UFOs are often visible, but not always. Sometimes they make noise, sometimes they are silent. If you’ve never seen a flying saucer, that is proof they are everywhere. This is one of the many amazing things we learn in TCM’s upcoming table read of Ed Wood’s masterwork, Plan 9 from Outer Space.
We once laughed at the horseless carriage, the aero-plane, the telephone, the electric light, vitamins, radio, and even television. But it took a while to get the joke about Plan 9 from Outer Space. Written and directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. in 1959, it was a little-known independent film with a direct line through directors who carried on the DIY-filmmaking spirit like John Cassavetes, Melvin Van Peebles and John Waters. The Cult of Plan 9 began when Ed Wood was posthumously awarded a Golden Turkey Award for Worst Director of All Time in 1980. Though this has been disputed.
Turner Classic Movies is the go-to channel for prestigious films. You can always count on a showing of The Treasure of Sierra Madre or The Public Enemy, or Citizen Kane. But top prize in the Golden Turkey awards carries its own prestige.
“This isn’t ‘Plans One Through Eight from Outer Space,’” Jerry Seinfeld proclaimed at the Chinese restaurant in a 1991 episode of Seinfeld. “This is Plan 9. The one that worked. The worst movie ever made.”
The SF Sketchfest presentation was adapted for the stage and virtual stage by former The Simpsons writer, and self-proclaimed Ed Wood superfan, Dana Gould. He and his Stan Against Evil co-star Janet Varney have been acting in live staged reads with a revolving cast of eager comic actors for over three years. The Zoom production also features Kat Aagesen, Bob Odenkirk, Bobcat Goldthwait, Oscar Nuñez, Deborah Baker Jr., Maria Bamford, David Koechner, Jonah Ray, Paul F. Tompkins, Baron Vaughn, and Gary Anthony Williams. The miniature visual effects, which are by no means just cardboard cutouts, were done by Mike Carano, and the sounds of musical accompaniment came out of Eban Schletter.
Laraine Newman is the narrator. She brings Gould’s adapted stage directions to such vivid life they can reanimate the dead, which is a key element of the actual plan at the center of the cult movie. Originally titled “Grave Robbers from Outer Space,” the film marked the last appearance of Bela Lugosi, who had also acted in Wood’s 1953 feature Glen or Glenda.
Lugosi’s footage for Wood’s unmade film “The Vampire’s Tomb,” was repurposed for Plan 9. Lugosi died of a heart attack on Aug. 16, 1956. To complete the film, Wood cast his chiropractor, Tom Mason, who in spite of his professional familiarity with the human skeletal structure, somehow believed he could mask the fact that he was much taller than the horror icon by pulling his cape over his face.
The table read of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space is part of TCM’s Classic Film Festival weekend, which runs through May 9. For easy comparisons, the original film will air directly after the event. Dana Gold and Janet Varney spoke with Den of Geek about refurbishing the low-budget cult classic, and how, like their predecessor, they proudly spared every expense on its new décor.
Den of Geek: I watched the table read a second time while playing Plan 9 in another window, and I just have to say, recreating those sets must’ve cost a fortune.
Janet Varney: Yeah, just like it cost Ed Wood a fortune.
Dana Gould: That’s the genius of, of Mike Carano. All those things were this big. You can see, I have the Bela Lugosi statue and the saucer. What he did was so amazing, and it really brought [the production] up to be better than it had a right to be. When Janet and I discussed doing this on Zoom, we were like, “Well, how do we take the limits of Zoom and turn them to our advantage? Why is it on Zoom?” By doing it, one, it allowed us to get a cast that we might not be able to get. Got people in different places. Maria Bamford was in Minnesota. Bob Odenkirk was in Vancouver. So, we could get people that normally we couldn’t get. Doing it in black and white helped. And then what Mike Marano did, it made it something unique.
Janet Varney: I would just also add, as a tribute to Ed Wood, we’ve never had anyone that we’ve asked to do the show who hasn’t wanted to do the show. Whether or not they’ve been in town for the live version, every person that we love that we’ve asked to be a part of the cast at one time or another is like, “Oh, my God, I need to do that. I want to do it. When is it? Please say it’s not a date I’m out of town. Please say it’s not. Will you ask me on the next one?”
Everyone knows this movie. And the idea of getting to step into its shoes in any kind of iteration is really exciting for every single person that we’ve ever asked.
Dana Gould: And it’s great to see how different people play different parts. Joel Murray plays the General different than David Koechner plays the General. Bob Odenkirk plays Eros differently than Patton Oswalt plays Eros. It’s always great. And Janet and I, we don’t want to know what you’re going to do. Just do it.
For this production, you assembled the all-star team. But were you ever tempted to use the same kind of players Wood used: wrestlers, tap dancing accordion players, chiropractors, and radio psychics?
Janet Varney: That’s a great question. I feel like we also have pretty good access to all those folks. So maybe that will get the next variety version. Because our friend, Jim Turner, is just about to do a fundraiser for the kind of variety acts who have been struggling in this last year, because of the many myriad things that they do.
So, I actually love that idea, Tony. And you’re right, it would be a totally different experience. That’s an interesting idea too, because we do come at it with a bunch of people who love the movie, but there’s also some major winking going on, as all the comedians and actors try to lean into being: “It’s my first time on stage, maybe my first time saying words,” really playing that up.
In the future, do you hope to see this performance eviscerated on Mystery Science Fiction Theater 3000?
Dana Gould: That would be great. If they did this.
Janet Varney: Especially because Bill and Kevin have done it. They have been in our production of Plan 9. Bill had been what Laraine [Newman] did. Bill did the narration at a show, at SketchFest, and it was great.
Dana Gould: I would like to see Jonah making fun of himself.
Janet Varney: Yeah. Let’s get meta. Our fans can handle it. Fans of MST3K can handle it. Plant 9 fans can handle it. Everybody could handle it.
I know I’m paraphrasing Seinfeld, but as the person who’s trusted with Plan 9 and all that comes with that, did you get to see the first eight plans from outer space?
Janet Varney: And are you allowed to talk about it if you did?
Dana Gould: Exactly. What were they?
Janet Varney: So many questions.
Dana Gould: So many questions.
Were the first eight plans rejected?
Janet Varney: Or were they all executed? And I use that word purposefully. Were all of those plans executed and they didn’t have great results?
Dana Gould: That’s a drunk man at a typewriter, “Plan 9 sounds good.” I remember showing Plan 9 to somebody who’d never seen it before. And they turned to me afterwards and said, “Did he not have any friends he could have shown this to and gotten notes?” He didn’t have those kinds of friends.
What are some of your favorite mistakes from the movie?
Janet Varney: Oh, God. I was going to say Dana had mentioned that the first time he saw the movie was on a video cassette that Tom Kenny and Dan Spencer, and Bobcat Goldthwait showed him. And I was actually going to ask, did you think it was the tape glitching at the end when the monologue goes from, blip to [makes a noise]? And you’re like, “Wait a minute. Back that up, hold on. Is somebody going to fix this?”
That’s definitely one. That’s a spectacularly new, weird problem in a movie that was not a consistent problem. So, you’re like, “Wait, how did that happen one time, in this very, very overt way?” So good.
Dana Gould: From the very beginning, it’s like the first time you saw William Shatner do “Rocket Man.” I remember, I had a party at my house, and I was working on The Ben Stiller Show, and everybody was there. And back then, there was no YouTube. You would just have these cassette tapes with all of the weird stuff that you had collected on it, like the farting priest and all these weird things that you had, and “Rocket Man.” And I remember showing “Rocket Man” at this thing and Bob Odenkirk just shouting at my television, “You’re a grown man. You’re a grown man.”
I always thought Shatner gave the same line reading for “Mr. Tambourine Man” as he did for “Kahn.”
Dana Gould: Yes, he did. He did. He had a couple of tricks, and he used them. Yeah. There’s one direction he doesn’t get a lot, “You want to just try one big? You want to just see how it goes?” “Take the chains off and let it rip?”
Was some of the background music in this reading, especially the oxidation bit, inspired by The Simpsons?
Dana Gould: That’s all Eban [Schletter, the musical accompanist], you have to ask Eban. But again, that’s great, especially the Solaronite song. Necessity being the mother of invention, that is a brutal chunk of dialogue for anybody, a thankless, brutal chunk. And every time I give it to Paul, I say, “I’m apologizing ahead of time. I give it to you because I don’t want anybody else to do it. Because if it was anybody else, it would be death.”
Eban came up with that. And we were just like, “Maybe we can break this up. Maybe there’s a way to break this up.” And then Eban came up with that kind of thing. And it is one of those things that I love, that it’s like a mutant. It’s grown into its own weird thing to solve its inherent problems. You can’t describe it to anybody. It’s just like, you have to see it.
I used to remember describing Kevin Meaney, the comedian. I used to just tell people, “I can’t describe what he does. You just have to see him, but then you’ll know. You only need a minute, and you’ll get it. But I can’t describe it to you.” That’s really a good analogy.
Laraine Newman, I believe, steals this as the narrator. How much of that is improvised and how much of that is written by you? Because I know that you wrote the stage directions.
Dana Gould: It’s written, but Laraine, I call it “newscaster flat.” Laraine knows how the notes need to be played. It’s like the Wrecking Crew, you have a guitar behind you. I don’t know what Tommy Tedesco is going to play, but I know it’s going to be good. I don’t know what Carol Kaye is going to play, but I trust it. It’s the same thing. It’s a murderers’ row, and I wouldn’t have the gall to tell them what to do.
Janet Varney: It takes a very specific kind of confidence as a performer to be that deadpan. It’s such a specific skill. And it’s a skill, I think, born out of a type of bravado and expertise that’s all just tightly contained in this tiny space, where she’s not trying to sell any of it. And that is the genius behind what she does is just letting it lay out there like that. I mean, it’s hard.
When you have something that you know is funny and you would be laughing yourself, if you were listening to someone else read it, it’s so hard not to want to sell it. Like, can I make this even funnier? And she’s like, “No, I need to take it all the way back, to the back of the house just like, who me, who me? I’m just reading these things.” And it’s just so brilliant.
Dana Gould: This is a person that did sketches on live television with John Belushi and Bill Murray. So she definitely knows where her center of gravity is.
Janet Varney: That’s right. Well said.
Dana Gould: And yeah, again, unflinching. And that takes, as a performer, just like a little inside baseball, a lot of control and to really, to have control of your own ego, to know that I’m going to get what I want by stepping way back. I mean, Sterling Hayden is the only person I’ve ever seen blow Peter Sellers off the screen. And he does it just by, he’s like a statue, but there’s so much weight to it.
In the original movie, I love the “Criswell Predicts.” So I wanted to ask, Janet, do you get asked to do bathroom readings?
Janet Varney: I would if asked, I would love to. That’s one of the things that’s great about Ed Wood in general too, is just having this a sort of fascination with the occult and that kind of thing. And the way that it fits into camp is so appealing. And so, yeah, I would very happily jump back into some bad psychic practices if I could. Hopefully, I will someday.
Dana Gould: And an unerring dedication to Wicker furnishings.
Janet Varney: That’s right. Always that. Paula and her wicker.
Because the table read is done during COVID and everyone feels an immediacy to Zoom calls, were you ever at all concerned about an Orson Welles’ scenario, where the residents of San Fernando Valley will believe they’re under attack by flying saucers from outer space?
Janet Varney: If only.
Dana Gould: Yeah. That’s the least of our problems out here. I don’t know when you visited last time, but the walking dead, they’re around.
The table read of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space airs on Friday, May 7 at 8pm on TCM. Plan 9 from Outer Space airs at 9:30pm.