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Cinematic Titanic

Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu may not have invented wisecracking about mediocre B-movies like Doomsday Machine and Danger On Tiki Island but, as two of the stars of cult-favorite TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, they raised it to an art form. Though MST3K was canceled in 1999, it found new life on DVD, and in 2007 Hodgson and Beaulieu got the band back together, along with fellow founding movie-riffers Frank Conniff, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Mary Jo Pehl for the spin-off project Cinematic Titanic, which has released about a dozen new DVDs carrying on the movie-mocking tradition. The Titanic crew hits Elgin Community College Oct. 15 to tackle two choice morsels – Frankenstein And The Castle Of Freaks and Blood Of The Vampires. (For tickets, click here.) The A.V. Club talked with Hodgson and Beaulieu about raising the Titanic, staying frosty, and the secret of Torgo’s huge thighs.

The A.V. Club: What led you to get back together for Cinematic Titanic?

Joel Hodgson: I just missed it. About five to six years ago, there was this [renewed] interest in us. We were kind of feeling that. People we liked and admired were coming out and saying, “Wow, we really liked Mystery Science Theater. It was a big influence on me comedically.” Trace [Beaulieu] and Josh [J. Elvis Weinstein] and I had started talking about getting together again. Prior to that, in L.A., I saw Philip Glass do a concert [playing a live soundtrack to] a silent Dracula movie, and that resonated with me. It suddenly dawned on me, “Hey, it’s okay—we could just stand there and riff on a movie, and do it like a concert.”

AVC: So the live aspect was always intended from the beginning?

JH: It started as a live thing. The weekend we taped our first DVD, we also did a live show up in San Francisco at ILM [George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic]. I think we did two shows, and we improved just by performing live. And so we actually went back and re-recorded the work in the studio. ... We lapsed into the usual Mystery Science Theater mode: “We have to record in a studio, because that’s what people are used to.” Over time, we decided the live thing was working much better, that it was kind of the state of the art of movie riffing.

AVC: The most obvious difference between MST and Titanic is the lack of the robot puppets and between-movie segments—it’s just you guys talking in front of the movie. Why go that route?

JH: We experimented with that at the beginning. Again, if you come from MST, you kind of work with what you know, and we thought, “Oh, we have to make this linear, and we have to create a backstory. And why are these people riffing on a movie?” [The Satellite Of Love concept] served MST really well, but that was 20 years ago, when people were much more formal. They weren’t used to seeing anything [superimposed] on your TV images, except storm warnings that went across your screen when there was a severe thunderstorm. And the idea of these silhouettes over a movie; we got people calling in and complaining. One woman thought she was losing her mind. Like, “What am I looking at?” So we started out really slowly that way. I didn’t know how much riffing we could put in there before it became like a blur to people. The truth is, whenever people aren’t talking in a movie, there’s room for riffs, but when we started that wasn’t clear. That’s why, if you look at our riff rates from the early KTMA episodes [of MST], it might have been 150 riffs [per movie], and it almost doubled each season. And then we finally hit critical mass at about 600 riffs, and that’s where it stayed.

Trace Beaulieu: We had this elaborate backstory conceived [for Titanic where, instead of being forced to watch bad movies on a satellite, the compulsory riffing had something to do with a mysterious “Time Tube.”] And if you look at those early Titanic DVDs we released, we were dropping in little hints about this new world we were going to create. And then we started taking the show on the road, and we realized, it’s pretty simple. It’s just us riffing on movies. [Laughs.] We don’t need all that tinsel, which is also very costly to put together. So we broke it down into its basic form, and that’s what we’re doing now. We’re on the road, starting our fall and winter tour. It’s just us, and the movie, and the audience. It’s basic. It’s salt, pepper, and olive oil.

JH: The world of movie riffing is our own little creative art form. So in the development of it, obvious things sometimes happen really slowly. We didn’t know if [performing live] would work. Would it be too crowded? Would people be able to catch what was happening? We knew it worked in people’s living rooms, but would it work live? And it worked really great live. And the other step with Cinematic Titanic was: Will they accept us just being ourselves, the people who created it and performed the puppets and dressed up in the costumes?

AVC: Given that when you’re riffing in front of the movie we only see you in silhouette, the host segments and the robots served an important function in that they literally gave a face to the performers.

JH: Absolutely. That was really the whole point of the host segments, and in our own way to build a backstory. It seemed to work so beautifully. I’m not a big story guy, so those elements, the idea that [Hodgson’s character Joel Robinson] is in space, that he has no control over what’s happening, and that there’s these guys forcing him to do it kind of settled everybody about what was happening. I knew it wouldn’t work just to have three smart-aleck white guys sitting there saying stuff. You’d just go, “They’re assholes. Why are they doing it?” Again, it was a more formal time. … Just doing it live fixed all that, where we didn’t need the host segments. We didn’t need to reiterate who we are, because our audience knows who we are because of MST. That’s when it became really clear. Because, at a certain point, I wasn’t happy with the [Time Tube] concept. I didn’t feel it was really working. And I made a stand [that] our DVDs should just be live, and we should just do live shows, because it’s really our best stuff. It took about a year to make that happen.

AVC: So the Time Tube concept has been downplayed?

JH: Not downplayed—it’s been abandoned. That was really a rearview-mirror reaction to MST, and it wasn’t really forward-thinking. We did some really ambitious visual gags in silhouettes that were really fun to do, but it’s not needed. Even now, when I watch the MSTs, I get self-conscious if the host segment or the invention exchange is too long. Because really, when you’re an MST fan, you just want to get to the movie riffing.

AVC: How is the experience different in front of a live audience, as opposed to the studiobound MST days?

TB: It’s a lot more fun, because it’s an immediate feedback. We’re all stand-up comics and performers at heart, and to get in front of an audience that likes what we’re doing—there’s nothing better than that, as opposed to doing the TV show where you might wait weeks or months to hear anything. I prefer the live-show format. It’s immediate, and it’s much more gratifying.

AVC: Do you think the change in format changed the comedy itself?

TB: Yeah, I do. A joke has to work for an audience. It can’t be an obscure reference anymore. Although we still throw in an obscure reference occasionally if we don’t mind hearing silence. But it’s much better to have a hard-hitting joke than a joke that maybe one person in the theater might get. And it might not even be a person onstage.

JH: It doesn’t really land if you do an esoteric reference. If your audience is one for two people in a living room, you can do that and it works fine. People think about it, or maybe they look it up online and find out what the reference means, or talk about it. So we don’t do as many of those kind of eclectic references.

TB: And we’ll do some topical things that over time just stop working. Like the balloon boy. I don’t think anyone even remembers the ballon boy now, but we had a few jokes in reference to him. But you realize pretty quickly that the audience has already consumed that knowledge and is done with it, and you have to think of something new. So it keeps us frosty, to constantly be updating. Because we all want to get the laugh, and it hurts when it goes by and no one laughs.

AVC: A lot of the classic Marx Brothers movies were really heavily road-tested in front of live audiences before they ever got in front of a camera, which sounds similar to your new method.

TB: We play [the Titanic movies] in a lot of different cities before we record them, and even after we’ll keep working them because it’s fun to keep the material invigorated. But the audience plays such a major role in all of this that we can’t take all the credit. They’re so primed for these movies, and so right in the zone of getting the genre and getting what we do. That’s what really makes these live performances so enjoyable, getting a big room of people laughing for a couple hours. It’s infectious, and that energy can’t help but make us do a better job. They deserve a lot more credit than they’re given. They won’t get any money, but they should certainly be recognized.

AVC: What makes a movie work well for riffing purposes? It's not as simple as just “cheap sci-fi/horror movie,” I’d imagine.

TB: They have to be a little pretentious and a little pompous. They’re the high society, and we’re the court jesters or the buffoons that come in to tear that elitism down a little bit. It’s what the audience is thinking too, I believe. Hopefully we just get there before they do. ... [And] it really does need to have some kind of plot, or otherwise it can be just an incoherent journey. And all of those elements of incompetence that go into making a bad movie. It’s absolutely wonderful for us to run into an actor in these films who thinks he’s a great actor, but really isn’t. Production values, too: the more outrageously bad, the better. I’m thinking of Doomsday Machine—they intercut all that bad stock footage of the Apollo taking off, which I think every space movie since the Apollo has used, and then they’re in this ridiculous spaceship with Barcaloungers and motorcycle helmets. The special effects in that movie, I wouldn’t even call them special. And then any time you’ve got some ridiculous monster, that’s candy for us to go after. The monster in Danger On Tiki Island could have been fairly scary if they’d gone back a bit and not done the whole Michelin Man rubber suit on this guy. It’s just ridiculous. But those are wonderful. They’re just a treat for us.

AVC: What do you avoid?

JH: Certain movies don’t work. Any movie that is at all self-conscious. After MST, a lot of the low-budget horror movies became very meta, where they were MSTing themselves while they were doing it.

TB: Like Mansquito. You don’t even have to watch the movie; you’ve got what they’re doing exactly.

JH: And those don’t work because you can’t do a joke on a joke. You just end up looking like a jerk, you know? You end up looking really cynical. And that’s the dance you want to avoid when you’re movie-riffing, because the whole point of it is, you’re a companion. People don’t want to watch movies with jerks. It’s not hard for us, because behind the curtain, it’s kind of like a variety show we’re making. You find all manner of things to riff on. You’re not really talking about the quality of the movie or the acting. That’s the coloring-book version of what people think we do. It’s really much much bigger.

AVC: You have to kind of like the movie, or it doesn’t really work either.

TB: That’s absolutely true. There’s a movie we did, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, which I am no fan of. And it was very difficult to attack that movie, because I had no affection for it. Also, I guess it’s a comedy, and comedy on top of comedy doesn’t really work too well. I absolutely love The Wasp Woman. It’s one of those movies I would watch over and over as a kid on television. And even the old MST films that we would do, like Teenagers From Outer Space, they’re just wonderfully bad, train-wreck-quality watching—but you’re absolutely right: You can’t spend that much time with a film if you absolutely detest it. ... And sometimes it’s hard to find that entertainment. Sometimes you’ve got to look through a lot of bad to find that. Not every movie is suitable for [our] treatment. The ones that are winking don’t work for us. I think you have to see that the filmmaker was really serious in intent about making a good movie, and they missed the mark so horribly wrong, but there was an intent to make a good movie. My hat is off to anyone who picks up a camera and tries to make a movie, because they are really hard to make. When the wheels start coming off, that’s just better for us. There’s another one in the chute that we can take care of.

AVC: Even Robot Monster is a triumph for having been made at all.

TB: It’s kind of genius the way they put that monster together, and it’s very iconographic now. But at the time they probably had a gorilla suit and a space helmet, and they said “Oh well ... what are we gonna do?” But now it’s a symbol of bad movies. If you show that image to somebody, they go, “Oh yeah, I know that! I know where we are, what the genre is! Let’s go, this looks like fun.”

JH: These movies are made mostly naively. If you spend enough time with a movie, there’s places where you go, “Wow, that’s a great moment, and everything came together,” but there’s not enough of those to make the movie loved by the mass audience. Only you see it, because you’re watching it eight times. Mary Jo [and I], we talk about this a lot: There’s this vampire movie we do [Blood Of The Vampires], and there’s a couple of moments where you go, “Wow, this actor was really good!” And on top of that, it was shot in the Philippines, and they revoiced it [for English] and the woman revoicing it is a really good voice actor. And it’s just like, “Oh, it hurts my heart that she’s doing such a good job.” But we’d never say that. That’s not our job, and people wouldn’t understand, you know? To say “Wow, this is a great scene.” And then there’s all these other moments where it’s flawed and they get it wrong, and these goofy things, and that’s what you use to create jokes.

AVC: In a way, you guys are interpreters for these movies. You’re mocking them, but you’re also helping to translate them out of an outdated context so a modern audience understands what was appealing about some old 1958 black and white B-movie in the first place.

JH: That’s something else over time I’ve learned. The movie is kind of a spookhouse. Because of the nature of the movies we use, usually you [the audience] haven’t seen them. It’s a little weird for people to go into a movie and watch it beginning-to-end without a trailer or reading a review; there’s none of the usual bellwethers to tell you about what you’re watching. In our movies there’s nothing like that. You’re going in blind, and you think “I don’t know anything that’s going to happen, but I’m going in with these guys who’ve been there ahead of me.” I get that because of [the popularity of] Manos: The Hands Of Fate. When I watch Manos, I know people love it—it’s the most famous MST—but I’m thinking about our riffs, and I think that’s one of those situations where the world of the movie carries it more than what we’re doing. [Our viewers] love that movie, and they’re so mystified that it exists in the world, that I think it carries it more than we do.

AVC: Which maybe goes back to the question of what makes a really good movie for your purposes. Manos takes itself really seriously, and at the same time it’s got Torgo, the guy with the bizarrely huge legs, which is just mystifying.

JH: I figured that out, what Torgo is. It’s not [visible] in the print because the print cuts off his legs. He’s supposed to be a satyr, like half goat or something. He’s got these big, furry legs, and these things that are supposed to be cloven hooves, but they didn’t do it right. So all you see are these super-fat legs. And because of the way they did the pan-and-scan, there’s no scene that shows that. So there’s all this confusion. You go, “That’s horrible, a guy with chubby thighs? What’s so scary about that?”

AVC: Something that’s genuinely frightening, like Night Of The Living Dead, or really gory like the Saw movies, would probably be hard for you to work with.

TB: Yeah, [the Saw movies] are hard for me to watch in any case, so maybe it goes back to your observation that you have to enjoy the movie. But the gore, the violence, it’s such a dark, grisly place to be that I don’t even find those scary; I just find them dank and soulless.

AVC: When you’ve got five performers onstage, that’s potentially five very different comedic sensibilities competing with each other. But going back to the MST3K days, there always seems to have been a group aesthetic.

TB: I think it’s kind of like a choir. We all have our ranges and the notes we can hit. Everyone’s got their tone and their beat, and we’re all focused on the same outcome. Sometimes you compete a little. Sometimes you try to crack each other up onstage—you come up with something new, and you say, “I bet I can zing Frank [Conniff] with this one if I say it right.” To keep it fresh and lively, you’re always thinking of something new. Hopefully it’s still one collective voice that comes through.

AVC: Are you competitive, or do you find that you write for each other—say, a line you come up with works better in Frank’s voice?

JH: Definitely. Right now we’re working on this movie, and I came up with a line that I automatically assigned to Trace.

TB: We each take a pass at the movie and write a complete set of jokes, and those all get blended into a massive script that is then divided. We might have five jokes for one moment, and we’ll pick the best out of each one. And that one might sound better if Mary Jo read that particular joke. Sometimes we’ll have favorites that we want to hang on to, but mostly it’s pretty democratic, and I think it works better that way. It’s the best of both worlds, because you get to perform a joke that might be better than the one you’ve written, but you also get to hear your joke performed by someone else who gets a big laugh. It’s a win-win both ways.

JH: There’s jokes that just speak to you and say, “Oh, I know Frank can deliver this.” That’s part of the fun.

AVC: Is it harder to keep and build an audience without the benefit of a TV show?

JH: I’m sure that’s true. If we had a show on the air, we’d probably play bigger venues. But the whole key to it is we have these great fans who still follow us and still buy the DVDs. From the time MST went off the air, the sales haven’t diminished; they’ve grown. It hasn’t gone backwards. That was one of the things that made me say, “Wow, we should probably get out there again and keep doing it. We could be performing, and there might be an audience for it.” It turns out, yeah, it works really well.

AVC: How has your audience changed over time?

TB: I don’t know if they really have changed. They’re all walks of life. You might stereotype them as the guy in the basement building the Millennium Falcon ... No, wait, that’s me.