The Man Behind Mystery Science Theater Looks Back
By DAVID WEINER
November 25, 2013
The cult classic movie riff comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000 celebrates its 25th anniversary with a special MST3K: 25th Anniversary Edition DVD from Shout! Factory, and creator Joel Hodgson tells ETonline that much of the show's recipe for comic success had to do with the unexpected.
"When you go to a movie, you really know what you're getting because it's been presold to you in so many different ways," Hodgson tells ETonline. "With Mystery Science Theater, I think people liked it because it's kind of like being taken into a haunted house with guides -- you don't know what's going to happen. You're just kind of strapped in, and you've got to go watch this movie, and that's an unusual exercise in today's world. … You just don't watch movies you don't know anything about [these days]. It's just unusual."
For those not in the know, Mystery Science Theater 3000 basically centers around a couple of witty guys (who are silhouettes in the audience) riffing on bad movies, making comments and making up dialogue as the classic cinematic missteps play to hilarious effect. The show is framed by a plot device that has Hodgson trapped on a space station by an evil scientist, forced to watch bad movies as part of a psychological experiment. Luckily, he's got his robot/puppet companions Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo and Gypsy alongside to riff on the ridiculous plots, cheesy dialogue and painful special effects.
"I really kind of cued off of SCTV because I loved that show when it came out," says Hodgson of MST3K's inspirations. "I realized that [show], and Dr. Who, surprisingly -- both of those shows kind of showed me that as long as you remain consistent in the quality, it would work. Dr. Who was consistently low quality. It was like a very ambitious show that was always really cheap-looking, but because they kept the tone the same, you accepted it."
While many think that the show's hilarity is entirely improvised, Hodgson counters, "It's all scripted, and I think the art of it is to make it look like it's fresh. There's so many riffs in there -- I mean, 700-800 in a usual show -- it's like music. You have to play it like it's just happening. But it's all written, and I think that's the thing that confounds people, because a lot of people think we're just talking."
Asked if he has a favorite of the many movies he's riffed on, Hodgson singles out Pod People. "This movie seems like it's a huge misunderstanding," he says with a laugh. "They're trying to make E.T., but it's horrible and there's all these things that are going wrong, and E.T.'s mom is killing people, and so there's a lot of confusion; I think those things are real fascinating when they happen."
After four-and-a-half seasons, Hodgson left Mystery Science Theater 3000 in '93 and the show's head writer Mike Nelson took over the hot seat for the rest of the run of the series. Hodgson says his departure from the show stemmed from a disagreement with his creative partner Jim Mallon over the future of the project when the option for a series of feature films instead of the TV series was dangled in front of them.
"We started fighting and it just kind of escalated, and I just felt like I didn't like the way it was going," explains Hodgson. "I was always really happy when I was making Mystery Science Theater and I could see the end to that, and I felt like that would be really bad. I didn't want to be one of those bitter comedians -- I'm unemployed, being the sad clown. So I left, and it turned out to be the right thing. Everything's kind of reverted back. For example, you're talking to me about Mystery Science Theater, not Jim Mallon, so I feel the universe is in the right place."
As for the future of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Hodgson is optimistic about a return: "You know, people bring it up all the time, and I kind of hope that happens," he says. "The stars have to align for that to happen, but I really do hope so. It's kind of built to keep going, I think. Everybody in the cast has been replaced and it didn't seem to hurt the show, and so I kind of hope that happens."
Out Tuesday, the five-DVD MST3K: 25th Anniversary Edition set features the films Moon Zero Two, The Day The Earth Froze, The Leech Woman and Gorgo and is packed with extras including the three-part documentary Return To Eden Prairie: 25 Years Of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Life After MST3K: Mary Jo Pehl, Ninth Wonder Of The World: The Making Of Gorgo (MST3K Edition) and Last Flight Of Joel Robinson, plus MST Hour wraps and four exclusive mini-posters by artist Steve Vance. The collectible tin also includes a bonus DVD with a double feature of two long-out-of-print fan-favorite episodes -- Joel's last episode, Mitchell, and Mike's first episode, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.