NUTS & BOLTS: INTERVIEW WITH JOEL HODGSON, CREATOR OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000
By Tom Joyce
Like his friend Jerry Seinfeld, Joel Hodgson was a rising comedy star in the 1980s, with appearances on Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman. Then he realized he wasn’t having any fun, and walked away from Hollywood to start a low-budget puppet show in Minneapolis.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 began as a local TV oddity, distributed fan-to-fan via mailed VHS tapes. Its fan base has grown steadily over the decades, as the show picked up a Peabody Award, two Emmy nominations, and a place on Time Magazine’s list of “100 Best TV Shows of All Time.” A recent, crowd-funded Netflix revival featuring Patton Oswalt and Felicia Day garnered 100 percent positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Fans of the show stopped by to contribute, including guest stars Neil Patrick Harris and Mark Hamill, and guest writers Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind) and Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty).
As MST3K (as it’s known to fans) raises funds for its 14th official season, Joel recently gave a Zoom interview for Nuts & Bolts, during which he shared advice for HWA members on managing a creative team, and on finding your unique voice as an artist.
ON GETTING THE BEST OUT OF A CREATIVE TEAM
MST3K has a deceptively simple premise. A human host and two robot puppets watch a movie along with viewers and make jokes, interspersed with skits on a set intentionally designed to look like a UHF station kids’ show.
But each episode requires the coordination and cooperation of many creatives, including writers, actors, animators, puppeteers, and musicians. Joel knows that some people, particularly in the entertainment business, favor a high-stress environment for best creative results. He’s not one of them.
“The most natural position for a person is for it to be a safe place and a clear direction,” he said. “It helps to find really good people. People love being together and they love making. You just got to let that happen.”
His team gets the results to show for it. With MST3K’s movie-length episodes and rapid-fire gags, the show requires about 700 jokes, or “riffs,” per episode. Joel said the show’s writing team usually produces about 7,000 during the writing phase.
“We overwrite by a large margin,” he said. “You can be a little more flip about what you find funny. It’s disposable … It’s usually just – how can you keep the stress off? How can you keep your mind from making something so ‘important’ that it’s no fun for you to work on?”
ON FINDING YOUR CREATIVE PATH
When Joel decided to start over after Hollywood, his fields of interest weren’t exactly hot commodities on the entertainment circuit – magic tricks, puppetry, and making robot sculptures out of household objects. All eventually found a role on the show he created.
In retrospect, he sees that as inevitable. Popular or not, those were the things that interested him to a point of wanting to learn more about them, so that’s the artistic path he was meant to take.
“If you find yourself being very curious about how to realize an idea after you’ve experienced it at the hands of another storyteller, the curiosity is the thing that I look out for,” he said. “How does it work? How do you express yourself and how do you get an audience to appreciate it?”
For Joel, the inspiration came from comedians like Steve Martin, magicians like Doug Henning, and puppeteers like Jim Henson. For writers, it may take the form of a genre or another writer whose work speaks to them.
“We all get hooked into entertainment, different times, different ways, where it just feels kind of magical to you and you want to participate with it. Something about it makes you say ‘I want to do that!’ … If you’re lucky, those things happen to you, and then you start pursuing it.”
ABOUT THE NEW SEASON
MST3K has a byzantine broadcast history, including homes on The Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) and The Sci Fi Channel. It was off the air for long periods without ever really going away — spawning live tours, spinoffs in the U.S. and abroad, and a feature-length movie. Meanwhile, the sheer volume of jokes per episode kept reruns eminently rewatchable for fans.
The current crowd-funding campaign is intended to fund a 14th official season on “the Gizmoplex,” an online platform that Joel and his team developed, and will last until Nov. 24.
Joel said they’re hoping to create six episodes for the new season, pending the campaign’s outcome, and they’ve already released the titles of some of the movies they’ll be riffing.
One is Battle Beyond the Stars, a Star Wars knock-off from the Roger Corman factory, with a screenplay by John Sayles and a starring turn from Richard Thomas of “John-Boy Walton” fame. There’s also “Deathsport,” another Roger Corman production starring the always-watchable David Carradine, star of the classic Death Race 2000. “It’s similar, except it uses motorcycles,” Joel said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun if we get to do it.”
And the production team has recently announced that they plan to do “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” Ed Wood’s masterpiece featuring Tor Johnson and Vampira as frightening – if strangely inert – ghouls.
For more information about the show and the crowd-funding campaign, see here: mst3k.com
Tom Joyce writes a monthly interview feature called Nuts & Bolts for the Horror Writers Association’s blog, focusing on practical advice about the craft and business of writing. Watch for upcoming interviews in which Bitter Karella, two-time Hugo nominee and creator of the Midnight Pals microfiction series, talks about writing humor and building a personal brand; and HWA Mentorship Program manager J.G. Faherty gives advice on getting the most out of your beta readers. Please contact Tom at TomJHWA@gmail.com if you have any suggestions for future interviews. For more about what he’s looking for, see here.