Interview: MST3K Fans Rejoice! Joel Hodgson and the Cinematic Titanic Crew to Riff on Five Films at Largo
Cinematic Titanic is Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff
As host and creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), Joel Hodgson and his robot friends shaped the collective sense of humor of a generation. By coaxing jokes out of truly cheesy movies—and mixing in pop culture references for good measure—they turned movie riffing into an art form and earned a cult following, two Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award.
In the years since Hodgson's departure from the show in 1993 and the show's cancellation in 1999, rumors of his return to riffing have continued to surface. Then in 2007, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of dreadful B-movies, Hodgson and members of the original MST3K team (Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, J. Elvis Weinstein and Mary Jo Pehl) returned to the riffing game under the name Cinematic Titanic.
Thus far, they've released seven DVDs and expanded into one area MST3K never did: On a regular basis, the Cinematic Titanic team takes to the road. Later this month, they will take over Largo at the Coronet to riff on five films in five nights. LAist spoke with Hodgson last week to learn about modern-day movie riffing, his early experiences as a prop comic in LA, and the importance of comfortable shoes.
LAist: What has Cinematic Titanic enabled you to do that you weren't able to do in the past?
Joel Hodgson: The live element is definitely something that sets this apart when you compare it with MST3K. When we go on the road, it's more like a funny Philip Glass concert. We're performing as an ensemble.
When we wrote MST3K, we were really just amusing ourselves and we never knew how people would react. Now we can get instant feedback, and that can be a good thing and a bad thing. If it's going well, then it's great, but if it's not working, we end up thinking about it way more than we ever did when we were doing the show. There's a little more heat on it, too. It's not like people are just sitting at home watching it—they're coming out, buying dinner, and purchasing tickets, so there's a little more pressure.
Cinematic Titanic at the LA Film Festival
Last year I attended your LA Film Festival show at the Ford Amphitheatre, and I'll never forget the moment the fireworks from the Hollywood Bowl started up and one of you ad-libbed the line, "We're under attack!" Has improvisation become a big part of your live shows?
Definitely. I've found that you have to trick yourself and make it different each time, because the best shows are when the cast is really having fun. You have to do things differently to amuse each other. You could do the same stuff each time and the audience wouldn't know the difference, because they haven't seen the show, but the people you really have to impress are the ones you're performing with. So we welcome those wild card moments. We have a script, but we're constantly altering as we go along.
Then there's also the element of never knowing how an audience is going to react. Sometimes a joke will get a bigger laugh than it got last week, and it'll crowd out the setup for your next joke. The biggest thing we've had to learn is the art of editing while we're performing.
You guys were really brave to do your first live riff in front of the team from Industrial Light and Magic! What was that like?
It was a little bit scary, but I had a little information going into it. We were brought up there by a group called Flecks, which is a movie-riffing group that has been going for about seven or eight years. Once a month they get together and watch a bad movie, and I was lucky enough to hang out with them and riff on a film before Cinematic Titanic ever came up there. They're kindred spirits because they're just big geeks like us, so it worked out.
Cinematic Titanic is such a perfect name for what you do, but I'm curious—what were some of your rejected names?
It's really weird, but Cinematic Titanic was the only name I thought of. It just came to me one day and blurted it out to Trace Beaulieu. This never happens to me, because I usually have to write down a ton of ideas before I get a good one, and this was one of those rare things where it essentially dropped out of the sky.
I said to Trace, "Let's call it Cinematic Titanic," and he laughed. Trace is one of these guys—and he hates it when I say this—but he doesn't laugh very much. He's wickedly funny and he's a great collaborator, but you have to say something really funny to make him laugh. So that's when I knew Cinematic Titanic was a good name.
Now that people can use their iPhone or computer to immediately Google what you're saying, do you feel even more comfortable making obscure references when you're riffing?
It's definitely changed some of the references in our studio productions. We know people are at home, so if they want to, they can look deeper into it. But our live shows are more streamlined and instant; there aren't as many of those moments.
Even as fast as Google is, by the time they'd Google what we were saying, we'd already be on to the next joke and they'd miss it. Before a show, as we’re talking about a joke, we'll often ask ourselves, "Will the general audience catch that?"
But even if only three people catch it, those three people will think it's the funniest thing ever.
Yeah, it's like I always said about MST3K—it's not for everyone, but the right people will get it. So we've always maintained that.
The cherry picker [LAist presumes]
Well, our producer and our director, Tim Ford and Stoney Sharp, have really adopted our whole in-camera sensibility. So I wrote this joke for Trace where he was in a cherry picker—those things the telephone guys use—and I just said, "This is probably something we can do in After Effects."
But Tim and Stoney said, "No no no, we're going to rent a real cherry picker for this." So that was my favorite bit. I was going to go out the cheap way, but they said we had to get a real one in there and do it right.
During MST3K, you got to sit during the films. Now that you're standing throughout each movie, do you ever get tired of being on your feet for so long?
You get used to it, and I realized you just have to get really good shoes. When I come to LA, I always go to Chinatown and buy really cheap suits—you can get a jacket, shirt, pants, belt, socks, tie and shoes for $100.
I used to wear those shoes onstage and they were just killing my feet. I realized that 90 minutes is a long time to be standing there and performing, so I got some really good shoes, and that took care of that!
You've said that you'd be open to the idea of airing Cinematic Titanic on TV someday. If you did, do you think it might be a live riff, or something like one of your DVDs?
I'm not sure. As a group, we're kind of all over the place on that issue. I think that nothing can compare to our live shows, just because you have instant feedback and there's an energy to it. So personally, I think that's better.
On the other hand, there's also a faction of the fan base that really wants to hear every riff, so we're kind of messing around with the notion of "How do you do both—how do you do it so they can hear everything, and how can you do it so there's still that energy?"
The answer might lie in producing a DVD that includes the option of turning off the audience response. We'll see.
Joel and the bots back in the day
On the whole, I tend not to, but it depends on my mood. It makes me think about it a little too much if I read a lot of what people say. There are a few of us who spend time reading everything on the boards, and there are a few of us who don't look at them at all. So I tend to get stuff filtered through a few other people in the cast, and sometimes I ask them what's going on.
Comments can't help but affect you. You end up thinking to yourself, "If that's what they think, then I'll do this..." At the end of the day, you're always back to zero. For as many positive things you hear, there are just as many negatives.
I once read a sweet news story about a toddler who rescued a puppy, and there were even negative comments at the end of that…
(laughs) That's funny. I believe it.
In addition to the Cinematic Titanic DVD releases, might you ever return to the Prelinger Archives to riff on old PSAs and other short films?
It's possible. I'm good friends with Rick Prelinger and I just love what he's done. He's always been such a big asset for us, but man, those videos are really old now. Many of those films are coming up on 60 years. I don't want to say they're super-easy to riff, but it's just different from 20 years ago when we were doing it for MST3K. It was fresher then, because people had forgotten about those movies and how crazy they were.
Right now we're just focusing on the feature films. But I also don't want to discount the Prelinger content, because it could happen someday and that stuff is really fun to riff!
It's really great how you guys have included autographed silhouette cards of cast members along with Cinematic Titanic DVD orders. Whose idea was that?
I'm pretty sure Trace and his wife Katie came up with that idea. They're the ones supervising our fulfillment and they're doing a really excellent job. They know that the strength of our business is based on every single interaction with people. So that was just one way to make it fun!
I was so excited when I saw that Cinematic Titanic would be coming to Largo at the Coronet in LA. How did that relationship come about?
Largo has just been this great place over the years where we—and a bunch of our friends—have played. The owner, Mark Flanagan, is such a patron of the arts. He's found this great niche and cultivated this incredible group of people. It's pretty much the coolest club in the world.
When it came to this event, we wanted to come in and do five movies in five nights, so we had to find the right venue for that. Largo is the perfect room for us to do that in. Traditionally, we'll go into a place that's 700 or 800 seats and we'll do two nights. But instead, this theater has only 280 seats and we're doing five nights, so it'll be more intimate. We're super excited.
Is it true you'll also have special guests?
Each night, a different comic will open the show with some standup. We have some great people lined up— Patton Oswalt, Andy Kindler, Dana Gould, Chris Hardwick and Maria Bamford will each take a night.
Cinematic Titanic - "Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks" Promo
Since you're headed here soon, what are some of your favorite places to visit when you're in LA?
Oh, there's a ton of them. As far as food goes, I like Poquito Mas, Barney's Beanery, and Musso & Frank's. I love the Magic Castle and will probably make at least one trip there this time around. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is also great.
I know we're running out of time, but I have a little "lightning round" of questions if you're up for it.
Let's do it.
What's the strangest gift you've ever received from an MST3K fan?
We got a box of toenails. In return, we sent the person a thank you restraining order.
Did you actually come up with the term "X-Box" long before it was ever associated with video games?
Yes I did. And I copyrighted the name for everything except video games!
Do people ever confuse your name with John Hodgman's?
Not really, but he is an Internet friend of mine. I recently told him, "I've always liked your name better because it's a little more masculine!"
Before MST3K, you worked for a while as a prop comic in LA. What's the biggest difference between what you did then and what's going on now?
A lot of stuff I did back then, you wouldn't be able to do nowadays, and with good reason. I had one prop in my routine called "Hell in a Handbag," and it was basically an anti-theft device for women. I'd illustrate what would happen if someone were to steal their purse, and it would burst into flames.
The device itself had batteries, an igniter and a place to put fuel—it was essentially a bomb, and I used to be able to travel with it! I'd take it on a plane and they'd ask me, "What's this?" I'd say, "Oh, I'm a magician," and they'd say, "OK. Have a nice flight!"
I used to have a boutonniere that'd shoot flames instead of water—instead of a squirting flower it was a flame-throwing flower. I also had a Whoopee cushion that used real butane, and the end result was a fireball.
Now I couldn't even imagine that. At the time, no one was even thinking much in terms of the safety hazards. Now there are fire marshals and everything is much more safety-conscious—as it should be. So a lot of what I did, you wouldn't be able to do now. Modern-day prop comedians have to be much more creative and clever than I was.
Now that our time has come to an end, is there anything else you'd like to add about Cinematic Titanic's upcoming visit to LA?
We just can't wait. The last time we were there was at the Ford Amphitheatre and it was one of our best shows. We're looking forward to coming back to LA.
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Joel!
To learn more about Cinematic Titanic and to purchase DVDs and downloads of their riffed films, visit www.cinematictitanic.com.
Tickets for Cinematic Titanic are available now through the Largo at the Coronet box office (open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2 - 7 p.m. at 366 N. La Cienega Blvd.) or by calling 310-855-0350.
The nightly Largo schedule is as follows:
Sunday, October 25, at 7:30 p.m.
Legacy of Blood
See the first-time live riff of one of Cinematic Titanic's favorite DVD releases.
Monday, October 26, at 7:30 p.m.
Danger on Tiki Island
Living on an island near a nuclear testing zone has its downsides—i.e. being terrorized by one of the worst movie monsters ever!
Tuesday, October 27, at 7:30 p.m.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
See the fully re-riffed version of an MST3K classic.
Wednesday, October 28, at 7:30 p.m.
The Alien Factor
Aliens invade Baltimore, and they have no budget!
Thursday, October 29, at 7:30 p.m.
East Meets Watts
Stud Brown and Larry Chin take on a drug cartel in this "Kung-sploitation" classi…uh, movie.