Joel Hodgson on the New Season and 30th Anniversary of Mystery Science Theater 3000 | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Joel Hodgson (right) with current MST3K host Jonah Ray

Joel Hodgson on the New Season and 30th Anniversary of Mystery Science Theater 3000

MST3K's creator on the history (and future) of the cult movie-riffing phenomenon

Nov 12, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In the not-too-distant future – next Thursday, A.D. – the cult movie-riffing show Mystery Science Theater 3000 will return to Netflix with six new episodes comprising the series’ 12th season. Their premiere not only upholds the show’s long-standing tradition of roasting cinematic turkeys on America’s most indulgent holiday, but mark Mystery Science Theater 3000’s 30th Anniversary, as the very first episode of MST3K aired on a local Minneapolis TV station all the way back on Thanksgiving Day of 1988.

The earliest episodes look very different from the show we know today, but they acted as a springboard to bigger things. The first “official” season of MST3K appeared a year later on The Comedy Channel where it would run for its first seven seasons, eventually moving to the Sci-Fi Channel for three more. For years following the end of the show’s original run in 1999 fans held out hope for the series’ return, but as those involved in its creation eventually moved on to new movie-riffing ventures it looked more and more unlikely we’d ever see a return to the show’s orbiting movie theater, the Satellite of Love.

In 2015, after almost two decades off the air, series creator and original host Joel Hodgson spearheaded a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign to bring the show back. With the help of a new production company, Shout! Factory – who’d helped keep the MST3K torch burning through the show’s long hiatus with their lovingly-curated home video releases – fourteen all-new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 finally emerged.

In spite of its lengthy tenure in the deep freeze, Mystery Science Theater 3000 hit the ground running. Fans immediately latched onto the new cast, which includes host Jonah Ray and a pair of mad scientists played by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt. Benefitting from enhanced production value and working from noticeably better prints of the films they’re riffing, MST3K thankfully stayed true to the format and unique brand of humor that have given it such an enduring appeal.

The show proved to be a hit for Netflix, who have provided a home for the series in its latest incarnation. Six new episodes will make their premiere on November 22nd, which is fittingly Thanksgiving Day. In this season, the mad doctor Kinga Forrester and her assistant, Max, force Jonah, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot to marathon six cinematic stinkers in a row. These include the hybrid E.T. knockoff-slash-McDonald’s commercial Mac and Me, a shameless Pacifc Rim copycat entitled Atlantic Rim (of course), and 1982’s Ator, the Fighting Eagle, which features the long-awaited return of Cave Dwellers star Miles O’Keeffe to MST3K mockery.

We recently spoke with Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000, to look back at the show’s history and discuss what its future holds.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: With your last season, I imagine there was extra pressure in bringing the show back after so many years. Now that the revival was such a roaring success, was there a different feeling as you were rolling into season 12?

Joel Hodgson: Yeah, it was really different. There was this advantage of having gone through it. Doing fourteen episodes was a killer for everybody, but having gone through it for the production was really useful. We do the TV show, the comic book, the live show, and so having gone through all of that stuff, it really helps when you’re back in the office to do a second season. You know the vendors, you know that situation, and just little things like working with the prop design department in LA and knowing the people there. Knowing all the different vendors – and that includes everyone, from audio to post-production, our puppet-builders – all that stuff is really useful, and it makes things run much smoother.

On the writing side, everybody was much more comfortable. And it helps so much that we landed it. I mean, I don’t want to honk my own horn, but we’re Netflix’s highest-rated show and have been for, like, 16 months, or since the show came out, based on Rotten Tomatoes. So, that’s been really great, just to feel like we stuck the landing and by and large everyone’s really happy. We have the confidence to keep going in the direction we were going and not feel too self-conscious.

The Mads’ experiment throughout this season’s storyline is “The Gauntlet,” in which Jonah and the ‘bots are forced to endure the six movies back-to-back. Figuring that a good number of fans probably binge watch the season as soon as it hits Netflix, in a way Jonah is mirroring their experience. That’s such a fun idea. Did the knowledge of how people consume streaming content factor into making that decision for this season?

Joel: It’s interesting, because the longtime Mystery Science Theater fans are all over the place. Some people watch them all in a row. Some people really want to take their time because they want them to last. It’s not exactly a mirror image as much as what we learned from Netflix.

With this season, [Netflix] came to us and said, “Here is what we found out. Here’s the data.” It basically said that our diehard fans are going all the way through, but these casual viewers are finding it and they think it’s like a normal Netflix series. Once it goes past, like, eight hours of content, they’re getting very disoriented. Like, “How long is this going to go on?” Our series is three times as long as a normal Netflix series. So, they kind of thought that if we did this in six-episode installments that more people would be able to grasp it and understand. So, that was part of the goal. We also know that as far as the quality of the riffing and that stuff, with only six shows, it’s all consistent, so the longtime fans will be happy with it.

But, it’s also a way of packaging it so that people go, “Oh, are you kidding me? We’re supposed to watch these all in a row?” One of the things I like about it is that it’s got a bit more of a challenge to it than people are used to. Instead of the idea of binge-watching being this sort of unspoken thing, it’s the proclamation that you have to binge watch it that’s kind of funny.

I’ve always appreciated how Mystery Science Theater pokes fun at bad movies but it’s never cynical. No matter how awful the movie is, the riffs feel like they come from a place in the heart. You’ve said that you eventually fall in love with every movie you feature, but do you ever find that difficult with any of these films? Some have to be rough to get through over and over in the writing phase.

Joel: I think, ultimately, you want a movie that’s “adorable.” It’s not necessarily a good movie or perfectly-made, but there’s something about it. All of these movies kind of share that in my mind; they’re really fun in their own way. I just think that because we do spend a lot of time with them we fall in love with each one in its own unique way.

Once you spend a couple of weeks in these movies, you start to see things. It’s kind of like a procedural cop show where you’ll go, “This looks like a really hard shot. I bet they’re really tired.” Or “This scene looks pretty complicated. I bet it was hard.” Or the thing that they’re reacting to is something that’s composited in, so they’re actually reacting to a piece of tape on the floor. And so, you start to really like it for a different reason.

Ultimately, yeah, I don’t think the show would have worked if we were really cynical. I think that’s the mistake a lot of first-time movie riffers make. They think, “We’re here to demonstrate that bad movies shouldn’t exist, and we’re better than these movies – if we made a movie, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes.” But the truth is, it’s really hard to make a good movie.

It’s great that the new seasons haven’t shied away from throwing in all the really obscure references that the show’s known for. When the writers are at work, how often do you find yourselves needing to explain a riff to the rest of the room?

Joel: It’s interesting because we don’t do a lot of that. When we create the riffs, it’s wide-open. We just kind of put everything in. We don’t do any editing in the writing room. The editing comes later. That’s one of the secrets to our success, that we don’t do any editorial while we’re creating unless there’s some kind of deadline, or we need to come up with an idea to fix a problem. Then we venture into that weird thing where we’re editing and creating it at the same time. That’s always very dangerous, and so we avoid that a lot. There’s never any discussion like, “Is this going to work? Is this good enough? Is this funny enough?” That sort of thing can really get in your way. And so the stuff you see on TV or in other writers’ rooms doesn’t exist with MST. We’re really strict about that, and that’s why we’re able to do what we do at the pace that we do. Otherwise we couldn’t write a 90-minute show every few weeks.

The recent Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live tour was the first time you played your Joel Robinson character in quite a long time. What were your feelings as you zipped up the red jumpsuit again?

Joel: It was really fun. I just felt on the last tour that the cast was so great, and they got so good at doing it live and they fell into it kind of naturally. They were really strong. I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. There’s a lot of concentration you need to have when you’re riffing. There’s so much going on: you’re listening to the audience’s reaction, you’re kind of getting ready for your next line, you’re listening to what the other people are saying and doing. [Laughs] You really have to focus! I’m just feeling now that I’ve really gotten a handle on it.

Mystery Science Theater has built up such an incredible and active fan community over the last 30 years – from the tape-trading groups back in the ‘90s, to the wiki and annotation sites and bot building resources. Do you recall a specific moment, in the early days, when you realized just how dedicated MST fans would become, or that the show would become such a cult phenomenon?

Joel: It’s really hard to say. I feel like when we started, it was really pre-social media. It just so happened that we had a lot of elements that would work really well once social media started. I think that’s just because we had so many ideas and were really broad; there were so many different riffs, and so much information. And then once social media started to happen, people wanted to talk about it and survey it together. We got really lucky in that way, as far as our timing.

We started when Google was just getting going and cable had a broader bandwidth than broadcast. We had this show where a guy and some robots were throwing out riffs for the entire length of a movie, and somehow cable was able to accommodate that. The show would never have happened on network TV. And then when the Internet took off, it had enough data and information that people liked surveying it and talking about it together. It really lends itself well to that part of social media.

I also felt, too – when I was in Hollywood, I had a career as a standup and I got offered sitcoms, but I just didn’t like the world of comedy then. There wasn’t much available outside of standup that I really liked. I just always felt like they attached so much glamour to it back then, like you should be amazed by the people on television. It seemed like there was this great, big barrier. I kind of wanted to make Mystery Science Theater so that you could see behind the scenes, so that you could figure out how to make TV, too. I wanted to try to take the glamour out of it so you could appreciate the comedy for what it is.

Let’s imagine you fell into a time machine and were sent 30 years into the past. What advice would you give your past self, working on the first KTMA episodes, based on what you’ve learned from the last three decades of MST3K?

Joel: I think the big thing is that you can’t do anything by yourself. I’m telling this story now because I’m the guy who created [MST3K], but if it had just been up to me it wouldn’t have gone any further. I needed lots of help, and the people that I found in Minneapolis to make the show were so important. If I have any advice, it would be to seek out unique and talented people, trust your instincts, and try to have something to offer those talented people. In my case, I had a really good concept and people wanted to get involved with that. So, I was just really lucky that I found this set of people that had the space in their lives to work on MST as it was getting started.

It’s not always easy, working with people, because they all have a million different ideas. Especially when things become successful, people have different interpretations of how things happened. You do have to manage all of that, but it’s the only way to get stuff to happen.

There’s a canon of episodes – ones like Manos, Eegah, or Mitchell – that are practically hallowed in the way they’re so beloved by fans. Have you ever been able to predict when one will be a big hit?

Joel: We just don’t know when we’re making it – we’re just doing our best. It depends a lot on the movie. With our show more than any other show, it’s so dependent on the source material that we’re making this derivative work from. We can’t really shape that much more than try to find the right riffs to pop in and the right sketch to comment on stuff. And that’s where the audience comes in. I had no idea when we were making Pod People or Manos or Mitchell. We weren’t sitting there going, “Oh, this is a good one!” or “Oh, boy, when they see Mitchell, boy oh boy!” It was more like, “We have to do another [episode], let’s get to work on the next one.”

We’re really dependent on the audience reflecting them back to us. I remember being in LA and I met Drew Carey, and Drew Carey liked Mystery Science Theater. I asked him, “What’s your favorite one?” And he said, “Oh, no question, I Accuse My Parents. That’s the best one.” I hadn’t really thought of it before, and so I went back to it and watched it and thought, “Oh, wow, this really is a good episode.” I started to learn that it was impossible for us to curate what we do. All we can really do is make it and put it out there. There are so many shows, over 200 episodes, and the really good ones emerge. We can’t tell when we’re doing it, at all. We’re just doing our best.

Especially with this latest incarnation of Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’ve proven it’s a concept that can tweaked and re-launched for a new generation. Consider that Jim Henson’s Muppets are still alive and kicking decades after he kicked the bucket, or how Gene Roddenberry never lived to see half the Star Trek shows that have aired. Is Mystery Science Theater something you could see still working 30 years from now, or even after you’re gone?

Joel: I hope so. I think that bringing it back this time was the hardest part – it was almost 20 years since it had last been on TV. Bringing it back with an all-new cast of actors and all-new writers was a big thing.

There was an article in the Hollywood Reporter where they suggested we anticipated social media in how we did the show … Tom and Crow dropping in remarks on movies is very similar in structure to how we use Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. So, it kind of fits now, but I don’t know if that’s the way we’re going to continue to do stuff, or if that will still be meaningful in 30 years. I just don’t know. But in terms of [MST] being relevant right at this moment, we just got lucky that the material was arranged in a way that looks very similar to the way people like to communicate now. I guess it’s all pending where we go.



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November 12th 2018

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