Joel Hodg­son on the bit­ter­sweet (but mostly sweet) re­turn of “Mys­tery Science The­ater 3000”

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Wen­zel

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

Sci-Fi series.

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 al­ti­tudet­ick­ 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.”

Pro­vided by Right On! PR

“Mys­tery Science The­ater 3000” cre­ator Joel Hodg­son nav­i­gated a galaxy of ob­sta­cles in re­viv­ing his movie-riff­ing show for Net­flix.

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