Nearly 25 years ago, Joel Hodgson pioneered the art of riffing on laughably bad films with the cult classic television series "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Now, Hodgson and the rest of the show's original cast are back together and hitting the road as Cinematic Titanic.
"It has so much to do with how organized and how loyal the ‘Mystery Science Theater' fan base is that we can keep doing this. It's amazing, we're thrilled. It's just unbelievable," Hodgson said. "You know, people often ask me did I ever think ‘Mystery Science Theater' would be successful as a TV show, and I say, ‘Well, yeah, that's why you make a TV show, you think it will work on TV,' but now it's clearly beyond that. It's clearly ridiculous now that people are still coming to see us, so it's really great."
Days before James Cameron's "Titanic" sails back into theaters in 3-D format, Hodgson and his own Titanic crewmates - "MST3K" alumns Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl - will be at the Victoria Theater at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark for three shows on March 30 and 31 and at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton on April 21.
"It's funny,'' said Hodgson, "I can't believe we all get together with these people in these beautiful theaters that are designed to showcase the greatest performing arts that the world has to offer, and we're running really bad movies and saying stuff, so it's very peculiar to me."
Hodgson explained what criteria a film has to meet to make it riff-ready material.
"To me,'' Hodgson said, "it's a movie that is nice-looking, has some production value and ultimately tells a story, because the secret of movie riffing is that we're really building a variety show on the back of another show, and so it's got to deliver the core, which is the story, and then we add the jokes."
In Newark, Hodgson and company will be cracking wise during "Blood of the Vampires" at 8 p.m. Friday, "Doomsday Machine" at 3 p.m. Saturday and "Astral Factor" at 8 p.m. Saturday. Fans can vote online to decide which film the team will riff on in Princeton.
For bad film buffs, the weekend in Newark will offer a little something for everyone: '60s artifact "Blood of the Vampires" features an all-Filipino cast as a Mexican land baron and his family victimized by a vampiric curse; a sci-fi flick that made the rounds on the drive-in circuit, "Astral Factor" boasts an ensemble that includes Elke Sommer, Stefanie Powers and Robert Foxworth and 1972's "Doomsday Machine" holds a unique distinction in film history.
"(‘Doomsday Machine') is one of the only movies I've ever heard of that was abandoned, first made in the late '60s and then abandoned, was never finished, and then a producer found it in the '70s and put a new ending on it," Hodgson explained. "And so it's unusual in that the end of the movie, the climax of the movie, is actually performed by a completely different cast than the people who started the movie."
Cinematic Titanic's live show is, in a way, a return to Hodgson's roots: when creating "Mystery Science Theater 3000" in the late-80s, he culled the show's writing and performing staff from the Minneapolis stand-up comedy scene.
"In some ways our act is five people doing a stand-up routine at the same time with a movie," Hodgson said.
However, when a five-person stand-up routine is tied to the rhythms of a film in progress, the reaction of a live crowd may force the performers to think on their feet.
"You never know,'' Hodgson said. "Every audience is different, and you can have a feeling about certain jokes, but you never know, and that's why I think people get so addicted to performing on the road, because it's always different, you can't really predict the outcome based on what you're doing so yeah, it's absolutely true, you never know (how an audience will react).
"And a lot of what we do more than anything is editing, because Trace might say a joke that got a good reaction last time but gets a huge reaction this time and I'm going to have to think about it, because his laughs might be crowding the set-up for my jokes, so sometimes you have to edit and kind of lay out on jokes," Hodgson explained. "But I mean, these are the kind of problems you want to have, right? If people are laughing you don't care, it's great, and you feel like it's a good show that way, so we don't mind ever cutting jokes because people are laughing."
CINEMATIC TITANIC: 8 p.m. Friday, March 30; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 31 at the Victoria Theater at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, One Center Street, Newark. Tickets: $39.50; njpac.org. 8 p.m. April 21 at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tickets: $28-$38; www.mccarter.org. www.cinematictitanic.com.