Interview with Joel Hodgson of Cinematic Titanic and Mystery Science Theater 3000. See them live at the Family Arena 11/21!
Kevin and I were lucky enough to talk with Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator, Joel Hodgson, a little while ago. Joel whose show is coming to the Family Arena as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival on November 21st, answered some questions for us about the live show and his previous work. Don’t miss the question of who would win a fight between his robots from MST and Wall-E. Also, don’t forget to get your tickets for tomorrow night! Should be a good show.
JH: It should be fun, this time we are doing ‘War of the Insects’ it’s a Japanese movie. It is widescreen, which is the first widescreen movie we have done. We are writing it now, so St. Louis will be the first time we’ve performed it. What’s great about that is that it always works the first time we do it.
Do the jokes always work? Or have you been heckled during a riff?
No, not really. I guess what’s funny is last year we were in St. Louis there was a drunk guy they had to throw out because I guess he was yelling. Only drunk people would do something like that because you don’t want to pay for a ticket and get thrown out.
Yea, It isn’t your normal type of standup night. The price point is such that only people who really want to be there are there. You don’t get that. I think people heckle you in a comedy club if they don’t know who you are. When I used to do stand up they were in a room and they don’t know what they were getting, and you come up and for whatever reason they want to heckle you. If they are paying to come see you, they are very invested in it. Not only do they go out and pay for the ticket a lot of people have to get a babysitter , some people go out to eat. It gets expensive they don’t want someone screwing it up.
How did you create Mystery Science Theater? Where did that come from?
It started with an idea I called “You are Here” it was kind of based on an old Charlton Heston movie called ‘The Omega Man’ it was like ‘I Am Legend’ that came out recently with Will Smith. ‘Omega Man’ was the remake of the original ‘I Am Legend’. It was a movie about zombies, and in it this guy is in a movie theater and he is watching Woodstock. He’s marveling because all of the humans are dead so he’s talking about ‘Look at all the people…’. So, I had an idea based on that called ‘You Are Here’, which was kind of after the apocalypse. A guy would watch movies and he would have a robot companion and they would talk about the movie. When I finally met Jim Mallon, who was in Minneapolis running a local TV station, and he said he wanted to do a stand up comedy show, and he wanted me to help him or consult on it. So I told him OK, but I thought I should try and pitch this idea to him. So, I kind of altered it because I realized that a comedy after the apocalypse is pretty hard to do. I went and altered it a little bit and transposed it with another movie I really liked called ‘Silent Running’ which was about a guy with three robots in space, who was lost in space. I pitched him that and he said “That’s great because we have all these movies in our library and we can use those.” So, that was kind of it.
Then I called Josh, who was the original Tom Servo, and got Trace who was the original Crow, and then we started doing it locally. It took us about a year to figure it out. We did it live locally on TV. We’d run a movie and we start riffing on it. Over time we started to figure it out. We created kind of a little tool box with different type of jokes you could do, ways of riffing on a movie. Towards the end we really started to get it figured out. Which was good, because we sold it to The Comedy Channel which became Comedy Central.
Weren’t you one of only a couple shows on Comedy Central at the time? How many were playing at that time?
It is possible we were the very first show. They had VJs that would introduce things, and they had their own little shows. We were probably the first show that was produced outside of Comedy Central. So we were right there when it started twenty years ago.
Yeah, there is one called ‘I Accuse My Parents’ which is this weird black and white movie, and somebody turned me on to it. Actually it was Drew Carey when I was living in LA. I found out he was a fan, and we were hanging out and I asked him “What is your favorite?” and he told me I had to check out ‘I Accuse My Parents’ it was the funniest one he’d ever seen.
So, I got it and I looked at it and I thought ‘Wow’. There is just something stilted about the whole thing, that it just worked really good for us. So that is one of the ones I find funniest personally.
Are there any films you wanted to do, but couldn’t get the rights to? Have there been any big budget flicks you watched and thought they would be really good to riff on?
Yeah, Angels and Demons, that was from the same guy from The DaVinci code. I thought that would be pretty cool. Most of the time it doesn’t really work that way. You kind of have to find the movies first. You find a bunch of movie. Right now I have to find the movies, so I get a bunch of them together and I show everybody. I try to clear the rights first, because you don’t want someone blindly saying “We gotta do this movie!” , because it ends up being an exercise in frustration. If you can’t get the rights to do it. You have to get the rights first. We were in LA last week doing live shows. I had about five movies that we could clear and I showed them. Out of the five there was one everyone liked. So that was one I’ll probably go get.
Your live show, Cinematic Titanic, is pretty scripted. Was MST3K scripted tightly too or did you improv it at all?
No, we wrote it really completely. You have to improvise when you are in the writing room when you are coming up with it. Everything is kind of a knee jerk reaction and that is how you get the ideas improvising while you are together. The problem with that is that when you are improvising you might be imposing yourself on someone else’s line. Occasionally it goes off the rails. We write it pretty careful, but the best shows we have are when the cast is having a great time. I think each person builds in a few surprise, and does a few things differently to surprise the rest of the cast. I don’t think the audience would notice it. People in the cast know they didn’t do that last time. I wouldn’t really call that improvising. Sometimes things just happen. We were doing this show in LA two summers ago, and the show was at the John Ford Amphitheater which is pretty much across from the Hollywood Bowl. Hollywood Bowl was having a concert and we were at the Amphitheater, and at the end of the Bowl concert they let off fireworks. You could hear them and see them, and Josh had to react so he said, “Help! We are under attack from the Hollywood Bowl!” It really felt like that, it felt like they were shooting at us. That’s just an example of something we needed to react to, and luckily Josh had a really funny line for it.
Long story short, we try to write it as completely as possible. We know who is going to say what, but for everyone to have a good time we change it a bit each night. So the audience can have a good time too.
It’s funny, but the secret of our success is having MST on TV for ten years. There are a lot people who grew up watching it, and now are parents. It’s just all over the map. I was would say 90 percent of the people coming to the show are people who grew up watching MST. It’s almost everybody is a fan.
The cast for Cinematic Titanic is from MST mainly. Does the cast get along great? Is it a real organic process writing a script with these folks?
Everybody with the cast was with the show when I was there. Mary Jo and Frank were writing on the show when I was there. They weren’t riffing, but they were both writers. Frank, of course, was TV’s Frank. Mary Jo would do some pit parts, and after Trace left she became Pearl Forrester. Everybody in the cast was at MST when I was there.
As far as getting along, we get along really good. We feel like it is our chance to get it right. So, I think everybody works extra hard to get along.
Do you find it harder to riff live compared to the TV show?
We had our own studio when we did MST. It was just a warehouse space that we hung lights and put a green screen on the wall. Live shows are really different, there is an extra element, the live audience. The live audience works as your barometer on how well it is going. When you are just doing it in a studio, you are producing it, manufacturing it, and trying to add as much sense of quality. You can’t really tell how well you are doing. If people are sparking to it until you do it in front of an audience. Which is the biggest difference.
As far as it being easier, it was easier because I lived five miles from work. We’d just record them, and I could go home afterwards. Doing it live you have to travel, and there is a certain amount of work that goes along with that. Getting the immediate response is really rewarding and fun. To do that with a group of people is a blast.
When you did the TV show, did you guys do a lot takes or run it straight through?
Hard to say, I think we would pretty much go from beginning to end. It was mainly in seven minute segments. If you felt like it was really bad, you could just do the thing again. I don’t feel it was like that. I think we pretty much went through it. We’d go back and pick up the lines we screwed up if we dropped a line. Mike would be taking notes, he’d be listening with a script in hand and if we missed something he’d take a note, and we’d go back and rerecord it. That was the beauty of doing that with silhouettes, because you can’t see our mouths. You could drop in new lines.
Why did Jollyfilter never take off? It was such a great concept.
I couldn’t tell you. If I knew the answer to that I would be a very happy man. It is like a lot of things. You put it out there and hope for the best. You never know about stuff like that, when it is going to happen and when it is not.
Was it the cost of the special effects?
It is just one of those things. Part of what allowed MST to work was that it was right at the beginning of cable. It was a super inexpensive show to do, and people needed programming and we were there. Jollyfilter was more expensive, and there wasn’t exactly a market for it. There is lots of stuff like that. I’ve tried many many things, and MST worked. That is kind of the nature of things though, you have to do a lot to get something that works.
Do you think with the advent of sites like YouTube, FunnyorDIe, etc. it will make it easier for people to do what you were doing with MST3K? Like you with the advent of cable. Have you thought about using video sites like those to further any other projects?
Yeah, absolutely. We have our trailers for Cinematic Titanic on YouTube, and it gets a lot of hits. So we are using it to get the word out. That’s what is great about it. Anybody who is interested and likes to make stuff, it is a new playground. I can’t get over the tutorials and stuff on YouTube. How you can actually use it to learn new stuff.
A bit of a silly question, in a robot battle royale could Servo and Crow beat Wall-E?
Oh, absolutely! Wall-E is a putz. He’s just a bit of a nancy boy robot when you look at him. He’s crying for love, and he needs his little cricket friend and his showtunes. He wants to dance and since. Come on, Servo and Crow are really street smart. They really like to talk trash, and they would just intimidate him. There’s two of them!
What if you paired him with Robin Williams from ‘Bicentennial Man’ the hairiest robot on earth?
He’d be like a brillo pad, he’s got so much back hair.
Awesome! Well, can’t wait to see the show. Thanks for coming to St. Louis again.
We can’t wait to do it, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Cinematic Titanic is the new feature-length movie riffing show from the creator and original cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Cinematic Titanic continues the tradition of riffing on ‘the unfathomable’, ‘the horribly great’, and the just plain ‘cheesy’ movies from the past. With a combination of new shows on DVD every 6-8 weeks and an ever-growing schedule of Live Shows, the CT crew hopes to reconnect with “MSTies” around the world as well as bringing new fans to the comedy artform they first brought to TV 20 years ago.
Children 2 & up must have a ticket.
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