One of the founding members of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and a writer and producer on Freaks and Geeks, J. Elvis Weinstein has been responsible for some of the funniest television ever created.
Recently, he spoke with Max about his work, his upcoming projects, and his recent return to MST3K with Cinematic Titanic.
You’ve worked on two of the most popular cult programs of all time, Freaks and Geeks and MST3K. What is it about those shows that you think has generated such a rabid fan base, particularly in the case of the canceled-after-one-season Freaks and Geeks?
I think both shows offered a kind of specificity that isn’t seen that often on TV. On MST, it was in the form of references – people would hear jokes about things they thought only they remembered. That creates a kind of kinship, I think. Plus I think the show always had the feel of a club. We started acknowledging the fans just as soon as we realized we had any.
On Freaks and Geeks, the specificity was in the emotions being felt by the characters. Most teen shows up until then (and largely since) had a bunch of 20-something actors playing teenagers who talked like 30-year olds. We really tried to write through the lens of actual teenagers and the warped and heightened sense of perspective that entails. We (the writer/producers) spent a couple of weeks in the writing room just exposing our teenage humiliations to one another before we ever started writing and tons of those stories and feelings ended up in the show. One also can’t understate the quality of our cast – really a special group of actors, teens and grown-ups alike.
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You’ve recently returned to the MST3K fold doing a live version of the show, Cinematic Titanic, after having left early on in the show’s television run. Why did you leave (if you don’t mind), and what brought you back?
I left the show because of personal conflicts. Once the show was picked up by the (then) Comedy Channel, I felt I was treated badly on a number of levels and at 18 years old, I wasn’t all that adept at disguising my feelings – a skill crucial to life at Best Brains Inc. (though I’m sure they were able to muster up an authentic euphoria about my departure.)
As for Cinematic Titanic, it was as simple as Joel asking me to do it. We shot our first episode during last years Writer’s Strike, so I was particularly available, but in fact, I was eager to do another project with Joel and Trace. We long ago resolved any old, MST-related issues and were curious what it would be like to work as true partners all these years later and explore the creative chemistry we had discovered back in the late 80′s (the three of us had gone out pitching a joint project about a year earlier to no avail.) That Frank and Mary Jo would be part of the gang made it all the more tantalizing. I always like working with friends and these are all people that I’ve known since I was a 15-year-old stand-up comic in Mpls. (I’m 37 now).
With the different incarnations of MST3K, (the show, the movie, and Cinematic Titanic), you’ve watched a lot of movies you hate . Which movies/directors/actors do you like?
I’m all over the place in terms of what I like, but I guess, like I discussed above, it’s about specificity with me. I love the Coen brothers because of their specificity of tone and language. I’m a fan of James L. Brooks ( Broadcast News might be my favorite movie, or at least the one I most wish I had made.) I’m also often impressed by restraint, scripts that are made better for all the things unsaid ( Lost in Translation , You Can Count On Me ).
I am almost pathologically unable to suspend my disbelief, so I am constantly aware of the production going on along with the story being told. I tend to evaluate movies based on the choices made by the artists involved more than any journey I may have been taken on. This may be why I’m also a huge fan of documentaries.
What is the worst film you’ve ever had to sit through? (for the show or otherwise)
In real life I don’t generally sit all the way through movies I hate, so it would have to be a Cinematic Titanic or MST episode. I can’t really pick a least favorite – there’s a certain line a movie falls below where it just becomes part of a vast shit stew.
What upcoming J. Elvis Weinstein projects can fans look forward to?
Mostly I’m spending my time on Cinematic Titanic right now. This is an artist funded and operated venture, so not only are there shows to shoot, post-produce, and distribute and live shows around the country, but there’s also a business to run. It keeps our hands pretty full. Aside from that, I have a movie script that has been optioned and been in and out of the production process over the last year which may yet live and a couple of other scripts in the pipeline.