The latest tour for Joel Hodgson's movie-mocking TV creation Mystery Science Theater 3000 is special for many reasons.
The Cheesy Movie Circus Tour features new gadgets and effects for Hodgson and his robot friends Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. The two movies that will face Hodgson's firing squad include cheesy goodness like the '60s British horror flick Circus of Horrors and an '80s martial arts action movie No Retreat, No Surrender starring Jean-Claude van-frickin' Damme.
It sounds like the ultimate culmination of Hodgson's comedy and TV career — one that swims in gleeful celebration of vintage tchotchkes, childhood memories and the cinema — while bringing the ideas those things spark in his imagination to life. That's very true in one bittersweet way, because Hodgson says the Cheesy Movie Circus Tour will be his last live tour.
"It's one of those few things you can control in show business," Hodgson says. "It's like I came back to get everybody off the whole Joel, Mike, Joel, Mike thing [referring to MST3K writer and host and Rifftrax creator Michael J. Nelson] and see that there's other people who can do it and with this tour, it's all new people again and we're getting a really deep bench. That's the most important thing to me."
Hodgson's last live performance in Dallas as former marooned space cadet and bad movie warrior Joel Robinson will land at the Winspear Opera House for one night only on Sunday, Nov. 17.
Hodgson started his comedy cult creation in 1988 on a local station that ran mostly reruns in his hometown of Minneapolis. According to a Wired retrospective of the show, Hodgson went back to Minnesota after touring the comedy scene in Los Angeles with his quirky brand of retro prop comedy that earned him guest spots on Late Night with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. He went back home after he turned down an offer to do a sitcom with Michael J. Fox and didn't see a way to make it in the business without compromising his opinions and perspectives.
MST3K found its audience in 1989 when it moved to a new cable network called Comedy Central and became one of the network's first big hits. Hodgson plays Robinson — a guy "not too different from you or me" as the show's theme song goes — who is marooned in space on a ship called the Satellite of Love, where he's forced to watch bad movies as part of an evil scientist's experiment. He builds "his robot friends" to help preserve his sanity as they make fun of the movies they are forced to watch, presented as silhouettes in a dark movie theater.
Some of the more memorable episodes include cheesy 1950s and '60s sci-fi and horror movies, including The Giant Gila Monster and the kaiju classic Godzilla vs. Megalon; poorly made action and drama flicks from the '70s and '80s like Cave Dwellers and Mitchell starring Joe Don Baker as the most unlikable cop in cinema history; and the plain bad, like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Manos: Hands of Fate.
Hodgson left the show in the middle of the fifth season due to creative differences with executive producer Jim Mallon over the show's direction. He returned to the franchise with a massive Kickstarter campaign in 2017 that helped bring the show back to audience's televisions through Netflix, where it added two more seasons with comedian Jonah Ray as the show's new test subject. Hodgson says there's no word yet if Netflix will give the show a 13th season, but there's at least one more tour in MST3K's future.
"It's completely uncertain at this point," he says. "I don't know if it's going to happen or not."
Hodgson went back on tour with the MST3K crew last year after the show's first new season in almost 18 years along with Hill and comedians Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn as Crow and Tom, respectively, who also star on the Netflix show. The latest tour includes new performers like puppeteer Nate Beagle as Crow and actor Conor McGiffin as Servo and even a new puppet character.
The Dallas show will also riff on a horrible Van Damme action movie that Hodgson says is "kind of like Fight Club except this guy sees Bruce Lee and he trains him except the guy who's Bruce Lee doesn't look like Bruce Lee."
Hodgson says he wanted to do one last tour, even if part of him was dreading going back on the road.
"It's amazing," he says. "I was really afraid of it because the last tour really kicked my ass. I probably gained 20 pounds on the road and it's just tough if you're not careful eating out all the time and all that. This was really a huge challenge because I said man, I've got to drop 25 pounds and get a trainer."
The Cheesy Movie Circus Tour gives him the chance to do new, hilarious things with his puppets and comedy. Hodgson says he's already planning a Christmas tour for next year.
"We're doing all this Bunraku stuff with puppeteers in black," Hodgson says. "Crow jumps on a pogo stick, rides a motorcycle, lifts weights and walks around. Tom Servo floats around and Gypsy does some more stuff too. It's a chance to do a little more work on that stuff and do some design stuff to get it working better theatrically."
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Hodgson says his latest tour also gave him an opportunity to do some creative designing and building work, like he used to do in his stand-up career during the original MST3K run and with his Gizmonics Lab, the creative company and studio he ran with his brother Jim.
"Since this is my last chance to go out, I kind of felt like I didn't want to leave anything on the field," Hodgson says. "About six months out, I started thinking about it deliberately working on what this thing would be. There's a lot of R&D, and we had a shop for four months and a guy who was our fabricator. We made a lot of new things and tried a lot of new things. I'm lucky. I haven't been able to have a workshop since probably man, I couldn't even tell you, probably 15 years ago."
Most importantly, the tour gives Hodgson the chance to pass his comedy creation to the next generation of test subjects and robot operators.
"The whole idea is to kind of say goodbye and get it set up for new people," he says. "We already did it with the TV show, but I was always in on the live tours and this was kind of my last chance."