With an irresistibly silly premise — an unwitting janitor launched into space to watch bad B-movies with robot companions — Mystery Science Theater 3000 transformed the act of movie mockery into a comedic art form, one that creator Joel Hodgson calls "movie riffing." The cult legacy of MST3K and "movie riffing" continues to grow, much like the giant radioactive locusts in Beginning of the End, one of many films the show riffed on before it left the air in 1999. Hodgson began his career as a wildly inventive prop comic, and he's returned to live performance with Cinematic Titanic, a touring version of MST3K that keeps the riffing but ditches the robots-in-space conceit. In advance of the Cinematic Titanic show at the Wilbur Theatre on Friday, he called to discuss his early influences, movie riffing, and why some films are too awful to mock.
CAN YOU SAY WHAT MOVIE YOU'LL BE RIFFING ON IN BOSTON? We're doing a brand new show. It's a world premiere, called Rattlers [from 1976, directed by John McCauley].
AFTER YOU PERFORMRATTLERS, WILL YOU REWRITE IT FOR FUTURE PERFORMANCES? We do these shows live, and then, based on our field-testing them and improving them, eventually, we'll make a DVD of it. Shows that we do on DVD are improved by the live show. The first DVD we did, The Oozing Skull, we recorded it the same weekend that we had a live show, and what we learned was that we brought so much more to the live show. We got all these new jokes that we didn't have. We'd actually improved it on the fly. That's always been an idea with Cinematic Titanic. We write it the best we can, and we test it in front of audiences, and we try to get the work as good as possible.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARD THE FILMS YOU RIFF ON? IT'S NOT REALLY CONTEMPT, IS IT? When people first talk about us, they always say it's snarky, but if you look at it, I'd say one out of a hundred jokes might be sarcastic, but that's just to break up the other style of jokes that we're doing. It's the easy joke, but we have a palette of the types of riffs that we can do, and being sarcastic or complaining about the quality of the movie might be one out of a hundred different approaches.
ONE THING THAT'S STRIKING ABOUT YOUR COMEDY IS HOW FULLY FORMED YOUR PERSONA WAS EVEN BY THE TIME YOU WERE DOING STAND-UP IN YOUR EARLY 20S. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? One thing in hindsight that I realized is that Steve Martin was a huge influence on me. When I was in high school, that's when he was really famous. That's when I did my magic act. I actually made money doing magic. I think his sensibility was really huge. Later, I read his biography, where he talks about getting a lot of his ideas for magic, and I did the same thing, but I didn't understand it at the time. Also, I just happened to take a Theatre of the Absurd course in college, and that's where it really started for me. It had this great little device, which is that when you perform absurd material, you can't really fail. No one can say, "Hey, that wasn't absurd." It gave me permission to try all the things I wanted to show people. It was inventions. It was bad magic tricks, weird concepts. Fortunately, the comedy boom was just getting going in Minneapolis. I started performing my junior year in college, then that whole senior year I did stand-up, and by the time I graduated, I was headlining.