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In the Not-Too-Distant Past: Joel Hodgson on 25 Years of MST3K

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In 1988, a little local access program on Minneapolis’ KTMA in which a guy in a jumpsuit sat around watching bad movies from the station’s archives and making fun of them with his faithful robot friends. That simple premise led to legions of fans, hosts of copycats, various spinoffs and offshoots, and 25 years of sustained fame for Mystery Science Theater 3000 and its creator and star of the first 4.5 seasons, Joel Hodgson. Today sees the release of Shout Factory’s extensive 25th anniversary box set featuring four never-before-released riffs and two old favorites as well as loads of extras. Along with that, Shout Factory and Reddit will be hosting a Turkey Day marathon, like they used to do back on Comedy Central. It’s all coming around again.

We spoke to Hodgson, who graciously gave us a good, long interview, about what it’s like living in a MST3K work, seeing it from the ground up, the interim years, and the show’s resurgence on DVD.

NERDIST: I got the 25th Anniversary MST3K box set and tore through that very quickly. Is it baffling to you that it’s the 25th Anniversary of the show and that it still seems as popular as it was at its peak?

JOEL HODGSON: Yeah, it is, and I would say it’s more popular … I think I’m more famous now than I was when I was doing the show. Along the way, people have always said, “Are you surprised that people like Mystery Science Theater?” and I go, “No, I’m not surprised because that’s why you make a TV show is you think people will like it,” you don’t go like, “No, I was completely surprised my TV show took off.” Everybody makes a TV show because they think it could work. But, things like this summer, Entertainment Weekly said it was one of the top 100 TV shows of all time and one of the best science fiction shows, that’s when it’s getting clearly ridiculous. Same with Time Magazine; they did a top 100 shows and it counted Mystery Science Theater, and TV Guide Top 20 Cult Shows that it was in there.

That’s really baffled because I really just started out trying to come up with the cheapest show possible. I went to L.A. to do the screenwriting thing and I didn’t feel it was very creative. I didn’t feel it really evoked creativity in me, and I realized that the only way I could do something exactly the way I wanted to is if didn’t cost very much. When I left L.A. I went back to Minneapolis. That was on my mind, could I come up with a show that could be made in Minneapolis and wouldn’t cost much, and so that is how it kind of evolved. You can’t get much cheaper than shaking a puppet in front of a green screen.

N: It seems like a show that you could not have made, not only for that budget, but you just couldn’t have made it with L.A. writers and state of mind. It needed that Minneapolis kind of Midwestern mentality. What do you think it is about that sense of humor that struck a chord with people, and still does?

JH: I think a lot of the Midwest at that time was what they considered “flyover” country, and basically the centers of entertainment were Los Angeles and New York. You had improv in Chicago, like Chicago was famous for creating a ton of great sketch performers. All the original people from Saturday Night Live came from Chicago or from Toronto. You realized that it was there, but I think, for some reason, back then it was like New York was the center of the universe and L.A. was the center of the universe, so it just diverged. It wasn’t like I really thought I was going to do something that needs to be showcased. It just happened really naturally.

I do remember an executive from Comedy Central said, “You’ve got to get a real hard-ass East-Coaster in there, real edgy,” so that’s what we were fighting mostly. We didn’t really get any notes from executives because it was kind of like too much material for them to deal with. How many jokes are in a sitcom? Like 70 jokes. Well, there’s 700 jokes in a Mystery Science Theater.

N: So the Network just sort of left you alone?

JH: We were just really lucky in that we didn’t ever have anybody giving us notes, really. Other than a few channel suggestions. Like the executives, in fact, suggested doing theme days, like the Turkey Day thing on Thanksgiving. That one came from the network and we thought that was an awesome idea, so that was one thing they told us to do. The only other thing they told us to do was they couldn’t see our silhouettes when we did a black-and-white movie so we found a way to blue the screen so our silhouettes could pop on a black-and-white movie. Those were the only two notes we ever really got actually.

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N: It must have also helped because “The Comedy Channel” was so new at that time, and they probably were like, “Hey, give us whatever you’ve got.”

JH: It was a complete misunderstanding, actually. When Comedy Channel started, they thought it would be like MTV. They thought, “We’re going to have VJs and they’re going to host comedy clips from movies, so it’ll be a promotion machine for the movie business.” When they heard about what we did they go, “Oh, perfect. That’s what we’re doing.”

They wanted us to come and move to New York and produce a show at the studios in New York, and we just said, “No.” That was the deal-breaker for us. We just said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” It was just like the show was so cheap to make … it might have been like $35,000 a show of $40,000 a show for 90 minutes, and so they just left us alone; and because it was 25 years ago, they just couldn’t monitor us at all. They couldn’t look at a script unless we had mailed it to them. I guess we had fax machines, maybe but it just wasn’t practical. There was no way they could supervise us, and they were cool enough to just let it happen because they were busy putting up the network that they just said, “Oh, we got 90 minutes covered and it’s not very expensive.” You’re right. It’s because of the timing that we got to slip in without anybody seeing it.

Given the time, Mystery Science Theater was impossible to pitch. Impossible. And I’m not particularly good at pitching stuff, so I really knew that I couldn’t do that and I really knew that I had to make it and we had to do it first. We did 22 shows locally in Minneapolis and cut those together into a sell tape, and that’s what sold Mystery Science Theater.

N: That sort of mentality is really active today with the YouTube culture and things like that. Do you see YouTube or the internet in general as the same kind of model as local access television but on a wider scale?

JH: Yeah, I think so; it just helps that you can make anything where you can find an audience. People just have these ideas, and if you can find the audience, you can do it. The internet’s made that so much easier. I think the kind of trashcan aesthetic of Mystery Science Theater, I see it a lot, just the style. I see that a lot, and just even with people … Tweets are kind of like riffs.

N: Really early on you guys were truly riffing, just going off on the movie without having seen it all that many times, but as the show went on you guys started writing more and more. At what point were you like, “If we actually practice this will make it that much better?” Was that a conscious decision, or was that just over time you developed that?

JH: That really happened when I saw the sell tape we made. Like I said, we took the best moments from these 22 episodes and cut together the 7-minute sell tape, and it was just wall to wall our best jokes. When I saw that I go, “Oh, I get it. This is what the whole show has got to be.” You know what I mean? But coming from the other side of it I really just said, “Oh, this is novel. It’s like you’re watching a show with companions, you’re watching a show with people that are funny and they’re saying stuff,” but when you’re sitting in a room with your friends and you’re watching a movie, you might say ten funny things; you don’t say 700 things.

That wasn’t really obvious. I think it’s funny for people because people are used to it now, but being on the other side of it and just creating it, it wasn’t clear. I thought, “Man, how much can the audience multitask? How much can they absorb if we did a complete riff everything there’s a space? Can they handle it? The trick is that absolutely they can handle it. That’s what they expect. They want to hear you when something’s going on. There’s some space; they want you to say stuff there.

That was really the moment where I said, “Oh, we got …” When we sold it to Comedy Channel, I remember having this conversation with Jim Allen, and he asked me … and he assumed we were going to improve it and I remember really distinctly saying, “We’ve got to write it. My friends are going to see this. We’re going outside of Minneapolis, it’s going to be national. We’ve got to really make it great.”

That’s when I decided we have to start writing it, and personally I was never super comfortable improving it; but back then the movie image was like a moving target. It was impossible to try to write a script along with it. When you think about it, now we just have YouTube and so it’s really typical to go by this time code, but 25 years ago it was just baffling, like, “How do you even write a script?”

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N: Since Mystery Science Theater, there have been a lot, certainly recently, a lot of shows that are doing the same type of thing, or people online or stage shows even doing the same type of thing. As the creator of the show, is that gratifying? You guys really did create that whole style of written moving riffing.

JH: Yeah, I love it, man. I think I like it more than anybody. I love that it’s becoming a thing. It’s a comedic art form, and just that other people want to do it. Some of my Twitter followers, when I read their byline, they go, “Oh, I’m a movie riffer,” and I just love that. I’m always really happy about it, and I always really love the problem-solving that’s involved and the way you do it. How do you present it? How do you make it work with an audience? How do you get them to know who you are?

I always feel like if you’re moving-riffing the audience needs to know who you are. It’s funny, some people will mimic riff tracks, but riff tracks, we know them because of Mystery Science Theater, but then people will mimic riff tracks but they’re just these disembodied voices that you don’t know who they are. I’m more formal. I taught a class in moving-riffing, and I had all the students create a back story, like why they had to movie-riff, and they would have to make a little movie at the beginning before the movie-riffing to explain, “This is who I am. This is what I look like. This is my attitude.”

N: A few years ago you started doing Cinematic Titanic, and you’d not done Mystery Science Theater for quite a long time at that point. Were you missing it? Were you eager to get back to riffing?

JH: Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t really want to leave Mystery Science Theater, it’s just the environment I felt was getting kind of hostile and I didn’t want to stay there. When it became evident that we could do this again, I was really excited to try it and very nervous. It’d been a long time. It’s almost like Mystery Science Theater almost really didn’t get famous until it stopped; and then once it stopped and there weren’t any more coming, then I think people really started to look at it like a universe and started watching all of them. It was really weird, but it almost didn’t take off until they were gone, and then all of a sudden it became a thing.

That’s one thing I noticed that was really weird. I guess my coming back to it and … it’s almost like the legend of it was getting bigger and bigger, and coming back to it I was a little intimidated by it. Writing again and getting things on their feet and riffing again in front of a live audience was the very best way to get back into it. I’m just really glad because I got my chops back. It’s like being in a band or something. You get it back. That was really important. I can remember when we started six years ago, I remember being really nervous about writing again and really over-thinking it, and performing again and really over-thinking it. Now I’ve got it back, and I feel like I’ve got it again.

N: Shout Factory has been putting out the DVDs for a while now. What are we up to? We’re up to, I think, 25 different releases of four movies and individual releases, and some of these haven’t been seen on video or anything since basically their aired. Are you surprised at the ones that they put out? That’s obviously due to rights, but are some of them like, “Oh, don’t even remember doing that one?”

JH: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s funny because when I do Cinematic Titanic, I do Q&A with the audience, and sometimes they’ll ask really specific questions, especially about the sketches from Mystery Science Theater. The other day I was talking to them, and I felt like I was disappointing them because I didn’t remember what they remembered. I was like, “You know what? It’s pretty clear you guys have watched these shows way more than I have,” and it’s really true because it’s not how I unwind and relax is to go watch Mystery Science Theater. It’s my job. Occasionally I get asked to screen them, and I really love doing it. I’ve just been watching a bunch of them … what did I just watch? It was so great. Oh, Final Sacrifice.

N: Yes! That’s one of my favorites.

JH: It was really funny, and the ones that I didn’t write I could enjoy them even more because I don’t know what’s coming. Also, I think the sheer volume of each show … like I said, there’s like 700 or 800 riffs. There’s just no way I’d remember all of them.

N: And just a final question for you: Do you have a favorite episode of your own?

JH: I don’t really run into ones that I don’t like. What I’m curious is people love Manos: The Hands of Fate, and I don’t think that’s especially a strong riff, but I think there’s something else. It’s just all the wrinkles that come out over time, but Manos is different. People always grade it one of the top 10 Mystery Science Theaters, and I look at it and go, “Well, listen, Mystery Science Theater is kind of like going into a haunted house and you have a guide. You have ghost specialists with you to calm your fears, but the premise of Mystery Science Theater is you don’t know what the movie is before you watch it. It’s a surprise. We’re so used to having movies sold to us, and we just don’t go to movies without knowing what they are; but with Mystery Science Theater, when you turn on you don’t know what you are going to get, but you have these companions along with you.

With Manos, it’s something about that movie. It’s so weird and frightening and disjointed that I think people are just fascinated. It’s almost like, usually Mystery Science Theater gets it’s sauce on the movies. In the case of Manos, it got it’s sauce on us.

You can let Mystery Science Theater 3000 get its (cranberry) sauce on you with the Turkey Day Marathon streaming live on the internet this Thursday, and check out the 25th Anniversary DVD box set available now.

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