MST3K Creator Joel Hodgson Brings the Live Show to Majestic Theatre

Mystery Science Theater 3000 star and creator Joel Hodgson, second from right, is taking his groundbreaking TV comedy creation on the road with the show's new host Jonah Ray, second from left, and the bots Crow T. Robot, left, and Tom Servo, right, for the show's 30th anniversary.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 star and creator Joel Hodgson, second from right, is taking his groundbreaking TV comedy creation on the road with the show's new host Jonah Ray, second from left, and the bots Crow T. Robot, left, and Tom Servo, right, for the show's 30th anniversary. courtesy Right On! PR

For the last 30 years, your television has been able to access at least one episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, whether it's a rerun, a DVD or an unauthorized upload to the internet from the show's original seven-season run.

The critically acclaimed comedy creation concocted by writer and comedian Joel Hodgson, in which he and his robot buddies Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo mocked some of the worst movies ever made, is the textbook definition of pop culture cult. Hodgson has spawned its third iteration on Netflix for a whole new generation, and he created a new medium or genre of comedy that's still being replicated and celebrated on TV, on the internet and even on live stages.

"Everybody who wrote on it are fans of the show," Hodgson says about the team of writers he put together for the new MST3K episodes for Netflix. "They grew up liking it and caring about it, and when we came back around to it, they didn't really need any instruction from me other than little things like, 'Let's be careful how many times we reference the old show.'"

The show's fandom is so big and exuberant that they can't even wait another year for another season of new shows. So Hodgson and his crew have launched the Mystery Science Theater Live! 30th Anniversary Tour featuring Hodgson, the show's new host Jonah Ray and their robot friends mocking two terrible movies in two shows at 7 and 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2 at the Majestic Theatre.

"It's the 30th anniversary of Mystery Science Theater 3000, so we were like, 'What can we do that's special and really saying something?' And then we're like, 'Oh, wait a minute, I'm the guy who created it,'" he says. "I'm the first host and the show spans 30 years, so let's do it with the first host and Jonah, who's the latest host."

Hodgson created the show in his native home of Minneapolis following his first show business career as an innovative prop comedian in the early 1980s, one who scored appearances on HBO's eighth annual Young Comedians Special, Late Night with David Letterman and episodes of Saturday Night Live.

Hodgson used his monotone Minnesota accent and knack for building things to create stage bits and tricks out of kitschy toys from yesteryear rebuilt to his imaginative specifications. He took a Mystery Date board game and cut out the space behind the door to make himself the "dream date." He taped a wind-up woodpecker to his forehead to impersonate a tree. He could shut down hecklers by challenging them to a round of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots on stage, and when he knocked their robot's block off, he revealed that he'd glued down his robot's head.

Hodgson grew disillusioned by Hollywood's dream-crushing machine after turning down a lucrative offer to star on a failed Michael J. Fox sitcom he didn't find funny, so he moved back to Minnesota. A local UHF channel, KTMA, tapped him to create original programming for their fledgling station, which usually aired reruns of Hawaii Five-O, according to a Wired feature on the show's history. He created and broadcast the first iteration of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a two-hour comedy about a janitor trapped in space by an evil doctor who schemes to take over the world by numbing the minds of the populace with the worst movies ever made.

Hodgson played a guy named Joel Robinson, who's subjected to classic clunkers like The Crawling Brain and The Green Slime on a ship floating just outside Earth's orbit, dubbed the Satellite of Love. Joel builds two wise-cracking robots named Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo to help him make fun of the movies he's forced to watch in the name of evil science. The audience sees Joel and the bots as if they are sitting in the theater in front of them with their darkened silhouettes covering the bottom half of the screen.

A new cable network called Comedy Central picked up the show in 1989, where it slowly found critical acclaim and a massive audience. Hodgson left the show in 1993 following disputes with his fellow TV producer Jim Mallon about a planned movie version of MST3K and the direction of the show. Head writer Mike Nelson replaced Hodgson as the show's human test subject for the remainder of its run on Comedy Central until 1996 and its three years on the Sci-Fi Channel.

The show continued to have a strong shelf-life in its many years in TV reruns, on DVD and less-than-legal uploads to YouTube. So in 2015, Hodgson decided to reboot MST3K with a successful Kickstarter that raised more than $5.7 million and funded a whole new season of episodes picked up by Netflix, starring Ray as Jonah Heston, the show's third human guinea pig host. MST3K: The Return's second season will launch this Thanksgiving.

"You're kind of, in some ways, trying to come up alongside with what people expect," Hodgson says about relaunching the show. "So we just did our level best to try and respect the spirit of the show, try to innovate too, and made a few changes we thought were important. I was pretty happy with how people reacted to it."

The newest incarnation of the show picks up right where Hodgson's creation originally left off but with a bigger budget and some more familiar faces in some of the show's key roles, like Ray, Felicia Day, who plays the evil scientist, Kinga Forrester, who's the granddaughter of the evil Dr. Clayton Forrester played by Trace Beaulieu, and Patton Oswalt as Max. The first season also featured familiar characters from the show's original run, like Professor Bobo played by Kevin Murphy and the evil Pearl Forrester played by writer Mary Jo Pehl, as well as some hilarious celebrity cameos, such as Mark Hamill, Neil Patrick Harris and Jerry Seinfeld.

"It was kind of like we were doing our best to seam it together where the last season ended up and trying to acknowledge the past of the show," Hodgson says. "We were just doing our best and it's really hard because people have really strong opinions and memories and they're very abstract. So there's a certain amount of risk, but now that we're on the other side, it's totally worth it."

The live version of MST3K works pretty much the same as the TV version, except Jonah and the bots are reunited with Joel as they mock movies including the cheesy Canadian cult horror flick The Brain, about a giant brain-like alien creature that uses television to brainwash Earthlings, and the Argentine-American fantasy film Deathstalker.

"Part of it is it's a funny dance," Hodgson says when asked how he and his team pick the movies for the shows. "There's a lot of little aesthetic choices we look for, and if it's a movie you've probably never heard of or ever saw, it works better if people aren't familiar with it."

Performing a live version of MST3K also can be a bigger challenge than producing a new show for the TV series, Hodgson says.

"We have fans who go back 30 years watching us, and it's a different experience because you're not alone," he says. "You're with 1,500 people, so that means we have to approach it really differently too. It's like we're editing on the fly and we can't stop the movie."

Hodgson says whether he and his crew are working on the show's next season or putting on a live experience for the fans, he's excited to be just another face in a red jumpsuit again.

"We're thrilled that we get to go out and riff a couple of movies live," he says. "It's going to be really neat."

Tickets start at $37.
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.