By John P. Meyer, Pegasus News
A group of the old MST3K folks have resurrected their bad cinema lampooning licks and started up a new riffing enterprise called "Cinematic Titanic."
I had a look at their first output - an all-hands-on-deck send-up of a 1972 screen embarrassment called The Oozing Skull (aka Brain of Blood) - before conversing on the phone with J. Elvis Weinstein (who you might know better as "Tom Servo") and Frank Conniff (who played one of the "mads" on MST3K, seasons 2 - 6).
Suffice it to say that the winning elements which made Mystery Science Theater 3000 so successful for so many years are back in play. It's almost like welcoming home (to the TV, via DVD) a bunch of old friends - though without their cheesy rocket ship and cornball background trappings. (Which I kind of miss, if you want to know the truth.)
There's no setup to this send-up, other than a brief interim during the targeted film's credits as our silhouetted hecklers take their seats around the lower perimeter of the screen. Since there are now five participants involved in the heckling, it's a bit disorienting at times trying to figure out which of them are saying what - but, of course, this isn't a prerequisite for enjoying the entertainment.
A couple of other notable differences between the screening milieu of CT vs. MST3K:
1) instead of regular pauses for backstory-framed commercial breaks, there are a couple of full stops of the film action devoted to extended gratuitous riffing.
2) the pesky commentators are joined in this, their first project, by a couple of "guest silhouettes" whose identities I will not reveal other than to say that one of them is an iron-sided physicist and the other a dear departed New Orleans trumpeter.
Both J. Elvis and Frank called in from Los Angeles; they were preparing to travel to Minneapolis for a launch party kicking off their new entertainment venture. J. told me they'd be scheduling additional live shows across the country as time and events permit.
PegasusNews: Are your skulls oozing?
J. Elvis: A tad. Just dabs around the ears.
PN: How has the response been to your first CT production, The Oozing Skull?
Frank: So far it's been enthusiastically positive...
J.: We got a recommendation in Rolling Stone last week. It's been really great. It seems like we've passed all the real baseline tests with our fans - they don't think that we've committed some act of heresy, or a cheapening of the original show, so I feel really good about that.
PN: Super. Well, I agree. I got to look at a screener and it brings back the good times.
Both: Thank you.
PN: What made you five decide to get "back in the life?"
F: Well, Joel came up with the idea and we all had other projects going, but we had time to do this so it just sounded like fun.
J.: One of the big prompters is that this year is the 20th anniversary of the original UHS Mystery Science Theater out of Minneapolis...
PN: Ah! I guess I didn't realize that.
J.: Yeah, so I think everyone started saying, "what are we gonna do to preserve this mark of passing?"
J.: ... and those discussions formed into this, really.
PN: What are the prospects for bringing back a broadcast presentation? Has that even been discussed at all?
J.: We don't have a locked-in-concrete business plan. We're open to all sorts of things, but we're all really enjoying being our own bosses and ...
F: The TV business is much different now than it was... the idea of doing a two-hour show isn't as viable today as it was 20 years ago.
J.: One of the things that made Mystery Science thrive in its early years was that we were doing it in Minnesota, and all the network executives were in New York. And they were a new network quite happy to have a two-hour slot to be filled that they could buy somewhat inexpensively - so we pretty much got left alone for the most part.
J.: And we kinda liked that!
PN: Who wouldn't?
PN: I suppose you could also consider web streaming or web delivery of the product at some point.
J.: Well that's definitely part of the immediate business plan. We had a bit of a snafu with the rights on this first release, but the plan has always been to offer it for download.
PN: Cool. So much easier than physical DVD snail mail...
J.: Yeah. Definitely our next release will be available for download, and this one will be available for download in April.
PN: Cool. Define for me the term "riff," for people who aren't familiar with it.
J.: The most direct translation is just "mock." It was a friend of ours years ago who first referred to it as "riff," I guess as a jazz reference, of everyone taking their little solo based on them, you know.
PN: Ah, sure.
PN: What's the process that you all go through in preparing for a typical riff job. Do you do this sober?
J.: I'm guessing everyone has their own methods (background laughter). Right now we're doing it... because there's three of us in Los Angeles and Mary Jo is in Austin, and Trace is in Minneapolis, we're taking our first passes separately on the movie, and then merging all our jokes together, and working together to carve up the master script into something we all like.
PN: Got it. So, do you think there's an upper limit for the number of silhouetted commenters that can appear down at the bottom of the screen?
F: There's no limit. The more the merrier. I'm kidding.
J.: So far, we've pushed the envelope with five. And with guest appearances on the show it got up to six, I guess.
PN: Oh, yeah, I loved the guest appearances - I won't mention the famous physicist and the horn player by name, but that's really a great idea. Will you have future guest appearances in new productions?
J.: I feel fairly sure we will, yeah. Hopefully we'll refine the content as we go, but I think the rhythm of the show and the movie like this will remain.
PN: Which of you so far gets to participate in the movie selection process?
F: We all do. I think Joel initially makes a pass, but then we all look at them and we all weigh in to make the final selection.
PN: How difficult is it to get the rights to a selected film? Or do you pre-screen them for rights availability?
J.: We try to at least have a good sense that the rights are available before we fall in love with anything.
J.: It's really a case-by-case basis, every movie has its own sort of convoluted history...
PN: Comment on the Time Tube, if you will.
J.: Say again?
PN: Ah - the Time Tube. Can you comment a little bit about the plans for the Time Tube?
F: I have no idea what that is... (laughter)
J.: It's sort of the backbone concept of the show...
PN: Um hm.
J.: In that, ultimately we are saving these movies for posterity in this time capsule, once making them palatable by adding some movie riffing.
F: Joel got the idea when he saw like a graphic of the 1939 World's Fair which had a time capsule in it. So the premise, loosely, is we're watching these movies and we're riffing on them specifically so we can put them in a time capsule, or a Time Tube as we call it, for future generations.
PN: Gotcha. O.K.
PN: Do you guys ever find yourselves sitting in a movie theater watching a film along with the other civilians...
PN: Wait. But then suddenly you get this great snide remark occurring to you and you want to just shout it out?
J.: I never want to just shout it out but my wife is certainly on the receiving end of many a distraction.
F: Yeah, we don't encourage people to talk in the movies... that should be kept for the privacy of their own home.
J.: Or a TV studio, if you have one.
F: Yeah. There's nothing worse than enjoying yourself in a theater and hearing people come out with sarcastic remarks.
J.: Right. My wife can pretty much read my uncomfortable grunting and shifting at this point.
PN: Well, I've gotta agree with your philosophy there, Frank.
PN: O.K., guys, hard question: If you could resurrect any historical president to battle it out against the current crop of contenders, who would it be?
J.: Um... wow.
F: I would pick Abraham Lincoln. He's my favorite because he's apparently the most severely depressed president of all time.
PN: Good choice.
J.: Umm... I might go with Taft just so you could keep the cannibalism options open.
PN: Outstanding. I was gonna pick Idi Amin, but I'm tricking you because he's not American.
F: If he was president of America I never knew about it.
PN: See, I didn't say America.
J.: Ah, you burned us. Then Golda Meir!
PN: Very good.
PN: Well guys, thank you so much for speaking with us at Pegasus News, and good luck at the Minneapolis press event.
J.: Thank you very much. Thanks so much for your time.