ProfileDon’t Like the Movie? Let’s Talk About ItJoel Hodgson on ‘Mystery Science Theater’ and Riffs
By Paul Brownfield, The New York Times
- June 3, 2012The scene at a Cinematic Titanic event, with riffers onstage in front of the movie. (Photo: Josh Targownik)
It takes a certain kind of fan to recognize Joel Hodgson, creator of the cult 1990s Comedy Central series “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and Shawn Queeney is that kind of fan. In his media and society class at Bucks County Community College north of Philadelphia, Mr. Queeney, an associate professor of communications, discusses the place of the “Mystery Science Theater” in the underbelly of cinema, and he and his wife spent a December evening watching Mr. Hodgson and friends perform their idiosyncratic comedy as part of the live B-movie heckling tour “Cinematic Titanic.”
So when Mr. Queeney spotted Mr. Hodgson at a restaurant not long after, he asked Mr. Hodgson to speak at his college. Mr. Hodgson agreed but later came back with a suggestion more befitting his sensibilities. And so was hatched one of the odder master classes ever offered in formal higher education: a workshop on the art and science of “movie riffing.”
On “Mystery Science Theater,” which began in 1988 and was integral to the early growth of Comedy Central, Mr. Hodgson played a janitor at a byzantine research lab who is sent into space, where he is forced to watch B and C genre movies with two robot companions named Tom Servo and Crow. But that setup, laid out in the theme song, was only the bones of the show. The meat each week was in the riffing, as Joel and his bot-pals, silhouetted at the bottom of the screen, commented on everything from killer lizard films like “The Giant Gila Monster” to cheesy instructional shorts like “Hired!”
“Hey, isn’t that the John Belushi biography?” Mr. Hodgson’s character says when the title appears. (Riff spoiler alert: It’s a reference to the book “Wired.”)
If “Mystery Science Theater” was part insult comedy aimed at movies, there was also something congenial in the show’s tone. (Perhaps it was the puppet robots, or that it was all being produced in Minneapolis.)
Six writers had to deliver a 90-minute episode every week, Mr. Hodgson said, with 600 to 800 riffs per movie, “when all the pistons were firing.” In devising the lines, no reference (Bella Abzug, Roy Lichtenstein) was too outrÃ© or rejected initially, Mr. Hodgson said. As he tried to convey to the students at Bucks, it’s best to brainstorm nonjudgmentally first and figure out what’s funny later.
Mr. Hodgson, now 52, left “Mystery Science Theater” in 1993 after, he said, a dispute with the executive producer Jim Mallon over the direction of a feature film based on the series.
Moving to Los Angeles, Mr. Hodgson landed a series of movie and TV deals while also keeping creative in more inimical ways. One of them was an event called the Super Ball, an annual “one-night World’s Fair” that Mr. Hodgson dreamed up with his brother, Jim, combining their interest in comedy, science and art happenings.
Mr. Hodgson, in this way, has long approached comedy as a chemist in a lab does, noodling with a drug protocol to make it more effective. In Minneapolis in the late 1980s he briefly taught a workshop called Creative Stand-Up and Smartology that was based on communication paradigms he’d read about in college. This was after he had earned appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live.”
Years later he tried to rejigger the sketch comedy series format at HBO, where he made a pilot called “The TV Wheel.” Mr. Hodgson’s idea was to shoot the show live, with a camera that was locked down in the middle of a set that rotated like a record on a turntable. “Your TV doesn’t move, so why should the camera?” Mr. Hodgson said, explaining the philosophy.
Finally, in 2007, Mr. Hodgson, still regretful about leaving “Mystery Science Theater,” returned to movie riffing, forming the tour “Cinematic Titanic” with the writer-performers Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl.
In class Mr. Hodgson kept things loose but wasn’t just fooling around either. In his travels with “Cinematic Titanic,” Mr. Hodgson said, he often meets people movie riffing Ã* la “Mystery Science Theater” but live. “I was always curious what it would be like to participate with these people who wanted to get into it.”
The class was made up mostly of theater, film and video majors, and a number of them were involved in improv comedy, including Kyle Reichert, 21. “Every class he would talk about something new,” Mr. Reichert recalled, “what he would go through on a daily basis making the show.”
Mr. Hodgson’s first lesson was simple: When riffing don’t be a jerk. (He used a different word.) The 25 students in Riff Camp 2012 were divided into groups. They had two and a half months to complete a film’s worth of riffs before performing at the college’s spring arts festival. They also had to dream up a back story and set it to a theme song. One group, the all-female New Valkyries of Valhalla are Valkyries by day, collecting Viking souls, and students in a women’s studies course at Valhalla Community College by night.
That explains why they would be watching “Consuming Women,” an oddly spooky short billed as a portrait of the female consumer circa 1967. The other films Mr. Hodgson assigned for other groups — from the public domain Web site archive.org, which houses the Prelinger Archives — included “Pennsylvania Fish Commission,” a riveting 1950s tour of trout farming narrated by the commission’s decidedly un-emotive executive director, and the delicious University of California romp “Health: Your Posture,” about a girl ostracized by her peers because of bad posture.
“It had nothing to do with posture,” said Stephanie Drejerwski, 20, one of the riffers.
Mr. Hodgson instructed students not to riff more than once every three seconds, so that the audience could absorb each joke. As on “Mystery Science Theater,” scripts were time- and color-coded to indicate when the film’s narrator was speaking (“You need a thorough checkup by your family doctor to discover the cause of your posture defects”) and when the riff was interjected (“Sir? We don’t have insurance?”).
Though the practical application of a course on movie riffing seems negligible, Mr. Hodgson has perhaps hit upon something in the age of social media. Facebook and Twitter, among others, are portals not dissimilar to the sad, empty cinema where Joel, Servo and Crow watched bad movies, their riffs providing a sense of community.
Maybe that’s why “Mystery Science Theater” keeps enjoying afterlives. Michael J. Nelson, who replaced Mr. Hodgson on the TV series until it ended in 1999, offers RiffTrax, audio riffs to play alongside DVD releases of current and older films. The comedian Doug Benson, host of the popular podcast “Doug Loves Movies,” organized a live screening series in Los Angeles, “The Doug Benson Movie Interruption,” in which he and friends (like Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman and Ed Helms) riff on a movie for the audience. And Kevin Smith, the filmmaker and inveterate podcaster, is starting a show on Hulu this week called “Spoilers.”
Mr. Smith was quick to note that this was riffing not like “Mystery Science Theater” but in the tradition of his first film, “Clerks,” in which the characters spitball about a movie everyone’s already seen, “Star Wars.” In “Spoilers” Mr. Smith plans to screen a current release at Universal City Walk in Los Angeles then take the audience to a nearby studio for what he sees as a live version of a movie chat room.
“I don’t think a movie discussion ever dies anymore,” he said.
Meanwhile, as alumni from Riff Camp 2012 prepared to perform this weekend at the Colonial Theater in nearby Phoenixville (the same theater where scenes from the original “ Blob” were filmed), Mr. Hodgson and his fellow “Mystery Science Theater” alums were busy putting together a “Cinematic Titanic” show set for July in Ann Arbor, Mich. They will be riffing on two 1970s films — “Rattlers” (rattlesnakes and nerve gas!) and “The Doll Squad,” which, Mr. Hodgson said, is about “a seven-woman army that was supposedly the prototype for ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ ” Set riffing engines to full throttle.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/mo...ref=television