CULT COMEDY SHOW BLASTS OFF AGAIN
Joel Hodgson on the bittersweet (but mostly sweet) return of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”
Despite the wave of reboots, adaptations and recycled ideas on television and in film, reviving a longdead show is harder than it looks — no matter how fervent the fanbase.
Take “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The cult comedy series never really went away, thanks to reissued boxed sets from Shout! Factory and widely available streaming episodes. But its 14-episode return to Netflix in April followed years of behind-the-scenes wrangling with a galaxy of legal, personal and artistic issues.
Created by sleepy-eyed Wisconsin native Joel Hodgson, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” debuted as a low-budget TV experiment in Minneapolis before moving to the Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) and the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) for 10 seasons from 1988 through 1999.
Its setup was simple: A hapless janitor — first played by Hodgson, later by Mike Nelson — finds himself trapped in a space station called the Satellite of Love with a cast of wiseacre robots, doomed to watch terrible movies as part of a sadistic experiment from a pair of mad scientists.
The premise proved as renewable as it was endearingly weird. Across nearly 200 episodes, “MST3K” (as fans lovingly call it) offered a conduit for riffing on classic B-movie dreck like “The Horror of Party Beach,” “Robot Holocaust” and “Pod People,” its hosts silhouetted in the front row of a darkened theater while they spewed sarcastic, reference-heavy commentary on the sci-fi, horror and fantasy garbage.
Given its long run, geekculture credentials and successful offspring such as Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax, the influence of “MST3K” is practically taken for granted these days. The show is credited with encouraging a merciless, running commentary on all manner of popular culture (sound familiar, Twitterverse?) while hatching smaller, unlicensed variations all over the country, including Denver’s Mile High
But in spite of creating “MST3K” — as well as the enduring spin-off careers for most of its central players — Hodgson still found plenty of obstacles in trying to revive it.
“We were able to do a lot during the Kickstarter (campaign) to kind of manage people’s expectations,” Hodgson said over the phone from Washington, D.C., where the first-ever “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live Tour” had just played the Lincoln Theatre. “The biggest thing we said was, ‘We think we can make the show again, and we can make it really funny again. But we can’t make you 13 again. We can’t make you feel the way you did when you watched it for the first time.’ Saying that really helped put everybody in the right frame of mind.”
Even more pressing: Hodgson needed to regain complete control of the rights to “MST3K” and determine who was going to embark on this new journey with him.
He had mulled it since at least 2010, when his Cinematic Titanic show (which included significant cast members from the original “MST3K”) was well on its way to performing more than 100 times in theaters around the country.
But it took another half-decade before he was able to buy the full rights to “MST3K” from his ex-partner Jim Mallon (Hodgson declined to name the amount he paid), thanks to a partnership with Shout! Factory, and move forward with an online fundraising campaign.
“Prior to doing the Kickstarter I’d assumed that everyone from Cinematic Titanic was going to be involved with the new show — Josh Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu — since I worked so closely with them and kept them abreast of buying the rights,” Hodgson said.
In fact, Rolling Stone reported as recently as last summer that the show’s original cast would “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live Tour.” Live movie riffing, comedy sketches and more. 8 p.m. July 18, Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place. Tickets: $39.50-$49.50, 303-623-0106 or altitudetickets.com. Provided by Right On! PR reprise their roles.
“About a month before we shot the Kickstarter (video), Josh said, ‘I don’t think I want to be part of it.’ We approached the guys at RiffTrax, too, and they passed. So it was then I started realizing nobody from the original cast wanted to be in it.”
That was a strange, isolating process for Hodgson, since most of those cast members were still trading in some way on their “MST3K” fame in a flurry of live shows, movie theater simulcasts and webisodes that played on fans’ reverence for the original.
“It was kind of confusing and I felt really alone with it. But it was like, ‘My path is really clear now, and I have to lead with the all-new cast,’ so that’s what we did with the Kickstarter, and backers unanimously loved that idea and were fine with us refreshing it for a new generation.”
Hodgson is being modest. Not only was the Kickstarter a success, it also set a new record as the highest-funded film and TV crowdfunding campaign in history. An initial ask of $2 million to produce three new episodes of “MST3K” was met within a week. Less than a month later, it had ballooned into nearly $6 million in donations.
Hodgson was not taking chances. He had teamed with Ivan Askwith, the Los Angeles-based MIT graduate who managed wildly successful Kickstarter campaigns to make new-old shows like “Veronica Mars” ($5.7 million), “Reading Rainbow” ($6.3 million) and “Super Troopers 2” (on Indiegogo, at $4.5 million).
“He’s really special and has a really great worldview on how to do it,” Hodgson said of Askwith, whom he compared to an experienced river guide. “The thing I learned is that you’re really making it every day. You’re putting forward ideas and then you hear how backers react and you see their posts, and that leads you onto the next day.”
Even when he didn’t need to, Hodgson continually sweetened the deal for backers with different rewards and loyalty packages — “Like adding features to a car you’ve already bought,” he said — often glued to his computer for 10 hours a day to keep the #BringBackMST3K campaign in the public consciousness.
His new cast arrived through L.A.’s stand-up comedy scene: host Jonah Heston (a.k.a. Jonah Ray of The Nerdist and “The Meltdown” showcase with Kumail Nanjiani) and crudely puppeteered robots Tom Servo (voiced by Baron Vaughn) and Crow T. Robot (Hampton Yount). Bigger comics who were longtime fans of the show, such as Jerry Seinfeld and Patton Oswalt, would eventually sign on for cameos and bit parts.
The 14-episode 11th season debuted on Netflix on April 14, quickly garnering positive reviews and reassuring fans who wondered if it could recapture the ramshackle charm and giddy humor of the original.
“I’m really lucky in that I’ve always had complete autonomy. As far as executive tampering, that didn’t happen to the (original series) until after I was gone. In this new iteration, I got really lucky because Kickstarter kind of bought and paid for the show, which really allowed us to completely make the show I wanted to make.” “MST3K” creator Joel Hodgson
“I’m really lucky in that I’ve always had complete autonomy. As far as executive tampering, that didn’t happen to the (original series) until after I was gone,” Hodgson, 57, said. “In this new iteration, I got really lucky because Kickstarter kind of bought and paid for the show, which really allowed us to completely make the show I wanted to make.”
Hodgson’s company Alternaversal Prodcutions also licensed “MST3K” back from his own Shout! Factory partnership (dubbed Satellite of Love LLC) for the first-ever, 28-date “MST3K Live Tour,” which plays the Paramount Theatre on July 18.
The show will recreate the experience of watching an episode, complete with skits, props, video drop-ins and a pair of full-length movie riffs (“Eegah” and a “secret surprise film”). Hodgson, Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount and Rebecca Hanson will be on hand.
Despite his role as the elder statesman of movie riffing, or his live performing credentials — having briefly cultivated a stand-up career that included spots on “Late Night with David Letterman” and others — Hodgson is thrilled to be touring the country in a bus, likening it to watching a music-documentary of his own life.
“It really evokes that feeling,” he said as his bus prepared to drive to Columbus, Ohio. “I was kind of nervous about it at first because it actually is like getting shot into space. How do you live on a bus? How do you relax? All those weird little details. I still don’t have a total handle on it, but I’ve got to say, I’m really excited about it right now.”
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” creator Joel Hodgson navigated a galaxy of obstacles in reviving his movie-riffing show for Netflix.