Though he created the '90s cable cult smash Mystery Science Theater 3000, an innovative show that finally gave millions of fans an open excuse to heckle the movie screen, Joel Hodgson remains a humble Midwestern kid, just some dude named Joel, not too different from you or me. After a brief flash of fame in the '80s as an inventive, thinking-man's prop comedian, Hodgson returned home to Minneapolis, where his buddy Jim Mallon was managing dinky, struggling UHF station KTMA. Raiding the tape room for bad movies, Hodgson created a genius concept, in which he and his robot pals were trapped on a satellite, forced to watch horribly cheesy flicks with only their sarcastic quips to help them survive. Within a year it was picked up by a fledgling cable comedy network. A decade and more than 100 episodes later, it's the stuff of TV legend.
After several years apart, Hodgson got most of the old MST3K band back together, Frank Coniff, Trace Beaulieu and Mary Jo Pehl, and put the show on the road, with Cinematic Titanic, a roving live cinematic comedy tour that finds old B-movie clunkers and proceeds to rip them the new holes they so richly deserve. The puppets are gone, but the wisecracks and laughs are strong as ever. You'll not want to miss the crew destroy such stinkers as the Oozing Skull and Danger on Tiki Island ... all for your live viewing pleasure. Here we got Hodgson going off.
Metro Times: Why does the Midwest produce so many great comedians?
Joel Hodgson: When you grow up on the East or West Coast, you're led to believe that you're in the center of the universe, and when you grow up in the Midwest you know that's not true. It's about perspective. When I was young, all the great comedians came from Canada. It's like the secret arsenal of comedy up there.
MT: Well, Canada is kind of like one big Minnesota, right?
Hodgson: It's true, they're humble, and they've reasoned that they're not the whole universe. The secret to stand up is just getting up and trying it and you can do that anywhere. When I was starting out there was a huge bias, and we (Midwesterners) all had chips on our shoulders. You kind of get lumped into a group. L.A. people are always sort of amazed that there are funny people from Chicago.
MT: But that's where the talent is!
MT: You left standup in the late '80s; is it weird getting back in front of an audience?
Hodgson: It's kinda not so cut-and-dried. ... Well, I guess I haven't really performed since the '90s! Let's put it that way; it doesn't sound quite so long ago. It's not that different.
There's just so much more stuff out there now. That's the thing I think about it, the mass audience has so much more to choose from. Fortunately, the success of what we're doing now is based on the success of Mystery Science Theater 3000. People get the premise. Our deal is a little easier, because we're not starting from scratch.
MT: Are there kinds of movies that work better live for comic fodder?
Hodgson: There's a little bit higher expectation for us, because we really want the audience to have a good time. So we look for movies that build, even though they wouldn't be considered "good" movies, they are at least made with some minor skill and tell a story. The audience can't hang with it if there isn't something in it.
MT: You did Roger Corman's Wasp Woman, and that thing just dies in the middle.
Hodgson: Well, yeah, it's funny some are better than others. What really works is if it builds to some sort of a climax. Some movies just don't really get how to do that.
MT: You need slightly inept, not totally inept?
Hodgson: Exactly. Even though these are considered crummy movies, they are at least somewhat competent.
MT: Is it harder to dig up movies now?
Hodgson: It hasn't been a problem yet. With Mystery Science Theater 3000, we had stacks and stacks of movies to fish through and we had people in New York that did the clearances for us, but now we are really close to the process. We have to deal with copyright, liability and legal stuff ourselves. I'm really enjoying it actually, but there is a little more intelligence up front, it's stealthier.
MT: Do you feel a little responsible for keeping these bad movies alive?
Hodgson: They're castoffs in society, kind of. You know, it's like a HUD home, if you find one in the right place and you have imagination and skill you can kind of fix it up.
MT: A Charlie Brown Christmas tree?
Hodgson: Yeah [laughs], but with movies. You need one with the right bone structure for what we need to do, but you spend time with it, nurture it and come up with something good.
MT: Is there any movie you've done that was just too painful to sit through?
Hodgson: I actually had that experience when we did Manos: The Hands of Fate [an infamous zero budget MST3K classic]. I remember thinking this really is bad, and looked around the room and thought "this is going to be the one we can't figure out how to make work."
MT: So the fans, the MSTies, are supporting this show?
Hodgson: Absolutely, there's less than 1 percent who find Cinematic Titanic on their own, or who didn't know about MST3K. What's nice is that the show is all over YouTube, so lots of people find it.
MT: You've seen the net change fandom, till it mushroomed and they almost feel they have ownership of the product.
Hodgson: We've learned to kind of collaborate and work with the super fans. They're people out there who have way more knowledge about the show's details and minutia than I do, and that's cool.
Corey Hall's writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Cinematic Titanic riffs at 6 and 10 p.m. on Friday, Feb 19, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980; all ages.