So long and thanks for all the riffs: The final voyage of Cinematic Titanic
“Can I take a moment to say that the Pabst Theater is our favorite gig? They treat us well, and I think the secret is the food.”
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When an influential band breaks up, the members often go on to form projects that sound eerily like the original act. The writing team of cult favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 did just that. Cinematic Titanic (headed by original MST3K host Joel Hodgson) took the show on the road for riffing in front of a live audience, while Rifftrax (headed by second host Mike Nelson) added snarky commentary to DVDs of terrible blockbusters. Both projects have been successful, unlike so many ill-fated solo albums.
On Friday, September 20 and Saturday, September 21, Cinematic Titanic returns to Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater as part of the group’s final tour. The A.V. Club spoke to Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, and Mary Jo Pehl for a discussion of the past, present, and future of movie riffing.
The A.V. Club: There have been conflicting reports about this being Cinematic Titanic’s last tour. What’s the scoop?
Joel Hodgson: I will defer to these guys to answer this question.
J. Elvis Weinstein: Yes, this is our last tour. We developed it into a great live show, but after six years, it doesn’t have the same urgency anymore. It’s hard to keep creative momentum on a professional level when we’re all scattered across the country.
Trace Beaulieu: We’re putting a bullet in its skull.
AVC: If this is truly the end of Cinematic Titanic, what about your next projects?
JW: I’m working on a documentary that I’m trying to wrap for Sundance and subsequent festivals. It’s unrelated to riffing.
Mary Jo Pehl: I’m spending a lot of time working on a solo show. I’m going to a lot of comedy festivals and working on a music CD with a friend of mind.
JH: I do a one-man show called Riffing Myself. I’ve worked with Cineprov in Atlanta and got a lot out of it. Master Pancake Theater is great. They’re better than I am. They improv in front of a live audience as they go. It was outside my comfort zone, but I learned a lot. It’s like how old blues headliners used to tour. They’d headline a show on Friday and then jam with a local band on Saturday night.
TB: Mary Jo, Josh, Frank [Conniff], [Dave] Gruber [Allen], and I have an untitled video project in the works. We think it should be out in time for Halloween.
AVC: Now that you’ve been doing this for a few years on the road, how has live riffing evolved?
JH: There’s no better way to get your jokes and riffs sharper than by doing them on the road. The Marx brothers took their show on the road before they filmed any script. That process helped them really get things figured out.
MP: We all have a live performing background. We were all stand-ups at some point. We respond to the audience responding to us, and it takes off in a loop.
JW: It completes the equation; laughs paying off directly. You know what’s working right then and there.
TB: It’s like it was lab-tested for years. Doing it live, you get to finally take it into the field and see what works.
JW: One of the best feelings is playing in a great theater that’s ready to laugh. Once the movies start, we’re just voices in the dark.
AVC: Are mashups on YouTube an evolution of the form you created?
JW: We’re part of a continuum. We come out of creature-feature shows that led into shows growing out of what we did.
TB: It’s a commentary on the world that other people started to do similar things around the same time.
JH: I never thought of it that way. When we started, at KTMA, nobody thought cable was going to be anything. The films were just a big, white wall where we learned to scribble. We got lucky that people liked what we were doing.
AVC: You paved the way for meta commentary on media that would otherwise be left to rot. Do you ever feel like the big-shot creators of a genre of entertainment?
JW: It worked out really nicely for us. MST3K is used as the generic analogy now, like Kleenex or Google. We came out when the culture of irony was starting to take shape. It was a perfect fit.
JH: We did anticipate it, even though our success was completely by accident. When we started, we didn’t feel like MST3K was a real show. Then two, three weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly listed it as one of the Top 100 Shows of All Time.
TB: Luckily, we were geniuses.
MP: [Laughs] Yeah, no.
JW: Once we evolved how to do it on TV, it became something the fans could do themselves.
AVC: What’s the one movie you wish you could riff, regardless of rights issues?
JW: Life Is Beautiful.
TB: Isn’t it perfect?
JW: Yes it is.
MP: It’s terrible!
TB: It’s the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie of Holocaust movies.
JH: When we started MST3K, we only wanted to do public-domain movies. We figured that when we explained the premise, they wouldn’t let us do it. Once we started getting popular, the film companies would send us packages filled with half movies we liked, and half that were terrible. We kept saying, “Just give us your bad movies.” It’s like fixing up HUD homes. You can’t fix a house that already looks okay.
AVC: Do you think MST3K encourages the “so-bad-its-good” genre?
MP: The one thing that never works is when people set out to make a bad movie. There has to be sincerity and intent. Making a bad movie on purpose is not really in the spirit of what we do.
JH: When I was college, ironic viewing was on the rise. There was a book, The Golden Turkey Awards, that got me hooked on some classic weird cinema like Freaks, Terror Of Tiny Town, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Midnight movies made films like Eraserhead more like a curiosity and an event.
JW: Sharknado was a full-blown cynical attempt to generate social media. We’re not there just to bitch about the movie, which films like that encourage.
TB: Why bitch at the movie when you can stop it?
AVC: What types of riffs do you prefer, timeless or topical? Broad or obscure?
JH: We’re coming up on MST3K’s 25th anniversary. It’s been able to travel through time so well because we don’t do too many topical references. People think it’s pretty timeless. If a reference anchors it to the movie, it gets carried by the movie. There’s not one right way to do it. Eclectic worked better back then, but I left before the apex of popularity.
MP: I don’t think the obscure references work in the live shows as well as they did on MST3K. In the live shows, we can change it up and stay topical if we need to.
JW: The motivations are different things. MST3K was about amusing ourselves, so 10 percent of the jokes were obscure, 90 percent of the jokes were broad. With an audience, you can’t have 10 percent of the jokes fall flat. You’ve got to find the perfect joke for the spot.
AVC: With convention season upon us, do you have any interesting fan experiences to share?
JH: I never quite know how to react to people who dress up like me. I met a fan in a jumpsuit in Atlanta and asked him, “It’s comfortable, right?”
JW: My experiences are different because I was only on camera for the first season. Fans try to be polite or not be polite about wanting my autograph. Or they justify not getting signed by me. People try to subtly pull their material back if I’m not on it. I remember this girl was going through the line waiting for the others and I asked her, “Do you want me to sign that?” She says, “[Sigh]… okay.” People really personalize the show. They rolled with the changes but only want the right signatures sometimes.
MP: I like to sit next to Josh and give him shit about it. [Laughs.] Of course, I went to a furry convention because of the show, not aware exactly what it was. So many people will come through the line and talk about the joy they have of getting through a tough time. People are telling these personal stories and it’s been eye-opening. It’s an honor to hear those stories.
TB: I remember I once felt bad about this obscure joke that I thought nobody else in the world would get and fought for it to stay in the MST3K episode. At a signing, a fan came up to us and said, “I heard that joke and it kept me from killing myself.” My wife was sitting next to me and we just sat there, stunned that this guy opened up to us so completely.
JH: I got to talk to Frank Zappa before he died. He was a fan of MST3K, and I asked him what it was like to hear us quote him and sing lines from his songs. “It’s disturbing,” he said.
AVC: What advice do you have for fans looking to riff at home after they leave the Pabst Theater?
JH: Can I take a moment to say that the Pabst Theater is our favorite gig? They treat us well, and I think the secret is the food. When you’re in a strange city, you just don’t know what will be open or what’s good.
JW: Just remember it’s a collaboration with the movie. Don’t act like you’re the only one who knows the movie is bad. Everyone is aware of it.
JH: You can’t be an asshole. You’re a companion to the audience. If you are too sarcastic or cynical, people don’t want to hang out with you.
MP: I highly recommend not talking over dialogue. People want to track the plot. They aren’t married to it, but they kind of want to vaguely know what’s going on.
TB: Hire me. I’m available.