Did anybody ever deliberately start watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000” on purpose? It feels like every fan I run across (myself included) has an origin story with the cult ’90s TV series that sounds like this: “There was this show on, and I didn’t know what was going on! But it was just so funny, and I just kept watching more and more and more . . .”
That was from the woman sitting next to me at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee for “Cinematic Titanic,” which features five of the creators/performers of the series, including the trio that begun it back in its Minneapolis public-access days — Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and J. Elvis Weinstein, along with Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl. (The trio who ended the series on Syfy in 1999 — Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett — went on to start the equally worthy Rifftrax.)
Rifftrax has focused on doing new commentaries for famous and recent films that can be synced up to your DVD, as well as live nationwide broadcasts. Cinematic Titanic has kept its focus on old movies, mixing DVD releases with live shows like the Pabst Theatre two-night stand.
When fans first discovered the show by happenstance, it felt like something that was distinctly “ours,” something we could watch alone or with a few like-minded friends late at night, convinced that most other people wouldn’t get the references, get the sensibility. I think that’s why our affection for the show is so enduring — it was something we feel we found ourselves, rather than having it marketed or sold to us.
The fun comes in finding others on the same wavelength — at the Pabst on Saturday, the couple sitting front row center had met in high school, when one overheard the other talking about “MST3k.” They were celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary Saturday.
And the joy of the Cinematic Titanic show is finding not just one person but hundreds, turning an individual viewing experience into a collective one, laughing in a packed theater full of fellow fans. The movie Saturday night was “Danger on Tiki Island,” a terrible Filipino ’60s horror movie that probably had too much gore and partial nudity to make it on television. But, hoo boy, it was plenty bad enough.
As the film played, the five actors sat on the sides of the stage, iPads glowing with the screenplays, adding wisecracks throughout. When one character noticed his flare gun was missing, Weinstein quipped. “The script took it. It needed help.” When some body parts were dumped on the beach, Hodgson said, “Boy, they really spoil their dogs on this island.” And, when the silhouette of the large-headed latex monster loomed in the distance, Hodgson said, in a seeming ad-lib for the Milwaukee audience, “Don’t worry, it’s just the mascot for the Badgers.”
There was plenty of Wisconsin love to go around Saturday night — the CT team said the Pabst was their favorite theater to play. Hodgson, who grew up in Wisconsin, said he was inspired to go into ventriloquism as a kid after watching Howie Olson and Cowboy Bob on Madison Ch. 3’s “Circus 3.”
Saturday’s show was a little bittersweet for fans — the Cinematic Titanic folks announced it would be their last tour, and would hang up their riffing shoes at the end of the year. But I didn’t sense much hand-wringing among the fans. We’ve been through this before, with Joel and Trace leaving MST3K midway through its run, with MST3K getting cancelled on Comedy Central, revived on SyFy, and then cancelled again on Syfy.
And one thing we’ve learned is that, in whatever form it takes, the crew still goes on to make things that make us laugh. So, in the words of the show’s theme song, we should really just relax.