In the not-so-distant-past, 1988 to be precise, Minnesota boy Joel Hodgson created a television show that defied all likely laws of possibility. Imagine the pitch: Two robots and a captive man (Hodgson, calling himself Joel Robinson) orbit Earth. Forced by mad scientists to watch a never-ending stream of awful films, they do the only thing that might possibly preserve their sanity: deliver staccato bursts of wisecracking or “riffing.” Unlikely as it sounds, Hodgon’s show, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), not only launched but quickly became the flagship program for new cable station Comedy Channel (now called Comedy Central). It also rapidly inspired a cultish following of nerdcore fans called “MSTies,” who enabled their obsessive enthusiasms via some newfangled invention called the Internet. But MST3K became a critical darling, as well, wowing former television formalists like Tom Shales into slobbery excesses, winning a Peabody, two Emmy noms, and making its way onto Time‘s 100 Best TV Shows of All-Time list.
“Of course, in hindsight, it was lucky that we started locally,” said Hodgson, speaking from his Pennsylvania home in preparation of his UCSB-hosted live version of movie-riffing, Cinematic Titanic, which takes over Campbell Hall on Sunday, November 6. “It really was a low build: a bunch of guys on a UHF channel. Back then, all we had was the guy-in-space idea. The next year, when we made it to the Comedy Channel, well, then I decided we actually had to write the show. At first, it was all just improvised, but then I thought we needed to write the riffs, which meant prescreening the films. The other guys were against it, but I said, ‘Hey, this is national television; some of my friends might be watching this.’”
The “other guys” included Frank Conniff, who played one of the mad scientists and who will accompany Hodgson onstage at UCSB this weekend. “Frank would bring in movies, which we would screen during lunch, and then we would decide if they would work. The next part was trying to get the rights to do them, which was harder than it might seem.” Some of the grade-Z movies were just innocently dumb, like The Catalina Caper, while other films were sinister, ugly, and plotless, like the infamous Manos: The Hands of Fate. “But we always tried to pick movies that made you feel something,” said Hodgson, whose comic shtick revolved around his sleepy-eyed (some thought stoned) expression, which a New Yorker writer aptly described “looking like he overdosed on bedtime stories.” After procuring said clunker, they screened, wrote, and recorded their riffs, which were delivered as black silhouettes against the bottom of the movie screen.
“We eventually got up to about 600 riffs a film,” claimed Hodgson. “I once counted 800, but that was unusual.” The jokes ranged from slapstick to obscure, with allusions to everything from Terry and the Pirates comic strips to the apocryphal death of Aeschylus, and were delivered scattershot. More often they were dumb-ass comments you yourself were thinking, suddenly (psychically) articulated by puppet robots. The skits before commercials were meant to “reiterate” the robots, Hodgson explained, to give us a sense of their cute, ornery personalities. Kids loved them as much as their hipster parents did.
“We can’t do that so much in a live show,” Joel said, but he still loves the new format. “MST is the gift that keeps on giving. We go out three times a month all over the country. It’s great.”
Hodgson’s currently working on a feature film, and trying to develop a magic festival, but he admittedly loves seeing the MSTies, particularly the kids who sent letters to the show, which were regularly onscreen read by the robots. “We meet these kids in every city,” said Hodgson. “They’re all in their twenties now, all grown-up.” Does he have any advice for them? “I just tell them to come out and see the show.”
Cinematic Titanic comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Sunday, November 6, at 8 p.m. For tickets and info, call 893-3555 or visit artsandalectures.sa.ucsb.edu.