Two decades since he made watching lousy movies on Comedy Central one of the funniest ways to waste a mid-'90s afternoon, Joel Hodgson has found a new, if similar, calling: a live touring show, Cinematic Titanic, with the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 cast silhouetted against campy sci-fi flicks.
When Cinematic Titanic last played to a Dallas audience, it was just the show's second performance, as Hodgson began thinking seriously about a running live show. This weekend, Hodgson and friends have a double bill at the Lakewood Theater, with Alien Factor tonight and Tiki Island Saturday.
Unfair Park caught up with the brains behind the show Time named one of TV's 100 best ever, to learn more about the riffing arts, and what makes Midwesterners so good at taking everyone else down a notch.
After spending so much time apart, how did the whole MST3K crew come back together?
We were already kind of ready to start this up again, and the deal didn't work out to do MST again. Trace [Beaulieu, who played Crow on the TV show] said we should just do it anyway. It was very direct when he said it, and it kind of blew me away. At a certain point too, we thought it might kind of feel a little like AfterMASH.
There's something else about not wanting to come back at the original, now that we're different people. It kind of worked itself out. You work a little harder with an audience -- and that became a really important thing for us.
Working with this group for so many years, at this point can you predict everyone's particular style of humor? Like, this guy's going to go for the fart jokes, she's going to come up with the second-grade gags.
We all like to create riffs that are kind of bouncing off the movie, and that's a unique talent in itself. Each person's a bit different, though. Mary Jo [Pehl]'s real literate and she's very productive. She writes a lot of ideas for every situation. Frank [Coniff] knows more about show business than anyone I've ever met, and he's an amazing character -- he can be himself more than anybody. Trace is a really good writer, and the best mimic. Josh [Weinstein] is a really good joke writer, and has really good comic delivery. I guess I'm the lazy guy who just likes to let it all go by.
How do you keep the jokes fresh when you tour with the same movies from city to city.
We don't do any of the movies for very long -- Tiki Island, we'll have performed it a total of five times. East Meets Watts, we did a total of seven times, so you don't get a lot of chances. For 90 minutes, about 600 riffs, that's about what a stand-up comic does in three years. Most comics get to do their routine hundreds of times, and we only get five tries.
Plus in a live show, two things are going on at once: we have to entertain the audience, but we also know the secret is to entertain ourselves. You try and curl the joke each time to get a response from the rest of the cast. It's always fun because we like each other, and we like the movies.
It's easy to say, oh, this movie's terrible, it's so easy to make fun of it -- but it's got to be tough to sustain that over a whole movie. Are there any movies you've thought would just be rich with material but ended up being sort of un-riffable?
As much as you try, there's always a patch in each movie that you just can't get through, so it's really hard. We might be working on our 10th or 11th movie now, so we turn a new one out about once every six weeks. It's magnified because first we work alone, then bring our riffs together. There's always that patch -- in Alien Factor there's like these walking scenes where these people are just aimlessly walking through the woods - it's supposed to build tension but it never happens. Fortunately, that's where the strength of the group works out - every body comes with ideas and it works out.
What are some highlights of the films you'll be showing at the Lakewood here in Dallas?
Alien Factor's really funny -- so the premise is that this zoological spaceship gathering specimens from across the universe crash-lands in the outskirts of Baltimore. The mayor has this really mediocre backyard, really small and quaint, and there's a giant monster back there waiting to attack him. Based on the economics of the movie, they had to shoot it on somebody's backyard. The monsters in that one are pretty good, the people are really into it.
Tiki Island is really good because it's shot in the Philippines, and it's a really nice looking movie shot on location. There's a crazy dance scene at some really scenic location where they might put on a luau, and it's got I think the worst monster I've ever seen. It looks like the Michelin man after a really fiery car crash, just a really bad monster.
I think the thing I like the most is, these are kind of forgotten films, films I'd never seen before and they're kind of orphaned. That's part of the fun of it.
How do you find your films?
We go through a film distributor, just a contact we have that tracks them down for us. For every ten movies he brings us, you can find one that'll work -- that was pretty much our ratio on Mystery Science. We did almost 200 movies, and we figured out that Frank had watched about 2,000 screeners -- he was the guy who screened the movies.
I noticed that, maybe appropriately, not only was MST picked listed on the Time top 100 shows list, but Dallas was too. The shows aren't ranked on that list, but how do you think you guys would stack up?
We would've been better than Dallas, come on -- just the name alone.
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Right, I figured you'd say that. Really though, Dallas seems like a great candidate for the MST treatment -- did you ever watch it and pick the show apart?
No way, I watched it in high school, and I was hooked on it like everybody else. I think I was buying the dream, that's when everybody was fascinated with it. I think now, given time you could obviously make fun of it.
Just recently we've had some great comedy teams come through town who thrive on parody, or found or repurposed material [Found Magazine, the Found Footage Festival, The Onion's Robert Siegel], and like you guys, they're all from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan. Why are folks from the Midwest so great at this kind of humor?
The way I felt about it growing up is, you just felt kind of unnoticed because everything came from the east coaat of the west coast. So you've got that sensitiblity. But the guys who really inspired me were the SCTV guys, and they were Canadian. Guys like Dank Aykroyd and Eugene Levy. The thing about SCTV that really inspired me was the consistently low quality, they're proceeding to tell you the story using consistently bad production. The thing that matters is that they're going for it.