Mystery Science Theater’s Joel Hodgson returns to his riffing roots with ‘Cinematic Titanic’

Cinematic Titanic
Courtesy of Cinematic Titanic
Cinematic Titanic’s crew from left to right: Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff.

When it arrived in 1988, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was a geek’s paradise.

Here was a show that rewarded obsessions with “Star Trek,” British comedies, “Saturday Night Live” and old syndicated TV shows. This was for everyone who spent their high school years carrying “Advanced Dungeon and Dragons” sourcebooks in their backpacks, listened to Frank Zappa, and endlessly discussed “Doctor Who.” This was a show that didn’t apologize if its humor went right over the viewers’ heads.

I should know — I watched the first episode of “MST3K” when it was broadcast on Thanksgiving night and now, almost nine years after the show’s final episode, I continue to revisit my favorite episodes. I’m certain I’ve spent more time watching “Manos: The Hands of Fate” than “Citizen Kane.”

I followed the show through the low-rent first series on the Twin-Cities UHF station KTMA, through the years on the once hard-to-find Comedy Central, various cast changes, a move to the Sci-Fi Channel and, finally, cancellation in 1999 (ending with Italian spy-adventure monstrosity “Diabolik.”

The mutation of ‘MST3K’
It seemed like that would be the end but like a monster altered by atomic tests, “MST3K” lived on. Many of the hundreds of films “riffed” through those years are available on DVD. YouTube is packed with clips from the series. The official website was re-launched late last year with new flash-animated clips and classic bits. Latter-day host and head writer Mike Nelson offers Rifftrax — podcasts where he and a cast of regulars make fun of big-budget films — for download.

Show creator and longtime Twin-Cities-based comic Joel Hodgson and several of the show’s longtime writers and performers have returned to the fold with “Cinematic Titanic.” The first offering, “The Oozing Skull,” is now available on DVD. The crew will hold a release party, stand-up night and celebration of 20 years of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” at 8 p.m. Tuesday (Feb. 12) at the Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis.

“I felt so unfinished with ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000,’ ” recalled Hodgson. “I left in the middle of it and I felt like my creative life was cut short. Then for another project, I got a chance to riff on a movie. It was surprisingly fun — and it all came back.”

Lost in space with awful movies
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” came together after Hodgson left stand-up comedy in the mid-1980s. Several elements came together in his mind for a TV show that he could produce, on the cheap, at a local TV station. He ended up with a simple and endearing premise — an average Joe is shot into space and forced to watch awful movies by his mad-scientist handlers. To cope, he makes constant fun of the action on the screen. All the while, he is accompanied by the “bots” — robot puppets that Hodgson had designed — who crack wise alongside him, mercilessly making fun of the film.

Joel Hodgson
Undated photo of Hodgson and his sidekicks from ‘MST3K’ days.

“I think everyone has the experience of saying the right thing, at the right place in a movie, and then getting a laugh,” Hodgson explained. “Often, when you are watching a movie, you can say something to make it funny.”

Unlike you or your friends (or the annoying loud guy behind you at the movie theater), the MST3K writing team would craft a cornucopia of jokes. They could comment about the poor acting, bad cinematography or the absurd script. There were layers upon layers of cultural references — be they to TV advertising, 1970s crime dramas, favorite musicians (Tom Waits and Frank Zappa, for two examples), and shout-outs to places and events only viewers in Minnesota would really get.

Not getting all the jokes was always part of the appeal. Like the quips flying by in “Airplane” movies, they came at a fairly furious rate throughout the film. So, if you didn’t get a reference to “They Live,” a 1980s “Rowdy” Roddy Piper film, then the giant monster play-by-play that follows could tickle your funny bone.

“We found that films with narration or ones with a touch of irony didn’t work well,” Hodgson said. “Other than that, it’s pretty much anything.”

‘Turn your crank to Frank’
For “Cinematic Titanic,” four MSTie veteran performers and writers join Hodgson: J. Elvis Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff.

“I always had a good time working on the show,” said Conniff, who played TV’s Frank for five seasons on the show. “It was a no-brainer to do it. The first time we got back together to watch the film, we made each other laugh a lot. So it felt like old times.”

While the comments may seem spontaneous, the staff writes all of the gags. As the “Cinematic Titanic” performers live in several different states, this meant that much of the writing for “The Oozing Skull” was done individually.

“You look for any opening in the movie — anything that will inspire a joke,” Conniff said. “You go through the movie several times, adding jokes and deleting jokes; refining things to make it better.”

Once the individual writers finished their work, Hodgson took the pieces and massaged them together. In the end, they run through about 500 riffs during the film’s 80-minute-plus running time. See a clip from Cinematic Titanic’s “The Oozing Skull” below.

Get ready for ‘Cinematic Titanic’ treatment
Eleven seasons and hundreds of episodes make MST3K a venerable institution. Not only was the show honored during its run — including a 1993 Peabody Award — but it also has endured beyond its broadcasts, at first by fans who kept “circulating the tapes” in the 1990s; and then through a dozen DVD anthologies from Rhino.

And just as the show encouraged a high-level of geek obsession to parse out the often obscure humor, its fandom gravitated to the Internet. Viewers share opinions about their favorite shows — for the record, mine is “Godzilla vs. Megalon” — or, in later years, about the shifting cast. (Even more than a decade down the line, the issue of Joel Hodgson vs. Mike Nelson as the main host is still a tender subject.)

“We were really just trying to make ourselves laugh with ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000,’ ” Conniff said. “That seems like a good way to do a show. It was funny and entertaining and people appreciate that. After all these years, people still really like it.”

And it doesn’t end with “The Oozing Skull.” Plans are afoot for plenty more awful films to get the Cinematic Titanic treatment. So far, only DVD releases are planned.

“We’re starting to work on the next one, and it is just so fun,” Hodgson said. “I feel like I have never been funnier than when I was working in the medium of movie riffing. It’s a blast.”

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