Last updated: March 16. 2013 11:41PM - 1113 Views
By Rich Howells, Weekender Editor

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Joel Hodgson doesn‚??t produce bad movies, but he may have invented the best possible way to deal with them.

In 1988, a quirky little television show called ‚??Mystery Science Theater 3000‚?Ě premiered on a St. Paul, Minn., UHF station and was soon picked up by the channel that would become Comedy Central. Its creator, Hodgson, played Joel Robinson, a janitor launched into space by mad scientists and forced to watch awful B-movies to see how long it would take to drive him crazy. To stay sane, he invented robot companions to watch the movies with him and ‚??riff‚?Ě on them, appearing in silhouette at the bottom of the screen like a peanut gallery in your living room.

It was, and still is, groundbreaking programming, spawning 197 episodes and its own feature film across 11 years. When reminiscing with Hodgson about those cheesy old movies, it‚??s easy to see how the origins of the show developed.

‚??When you‚??re a child, TV is very peculiar. It‚??s not clear where any of the stuff comes from or what you‚??re really looking at, and so it‚??s very mysterious. So I would see stuff like that. I grew up without a filter, just kind of loving everything. I loved any kind of thing that was fantastic. I didn‚??t understand the concept of a bad movie when I was a kid. As you get a little older, you start to kind of wake up and go, ‚??Oh, wait a minute, I can see the boom mic. Something‚??s wrong,‚??‚?Ě he recalled in a recent phone interview with The Weekender.

‚??I was just like everybody else. You have those moments with your friends where you start saying stuff during a movie. It‚??s not really a good enough movie where it‚??s taking you into its world, so you have to kind of observe it as a movie. I‚??m watching the movie, but it‚??s not working. I‚??m not being hypnotized by this movie. There‚??s that experience that most people have with a movie that everyone wants; I want to sit down and forget that I‚??m watching a movie.‚?Ě

But there‚??s more to the story than just that escape. That‚??s where Joel‚??s new one-man show, ‚??Riffing Myself,‚?Ě comes in.

From stand-up to sit-down

Before his involuntary trip in the Satellite of Love, Hodgson was a magician and ventriloquist in grade school, which developed into stand-up comedy as he grew older, eventually performing on ‚??Late Night with David Letterman‚?Ě five times and ‚??Saturday Night Live‚?Ě four times. His visual, prop-driven jokes laid the groundwork for what would become ‚??MST3K.‚?Ě

‚??The tone of ‚??Mystery Science Theater‚?? is very visual, and the host segments had a lot of visual surprises that were done as in-camera effects, meaning you could see them with the naked eye. They weren‚??t digital effects; they weren‚??t done through editing,‚?Ě Hodgson explained.

‚??Magic kind of taught me how to be a producer, how to make stuff. I had to build my props and I had to build my puppet, and so that really got me ready to build the robots for ‚??Mystery Science Theater.‚?? I actually did the props for the first season of the show.‚?Ě

While the bulk of each episode was spent cracking jokes at a crappy movie‚??s expense, which he would watch seven times on average from its initial viewing to the final taping, he also spent his five-and-a-half seasons on the show filming host sequences that developed the show‚??s characters and kept their story going.

‚??I felt that there had to be a reason why people were doing that. I still kind of think that way because if I did the show and there were just three smart aleck guys watching the movie, I don‚??t think it would have worked. People I think would go, ‚??If you don‚??t like the movie, why don‚??t you leave?‚??‚?Ě he noted.

‚??‚??Mystery Science Theater‚?? is a show built on the back of another show, so this really is different, though the name of (my new) show is ‚??Riffing Myself‚?? because, one day, I realized I was performing it and I was making a joke about the way my hair looked in a photo and I said, ‚??Oh my God, I‚??m riffing myself.‚??‚?Ě

In 2007, he and some of the cast members of ‚??MST3K‚?Ě formed a live riffing group called ‚??Cinematic Titanic‚?Ě that has performed over 100 times, but since he‚??s seemingly made fun of it all, it now seems like the perfect time for the 52-year-old to start poking fun at himself while giving his cult fanbase further insight into the show they‚??ve kept alive all these years.

‚??It‚??s really my story as it relates to the creation of ‚??Mystery Science Theater,‚?? and it‚??s very different because it‚??s completely motivated by me,‚?Ě he said of ‚??Riffing Myself.‚?Ě

‚??I like performing, but it‚??s always different. If you‚??re in a position where people don‚??t know you and you have to talk them into liking you, that‚??s hard for me. I don‚??t like that. What‚??s nice now is I‚??ve got ‚??Mystery Science Theater‚?? out there kind of making friends for me, so if they like ‚??Mystery Science Theater,‚?? they tend to like me and it‚??s much easier.

‚??But then the other thing is they have some expectations, and so you have to work with those expectations and work it all together and do what I want to do and also do what they want me to do.‚?Ě

Hodgson knows quite a bit about giving fans what they want. The show, which stops at the Scranton Cultural Center on Feb. 9, is not only a career retrospective full of fun and embarrassing pictures ‚?? it also includes a Q&A, a VIP meet and greet, and a screening of the strange boy-meet-alien movie ‚??Pod People,‚?Ě one of his favorite episodes of ‚??MST3K.‚?Ě

Riffing as art

Though it is decades behind him now, the legacy of his show lives on through this; Cinematic Titanic; RiffTrax, made up of later cast members of ‚??MST3K;‚?Ě and other groups like Master Pancake Theater, who Hodgson recently did a ‚??live riff jam‚?Ě with in Austin, Texas.

‚??I always felt that ‚??Mystery Science Theater‚?? was kind of a workbook on how to movie riff, so I expected it to happen a lot sooner,‚?Ě he said. ‚??I love it. It‚??s its own comedic art form. It‚??s kind of like improv.‚?Ě

Even the original series is enjoying a resurgence, which Joel believes is due to the fact that the family-friendly comedy avoided topical and political humor, making the jokes timeless and relevant to any audience, even if they‚??re just discovering the series on DVD or Netflix.

‚??I just feel really lucky. It makes me really happy that I acted on my idea and, of course, I worked with really talented that helped me. I couldn‚??t have done it by myself, naturally. I‚??m really proud of it. I think it‚??s kind of a coup that it‚??s considered a really funny show and it‚??s not dirty; parents watch it with their kids,‚?Ě Hodgson emphasized.

‚??Back in the day, people would say, ‚??Are you surprised people like it?‚?? I would go, ‚??No, I‚??m not surprised people like it. That‚??s why you make a TV show ‚?? you think people will like it. I‚??m not surprised about that, but now, 25 years later, yeah, I‚??m surprised. ‚?ĽIt was never designed to last this long.‚?Ě

Riffing on Scranton

Many local ‚??Mystery Science Theater 3000‚?Ě fans were surprised when the Scranton Cultural Center announced Hodgson‚??s upcoming appearance late last week, but at least one fan already knew he was coming.

He invited him, after all.

Chris Cornell of Pittston Twp., better known to online fans as ‚??Sampo,‚?Ě founded a one-page website his business partner, Brian Henry, called MSTieNews in 1995 that would become Satellite News in 1997, the official fan site of ‚??MST3K.‚?Ě The site, which even served as the official website for the show at one time, became the most comprehensive news source for the popular TV series on the web.

‚??I frequented a lot of the bulletin boards and the Usenet newsgroups and various other things, and it began to be my experience that people made stuff up about this show more than anything I had seen, just totally false rumors that people were just making up, and they would of course fly around the Internet,‚?Ě Cornell explained.

‚??Somebody needed to get the facts out, and that was really how I got started.‚?Ě

It was a show that always spoke to him and his sense of humor, so he has continued to maintain the site to this day.

‚??It‚??s a labor of love for both Brian and myself. There was a very quiet period after the show got cancelled,‚?Ě he recalled. ‚??Then RiffTrax happened, and Cinematic Titanic happened, and the whole thing has taken off again. So now we‚??re really busy, and what‚??s fascinating to me is thanks to Twitter and thanks to a number of other things, fans are actually closer to these cast members than they ever were.‚?Ě

Last year, Cornell was invited by Hodgson personally to a live riffing at The Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, where they watched ‚??I Accuse My Parents‚?Ě and riffed on short films.

‚??I actually wrote dialogue for Joel. It was pretty exciting!‚?Ě Cornell enthused.

When Hodgson began his ‚??Riffing Myself‚?Ě tour, Cornell asked him if he had any interest in bringing his tenth performance to Northeast Pennsylvania.

‚??With this show, since it‚??s just me, I can try it anywhere, so I‚??m just really interested in going out and going to where the people are and seeing if we can make it work,‚?Ě Hodgson said.

‚??I‚??m psyched to do it. Getting to go out and do these shows is such a fun experiment for me. I‚??m loving it so much. It feels really good, and I love the idea of coming to Scranton and getting to perform there. I‚??m really looking forward to it.‚?Ě

Cornell praises him as a ‚??pop culture visionary,‚?Ě but the respect and admiration is clearly mutual.

‚??He‚??s actually going to do Q&A with me just because he knows so much; I would feel kind of stupid without inviting him up there,‚?Ě Hodgson said of Cornell.

‚??He‚??s probably the greatest authority about ‚??Mystery Science Theater.‚?? He knows far more than I do.‚?Ě

‚??That‚??s very nice of him to say,‚?Ě Cornell responded with a laugh. ‚??It is possible. He sometimes forgets things, but I‚??m getting old too.‚?Ě

‚??Riffing Myself:‚?Ě Feb. 9, 7 p.m., VIP session 6 p.m., Scranton Cultural Center (420 N. Washington Ave., Scranton). $18, $30 VIP meet and greet.

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