Sunday, January 20, 2013

Joel Hodgson's Riffing Myself - My Review & Thank You Letter

Joel Hodgson got me through middle school.

That statement may require some explanation.

I first stumbled across Mystery Science Theater 3000 back when I was twelve years old and channel-surfing.  At the time it was only possible to have two TV sets in the same house wired for cable.  So whenever I wanted to watch something that wasn't on the local UHF station on the old TV in my room, I either had to do it on the set in my parents bedroom during the day or wait until everyone was asleep and sneak into the living room.

I watched the show in secret because MST3K was the greatest thing I had ever seen and I had just assumed - like most of the other awesome things you become obsessed with when you're 12 - it was something my parents would disapprove of.  Never mind that they'd let me stay up to watch the old Mad Movies show on Nick at Nite with them and this was virtually the same thing!  That kind of logical reasoning doesn't enter into your head when you are twelve.

Thankfully, my parents were cool with it and I think it's fair to say that MST3K  had a direct effect on developing my acerbic, reference-heavy sense of humor as a teen.  It certainly had an affect on my writing career, as my first published reviews as a teenager were written for an MST3K fanzing (Digest Digest) under the pen name Joey The Lemur.  My first experiences with the Internet were the MST3K Fan Forums on Prodigy.  My first web-development gig was doing research for the Daddy-O's Drive-In Dirt section of what eventually became the official MST3K news website.  And you certainly don't spend over ten years working as a riffer at Rocky Horror shows without being something of a MSTie.

Yes, I owe a lot to MST3K and - by extension - the shows creator, Joel Hodgson.  But how did he get me through middle school?  Because as cheesy as it may be to say this, I learned a lot about how to cope with life by watching MST3K and Joel's example.

Like Joel, I was a smart, unorthodox personality trapped in a bad place.  Okay, my Junior High School wasn't a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit around the Earth but I still felt trapped there.  But Joel didn't let his situation get him down and he responded to the stupidity and absurdity around him with the only weapon he had left - humor.  So too did I began to use wisecracks to riff my life and cope with the stupidity and absurdity around me. 

Even later on in life, Joel's wisdom helped me.  The idea that "people don't mean to be obnoxious - it's just that they're all screwed up inside" helped instill a badly needed sense of empathy into my teenage self.  Even now it helps me keep my cool with particularly unreasonable patrons at the library I work at.  He also helped me find ease with myself, advising that you shouldn't worry if everyone gets your jokes.  "The right people will get this," he said in an interview for a documentary on MST3K.  Someday, I'm going to have to write a book on Zen and Mystery Science Theater 3000.  But I've already said far too much about myself in what was meant to be a review of a magical stage show. 

So Joel?  If you happen to read this?  Thank you.  Thank you for everything, from my first laugh at your wisecracks watching Cave Dwellers when I was twelve to the laughs you gave me tonight as I saw Riffing Myself.

Now, as to what got me thinking about all this and writing all this down...

Most people probably wouldn't find enjoyment in a complete stranger showing a couple of hundred slides from their childhood. Then again, your average MSTie is not "most people" and Joel Hodgson is hardly a stranger.  Even if you didn't grow up watching him on MST3K (as I think most of the assembled audience, most of whom were around my age, had), Joel has a casual ease to his performance that makes him seem less like a presenter and more like a co-worker showing you some cool new video on YouTube.

Riffing Myself is not your typical one-man show.  It has more in common with Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth than most of the solo performance pieces you'll find performed in small theaters around the country, where one actor tells the tale of their warped adolescence though a combination of interpretative dance and Inuit throat-singing.  Joel is simply Joel, answering the questions of where he came from and how he created MST3K, while showing us some photos, sketches and the occasional video to try and explain himself.

Riffing Myself explains a lot, detailing Joel's childhood dreams of being a magician and his early career as a prop-comic.  Or, as he described himself, "Comic.  Magician.  Spy."  There's a lot of trivia to be learned that even die-hard MSTies might not be aware of, like how the two inspirations for Joel's costume as a comedian were Sean Connery's James Bond and the guy on the box of the Mystery Date board game.  Joel also talks about his early work as a ventriloquist and how that directly influenced his love of puppetry and the eventual construction of The Bots.

I shan't say anymore than that (a magician must be allowed to keep his secrets, after all) but the evening was delightfully educational even for a hardened MSTie like me who has been around the block a few times.  If you get a chance to see Riffing Myself, by all means take it.  Upcoming show dates are on and I hope The Texas Theatre of Dallas will book him again for a later date.

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