The movie-riffing virtuosos who brought Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) to TV audiences for more than a decade present the latest installment of their acclaimed Cinematic Titanic show at the Castro Theatre Friday, May 6, in cooperation with SF Sketchfest. This time, MST3K creator Joel Hodgson and his team of entertainers—Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl and J. Elvis Weinstein—shine their light on two of the B-movie genre’s finest accomplishments: 1961 Italian knee-slapper Samson and the 7 Miracles of the World (brawny hero, virgin princess, invading Mongol warriors) and Rattlers (addressing the age-old question of what humanity would do if faced with a horde of mutated, bloodthirsty rattlesnakes). I recently had the opportunity to chat with Hodgson about Cinematic Titanic, his earlier work in MST3K and some of the life experiences that came to define him as an entertainer. Hint: One of them involves a unicycle.
SF360: Your interest in entertainment seems to have developed early in your life. Can you talk a bit about that and perhaps discuss a moment or series of moments when you knew that this was something you wanted to pursue?
Joel Hodgson: Oh boy. I couldn’t tell you exactly. I think I was just always intensely interested in the unusual and anything related to entertainment. The world was so different when I was growing up during the ’60s and ’70s. It just wasn’t as colorful or open as it is today, so when you saw someone or something unusual it was really great and kind of broke the norm. I can remember feeling that I would need to pursue a craft like juggling, ventriloquism or magic to get noticed, but I was also intensely drawn to these things. I liked them. I liked that there was a way to make stuff, and that if you could just figure out how to make things look right you could be involved in all types of creative work. To me theater represented an outlet that was wide open, and I preferred that to pursuits like school, which I saw as more demanding and less imaginative.
SF360: I like what you said about this concept of ‘the unusual’—seeking out experiences that were perhaps outside the realm of what other people were doing. Can you expand on that idea?
Hodgson: I learned how to ride the unicycle while I was growing up, and one summer I brought it up to camp with me. As I was riding around one day this couple from Antigo—a small town in northern Wisconsin—approached me and mentioned that there was a kid there who rode a unicycle and was about twelve feet tall. [Laughs]. And it was just so captivating to me that in this little town in Wisconsin you could find somebody who did that, and how weird it must be to live there and see this super tall kid coming down the street on a unicycle. There was also a guy in our church named Charlie Fairchild who would do magic, and I got exposed to a lot of actual performers like ventriloquists and singers in that setting. It’s surprising to most people, but that environment kind of keeps show business going in a weird way.
SF360: You’ve mentioned in a few interviews that you feel somewhat uneasy in the spotlight, so it’s interesting that you’d pursue a career which more or less forces you into that space. What about your work makes it worth combating this discomfort?
Hodgson: Well to be honest I do like it. I like the craft of it, and I love the movie riffing that we do in shows like Cinematic Titanic. It’s so much fun to write and perform. There was a lot of conflict when I was doing MST3K because I felt like I wasn’t getting acknowledged as the creator and executive producer of the show. I was also dealing with external pressure to occupy this role of the ‘star,’ and it just wasn’t a place where I felt comfortable. Ultimately I decided that if I can’t do it the way I feel it needs to be done then I don’t want to do it at all. I didn’t want to be attached to a product that I felt wasn’t good, so that was mainly what informed my earlier comments about being in the spotlight. In the right situation, performing is really fun and I think I’m much more comfortable with it than I might have let on.
SF360: Personally, I love ‘bad’ movies, and I think the model for both MST3K and Cinematic Titanic is so interesting because you capitalize on this genre to create a fun and engaging experience. Are you just making people laugh, though, or do we actually have something to learn from films like this?
Hodgson: Well to me it’s more about the fascinating experience of observing other people. I think we’re all hoping for that moment when we watch a movie and we feel taken away by it, where we feel like we’re in it. That’s the kind of experience we hope for every time. But when that doesn’t happen, there are all of these other things you can examine and talk about when you’re not hypnotized or under the movie’s spell. I think that as far as its design elements are concerned, movie riffing is about talking. When we started 20 years ago, movies were considered sacred and talking back to them was completely forbidden. Now we just don’t see movies in the same light. When we started doing MST3K, the whole point was that we were going to use the technology on itself to talk back to the film. But with YouTube or even Twitter making it possible for anybody to do it, movie riffing has evolved into its own comedic art form. As Frank Conniff likes to say, ‘History has been kind to Mystery Science Theater.’
SF360: So would you say that movie riffing is essentially about fostering this dynamic rapport between the audience and the film?
Hodgson: Yeah, I think it’s something like that. It’s very peculiar, but the feeling is that you’re riding on the back of something. It’s moving, you’re talking, you’re landing jokes, you’re trying to say the right thing at the right time and the audience is engaged. It’s all kind of moving together.
SF360: How much of what you do is improvisational, and how much preparation is necessary for a show like Cinematic Titanic?
Hodgson: Everything is written. I’m not an improvisationalist. I never learned how to do that. When we started it was more like improv and something that we called ‘first thought theater.’ We did it that way for the first 22 shows, and then when we went pro—when we actually got paid to do it full time—that’s when I said ‘OK we actually have to write these because now my friends are going to be seeing them.’ So from that point on, we began writing them all. You really have to because it’s so tightly scripted that if you happen to make a mistake and two people talk at the same time it really will wreck the joke. So you just have to stay out of each other’s way, and the only way to do that is by scripting it. That said our scripts have around 600 riffs that happen in a roughly 85-minute period, so there’s really a lot going on.
SF360: MST3K and Cinematic Titanic take a special interest in the sci-fi B-movie genre. Is there a particular motive in emphasizing this category above others?
Hodgson: I think those movies work really well in some ways because they don’t really exist anymore. They’re a function of a time when people could see an intriguing movie poster and just walk into the theater, so the quality didn’t really have to be there. The films in this group are colorful, and there’s usually an extraordinary amount of production in them, meaning there’s a monster or some other fantastic situation. Personally, I love these movies because of my childhood but they just work really well for what we do. Science fiction represented this great thing that happened to movies because the filmmakers wanted to show something to audiences that they had never seen before. I think people relax in a weird way when a sci-fi movie comes on because they know it’s not real.
SF360: Most of the original cast from MST3K reunited in 2007 for the genesis of Cinematic Titanic. Do you all see your latest venture as a continuation of MST3K or do you prefer to view it as a fresh chapter in your careers?
Hodgson: I don’t have any illusions about Cinematic Titanic. I think that the success of it is all based on MST3K and the fan base, and just how great our fans are. Cinematic Titanic was kind of like an Apollo 13 situation, where we said ‘Hey, how can we movie riff again? What’s the easiest, fastest, most out-of-control way to do this?’ When MST3K started, everything on television was much more formal. The idea of talking silhouettes transposed onto a movie was just unheard of. And we were really nervous about whether or not people could understand and accept it. We wondered how long it could be sustained—we didn’t really know. But we love doing it, and we want to continue as long as our audience is interested.
SF360: Obviously you’ve performed in San Francisco before, but I was wondering what your relationship is with SF Sketchfest and how you feel about coming back. Do you have any particular impressions of Bay Area audiences?
Hodgson: Well, they’re incredible and I think you must know that. They’re really just so smart, funny and sophisticated. The best shows come through San Francisco and audiences there get to see everything. I think this is our fifth time back in three years and we feel really lucky to return, not just to the Bay Area but also to our partnership with SF Sketchfest, whom we love. Clearly we enjoy what we do, but having an excuse to visit San Francisco for a few days isn’t too bad either.
The Cinematic Titanic crew performs this Friday, May 6 at the Castro Theatre.
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