Joel Hodgson Reveals All
Remember how much fun those wasted evenings at home were, back high school? The nights where you and your friends watched really bad late night movies and you'd start running commentary and making jokes at what you were watching? Imagine if all your jokes were not only really smart and incredibly funny but you actually earned a living at being an armchair wisenheimer.
That's what "Mystery Science Theater 3000" creator Joel Hodgson did. What he turned that innocent teenage activity into is pop culture history.
One night in the 80's, the very first episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" first aired in Minnesota on a local UHF station. The show's catchy theme song succinctly explained the premise: an average guy, Joel Robinson (Hodgson) is shot into space and is forced to watch cheesy movies. He creates two robot pals, Tom Servo and Crow to keep his sanity and make jokes (or 'riffs' as Hodgson calls them) on the celluloid idiocy they are subjected to.
Hodgson quite simply took the time-honored tradition of killing time by talking back to your television into an art form. He and the other writer/performers of "Mystery Science Theater" had skeleton keys to pop culture consciousness with a dizzyingly encyclopedic range of riffs; pseudo-intellectual references from almost forgotten college courses to vaudevillian gags that covered everything from Wacky Packages to Samuel Beckett.
The shows no-budget special effects made "Lost in Space" seem sophisticated, and it was a charming contrast to the show's sharp wit – it was like a funny version of the Algonquin Round Table cracking wise at a drive-in movie.
Hodgson left the show after four years, but those original episodes (nearly one hundred in total) are still being sold, and are cherished by a dedicated, die-hard audience.
Now Joel's back, with "Cinematic Titantic," and he's got most of the original cast (J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulie, Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Coniff) with him. Oh – and they're coming to a town near you.
PlanetOut writer (and resident "Mystery Science Theater expert) William Rankin recently spoke in-depth with Hodgson about the fans, the interesting writing process, "Cinematic Titanic" and the surprising information on how he came up with the brilliant concept of "Mystery Science Theater."
It is amazing that a fairly low-rated basic cable show that’s been off the air for ten years still generates so much loyalty and devotion. Any theories why people love "Mystery Science Theater" so much?
I think because the show was so cheap looking, it looked kind of homemade, so there’s an invitation in that. You could kind of figure out what we were doing. I also think that people really found our show just by clicking through the channels and seeing the little silhouettes. When you find something on your own rather than it being sold to you, you have a different relationship with it.
We were lucky that way; it was never sold to people. It was never a high enough priority on the channel. We were always dependent on people to tell other people about it.
You were named one of the Top 25 Cult Shows by TV Guide, along with "Beauty and the Beast," "My So-Called Life" and "H.R. Puffinstuff." How does it feel to in such prestigious company?
The one that really shocked me was that Time on-line voted us on of the Top 100 Shows of All Time. We were right next to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Simpsons." It feels slightly unreal to me when that happens.
Before "Mystery Science Theater," you used to make robots out of household objects, correct?
Yes. I was always into circus skills as a kid; ventriloquism, juggling, magic. I was in Green Bay so there wasn’t a lot available so I learned how to build stuff. I started making robots out of found objects from the Salvation Army and Goodwill. I sold them at a store in Minneapolis, so I made a lot of robots. Probably sold about 80 or 100. When it came for the Mystery Science Theater pilot, I was pretty good at making them.
[Laughs]. Were you doing a bunch of speed at that time or something?
[Laughs]. No! I’ve never done speed. What does it make you do?
I had a roommate in college who did it, and he would be up for days taking apart appliances to see if he could put them back together. All of our appliances were broken! Speaking of putting the pieces together, I read somewhere that that the origin for Mystery Science Theater came from a variety of different sources.
Yes, it was funny, Trace and I were just at MIT and we did a talk on the design and the speculative technology of "Mystery Science Theater." We actually screened the trailer for "Silent Running," an old Bruce Dern movie. It's really a neat movie -- Bruce Dern is an environmentalist traveling through space with these domes filled with plants and he has three robot companions. He called them Hooey, Dewey and Louie. So I just used that kind of premise and transposed it into what I wanted to do with "Mystery Science Theater." I actually tried to look like Bruce Dern. I grew my hair out and wore a jumpsuit like he did with patches on it. I was trying to emulate that.
I also heard Elton John contributed to the origin of the premise?
I’m going to be forty eight, so this was high school in the seventies. "Goodbye Yellowbrick Road" was a gigantically popular record, a big double album. There were lots of illustrations on the inside of the record, and there was one for a song called "I’ve Seen that Movie Too." In the illustration, there are three little silhouettes in front of the movie screen and I remember in high school looking at that going, 'Oh, you know what? That would be a really funny show. Three people in silhouette watching a movie and being funny.' So that was actually when I thought of it. But what are you going to do? You're still in high school!
Hmmm…high school in the seventies staring at album cover art. Had you smoked some pot at the time?
[Laughs]. No! Not at all. In fact, I think we were working on the homecoming float or something. I’m pretty sure. Yeah, we were at Mike Wilkinson’s house and we were working on a float.
There’s something about puppets that always make people laugh; Punch & Judy, Charlie McCarthy, Waylon Flowers and Madame, and those two old guys in the balcony from the Muppet Show, Statler and Waldorf. What is that inherently funny about them? Is it that puppets can get away with saying stuff that humans can’t?
Yeah, there’s something at work there. It takes a lot of the stress off. If it’s a person, you are using the same ways of evaluating a performer. When it’s a puppet, it’s disarming. People give you a little more latitude and then hopefully it works.
Are there any episodes from "Mystery Science Theater" that really stick out where you think, “Yeah, we really nailed that one?"
It's hard to say. The fans have kind of done that. I can’t evaluate it the way outsiders can. I know one of the most famous ones is one we did called "Manos: The Hands of Fate," which is now known as the new worst film ever made. So I’m kind of proud that we introduced Manos to the world.
So I'm sure everyone wants to know one thing. How do you and the cast divvy up the jokes? What's the formula?
I’ll tell you a little bit of how we do it. All five of us, we live in five different places, and we write individually. We’ll take a movie and each go through it and probably write five hundred riffs the each of us and then we combine ‘em all together and then usually one of us has to play the role of the show runner and whoever that is will then go through and edit the best jokes and line ‘em up. For every five you write, you might get one in. Then there’s this brace of five, six hundred riffs that same person decides who says what based on what we know of each other, the kind of jokes you would hear each person say and their ability to do a voice or do a character.
There are so many jokes that there’s no emphasis on one joke. How many jokes can there be in a twenty-minute sitcom, like thirty? Fifty? It’s so different with six hundred. Because there’s such an abundance of them, no one ever gets too worried about it. We’ve all known each other for 20 years so it's kind of like people get to do what the want to do. That’s kinda the point.
What constitutes a perfect movie for your treatment? It seems like the sixties and seventies were such a fertile time. Is it just the goofy hairstyles and fashion that makes it funny or is it the memories of our own childhood we are looking at?
That could be. I like that idea. Part of it is that those are the only movies we can afford right now. We are slowly swimming upstream to newer and newer movies. We’re just about to license some movies from the nineties and we’re real excited about that. I don’t know, movies were very unaware back then.
Who came up with the name "Cinematic Titanic?" Except for possibly the Hindenburg, there are probably more jokes about the Titanic than any other disaster. I guess it was the hubris of it, ‘This boat will never sink’ and then it does. On its first trip.
[Laughs]. I came up with the name. I just said it to Trace and he laughed and so I felt like it was a winner because its hard to make Trace laugh.
Do you ever feel sorry for the actors or director of the films you’re making fun of? They were like you were; a low budget, no time and were just trying to do the best they could to entertain people.
Not really. When you spend as much time as we do on movies, you really live with them. You really get to know them. You get to like them just as much as any movie and there’s moments you can’t get over how great they are and how many things they got right. Its not like we look at it like, ‘This movie is so bad it deserves us to do this’. We’re really collaborating with the movie to make a variety show.
When we’re working on these movies, they can appear kind of silly because we’re doing our thing but…I like them, I have to say. There’s some sort of pleasure in them that’s hard for me to explain but I don’t hate bad movies and I don’t get sick of them or anything like that.
Since it is a cult show, do the audience members ever scare you?
They’re really great. Enough time’s gone by and there’s enough information about us that people can learn about us before they come so they are surprisingly graceful. They know and support us and they come to say hi. They’re not weird and if they are, they’re admittedly so. They acknowledge it to you when it’s happening.
When you do conventions, is it surreal to be sitting next to someone like Eddie Munster?
Yes, that’s definitely very weird. We were sitting next to Mickey Dolenz at a convention once. You realize we’re all in kind of the same boat. What’s different is that we’re making new stuff. I’m just geeky enough to really enjoy that I want to meet these people too.
You lived in Los Angeles for a while. Do you have any cool old-time Hollywood stories like a swinging party at Roddy McDowell’s house or something?
A friend of mine, (comic) Dana Ghould, bought Roddy McDowell’s house. He’s a huge "Planet of the Apes" fan and I think he has that idol from the movie in his backyard.
Does he have a Doctor Zaius garden gnome as well?
[Laughs]. No! But there's still time…
Interview by William Rankin
To catch "Cinematic Titanic" live in your city, visit the official Web site by clicking here.
Watch trailer for "Frankenstien's Castle of Freaks" by "Cinema Titantic" below.