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MST3K’s Joel Hodgson on Reuniting His Movie Riffers

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been off the air for eleven years, and yet its loyal fans still sit at home, watching the DVDs, mouthing along with the mockery by memory, and wishing their favorite show would come back. Creator and host Joel Hodgson (who left the show in 1993) started to feel the same way, missing the adrenaline rush that one can only get from gathering your friends to riff off a really crappy old movie, using references to everything from Proust to Frank Zappa to Gilligan’s Island. So he launched Cinematic Titanic, a traveling show in which he and many of his old MST3K cohorts — Trace Beaulieu (the first Crow, Dr. Forrester), J. Elvis Weinstein (the first Tom Servo), Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank), and Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester) — all join Hodgson onstage in plainclothes to mock movies for a live audience. (They’re appearing at New York’s Nokia Theater this Saturday, riffing on a ’60s B-movie about man-eating plants and virgin sacrifices called Danger on Tiki Island, a.k.a. Brides of Blood.) We talked to Hodgson about why he didn’t simply reboot MST3K, and how he shocked Patton Oswalt with his profanity.

What was the impetus for getting back into movie riffing after all these years?
I realized how much I loved and missed it. Also, I get a royalty from Mystery Science Theater [DVDs] and every year I noticed that we’re not selling less of them — we’re actually selling more. It made me go, “Wow, this is weird. It might be time for some new movies to be riffed on.”

Why didn’t you try to reboot MST3K?
I don’t own MST, that’s controlled by [the show’s executive producer] Jim Mallon … Also, it would be really expensive. A lot of planets would have to align for that to happen. This was a stealthy way to get back into movie riffing. … Granted, it’s built on the back of MST: Most of the people who come to our shows are fans of MST.

How much of each performance is improv? Or is it mostly scripted?
We script it really tightly, that’s one of the big illusions. With MST , people often thought we were making it up on the spot, but the truth is we wrote tight scripts so every moment had a riff to it. You can’t do that many riffs in a movie unless you know what’s happening in the movie almost every second. We do change things, but it’s not for the sake of the audience, because they haven’t seen us perform the movie, so they don’t know what’s improvised and what’s not. We found that by changing it for each other we make each other laugh and those are easily the best shows.

Some of the Cinematic Titanic movies are a bit more adult than MST films, with more blood and gore. Why is that?
I think that’s because MST had puppets, and there’s kind of this unwritten law that if you’re doing puppets, kids are going to watch it and parents will think it’s okay. It’s kind of like MST is a family thing, and Cinematic Titanic is PG-13.

Would you ever mock an R-rated movie?

It’s not really in my wheelhouse; I don’t feel super comfortable with that personally. Also, the people who come to see our show know us from MST, so they expect it to be similar to that. We did such a good job with MST of doing things that were genuinely funny but not dirty, and people expect that with Cinematic Titanic. It’s walking that line. Actually, when we were in Milwaukee, Patton Oswalt came to the show and was shocked that one of us had said “bullshit.” He said it was exactly the right thing to say, but he said himself he was shocked to hear it because he’s not used to it from us. But that’s as bad as it gets for us, and that’s not too bad.

I’ve heard you say you regret leaving MST3K. Has Cinematic Titanic been a way to get back that missed time?
Oh yeah, I think so. Also I always wondered, Who are all these people who like MST and care about it so much? So by going on the road I’ve met a lot of them, and I have a really clear picture of people who like it and care enough to come back fifteen years later and say, “I have to tell you how much I like your show.” I feel just really grateful, they’re thoughtful and respectful people. I have other friends who are really famous and they have a much harder time than I do. MST3K wasn’t really sold to people; people kind of found it, and when you find something on a street-level basis, you have a different attitude about it. If it was something truly famous with lots of advertising muscle behind it, I think you might get the scarier, desperate fans. I think it also has to do with the production of the show. It was kind of crappy: You could see the seams and say, “Oh, I get this, they’re not celebrities, these are real people who made this.”

Would you ever collaborate with the other MST3K alumni, the people who are now doing a similar thing with RiffTrax , except with current movies?
I don’t know. I think those guys — Bill [Corbett, who took over Crow from Beaulieu], Kevin [Murphy, who voiced Servo after Weinstein left] and Mike [Nelson, the post-Hodgson human] — are really talented, obviously. I think anything’s possible, but I thought it might get confusing to try to merge them together or do crossover projects. I would never rule it out because it’s all kind of the same universe. But RiffTrax, the idea of riffing on topical movies, is a different thing. And I like that the movie-riffing universe got bigger when they decided to do that, but we just do weird movies you’ve never seen before. The most famous MST episodes are always the ones that have really strong but strange movies, like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Hercules Unchained, and Pod People. MST is really a show that’s built on the back of another show — the identity of the movie is just as important as what we do. The weird movies are a big part of what people like about it.

Do you ever talk to the directors of these bad movies, and do they ever seem offended?

I don’t think so. A guy named Sam Sherman produced a lot of the Cinematic Titanic movies, and I’ve talked to him a lot on the phone, negotiating for these deals. I think these guys are really cagey businessmen, and they know how to exploit their product. Many of them were exploitation movies to begin with, so they look at it as another way of exploiting their product. They’re going, “This is a new market for it; this is great.” So they don’t feel too attached to it: Usually they’re just bright businessmen who see it as another way to make money. They know it’s not Citizen Kane.

MST3K’s Joel Hodgson on Reuniting His Movie Riffers