Man of mystery science
RN&R film critic Bob Grimm talks to Joel Hodgson, the creator and original host of the cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000.
It’s been 20 years since Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator and host Joel Hodgson blasted into space with his robots, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, and started riffing on bad movies.
With the recent release of Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition (Shout! Factory) came a reunion of sorts between Hodgson, who left the show as a host in ‘93, and those who carried on the tradition after his departure. The DVD contains footage of Hodgson and the crew convening at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.
Last year, Hodgson returned to “movie riffing” with MST3K alumni Trace Beaulieu (the voice of Crow), Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank) and others. Cinematic Titanic has shot four episodes so far, and hearing Hodgson do running commentary on bad film seems like old times. (You can download the films or buy the DVDs at cinematictitanic.com)
In this recent interview, Hodgson reminisced about MST3K, talked about the reasons he left the show, and the joys of returning to movie riffing.
Bob: How are you feeling about all of this Mystery Science Theater 3000 reunion stuff? You feeling weird, nostalgic … how’s it hitting you?
Joel: Seeing everyone again was great. Just seeing how funny everybody still was, it was amazing. I just feel so fortunate and so lucky, so I appreciate the hell out of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I just don’t feel like I’m talented enough to have created this show. It was really like this autonomous thing. We just did what we wanted to, with no notes from the network, and it worked.
Bob: I think you guys taught me, and a lot of people, that movie criticism could be fun and endearing, and not necessarily pompous and vicious.
Joel: Oh, I appreciate that, man. I guess the way I felt about it was that if we were riffing on movies, I didn’t want to be that guy presiding over all of movies saying “This blows!” or “This shouldn’t be in front of my eyes.” Crummy movies kind of are a gateway to seeing how movies actually work. So I grew up really liking the crummy movies. I always felt like, because of the position we were in as far as riffing on crummy movies, we didn’t want to act like we were better than the crummy movies.
Bob: Most of the time you guys actually became part of the movie, enhancing the character dialogue and making them a better experience. I have to think that some of these filmmakers who took a big dump with their movies have to appreciate the notoriety you brought to these bad movies years later.
Joel: I think you’re right. Part of the whole thing is that MST3K is a variety show that’s built on the back of another show, the movie, so we have to kind of work with the film and collaborate with it. And, also, people look at us as movie-going companions, and you don’t want a companion that’s a smartass all of the time. If it’s too negative, ultimately it won’t last … it would become too much and bottom out.
Bob: So on the anniversary DVD’s special features, you briefly discuss how you left MST3K in 1993 because you were losing creative control. Was that because the network was breathing down your neck? I got the impression that you were getting pressure from the higher ups.
Joel: No, it wasn’t that. I was fighting with Jim Mallon, my partner … I had a deal with Jim Mallon when we started the company. I made a deal with him that said I would run the creative side while you run the business and production, and we’ll go with that. When we started working on the movie adaptation, Jim came in one day and said he wanted to produce and direct the movie. Jim was sort of the technical producer of the film. So I said, “Well, if you do that, I don’t want to be on camera.” I basically was saying I didn’t think he had the eye for being a director. At that point, Jim just made it so uncomfortable for me that I just decided this isn’t going to work, and I’ve got to go. If I stayed and fought with him, it would’ve wrecked the show. So that’s what was going on, and they cut all of that out of the DVD interview.
Bob: Well, I find all of that really interesting, and I’m not going to cut it out of this interview. So is there any acrimony between you and Jim? Do you all get along?
Joel: Yeah, I’ve still got to work with him on all of this stuff. We went and did Comic-Con, and we were in the pressroom together for two days straight. Everything’s pretty good, and it worked out OK. In the end, I’m content with how things worked out when I left Mystery Science Theater. Creatively, maybe that was the shot in the arm the whole thing needed. Me leaving somehow helped and made it work better. Put some more focus on it or cleansed it or something? I don’t know.
Bob: Um, I’m going to politely say a big “No!” to that. After you left, the show was good, but you leaving, and Trace eventually leaving, created a big void in MST3K. Mike Nelson was funny, but it wasn’t the same. That’s why I’m so happy about Cinematic Titanic, your new venture.
Joel: Oh, it’s great. What’s been weird since Mystery Science Theater went off the air is that our DVD sales have steadily grown. And it just became kind of evident that we needed fresh movies. Personally, I was really feeling like I missed it, and I felt kind of divorced from the whole riffing thing, and I wanted it back.
Bob: Thanks, Joel … I’m just going to make one request for Cinematic Titanic. Could you please get your hands on a Pippi Longstocking movie? She needs to be brought down …
Joel: Oh yeah, I know!
Bob: Because I believe Pippi Longstocking is the source of all evil in cinema history.
Joel: That’s pretty funny … I agree with you. That would be great.
Bob: Even movies before Pippi Longstocking that were bad can somehow be traced to Pippi Longstocking.
Joel: Pippi somehow bent time and affected the movies before her. Yeah … I hear ya.