Master Pancake's John Erler Talks Alamo, Jeopardy and Baring it All for the Fans
Master Pancake is an Austin staple, run by former Jeopardy champion, host of KO-OP radio's Elk Mating Ritual and all-around Chill Dude John Erler.
Erler's on the right. In the center is MST3K alum Mary Jo Pehl, who'll perform with him on Sunday.
He and his revolving clutch of film mockers occupy the Alamo Drafthouse's front row to riff on popular movies. They even break the things apart, halting the screenings abruptly for live mid-show comedy sketches.
Oh, and they're really freaking good at it.
Now that Alamo is expanding -- stretching throughout Texas and beyond -- other cities want in on that sweet, syrupy Pancake action. So, the crew's started touring.
This Sunday marks its third Dallas visit, and you've got two chances to see Erler, collaborator Andrew Rosas (STAG Comedy) and original MST3K star Mary Jo Pehl mock Halloween, which Erler describes as "the story of a shy young man who comes home and finds himself stalked by a creepy three-note piano riff."
We figured it was time to rap with Erler and ask about the project, its travel limits and exactly how soft Alex Trebek's hands really are.
Mixmaster: First of all, could you give the uninitiated a little run-down about what Master Pancake is?
John Erler: Master Pancake is Austin's premier movie-mocking troupe. It's like Mystery Science Theater 3000 but we do it live, in the first row of the theater, with microphones.
What makes the mid-show sketch important to the show's vibe?
Most of the show is just voices in the dark, so the skit is a way for us to connect directly with the audience. People want to see people, and they want to see something a little risky. Getting up in front of an audience and (sometimes) taking most of your clothes off fulfills that desire. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail, but the audience always likes it when they see you sweat for them.
I don't know of you performing in sketch troupes outside of the cinema. Do you, or have you?
No. In 1999 I was getting a PhD in Classical Lit at UT when I realized that what I really wanted to do was perform (thanks for blowing my 1999 mind, The Matrix and Fight Club). So I started doing a lot of student radio at UT and I did a little stand-up at open mics around Austin.
I had a routine where I was Skeletor and told corny jokes that I read from a piece of paper that Beast-Man had written for me. But Beast-Man had transcribed them from a joke-book without understanding them, so they all came out wrong and I ended up cursing Beast-Man at the end of each joke.
Sunday's show, where you mock Halloween with MST3K alum Mary Jo Pehl and Stag Comedy's Andrew Rosas is your ... third Alamo Dallas visit?
This will be our third visit. We did T2 in August, Breaking Dawn Part 1 in September. We're trying to come at least once a month. We'll probably do our Hanksgiving show (Best/Worst of Tom Hanks) in November and our X-mas Clip Show in December. The X-mas Show is one of our best ongoing shows and we're so excited to be bringing it to Dallas for the first time.
You can only tour so much -- be in so many places at one time -- while keeping consistency in the Master Pancake empire. Have you forecasted the show's limits, or ways to replicate it without watering down its quality?
Empire. That's funny. Thank you. Right now we're concentrating on bringing the show to just the Drafthouses in Texas. That way we can grow the show, take it to new places, see how it plays -- all without diluting the quality of what we've got here in Austin. So far it's been going great.
We've had unbelievable success selling out shows in Dallas and Houston. We're starting to do shows in San Antonio, too. Smaller crowds, but the audiences have really dug what we do. When the Alamo opens in El Paso we'll probably go there. Going further afield to places like NYC and San Francisco on a regular basis will be more of a challenge but we're looking forward to figuring out those details.
You had a radio program outside of Philadelphia in the '80s that sort of set the table for your current show, the Elk Mating Ritual, which started on KVRX when you were pursuing your advanced diploma, and moved up to KO-OP later, when you were civilian again.
Wow, how did you find out about that? Yes, in the '80s I went to college at Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college outside of Philly. Me and my partner Dan Rice did a radio show where we parodied traditional rock radio format. We promised the listeners more rock per minute than any other radio station and to prove it we played "Stairway to Heaven" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" simultaneously.
On one show we sampled the piano chord from the end of The Beatles "A Day in the Life" and put it on a loop. We told our listeners that we were going to find out just how long that chord lasted, and so we just kept looping it throughout the entire show and pretending to be amazed at how long it went on for. We also liked to play the sounds of blue whales underneath everything we did. I don't know why.
Could you explain Elk Mating Ritual's current iteration a bit?
Let's just say I now play the sounds of rutting elks instead of blue whales underneath everything. Other than that, it's about the same. [Catch it Thursdays on livestream from 4:30 to 6:00]
You went on Jeopardy last year and won, which is to say you've earned a gold medal in the Nerd Olympics. What was the first thing you did when you got that acceptance call?
Erler: livin' the dream.
Like a lot of Jeopardy fans I'd been trying for most of my adult life to get on the show. After years of taking the test, both in person and online, I finally passed and got invited to an audition. I did really well there, and they told us that if we didn't get a call within 18 months that we should start over. Well, I didn't get the call until literally 17 months after my interview.
I had actually forgotten all about Jeopardy at that point. So when I got the call it was the best feeling. I ran laps around the inside of my house for about 10 minutes.
Everyone who makes the cut has already proven their trivia worth, but there's that unknown element of who's going to freeze under pressure. Did your career as an improv guru and performer help you answer quicker, more assuredly, than your competition?
I do think being a performer helped me stay calm under pressure. It all goes by so fast. It really helps to be in the moment, which is something that being on stage trains you for.
You used to teach Latin. That had to be an advantage.
Perhaps, but I didn't get any Latin oriented questions while I was up there. I did, however, get a question about Texas Independence followed immediately by a question about the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower facility in Austin. I got both those questions right and got to flash the hook 'em sign after each.
What's a weird insider Jeopardy factoid that people wouldn't know who haven't been on the show?
The best thing that happens right after you win is this: They instruct everyone on set to refer to you as "champ."
So the second you win the game, all the production assistants and lighting guys and makeup artists and stagehands start calling you champ. "Nice game, champ." "Step over here for a second, champ." "Touch up your makeup, champ?" You're already riding high and then they stroke your ego even more. It's diabolical. I've instructed my girlfriend that she has to refer to me as champ around the house. So far it hasn't worked.
This isn't really a question, but I love that you screened the episode live at the Alamo, and started it with that episode of Cheers where Cliff Clavin goes on Jeopardy. The pop culture serpent eats its own tail.
You are correct. That is not a question. But thank you for appreciating that. And thank you for that metaphor.
Were there any other Jeopardy moments you'd considered showing in its place?
There's a scene in White Men Can't Jump where Rosie Perez goes on Jeopardy. I thought about showing that. Also, all the SNL Jeopardy clips are great. And there's an SCTV skit called "Night School Hi-Q" where Eugene Levy plays a frustrated host named Alex Trebel [sic]. In the end I got lazy and just showed the Cheers, which is the best anyway.
Fact about John Erler that most people don't know:
I lived in Dallas for one year. In 1980 my family temporarily moved from Austin to Dallas. I lived in Oak Lawn and went to Cistercian Prep in Irving for the eighth grade. I was very lonely for that year but I got to see Xanadu for the first time (at either the Inwood or the Granada, I can't remember which) and that made things a little bit better.