Joel Hodgson was the original interminably imprisoned lab rat forced to watch horrible movie screenings on Mystery Science Theater 3000, the cult TV show he created in 1988 that featured a crew of humans and robots heckling awful films. He left the program due to “creative differences” in 1993 and later admitted that losing the show was a “personal tragedy,” since MST3K had been “the perfect job.” Sixteen years and innumerable Hollywood gigs later, Hodgson is touring the country with Cinematic Titanic, a live, frequently unpredictable update of his signature movie-riffing style. Its format will be familiar to MST3K fans—silhouetted against giant projections of awful movies like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Danger on Tiki Island, Hodgson and his crew of writers/performers/close friends dash off derisive one-liners for an auditorium of live fans. Hodgson recently spoke with WW about pseudo-rival (and MST3K replacement) Mike Nelson, solar cooking and his own artistic similarity to Philip Glass.
WW: What makes a movie instant Cinematic Titanic material?
Joel Hodgson: It’s hard to say. It’s almost like we’re playing This Old House with a movie: We’re looking for something with kind of good bones but has been really ignored. Often it’s the worst movie that lots of people have ever seen.
The byproduct of MST3K has been to really popularize these bad movies. Do you enjoy the fact they get a new life?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s not like we think we’re serving justice on these movies that need to get called out and ridiculed. We collaborate with a forgotten movie to make a new kind of entertainment, really.
You’ve done this really original form of comedy in two formats now. Are you going to take that into your future projects?
The big thing is doing it live right now. It’s fun ’cause it’s so markedly different than MST3K, and we aren’t really using some elaborate conceit to say, “Why are we riffing on movies?” It’s kind of like a Philip Glass ensemble. It’s just us performing.
You mean you don’t have the whole space station/mad scientist backstory?
Right, we’re not trying to completely re-create Mystery Science Theater. I think people are a bit dubious about that anyway.
Has Cinematic Titanic brought new fans to this style of comedy?
Well, I would say 90 percent of the people are Mystery Science Theater fans who want to see what we did, and our job is to convert them to Cinematic Titanic fans.
Mike Nelson is doing his own RiffTrax movie commentaries online. I’ve read that there’s no beef between you guys, even though he uses a similar format. Why isn’t he a member of Cinematic Titanic?
RiffTrax is really about doing new movies—taking popular movies and riffing on ’em. Our thing is about old movies.
What about things that come out currently that you could see doing once they get older?
I just saw an excellent movie to riff, Angels Demons, yesterday. Just unbelievable.
Yeah, I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like the Catholic Church is the ultimate force in the universe.… I can’t even explain it. It was just so absurd.
Has there ever been a movie that’s been impossible to make fun of?
We’ve experimented with a movie we’re doing in Portland, East Meets Watts, which is a kung-fu/blaxploitation movie. We’ve never done a kung-fu or a blaxploitation movie.
Have you come through Portland before?
No, I haven’t, but I’m really interested.
BusinessWeek rated Portland the No. 1 unhappiest city in America last February, so there’s a lot riding on comedy here. Are you worried about inducing some suicides if the show isn’t successful?
I don’t know. It’s funny. I think that’s true with my hometown [Stevens Point, Wis.].… They call it cabin fever, but there’s actually some kind of low-grade depression that can get to you. And, so, we hope we can help. We do what we can.
What do you do when you’re not watching all these bad movies?
I just got a solar oven, so I just learned how to cook in the sun; that’s kind of my big interest right now. Now that the weather’s getting warm, I’m starting to…I live in Pennsylvania, so I’m starting to do that. I can make solar chili now.
That sounds delicious.
GO: Joel Hodgson and friends perform Cinematic Titanic at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 248-4335. 8 pm Friday-Saturday May 29-30. $39-$44.