A Cheesy Cinematic Chat With MST3K Creator Joel Hodgson

Dec 13, 2019

Comedian, writer, and producer Joel Hodgson has worked in entertainment for nearly 40 years. He’s best known for creating Mystery Science Theater 3000, a TV series featuring a captive test subject and his robot pals riffing on B-grade horror and sci-fi films.

On January 19th Hodgson and his “bots” will perform live at the Hult Center as part of their national “Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour”.

KLCC’s Brian Bull recently talked to Hodgson, and asked if he’d ever imagined his quirky show –that first aired on a Minnesota TV station in 1988 - would become the Peabody Award-winning cult classic that it is today.

Joel Hodgson, comedian, writer, and producer, dressed up as MST3K's captive riffer, Joel Robinson.
Credit Gary Glover

Credit mst3k.com/tour

WEB EXTRA: Listen to an extended conversation with Joel Hodgson on his early years, the comedians he enjoys, and the future of MST3K with its latest host, Jonah Ray, at the helm of the Satellite of Love. 

BULL:  It sounds like you lived a fair deal in Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin (HODGSON: Yeah!) , and the Twin Cities of Minnesota.  Is there something to Midwestern culture that helped you develop your creativity and humor?

HODGSON: Yeah, I’m hesitant to call it “humor” because humor is usually comedy that’s not all that funny (BULL LAUGHS). So I want to avoid that.  But no, I’m just kidding.  Yeah, I mean Mystery Science Theater is so Midwestern, right?  I mean, even the way we made it, it’s a real outsider piece of comedy. To think if I would have tried to do it on either one of the coasts, I would have been stopped by a team of lawyers, probably.  But because they weren’t around and I didn’t enlist their help, we were able to get the show going before they knew what had happened.  

BULL:  And you had a lot of resources and creativity, I know that you did some circuits on the coast, and also appeared on Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman.  But when it came to starting a show with KTMA back in the Twin Cities, it sounds like you had a lot of freedom...you were just doing some innovative props and a few puppets. Could you ever guess this venture would become a decades-long sensation with a Peabody Award (HODGSON LAUGHS) and countless revivals?

Crow T. Robot, one of the cybernetic friends on the Satellite of Love. He's voiced and operated by either Grant Baciocco or Nate Begle on the national tour.

HODGSON:  Well, it’s funny.  People ask if I was surprised that it worked as a TV show.  And I always say well, that’s why you make a TV show, because you think it’ll work for a broad audience.  Especially back then 30 years ago.  Whereas now you can do stuff on YouTube, it could just be “I’m going to practice my guitar on YouTube”.  It’s a little different now, but I didn’t anticipate 30 years later we’d still be talking about it, and we’d have 20 new episodes on Netflix, and have three national tours out in last three to four years, and a comic book and all that stuff.  

So yeah, it’s been really nice and I’m really happy about that.  But yeah, I didn’t see that part of it for sure.  Now it’s clearly getting ridiculous.

BULL:  After two very well-received seasons, Netflix chose NOT to renew the program for a third, recently. How did you respond, Joel, when you heard the news?

HODGSON:  Well, I was a little discouraged just because we we’re their third highest rated show based on Rotten Tomatoes. I was kind of surprised but at the same time they have a history of having done that, especially with content they don’t own.  So I wasn’t too discouraged ‘cause it kind of tracts the way they’ve handled a lot more expensive properties than ours, a lot more famous stuff than ours.  It’s frustrating but at the same time they have a business and we have a business, and sometimes those things gel together, and sometimes they don’t.  I’m not too discouraged because fortunately we have a really great fan base wants us to keep making stuff, so that’s good.

BULL: I know the show has been on KTMA, The Comedy Channel, SyFy, and of course, Netflix.  It seems that MST3K has a devoted fan base that keeps a faithful revival possible.  So do you think this could happen again with Jonah and the Bots?

HODGSON:  Oh yeah, I mean…I hope so.  Absolutely, I think the idea of more MST is very likely for sure. 

BULL:  Going back to -

HODGSON: Can I say…very likely…wait…what did I say?  Forgot what I said!  Its like…”it’s very likely”, and then I said, “for sure”.  Saying something’s likely and then saying something’s for sure are kind of contrasting messages, but that’s how I feel right now.

BULL:  Well, it’s certainly come back time and time again. So I think if the fan base has their say, I think you’re off to a strong start to seeing a revival again soon. It’s just a matter of when.

HODGSON:  Yeah, I think so.

BULL: Growing up, did you have a favorite comedian, or musician, or movie actor?

HODGSON: You mean just in general, unrelated to MST?

BULL: Yeah, I was curious if you had any influences that kind of prepped you for your career.

HODGSON:  Well yeah, I think John Mulaney’s like super strong standup right now. Also Jim Gaffigan, obviously.  And Dave Chappelle, I really like…those guys are really incredible talent. 

BULL:  And I think I read somewhere too there was kind of a special effects guy in your neighborhood or city who liked to design special effects for haunted houses and things like that? 

4:31  Yeah, it’s really interesting.  I was just in Green Bay on the tour.  And his name was Dale Kuippers. He was living in Green Bay when I was in junior high and high school.  And his presence was known because he was a brilliant sculptor, and sculpted stuff out of foam.  And his stuff was in the novelty shop, like you could rent his masks and stuff.  And he did a really amazing spook show when I was in high school that I got to see.  And he was just a really gifted, naïve artist, really.  Just a really interesting cat, and just knowing that there was a guy doing national films out of Green Bay was really neat.

BULL:  Yeah.  You still cheer for the Packers BTW?

HODGSON:  Oh yeah, I’m still a diehard Packer fan. It’s really in my blood.

Wise-cracking bubblehead Tom Servo. He and Crow accompany Jonah Heston in the movie theater during "experiments". Conor McGiffin will perform as Servo on the road.

BULL: Between the riffing and the skits, music has been a really major part of MST3K.  How important was it to you to feature a song or two in many of the episodes? 

HODGSON:  Oh, I don’t know.  I almost feel like that’s something we inherited from The Muppets. Something about puppets and signing that go together so well.  So I always feel like that’s kinda…whether it’s deliberate or not, I think that’s what I was thinking when we started doing songs. Such a good device for delivering jokes.  And we started to explore it right way, with the show. And it’s a wonderful delivery system for comedy.  You know?  And when it’s not funny, we call it humor.  Right? (BULL LAUGHS)  It’s a good delivery system for humor. But I just think it’s one of those things that goes with the territory when you’re doing puppets.

BULL: You did a song called “Sandy Frank”, you sang it to the opening theme of all the Sandy Frank movies, which included Time of the Apes and Fugitive Alien…(HODGSON: Oh yeah! Right.)    I’d heard too that maybe that Sandy Frank , the distributor, was a little miffed at MST3K for riffing on so many of their movies?

HODGSON:  So yeah, with Sandy Frank, he was one of these guys who was distributing movies and most distributors they would do these packages where they’d distribute good films, and then they’d insert the films that we wanted.  For a long time those kind of distributors could be nameless, faceless titles. And they could traffic in all kinds of movies good and bad. And so yeah, we just started to mention him and he became a character due to the content.

BULL: And then “Patrick Swayze Christmas” is another eternal classic.

HODGSON: Mm hmm, yeah.  I know, every time Christmas rolls around, it’s one of our most requested songs. 

BULL: Although the big holiday that MST3K is most associated with is Thanksgiving, because it has the Turkey Day marathon and other notable things.  Is that your favorite holiday?

HODGSON:  Oh my goodness, I know!  We got so lucky with that. It’s interesting; it came from a promotion guy at Comedy Central, his name was Tony Fox.  And he pitched the idea of a Turkey Day Marathon because our movies were considered turkeys, and there’s always a long life of movies that aren’t great movies being called turkeys, starting with the Medved Brothers’ (Golden) Turkey Awards book which had a big impact on me, when it came out, I read it in college. And I remember that’s where I first learned about Plan 9 From Outer Space and Robot Monster and a lot of the movies we ended up using.   

And I remember reading it and going  “Why isn’t anybody making a TV show about this stuff?”  So the Turkey Awards had a big impact on me, and then for it to come full circle to do Turkey Day, and to do a marathon during Thanksgiving, and for it to have an impact, it was really one of the early counter-programming to football and parades on Thanksgiving.

Gypsy, who often handles operations on the Satellite of Love, though she occasionally drops in on the movies. She'll be voice and operated by Yvonne Freese on tour.

BULL:  Now you’ve said Joel that this Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour is your swansong, meaning every night you’re saying farewell to a different crowd in a different city. Is it hard to be leaving this big cultural phenomenon you developed?

HODGSON:  Uhm, not to me, to me I’d still want to be involved in it for the near future.  Part of the reason I came back and refreshed it with a new cast and new writers and new producers and performers, was to demonstrate that the idea could last outside of me or Mike Nelson, and just kinda show that it could go on.  I’m still interested in working with the brand.  

For various reasons I was in on each of the tours.  The first tour I went out to present Jonah, and the second tour was our 30th anniversary tour so it made sense for Jonah and I to go out together. And this one lent itself really well for it to be my final one.  And this is just saying I’m not going to go out on tour with MST.   I’ll still be participating with the show and producing the shows and stuff like that. I just won’t be on stage. That’s really it.

BULL: You’ll still have a creative brand in the fire, sounds like.

HODGSON: Yeah, I’d like to..it’s important that we refresh the show and keep new people coming in and participating.  We just don’t want to be a nostalgia act.  That’s a big part of it.

BULL:  Well, I certainly hope that the show gets revived and that Jonah Heston continues on.  As far as being being a host and captive on the Satellite of Love following you and Mike Nelson, what were the characteristics that you felt made Jonah ideal for that part?

Jonah Ray as Jonah Heston, the hapless test subject and host for the Netflix re-launch of MST3K.
Credit Wikipedia/Fair Use / Used with permission from Sharyl Volpe.

HODGSON:  Well…number one, you have to play at a certain level as a comic, and be ready to handle it because there was lot of attention on that role.  To come back from the show not being on for 20 years to start up again. It had to be someone who could be confident enough in that position. It'd be unfair to get somebody that no one had heard of.  Like for example, Mike Nelson…he’d never done anything on TV or done anything nationally.  It worked out because he came from inside of Mystery Science Theater as our head writer.

So this new guy had to have a different profile and different set of skills. And Jonah so well-known from The Nerdist podcast, and from hosting shows on Comedy Central, and doing his own special, and just appearing as a comic. So he had the identity and he had the chops to do that kind of stuff. 

But also I just personally really liked him.  I felt that he was very affable and just works really hard and is willing to stick to an idea until we get it to work. And that’s just a huge quality that I really appreciated.  I’m amazed by him, he just has this great workman’s attitude towards comedy.  And when you have that role, very people really understand it because in some ways you’re emoting for all the characters on camera because they’re robots. They can’t do a lot of stuff. Especially Tom, his head can turn side to side and his mouth can move, and he has no eyes. Sometimes the performer is doing the emoting for that, and Jonah’s great at that.  

This new season we were able to start innovating the robots, so Crow could move his hands, and Servo could, and Gypsy had more flexibility and could come down from the ceiling.  But there’s still limitations what they can do.  So he really does fantastic with that stuff too.  So he’s kind of the whole enchilada as far as a perfect guy to be the host.

BULL:  Well Joel, I think our time is about up.  I just want to thank you again and also thank you for just for bringing this program.  I saw it for the first time in Macalester College in Minnesota my sophomore year in 1988.  (Oh yeah) It really livened up my Saturday afternoons.

HODGSON: Yeah, I’m glad you got to work on it too, that’s awesome.

BULL:  It was great. And somewhere I still have an MST3K Fan Club membership certificate.  It’s got signatures from you and (HODGSON: Oh my goodness).  Apparently I’m fan #2.  So I’m pretty wowed.

KLCC's Brian Bull is - according to this 1988 certificate - Fan #2 of the early MST 3000 FAN CLUB. He also interned briefly on the show before getting hired by NPR.

HODGSON: Wow, that’s amazing. I think that’s the highest up I’ve ever met anyone.

BULL:  Hopefully it didn’t say #2 on everyone’s certificate, but I was pretty happy.

HODGSON: Oh yeah, I don’t think so. I think we stuck with the real numbers system.

BULL:  (LAUGHS) So anyway in the short time we have before we wrap up, anything else you’d like to add? Either about the program or the tour? 

HODGSON:  I’m just really looking forward to getting to Oregon, love it there. Especially Eugene.  It’s such a cool place, I’m really excited to bring the show there.  I think they’ll love it.  And it’s just really one of those wonderful places that we’re looking forward to traveling to.

 BULL:  Well, happy travels, hopefully we’ll see you in about a month!

HODGSON: Alright, sounds good. Thanks man.

BULL: Thanks, Joel! 

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