Sing it with me: In the not too distant future. Next Sunday A.D. ... If you know the rest of those lyrics, prepare to be very excited. Because Joel is coming to town.
Joel Hodgson is the inventive comedian/writer behind the cult phenomenon known as “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The B-movie skewering TV show premiered on Minneapolis station KTMA in 1988. It soon moved to The Comedy Channel (later known as Comedy Central), where it ran for another six seasons before sailing to Syfy for a brief run. Hodgson starred as the show’s put-upon protagonist, a lowly janitor shot into space and forced to watch cheesy movies by a couple of mad scientists. Hodgson stuck with the role, riffing on non-classics like The Crawling Eye, Women of the Prehistoric Planet and Time of the Apes, until 1993 when he passed the red jumpsuit to Michael J. Nelson.
Wired magazine recently published an article called “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Definitive Oral History of a TV Masterpiece,” which not only covered the creation of the beloved series, but dropped a big hint about the show’s possible future. For now, though, the show’s head MSTery man is crossing the country, stopping in at assorted sci-fi conventions and performing his one-man show, Riffing Myself. Hodgson will make an appearance at the Albuquerque Comic Expo this weekend to meet with his many fans, all of whom will be carrying homemade robots and cans of Hamdingers (or so we imagine).
Did you always have a love for bad movies, or was the idea behind “MST3K” just an economic one, working for a local TV station and being stuck with cheap sci-fi films?
When I was a kid, I watched a lot of TV. I watched a lot more TV than most kids, I think. I would watch anything. I was like a junkie. I would watch really dull shows because I preferred it to going outside. If you happened to hit a movie—you know, this was before VCRs—it was fantastic, especially like a Japanese monster movie. I was always fascinated with that and loved that. Like most kids that age, I was interested in movie magic. Star Wars came out when I was in high school, so that sort of played into the whole thing of learning how they made it. The idea of “MST” kind of came from when I was in college. They’d have midnight movies, and they’d have art house cinemas, and they’d show ironic movies. You know, they’d play Plan 9 from Outer Space. They’d show Robot Monster. So I was aware of that concept of an “ironic viewing.” So I think that played a lot into it. Also, I’d seen a book called The Golden Turkey Awards by the Medved brothers in college, and that’s when it dawned on me: Why isn’t anyone making a show with these movies?
Is there a film that you look on as the “platonic ideal” of bad movies?
Well, we knew really early on with “Mystery Science Theater” that riffing would work with any movie. I don’t really window shop for movies that I wanna riff on. ... There are some movies I’d love to go back and redo—maybe do a few of the season one movies that we did. We were just figuring out movie riffing back then. Everybody’s first season of a TV show, they’re not the strongest. You always wanna go back in there.
I’m gonna do “Riffing Myself,” which is basically the creation story of “MST3K.” It’s the origin story. It’s where all the ideas came from: the robots, why they are who they are, their names. It’s really for the “Mystery Science Theater” nerd who wants to know more.
After the so-called “season zero” run in Minneapolis, the show was sold to cable TV’s brand new Comedy Channel. Right around that time, I became a fan of another Comedy Channel show called “The Higgins Boys and Gruber,” which you created. Where did that show come from?
I had met those guys [comedians David Anthony Higgins, Steve Higgins and Dave “Gruber” Allen] and just was really knocked out by them. They had this culture they had created in Los Angeles. When I first approached Comedy Channel with “Mystery Science Theater,” they also rolled out this development deal that they handed to 12 or 14 people. They said, “Create shows for us. We want your ideas.” I took my money—it wasn’t very much. It might have been four or six thousand dollars. But I took all my money and made the pilot [for “Higgins Boys”]. I think most other people just wrote a synopsis maybe and took the money. But I felt like you had to experience the show. So we made the pilot for “Higgins Boys and Gruber,” and it worked out really well. I just made the setting in the Higgins Boys and Gruber’s house, which is a [real-life] place they called “The Ranch.” There were always all these interesting people hanging around there. That’s where I met Judd Apatow. Judd was hanging out at The Ranch back in the day. I decided to recreate their house. They’re just really fun to hang out with, so I just tried to create that with that show.
A few years later, you reunited with Dave Allen when you both played characters on “Freaks and Geeks.”
Yup. Absolutely. That was Judd’s show. I also met Paul Feig through those guys. Paul created “Freaks and Geeks,” and that’s how I ended up on that. At that point they owed me. ... I had hired Paul and Judd for a pilot I did, and they were just returning the favor.
In recent years you’ve been revisiting your “Mystery Science Theater” days with the live “Cinematic Titanic” shows, featuring “MST3K” alums Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl. Is that over with now or just on hiatus?
It’s done. When we started we agreed to do it for five years. I think we did it an extra year. But yeah, we’re done with that now. For the time being.
While you’re in Albuquerque, you’ll be performing your one-man show. What can fans look forward to with that?
I’m gonna do “Riffing Myself,” which is basically the creation story of “MST3K.” It’s the origin story. It’s where all the ideas came from: the robots, why they are who they are, their names. It’s really for the “Mystery Science Theater” nerd who wants to know more. I’ve done it as a theater show mostly. Last year I did it about 12 times in 12 cities. This is the first time I’ve done conventions. My first one was Indy PopCon [in Indianapolis]. Then I’m doing it this weekend at Monster Bash [in Mars, Penn.]. Then doing it in Albuquerque. So I just transitioned from doing theaters to doing the cons. Which I’m really enjoying. I’ve never really done them before. Just a few. We did Comic-Con [in San Diego] on the 20th anniversary of “Mystery Science Theater.” But that’s about it.
So now you get to come face-to-face with your fans.
You know, it’s funny. Doing six years of “Cinematic Titanic,” we did over a hundred live shows. So I got really good at meeting the public and signing autographs. There is an art to it. It’s really its own performance. So I feel glad I got to do all those shows and kind of get ready. Because I like it.
Do you see a lot of people showing up in red Gizmonic Institute jumpsuits?
There’s always people that bring robots. I’m trying to think—yeah, you know, you’re right. At every con I’ve ever been to, people are either dressed like Dr. Forrester or they wear my jumpsuit. But lots of robots.
That’s gotta be fun. You basically grew up as a builder, an inventor, a prop comic.
No, I love it. Nerd culture is really fantastic, and obviously I think it has a lot to do with the success of “Mystery Science Theater.” There’s such a good fan base. And they care. And also what I love is that they’re makers. If they find something they like, they love to recreate it or figure out how it’s made.