DID YOU READ

Joel Hodgson on “Cinematic Titanic”

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03172008_joelhodgson.jpgBy Matt Singer

In the not-too-distant past, a disillusioned stand-up comedian named Joel Hodgson created a show for the local Minneapolis UHF channel about a guy stuck in space watching bad movies with a couple of homemade robots (puppets, really). The series was eventually titled “Mystery Science Theater 3000” — even though the show was not set in the year 3000 — and became an improbable cultural touchstone. Even more improbably, it survived numerous cancellation scares, a network switch and an almost complete turnover of its cast all while maintaining the high comedic standards Hodgson established before he left the show halfway through its fifth season. Almost ten years after the series’ finale, “MST3K”‘s devoted fan base still shows up to purchase old episodes on DVD. “‘Mystery Science Theater’ still sells,” Hodgson told me. “I still get a royalty from it.”

The viewers (and their continued financial support) eventually convinced Hodgson that it was time to get back into the movie riffing game. He recently assembled a team of “MST3K” alumni and founded a new troupe: Cinematic Titanic. This time around, there are no puppets (“We didn’t want to make it as cute,” says Hodgson). And to date, there are no elaborate comedy sketches framing the movie mockery, but the crucial joke-to-schlock ratio remains high. The venture is different for another reason as well; “Cinematic Titanic” is entirely self-financed and distributed, and available only through the group’s website, CinematicTitanic.com. Recently, I spoke with Joel over the phone about how the hands of fate led him to his new gig.

What year did you leave “Mystery Science Theater?”

There’s a lot of people who’d be able to answer that question better than I. I think it was um… ’95? ’94?

Either way, it’s been a while. Why do something like “Cinematic Titanic” now?

Oh boy. Well, I left “Mystery Science Theater” basically because I was fighting with my partner and I felt like it would wreck the show if we kept going. That’s why I decided to leave. I loved working on it. I didn’t want to go — I kind of had to say to the press, “Hey, I got a bunch of stuff going, and I’m moving on!” But I really didn’t. I just didn’t want it to look bad when I left.

Time went by and I started to appraise my life and I kind of regretted that part of it. Then some other situations happened where all of the original guys were available and wanted to do it, and they were willing to go for it this way where it’s a self-funded project. We all put money in to do this pilot and get it out there.

One of the biggest differences between “Cinematic Titanic” and “Mystery Science Theater” is the lack of a story that explains why you guys are watching these bad movies. Why did you decide to go that route this time around?

We are getting a lot of people telling us they want more of an explanation, so we intend to build that onto the front [of future episodes]. The overriding concept is we’re recording this for future generations. The movie is really the springboard for all these other ideas, and at the end of it, there’s this great big mound of data. It reminded me of the stuff they put in time capsules to explain to people in the future what happened at a certain time in history. We’re actually going to have a physical “Time Tube” and we’re going to put all these DVDs in it and put it down into the earth. It’s like the Westinghouse time capsule from the 1964 World’s Fair. In fact, it’s exactly like it. That’s where I got the idea.

As far as our ability to riff on a movie, everybody was satisfied, but [more explanation] is the thing that’s emerging that fans want more of. It’s very similar to the beginning of “Mystery Science Theater.” I didn’t have a theme song when we started. That came once we realized people were saying, “What are you doing?”

Back when you started, I imagine you had to justify why anyone in their right mind would watch a bad movie. Now “Mystery Science Theater”‘s had such an impact that watching a bad movie seems like a perfectly rational activity.

It’s true. We don’t have to be quite as formal as back then. When we used to do the show locally on channel 23, people really did call in thinking they were losing their minds. There was nothing they could compare it to.

02272008_cinematictitantic.jpgWhen you guys were working on something like “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” did you sense at the time how popular that episode would become?

Not at all. To me, that’s one movie I think of when people ask me, “Did you ever encounter a movie that you felt you couldn’t do?” I just remember sitting there shaking my head going… I didn’t say it out loud, because I didn’t want to bring down morale — “This is really awful! I don’t know if we can do this!” [laughs]

Another interesting thing about “Manos” is I was reading on Wikipedia about how Torgo had cloven hooves. And I never caught on to that! They showed a picture of it and I realized that the silhouettes [of Joel and the ‘bots at the bottom of the screen on “MST3K”] always masked the bottom of his feet. So, in a weird way, “Manos” helped me get to this new “Cinematic Titanic” silhouette array that’s like scaffolding that goes up the sides of the screen. You can see much more of the screen, and that allows you to riff on more things.

The disclaimer at the front of the first DVD describes “Cinematic Titanic” as an “artist owned and operated venture.” Can you talk a little bit about why you guys decided to go that route?

If you take a deal in Hollywood now, you pretty much have to take notes. If we went to someone for the money to make six or eight or 12 shows, they would go “Okay, but we really have some strong opinions on how you need to do it.” And “Mystery Science Theater” was really rare in that the Comedy Channel [which was later redubbed Comedy Central] was so busy getting a network going that they really didn’t give us notes. After being in Hollywood for ten years, I said to myself, “This is really screwing me up. Right or wrong, I’m kind of used to doing these autonomous shows. ‘Mystery Science Theater’ was an autonomous show, so maybe we should just do that again.” The only way to do that was to just pay for it ourselves.

How often do you actually go to the movies?

Man, not too much! I have to say I haven’t gone to too many movies lately. I just get screeners and stuff like that and watch them at home. It’s hard, because in L.A. going to the movies is kind of like going to church. People are a little too into it. I prefer to go to the movies in the Midwest because they have exactly the right attitude — will this entertain me for 90 minutes? Whereas here you feel like people are really invested and it takes the fun out of it.

Okay, last question: If your life depended on it, would you be able to build a Tom Servo or Crow T. Robot off the top of your head?

Oh easily!

How long would it take?

If you wanted one just for show I could do it in about a half hour. If you wanted one that was functioning, that would be about 12 hours.

Wow.

Yeah, I could do it easily. I’d just use a hot glue gun. But it wouldn’t really last very long.

That’s all right. If your life depended on it, you’d have to act quickly. There’s no time to be fancy.

Oh yeah, for sure. I could even do it if you had one of those black ops underwater rooms that was completely dark and was filled with water. If I had snorkel gear, I could do it.

[Photo: Cinematic Titanic’s “The Oozing Skull, Joel Hodgson, Cinematic Titanic, 2008[

To purchase Cinematic Titanic’s “The Oozing Skull,” go to CinematicTitanic.com. CT’s next episode is due by the end of April.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.