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Cinematic Titanic sails into Greenville

If you ever saw Mystery Science Theater 3000, you know what to expect from Cinematic Titanic.

If not, it might all be a bit of a mystery to you.

It's a pretty simple concept. Several comedians make fun of a bad movie while the movie is being screened. It may sound strange, but trust us, it's hilarious.

Cinematic Titanic is the brainchild of Joel Hodgson, who also put together MST3K (as fans call it). He's also assmebled a group of MST3K veterans to help out. They've recorded several DVDs of their show, and now they're touring the country. Saturday night, they'll be at Greenville's Peace Center.

We talked to writer/performer Mary Jo Pehl about the Cinematic Titanic experience.

How would you describe the Cinematic Titanic experience (especially to folks unfamiliar with MST3K)? How does it differ from MST3K?

The premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a guy trapped in space who was forced to watch old, bad movies with the robot buddies he built. In order to endure, they cracked wise at the screen.

With Cinematic Titanic, it’s just us as us: Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Joel Hodgson, Josh Weinstein and myself, on stage with the movie, making fun of it. No robots. No fictional premise. Just bad movies and jokes.

Expect a wonderfully bad movie and a lot of laughs with kindred spirits. There’s also a “talent show” before the movie, with comedian and professional warm-up act Dave “Gruber” Allen, in which each of us does a little something. Sometimes Frank will do standup, Trace will read from his book, Josh does his great Elvis Costello impersonation, Joel might do some magic – it’s a grab bag every night.

What movie will you be riffing over? How did this film get chosen?

We’ll be mocking “Astral Factor”, a 1970 film starring Robert Foxworth, Stephanie Powers and Elke Somer. When you see the movie, you’ll see why it got chosen –it speaks for itself. It has everything: bad special effects, a flailing attempt at psycho drama, barely a plot – and polyester pants. What more could you want?!?

Can you tell us a little bit about the process of developing the riffs? Do riffs change over the course of a tour?

In the days of Mystery Science Theater, we’d all sit in a writing room at the studio and watch the movie on a big TV, stopping and starting, and we’d take turns transcribing the comments on the computer as people would call them out.

With Cinematic Titanic, we’re all in different cities, coming together for shows. So we each individually write the movie; then all the jokes are put into an Excel spreadsheet with the time codes at which they occur. This makes for a giant script with all our jokes. The we each take a portion of the script and winnow it down, putting in jokes where there is opportunity. Once the script is edited, we Skype to review it and see how it works, how it feels.

When we’re together in the city we’re touring, we’ll review the script again. The real test is that first performance, where we get a read on what works with the audience. And then we keep working on the script, either via Skype, sitting down at the hotel and reviewing it, and trying new stuff in the performance. Even if we’re working off scripts in the actual show, there’s a lot of room for improvisation. Sometimes we’ll make a local reference, or we’ll throw in something topical that’s fitting, or we might respond to the crowd’s reaction on any given joke. We all come from standup comedy and/or performance backgrounds, so we love the immediacy of live shows, and being able to have fun with the audience.

I think I'm right when I say that you're the only woman writer/performer who's worked on MST3K/CT. Reflecting on that, how would you describe your experience over the years?

Oh, Frank hasn’t told you his little secret, I take it? Anyway… actually, Bridget Jones Nelson and Colleen Henjum preceded me on a parttime basis. I was the first on a fulltime, in-the-trenches basis.

I’ve known these guys for a long time, so I’m not sure how much gender plays a part. Many people are glad that the woman’s point of view is represented. I think I understand what they’re saying, but I don’t intend to speak for all women, just as the fellows don’t speak for all men. I only speak for my experience, and part of that, yes, happens to be as a woman. You’d be surprised who makes the lipstick and shopping jokes! That said, it’s been very curious to encounter people who assume I’m the secretary, the “helper” to the real comedians Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Cinematic Titanic.

What other projects are you working on?

Funny you should ask! I just published a book, “Employee of the Month And Other Big Deals”, available at Cinematic Titanic shows and through Amazon.com. I’ve got another book in the pipeline, and I’ll also be appearing at SketchFest, Out of Bounds Comedy Festival and LAFF in Austin, TX.

Cinematic Titanic plays at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Greenville on Saturday, March 17, at 8 pm. Contact the box office for tickets or further information.

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