Joel Hodgson seems like a humble American, like a white guy who works for a Philadelphia-based aerospace company (which he in fact does). But he's also a cultural icon, a legend in the minds of millenials who grew up watching his creation, the paramount B-movie-riffing television show MST3K — Mystery Science Theater 3000 to the uninitiated. The premise of the show was simple: In the not-too-distant future, a regular guy is captured by a mad scientist and forced to watch terrible movies on a space station as a psychological study. To keep himself sane, he builds robot friends who watch and goof on the movies with him. The show was nothing short of revelatory, and hilarious, which is why it made its way from local cable in Minnesota to Comedy Central.
Hodgson believes that if he hadn't created the show, and made movie-riffing a legitimate way to express one's comedic vision, then someone else surely would have come along and done so by now.
There's no way to know if he's right. But it's true that since the show, which had its run from 1988 to 1999, countless other movie-riffing shows and podcasts have sprung up. There's Master Pancake Theater in Austin, Texas, with which Hodgson's performed a few times. He's also a fan of Vancouver's Gentlemen Hecklers, another live-riffing group. Podcasts such as The Flop House and How Did This Get Made? borrow from the tradition as well.
And Joel — his fans know him by his first name — is back on the road this fall. He's touring with his live-riffing band, Cinematic Titanic, made up of five members of the original MST3K crew. That's not to be confused with Rifftrax, the other offshoot MST3K project featuring Mike Nelson, series head writer who stepped in after Hodgson left in 1993. Those involved in both groups have denied rumors of a rivalry between the two former hosts, but fans still seem to have their allegiances one way or the other: Team Joel or Team Mike. Of course, it's not an allegiance so extreme that fans won't enjoy a live Rifftrax show here, a Cinematic Titanic live show there — the format itself is a comedy institution now.
But it's going to be Cinematic Titanic's final tour, Hodgson says. At the Castro Theatre, they'll be live-riffing two films: The Doll Squad and The Astral Factor. Hodgson also has a solo stand-up show, the well-titled Riffing Myself, and he'll be back for that in February.
SF Weekly: Why the last tour now?
Joel Hodgson: I think it's just 'cause we got to do everything we wanted to do. We've been doing it for six years, we've done over 100 live shows. We've gotten to do a ton with it, and really enjoyed it, but yeah I think that's it. You know?
There are a lot of movie-riffing shows now — podcasts, live shows. How responsible do you feel for that movement, people appreciating the so-bad-it's-good genre of films?
If I wouldn't have done it, somebody else would have. I don't know if I want to take responsibility, is what I'm saying. But I do get a lot of people that, it inspired them, and there's lots of movie-riffing groups happening, people doing it online, and a lot of people doing live shows. It's a thing now. It's kind of like another brand of doing comedy, it's another style.
Do they still make bad movies like they used to?
Yeah, I think that will forever be a part of making movies.
What's so magical about a really bad movie?
I kind of look at it like it's a magic show. We all go into a movie imagining that we're going to be taken away. You don't really perceive how it's working, you kind of just get sucked into it and taken away. And everybody wants that. I think that's kind of a need in society, that's why people still go to the movies. When it doesn't work, it becomes like a bad magic show. And that's often as fun to watch as a good magic show. There's things that we all know work in movies. But for some reason it's impossible to exactly figure out how to do it consistently. So all we know about, you still have to leave it up to chance when you see a movie whether it'll work or not. It's some kind of equation or algorithm.
Is it possible to set out to make a really bad movie, and have it work on that level?
I think it's kind of hard. I've seen people do that, they want it both ways. They want to try to do a movie that works, but by acknowledging it's bad it kind of doesn't work. If you're kind of tongue-in-cheek about it, it doesn't really work.
Why do movies like Birdemic seem to resonate so much with the culture right now?
I'll just hazard an idea. I think we're confronted now with so many hundred-million-dollar movies, blockbusters, superhero movies, blockbuster animated movies. I think when there's something different it's kind of relaxing and in its own way has its own pleasure to it. It's just counterpoint I guess. People just like it, like a bad magic show.
Do you have a favorite film to riff on?
My favorite was called I Accuse My Parents, from a Mystery Science Theater episode.
What about actual good films?
Shoot, let me think on that. A Thousand Clowns, with Jason Robards, was my favorite when I was a kid. You really caught me off guard with this one. You know what? I like Dr. Strangelove. I like Time Bandits. Ghostbusters, I thought that was really great. Of course I like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And the Beatles movies I really love, A Hard Day's Night, and Help! I like Voyage of Sinbad. Stuff like that. OK, I'm done.
If you think of any more later, you can just shout them out at random.
No, I think I'm done.
Have you ever found it difficult to appreciate the movie-watching experience without goofing on the film?
I'm like everybody else. I just want the theater experience. I haven't really ever done that because I don't want to wreck anyone else's experience. I think that's the difference between movie-riffing and movie-heckling. You kind of got to be invited to movie-riff, and to heckle is a whole different thing. And I'm not really a heckler, so I've never really done that. This is kind of behind-the-curtain, backstage kind of talk, it's kind of my job, so when I'm at a movie I'm not thinking of my job. I'm hoping to kind of get away.