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The summer I turned 30, I was stuck in a strange town with no job and, as far as I could see, no future. During the days I trudged around filling out job applications at places where I didn't want to work and smiling at people I didn't want to know. And at night I drugged myself with endless TV screenings of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was the perfect entertainment for someone too demoralized to make fun of bad movies himself.
Five of the series' key writer-performers—Joel Hodgson (aka Joel Robinson), Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Clayton Forrester/Crow T. Robot), Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester), Frank Conniff (TV's Frank), and J. Elvis Weinstein (Tom Servo)—are now touring under the moniker Cinematic Titanic, and last weekend they settled into the Lakeshore Theatre for a three-day run, goofing on three different big-screen atrocities. On Friday, when I got a chance to see the act, their stinker du jour was the 1966 Filipino horror cheapie Blood of the Vampires, directed by Gerardo de Leon (or, as Hodgson identified him, "the man who discovered the fountain of shit").
Watching these guys work onstage, seated with their backs to the audience in front of a video screen and reading their wisecracks from loose-leaf binders on music stands, was a strange experience. Along with the two layers of the TV show—the movie and the characters' running commentary dubbed over it—there was the third layer of a live audience. The TV show was the ultimate time-waster: the jokes were hit or miss, but the more time you put in on the Satellite of Love, the funnier the material was. Cinematic Titanic had the burden of entertaining people who'd paid a substantial ticket price, scheduled a night out, and tramped through the snow to get to the theater.
As on MST3K, some of the one-liners were inspired ("Sounds like someone is using the soundtrack for a coaster"), some merely functional, but the writers distinguished themselves in their willingness to reach for the most esoteric jokes imaginable. Among the cascading cultural touchstones were Citizen Kane, Betty Friedan, Extreme Makeover, Zelda Fitzgerald, Vatican II, World of Warfare, Loretta Lynn, Bonnie and Clyde, Eudora Welty, K.D. Lang, and SCTV's Count Floyd. It must say something about television in the 90s that one of the most culturally literate shows aired had a character made out of a gumball machine.