Joel Hodgson on MST30K

Reflecting on 30 years on the Satellite of Love

It was supposed to be just another public access show. But Mystery Science Theater 3000 was different, and it soon rocketed from local TV to national success on cable, film, DVDs, in live shows, and now streaming: A crowdfunded revival on Netflix proved a hit in 2017, so a new season is set to drop on Thanksgiving, 30 years after the first broadcast.

Play MSTie for Me: (l-r) Crow T. Robot, Jonah Ray as Jonah Heston, Joel Hodgson as Joel Robinson, and Tom Servo

That second season of MST3K: The Return – officially Season 12 of the entire series – is the capstone for what has been a crazy busy 30th anniversary year for the Little Minneapolis Access Show That Could. It launched with the 14-episode Season 11, funded with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $5.7 million; saw the debut of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 comic book (in which characters riff on public domain comics); and a 30th anniversary live tour teaming MST's creator and original host Joel Hodgson with Jonah Ray, who stars in the Netflix revival, to riff on a couple of Eighties cinema's less stellar products. Lucky Austinites will have the chance to see both films get the MST treatment at the Paramount Theatre on Sun., Nov. 4. The Chronicle checked in with Hodgson to see how he's feeling about the long, strange trip his show has taken and how he feels about working live.

Austin Chronicle: You spent a lot of time riffing live with your MST follow-up project Cinematic Titanic. What’s the benefit of riffing live over doing it where you can control and polish your work?

Joel Hodgson: We actually did the first live Mystery Science Theater in the early Nineties, and it worked great, and we were really enthused about it. But we never got to really act on it again, so that was one of the things [about] getting to come back to the brand that I was really enthused about. We did a hundred live Cinematic Titanics, and it really changed movie riffing for me. It’s just a completely different thing. Standing there and riffing live really changes the way you present it. You really have to own it. It’s a different thing than if you’re just putting it in a bottle and hoping people see it. So that’s part of it. It’s really fun, especially because it’s the 30th anniversary, and all of these people are coming because they’ve had this experience with the show over the years so we’re getting to meet all these people and see them all.

AC: I infected my daughter with a love of the show when she was very young, and she still loves it, and we watched the Netflix series together. Do you find that a lot of your older fans are bringing their kids to the shows and that it’s now become this multigenerational that people experience?

JH: When we started, I guess I figured it was all college kids who would be watching it. And the truth is, all the people who are working on the show now were like 13 years old when they found it. So I’m really happy about that, that we kind of shaded the show so families could watch it together. But it just happened. It wasn’t really designed like that. It was our wheelhouse. That was the way we wanted to do it. Getting back to your question. I’m thrilled about that and I know that feeling, when you have your kid with you, and they watch the show and you’re laughing with them. Or you’re laughing at completely different things, which happens a lot. [Chuckles]

AC: So you’ve decided you want to do the tour. It’s a big thing, obviously, because you’re stepping back into it, and you’re riffing live with Jonah. What goes into choosing the movies? How did The Brain and Deathstalker II rise to the top of the list for this tour?

JH: Speaking for me, you’re in a room with 1,500 people, everybody’s got to see it, everybody’s got to hear it. You have to have good prints. And that’s not always easy to find with these kinds of movies. Sometimes they haven’t been cared for. So that becomes a bigger thing for the live show. You have to really have a great-looking print. You just don’t want any distractions. MST will work with any movie. But on top of that, I just look for these charm features that are kind of like production elements. I don’t know how else to describe it. I just think some of these movies, they’re adorable. So you want to find the right one that will work in the environment.

AC: Are they like the mutts in the animal shelter? Where they’re just so cute even though they’re not purebreds? They're mutts, but we love 'em.

JH: Yeah, that’s a great way to look at ‘em. I like that. You know, there’s so much media in the world, and so much of it drives [us to go], “What’s the best thing? What should we be watching? What’s excellent? Tell me! We’ve got to find what’s excellent! We have to talk about what’s excellent, what’s great.” And this is a whole other deal. This is the opposite of that. It’s kind of relaxing for people to go, “Okay, we’re gonna admit this isn’t a great movie. Let’s see what happens.”

AC: This is not the first big milestone for MST, but do you spend any time thinking about that first show on public access 30 years ago? Any strong memory that resurfaces as you get closer to Thanksgiving?

JH: Oh yeah. I mean, before that, we did a pilot. It was like a proof of concept, cause we had to demonstrate it to the station manager at KTMA. His name was Don O’Conner. And it was really an abstract idea at the time. It was really hard to explain to people. It was really hard to explain to people who were working on it. Some of the people in the cast said, “I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t quite get it.” So getting to make the proof of concept really got us all on the same page. And it’s all there in the little pilot we made. We used The Green Slime, which is a really fantastic bad movie. The doorway sequence is there. The robots are there. The silhouette’s there. There are like three riffs. I mean, it was such a moving target. How do you know where to put the jokes with a thing that’s moving? It’s like, you can’t write a script, ‘cause then you’d have to write the entire movie out and then you’d have to write the riffs in and then you’d have to practice. So that was the hardest part: How do you do it? It’s like logrolling. How do you describe logrolling? You just have to kinda start. So that’s what I remember the most, just how abstract and weird it was. And then once we figured it out, then everybody caught on, and then everybody went, “Oh, I get this,” and everybody was off and running.

AC: Right. But as an audience member, you think, “That’s the easiest part, figuring out where to throw in the wisecrack, the funny joke.”

JH: Yeah. Over time, it did become easier. But to start, there was a thing called the SMPTE code, which is the timecode, and back then, the SMPTE code was like computer code. It was two digits at the end, which were 29 1/2 frames, so it was a frame rate, and that was used by an editor. So that’s clicking by 30 times a second. The next set of digits is the seconds. The next set of digits is the minutes. The next set of digits is the hours. So you have eight frames all moving at different paces, and trying to land jokes was very complicated. That was the weirdest part about it. That was the hardest part about it. And in the course of the 24 shows we made locally, we figured it out. But that was the workshop where we got it up and running.

AC: You’ve talked about bringing back the brand. I know it really matters to you that this property and concept and the characters and everything remain alive and special. In bringing the show back with new characters, new performers, new writers, so it feel like the true MST?

JH: Well, I didn’t feel like I had to police it very carefully. I think the big thing was the backers who funded the show giving us license to use all-new people. Because the show ran for 11 years, it was off the air for 17 years, and people began to look at that as the universe for the show and say, “It’s either got to be Joel or Mike. What’s it’s gonna be: Joel or Mike? Joel or Mike – you gotta tell me. Mike or Joel? Joel or Mike?” And I was sitting there, going, “Well, I shouldn’t do it. I’m 56 years old” – I’m 58 now, but I was 56 then – “and I shouldn’t do it.” You know, we don’t want to write a love letter to the past. That wouldn’t be fair. So [it was a big thing for] them to say, “Okay, go for it. We’re gonna let you do this.” And to get all-new people and put them in that position and see how they cared about it. I didn’t have to do anything as far as policing people or saying, “We’re doing this for this specific reason, and pay attention to what I’m saying, because I’m telling you what has to be here." It was more like, “Oh, yeah, let’s make it funny. What’s the funniest thing we can do? What’s the most interesting thing we can do?” That was the question.

And some of it was just letting it happen. because in the fabric of Mystery Science Theater, I don’t always know the riffs or understand them. It’s always been that way. And the same with now. Like [the new writers would] write jokes about the Kamoani, Komoni, Konami Code – do you know what I’m talking about? The Konami Code? There’s some game code that they all knew, and they’d write it into the show, and I’d say, “I don’t know what the Konami Code is,” and they’d go, “Oh, it’s this thing from video games from the late Nineties.” And I’d go, “That sounds hilarious, but I don’t know what it is.” So they take responsibility for those riffs. I don’t have to understand them all. I just have to trust the people writing them that they’re doing their best to be funny. And it works.

AC: Any lessons you picked up from the first Netflix season that you incorporated into the second?

JH: Oh yeah. I mean, doing the first season was so hard, because it was a whole new set of rules just as far as filming goes. And we had to hit the ground running. In the original show, we got to wade into it over time. It was our own creative art form, so there was no expectation and we got to develop it at our own pace. But in the [new] show, we had to go from 0 to 60 and basically create a new way of producing it and a new way of writing it. We made 14 feature-length episodes for that first season, and once we got through that, doing the second season was so much easier. We’d been on the set. We knew where everything went. We knew how it felt when we were doing it right or wrong. So doing it a second time was way more fun and our chance to breathe a little bit and go, “We stuck the landing. People like it. They signed off on it. They’re giving us good marks on what we did. We don’t have to fret about it.” ‘Cause that was a really weird thing: What are they gonna think of this? Will this work? More than anything, it was, will the diehard fans go, “You guys did it. You brought it back. It feels like the old show.” Once we got past that, everything got much easier.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live 30th Anniversary Tour with Joel Hodgson and Jonah Ray lands in Austin Sun., Nov. 4, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress, with two films: The Brain at 3pm and Deathstalker II at 7pm. For more information, visit the Paramount Theatre website..

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Robert Faires
Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Lessons and surprises from a career that shouldn’t have been

Sept. 24, 2021

"Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams" Tells the Story of an Artist
The first-ever museum exhibition of Daniel Johnston's work digs deep into the man, the myths

Sept. 17, 2021


Mystery Science Theater 3000, MST3K, Joel Hudgson, Jonah Ray, Netflix

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle