Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Boston Comedy Interview: Joel Hodgson on Cinematic Titanic and Mystery Science Theater 3000

Joel Hodgson brings Cinematic Titanic
to the Wilbur Oct 29
Joel Hodgson says he feels grateful and lucky a lot. Grateful he was able to do stand-up comedy and appear on HBO specials and Saturday Night Live. That he was able to drive Mystery Science Theater 3000 into existence. And that he can work with a lot of his olod friends from that show on Cinematic Titanic, his latest movie riffing project, which comes to the Wilbur Theatre October 29.

Cinematic Titanic reunited Hodgson with Trace Beaulieu (Crow, Dr. Forrester), J. Elvis Weinstein (Tom Servo), Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank), and Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester) from MST to once again make good art out of bad cinema. That means five of the funniest minds in comedy riffing on a movie in one show, which produces hundreds of laughs per movie (they have actually counted them).

In December of 2009, the CT crew moved in a different direction, releasing their first live DVD, skewering East Meets Watts. It was the funniest of their releases to date, and a bit of a revelation for Hodgson and co. Since then, they have released The Alien Factor and Danger on Tiki Island, both live discs, capturing the energy of riffing for a live audience. It’s a much more immediate format, and one they won’t likely be changing soon.

Fans will have opportunities to see their favorite MST folks all weekend long, starting tonight when Trace and Mary Jo talk Cinematic Titanic at M.I.T. The Wilbur is not only hosting the premiere of a new Cinematic Titanic movie on Friday, it is also hosting w00stock on Sunday, featuring former MST3K cast members Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy (both of whom are now part of RiffTrax with Mike Nelson, who replaced Joel when he left MST).

I spoke with Joel by phone last week about Cinematic Titanic and the ever-expanding MST universe.

So how have the live dates been going?

They’re great. I’m so grateful we get to go out and do these shows. This month we’re doing three shows. We’re in Washington, DC, Providence, Rhode Island, and then in Boston. I love the work. It’s fun to do it. The audiences are great. I love the people I work with.

How many movies are you touring with at once?

We’ll be doing the premiere of our newest movie in Boston, called Rattlers. That’ll be our 13th movie. We can pretty much do any movie that we like. Currently the movies we’re working on are our newest movies, that helps get them ready to release them by bringing them out and performing them live. We can always pop in a new one. If we go to a new city, we can look at our catalogue.
The Cinematic Titanic crew

Has the touring become a more important element than it was at the beginning of Cinematic Titanic?

Part of the premise of Cinematic Titanic was to do it live. For the very first Cinematic Titanic, we also had booked a live show. So within the first week, we had a studio show and a live show. They really are kind of hand in hand. But what we learned is that the live show is the state of the art. Coming from Mystery Science Theater, we thought we needed to a studio show. But we found we just did better in front of an audience.

Are you sticking with the live format for the next releases?

Yeah. We just feel that’s the state of the art. We do better for shows, trying to get up for the shows.

Do you think there are still MST fans out there you haven’t reached yet, who don’t know about Cinematic Titanic?

Oh, I think so. I think absolutely. I’m a U2 fan and I haven’t bought a U2 album in about thirteen years. I’m sure there are Mystery Science Theater fans who haven’t heard about what we’re doing. I just think that it takes time. But so far, we’re able to play different venues and different theatres. We can sell them out. Pretty much consistently we’re able to draw good crowds, even though I’m sure we haven’t saturated the whole MST [crowd].

How does the DVD and live format differ for you from the old MST format of having a weekly studio show? How does it compare to producing a weekly TV show?

When we did a weekly show, we had a lot of resources. We had money coming in. We had an office to hang out at and work at. We had a studio. All those things kind of in one place and available. Designated prop builders. Cinematic Titanic is much more stripped down. It’s kind of us, we write and produce everything. But again, the premise is a lot stealthier, also. It’s us at the microphone with our scripts riffing. It’s not the heavy concept of a guy trapped in space with robot companions. The production part is not there. It’s just us doing a concert of movie riffing. That really was the original premise of Cinematic Titanic.

When you were here at MIT last year, you had said you and Trace were working on back story for why everyone was on the Cinematic Titanic. Is that still in the works or has the live concept changed that?

Trace and I were working on it, feeling like we had to make it like Mystery Science Theater. I think we were really struggling with, should we do it live or do a high concept show, which our studio shows were becoming. I think ultimately we felt like we were aping Mystery Science Theater. Doing it live, we could throw all that away, and it becomes, we’re the Mystery Science Theater guys, and it’s about riffing.

Doing it live eliminated any need for a concept. I liked it. Because I wasn’t really satisfied with what we had. I was kind of like trying to fill it in. Trace and I were trying to get something to happen. It was a bit harder, I think, because we were kind of doing it as a group. Conceptually, Mystery Science Theater was a little bit easier. I got kind of frustrated. Doing it live

Does it feel more like your stand-up days doing it this way?

Absolutely. We all met doing stand-up and I think that’s why we love doing it so much. That’s how I found [everyone for] Mystery Science Theater, in the clubs. That’s where we found Josh [J. Elvis Weinstein]. That’s where we found Mike and Frank and Mary Jo. Everybody, pretty much. Paul Chaplin.

Do you ever come across your early stand-up on HBO specials or on Saturday Night Live?

Oh sure. Mostly, people will remind me of it. Yeah.

What do you think when you see it?

It’s fun. It seems slightly unreal. It was a long time ago. Almost thirty years ago, when I started. I’m really grateful.

If it hadn’t been for MST, what direction do you think your career would have gone?

I couldn’t tell you. I really don’t know.

You’ve done set building and writing, was that in your head at the time, that maybe you’d wind up doing that?

I guess so, but I guess I just don’t have the personality to work, I’m not quite good enough to kind of work people... That’s why I got to do this. I can do a lot of things kind of competently, but not anything really great, not any particular thing really well.

And yet you have fans who are dedicated and have been for decades, and you’ve been called a genius more than once in print.

Uh… yeah? [laughs]

What are your thoughts when you see all of these people praising you for what you created?

Again, it kind of goes back to my stand-up, I just look at it and go I’m really glad I did it, I’m really glad I had the energy and the persistence to get it out there. That’s the thing that I think about most, is I just wanted it, I wanted to make it happen. I’m kind of amazed and glad and just grateful that I was able, I had that drive to do those things, to do stand up, and I had the vision to do Mystery Science Theater, to bring it to life. I just feel really lucky. It feels unreal. I’m just amazed that people care.

Has the live show affected the 600 riff per movie ratio? Are you still able to get as many in as you were with the studio product?

It’s not as much because the laughs eclipse the set-ups for other jokes. It’s not as dense, there aren’t as many jokes. The jokes are all set ups. Whereas the jokes in Mystery Science Theater were much more dimensional and much more, probably, slapstick.

It just amazes me that movie riffing works live. It works beautifully. As Josh says, an uncommonly funny theatrical experience. It just works that way. We couldn’t have started this way. I don’t think it would have worked to do Cinematic Titanic first and then Mystery Science Theater. I think we had to do Mystery Science Theater first. And now people get it enough, it’s been around enough, that people think, oh, these are the people who did that.

Also, I would think you have a community built with a particular taste and sensibility, and you’re able to play to that and to some extent know what’s going to make those people laugh.

Yup. It’s really true. We were able to build this whole thing on the back of the Mystery Science Theater fanbase.

Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson on MST3K
Has the success of Cinematic Titanic given you any more leverage over how Shout Factory handles the Mystery Science Theater catalogue?

These guys at Shout Factory are really special. They really understand the fanbase and they understand us. And they really care, they happen to be fans. They’ve kind of consulted me, and I’ve just been available. I want to help as much as I can.

One thing that I will tell you that is very interesting, sales for Mystery Science Theater have gone up really impressively since Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax started. So it’s grown Mystery Science Theater’s business, just by finding new people and alerting people that we’re out there.

Do you think you’ll ever do a riff-off with the RiffTrax folks?

Oh, I don’t know. We were just at DragonCon with them. We did an event, and we did a panel. So we do stuff with them. So it’s completely likely.

I think that would be a huge event for MST fans. Seems like the fans really would like for you to be friendly, and there are some reports try to make it seem like there’s a rift there.

That’s the great thing about our fans. They love us all equally. And I think that comes from years of flame wars going on between Joel and Mike. And they’ve just kind of figured out this higher consciousness where they just like all of it. And they’ve really set the tone.


Lacey said...

This was a very good interview.

I have been an MST3K fan for (STATIC INTERFERENCE)years and I have read and listened to a lot of interviews.

Most are embarrassingly bad, with the interviewer just marking time before his book deal comes in. No research, just standard questions.

You seemed to have a good background and asked questions that brought new information to old fans and new fans alike.

Good job.

You don't know how hard a good interview is until you have read so many bad ones.

Unknown said...


Thanks for reading the interview. I've been a fan for a long time, and I'm happy to spread the news about Cinematic Titanic. I appreciate your taking the time to comment.