Joel Hodgson, part one: Magic, homemade dummies, and Tommy Shaw

Categories: Comedy
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Photo by Joshua Targownik
Joel Hodgson
It may be hard to believe, but it has been nearly 24 years since Joel Hodgson first appeared on Thanksgiving night on KTMA TV-23 with a couple of robot puppets to mock Gerry Anderson's Invaders from the Deep. From there, Mystery Science Theater 3000 went on to produce 197 episodes on multiple networks before its end in 1999.

Hodgson himself had left the program years earlier, but continued to work in comedy and television (including a couple of classic appearances on Freaks and Geeks). In recent years, he and MST alums Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein (the two created the show with Hodgson and producer Jim Mallon), Frank Conniff (TV's Frank), and Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester) have performed as Cinematic Titanic, with a similar format and a new twist of live performances.

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Hodgson will be town this weekend to talk about the influences that led to MST3K with "How to Have a Job Like Mine." The keynote-style speech will be followed by a screening of one of the 197 episodes. Will it be Manos: The Hands of Fate? The Beatniks? A Gamera film? Hodgson isn't telling.

We chatted with Hodgson from his home last week. Part one of the conversation looks at the ideas behind his program and the earliest influences that would come together in Mystery Science Theater 3000.

What is "How to Have a Job Like Mine" about?

Basically, it is the origin story of Mystery Science Theater. I'm showing all these diverse influences from the time I was seven years old until I was in my late 20s when I started Mystery Science Theater. I really think the beginning of it was when I was seven, when I thought God made the movies. God made everything, so he also made the movies. Television was man's way of trying to communicate with God. [The program] is like a survey of my different interests -- magic and ventriloquism -- that all ended up in MST3K.

What made you want to do this now?

Next year is the 25th anniversary of Mystery Science Theater. It is such an unusual show. You can't compare it to anything. It is enduring. I counted 70 episodes that you can download on Netflix right now. Shout Factory will release its 100th DVD when the 25th box set comes out in November.

What were some of the formative influences?

Church was the first time I saw a magic show. It was also the first time I saw a ventriloquist. Variety, at that time in the '60s, was alive in the church. I saw this magic show, and I was fascinated. I knew the guy wasn't magic, it was the props. But I wanted to understand them. That got me going and interested and wanting to be a performer. 

In seventh grade, I was making my own stuff. Ventriloquist dummies were prohibitively expensive and were strange looking. I was making my own puppets. There are some real similarities to the ones I was making and Tom Servo and Crow. The DNA is right there.

How important was the magic shows to your own comedy?

The thing about magic is it's really about this one specific moment when the magic happens. It's usually a visual surprise. When I was doing my standup and Mystery Science Theater, that became a big thing for me. The visual surprise that you make with a magic show or a prop act; it's the same thing with movie riffing. 

When I was doing my prop act in Minneapolis, a lot of it was about references; a shared experience with people who were my age. There were a lot of toys, and it was surprising for people. Bringing out toys from the '60s was kind of a shared experience. When you are watching a movie, you have a shared reference point. In comedy, you have to start at a point where they agree with you on the premise.

Some of the most fun things [with MST3K and Cinematic Titanic] are just calling out how someone looks. One of the strangest moments for me was in a movie we did called East Meets Watts. There was this person who was onscreen for a second who I thought looked like Tommy Shaw from Styx. I really thought it would work, because enough people know who that guy is. It got a great reaction. That's how a riff works -- trying to find things you share with the audience. The movie is making the set up and the riff is the end of it.

How does doing a live Cinematic Titanic show differ from the studio-produced ones?

You can't crowd it with as much stuff. You just can't. You have to build in reaction time. You try to get sharper. You gear your material that way. There are certain jokes that I can't do because they won't read in a live audience. You treat it more like a standup routine. You want to keep the people laughing. Mystery Science Theater was a little different. It had a lot of texture and so many things that wouldn't work live.

Doing it live is more edifying in a way. You get the reaction. You get something that works consistently in front of an audience. You are really out there to land a joke. On the good side, when you get to that thing that really works it is really fun. It's like setting off fireworks.

One the other hand, sometimes it feels like a moving target. Each audience is different. Trace could land a line and get a huge reaction, bigger than the time before, and you realize the huge laugh in eclipsing the set up for my joke. There is a lot of editing on the fly and letting it go. Audiences laughing are the kind of problems you want to have. 

Look for part two tomorrow.


IF YOU GO:

Joel Hodgson: "How to Have a Job Like Mine"
7 p.m. Saturday
Pepitos Parkway Theater
4814 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis
$18-$25
For tickets and information, call 612.827.2928 or visit online

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Pepito's Parkway Theater

4814 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN

Category: Film

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