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'Mystery Science' riffs return as Cinematic Titanic

DOES THE THOUGHT of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," a phenomenon of the late 1980s and '90s, still make your heart grow giddy, as it does mine?

DOES THE THOUGHT of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," a phenomenon of the late 1980s and '90s, still make your heart grow giddy, as it does mine?

Did you spend Saturday mornings in stitches, laughing hysterically at Joel (Joel Hodgson), the astronaut stranded in space, and his robot friends, Crow (Trace Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (J. Elvis Weinstein), who were forced to watch the world's worst movies as a form of torture?

The thematic hook was they kept themselves sane - and the mad scientists at bay - by wisecracking through the flicks.

If you remember all that fondly, you'll be thrilled to know the original cast and creators of the Comedy Central (and later Sci-Fi channel) show that popularized "movie riffing" are back in action as Cinematic Titanic, doing their thing live at the Trocadero tonight and tomorrow.

The big difference now is that the team, which also includes Frank Conniff (TV's Frank) and Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester), get to play themselves in Cinematic Titanic.

And instead of appearing as silhouettes at the bottom of the screen, they hover to the sides on stepped platforms, so as not to block our full view of the putrid pleasures that are "Alien Factor" (tonight's scary screening) and tomorrow night's toxic avenger, "Danger On Tiki Island," which Hodgson characterizes as "Jean Cocteau makes a monster movie with an all-Filipino cast.

"It may have the worst movie monster ever. It looks like Biff the Michelin Man after a fiery explosion, with a little dog fused to his spine."

And that's not all we learned, as Hodgson played "MSSTy" for me in a recent chat from the near reaches of Bucks County, where the deadpan comic, his New Jersey-born wife and their kids are now located.

Gosh, Beaver, who'd a thunk?

Q: Have you heard that it's now possible, with Internet connected Blu-ray players, for people to watch a movie simultaneously and send comments back and forth?

Think that technology's developers were thinking about you guys?

A: Now they call it "social media." I do think the funniest people are always your friends. When we first started this thing, on a little UHF-TV channel in Minneapolis, we were just a bunch of friends, all stand-up comedians, making remarks in the dark.

But it became a lot more as we developed the concept in those 200 shows. Now, with Cinematic Titanic, with the movies we put out on DVD and riff on live, we spend way more time writing them.

It's a different time now. People can plow through the material. There's so much presence online where people can talk about it, and freeze it in time. And also, you're competing with people's memories of it.

Q: Why haven't you made a deal to bring Cinematic Titanic to TV?

A: When we started performing live, things kind of changed for us. We're out there collaborating with the audience about what they like, what they like about us. That seems the more vital part of it.

People like our DVDs for home use, but we're fascinated with what's happening with the live show.

If possible, we'd like to do a live concert version on TV. If the audience laughs over a joke, it can totally eclipse the setup for the next joke, so we're constantly editing on the fly.

It becomes a markedly different matter.

Q: Have you ever had contact with actors, writers, directors or producers whose work you've demolished?

What do they have to say about it?

A: Most of the actors we've met have said, "I'm glad you did that." Beverly Garland, who was really the Queen of the B's [B movies] and died just last year, embraced what we were doing.

She was in a couple of Roger Corman movies, one called "The Gunslinger," the other "It Conquered the World."

I've heard that Jordan Fields, the executive who now puts out "Mystery Science Theater 3000" movies at Shout! Factory and who used to do the same at Rhino Home Video, occasionally runs into a producer who complains, "I know I didn't make 'Citizen Kane' but did you have to do that?" But of course they end up taking the money.

The irony is that the movies they made used to be called "exploitation flicks," and now they're getting exploited in a different way.

Q: The CT crew is scattered all over the country, from here to Minnesota, Texas and California.

How do you possibly put one of these projects together?

A: We all work separately and then bring our riffs together and collage them.

Everybody has a different schedule. Some like to work at night. I like to work in the morning. There's no head writer.

We each take a section of the film, 15 or 20 minutes long, then we do several passes together and touch up the work. Then we go try out the material live, before we record it.

We learned that was the way to go after doing our first gig as Cinematic Titanic at Industrial Light and Magic, before their in-house movie riffing group called Flecks.

We did "Zardoz," this really crazy science-fiction movie with Sean Connery, which we'd just recorded for DVD.

But the live experience was so interesting and gave us so many ideas, we then went back in and re-recorded all the lines.

Q: There were some really obscure cultural references dropped into "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Does that kind of riffing still exist in Cinematic Titanic's work?

A: The unspoken secret of that show was that we stuffed it with insider jokes. There were 90 minutes to fill, so we used everything from references to local car dealers to lines from a Frank Zappa song.

But 20 years ago, when we started, it was a different time. We all shared the three-network reality. Comedy Central wasn't even available in many places.

Now it's a much bigger world. There are hundreds of cable channels, thousands of Internet sites. Even a number one movie can be a niche product. So you can't assume as much shared knowledge, though we still try and keep very current. *

Trocadero, 10th and Arch streets, 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, $38, 215-922-LIVE,