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Interview: "Cinematic Titanic"/MST3K

By Karl Klockars in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 19, 2008 6:05PM

cinematictitanic121908.jpgUnder normal circumstances, I only really like to focus on actual honest-to-god Chicagoans in our interview series. But when the chance to speak with the guys that made Mystery Science Theater 3000 came along, I had no choice but to jump. MST3K was one of those shows that helped shape what I thought about humor as a kid, and also seemed like the kind of program that was put together by people that had a lot of love for each other. Even a child could understand that this was TV that was actually fun to make. (It also provided a two-hour Comedy Central safe-haven on Saturday mornings from the glut of cartoons on the networks.)

Now a number of writers and performers from the program have rejoined together and are doing something along the same lines as MST3K - taking bad movies and making fun of them - and doing it as "Cinematic Titanic," which will be at the Lakeshore Theater tonight and tomorrow for a couple shows each night. They sat down for a few minutes, pre-rehearsal, to discuss how their show works in front of an audience, revisiting old shows and how they put up with dorks like me.

Chicagoist: I'm one of those fans that can quote a ton of your episodes and know all the minutiae about the MST3K series, and I'm really having to resist the urge to just totally dork out with you guys. My first question is: How do you deal with people like me?

Joel Hodgson: [as Trace Beaulieu is entering the room] We try to be nice. We encourage it. It's fun, but it's hard when people...we were [doing a radio interview] this morning and [the host] said, "Tell us the funniest thing you ever said." And it's kinda like, when you make it, if you're taking notes about your funniest stuff, you're not really thinking about your job. I couldn't remember a single thing, and I don't think anyone else could. It's great when other people remember but I don't think we often always remember. Because it's our job.

C: Well, you guys have like hundreds of hours of material from the series - it'd be impossible to remember all of it and be able to recall one or two lines in particular. That's needle in a haystack stuff.

JH: Yeah, it's like 300 hours, it must be. Right?

Advertising for the Cinematic Titanic show in St. Louis.

Trace Beaulieau: Yeah, and it's not like we watch the shows all that often. They were ten years ago.

Yeah, we were there when we were doing them, so you don't really sit and review your work. The other day I was sitting there and I found an old Mystery Science Theater on a shelf, and I was looking at it going, "I should really watch this and see what an old Mystery Science Theater was like," but then I chose not to. It's not super relaxing, it's not something you do at the end of the night. You want to look at something you didn't work on if you want to relax.

C: It must be like watching old home movies for you.

JH: It's true. It's really true.

C: Joel, I know you're from Wisconsin, Trace, you're from Minnesota. Did you ever make the trek to Chicago? What did Chicago mean to you guys? Was it anything at all?

JH: Chicago is kinda the jewel. If you can get to Going to Chicago was kind of an intimidating, daunting thing when you're from Wisconsin. It's like real big-time stuff. I remember everybody in my family who ever went to Chicago ate at Geno's Pizza. My earliest memories as a child is my dad talking about Geno's pizza. That was a destination. I've been there many times since, and it's been great. The Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium...all those things.

C: Kevin Murphy [who played Tom Servo on MST3K] isn't part of the Cinematic Titanic crew and he's done work with [Michael Nelson's] RiffTrax. Is there any sort of personal conflict there?

JH: I can't really speak for him. We saw him at ComicCon, and we did the Mystery Science Theater 20th anniversary panel, and he seemed totally happy to be there, willing to be there, but he's doing RiffTrax.

From ComicCon.

C: How does what you do translate to a live setting?

It works excellently. We have always worked collaborating with a movie to make it something entertaining. It's like adding a 3rd element which is the live audience. We have like 600 jokes for this movie, and because people are laughing we can't do 'em all. So we're constantly editing, and getting ready for whose line it is, and working with how the audience reacts. We all started out doing standup, so everybody seems to really like it. [J. Elvis Weinstein enters the room.]

C: So it is scripted. I was under the impression that it might be like improv.

JH: Oh yeah, that's a big part of it. We have people shout out things, then we integrate it into the body of what we're riffing -

TB (from across the room): No, we dont! [laughs]

JH: We start out by asking them to pick a color, a place they like to shop, and where they drive their car, and by the end of the show, we will have crafted a joke based on each of those, I'm just kidding. We basically do our thing which we always did with Mystery Science Theater, which is writing the movie, then we perform it. As you know, there's so many jokes in a movie that we have to go with what we've written.

C: The first show is "Santa Claus Conquers The Martians," which you'd done as an MST3K episode. Was there any worry that you'd be redoing all the jokes from the first time? Or was it more that you've all changed so much in the interim that your approach is completely different?

JH: I think you're right. We didn't watch the movie before we redid it again.

TB: When we rewrote it, there were only like ten jokes that our new version had in common with the old version.

C: Did anyone go back and check to see if you had repeated yourself?

J. Elvis Weinstein:
After we had written it, [a staff member] went and looked at the old one and saw there were a few jokes that were the same, and so those were changed.

JH: Yeah, it was kinda an experiment to go back and repurpose a movie that we had already done a pass on-

C: And something you knew was a fan favorite.

JH: Right, exactly - and it was just a great pop confection that we just wanted to do it again.

The reaction from the fans of the old show has been overwhelmingly positive.

C: That's another thing I was wondering: There was no bitterness from any of the fans when you came out with the "Cinematic Titanic" project?

TB: People had kind of a bitter tone once we announced it, but once they've seen it they seem to come around pretty unanimously.

JH: And it's just a way of demonstrating the new ways...there's so many untapped angles that you can come at it that we wanted to start doing that. Why not do it again? It'd be fun.

For your viewing pleasure and for time killing at work today, here's one of the most famous MST3Ks. "Manos: The Hands of Fate."