Twenty-five years ago this Sunday, a little UHF station in Minneapolis called KTMA debuted a bizarre movies-and-puppet show from a well-known local comedian named Joel Hodgson. The show was called Mystery Science Theater 3000, and from those humble beginnings, it blossomed into a cult phenomenon: a year later, it was picked up for national broadcast by the new Comedy Channel (which would later morph into Comedy Central), where it ran for seven seasons before transferring to the Sci-Fi Channel for three more. But even though the show has been off the air for over 14 years, it lives on. Hodgson has spent the past several years, with four more MST3K alums, touring with the movie-riffing group Cinematic Titanic; three of the remaining cast members riff on current films and moldy oldies via the Rifftrax website. And those original MST3K episodes are still being released, in multi-disc sets, by the fine folks over at Shout Factory — their latest, a five-disc “25th Anniversary Edition,” is out Tuesday, and the company just announced they’re teaming with Hodgson to bring back (in web form) the show’s long-running tradition of Thanksgiving marathons.
I had the chance to talk to Joel about the show’s 25th anniversary — why it is still so beloved (“That would take a scientist,” he assured me, “a social scientist,” but he thinks it all boils down to one point: “I’m told the show is very funny”) and how it came to be, all those many years ago.
Joel Hodgson: I had been out in Hollywood for three years… I left Hollywood and went back to Minneapolis and started thinking about a way I could make my own show, and the thing that made the most sense was to try to come up with the cheapest show possible, and that way, you wouldn’t need money, you wouldn’t need to talk anybody into it, you wouldn’t need the approval. And so basically, Mystery Science Theater came from me saying, “What’s the cheapest possible show I could create that would still be novel and bring something new, kind of have a new angle of doing something funny?” And so it started with me trying to think of a show that — well, it all just came together, basically, at that point when I realized it could be like hosting a movie show, and if I utilized the silhouette thing, the characters will kind of run not only through the host segments, but through the entire movie, and they’ll be, like, companions.
So that’s kind of the simple answer of kind of where it started, and one of the disadvantages of doing a show that had never been done before is just trying to pitch it to somebody. So I knew that if I did it locally and it was really inexpensive, it would be easier, because at the time, I was kind of famous in Minneapolis. I had left Minneapolis, I had been on Saturday Night Live as a guest, like, five times, I’d been on Letterman five times, I’d done an HBO Young Comedians special, so in Minneapolis’ terms, I was, like, one of the most famous guys there, so it was easier to talk them into letting me have a show than in Hollywood. So that’s kind of it. Anyway, yeah, that’s my answer.
Flavorwire: At what point, either in that initial run or after it went national, did you realize that you were onto something really special?
Well, I think really, the crazy thing — it first started with Jim Mallon, who was the producer of Mystery Science Theater, said, “Well, let’s put a phone number on the screen and we’ll set up an answering machine,” and this is the first show or the second show, and when we checked the answering machine on Monday, it was full. So people just reacted to it. They thought either they hated it or they liked it. Most people liked it. Obviously, when people like something, they don’t usually comment — they just ignore it. People liked it and we decided to do a fan club, and we got a thousand people in the fan club, and we got local press in Minneapolis, so really, the real kind of workshop or laboratory for Mystery Science Theater was Minneapolis at KTMA. That’s really where we figured it all out: the theme song, the story, and even movie riffing, which wasn’t super clear when we started, because I remember thinking, “Man, how much can we do? How much riffing can we do? At what point is it gonna become a big distraction to the audience? Can they multitask? Can they hear? Can they grasp what we’re doing?”
At KTMA, we ramped up really slow, like, we were just saying a few things and we were improvising it. It seemed impossible to write at that time, so we didn’t write anything. We really just went in and winged it. But at the end of KTMA, it really became clear, and especially when we cut together a sell-tape to sell to Comedy Channel. When we cut together, we cut together, like four minutes of best moments, then it dawned on me — that’s when I finally went, “Oh, yeah, I get it — the whole show’s gotta be like this.” You know what I mean? It’s gotta be all riffing. And so when we went to Comedy Channel, I just said, “Oh, we have to start writing this because my friends are gonna see it. It’s gonna be a national show, and we have to just make it better.”
So KTMA was super important because it showed us that people like it and it showed that we were onto something that worked. But then, on the national level, it was really after the first year, the first season, at the end of the year, we got in — I mean, it was amazing, because, again, this is so long ago that cable just didn’t mean much. It was kind of like sitting at the little kids’ table at Thanksgiving. It wasn’t considered at all important. Like, now, cable is stronger because it’s got a singular identity. It delivers one thing, rather than the networks, which deliver a bunch of things. So anyway, it was kind of surprising, and we started to get press, like Entertainment Weekly said we were one of the top ten shows of the year, right next to The Simpsons and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and stuff like that, so that’s when we kind of started to really — if you notice, there’s a big difference between the first season and the second season, and that’s because we actually had some clout and went and got more resources, and we got credit. Professionals were acknowledging that they liked what we did, and so you, again, see there’s a big jump between KTMA and the first season, and then the first season and the second season. The first season, I think we might’ve done four, five hundred riffs per show, and the second season, we were up to, like, seven hundred riffs, so we just got better and better over time. Each year brought more resources; people just liked it more, and so we just kind of kept going in that direction.
It seems like the only negative side effect to the show’s success is that after it became popular, amateurs were more likely to talk back to bad movies when it really is something that should be left to the professionals. Over the course of doing the original show and Cinematic Titanic, did you develop any “rules” about how to riff a movie well?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I love it that people are movie riffing. It’s kind of becoming like improv — you improv and they riff movies, and I really love it, and I think the biggest thing, the heart of it, is that if you wanna do more than one, if you wanna create a following and you wanna have people like what you do, you have to treat it like you’re a companion. You have to treat it like the audience is your friend, and the audience doesn’t wanna spend time with you if you’re an asshole, you know what I mean? It’s just not gonna work. It’s not gonna last. Fortunately, it’s just in our wheelhouse [to] respect the movie. And I mean, anybody who’s savvy about the media and about movies knows, hey, a lot of these movies were made in five or six days. They weren’t designed to do anything other than get a bunch of teenagers to come to a drive-in movie, and so to treat them like they did something wrong or they don’t deserve to exist and that riffing is serving them some kind of justice isn’t it at all. Movie riffing is a way of creating new entertainment with old entertainment by collaborating with it. And so, the coloring book version is, “Oh, you’re snarky and you make fun of bad movies and point out that they’re bad and point to the boom microphone,” but that’s just a fraction, that’s not even one percentage point of what we talk about in Mystery Science Theater, so I just think that’s kind of what I notice about people. And also, there’s a difference between heckling and movie riffing. Heckling is when you’re not invited to talk, and riffing is when you are, so it’s a different thing.
And what do you think about this movement we’re seeing now of these sort of prefab, purposefully bad movies like Sharknado, that seem to be created explicitly to generate the kind of feedback that you guys would provide, without much effort?
It’s just a natural kind of, reaction, and I just think it shows how dimensional the media is and how big it is, that it can afford to make deliberately bad movies. It’s just like the media is just highlighting controversy because they know that people will watch it, or tragedy, so I think that’s kind of a way of manufacturing that. But I think it’s fascinating. You know, people love it. It’s just kind of found another way to — it’s very similar to what we got to. It’s basically the ironic viewing. The concept of ironic viewing seems like it really started with midnight movies, and then cable came right behind that, and then also just video rental stores where you could rent a movie and really have fun with your friends watching it. So it’s kind of like Mystery Science Theater happened at the same time as the concept of ironic viewing, where you don’t always have to watch things that are fantastic. You can watch things that are bad and get just as much out of it and have just as much fun with it if you’re hanging with the right people.
So midway through the show’s run, when it had was a critical favorite and had a passionate, active audience and was really firing on all cylinders creatively, you left the show. I’ve heard a lot of different theories as to why, so I’m curious to ask you: why did you leave the show, and is it a decision you regret?
Well, no. I think everything worked out OK. I would’ve loved to stay on the show, but I wasn’t getting along with my partner [Jim Mallon]. We had a really dysfunctional relationship, and what I saw was a fight brewing, and that would’ve meant breaking the company in two and fighting, having a feud… I think the easiest way, the best way to describe it — we weren’t getting along, and I felt that leaving the show would allow the show to keep going, and if I would’ve stayed and dug in and fought, it really might’ve hurt the show, and the show living on was really important to me, so I left so the show could keep going, basically.
If you had to pick one episode to show someone who’d never seen or heard of MST3K, to showcase what it was and why it was great, which episode would you pick?
Y’know, I don’t think I’m the guy to answer that.
I don’t really think so. I don’t see it the way other people see it. For example, people love Manos: The Hands of Fate, but I look at that and I just go, I don’t think it’s especially funny riffs. I think that it’s just an amazingly interesting movie and I just think people love that, and that’s also part of what makes Mystery Science Theater work — it’s not just us. It’s also the movie itself that’s fascinating, and I think it’s kind of like if there’s a haunted house in your neighborhood. Now, I’m gonna try to make a very flowery analogy, so it might break apart, but it’s kind of like, in our society, with movies, movies are really important to us in this society. I mean, they’ve lasted 150 years. People love movies. They need it. We need movies to work really desperately, and if they don’t — something gets serviced in us as a society by movies. It’s just a part of it. It’s always gonna be there, I think, and with that, every movie we ever see or go to, it’s sold to us and we’re basically told before we go to a movie what it’s gonna be like, what it’s gonna feel like and what you’re gonna get.
But with Mystery Science Theater, the kind of movies that we used, most people have never heard of, so it really is like going into a haunted house. Is it as bad as they say? What will it be like? We don’t know anything about it, so the host and the bots were really your guides in a haunted house, and so going into Manos is like a really great haunted house of a movie, you know what I mean? You just kind of can’t get your head around it. That’s why people love it, but it’s not especially — I don’t look at that and go, “Wow, we were really funny in that movie.” I just kind of look at it like, “Wow, that was a really crazy bad movie, and we kind of all went through it.” But there’s others that I like much better, but I don’t think that’s my job. I think that’s the kind of thing that a person who’s an observer who didn’t have to make it is better at making that call.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition is out on DVD November 26, featuring six movies and an array of new goodies, including at three-part look at the show’s history, “Return to Eden Prairie.” The MST3K Turkey Day Marathon kicks off at noon ET on Thursday, November 28 at mst3kturkeyday.com.