'Cinematic Titanic' bringing 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' gang to the Michigan Theater stage
“I’ve tried a lot of diff things, and this is one of the things that worked,” said Hodgson, who began his career in stand-up comedy. “I think I hit a nerve somehow. I was with the right people who were able to really make (MST3K) funny and make it work. From the time we were little tiny kids, we’re put in front of a TV, and it talks to us. And at a certain point, you want to talk back. You want to say things back to it. So MST3K and movie riffing in general play off that natural instinct to talk back.”
For five years (1988-93) on the Comedy Channel (which would later become Comedy Central), Hodgson played a man trapped in a space station with robot companions, all of whom were forced to watch bad movies. To survive, they made fun of the movies while appearing as silhouettes at the bottom of the screen.
And while Hodgson went on to do other kinds of projects, and MST3K continued without him until 1998, movie riffing became a comedy subcategory most closely associated with Hodgson.
Not that this gets him recognized often.
“It’s very rare,” said Hodgson. “It doesn’t happen very much at all. It’s always fun when it does happen. People are always really nice, and I do like it. But as far as fame goes, none of us in the (MST3K and Cinematic Titanic) cast are famous enough to be on a reality show like ‘Survivor’ or ‘Dancing With the Stars’ or anything like that. It is cult fame. It’s very different, and it’s kind of nice. I can live a pretty anonymous life and then walk into a theater full of people and still love what I do. It’s great.”Cinematic Titanic—a live performance venture launched in 2007—is built on the principles of MST3K, with many of the same cast of voices commenting on a bad B-movie as it plays. The difference is that Hodgson and his castmates now travel to different parts of the country and flank the movie screen in person while offering their clever quips.
Hodgson and his co-quippers live in different parts of the country, so they use technology to collaborate on CT scripts. And two things will distinguish CT’s upcoming visit to Ann Arbor.
“We usually never work in the summertime,” said Hodgson. “Ann Arbor is one of the few gigs we do in the summer. It’s like school, almost. We take the summer off, usually. So we don’t have another show until the fall.”
Second, one of the two films under scrutiny, “The Doll Squad” (featured at the 9 p.m. screening, with “Rattlers” being screened at 6 p.m.), is being “field tested” for the first time.
Focusing on a seven-woman team of government agents, “The Doll Squad”’s claim to fame is that the movie supposedly inspired Aaron Spelling to later create the landmark TV show, “Charlie’s Angels.”
“This movie is 90 minutes long, and we could probably trim 10 minutes out of it,” said Hodgson. “But you never know exactly what the funny parts are until you get in front of an audience. So once we see how it plays, we’re going to start talking about it. Where did it bottom out? Where was it getting slow, or where wasn’t it working? There are sections of ‘The Doll Squad’ that are kind of dark. The filmmaker overexposed the film, or underexposed the film, so you can’t tell what’s going on exactly. So we have a lot of remarks about that, and it could work. People might find that funny. And if they don’t, we may cut it out.”
“Rattlers,” meanwhile, “is a great man against nature movie,” said Hodgson. “There were so many movies that came after ‘Jaws,’ after ‘Jaws’ kind of changed the world. This was obviously doing what Jaws did, but with the rattlesnake, and not as well. But they were obviously trying to exploit that (premise), box office wise.”
Yet can a man who’s made a career out of commenting on movies turn off that reflex at will, when he’s simply watching things for pleasure?
“I’m like everybody else,” said Hodgson. “Every time I’m watching a movie, I’m hoping to be taken away by it, and get lost in it. It’s really different. And we do it in a group, and obviously, I’d never feel comfortable trying to do it all by myself. That’s not very much fun. I love doing it, but I have to put on my game face. I have to exercise, I have to get the endorphins firing, and then I have to go in and write. It’s really different when I’m relaxing.
“I’ll give you an example. When I was a stand-up, and I was on the Letterman show, I actually stopped watching the show after I did the show four times or something. It made (watching the show) more like work. It got me thinking about my act, and it got me thinking about getting on Letterman again. And so I stopped. When you’re getting ready to go to bed, and you’re winding down, you can’t think about work. So they’re very segmented, these two impulses in me.”