Twenty-five years ago this Sunday, a little UHF station in Minneapolis called KTMA debuted a bizarre movies-and-puppet show from a well-known local comedian named Joel Hodgson. The show was called Mystery Science Theater 3000, and from those humble beginnings, it blossomed into a cult phenomenon: a year later, it was picked up for national broadcast by the new Comedy Channel (which would later morph into Comedy Central), where it ran for seven seasons before transferring to the Sci-Fi Channel for three more. But even though the show has been off the air for over 14 years, it lives on. Hodgson has spent the past several years, with four more MST3K alums, touring with the movie-riffing group Cinematic Titanic; three of the remaining cast members riff on current films and moldy oldies via the Rifftrax website. And those original MST3K episodes are still being released, in multi-disc sets, by the fine folks over at Shout Factory — their latest, a five-disc “25th Anniversary Edition,” is out Tuesday, and the company just announced they’re teaming with Hodgson to bring back (in web form) the show’s long-running tradition of Thanksgiving marathons.
I had the chance to talk to Joel about the show’s 25th anniversary — why it is still so beloved (“That would take a scientist,” he assured me, “a social scientist,” but he thinks it all boils down to one point: “I’m told the show is very funny”) and how it came to be, all those many years ago.
Joel Hodgson: I had been out in Hollywood for three years… I left Hollywood and went back to Minneapolis and started thinking about a way I could make my own show, and the thing that made the most sense was to try to come up with the cheapest show possible, and that way, you wouldn’t need money, you wouldn’t need to talk anybody into it, you wouldn’t need the approval. And so basically, Mystery Science Theater came from me saying, “What’s the cheapest possible show I could create that would still be novel and bring something new, kind of have a new angle of doing something funny?” And so it started with me trying to think of a show that — well, it all just came together, basically, at that point when I realized it could be like hosting a movie show, and if I utilized the silhouette thing, the characters will kind of run not only through the host segments, but through the entire movie, and they’ll be, like, companions.
So that’s kind of the simple answer of kind of where it started, and one of the disadvantages of doing a show that had never been done before is just trying to pitch it to somebody. So I knew that if I did it locally and it was really inexpensive, it would be easier, because at the time, I was kind of famous in Minneapolis. I had left Minneapolis, I had been on Saturday Night Live as a guest, like, five times, I’d been on Letterman five times, I’d done an HBO Young Comedians special, so in Minneapolis’ terms, I was, like, one of the most famous guys there, so it was easier to talk them into letting me have a show than in Hollywood. So that’s kind of it. Anyway, yeah, that’s my answer.
Flavorwire: At what point, either in that initial run or after it went national, did you realize that you were onto something really special?
Well, I think really, the crazy thing — it first started with Jim Mallon, who was the producer of Mystery Science Theater, said, “Well, let’s put a phone number on the screen and we’ll set up an answering machine,” and this is the first show or the second show, and when we checked the answering machine on Monday, it was full. So people just reacted to it. They thought either they hated it or they liked it. Most people liked it. Obviously, when people like something, they don’t usually comment — they just ignore it. People liked it and we decided to do a fan club, and we got a thousand people in the fan club, and we got local press in Minneapolis, so really, the real kind of workshop or laboratory for Mystery Science Theater was Minneapolis at KTMA. That’s really where we figured it all out: the theme song, the story, and even movie riffing, which wasn’t super clear when we started, because I remember thinking, “Man, how much can we do? How much riffing can we do? At what point is it gonna become a big distraction to the audience? Can they multitask? Can they hear? Can they grasp what we’re doing?”
At KTMA, we ramped up really slow, like, we were just saying a few things and we were improvising it. It seemed impossible to write at that time, so we didn’t write anything. We really just went in and winged it. But at the end of KTMA, it really became clear, and especially when we cut together a sell-tape to sell to Comedy Channel. When we cut together, we cut together, like four minutes of best moments, then it dawned on me — that’s when I finally went, “Oh, yeah, I get it — the whole show’s gotta be like this.” You know what I mean? It’s gotta be all riffing. And so when we went to Comedy Channel, I just said, “Oh, we have to start writing this because my friends are gonna see it. It’s gonna be a national show, and we have to just make it better.”
So KTMA was super important because it showed us that people like it and it showed that we were onto something that worked. But then, on the national level, it was really after the first year, the first season, at the end of the year, we got in — I mean, it was amazing, because, again, this is so long ago that cable just didn’t mean much. It was kind of like sitting at the little kids’ table at Thanksgiving. It wasn’t considered at all important. Like, now, cable is stronger because it’s got a singular identity. It delivers one thing, rather than the networks, which deliver a bunch of things. So anyway, it was kind of surprising, and we started to get press, like Entertainment Weekly said we were one of the top ten shows of the year, right next to The Simpsons and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and stuff like that, so that’s when we kind of started to really — if you notice, there’s a big difference between the first season and the second season, and that’s because we actually had some clout and went and got more resources, and we got credit. Professionals were acknowledging that they liked what we did, and so you, again, see there’s a big jump between KTMA and the first season, and then the first season and the second season. The first season, I think we might’ve done four, five hundred riffs per show, and the second season, we were up to, like, seven hundred riffs, so we just got better and better over time. Each year brought more resources; people just liked it more, and so we just kind of kept going in that direction.