a movie takes itself, the funnier it can be to take the piss out of it."
I asked him about legal concerns with their movies, but MPT always obtains rights to show them commercially. Another comic of sorts, cartoonist Brad Neely, drew widespread acclaim for Wizard People, Dear Reader his retelling of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone in which he replaced the original audio with his own narration.
"Because of what happened to Brad Neely, we're not going to touch Harry Potter," Erler said. Fans argue it builds the brand, but the lawyers for major studios apparently worry it defiles it. "People love this. It's counterproductive," Erler said, but not worth getting into a battle.
Paying for rights and avoiding the potential legal hassles he faced before the former incarnation, Mr. Sinus, broke up in 2007 allows Master Pancake Theater to focus their energy on coming up with funny one-liners and gags based on obscure aspects of a film. Much of the biggest laughs come from sexual innuendo. It's tough not to get hysterical over the name Pussy Galore.
For one of the audience's favorite macho Bond lines, Erler's voice sounds a lot like J. Peterman from Seinfeld when he proclaims, "It's beginning to look a lot like Fuckmas."
Of course no Master Pancake show would be complete without a drinking game to help the $22 6-packs go down smoother. The performers ask the audience to come up with a catch phrase everyone can shout, for example, when a character dies. At Friday's late show, the crowd went with a reliable SNL reference: "Suck it, Trebek!"
John Erler has the single most fun paid gig in Austin, and the public has decided he is the best man for the job, forking over $13 a head week after week. He has yet to take the show on the road outside of Texas, but considering his sentiments, it is easy to see why.
"How could I have a better job than this?" he asked, before getting back to his lunch. "It's the best job in the world. Four times a weekend, I get to sit in front of a full theater being a wise guy and making people laugh. It is really kind of a dream job."