By 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.
When 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?
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.
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.