How did countercultural phenomenon Mystery Science Theater 3000, the inspired '90s science-fiction puppet TV show about watching and ribbing schlocky movies, become a pop-culture standard? It's hard not to marvel at the scope of the show's influence given how quickly Joel Hodgson, the creator and original host, raised $2 million on Kickstarter to revive his brainchild. (At last count, Hodgson's ongoing campaign is closing in on 4 million.)
Hodgson played Joel Robinson, a spaced-out worker drone/inventor who was banished to a remote space station and sentenced by his hard-hearted bosses to watch whatever corny movies they felt like sending to him. Robinson watches films with Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, his two robot-puppet companions, and “riffs” in real-time for our pleasure.
One possible reason for the show's enduring success: Robinson's tongue-in-cheek humor is essentially warm even if many of his jokes are at the expense of the films' makers, stars, and cheapness. We talked to Hodgson about the appeal of talking robot puppets, cheesy movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate, and marijuana.
Viewers often seem to take for granted the practicalities that informed your choice of films. In terms of putting together the show, what factors took greatest priority? Space between dialogue, quality of soundtrack, or other elements?
Back in the day we'd turn over a new show…I think it was about every nine days. Every nine working days. I think it was even seven. But there wasn't really a lot of time back then to fret over that. And it wasn't exactly easy to compare movies, since everything was on VHS. You couldn't go on Amazon and scroll through so many movies. We created a kind of rule book of really simple rules, like “The movie needs to tell a story.” The story satisfies something for the audience, and allows them to make jokes. Sound's gotta be good, picture's gotta be good. Because if you can't see or hear what's going on, you can't riff on it. And also, there are just some elements that people attach to certain characters, certain monsters. A lot of these elements go together to find a movie that will work. But a lot of times we'd be watching a movie, and within 15 to 20 minutes would say, “Okay, let's do it.” And that's the last we saw of it until we were riffing on it.
Your style of humor was always pointedly light. Even when you take on the dated sexism inherent in a PSA like “The Home Economics Story,” you joke, “Kegs will be tapped, men will be used,” rather than lecturing us in joke form about women being objectified or treated like bimbos or sluts. Would you agree that there was a reformative aspect to some of the show's jokes? That is, you gently corrected, rather than competed with some of your film choices' more dated aspects?
That's the nature of play. If you go right for the obvious joke, it doesn't give you any place to go. There are so many other angles to work. And you pretty much exhaust everything if you say the most blunt, direct observation. It reminds me of when Michael Scott does improv in The Office. Everybody hated him because his whole improv thing was to pull out a gun and shoot somebody. He just repeated that endlessly. He thought it was super funny, but it's just not good improv. So me saying the most blunt, direct thing is like me pulling out a gun and shooting it right away.
There were, however, some early, uh, un-PC jokes at the expense of the Japanese human protagonists in the early Godzilla episodes. In your 1999 AV Club interview with Keith Phipps, you say that you don't have the recall to chapter-and-verse all the movies that you riffed on. But are there any jokes that you look back on and regret?
I'm sure there are. We did 700 jokes a movie, sometimes 800. And I'm certain that if we crawled through…what is that, like 100,000 riffs? 200,000 riffs? I'm certain there's stuff in there that I'd regret if I looked at it really closely. But that's the nature of the show as opposed to a half-hour sitcom where there might be six jokes in it. We had so many that people tended to gravitate towards the ones they like. And if they don't like 'em, they ignore 'em because they know something else is coming. But that format could have saved us, the way that information comes at you as opposed to the way you watch a traditional sitcom or sketch show.
Mystery Science Theater is often spoken about in reference to the phenomenon of “ironic spectatorship,” the idea that people go out of their way to see and mock bad culture. But is it possible to watch a film ironically, or at least with complete ironic detachment? Eventually, you stop judging the film you expected to see, and start seeing the film in front of you, right?
I didn't invent the concept of “ironic viewing;” I saw that happening in the culture. They used to have midnight movies and arthouse cinema when I was in college in the early '80s. And they would show movies like Robot Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space at the arthouse cinema. That's where I got the first glimpse of an ironic viewing. I think what people like about Mystery Science Theater is that it's the first show about an ironic viewing. There's a lot of layers to it because irony and affection can blend often. That's a big part of it.
The thing that I think is lost on a lot of people is: It's almost impossible to make a great movie. And it's really hard to even make a bad movie, especially the further back you go. Now people can film on their phones and edit on their laptops. But back then, it was extremely difficult to make a movie. It was extremely technical, and very expensive. I'm always amazed that people think that if I can tell the difference between a good and bad movie, I would never make a bad movie, I'd only make a good movie. It's like restaurants: Everyone thinks “I know what a good meal is, ergo I can design a good restaurant.” And it's just not true. A movie is an array of images and ideas and people and actors and music.
The coloring book version of Mystery Science Theater is that we're there to ridicule bad movies. And that's not true. We're like a variety show built on the back of a movie.
A newly restored version of Manos: The Hands of Fate was released on Blu-ray this year. Its release as a standalone picture suggests a defensiveness about the way the film is supposed to be seen. The show's fans can obviously see the affection in your jokes, especially in an episode like Manos or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. But have people approached you with a defensive misunderstanding of where you're coming from?
That's what's driving social media: people having different opinions, discussing their opinions, fighting about it. The format of Mystery Science Theater lends itself to both. There's no one lens through which we watch the film. People see the show and know, “Oh, that's just what they did with it. I can still love [the film], too.” I haven't seen any serious people get upset with me about it. I haven't really encountered anyone who's really mad at me.
Manos is really peculiar because it's one of those amazing confections that's kind of like an accident. You get the feeling that the filmmaker is slightly out of control, that he doesn't have a grasp on what's ahead, and that's just what he's capable of. You get this anxiety if you watch the picture for fifteen minutes that turns into a malaise. It becomes this suffocating film environment. And then you kinda wonder: Is this all by design? Is there a warped genius to this, that he's deliberately making this feeling? Maybe Manos is this masterwork from some unrecognized master. You really feel like he's going to do something to you, like some extreme jump scare that's going to scare the crap out of you. But that never comes, and you realize that it's just a poorly made movie that happens to have this stifling, dreamlike environment. I've obviously had a lot of time to think about this.
I don't think our riff on Manos is particularly great. There are maybe 40 other episodes of Mystery Science Theater that are maybe funnier than Manos. But I think Manos is peculiar in that it has this true menace to it. There's something really special about it.
One of the things that distinguished your run as the host of the show is the mellowness of your character, which gave your paternal attitude towards the 'bots a funny vibe. Like you, [succeeding show host] Mike Nelson would also sometimes break up, or shush Tom Servo and Crow when they got too out of control. But when you shushed them, it felt like you were a parent who didn't realize he was hypocritically doing exactly what he forbade his kids to do. Do you ever get defensive about the 'bots in a parental kind of way?
That was the logical way to play it. When I was in seventh grade, I got way into ventriloquism. And I studied as much as I could. I was pretty capable at it. Every ventriloquist's goal is to have two dummies going at once. That's what Edgar Bergen did, Paul Winchell…every great ventriloquist has a three-way conversation. And if you look at the silhouettes on Mystery Science Theater, you'll see that they could be ventriloquist dummies; they could be sitting on my knee.
I got the way I treated the robots from the way ventriloquists treat dummies, that kind of internalized, paternal thing. Somebody's got to be the one reining in the chaotic force. Because it is parental in the face of childlike chaos. It would look silly if one of the robots were like that and I was the fun one. It just wouldn't work. That was a decision I made that really worked. Mike felt obliged to change that, which I really liked.
Fan support for your Kickstarter has been incredible. But what's the weirdest thing a fan has sent to you and/or said to you about the show?
Mystery Science Theater is really part of the culture, so a lot of younger viewers just accept it as something that's always been there. It wasn't always that way. When we first came out, people thought we were really crazy, and radical, and insane. So I think back then, fans thought, “I've got to do something they'll really remember. Working on that show must be like Mad magazine: They must have so much fun. I'm going to do something they'll really remember. So we got a box of toenails once. [pause] Yeah. I can't tell you if they loved the show, or hated the show.
People have often compared your character of Joel Robinson to a stoner. You've said that that was just accidental since in real life you were exhausted when you filmed the show's pilot, and successively just made that part of the character. But that laconic, slacker quality to your performances is also there in your early stand-up routines. What is Joel Hodgson like while high?
[laughs] It's been so long since I've done it. The thing that frustrated me most about that association is that I've always felt that stoner comedy is so lazy. And Mystery Science Theater isn't lazy. So that's kind of unfair. And it's also kind of how I am. People laugh because I talk slow. Somebody said that it was a Midwest thing, and that people who weren't from the Midwest didn't know how to interpret that. I have smoked pot in life, and I admit it. But I didn't while making Mystery Science Theater.
How does the drug affect you, if at all?
Oh my goodness. My experience is – and it's kind of unspoken – but it gives you euphoria. It actually makes you euphoric. People love that. That's the big thing I remember from it. And, in a way, if you have a few good experiences with it, you're kind of done. A friend of mine used to take acid, and he said, “You take acid until someone picks up the phone on the other end. Then you don't need to take it anymore.” I thought that was a really good analogy. Smoking pot is the same thing: Once you do it a few times, you kinda get it. The problem comes from when people rely on it too much.