Interview – Joel Hodgson – Riffing Myself
Comedian Joel Hodgson may be best known for creating and hosting Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show about a man and his robot companions trapped on a space ship and forced to watch bad movies where they riff on the obvious faults and idiosyncrasies of them, but he’s also a person with many interests that go broader than just movie riffing. Interests that range from magic to engines used for satellites. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Hodgson and discuss everything from homemade electric chairs to his new one-man show Riffing Myself, which he’s currently touring with.
Benjamin Nason – I was reading that you were originally a magician back in the day, what got you into that?
Joel Hodgson – Well, you know I grew up in the Midwest, in Wisconsin. This was in the 60s and there wasn’t really a lot of show business around. The first time I saw a magician live was a guy named Charley Fairchild. He was a guy in our church, and he did a magic show, and I was just really fascinated. Not so much… well, I have to say, I could figure out some of the tricks. I was a pretty little kid, but I could kind of figure ’em out. I was so fascinated with the props, and I just loved the idea they were kind of finished. I had never seen anything like that. With the props that you get. They’re kinda like… you can’t really compare them to anything you’d really seen before.
BN – Like a sawing-a-person-in-half-box?
JH – Yeah. He did this one trick. It was called a Die Box. It was a box with two doors on it and there was a big die that sits in it, and you’re just like… I’d never seen anything like that. I was just so fascinated because they’re kind of like toys for grownups. And so I remember asking him where he got them, and I think he thought I just wanted to find out how it was done, but I really just wanted to know, how do you get that stuff? And he said he got them at a magic supply house, and I didn’t know what that was, but later I found the magic supply house, which was this place called Abbott’s Magic. It was in Colon, Michigan, which is on the other side of the great lakes from Wisconsin. It was fantastic. It was this catalog of all these things you could do. So I just started saving my money and buying magic stuff.
It kinda got me into performing. It’s like this great excuse to be in front of people, to demonstrate magic. I think that was always complicated to me, people who just stood up there alone and did a talent like told jokes, or sang. I’m not that kind of person. Anything I’ve ever done has been kind of like I stand to the side and show things. I showed magic, or did ventriloquism, or even Mystery Science Theater where I spent eighty percent of the time in the audience watching a movie. I always had things I was demonstrating or showing, that I felt were more interesting than me. So that’s kind of in a nutshell my interest in magic, but creatively it was so good to find this hidden world of magic, and all kinds of mechanical things that are just really interesting. Like how they make people levitate, how they, like you said, saw people in half. All these things were intensely interesting to me, and still are.
BN – So is that what led you into creating inventions?
JH – I guess so. It all kind of went hand in hand. My mom and dad were both very creative people, and they were makers, so there were lots of tools around. They were always fixing up the house, putting up wallpaper, or paneling, so tools were around.
My first invention was actually, probably around the same time I saw Charley Fairchild the magician. We had a class where we were in these reading groups and the reading group story was about a kid inventor, so one of the assignments was you had to go home and invent something. So I got really enthused because I remember that I had this idea for an invention which was called the Cracker, Cracker, which was a thing that would sit on you counter and was like a cutout of a hand and an arm, and it had a spring, and you’d put a rubber band on it, and you’d put crackers on the counter and it would smash them by karate chopping them. I knew it was kinda funny, but in my mind I fantasized about it being an ad on TV. You know, “the Cracker, Cracker!” Like a Ronco commercial. So my dad helped my build the Cracker, Cracker, and it was great and I brought it to class, and it was just huge. It was this great big thing. And I had all these crackers. It made a huge mess. When it went off it just shattered these crackers and they went flying all over the room. And all the kids laughed, and then walking back to my desk I ate one of the crackers, which I knew you were not supposed to do, right? And that got a laugh, so I think that kind of started me thinking about that. My dad was also really funny and he would do funny gag gifts for people, so that was always kind of around. It was a lot of DIY, kind of amusing each other. That to me kind of went back to the church. I grew up in an evangelical church and people just did that a lot. They got together. They amused each other, performed for each other. So it was really this nice place for me to kind of start out doing stuff.
BN – So I read that you made an electric chair, was it life sized?
JH – No. Well, it was built on a stool. So this was another thing through the church. There was this thing called Campus Life when I was in junior high and high school. It was where kids would get together and talk about god, and they did these outrages events. And one of the things, which was just crazy, they had this thing called the electric chair, which was safe. It was like a shocking book or something. So it was kind of like you had an eight-volt lantern battery and you ran it through a Model A coil that ran up to two screens. So they’d get a shock but it wouldn’t hurt them. It was harmless. I was amazed and fascinated by it, and I knew the guy who was the director for Campus Life. He was a friend of ours. So he gave me the instructions on how to build it. There were actually plans on how to make it. So I made one and used it for a science thing, just to demonstrate how it boosted the amperage, but not the wattage. And then you’d shock kids. You’d have them sit on it and they’d flip out, and it was just so funny. It’s not like something I’d really consider entertaining now, or I wouldn’t think of doing it, but back in the seventh or eighth grade you think it’s just fantastic.
BN – I think that would still be pretty entertaining.
JH – Yeah.
BN – Do you still invent things?
JH – Well, it’s kind of funny. I was doing that a lot when I was a standup, and when I was doing Mystery Science Theater. But really, Mystery Science Theater’s inventions were mostly all things I had invented in the early 80s and when I was doing standup. And they were a lot of the things I couldn’t realize because they were too expensive, or too big to travel with. So I have to say, I don’t do that as much. I feel like the world’s changed in such a funny way that there’s too much crap in the world now. There are too many things that are like useless inventions, but they really try to sell them to you. Somebody was telling me about a meat thermometer that you use in the barbeque that will call you when the meat’s done. It will actually call your phone and tell you. And you just kind of go, there’s too much crap in the world. So they don’t need me to come up with funny, crap ideas anymore. That to me was much more amusing in the 80s when there were fewer things like that. It’s now actually at a point though where it’s probably not good for the planet to have so much crap.
BN – That was pre Sharper Image days.
JH – Exactly. Pre Sharper Image. And for me too, I have to say movie riffing, to me, is creatively so satisfying and so much fun and it kind of satisfies that need. It’s different in that it moves so fast and you can realize stuff so quickly, because the visual is already finished with the movie and you’re just really adding ideas along with it, and so it’s much easier and faster than really going to all the trouble to realize ideas. I do really like it when people take the time to do fun inventions though. But that’s just my take on it. I’m like…no I don’t really need to come up with more junk.