MST3K: The Art of the Riff
Cult-favorites celebrate 30 years of B-movie commentary and sci-fi mayhem

By Lee Valentine Smith

Mystery Science Theater 3000, the irreverent and clever comedy series created by Joel Hodgson, premiered on Thanksgiving Day, 1988 on a local TV channel in Minneapolis. It later aired on Comedy Central and The Sci-Fi Channel.

For the uninitiated, Hodgson plays Joel Robinson, a janitor trapped by mad scientists and forced to watch a series of obscure B-movies as a part of their plot to take over the world. Joel has crafted a number of robot companions, including Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Gypsy for company and to comment on each movie as it plays. Rather than jokes, Hodgson prefers to call the humorous commentary "riffing."

In 2015, he began a crowdfunded revival of the show that led to 14 new episodes on Netflix in 2017. This year, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the show, another six-episode season will debut on Thanksgiving. So far, the franchise has produced over 200 episodes and a feature film.

After last year's successful touring edition of the show, Hodgson will join the current cast for a new nationwide tour that includes two shows at Symphony Hall on October 21. The laid-back comedian/magician/inventor spoke with INsite after a recent visit to Atlanta for DragonCon and the Center For Puppetry Art.

Tom Arnold says you were an early influence on his comedy when you were both doing stand-up.

Oh my gosh, I just talked to him last week. I met him in Iowa when I was doing a show there. He was still in college and he opened the show for me. I said, 'If you really want to get into comedy, come up to Minneapolis.' I was on my way out to L.A, and I got on Letterman and things started to happen for me. Then I came back to do a show in Minneapolis and he was the drunk guy in the audience. I made him come and sit on the stage just to get him to shut up! I used to do this bit in my act where I had a goldfish in a bowl. I had an old record turntable and I'd put the goldfish in the bowl on the turntable. I'd say, 'When my goldfish are tired, I do this.' And I'd turn it on. The fish would be perfectly still as the water would rush around it. Next time I saw him, a year later, he was a comic and he was doing Tom Arnold and His Fabulous Goldfish Review.

So you inspired the fish.

Absolutely and I think he's finally at the stage of his life where he's admitting it.

You went the comedy and magic route for a while, which is still unusual for a stand-up.

I'm not sure if I'd do that if I was starting now, but 35 years ago, I thought it was a good idea. But there's so many people who are just amazing now. The internet has really cultivated some great talents lately. Now You Tube stars are playing the same venues we are.

The internet really picked up on MST3K early on, as well.


I think it's because the premise of what we do is actually very intimate. It's like you're in the room with the cast. It still works because we were the first show to feature the screen and we're all seeing it at the same time. It's like you're sitting next to these people.

For the live show, is translating that intimate viewing experience to a big stage difficult for you?

It's way different. You're riffing in front of 1800 people, so there's a lot of things at work. I haven't done it in a few years but when I did it before, it's like you're performing each riff in perfect time. You can't stop the movie, it's like the clock and you have to have the lines ready.

The audience becomes part of the process.

They're collaborating with you. They're consuming the movie and as a performer, you have to know that if they laugh longer at a line than they did the night before, you have to know when to hold off on the setup to the next joke, all while the movie is going. So there's kind of a dance going on; it's a completely live experience. It's the weirdest thing, man. You just have to know when to wait for the next thing. It's almost hard to explain.

It's very much like jazz.

I aspire to that, yeah. That's why I call it riffing, because that's what jazz guys do, they riff. Someone plays something and it creates a suggestion of where to take it next. It's funny, there was a guy online complaining, 'Why do they call it riffs? Riffs are supposed to be spontaneous. But you guys write your stuff, shouldn't you call them jokes?' I wrote back and told him that calling them jokes takes the fun out of it. A riff can be so many things. A grunt at the right place will make people laugh. But that's not a joke, that's a riff. Or you can quote a lyric from a song. That's not a joke either, you're just reacting to something. Calling them jokes has always made my skin crawl. They're accents that are dependent on what the movie is doing.

Which movies will be featuring at the Atlanta show?

We've got "The Brain" and "Deathstalker 2."

What is the selection process for a film in the series? A lot of people call them "bad movies," but some aren't bad at all.

I always look for the production value and it helps if there's a monster in it. And yeah, they're not all terrible movies. But they're mostly forgotten movies. That actually works for us because a lot of times the audience hasn't seen the movie before, so they're exploring it at the same time we're watching it.

That adds to the impact of the riffs.

Yeah, it really does. Speaking of jazz, one time I heard a jazz guy say about riffing, 'If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right.' He's right. It's gotta be fun, otherwise it won't work.

You were just in Atlanta. How was your visit?

Oh, it was great. We're coming out with a comic from Dark Horse and we did a reading of it and some panels. I also did a puppetry panel for the Center for Puppetry Arts. They're inducting [MST3K robots] Tom, Crow and Gypsy into the museum sometime next year. I'm working on some stuff with Puddles the clown, you know? He's a friend of mine and he really tuned me on to Atlanta, some of the places away from the convention. I was so knocked out, it's become one my favorite cities now. I can't wait to get back!

MST300K riffs at Symphony Hall on Sunday, October 21. Showtimes are 3 and 7 p.m. For more information, please visit atlantasymphony.org.

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