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Joel Hodgson on Making the New MST3K the Same, but Different

Joel Hodgson on Making the New MST3K the Same, but Different

Back in the late-’80s in Minnesota, an idea was born that would more or less give rise to an entire comedic sensibility. A man, a plan, a canal, Panama and the ability to build robots out of household items came together to create a whole show out of making of fun of old, dumb sci-fi and horror movies (though not exclusively). Close to 30 years later, Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains a cultural touchstone for comedy fans of a certain age. Now, the series’ creator and initial star Joel Hodgson has resurrected his brainchild, full of new cast members, new settings, and new old movies to make fun of. I spoke to Joel on the set of the new MST3K where he shared insight on updating the show, splitting the puppets in two (so to speak), and whether Manos is as good in HD.

Hodgson is acting not only as creator and writer this time around but also co-director, along with Rob Cohen. Although the process is different now, he assured us the outcome is very similar. “I miss the luxury of just doing it in chronological order,” he said, talking about shooting every episode’s host segments in a single week. “Because you can maintain the cohesiveness, the thinking. It’s also the nature of the show, works really good with that. You’re coming in off of a movie, so you can remember that. I don’t think it’s too big of a detriment.”

He also maintains that while Cohen is used to running “this kind of machine,” it’s his job to look for issues that might arise. “Mostly my job is to anticipate them,” Hodgson said. “There are so many visual elements and it’s all in-camera. I feel like that’s my job, to just stay ahead. Make sure everything functions the way it’s supposed to. Then to intercede if there’s any special props Jonah (Ray) has to use, the puppeteers, the crew. That’s the kind of stuff I’m mostly laying eyes on and trying to work with. It’s like we’re really partners on directing these host segments in that regard.”

MST3K-Joel

Mystery Science Theater 3000 coming back is down to the love the show’s continued to have over the years, and it’s racked up some pretty famous fans along the way (many of whom will show up in guest starring roles in the Netflix season). But some of these celebrities are people Hodgson has been a fan of for years, perhaps none more so than…

“The most shocking one is meeting Mel Brooks,” Hodgson said. “I got to meet him when he was in Philadelphia. They were screening Blazing Saddles and I got to meet him and it was really shocking that he liked Mystery Science Theater. That was amazing because there’s so much of his stuff in what we do.” And he’s not taking this kind of adulation for granted. “There’s just a lot of–I don’t know how to say it–history’s being kind to Mystery Science Theater right now so I’m going to try and take advantage of that.”

Writing a series like MST3K, which has literally hundreds of jokes and bits packed into the 90+ minutes spanning a featured movie, means generating an enormous amount of content, and Hodgson says one thing that’s never changed since the series began is allowing funny writers to write what they think is funny. “You get this mass of information,” he said, “and then you edit it much later. I think if anything is kind of part of the secret of Mystery Science Theater is that we never edit while we’re creating. We make everything, make an abundance of ideas, then that’s done. Then we assemble it and put it together.” Hodgson said the main thing is to encourage all the jokes that can be joked. “We’re never saying, ‘No, no, that’s not a Mystery Science Theater riff.’ That’s kind of forbidden in the way we write the show, or have always written the show. That’s one of the secrets.”

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' starring Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn, Rebecca Hanson, Tim Blaney, Joel Hodgson, & Elliot Kalan. Photo by Darren Michaels, SMPSP for Satellite of Love, LLC © 2016

As mentioned in my previous piece from the set, the production schedule was incredibly tight. One of the antecedents of that is that Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount, while providing the voices and controlling the mouths of Tom Servo and Crow, respectively, aren’t operating the puppets behind the desks. Hodgson explains that for the seamless transition between eras, they needed professional puppeteers.

“Both Trace [Beaulieu] and Kevin [Murphy] became really good puppeteers and really good comic actors at the same time, but we started really slowly,” Hodgson said. “Over the years they just were really great. How do you do that when you have nine months to prep and really less time to do it?” Ergo, Hodgson had to split the job in two: “Have puppeteers manipulate the puppets. Move their heads, move their arms, do all the hand stuff that’s going on now. Then have the voice people control the mouths. There is this great way, there’s expression that goes on and they can make things funnier by swinging their mouths open and just adding. They can improvise because of that.”

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' starring Jonah Ray, Patton Oswalt, Felicia Day, Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn, Rebecca Hanson, Tim Blaney, Elliot Kalan. Directed by Joel Hodgson & Rob Cohen. Photo by Darren Michaels, SMPSP

One thing that Hodgson was adamant about when bringing the show back is that they still do the same kind of movie they would have in the original series–old and weird. And in the age of HD, that means they were looking for movies–many of them under license to the current MST3K shepherds, Shout! Factory–that had been cleaned up and taken care of.

“The truth of it is is that you can’t really use public domain movies because nobody is caring for these movies,” Hodgson said. “They all just kind of fall apart. There are no good prints. There’s nobody there advocating for the prints. Nobody’s there to perceive any value in them. We license everything. We have to have movies that look great because you just don’t want to be in an ugly print. The idea is just looking for better bad movies.”

That said, he also doesn’t see the point in cleaning up a lot of the old, crappy-looking movies they did on MST3K originally, specifically the granddaddy of them all, Manos: Hands of Fate, which has since been digitally remastered. “I don’t really get that because I think those layers of the disconnection and the processing are what give it that kind of claustrophobic feeling,” Hodgson said. “I appreciate that they love Manos and they want to celebrate it but by cleaning it up and making it pristine and celebrating it in that way–I totally understand it–but it’s different, it’s not the same. I would say that all the artifacts that are in there are what make that experience.”

It’s clear he’s still affected by the ordeal of watching and riffing Manos. “Something about Manos, though, I tell you. Usually we got our sauce on the movies, that got its sauce on us.”

You can see if any of the new 14 movies get their sauce on you when Mystery Science Theater 3000 returns for season 11 on Netflix April 14. Share your thoughts on Manos or whatever else MST-related in the comments below!

Images: Satellite of Love, LLC/Netflix


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist and a MSTie since he was 6. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!


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