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Is there anything worse than one guy talking to a movie screen, ruining the viewing experience for everyone? Get a group of people together talking to the screen, however, and suddenly you have something like a party — a brand-new experience that potentially emphasizes camaraderie as well as comedy.
That’s what Joel Hodgson learned in the late 1980s when he created “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” one of the most beloved — and surprisingly durable — cult TV shows ever. (Time magazine once called it one of the 100 best TV shows of all time.) Well into the third decade of his movie-riffing career, he is exploring the way clever criticism might empower viewers to watch more movies and television shows more actively.
The show began in the late 1980s when Hodgson found some bad movies in the vaults at KTMA in Minneapolis, built two robot puppets out of a gumball machine and a bowling pin, and starting riffing on movies in real time. The premise of the show was simple, sort of: He was trapped in a spaceship orbiting the Earth, while two mad scientists made him watch truly wretched cinema in an experiment that would somehow help them conquer the world. The aesthetic was homemade and decidedly meta.
On early episodes at KTMA, the cast and crew were still trying to figure out the nature of riffing, but Hodgson’s sleepy-headed humor — a mix of the funniest kid at the sleepover and your stoner college roommate — made him an ideal host for a show that recycled old movies into something new, funny, smart — encyclopedic in its pop cultural knowledge. It became a national sensation once it moved to Comedy Central
The show ended in 1999 after 10 seasons and two hosts (the affable Everyman Michael J. Nelson replaced Hodgson in 1993), but it found new life on YouTube and especially on DVD. Shout! Factory recently released Vol. 24 in an ongoing series of four-disc box sets, and it may be the best and most diverse collection yet: two Japanese movies from the ’80s, a Finnish fantasy film, and a Mexican “luchador” action pic.
Of course, Hodgson didn’t invent the idea of movie riffing, which has been around as long as there have been movies. People interact with films on a gut level, whether they’re yelling “don’t open the door!” at a horror-movie heroine or rolling their eyes at the implausibility of an action-movie stunt. According to Hodgson, it’s a natural urge, one that empowers the viewer and potentially improves the viewing experience. And after 12 years away from it, he’s happy to be riffing full-time now. “I love repurposing stuff,” he says. “This was the job I was born to do.”
You’re featured on the two “Fugitive Alien” episodes in the new box set: two Japanese movies with bad overdubbing and incomprehensible plots. What is your impression of those two episodes 20 years later?
This is “He tried to kill me with a forklift,” right? We did it on KTMA. Those movies that we started with were so important to the DNA of “MST,” and “Fugitive Alien” is clearly one of those movies. There really are two movies happening at the same time: the original Japanese movie, then the movie that the interpreters did to revoice it in English. “Fugitive Alien” was obviously a great series for us, and that and “Gamera” were the two movies that really cemented our relationship with movies that were made overseas. The Italian sword-and-sorcery movies and the gladiator movies became a big part of the “MST” lexicon, but this was one of the earliest versions. It was really sitting in our wheelhouse. It wasn’t really an accident because for the very first “MST” pilot, I went into the archives at KTMA and picked out what I thought was the perfect movie, which was “The Green Slime.” It was a Japanese and American co-production. But it still had a lot of the same elements as “Fugitive Alien.” There was a certain amount of errata in there that works really well when you’re movie riffing.
It’s funny that you can identify the movie by its most popular riff – “He tried to kill me with a forklift.”
I know. It was just one of the best moments. It’s peculiar the way information comes back, because I had completely forgotten about that. But then you go and look at the “MST” boards and you see people talk about it all the time and you say, oh, I have to find out what that is. It’s the same with “Watch out for snakes.” When I first came back to movie riffing, I heard that so much and I realized that one of the most famous jokes from “MST” we didn’t even do. It was a stagehand or the director of “Eegah” saying, “Watch out for snakes.” It’s just the nature of movie riffing, I think. Everything all goes together and whatever emerges, you cannot direct it. It’s whatever people find that they like. It’s just a certain movie that people love, like “Manos: Hands of Fate” or “Pod People” or “Mitchell.”
Do you ever watch old episodes? Is it weird to see yourself in that context?
It’s not especially relaxing. I have to say I genuinely had fun watching it with a group of people. It was a really great experience. I’m really proud of “MST.” But to contrast that, I did a film festival about eight months ago where we screened “Manos” and I didn’t enjoy watching it with a group at all. In fact, I took off and went and got something to eat during the movie. The way I describe it is, we worked with the movies to make this new thing. We applied our special sauce to the movie and made a new work out of it. In the case of “Manos,” I think “Manos” got its sauce on us. The thing people love about it is that it’s such a strange and fascinating movie. But I don’t feel we were especially funny during it.
“Manos” seems like one of those movies that are just so weird that it’s hard to joke about them. In a way, it’s almost a joke in itself.
I think that’s true. There are certain movies where I think we’re really on and we really got it. We turned around “MST” so fast we were not really self-conscious about it. I think if we thought about it too much or fussed over it, it would have really affected the product. And we were just kind of sealed off from the rest of the world in Minneapolis. We didn’t get very much input on how we were doing, so it allowed us to amuse ourselves, which worked really well as far as it kind of traveling through the last 25 years and still functioning as something that’s entertaining.
Did you have any idea that you would still be talking about the show 20 years later?
I couldn’t have imagined that. “MST” was so fringey that I just never thought that it would end up in a video store. I don’t think any of us did because we didn’t clear the rights to all the movies. That’s an ongoing process; the lawyers at Shout! Factory have to go back in and get the rights to these movies to put them out again. If we would have known, we could have worked a little harder and tied up all the rights back then. But I don’t think we thought that would happen. It wasn’t on anybody’s mind. But something has happened with “MST.” It’s like Frank Conniff said — he’s a really funny guy and just a student of comedy — history has been kind to “MST.” I think it’s true. We weren’t really considered a real comedy show when we started. Everything we knew about comedy up till that point was “Monty Python” and “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live” and maybe a sitcom. The idea of doing this and making a living at it and it being meaningful — I could just tell you the way it felt and it didn’t quite feel the same as if I were hired on a sitcom. People didn’t look at you the same way. It’s kind of grown into itself — and not obviously anything that I designed into it.
What do you think of all these other riffing outfits, like Rifftrax or Cartoon Lagoon or those screenings in L.A. and Austin?
I love it. I’m thrilled, and personally, just getting to come back to it after not getting to do it for 12 years, it just was so much fun. And it helped me so much with so many things, just mostly writing. I think there’s something about it that’s really useful as far as collaboration and brainstorming go. I taught a class this last spring at Bucks County Community College on movie riffing, so I’m slowly developing a curriculum, and I’m working with a programmer to make software that makes riffing easier. And I have had inquiries from a computer animation studio and a toy company to do my movie riffing class as creative team building seminars. I’m still fascinated with the process, and when people tell me they movie riff, I just go, It’s fun, right? I’ve always tried to encourage that. And everybody does it. When you grow up in front of a TV, at a certain point you realize you can say stuff to it. It’s like everybody has that impulse built into them.
I think in a weird way, movie riffing also teaches critical thinking and film appreciation. As much as “MST” mocked movies, there was at heart a genuine affection for these weird films.
It’s really hard to make a movie, even a terrible movie. When I lived in L.A., I made just a trailer for a movie. This is before digital cinema really started, so we did it on film. You realize how technical and touchy the medium is, so each movie, whether they accomplish what they’re trying to do, becomes an amazing document to me of a time and a place and people’s beliefs and people’s way of behaving around each other. But watching a movie is almost like falling asleep into the movie. You get taken away by the movie and you don’t want to be awoken, but then there are these things that keep bothering you, that wake you up as a viewer. I’m like everybody else — when I go to a movie, I want to forget that I’m watching a movie. I want to be in it. If that doesn’t happen, what do you do? Who are you then? Then you’re a person who has to evaluate why this movie hasn’t taken you away, why it hasn’t worked.
I know that I just love the idea of movies. I love the way they work. And I really appreciate them, but they’ve always been a mystery to me. From the time I was a little kid, I never understood where they came from. I thought God made the movie. I didn’t know that people made them. I didn’t understand that because they seemed too perfect and all encompassing, but then slowly it starts to unravel. There’s a crack in it. It’s like that Leonard Cohen song: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” You start to notice cracks and you’re like, what’s that? There’s a mistake. Why?
I was really naive and as far outside of show business as you could get. I grew up in the Midwest. The first time I ever knew of a guy making movies anywhere near me was Bill Rebane. He did “Giant Spider Invasion” not too far from where I lived. I remember him being on TV in Green Bay doing P.R. They were in the process of shooting, and he was trying to recruit people to be in this movie. That was my first experience, and it made me feel glamorous that it was even happening in my state.
As you interact with college students or young fans, do you see them coming to movie riffing differently?
Absolutely. I was surprised by how great [the students] were at it. I was shocked at the level of references. I felt like they had absorbed all of pop culture and were able to illustrate a lot of ideas using a lot of references. But also the people who are coming to my class are really comedy nerds, and they really know a lot about all manner of things. When it came time to perform, it was a little different. I forced them all to perform so they knew what it felt like. We got to do a couple of shows. We did a show at the college and then we did a show at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pa., which is where they do Blobfest. That’s where they shot “The Blob.” So they’re kindred spirits, and they invited us to come and do a show there. The students had really improved from the first show to the second show. It’s a unique position to put yourself in when you stand in front of an audience, between the screen and the audience. You’re this filter and it takes a little getting used to, but by the second time they had solved it.
What makes a good riff?
On the first day of class, the first thing I said was, the real secret of movie riffing is you can’t be an dickweed. You’re a companion to the people watching, and people don’t want to spend time with people who are dickweeds. The coloring-book version of movie riffing is being really cynical and finding fault with everything, but it’s unfair because the movies are old and they can’t defend themselves. So you really can’t take that position. Boy, did you ever screw up making this movie! It doesn’t work. That was really the first thing I tried to impose on them.
And if you’re that cynical, why are you watching the movie? “MST” always struck me as having more wonder than sarcasm.
You’re so right. And that’s really one of the reasons why the show was in space and a guy was being held against his will. When I was first trying to figure out how to do it, I realized, if they don’t like the movie, why don’t they just leave? And there’s something that just rubs you the wrong way about a person who sits in front of you and is really sarcastic the whole time. Sarcasm is just one key on the keyboard. When people approach it that way, it’s just not sustainable, creatively or comedically. It’s just a knee-jerk reaction and that’s not going to be what makes people like what you do.