When Joel Hodgson first donned a jumpsuit and started making fun of cheesy science fiction and action movies on TV 25 years ago for “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” he thought he was onto something audiences would enjoy. He was right. The show moved from KTMA, a small Minneapolis-St. Paul UHF station, to enjoy a nine-season run on Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel.
What he couldn’t have predicted was that it would become a pop culture touchstone, that it would be hailed by Time as one of the best 100 TV shows of all time, or that it would produce a second act in the form of Cinematic Titanic, another movie-mocking venture that will close out a seven-year run and go on hiatus at the end of the current tour.
“The only reason you make TV, especially 25 years ago, is you think it’ll work with a broad audience,” says Hodgson of “MST3K,” as fans call it. But the show’s reach still surprises him. “When I see it in the culture, in MAD Magazine or in ‘The Simpsons,’ or on ‘Arrested Development,’ that always is unsettling and unreal to me. So I didn’t really picture that kind of stuff.”
“MST3K” took something people do all the time on their own — making fun of movies — and turned it into a comedic form all its own. To make that work, Hodgson created a framework and a story line. The fictitious host, Joel, was imprisoned on a spaceship called the Satellite of Love, where he was forced to watch terrible films. To keep him company, he had built some robot friends, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, who heckled along with him. In the show, Joel and the robots would appear as silhouettes on the bottom of the screen as the film played.
When Hodgson got together with his former “MST3K” cohorts Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl, and Frank Conniff in 2007, he thought they’d have to invent a similar back story to make the project work. Cinematic Titanic started as a straight-to-DVD studio project, but soon found its legs by filming live shows for video release. In a live format, the troupe members found they didn’t need to explain why they were making fun of the movies — a practice they call “riffing.” They could just treat it like a stand-up show.
“It’s really like a concert,” Hodgson says. “We’re performing for people. So we’re being who we are.” Still, Hodgson says it wouldn’t have worked without “MST3K” establishing movie riffing in the first place. “I think ‘Mystery Science Theater’ kind of had to be there,” he says. “I don’t think you could have done it the other way, just talking over a movie.”
Movie riffing has spread as a comedic form since the days of “MST3K.” In 2006, Mike Nelson, who took over hosting duties when Hodgson left “MST3K,” and Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who at one point voiced Servo and Crow, respectively, formed RiffTrax. Hodgson mentions other groups who do live movie riffing around the continent, including Master Pancake Theater in Austin, Cineprov in Atlanta, and the Gentlemen Hecklers in Vancouver.
That’s a long way from the KTMA days, when “MST3K” confounded some people who tuned in expecting to see a movie minus the commentary. Then the jokes were more sparse. It wasn’t until the group cut together a demo reel of its best riffs for The Comedy Channel (which later became Comedy Central) that Hodgson realized they could talk more. Hodgson was worried about sensory overload for viewers trying to follow the movie and the wisecracks at the same time. “It’ll just be like Eddie Van Halen playing a guitar solo,” he says. “It just becomes a blur at a certain point, you know? And what became clear was, no, absolutely, they want you to talk the entire time there’s not any dialogue.”
At its peak, “MST3K” would average upward of 700 comments per movie, according to Hodgson. At live performances, that number decreases, but it’s still impressive. “It’s less because you have room for people reacting,” he says. “I get the feeling it might hang at 600.”
It takes Cinematic Titanic roughly a month to write the riffs for one movie, with a few movies in rotation for any tour. (At the Wilbur, they’ll be riffing on “The Doll Squad,” a 1973 film about an all-female espionage team.) It’s a lot of work, and it can be tough to coordinate the schedules of five busy individuals to keep Cinematic Titanic going. “We’ve been going out a couple of times a month for the last six years, and we’re just kind of winding that down,” says Hodgson.
Everyone has outside projects. Weinstein will premiere a documentary on musician and actor Michael Des Barres in 2014. Pehl is working on a crowd-funded musical project. Conniff has his podcast, “Podhouse 90.” Beaulieu will release a comedy music video called “Do the Frank” on DVD before the holidays. And Hodgson, always the inventor, is the “creative lead for media” with a company called Cannae that develops satellite technology.
Once the Titanic makes its final run on Jan. 1, Hodgson looks forward to having his weekends back. And possibly watching movies without talking. “When I go to a movie, I just want to be like everybody else, I want to immerse myself in it and have that experience,” he says. “It’s only when that doesn’t work that I start to think about it.”Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.