Come Riffing With Me
MST3K creator brings his one man show to SCC
Joel Hodgson has a way of looking at other people’s work and poking fun at their artistic shortcomings with hilarity. Best known for creating Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) and initially starring in the show as the character Joel Robinson, Hodgson is bringing his latest production, Riffing Myself, to the Scranton Cultural Center on Saturday, Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. Hodgson will take the audience on the journey of MST3K, from its humble beginnings on UHF channel KTMA in Minneapolis to landing a national audience on the now-defunct Comedy Channel. There will also be a Q&A with Hodgson as well as a showing of the MST3K fan favorite episode, Pod People.
MST3K focused on Hodgson’s character stranded in a space station with his four robot sidekicks and the tortuous B-movies two evil scientists keep forcing him to watch. Listed as “one of the top 100 television shows of all time” by Time.com, Hodgson left the program in its fifth season, only to return years later to “movie riffing” with former MST3K cast and crew members Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl under the name Cinematic Titanic, performing live and producing content for DVDs and Internet downloads.
We spoke with Hodgson about the origins of Riffing Myself and his days of MST3K.
Talk about Riffing Myself. Where did the idea come from?
For the last five years I’ve been doing a show called Cinematic Titanic; it’s basically the original cast of MST3K riffing on movies live. We’ve done over 100 live shows all over the country. Getting to do hundreds of interviews, I started getting all these questions that made me start to think and go back to the origin story. Everybody wanted to know, “how did you think of it?” It’s such a unique show and there was never anything before it. How did it happen? I think it happened to coincide with me buying a snap scanner and scanning all of my photos. It was such a good experience; I started to think “oh, I think this is a show. It’s a show about my experience growing up wanting to be in show business. Riffing Myself starts when I’m 7 years old and I think that God is making the movies and it ends with when we finally make a deal with Comedy Channel to make the show professionally; and everything between those two points.
Growing up, what role did television and movies play in your life?
I was one of those kids who really watched eight hours of T.V. a day from the time I was 6 years old until I was 12. There’s about six years in there where I consumed everything on T.V. It was low-grade T.V. and you had to sit through a lot of commercials. We had a black and white T.V. and I would watch almost anything; I would do that rather than do what I should have been doing, like playing outside. With movies, I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I knew it was something I loved. For some reason I felt drawn to participate.
Did the success of the initial cable show and jump to the Comedy Channel reshape the show and your approach?
Absolutely. We had money. When we did it locally, we spent a day making the show. We didn’t really write it; we improvised the whole show. When we got paid to do it, we were able to build a real designated set that would accommodate puppeteers and figure it out. Doing the 22 shows locally really was the laboratory. When we had money, everything became amplified. We were able to write the show, spend time with the movies and actually put a lot of time into making it better.
MST3K was produced in suburban Minneapolis, a thousand miles from your bosses in New York City. Did that play to your advantage?
Almost 200 episodes were shot in Minneapolis. A show like MST3K had never been done before, so they just left us alone. We didn’t get any network notes or interference. The average MST3K episode had 600 riffs in it. To put somebody on that would be super complex. They had their hands full; they let us do our thing and it worked out.
You once said: “We never ask, ‘Who is going to get this?’ We say ‘The right people will get it’.” That led to a show with a lot of really obscure references. Do you still stand by that motto today?
Everything is about the context in which you are doing it. When we do live shows with Cinematic Titanic, we don’t do as many arcane references. People are expecting it to be funny and laugh. The context of doing it as a T.V. show and something that is broadcast to millions of people is different. There was so much room in the movies. When we started doing it for Comedy Channel, there was so much space to fill. Every time they’re not talking, we should be thinking about inserting riffs. We had to make it fairly quickly; we turned over a new show every seven days. To produce that much material, a 90-minute show with six of us writing — you have to use everything. I certainly didn’t create any rules what we could and couldn’t make jokes about. There were no rules other than if people in the writing room said, “I don’t want to do that joke or that’s a little too harsh.” Then the rule was we just threw it out and put in a new joke. It was a self-policing writing room.
What should audiences expect when Riffing Myself comes to Scranton?
This show is for people who have had a great experience with MST3K or for those who want to learn about it. I never presume people know because it’s a cult hit. I always explain. You’ll get a brief explanation from me about what MST3K is.
— tom graham
For a taste of MST3K, check out http://the570.com/index.php/2013/02/a-taste-of-mst3k/
If you go…
What: “Riffing Myself” with Joel Hodgson of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”
When: Saturday, Feb. 9, 7 p.m.; VIP meet-and-greet session at 6 p.m.
Where: Scranton Cultural Center at The Masonic Temple, 420 N. Washington Ave., Scranton
Details: Tickets are $18 for general admission/$30 for VIP meet-and-greet session available at the box office, by calling 344-1111 or 800-745-3000, or visiting www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, visit www.scrantonculturalcenter.org.