Riffing Myself with Joel Hodgson

Joel Hodgson, Riffing Myself1We moved to Scranton, from Boston, about seven years ago to follow a job.  Scranton’s a nice town.  It manages its finances like a schizophrenic chimpanzee but the people are decent, my kids are happy and we’ve actually got a backyard.  It’s not the most exciting town you could name; but it does have its moments and this is one of them.

Joel Hodgson, it hopefully goes without saying, is the creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000.   (If you don’t know what that is, cool – you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000!  Go read up here or here or here!  Available for instant streaming at Amazon, Hulu and Netflix!)  This event isn’t a riff, per se, but a presentation about Joel’s personal history, the origins of riffing and the inspiration of the show.

We popped extra for the early VIP “Meet and Greet Reception” which I must admit was rather disappointing.  It was clearly overbooked and rather confused.  Joel floated from group to group spending about 30 seconds signing books and tchotchkes and posing for photos.  He was gracious and friendly but also rushed and clearly distracted by time constraints and technical issues.  I did get my copy of  The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide and my collectable chunk of Deep 13 (a piece of the original “Deep 13” set that was struck and sold off at the end of the seventh season) signed.

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My swag with Joel’s scrawl

As disappointments go it was mild and understandable.  As we moved into the main room and the actual presentation began all was forgiven.  Joel started by introducing Chris Cornell (who runs the official MST3k fan site and happens to be a Scranton-area native) and admitting to some fear about potential technical issues.  He immediately put the already devoted audience at ease and created the atmosphere of a friendly conspiracy.  Like going to a fan convention for the first time you felt undeniable vindication for your belief that you are, indeed, one of the cool kids and that clearly everybody else has been wrong the whole time.

The talk itself was mostly autobiographical.  Joel discussed his childhood and early fascination with magic and ventriloquism.  His anecdotes were peppered liberally with a vast eclectic, collection of photos and scans that, once explained, made perfect sense.  Much of this material came directly from his large (and growing) collection of hardbound notebooks that he began when young and has maintained ever since.

Periodically some seminal piece of trivia would be revealed.  Here, he might say, is the ridiculous comic book advertisement where the phrase “Best Brains” came from.  Or here’s the image that informed the design of the “Satellite of Love” or the theater silhouette.  He shared clips from his short but successful stint as a stand-up comedian and many of his personal thoughts on why he left that business.  Significant time was spent on the original MST3K, an ultra-low budget local show on KTMA Minneapolis-St. Paul and its eventual retooling and sale to the then new Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central).  Choosing to end the chronology there and not delve into the issues that would eventually lead to his leaving the show, Joel instead ended on a high-note with a segment about the “Origin of Riffing”.

I won’t spoil it completely but apparently the entire thing was ultimately inspired by his father, William, and a lucky find he had while cleaning out the school attic.  A hilarious customized slide show about Scranton “in the style of William Hodgson” both demonstrated the point and energized the crowd.  The following Q’n’A was somewhat subdued (many of the questions being, bluntly, less than interesting) but we did get to hear exactly how Joel felt about “Gallagher”.  We also got to watch his hilarious deadpan reaction when a guy suggested that he “do his riffing in theaters” (something that Joel and other MST3K alums have been doing regularly under the “Cinematic Titanic” label since 2007).

Joel thanked the audience then and left us to watch a classic episode of MST3k, “Pod People“.  While this is an amazing episode, one of my absolute favorites, I must admit that we did leave early.  By this point, please understand, we had been there (having gotten in early for the Meet and Greet) for nearly four hours.  As beautiful as the Scranton Cultural Center may be architecturally it’s also home to most uncomfortable chairs ever designed.  All sorts of parts of me had fallen asleep and all sorts of other parts wished they could.  Still the 45 minutes or so that we stuck with it were absolutely wonderful.

To sit in a roomful of people who clearly have the same warped sense of humor that you do is truly something special.  It’s the kind of community that only devoted fandom seems to generate and I thank Joel triply for creating it, continuing to foster it and offering up his life history for our entertainment.

Updated: June 19, 2014 — 8:02 pm


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  1. Thinking Joel explained leaving BBI in the sketches in “Mitchell.”

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