As a popular, sleepy-voiced prop comic in the 1980s, Joel Hodgson turned his back on success as a stand-up comedian. He found renewed fame as the creator and first host of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” In the cult hit TV series, Hodgson’s hapless human and a pair of wisecracking robots heckled some of the shlockiest movies ever made. Hodgson left “MST3K” in 1993 but has returned as a movie riffer with his new, DVD-based venture Cinematic Titanic, which he performs alongside fellow “MST3K” alumni Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, J. Elvis Weinstein and Mary Jo Pehl. Hodgson and company bring the Cinematic Titanic stage show to Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre May 15 and 16.
How did you decide to do a new movie-riffing project?
It was just because it’s so much fun to do. I was missing it. It’s the most fun I ever had in show business. We’ve also all known each other for 20 years, and we’ve always been friends, so it was easy once we decided to do it.
How is Cinematic Titanic different from “Mystery Science Theater 3000"?
When I started “MST,” I didn’t think that people would accept the idea of these silhouettes of people commenting on movies, so I worked hard to create this elaborate justification for it. I don’t think that’s as necessary with Cinematic Titanic. We want it to be stripped-down movie riffing, in the most basic form. It was making it very direct, as simple as us and a movie and an audience. It’s kind of like a Philip Glass recital with movie riffing.
How does the preparation process differ from “MST3K”?
When we did “MST3K,” we went through the movie about twice when writing, all in one room, from 10 in the morning to about 4 in the afternoon. The first day was watching the movie and writing. The next day was writing the sketches. The third day was another pass at the movie and the script, then several days of rehearsal and shooting. It was a seven- or eight-day cycle.
Now, for Cinematic Titanic, we all live in different places, so we all work on the script separately. I can do about 10 minutes of the movie a day, and it takes me a good week to get through a movie. You kind of have the others’ voices embedded in your head, so when writing jokes, you think, “That could be a Frank line,” or “That could be a Mary Jo line.” We record it in shifts, so it’s kind of a collage but it all fits together. In the old days, it was a Lord of the Rings sensibility: You had you yell out [your ideas] in a room. This is more internal, in a way.
How about for the live show?
For Atlanta, we’re doing a new movie called Danger on Tiki Island. We’re just getting the script together now, so we’ll get a chance to practice it individually. We’ll practice the day before and the day of, so we’ll have done it about three times prior to its first performance. I think Danger on Tiki Island is a great monster movie. It’s from the Philippines, it’s beautifully shot, and it probably has the worst monster of any movie I’ve ever riffed on.
Do you choose different kinds of cheesy movies for Cinematic Titanic than you used to?
For our first year, we didn’t have any money, so we did public domain movies. The Doomsday Machine, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, Legacy of Blood and The Wasp Woman were all in the public domain. The recent movies we’ve been able to license. We’re slowly going up the food chain. We just did a film called Dynamite Brothers, which is R rated for the harsh language in it. We never would have done one like that for "MST3K."
Do you have a rivalry with RiffTrax, the downloadable commentaries from Michael Nelson and other "MST3K" alumni?
I’m really alert that they’re out there, but they’re doing something that’s so different. They’re in the MP3 business, doing [comments] on newer movies. I did notice that after we started, they started doing older, "MST3K"-type movies. Our thing is about cheesy movies, that’s all we do. They do it all, bad ones, good ones, shorts. I did see that they’ve been running an ad for one that says “It’s MST3K meets Jaws.” That kind of got me. I said “Whaaat? They can’t do that.” What’s up with that? Jaws is Jaws, but that’s not “MST3K.” They’re really talented and really good at what they do, but that made me feel competitive.
Cinematic Titanic is a creator-owned venture, and each disc opens with a disclaimer discouraging fans from taping it. Has that been a problem?
We don’t know how many people are illegally copying it. We’re kind of like the Grateful Dead, because so many people tape our stuff. When we first started doing “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” we encouraged people to “Keep circulating the tapes,” which became our motto, because so few people could see the show, and we’d already been paid. Now we’re just trying to inform them that we need to be paid for it to be able to keep doing the show. We’re not a corporation — we’re not TimeWarner.
Otherwise, how's it been going as a creative venture outside the usual system?
We’re thrilled — it’s working great. We’ve been in 10 cities now doing the live show, and we pretty much sell out. We usually sell 90 percent of the tickets, and considering that it’s during a recession, we think it’s great. And it’s all based on fans of “MST3K.” It’s based on how organized they are and how great they are. It was kind of an instant success. We announced it and they snapped it up. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without them.
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