The cult sci-fi show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” is about a man named Joel Robinson (played by series creator Joel Hodgson) and his two robot friends (Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo) who are all stuck in space and are forced to watch terrible movies, spending their days making fun and “riffing” on the aforementioned horrible films to keep sane. While many people might not have heard of this amazing show that ran from 1988-99 (and if this is true, shame on you!), it was definitely a fixture of my childhood. My friends and I love this show so much that we still celebrate the holiday Patrick Swayze Christmas — based on a skit from the show.
In fact, one of the first things I told Hodgson during our one-on-one interview was that I shamelessly and enthusiastically celebrate that holiday every year. He took it in stride and laughed. Hodgson, a former prop comic from the Midwest, has a very easygoing, lazy drawl that almost evokes Garfield doing a Valley Girl impression. His kind of relaxed vibe permeated through the interview, as he seemed like the kind of person who doesn’t take things too seriously, which makes sense given the nature of his show.
The first question I asked was why he thought this bizarre concept of people making fun of movies for two hours could ever be commercially viable. He described how he first got the idea for “MST3K” in college when he read one of his roommates’ books, The Golden Turkey Awards. He described how watching bad movies was something many people did, but there was no outlet for it, and The Golden Turkey Awards was a precursor to that by being a sort of “reverse Academy Awards.” In fact, it was in the book that the reference to “Plan 9 from Outerspace” as the worst movie ever came from. I ventured to ask if it was “like the Raspberry Awards” (I meant Razzie, but Hodgson either didn’t notice my snafu — or was cool enough not to acknowledge it), responding that it was. He said a lot of people love these kinds of bad movies that are mentioned in the book. Because of this, he decided a televised program showcasing these types of terrible films could be successful.
I then asked why he decided to make the concept of riffing on movies a sci-fi show, and if there were any other incarnations of the concept. He said the show was always conceived as a sci-fi show. However, the incarnation that made it on screen was a little different than the one that was suggested. Originally, it was supposed to be set in a post-apocalyptic future (like “The Omega Man”), where Hodgson made robots to keep himself company in the wasteland. Hodgson felt that idea was too dark, though, and he decided later to base the concept on an obscure sci-fi film called “Silent Running,” which was about a “hippie in space … alone with his robots,” making that the basic setting for his show (minus the hippie). He also mentioned how he was glad for the sci-fi fans, since they are so loyal, which has helped him and the show over the years.
We then moved on to discuss the actual making of the show. When talking about the robots, Hodgson described how he loved puppets and was a huge fan of “The Muppets,” but wanted to do something different than the felt Muppet design that has been imitated for so many years. Feeling that robots would be something different, he decided to make his own C-3PO and R2-D2 (Crow and Tom, respectively), creating original designs that had elements of his favorite robot duo (like Crow’s gold coloring or Tom’s eyeless head).
When it came to the movies themselves, Hodgson told me how he and the other cast members had to watch the movies about eight times (which is mind-boggling for those who have seen these films). There would be “two passes in the writing room” and afterward Hodgson and the puppeteers for Crow and Tom would watch the movies for a few more takes. The cast watched the films in front of a white background, looking into a monitor off-screen (the white background would then be replaced by a contrast matte of the movie they’d be watching that week). When asked what the worst film he ever had to riff was, he replied, “Oh, definitely ‘Manos [the Hand of Fate].’” Those of you who have seen that episode should not be surprised.
We then talked about his departure from the show, which he described as “a tragedy.” He said he had been fighting with his producer, Jim Mallon, who wanted to direct and produce a film based on the show. Hodgson felt that the deal didn’t reflect his role as a creative force.
What’s most surprising to me, though, was to find out that the idea for a movie based on the concept had been around that long (it ended up coming out in 1996, three years after Hodgson’s departure in ’93, and eight years after the show’s debut). Hodgson ended up leaving the show on an episode showcasing the Joe Don Baker ’70s cop flick “Mitchell.” I asked if there was any particular reason he left on this particular episode, and Hodgson said that it just happened to be the one on the schedule. Luckily for him and the fans, the episode is one of the funniest episodes of the entire series.
Right now Hodgson is working on a new project riffing on bad movies: “Cinematic Titanic.” It’s a live show that he performs with many of his former cast members, like a Broadway version of “MST3K.” While he bemoans the fact that the jokes have to be less esoteric to be more accessible for a live audience, he says that he enjoys the exhilaration of performing for a crowd.
Hodgson doesn’t consider himself a cinephile since he “doesn’t frequent art-houses or anything,” and admits his tastes are still diverse. The movies he enjoys range from films like “Halloween” and “Eraserhead” to “50/50.” When asked if he riffs on movies at home or in his leisure time, he said that he’d rather enjoy and immerse himself in the films, leaving the riffing duties to his “day job.”
Out of all the things Hodgson has to be proud of, he said he is most proud that the show wasn’t dirty, that it was a show for the whole family. He said he wanted the show to be enjoyed on multiple levels and by many types of people.
And this is true. I spent many a night with my parents watching the show, and it was a Saturday morning ritual my friends and I shared — it was the only reason I ever woke up early on a weekend.
Essentially, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” is one of the touchstones of my childhood, and I’ll be forever grateful to have been given a chance to talk to its creator.
Great story. And just so your readers know, Cinematic Titanic and Joel Hodgson will be riffing on the kooky spy thriller, “Doomsday Machine,” at 8 p.m. Sun., Nov. 6 at UCSB Campbell Hall. Tickets are only $10 for UCSB students with ID.
I can’t wait!