Interview with Joel Hodgson of MST3K
Posted on 08/20/2019
The hilarious Peabody Award-winning hit TV comedy is coming to New Brunswick on October 26 with an all-new Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live: The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour! Original host Joel Hodgson chats with us about how MST3K got started as the cheapest show they could possibly make and how the rehearsal process works.
READ THE TRANSCRIBED INTERVIEW BELOW
with Kelly and Hanna from All Access and special guest Joel Hodgson.
Kelly: And we’re back on All Access with State Theatre New Jersey I’m Kelly with me is Hanna.
Kelly: And Hanna it’s been an awesome show today.
Hanna: Yes, it has been.
Kelly: I think it’s gonna continue, because our next guest is on his last tour of Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live: The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour! And of course, I’m talking about Joel Hodgson. Welcome Joel!
Joel: Hey thank you guys, thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.
Kelly: Yes, we’re happy to have you Joel, this is so exciting were doing a double feature a 3pm and a 7pm on October 26th it’s No Retreat, No Surrender and Circus of Horrors. I am so excited! What do you have instore for the audiences at State Theatre New Brunswick?
Joel: Well we’re actually at the workshop right now and we’re working on a bunch of innovations for the robot. Because this is the Cheesy Movie Circus Tour, the robots are gonna be doing some circus acts. And of course, our bread and butter is movie riffing, so, as you said we have some silly adorable, terrible movies that we are going to be riffing on. So, Circus of Horrors of course and No Retreat, No Surrender, which is like kind of like the Karate Kid if, umm, if ah I don’t even.
Joel: It’s kind of like the Karate Kid if we lived in a world without space, I don’t know.
Kelly & Hanna: Haha
Joel: That’s what I, I don’t know, I don’t know. I should have had a joke there, that seems to be what’s missing. I’ll have to remember that for when I do the show.
Kelly: Oh, there you go. Well what….
Joel: I need some more funny material.
Kelly: Well what’s not missing is Jean-Claude Van Damme, right?
Joel: That’s right it’s a little baby Jean-Claude Van Damme. It’s back when he was Jean-Claude Gosh Darn.
Kelly: Haha… Oh..
Joel: It was that far back. There’s the joke.
Kelly: Oh, you got it
Joel: Oh, I got one, oh I got one. I’m gonna use that.
Kelly: Quick write it down.
Joel: And um, and anyway yeah, he’s just a newborn, I think it’s his first movie he’s got a little baby fat a little Jean-Claude Van Damme baby fat. He’s a thug in this movie, I think he’s like a Russian kickboxer or something in this movie. Yeah,
Kelly: Haha, also I’m pretty sure…
Joel: And then there’s a guy, there’s a boy that is taught by the ghost of Bruce Lee, and they couldn’t find a guy that looked like Bruce Lee, which is really funny, you know, amazing.
Kelly: So, tell us about this live, this last live tour. Is this truly the last live tour for you?
Joel: Well, no, yeah you know I don’t know I’ve brought back the show, the show hadn’t been on TV for 20-years, we did a Kickstarter four-years ago, which was the biggest Kickstarter for film and TV in history. But we raised six-million dollars and were able to bring back the show and it’s been on Netflix now for two-seasons and were 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes for both our seasons. The New York Times just talked about us that we are one of the top 50 shows on Netflix right now.
Hanna: Wow, so before Netflix, before everything can you take us all the way back to 1988 when Mystery Science Theater got started.
Joel: Of course, let’s do some music so it’s like, Devo I don’t know what was going on in 1988, I don’t remember. Talking Heads, I don’t know, so yeah we started the show on a local UHF channel, right at the beginning of cable, cable was just starting and there were channels called UFH, UHF channels which were a way of broadcasting kind of like cable, public access, before public access, and we did the show locally. An then prior to this I had a career as a stand-up, I used to do stand-up and I used to do stand-up and I was a performer like on Saturday Night Live and back when David Letterman had his long running TV show, so I did shows like that, and then I took a break from that and created Mystery Science Theater. So, we started doing that in 1988 over 30 years ago and the show had a nice long life it ran for 11 years and almost 200 episodes, and then we had a break and then we brought it back. I can’t remember so you wanted me to take you back to 1988, yeah, I don’t know that’s all I got, when it comes to 1988 I doubt full.
Kelly: Well, putting together the concept, was that something that came to very quickly, was that something that was pieced together like was it something like just you riffing or was it you and the robots together from the beginning?
Joel: Oh, oh yeah, you know it’s that thing where I was kind of disillusioned, cause I had been in Hollywood for three years and all I got offered were sitcoms, at that time I was in my early-20's or mid-20's and I didn’t think that any of the shows they offered me were funny. And I read, the one show they didn’t offer me that I read for, was I read for the part of Woody for Cheers.
Joel: That was like, that’s how old I am. So, I could have been Woody that didn’t work out and so to me, I would say it was out of necessity, I wanted to do a show in Minneapolis, and I wanted to create the cheapest show I could imagine because I knew that if. You know its like when you do a show, you have to go, it’s almost like applying for a grant or getting a bank loan. You know you have to go in and prove that it’s funny and I’m not good at that, I’m not sure how to talk someone into letting you do something. I’m just not wired that way, I wanted to make this show myself and I wanted it to be inexpensive, so that’s how I got the idea with the silhouette and the robots made out of found objects. From the very beginning, from the time we did the pilot, the robots were in there with me, and their job was to be in there with me and obviously help me riff on the movies and stuff. So, yeah from the very first day the robots were there, and the silhouettes was there and the doorway sequence were there and it was all pretty much roughed out from the beginning, the only thing we didn’t have was the theme song. The theme song came after we did the pilot, we kind of said, “it’s too hard to understand maybe we a theme song like Gilligan’s Island to tell everybody about it.
Hanna: Starting way back in the beginning, how did you, how do you decide what movies are the ones that you are going to riff on?
Joel: Well, another great thing about the concept is the movies are the cheapest movies you can license. So, it’s kind of designed to work like that but you still have to make sure you have the rights to the movie. You start with that, you start with movies that you clear the rights to, once you do that you can go ahead and write them and write the riffs and figure out who is going to say what. That’s what we are doing today, we are finishing up the sketches, we actually have written all of the riffs already. Now we are putting everything to bed with the script and getting it off to the performers, so they have it. We are going to gather in about two weeks and start rehearsing.
Kelly: Nice and I would have to think that through, looking through all these movies and figuring out what the next movie is going to be that you’ll riff on. You must look at today’s movies and already have in your head, if only I could riff on this one. Do you find yourself riffing on today's movies, and I can give you an example, like the Fast and the Furious movies you know the recent Hobbs and Shaw? You know the Rock is holding the helicopter with one hand, I mean there is some great content there right?
Joel: Oh my God. I mean that would be so fun. I’m sure it’s not that far away with technology, to do that. I think, I always kind of go. I get that question a lot and I think to you, kind of just, you mostly want to find a movie that’s adorable in its own way. That’s kind of what we look for, is just what’s a movie. Part of the secret sauce to MST to is that it’s probably a movie that you’ve never seen before, that’s part of it too, is curating a movie, serving up something that people are not familiar with. Cause it’s a bit like a haunted house, you want to feel like you are going into something you have never seen before. That’s kind of part of it.
Hanna: So, whether it’s a recorded episode on TV or a live show that you are doing how much time do you think goes into each episode? Between how many times you watch the movie all the riffs that you write, all the working with the robots and syncing everything up. How long does it take to put together one episode?
Joel: It’s hard to say because we do everything in segments, and we are doing two completely different shows, two sets of post segments, two sets of movies. And you kind of do, them out of sequence. It’s hard to say, when we first came back, about three years ago, we really had, the first movie we riffed on we actually ended up watching it over seven times. Just because there were so many layers of production and figuring out different aspects. And then I think later on we figured out we probably went through it about ten times. I’m not sure if that’s true now, we’ve done 20, actually 26 feature length films, this is our third live tour. We’ve done it 26 time over the last few years, we are getting pretty good at it. 26 times going through the movie and then there are sketches and fabricating everything, so we are making all the stuff, that’s kind of the next piece, taking all the things. We have a pro that rides a unicycle, how do you get that to work, live and on the stage now.
Kelly: Nice and we actually in the office at State Theatre we actually have someone who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign and he is super excited, and he is gonna be there. I know what he would probably ask is. When you go on the live tour and you go to these different venues throughout the country, do you tailor it to the area a little bit? Obviously New Jersey...
Joel: Yeah, of course you feel like, it’s really different, when you get in the room with all those people and everything changes, that it is a really performance that we, everything gets altered because the audience reacts different every night. Because we have, everything is really well scripted, but the audience could laugh really hard at something and it could get in the way of your setup, the thing that is going to tee up your joke could get covered up by the audience laughing. We have to edit a lot, that is mostly what we are doing, editing stuff. But then we find out what’s the local sandwich that everybody loves, you always have to be alert to that so that stuff so that people can feel connected.
Hanna: Yeah, obviously we don’t want you to give to much away but, I would like to ask about the robot. Because they are fairly advanced and they’re riffing with you. I’m sure a lot of that is the writing of the riff and the rehearsal and everything. As you said building and you’re figuring everything out how to do things live onstage that are circus related. When you started was it super complicated or was it something that you picked up and were like, were gonna have robots here and it’s gonna work and gonna be a thing.
Joel: Well, it’s evolved so much over the least three years now, and we have so many wildly creative people working on it. They have evolved over time and that’s kind of part of my job, getting to come back to the brand and work on it. We have a new Gypsy she used to be a little taller, and there is a new version of her on this tour, and most of these shows, she can do more now, she’s like a little smaller a little stealthier and moves really quickly. I felt obliged to kind of do some work on her, so she could get involved more and do more stuff. She such a big puppet, such a big robot, she was kind of missing out on a lot of things. While I’ve been getting to work with brand these last four years, it feels like a chance to refigure things and design things a little better. When all these young people coming in actually know on Netflix who Jonah Ray is usually our host and we have Elli Kalan who was the head writer on the Daily Show and is now head writer. A bunch of new performers a bunch of new writers. I am gonna work with it a little bit longer and kind of make sure it’s in good shape so when I step away in a few years, I’m gonna do this tour and I’m gonna continue working with the brains behind the scenes. But it will hopefully be ready to keep going, maybe another 30 years or something.
Kelly: Nice, well cheers to that. It is Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live: The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour. Saturday October 26th with two screenings at 3pm No Retreat, No Surrender with baby Jean-Claude Van Damme, and 7pm Circus of Horrors. And of course the host Joel Hodgson and all your favorite riffing, movie riffing robots coming to the State Theatre. Joel thank you so much for being on All Access.
Joel: Hey, of course.
Kelly: And we can’t wait man
Joel: Thank you so much, cheers you guys, see you around