Comedian Joel Hodgson is best known for creating and hosting the series Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show about a marooned Gizmonics employee (Joel “Robinson”) and his pair of wise cracking robot companions. The trio are imprisoned aboard a static space station (The Satellite Of Love), where they are routinely forced to sit through reel after reel of forgotten bad movies. In 1993, Joel left MST3K in the middle of its fifth season. His final episode, “Mitchell,” became known as one of the benchmark moments of the show’s arc and is often cited by fans as being their favorite. Head writer Mike Nelson stepped in as the show’s host until the series ended in 1999. Hodgson has since watched his creation become one of the most beloved cult television shows in pop culture history. Hodgson is currently touring his one man show, “Riffing Myself,” which he’ll be performing at the historic Plaza Theater in Atlanta on August 10 and 11th. I had the opportunity to catch up with Joel to talk about his run on the series.
Tell me about Riffing Myself. What is the show about and how did it come to be?
It is kind of the origin story of the creation of Mystery Science Theater. I bought a scanner about a year ago and started scanning all my stuff-a lot of posters, newspaper articles and photos. I started to realize that in my mind, it was all coming together as a narrative. So I decided to put it together and make it into a show. I’ve been doing it once a month or so since last October.
What were some of the specific reasons why you left Mystery Science Theater?
I’ve talked about this a bit. I was having disagreements with my partner Jim Mallon, who was the producer of the show. We weren’t seeing eye to eye, so in lieu of having a big fight and potentially hurting the show, I decided to leave.
But MST was your baby.
Yes. It was my baby. That is my baby.
So why just walk away?
The only analogy I can make is the story of King Solomon. Two women had come up and claimed to be the mother of this one baby. It was decided the only solution was to cut the baby in two and give each mother a half but the real mother said, “Oh, just let her have the baby.” And that’s how he figured out who the true mother of the baby was. So, yeah. I am the mother of Mystery Science Theater. It’s my baby.
What is the secret to being a good movie riffer?
I think it’s about not being too sarcastic or too cynical about the movie. I think you have to respect it. It’s hard to make a film, even a bad one. I think a rookie’s mistake is usually, “I’m going to just complain about how bad the movie is and point out all the flaws.” I don’t think that’s what good movie riffing is. Movie riffing is kind of like creating a variety show out of the movie. You collaborate with it.
Trace Beaulieu [who portrayed Crow T. Robot and Dr. Forrester on MST] once said that the movies are like Margaret Dumont and we’re like The Marx Brothers. The Marx Brothers wouldn’t be as funny without Margaret Dumont. The coloring book version of movie riffing is real cynical and sarcastic. Sure, you can take jabs but after you’ve done other things first. You’re supposed to be the companion to the audience. No one wants to hang out with an asshole, so you have to be kind of nice. I think that’s the secret.
Is there a single MST episode where you remember the entire cast firing on all cylinders?
Yes. I really like “I Accuse My Parents.” Although, I just watched “Mitchell” again recently. That one is very funny. So yeah, those two probably.
Is it true that Joe Don Baker was actually annoyed at your treatment of “Mitchell?”
You know what’s funny? Someone who is a real Mystery Science Theater historian just told me that. I’ve always heard that story but I always thought it was kind of a myth. But supposedly, yeah. The poor guy had never heard of it. I guess when you’re Joe Don Baker, you go: [impersonates Joe Don Baker] ‘What? There’s a show that makes fun of movies and the funniest one is my movie?’ I think that would be sobering and unsettling for him. So yeah, I didn’t think the story was true but someone I trust told me it is, so I believe it is now.
That’s kind of like Joe Dimaggio being angry at Simon and Garfunkel for the line in “Mrs. Robinson.” Apparently, it needed to be explained to him.
Do you have a favorite Mike Nelson episode?
Oh, Sure. “Final Sacrifice,” man. That one is real strong. Also, I really like “Werewolf.” It’s funny. A guy named Daniel Griffith, who actually told me the Joe Don Baker story (laughs) is doing an event at DragonCon. It’s a Mystery Science Theater slumber party. Anyway, he asked me to pick five episodes for the event, and I made every other one a Mike episode. The ones I mentioned are in the set plus “Mitchell” and “I Accuse My Parents” but since it’ll be like Midnight Of The Soul (chuckles) because people will be really tired, I also included “Manos: The Hands Of Fate.” I just screened them all to be sure they are the way I remember them. It just made me real envious. I wish I could have spent more time with the show because as time went on after I left, they got more resources and of course as you keep doing it your skill level just gets better so I often think, ‘Oh, I wish I could’ve done that.’
So you regret having left?
Yeah, man. It was like a big personal tragedy. It was miserable. I felt like it was a real public failure- feeling like I had to leave but not wanting to, really.
What was the last straw that led you to leave the show?
We were working on the Mystery Science Theater Movie. Jim Mallon came to me and said,
“I think I should direct this movie.” Then he said, “And you can be an Associate Producer on it.” And I told him I didn’t think that was accurate to the history of the show. So it kinda started with that. That was the tipping point for our problems. So I thought [leaving] was the way to deal with it because I didn’t think I could maintain from the inside while I was working on the show. Also, I think part of the success of the show was I was always really happy when we were making it and I didn’t think I could keep doing that if I were having those kind of internal struggles. So that’s kind of my nutshell answer on that.
Because the show was built from repurposed information, was it difficult to obtain the rights to it when it came time to put out the DVDs?
Originally, my premise was to only use public-domain movies but Jim Mallon told us we could talk over the movies the station had already licensed. Then when we went to the Comedy Channel , which of course later because Comedy Central, they cleared all the rights to the movies but we didn’t know they would have this afterlife of downloads and DVDs. So now, Shout! Factory, which was founded by Richard Foos-the guy who started Rhino Records-they have a dedicated attorney who gets the rights and we pay a royalty for the films we use.
Is it true the Gamera movies are the hardest to acquire?
They are. They’re real strict about that stuff in Japan. There was also a big problem with a Godzilla title. That was really bad because they had to recall a bunch of DVDs because we didn’t quite have the rights. They [the Japanese] take those films very seriously. In that world, those films aren’t exactly supposed to be funny. I just think what we did didn’t translate over there. I think once it does they’ll open up about it. It’s harmless. We don’t damage their movie. Everybody is okay after it.
You’ve always been a great lover of rock and roll. What are you listening to now?
This morning I was listening to Metal Guru by T. Rex. In fact, I listened to it a bunch of times in a row because I just couldn’t believe what an amazing song it is. I’m going back into the Marc Bolan catalog again because I want to get my head around it. He was the guy who pretty much came up with Glam Rock. That was an amazing time. I think in a way [the Glam rockers] were really trying to emulate movies. Why not? The idea of arena rock was very much like the movies. They were telling a story. Look at Bowie with Ziggy Stardust and Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare actually was a movie. And what about Kiss?
Can’t get much more cinematic than Kiss-prime.
You know, I think Paul Stanley is far more interesting than Gene Simmons.
Well, first of all he’s put up with Gene Simmons. (Both laugh) But he’s just an incredible front man. I was listening to some album where they were playing with an orchestra and believe it or not, it makes perfect sense! He [Paul] is in front of the whole thing. I just think he’s the secret sauce in Kiss, much more so than Gene Simmons.
One more thing. Is it true that Crow T. Robot was named after a Jim Carroll song?
Yeah! The song “Crow” from the Catholic Boy album. It is a great album.
Yes it is. Can not wait to see you in Atlanta. Thank you for talking to me.
You’re welcome. It was fun.