As show premises go, Mystery Science Theater 3000’s was about as out to lunch as you could get: a hapless man trapped on a bone-shaped space station, with only dappy robots to keep him company, forced to watch terrible movies by sadistic mad scientists. Each episode played one of those movies in full, while silhouettes of the man (Joel, or Mike in later episodes) and the robots (Crow and Tom Servo) mercilessly ripped the movie to shreds with their jokes and commentary. The show was the alchemist of bad movies, turning shlock into gold with the help of one man and his robot friends.
MST3K, as it’s shortened to, is the greatest television show ever to come out of Minnesota. (Little House on the Prairie comes close, but it didn’t have talking robots.) Now, over two decades after the series finale, MST3K’s original host Joel Hodgson is taking the show on the road. I got to speak with Joel, who is still happy to be back on earth, before his upcoming two live performances of The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour at the Pantages Theatre in February.
MST3K had some pretty Minnesota-centric jokes. You and the bots spouting off stereotypical Minnesotan affirmations that the day was, in fact, cold during the title card of The Day the Earth Froze comes to mind. But how has Midwestern humor more subtly influenced MST3K’s writing?
You know, I often think about what Midwestern humor really is. I believe the “Minnesota nice” factor is a big part of it. That comes out when we feel like we have to be polite, but can’t help injecting undercurrents of cynicism and sarcasm into what we say. In that sense, Midwestern humor let us make fun of a movie more subtly, without going so over the top that we were outright ridiculing it, which would have gotten old too fast.
Humorous commentary over videos now makes up a pretty sizeable chunk of YouTube. I’m not familiar with an earlier instance of saying a bunch of funny stuff over a video than MST3K, however. Did you invent the format?
Well, there was no real example of that in television before MST3K. I got a lot of the idea of assigning new meanings to things on screen from my dad, who used to give slide shows of old photos while saying funny things over them. Where MST3K was unique is that we worked with the movies’ original audio as well, which gave us a lot of freedom to talk about what we knew and cared about. We didn’t worry about whether people would think we were funny. It’s always going to be someone else’s decision whether you’re funny or not, so you can only try your hardest and hope it lands.
A show where colorful hosts present a movie wasn’t new, though. Back in the day we had the likes of Vampira, Zacherly, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Do you feel like MST3K was a parody of those shows, or that you’re part of the tradition of horror hosts?
I really thought about that when I started out. The original idea behind MST3K was to create the cheapest show possible, so I thought back to the low budget shows I grew up with in Wisconsin like Ferdie’s Inferno and Jack DuBlon’s Cartoon Alley. I wanted my show to be as accessible to the audience as those shows were to me, so I wasn’t making fun of their formats as much as I was borrowing from them. I am in the Horror Host Hall of Fame, but that’s kind of a stretch as far as I’m concerned. Movie riffing is really its own genre.
MST3K has made some pretty mean jokes at the expense of the movies’ actors over the years. Do you ever worry that Joe Don Baker is going to recognize you on the street and punch you one day?
Ha. Fortunately Joe Don is a very old man right now, so I don’t see him as a threat. But my feeling is that we tried not to be too mean to the actors on MST3K. We treated a movie like it was a balloon, blowing it up and playing with it for a couple of hours and then maybe popping it with an especially sardonic jab at the end. I don’t look at that as being mean. It’s more about finding 1,000 ways to be funny.
After all this time, MST3K is alive and strong as ever. Classic and brand new episodes are up on Netflix, and you’re back at it doing it live. For someone who’s only seen you on TV, what does MST3K look like live?
It’s a true theatrical version of the show, with greater production values than we ever could have managed on television. Servo flies around the theater, Crow rides a pogo stick, and Gypsy (another of the space station’s robots) has been totally redesigned to do amazing things with her tube and her face. We’ve put a considerable amount of time and effort into all of that. Other than that, it’s you watching MST3K with 1,000 other people.
Joel and the bots will riff over two movies live at the Pantages. On February 28th at 7:00pm they will present No Retreat, No Surrender, a hammy Van Damme 80s action flick dubbed an “amateurish clunker” by the Los Angeles Times. On February 29th at 7:00pm they’ll present Circus of Horrors, a 1960 British horror film about a “manic who first healed, and then killed,” and which featured one of the most realistic bear attacks in cinema until The Revenant came along. You can purchase your tickets to the shows at hennepintheatretrust.org.
By David Scheller