Larry Johnnson’s fellow filmgoers don’t always welcome his tendency to make witty asides during movies. “Friends of mine in Philadelphia almost threw me out of their house when we were watching The Graduate,” Johnnson recalls. “But Simon and Garfunkel kept singing ‘Are you going to Scarborough Fair?’ and I wanted to know if anyone ever got to Scarborough Fair.”
Johnnson makes his habit work for him as a performer and driving force behind Cineprov, which provides live running commentary on films that range from notorious turkeys like The Room to such beloved hits as Back to the Future. As the 8-year-old venture settles into its new home at the Plaza Theatre, Johnnson wants to seize the new chance to make a first impression.
Counting Johnnson, who serves as president of the company (although he prefers the title “sarcasm czar”), Cineprov now has a core ensemble of seven performers: Don Emery, Mollie Getson, Cris Gray, Ken Hudak, Mark Olsen and Lowrie Scott Taylor. Three “mockers” perform per show and, of the group, only Johnnson, Gray and Taylor have backgrounds in live comedy — the rest are quick-thinking movie buffs and fans of the cult TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” in which a host and his puppets riffed on cheesy movies like Hercules Against the Moon Men.
Cineprov originated in 2005 at Buckhead’s Basement Theatre, where Johnnson belonged to an improv troupe that did shows on Friday and Saturday nights. “We did ‘Who’s Line Is It Anyway?’ style improv games and sometimes no one would show up, so we’d play Uno.” Johnnson recalls wearing “Mystery Science Theater” to an improv workshop and a castmate saying, “We should just do that and make fun of a movie as a show. If no one shows up, at least we can watch the movie.” Thus Cineprov was born.
It caught on at the Basement Theater, spent a brief period at Decatur’s Sketchworks and found a home at Midtown’s Relapse Theatre for nearly five years. While the company began building an audience, selling out such shows as its annual Valentine’s Day screening of Showgirls, the venue gave Johnnson headaches.
“We had technical problems and were never in the same place. Online reviews concentrated more on the temperature in the theater than the actual show.” Johnnson admits, “I was actually getting ready to close it down at Relapse after the 2012 holiday break, but they beat us to the punch by closing the theater. It ruined our ‘You can’t fire us — we quit!’ moment.”
In April, Cineprov found a new home at the refurbished, 175-seat upstairs screen at the vintage Plaza Theatre in Poncey-Highland. “One of our best experiences was our first show at the Plaza. I always wanted to do Cineprov at an actual movie theater, so to do it at the Plaza was huge for us,” says Johnnson. Unlike Relapse, the Plaza doesn’t serve alcohol, so Johnnson encourages audience members to have a drink beforehand at the Righteous Room next door.
Johnnson will see another dream come true later this summer. Joel Hodgson, former prop comic and creator of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” is scheduled to performs his one-man show Riffing Myself at the Plaza on Aug. 10 and mock a movie with Cineprov the following night.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that while I’m not part of Cineprov’s ensemble, I did occasionally riff on movies with the group in its Relapse days. There’s a huge difference between making the occasional witty remark to a seatmate and quipping into a microphone before an audience. The last time I participated, I found myself oddly resentful of Alien, a movie I love that nevertheless features long scenes of empty corridors. When you can’t think of funny remarks, the seconds feel like eternities.
While “Mystery Science Theater” and recent spinoffs like “Cinematic Titanic” rely on scripted commentary, Cineprov’s jokes are mostly improvised. Johnnson acknowledges that a little preparation makes for a better audience experience.
“A lot of times when I go to improv shows, I see performers get so caught up in the craft of improv that they forget that the audience paid to be entertained. To make our shows better, we all watch the movie ahead of time, which mostly gives us a sense of the breaks in the movie.
“Our first film at the Plaza, Eddie, The Sleepwalking Cannibal, has a scene with the main character chasing people in his underwear, and that’s funnier on its own than anything we’d say. Most of what we call out during the run-through doesn’t make it: I’d say the show is still 90 percent improvised.”
Over the years Cineprov has made sport of hundreds of films. “We’ve done everything from Ankle Biters to Citizen Kane. We love films that take themselves too seriously and fail, like The Room.” Johnnson admits that some seemingly sure-fire ideas can backfire. “We thought it would be a great idea to do Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans for Thanksgiving. That was before we’d check the running times of our movies. It turned out to be super-long, horrifyingly boring and no one said anything funny.”
Cineprov’s lineup for the rest of May includes the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the infamous John Travolta TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and the 1936 marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness. When bouncing off midnight movies famous for audience interaction like The Rocky Horror Show, Cineprov relies entirely on original material. On May 5, before Cineprov ran roughshod over the inept “erotic” “thriller” The Room, Johnnson remarked, “We saw The Room with its regular audience this week, and they have like 10 jokes. We have hundreds.”
Atlanta-based film and theater writer Curt Holman has won awards for his critical writing from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2005, he was a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in theater and musical theater.