Interview: Joel Hodgson, Creator of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K)

words and photo by Matthew Schuchman
| Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Joel Hodgson at New York Comic-Con 2012 - photo by Matthew Schuchman

A flagship show of every burgeoning comedy station in the early ’90s (including Comedy Central) and later of the then-Sci-Fi Channel (now “Syfy”), “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was an 11-year running stroke of comedy genius that garnered an avid fan base. Despite being off the air for well over a decade, “MST3K” remains incredibly popular with long-time fans, as well as those just discovering Crow, Servo, and their human companions forced to endure horrible B-movies while aboard a mad scientist’s spaceship. Since the show ceased production in 1999, episodes continue to be regularly released on DVD by Shout! Factory, which will release its 25th volume box set of “MST3K” on December 4, 2012.

Joel Hodgson, the show’s creator and original host/human character, was on hand to meet, greet, and sign memorabilia for fans at the 2012 New York Comic-Con. I sat down with Hodgson to talk about all things “MST3K,” “Cinematic Titanic” (his latest movie-riffing venture), and all things film-related.

Can you express how “MST3K’s” ongoing reception has made you feel? Whether it’s referring to the original run of the show, or its lasting appeal, I would have to imagine it’s fairly overwhelming.
Well, that’s a really good observation, and it’s true. I’m just always amazed by it; for example, I did the Nerdist podcast last night at the Best Buy Theater, and they invited me to sign [autographs] with them. So I was kind of jumping their train sitting in their signing line, and this wasn’t your typical “Cinematic Titanic” thing where everyone is a “MST3K” fan — this was a Nerdist event, and I didn’t have any idea just how many people had stories about growing up watching it.

It was really great; at certain points it has become unreal, almost like at times you go, “This is the ‘Truman Show,’ and these are all hired extras who love your fake show; this thing called ‘MST3K.’” So that’s kind of how it feels. It’s really interesting in that it’s more famous now then when it was on TV. That’s obviously due to the internet where people are able to access it.

That’s funny you bring up the internet, because I was thinking that both “MST3K” and “Cinematic Titanic” are practically built for the internet — but I can imagine that there is a possible issue because I’m sure there are films you’ve used that themselves are getting renewed recognition due to the internet, and it may cause issues for you to attain rights.
What’s really amazing is just working with Shout! Factory. They have a really great legal staff that has gone back in, because we never really made those deals back in the day. There were video stores back then that were doing the whole “MST3K” thing, but they were all usually very high-end movies, and the premise of selling “MST3K” just really wasn’t on our minds. We didn’t think it could have a life after that. So they’ve done a brilliant job going back in and renegotiating the rights, and they’ve unearthed plenty of things. Next month they’re releasing the 25th box set, so they’ve done it with a hundred [films] so far.

As far as “MST3K” goes, there are approximately 170 titles; we don’t really count the KTMA phase [The local Twin Cities station that ran the shows first episodes] because we were really just figuring it out, so we really don’t want to release those. I’m fine with people seeing them on YouTube — that’s great for people to kind of see the process — but as far paying for it, I feel more comfortable with the 170 to 175 they can get to. I think there are a few titles [Shout! Factory] feel they’re really unable to get; just some people saying, “Absolutely not, I do not want you doing this,” but most of them are available.

Well, I imagine a lot of the people tied to making the films you used are seeing that same renewed interest in their film’s due to all you’ve done.
Yeah, it’s definitely happening for titles like Manos: The Hands of Fate. They’re making a new print for it and all that. For certain films, it’s definitely shown people some movies they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Mystery Science Theater 3000What goes into the choices of movies you would use? Were there times you didn’t feel your silhouette structure would work?
Oh no, I mean, even back when we were making “MST3K” we said, “Obviously, one day we are going to be able to combine the movie and the silhouettes together in the computer,” so things like that are no issue.

Did you stay away from bigger-budget or well-known movies because that ’50s to ’80s B-movie style is just what you felt worked?
The guys at Rifftrax [a different movie riffing group formed by other “MST3K” alums] are doing that now; they are doing MP3s you can set to go along with “big” films, so I think it’s really wide open.

I was thinking about this yesterday, and I think part of me feels that everyone has so much hope for new [general release] movies. There’s something about the idea of a new movie…[people ] want it to come out and take them away, into an experience where they forget themselves… So with new movies you think, Well, I have to give it the benefit of the doubt. After that you kind of go, “I could do something with this” — it may not be that a movie is bad; [rather], it may be that they can’t accomplish that dream quality you want, that kind of waking dream. So if that’s happening, movie-riffing works really well to make a new thing, a third thing.

Yet, I don’t exactly like the premise of riffing good movies — it’s like they’re really special. I kind of feel like I don’t want to disrupt that for people — even though, obviously, they don’t have to watch it. That’s kind of my feeling: movies are something we need as a society for some reason, and I’m hopeful every time some thing new comes out.

I was thinking about this because I just read that David Lynch book, Catching the Big Fish. The way he treats his movies, I just like so much. He basically says he doesn’t want to talk about his movies; he doesn’t want to tell you what he was thinking. It’s really important that you just go in and absorb it and see it, and participate with it in your own way. So that made me go, “Wow, I wonder what he thinks about what I do?”

Well, I don’t think people realize how big of a comedy fan he is.
Yeah, absolutely; he is so open. I hope one day I get to meet him and see what he thinks of it, but it made me wonder, in his context, what he would think of what I do.

You’ve been able to work with some truly talented people. While many of them are your friends and you share so much with them beyond the work, do you feel they also push you in creative ways?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s like, when they release a new “MST3k” I have to go back and watch them. They have this one, it was originally called Agent Double 007, and they had to change it for rights reasons to Operation Kid Brother because it stars Sean Connery’s little brother. I had to watch it to refresh my memory because they interview me about it. I’m watching it going, “I can’t believe the voices and the dialects I’m doing — I don’t do those voices now.”

I realize it’s because I was with Trace [Beaulieu] and Kevin [Murphy]. They’re so good at that; they’re brilliant mimics — it made my game so much better. That’s the thing that’s so important about being around people who are talented like that — they just make you better, it just has an effect on you. That’s the part I miss the most: collaborating and having this group of really funny people having this one goal, and accomplishing that. It’s so cool getting to work with people like that.

I had the same experience with the guys at the Nerdist podcast. They’re so funny, and they’re in such a great place creatively that it’s just fun to be around them — it’s a nice experience.

Do you still get tons of offers to do a new show, whether it’s something “MST3K”-like, or just a short 30-minute creation?
Absolutely. I don’t know if I’d call it funny, but I went through a period…well, when “MST3K” was on the air and I wasn’t doing it, I got asked all the time to do a knock-off of it. I just didn’t feel like that was right. I didn’t want to compete with it, and I had no interest in doing something like that. So after it was all done and the smoke kind of cleared, that’s when it became clear to me that I wanted to do it again. “Let’s do ‘Cinematic Titanic,’ let’s take another shot at it.”

Have you ever thought about doing another original full-length film?
I think I’m always up for it. Though I have to say, I had an experience this last spring where I taught a movie-riffing course at a community college. I had so much fun doing that — I kind of think that is more interesting to me than trying to do something new.

I got so burnt out. I had sort of this wilderness period in Hollywood after “MST3K” where I got all these development deals, and nothing really ever came of it. So I felt like, “Gee, I’m pushing these projects, trying to get something to happen,” and it really fried that part of the brain that makes you really want to do that.

When I started working with other people, it changed, and it was much more relaxing and fun watching them trying to get in touch with that instinct of making things. I enjoy participating with them and helping them. So I suspect that’s what I’m probably going to do. I just really like that; it feels creatively relaxing, and that’s what I look for — nothing really too stringent. It’s gotta flow; it’s gotta feel good and be fun.

Well, if you came upon a project or created a project that you felt was fun to complete, would you be interested in doing something purely dramatic or, say, thriller-oriented?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I tried making a short film — it’s so much work, it’s fairly hard, and at the end of it all I felt like movie-riffing was what I was born to do. I like doing it the most — it’s really satisfying to me, and the other side of it feels so laborious. I’ve met other people who were obviously born storytellers, who just have it in their heart and must do it, and I’m not sure that’s me; I’m not sure I’m that guy.

Last night on the Nerdist thing, Guillermo del Toro was there — that guy, you meet him and you go, “Yeah, I get it, this guy has to do this.” I realize that I’m not that. I’m much more comfortable with movie-riffing in its many forms. There is more than just verbally riffing, there’s physical riffing, and I love the juxtaposition of riffing against material that already exists; re-purposing is really what I love. In that respect, I can always think of ways to re-purpose things, and I love to do that.

Well you’ve certainly made an art form out of it. I remember when I was young and my father and I would riff on bad films before I knew about “MST3K.” Then I found you guys and it was almost deflating. (laughter)
Well, I don’t want that to happen. I encourage people to movie-riff because it’s really fun.

Matthew Schuchman is the founder and film critic of Movie Reviews From Gene Shalit’s Moustache and also the contributing film writer for IPaintMyMind.

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