“The whole world is a circus if you look at it the right way. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel there in your hand. Every time you stop and think, ‘I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic!’ Every time such a thing happens, you are part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.”
With those words, series creator, head writer, puppeteer and all around mellow dude Joel Hodgson said goodbye to Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1993. Even though his compatriots on the Satellite of Love would bemoan the fact that his departing words came from a George Pal movie, they speak volumes of the man who uttered them.
Now, as he prepares to step away from the series once again (without a Joe Don Baker film this time), we sat down with Hodgson before his final performance at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ on March 7 to learn a little bit about his process, what the series’ place in the comedy landscape is, and what the future holds of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
AIPT: This is pretty exciting. It’s the farewell tour, isn’t it?
Joel Hodgson: Yeah, it is exciting!
AIPT: Is this like an actual farewell tour or is it more like the Rolling Stones/KISS, where we’re going to see you selling out an amphitheater in six months?
JH: [Laughs] Well, right now I really mean it. Part of this is the reason I came back and brought back the show was to introduce all of these new people. To find new writers, performers, fabricators — just kind of refresh Mystery Science Theater. And I kind of got stuck in each of the tours. In the first one I was presenting [“MST3K: The Revival” host] Jonah [Ray] — it was really [his] show, but I was there to open the show. The second one was the 30th anniversary show which [he] and I did together. Then this one Jonah was going to do himself, but wasn’t able to do it, so I had to take over for him. So then I said “I can do it, but it’s going to be my last one,” just so everyone was clear on that. The next tours that go out won’t include me, but they’ll have new people.
AIPT: That’s actually one of the more interesting things about being a long time Mystie — there’s this changing of the guard every couple of years. While most will have their favorites over the years, I’ve always found it endearing that, both in The Revival and the live tours, you’ve always incorporated new and upcoming comedians/writers/puppeteers. Why is it so important to work with young, emerging talent?
JH: Well, I’m kinda hoping — I have a finite amount of time I can work with the show (I want to do a few more years) — but the idea is that, with success, it can keep going without me. I want to set the stage so that transition can happen with new people, and to me that’s the the thing. I created it, so my job is to tend to it and refresh it with new people. Fortunately, there’s a lot of really talented people who want to work on it, so we’ve been lucky.
AIPT: Absolutely. The Revival cast, for a lot of fans, was a dream come true. Yet for every established star like Patton Oswalt or Felicia Day, you helped introduce lesser known quantities like Jonah Ray and (voice of Tom Servo) Baron Vaughn — which helped raise their profiles as well as the show’s. Could you have foreseen any of this when you started performative riffing all those years ago?
JH: No, I was just — movie riffing wasn’t super obvious at first, as far as what it could be. I just didn’t know how much the audience could manage. When we made the pilot, there were only three riffs in the entire thing. It was really just to demonstrate “Here’s the silhouette, here’s the guy with the robots, here’s the movie and here’s an example of what they’ll say.” That was the scope of what I understood when I started. Then, doing it at KTMA along with Trace (Beaulieu – Dr. Forrester and the original puppeteer/voice of Crow T. Robot) and Josh (AKA J. Elvis Weinstein — Dr. Erhardt and the original puppeteer/voices of Tom Servo and Gypsy) we did more and longer riffs. That was basically the job: “How many riffs can we fit in while the audience can still follow what we’re doing?” By the end, it just dawned on me, “Oh, the entire movie should just be wall-to-wall riffs.” It really took a long time, but I just didn’t know how much the audience could manage.
AIPT: There’s definitely a fine balance. There’s a certain flow you guys get into during the Comedy Channel years, where there’s enough breath between jokes so it hits perfectly. Classic episodes like “Cave Dwellers” just strike the right rhythm between watching the movie and laughing at the movie.
JH: Yeah, there are certain movies like Cave Dwellers that were high watermarks for us. It was just like the perfect…Jonah Ray says “we dance with the movie.” So when it’s the right kind of movie and we’re of the right mind, it’s really special.
AIPT: That leads to an interesting point about the live tour, where you’re doing two different movies: “Circus of Horrors” and “No Retreat/ No Surrender.” How did those movies get chosen? In general, how do movies get chosen?
JH: We try to work with distributors that have large movie packages. They have an agreement that says “We’ll license you all these movies” then we’ll go into their collection and start screening them and just kind of find movies that feel sympathetic to what we’re doing. There are a lot of factors at play. For live shows, we need really good sound, really good picture — I mean, 1600 people will be watching it at the same time and we need them all on the same page. We’re always looking for really good prints. The content has a lot to do with it too, but we kind of just look for what feels right. Of course, Circus of Horrors fit our theme and it’s worked out beautifully. As for No Retreat/ No Surrender, it’s kind of a ripoff of the karate kid that features a guy playing the ghost of Bruce Lee that looks nothing like Bruce Lee.
AIPT: That kind of speaks to an element I’ve always enjoyed about MST3K. The aspect of “found art” has always felt important to the show, whether it’s the piecemeal robot puppets and set, to the entire concept of taking a bad movie and making it fun. What is it about found art that makes it special?
JH: It’s just how I’m wired — it’s the way I like to see the world. It’s what motivated me, and kinda what I wanted to see 30 years ago. I don’t want to compare myself to Quentin Tarantino, but we are of the same generation, and even though I worked a completely different side of the street than he does, (I have met him and he did thank me for not riffing on his movies), I think it’s that our generation started to see that there was a pattern at work. That even though Hollywood made movies from scratch, they were usually basing them on other movies. It’s really the way everything is fabricated in Hollywood.
Even Picasso started doing it in the ’50s and ’40s, where he would make like a gorilla out of a toy truck. He was kind of the first guy that I noticed that was doing that and saying that our eyes are telling us this is something that it’s not meant to be and I’m going to make art out of it. Louise Nevelson also made a big impact on me. I got to see a lot of her work at the Guthrie Museum — a lot of the sets [for Satellite of Love] are kind inspired by her. Then it’s things as simple as kitbashing. All of the ships in Star Wars were the product of kitbashing, so I wanted to use that.
I just preferred to do that because it was inexpensive. That was the goal of Mystery Science Theater. I deliberately tried to keep costs down because I knew there would be less tampering from the investors. By making a show that I could basically afford to produce almost by myself, I knew that I could avoid a lot of tampering.
AIPT: So if this is your last outing with the show, what do you think the legacy of Mystery Science Theater — a series that’s been running for more than 30 years, had the fastest-funded Kickstarter for The Revival, and now (unfortunately) departing Netflix — and what is its future?
JH: I don’t know if it’s really my job to figure that stuff out. If I start thinking about stuff like that, I don’t know if I’d be able to do my job well. To me, it’s just about making an entertaining, fun show — and you know, our show had to earn its way every single day. When you look at what it is, it’s a variety show, it’s a live show, it’s movie riffing, it’s puppetry and music and a lot of production elements at work — and I’m really proud of all of it. As a puppet show, we’re really out here earning our way day after day and entertaining people, and there’s not much of that now. I’m really proud of them as puppets, as characters, as robots.
Movie riffing is its own funny thing, it’s its own art form and there’s lots of people doing it, and I’m really glad about that. I’m just really grateful to get to do it and keep participating with it this long. It’s just the way I’m wired to want to get it in good shape so that I can walk away from it and people can keep working with it if that’s meant to be. I don’t want to sit and pump it until someone takes it out of my hands and says “you’re done.” I kinda want to take the time to get it in a specific shape so that when people come after me I will have done with it as much as I can and given them a lot of different looks to use when they work with the show in the future.
Whether it’s the innovations of the live show, the taped one, the comic book, constantly developing ideas for the robots — I’m fascinated by all that stuff. I like it a lot, so I’m really grateful to get to work with it.
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour wraps up this week with the following shows:
- Wednesday, March 4: “No Retreat, No Surrender” — Lowell Memorial Auditorium, Lowell, MA
- Thursday, March 5: “Circus of Horrors” — Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, New Bedford, MA
- Friday, March 6: “No Retreat, No Surrender” — Count Basie Center for the Arts, Red Bank, NJ
- Saturday, March 7: “Circus of Horrors” — The Wellmont Theater, Montclair, NJ
- Sunday, March 8: “No Retreat, No Surrender” — Collins Center for the Arts, Orono, ME
Tickets are on sale now at MST3KLive.com.