The Joel Hodgson Experience
Monday, I got to meet one of my heroes. Joel Hodgson, creator of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," was in San Antonio for a performance of his live show "Riffing Myself" at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. I've been pretty lucky at meeting (or at least seeing live) some of my favorite celebrities -- Marlon Perkins, Michael Moorcock, Warren Ellis, Bruce Campbell, Gail Simone, Anthony Bourdain, Wil Wheaton -- but the meet'n'greet with Joel Hodgson is the most rewarding chance I've had to thank someone who created something I love.
We watched Joel Hodgson’s episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” on Crackle the day before the Joel event so we’d be familiar with his current appearance and more up to date on his activities. (It certainly helped us with his appearance, but otherwise the show is just fifteen minutes of Jerry and Joel trading quips and now-quite reminiscing and philosophizing.) This paid off when Robin was the first person to spot Joel enter the theater and she and I were practically the only people to cheer him as he walked past us. (He waved a shy acknowledgement; I’m kind of surprised he didn’t come in through a side door or the back.)
“Riffing Myself” started late – I suspect Joel got stuck in traffic – so I don’t think we saw the entire show. What we saw was enlightening and entertaining (and Joel was standing just a few feet from us the whole time!). I don’t want to spoil his jokes and stories in case you get to see him or he writes a book, so let’s just say church, stage magic, terrifying ventriloquist dummies, Roger Dean, kit-bashing, new wave bands, the Clash, and the DIY ethic go a long way to explaining why an up-and-coming prop comic decided to ditch a chance to play the replacement for Coach on “Cheers” and instead start up a puppet show on an obscure UHF station.
The Q&A and meet’n’greet that followed were pretty cool. Joel actually comped the handful of people who bought tickets for “Riffing Myself” but didn’t buy them for the meet’n’greet; I think he mainly did it to speed things up after the delay in getting started, but it was really generous anyway. People asked the typical questions you would expect: What was it like when you watched “Manos: The Hands of Fate” the first time? (The whole staff watched the film in mute horror, Joel wondering if he should point out how bad the film was.) What led you to leave MST3K? (Painful, destructive issues over creative control with Jim Mallon, not the BS about seeking new pastures he spun back at the time.) How did you keep from repeating jokes? (They didn’t.) We had so much time, actually, that Robin and I both got to ask multiple questions.
Robin asked if he’d seen the awesome, deconstructionist ‘90s Gamera films; he had, and proved it by remarking that he didn’t like the addition of CGI like that used for the Legion drones or the more adult themes. Robin then began to totally geek out about the painful empathic relationship between Gamera and Asagi Kusanagi and we had to force ourselves to shut up. I later asked how the cast of Cinematic Titanic came together; his response was to point out that it was entirely made up of people who had quit MST3K. I followed this up with a rather pointed question that I was actually afraid to make: “Would you say that your approach to riffing comes from a love of cheesy movies while Mike Nelson and Rifftrax’s approach comes from hating them?” While he acknowledged that he’d heard the same complaint about Rifftrax’s cynicism before, he disavowed any knowledge of Mike’s thinking. (I don’t think they communicate.) He continued to say that in his view, the riffers are the Marx Brothers and the movie is Margaret Dumont; both are integral parts of the comedy team. Robin then asked about the MST3K cameos in season four; it turns out that one of the writers and Joel share an agent and that Mitchell Hurwitz is a huge fan.
I tend to come over really, really shy when I meet a celebrity, so it was pretty awesome to not go all knock-kneed and crazy when Robin and I got our crappy, crappy pictures with Joel (I didn’t realize the Drafthouse’s house lights don’t get any brighter and we forgot to bring our real camera). We got our copies of the “Manos” special edition and The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide signed – in retrospect, we should have brought the Gamera set – and now “Manos” stands in a place of honor next to the Jonathan Frakes-signed “Gargoyles.”
The last part of the evening was an improvised live riff on “Live and Let Die” by Joel and Master Pancake. Despite their being around for a decade or so, this is my first time seeing our area MST3K-inspired troupe (so inspired that they originally called themselves “Mister Sinus” until Jim Mallon sued them). It was fun, though they frame themselves as “mocking” movies rather than “riffing” on them – a minor quibble, but Joel Hodgson would be the first one to tell you that it takes a lot of work to make even a bad movie, so you have to respect even the Bert I. Gordons and Ed Woods of the world. Not that it matters; it would take more mocking than any comedy team could provide to make me hate a Bond movie (besides “Die Another Day”). The madcap ballet the Master Pancake guys did to the Paul McCartney theme was worth the price of admission alone.
[As an aside, as much as I love James Bond, spy-fi and eurospy movies are the perfect fodder for riffing. Like monster movies, they operate on their own weird, weird logic that practically negates any normal discussion of whether they are good or bad, just whether they are fun or not fun. It also allows people like me to take Godzilla and james Bond seriously while still being able to laugh at them.]
Robin went to grad school with Master Pancake member Owen Egerton, so we spent a little time before and after the performance talking with him. Since we went over to say goodbye to Owen after the film, it actually led to Joel Hodgson walking up to us, shaking our hands, and thanking us for coming out! Awesome!
MST3K might be the show that started the emergence of nerd culture in the USA. Besides the obvious B-movie subject matter, Joel and the bots made a lot of weird, obscure references in their riffs and sketches – jokes that only the weirdest of the weird, the nerdiest of the nerds got. It made us feel cool; it made us feel like insiders for the first time in our lives. Joel Hodgson and “Mystery Science Theater 3000” gave me the confidence to be the weirdo I am today.