Extended Q&A: Joel Hodgson of MST3K
This is an extended Q&A version of my recent phone interview with Joel Hodgson, creator of the cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which is celebrating the big 2-0 with the “Mystery Science Theater 3000 20th Anniversary Edition.”
In the interview, Hodgson talks happily about getting to revisit the space-based movie riffing/puppet show he created back in 1988. He also talked about his new movie-mocking project “Cinematic Titanic” with former MST3K cast members Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Conniff and J. Elvis “Josh” Weinstein.
He also talks about why he left the show in 1999 and describes it as a “personal tragedy.”
MST3K fans (AKA MSTies) may find it tragic that Hodgson doesn’t give much hope for a crossover between “Cinematic Titanic” and RiffTrax, the movie-mocking audio commentaries that former MST3K cast members Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy are creating.
Q: I just got off the phone with original cast member Trace Beaulieu a second ago.
A: Oh, good I’m right on time.
Q: I got the whole scoop from him. Now, I’m going to check in with you and see if your stories match up.
A: OK, I bet they’re pretty close. (laughing)
Q: So where are you calling me from?
A: I’m calling you from Pennsylvania. I’m at a coffee shop in Pennsylvania.
Q: How’d do you end up in a coffee shop in Pennsylvania?
A: I just moved to Pennsylvania.
Q: Oh, OK. So there’s no weird story like you were kidnapped by aliens and left there because you were wanting some caffeine?
A: I can’t talk about that. (laughing) I can’t. Actually, they’re looking at me right now. I can’t say anything.
Q: Well, we’ll try not to say anything that will upset the aliens.
A: All right, sounds good.
Q: Did you ever imagine when you started MST3K that I would be calling you about the 20th anniversary?
A: Oh, absolutely not. It’s so funny. I’m just thrilled and it’s so great. But no, I didn’t have the faintest idea. I mean, it’s funny, when we were doing it, people would go ‘Are you surprised that people like your show and it’s on TV?’ I would always kind of go, ‘No, ‘cause that’s why you make a TV show. You do it ‘cause you think you have a good idea and you think people will like it.’ So that part I saw, but not 20 years later, and we actually every year we sell more DVDs than we did the previous year. It’s kind of like the comic equivalent of Steve Miller Band’s ‘Fly Like an Eagle’; it just keeps getting reinvented and rediscovered by new generations.
Q: What is it about it that makes it like that, that makes it strike such a chord. Because I will tell you that I never had to defend something I got in the mail as vehemently as I did the box set. I was stiff-arming people like Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings.
A: Wow, that’s good news. That’s great. I don’t know, I think that it was kind of like we created a new comic art form and because of that we were able to kind of fill it up. I mean, the real trick of the show is that we did 22 shows locally to really figure it out. We spent a year doing it on a local UHF channel and so when we went and did it nationally, we really had it figured out.
So, I feel like that was kind of the magic secret ingredient. And I think if we would have done it traditionally like oh I go to a network and I have an idea and I go ‘This is what it’s going to be like,’ and then they go, ‘OK, write a script,’ it just never would have happened. It was really about getting it on its feet and kind of roughing it out. And that’s the way I am, too. I don’t like writing scripts; I like making the visual elements and seeing if it all makes sense visually and then all the other things kind of fall into place.
I don’t know, it’s kind of a long way of saying we kind of invented this new kind of weird little thing, and then because we were kind of open-minded we were able to kind of figure out how to master it. It’s a niche, I guess.
Q: Was there any particular moment or little idea or something that kind of sparked the whole thing? Obviously, you’re the creator and came up with the idea, and it is kind of an idea where you think, well how did you come out with that, making fun of movies with robot puppets?
A: I can tell you the exact moment I thought of it. It was in high school. I was at my friend Mike Wilkinson’s house and we were folding flowers for the homecoming float. I don’t know if you did this, but in Green Bay, you made floats out of chicken wire and then you got tissue paper and you kind of crumple it and stuff it in; it kind of looked like a plush toy or something.
But for some reason, we’re all at his house, and we’re making these things, and putting them in garbage bags and hanging out and I was probably 16 and the Elton John album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was like playing on the stereo. And there was like this image in there of an illustration of this song called “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” and there’s a silhouette of three characters looking at a movie screen. And I looked at that, and I said, ‘You know, that’d actually be a really great show if you ran a movie and you had people saying stuff.’ And so that’s when I thought of it, and I knew enough about how green screen worked from the weatherman; in Green Bay they stand in front of Green Bay, they’d stand in front of an orange screen and they could superimpose stuff. So technically I knew it was possible.
And then it kind of set dormant until I got to a position where I could actually do something about it, and that’s when I had gotten done doing standup and went back to Minneapolis. And that’s when I kind of pulled together and got to it. So that was really the Gestalt moment, really when I saw that record cover.
Q: You really remember that in like scary detail.
A: It’s really weird but actually yeah, I do remember it. And you know, you just have those moments occasionally where you go, ‘OK I think that’s a genuinely good idea.’ But yeah, high school, I thought of it in high school. (laughing)
Q: Wow. You mentioned something about the importance of being able to work on the show independently and sort of get all the kinks out of it and get it shaped up so you really had the running of it nailed down. Was there any one particular thing that you changed during those early days that really made a huge difference in the development of the show and the success of it later on?
A: Well, I mean, the big thing is for me is bringing in really talented people. I think over time, it’s really clear what I like to do and what I’m particularly good at. And just bringing in Josh and Trace to help me with the comedy was like such an important part of it, and they brought so much to it that I know that if it was just left to me, it wouldn’t have happened. I really know that those guys were really important in kind of advancing the comic element, how dimensional the comedy became, because they’re so different. We’re all kind of different, and so I think that all kind of was like the biggest thing, that I knew that I couldn’t do it – or shouldn’t do it – all by itself.
Q: And that was something that you guys sort of seemed like you continued to build on, you were continually adding smart people who had a lot of pop culture knowledge and were pretty literate people to add to the humor of it. It seemed like that you continued to do that?
A: Yeah. The thing was about the show is that it’s a two-hour show, and I think that must represent 90 minutes of programming or 80 minutes of programming. And we had so much space to fill and so little time and so little money, it was almost like you needed people to act autonomously as to what they thought was funny and kind of just throw in whatever they wanted. And so it really shaped itself. …
Like I remember when Josh brought me down to watch Mike Nelson do standup, and it was kind of like an open stage, and he was just kind of more than anything else he was amusing himself, which I really liked. And I thought that was kind of the key component, and Josh really liked him. And so it was more that he was amused by what he was doing rather than the audience. (little laugh) And it was kind of like I think we knew that if someone has that kind of internal engine to kind of produce stuff that can find of fill up all the space that needs to get in there, you know, all the various (jokes). There’s just 600 jokes a show, you know, and seven days to do it, so you can’t spend too much time and you can’t be editorial about it.
I mean, of the things I’m most proud of is that I didn’t just preside over it and say ‘This is a funny joke, that’s not a funny joke.’ I really just said, ‘If you think it’s funny, let’s leave it in. And the only thing we’ll take out is stuff that people find really offensive.’ And so we had kind of this self-monitoring kind of system in place. … Like if someone goes, ‘I’m really offended by that,’ like I think I remember doing a fat joke on a particular situation, and once Trace just said, ‘You know, I don’t think you should do that and I don’t like it,’ and we just threw it out. And that would happen occasionally, people would just go, ‘I don’t like it take it out’ or ‘Take it out, I don’t like it.’
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