Cinematic Titanic's Joel Hodgson demystifies movie riffing
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In the realm of hard-to-sell job skills, Joel Hodgson has cornered the market on an unthinkable cottage industry: making fun of movies in front of a paying audience. The former stand-up comic and magician was first ushered into people's living rooms in the late '80s with Mystery Science Theater 3000, a cult TV show that had him mocking charming B-movies with a group of puppet robots. Although Hodgson left the show at the height of its popularity in 1993, he emerged later in 2007, along with other members of MST3K's original cast, with Cinematic Titanic. They're now the self-proclaimed but undisputed "masters of movie riffing," a.k.a. the now very legitimate art form of weaving an additional, teasing performance atop a pre-existing movie. With the next generation of movie-mockers picking up the torch, The A.V. Club and Joel Hodgson went to their local video stores before CT hits the Lakeshore Theater Sept. 10-12, and picked movies at random off the shelves to discuss potential pitfalls for beginner riffers and why nobody wants to spend 90 minutes with the shittiest movie in existence.
Joel Hodgson: There’s one that caught my eye. “The gay teenage sex comedy of your dreams.” That’s what Time Out New York said about it. So. Yeah. We’ve got that to look forward to.
An American Carol (2008)
JH: Isn’t that the one where [David Zucker's], like, a conservative making a comedy? There’s just not a lot of funny conservatives, so it’s kind of good he jumped the fence. They got Dennis Miller, and that’s about it.
What’s different about this is, these are all—I mean, the one thing I’ve learned is you are always collaborating with the movie. [MST3K puppeteer-writer-actor] Trace [Beaulieu] always said, “The movies are Margaret Dumont, and we’re supposed to be the Marx Brothers.” So it’s funny what kind of movies would work. Because there are movies that are so bad you couldn’t use them. There’s lots of them that just aren’t even capable of telling a story.
You’re really building a show on the back of another show. It does have to be serviceable as a movie. People’s shorthand version [of what we do] is, “These are the worst movies ever,” but they’re really not because you can’t follow the worst movies.
Finding Me (2009)
JH: Oh, I think there’s another gay one. Finding Me. “The search to find one’s self is everyone’s journey.” I don’t know why I’m attracted to these gay ones, why I keep seeing them. Maybe… I don’t know. I walked right past Frost/Nixon, went right to that.
The A.V. Club: It’s almost as if you just… knew.
JH: Yeah. Somehow they’re calling me. Maybe I’m—you know.
King Ralph (1991)
JH: The thing that’s so peculiar about movie riffing is people are kind of spending the hour and a half with you, and you’re kind of their companion. And they don’t like assholes. So you have to avoid being an asshole. That’s a mistake that a lot of people make when they start riffing on movies. I think they misinterpret what we do, because if you look at it, one in 20 jokes might be about the quality of the movie, and the rest is really just jokes springboarding off what’s happening.
With a movie like that, I would avoid it because it’s a comedy. There’s an old adage in comedy: “You never want a joke on a joke.” And so if someone’s making a joke, and then you’re making a joke on their joke, it’s likely you’re just going to make a joke that says that joke wasn’t funny.
AVC: But what if the jokes are horrible? Would you still come off looking like an asshole?
JH: Yeah, like someone’s trying to be funny, and then you’re pointing out how they’re not funny? It’s not very winning for the audience. You come off snarky.
AVC: So it becomes a losing status game, where you'd be inexplicably spending all this time with a movie, but also going out of your way to point out that it's beneath you.
JH: Right, right. I think that’s one of the keys to it working with an audience, because if they’re going to spend 90 minutes with you, you have to allow the movie to breathe. And that means doing all manner of riffs, and not riffing all about the quality of it or besting what they’re doing. So that’s why personally I always go for movies that are being really earnest, because they’re really trying to create an illusion that’s very serious. Especially a monster movie. It works.
Lots of times, movies that are low-budget want to have it both ways, where they want to be making this movie, but they also want to wink at the camera. Like, “We know we’re in a bad movie.” But they’re kind of doing what we do. They’re presenting the movie, but they’re also being very meta about it and going, “Oh, we know we’re in a bad movie,” or, “We’re acknowledging it.” So that’s another thing that’s hard to do. You want to feel more like you’re observing something and then remarking on it, but if they’re turning to the camera, it takes you out of it.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
JH: The Edward Norton one. I feel like that would be a really great one to do.
JH: Just because it’s probably really visual, there’s a lot going on there. And there’s a Hulk, but there’s also something that’s even worse than the Hulk. I’m looking at the back, and there’s this thing that’s bigger than the Hulk, but he’s got this kind of spiny backbone, that I’m sure the Hulk goes up against. There’s something more powerful than the Hulk?
JH: It’s so funny that they lapped themselves so quickly. They just can’t make the Hulk work, I think. I think the Hulk is a really confusing character to begin with. It works great in a comic book, but when they try to make it work on the screen, it doesn’t somehow work.
JH: The animated John Cusack movie. That was another thing we found, is that it’s really hard to riff on animated movies.
JH: I don’t know. There’s something about the human face. As good as they are at animating stuff, we’re so much better at picking up on what’s going on on somebody’s face, or what’s on their mind. You can make a remark about a look on somebody’s face, whether they’re really being a good actor or they’re really being a bad actor, but when it’s animated, it’s different. It’s an approximation of a face. Now, this is just totally my opinion, because there’s lots of people riffing now, and so I think there’s probably people out there that have figured out how to do it.
AVC: Well, that makes sense, though. CGI movies are much more controlled—they can go in frame-by-frame to micromanage everything, as opposed to the weird, unplanned reactions you mentioned.
JH: Yeah. And it could open up all kinds of new things that I’m not alert to, but these are just things over the last 20 years of movie riffing that I know about, and there’s just lots of people doing it, so I wouldn’t want to say these are very strict rules at all, because it’s kind of uncreative to say there are rules about it.
Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus (2009)
JH: Oh, man, that sounds fantastic. I’d love to see that. That sounds really great.
AVC: There’s so little information on the back of the box. There’s just one sentence: “The California coast is terrorized by two enormous prehistoric sea creatures as they battle each other for supremacy of the sea.”
JH: Wow. Let me go check. I’m going to go up to the guy. Excuse me. Do you have Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus? Over here?
Video-store employee: Yeah, they’re in alphabetical order.
JH: Okay. Back there? Okay, excellent. Wait a minute. Deborah Gibson? It looks great. It’s fun because—I mean, the only liability with this one would be if they’re doing that winking at the camera thing, you know, because sometimes they do that when they realize they’re in the middle of a movie that’s not good. They start doing stuff that’s too outrageous, they’re trying to get laughs.
Danger On Tiki Island (1968)
JH: I think we’re doing it in Chicago, and it’s a pretty well-made movie. It’s really competently made. It’s these guys in the Philippines who actually made kind of good movies, but their Achilles’ heel is their monster is just the worst monster ever.
AVC: What is it?
JH: It’s just a guy who’s supposed to be mutated by radiation, but he looks like the Michelin Man. He’s just really weird, and is real bumpy, and his mouth doesn’t move. We have a joke like, “Oh, I wish we had a bigger budget so I could express myself.” At the same time, though, some of the best stuff comes from people interacting together. And that has to happen in a good movie, too, even if it’s a monster movie, there has to be some dynamic between characters.
It’s fun, because you can ping-pong between the conversations the people are having and the outrageous scenes, a monster. Those are the ones I gravitate toward. So much of it is just the reaction to either what you’re hearing them say or what you’re seeing them do. And you can kind of go between both. And the best movie riffing does both. For some people, they tend to distill the actual words out of what we’re doing, but it’s really very visual. We’re completely dependent on what we’re looking at. It’s really a completely visual exercise rather than anything else, because you and the audience are sharing what you’re looking at. You’re looking at the same thing, and you’re saying something that’s going to affect them and kind of put a spin on it.
Red Sonja (1985)
JH: It’s good. It’s Brigitte Nielsen, Sly Stallone’s ex-wife, and… what’s his name? The guy. She had a reality show with Flavor Flav. She’s a big Polish woman or something.
AVC: When there's a potential pop-culture reference like that in the periphery that requires a bit more knowledge on the audience's part, would you use that?
JH: Yeah. You can only really do it once, and you don’t want to start off with it, but I think people ultimately expect a nod to what we know about them.
AVC: Why only once?
JH: Because it’s easy. It’s really easy to do, and people do expect it, and it’s just kind of like you want to acknowledge it to let people know you know that, but I think it’s just kind of easy. Yeah, you want to save it, find a good spot for it.
AVC: What if you lead off with it to get it out of the way? Would it set the wrong tone?
JH: Yeah. It also suggests that that’s what you would do the whole show. It’s not really about that, it’s really weird, it’s just a feeling. As you know, when you’re with friends, and you say stuff, almost all of it is just a knee-jerk reaction. I see this, and I say this. It’s almost like you can’t design it in a way.
10,000 BC (2008)
JH: I just have a bias toward movies like this. You know, I always love Ray Harryhausen movies, and Ray Harryhausen did the original 10,000 BC. And to me those just represent what movies are all about, something that takes you out of the ordinary and is truly cinematic, just things that take you to a different place. I think that’s what movies, if they work, that’s what they’re for. I just like the world.
What we do with Cinematic Titanic, and with Mystery Science Theater, it was about, “Oh, we’re going to show you a movie you’d never see otherwise.” So you’re really like tour guides into this weird world that could be fractured or could be goofy, but I think that’s the appeal of it is showing them. A lot of these movies are movies people have never seen.