Once a ‘Mystery Science Theater’ In-Joke, Now Playing Comedy Clubs

In Minneapolis, Frank Conniff, a writer and co-star of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” found the ad had become “implanted in my head,” he said by phone. “Of all the staff, I was the one who most actively read the trades,” he recalled. “The ad always struck me as funny, but I don’t think I could have gotten the joke in as many times as I did had the others not gotten similarly obsessed.” In recent years the ad has taken on meme-like qualities; there’s even a T-shirt reproducing it.

But what of the movie itself? “It’s about a New York real estate developer who has dreams of political influence,” Mr. Cohen said, and not surprisingly, the impetus to finally get back to the project stemmed from a dinner conversation the filmmakers had when Donald J. Trump first began campaigning for office.

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Zack Norman as Sammy in “Chief Zabu.” (Some of the film was shot at StandUp NY.) Credit The Zabu Company

“Trump reminded us of Sammy!” Mr. Cohen said. “And there’s actually a shot of one of Donald Trump’s father’s buildings in Queens, the Trump Pavilion, in the movie.” He told Mr. Norman, “If we cut 15 minutes from the movie based on what we’ve learned about filmmaking and humanity in the past 30 years and apply that to recutting the movie, we might have something.”

After unveiling the new cut in Santa Monica, Calif., last fall, then taking it to the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in Florida, the two decided it would be more useful — and more fun — to take the picture on a comedy-club tour. Some of the movie’s scenes were actually shot at StandUp NY, the club where the film will be shown Thursday. (Mr. Norman’s performing career always had at least a foot in stand-up.)

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From left, Charles Carl, Rudy Jones and Manu Tupou (as Chief Zabu) in a scene from the film. Credit The Zabu Company

It’s not exactly what they envisioned all those years ago. A struggling actor in the early ’60s, Mr. Norman dropped out of the business and took up real estate. “I became a very rich guy in a couple of years,” he said, but he was miserable. He returned to show business as an actor and producer, adopting the name Howard Zuker for behind-the-scenes work. “Because I now knew a lot about things such as tax shelters and depreciation, I was able to start financing movies.”

In 1976 he found himself at the Sherry-Netherland hotel, where real-estate sharks, celebrities and other moneyed sorts had assembled to hear a pitch that involved gaining control of Namibia and promoting it as a tourist attraction by fixing an election in favor of a government opponent. Mr. Norman thought there was a movie in this kind of hustle, and worked up a script with his friend Mr. Cohen, then a talent agent and writer. The cast included the great character actor Allen Garfield (“Nashville”), and their production was joined by people Mr. Garfield knew through the Actors Studio, including Allan Arbus and Ed Lauter.

The film showing Thursday is a newly edited version. It’s a freewheeling, gently funny New York shaggy-dog story in which the avid Sammy teams up with the rather more skeptical Ben (Mr. Garfield) to corner the market in lots on a Polynesian island with the help of the title character (Manu Tupou), whom they intend to make a puppet ruler. Various intrigues, both financial and sexual, ensue.

While not necessarily an instant classic, it has an eccentric quality that’s in keeping with the mystique that’s built up around it.

Mr. Norman and Mr. Cohen plan to tour the movie more extensively this fall, but already are gratified by the response it’s received at West Coast comedy clubs.

“When we were making it, we understood that we had one audience, middle-aged guys who understood the world we were making fun of,” Mr. Norman said. “So it’s a great surprise to see young audiences getting it now.”

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