The legendary comedian on the impact of Star Wars, bringing back his cult show, and more.
There's been an awakening. Have you felt it? A beloved sci-fi saga is finally returning. It's got robots, good guys, bad guys, spaceships, weird aliens, and strange creatures. And it touched a generation with its wit, inventiveness, and heart. That sci-fi saga, of course, is the classic TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. (What else could it be?)
The show that essentially invented movie riffing, MST3K was the brainchild of comedian/creative force Joel Hodgson, who combined the concept of talking back to the screen with a creature-feature-show aesthetic for something brand new. In MST3K, Joel Robinson (played by Hodgson) and his robot friends Tom Servo and Crow -- up in space on the Satellite of Love -- were forced by the evil Dr. Forrester and his assistant, TV's Frank, to watch bad movies. A kind of bad that, prior to MST3K, most people didn't know existed. Sitting in a theater, Joel and company would lob smart, cutting jokes at the unbelievably terrible films before them, and the rest is TV (and comedy) history. The show would run for 10 seasons and feature cast changes (including head writer Mike Nelson taking over as host after Hodgson's departure), but its clever humor, references both common and obscure, and overall brilliance was a constant.
Amazingly, the series is set for a revival. Along with another edition of MST3K's annual online Turkey Day marathon this Thanksgiving, Hodgson has led a Kickstarter campaign to fund new episodes of the show. The campaign met its first goal in less than a week, guaranteeing three new installments; if further goals are met, the world could get its first new season of MST3K since 1999. Sometimes, the Internet can do magic things. (See the Pod People episode for an explanation of that reference.)
If any elements of MST3K sound familiar to fans of a galaxy far, far away, that's for a good reason: Star Wars made a huge impact on Hodgson. With all the new developments surrounding MST3K, StarWars.com took the opportunity to speak with Hodgson about how Star Wars influenced and was incorporated into the series, get the latest on his show's comeback, and learn how his robot pals would have handled a key rebel mission.
StarWars.com: As a fan, I knew that MST3K has had a ton of Star Wars references over the years. But I did a little research and it looks like there's been at least one reference in every season going back to the KTMA days.
Joel Hodgson: Yeah!
StarWars.com: Were you all fans?
Joel Hodgson: Well, I can just speak from my experience with Star Wars. When it came out, I was in high school. I think it was my senior year, and I remember the night we went to see it. It was like a concert. It was like an experience.
I remember seeing the trailer, and I remember trying to remember the trailer, and especially Chewbacca. And I remember having a hard time even conjuring a memory of what he was. It was such a new vocabulary that I couldn't even grasp it. In a way, I couldn't even remember parts of it. That's how new it was and how provocative it was.
You know, I really am from that generation. When [Star Wars] started, I was just about to go into college and it just changed my life in a really profound way. I think Star Wars was so much about making. Part of its PR was reiterating how they did everything. I remember watching a documentary about Star Wars, and that's one of the places where I learned about kitbashing. Kitbashing is how I made the robots from Mystery Science Theater. I absolutely saw that and retained it and thought, "That's a really great way to make characters."
So that came from that, but also the premise of Tom Servo and Crow. You know, if I would have painted Tom Servo blue rather than red, it would've been a really clear analogy to R2-D2 and C-3PO. [Laughs] They're really similar. That kind of fits, too, where I see them traveling through time and the hosts keep changing, but Crow and Tom Servo remain. I think that was another idea from Star Wars.
StarWars.com: Pod People is one of my favorite episodes. I just rewatched it, and it has three Star Wars riffs alone. I was wondering: What would you think of a Trumpy/Jar Jar Binks buddy cop movie?
Joel Hodgson: [Laughs] That's awesome. I love it.
StarWars.com: You'd buy a ticket to see that, right?
Joel Hodgson: Oh my God, are you kidding? Yeah!
StarWars.com: You're clearly a visual person. You can see that in MST3K. What did you make of that aspect of Star Wars when you first saw it?
Joel Hodgson: The first time I saw it, it really was like a blur. Given the world pre-Star Wars, you didn't have anything to compare it to. The lexicon was a very thin manuscript, and then Star Wars was this very dense, really well-designed world. And I have to say, it's a bit like doing improv. When people do improv and they're doing it right, they have no memory of what they said. And I think watching Star Wars was a similar experience, where I would have a hard time putting it back together.
Then, there was all this stuff like fanzines and documentaries, and then you're able to go through it. That's when I really remember learning it, and going, "Oh, this is how they did the X-wing fighter, and this is what was happening when it went into that trough on the Death Star. That's how they did it." You started putting all the pieces together, but as it's happening, you just can't. And again, this is all contextual to the time, because now it's kind of quaint because we're so used to it and we know how they do everything. But back then it was just a beautiful collage of all these techniques, really primitive things and really sophisticated things. It was really an amazing tour de force of its time. Obviously, the storytelling is really fantastic, too, but I think that's invisible to most people. It was really invisible to me. I was just kind of taken with, "How do they do that? How does Chewbacca work? How do you get his mouth to do that?" That's the stuff I was interested in. How do you make all that?
StarWars.com: What about the universe aspect of it? When you step back from MST3K and you see all the characters in it -- the Mads, you and Mike, all the bots -- you get the feeling that there's actually a universe in MST3K. Did Star Wars influence you in that regard?
Joel Hodgson: Yeah. I think so. I really believe that Mystery Science Theater is a world and it's a universe and it's an expanding universe. It's just been so dormant for so long that nobody's been able to care for it. I think it's waiting to happen. And people think that way too, now. There's the Marvel universe and the Star Wars universe, and so it's accepted that when you have something that works, you can expand it.
The Star Wars universe plays really big into Mystery Science Theater. The Star Wars universe is so big and the Mystery Science universe is so flipped, but at the same time it behaves like it's in the same world. If there's a fictional world as big as the Star Wars universe, there can be a movie riffing world that's as big. I just have a feeling that somehow, it's connected.
StarWars.com: I'll call the Story Group for you and see if they'll make MST3K canon within Star Wars. I'll see what I can do.
Joel Hodgson: Oh, that would be funny. [Laughs] Yeah.
StarWars.com: At this point, you have a bit of a relationship with Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic. We have Flecks, which is our own movie riffing crew, and you've performed here.
Joel Hodgson: I gotta tell you, the weird thing about it is, when I [first] got invited to do Flecks, they had created this phony baloney award to get me up there. It was really interesting because I'd just started talking to the guys at [movie riffing troupe featuring MST3K alums] Cinematic Titanic about [forming], and as I was talking to Flecks, I remember saying, "Oh, yeah, I'll come up, but you guys have to book Cinematic Titanic at Lucasfilm."
So that was actually our first gig, and it was really interesting, because what we learned at Lucasfilm was that movie riffing works great live. That was the first time we had really demonstrated it to ourselves, to the point where we actually recorded our first Cinematic Titanic in L.A. and then we went up to San Francisco and performed it live, and there were so many jokes that we actually went back and recorded a bunch of new jokes and laid them into our first riff. That's when it dawned on us, "You know, we're much better live than recorded. We should really focus on that." Cinematic Titanic really became about riffing live in the room, and that's the day it kind of happened. So that was a big thing.
StarWars.com: I was there when you did your one-man show, Riffing Myself, for Flecks. You promised you would come back and riff a movie with us. Is that gonna happen?
Joel Hodgson: But I did do Zardoz. Were you there when we did Zardoz? I loved it.
StarWars.com: No, I missed that one! Well, now you have to come back again.
Joel Hodgson: [Laughs] Okay, yeah.
StarWars.com: Now, the big news. You've reached your first Kickstarter goal, so MST3K is officially coming back. I just want to know how you feel right now.
Joel Hodgson: Well, I'm over the moon, man. It's just amazing and we did it really quickly. We're about, I dunno, 45 percent of the way there, to get to our final stretch goal. So I'm thrilled and just really happy and really grateful.
StarWars.com: I've always thought that one of the strengths of MST3K was that it was not afraid to evolve. Host segments could change format, the cast changed. Have you given any thought to aspects of the show that you might want to change, or keep evolving?
Joel Hodgson: One of the things that I think about is, it used to take us a really long time to get to the movie. We'd do the invention exchange, and then after I was gone, they'd do sketches that were really long before you got to it. I'm a little self-conscious about that. I kind of want to get to the movie faster than we used to, but still have just as many sketches. That's the one overall note that I'm interested in experimenting with, which is, what does that feel like? Because that's what we're famous for, is movie riffing, so that's what we want to give people.
[Another aspect is] just like BB-8 in the new Star Wars. Very captivating and yet very reminiscent of what you remember. You know, when I saw that thing and it could perform in-camera, I was just going, "Holy cow. That's really spectacular." So much of Mystery Science Theater has always been practical effects, and I was really glad to see that being a big value for the new Star Wars. To create physical space, there's just something about it. It's good for actors, it's good for everybody on the set. Everybody understands what's happening, and it forces people to really plan. You can't kick problems down the road and fix it in post. That's a big thing for MST, too. As far as new things go, we're just going to be pushing on that level more than ever.
StarWars.com: It's interesting that you mentioned BB-8 and practical effects. Something that I think people love about MST3K is that there's a handmade quality to it, which gives it a certain warmth. It's something that the show offers that you don't really see many other places.
Joel Hodgson: I want to be really careful how I answer that, because I don't want to inhibit the growth of it. It's been 20 years since I really got to play with Mystery Science Theater, and I think that look that you're talking about was really our version of rapid prototyping. The way I made the robots out of found objects.
I'll give you an example. I am tinkering with a few new robots just to slowly integrate them in. I built them the same way; I built them with found objects, but then, I also 3D scanned them and was able to do paint jobs and see what they'd look like in different colors, and I think it would be a mistake to not use those tools to bring the ball forward. I don't want people to feel like it's arrested in the '90s. The universe of the show is still that miniature-golf-course aesthetic, and so, everything really exists. But we're gonna use 3D printers, we're gonna use CNC machines. It's not like the arts-and-crafts movement where we're gonna insist that people have to spray things with krylon paint like we used to. [Laughs]
But that was a gesture that made a lot of sense for us, and I know that people like it. So to address your question, we're really going to amplify that. There's going to be more models and more of that in-camera world.
StarWars.com: I think we kind of saw that growth a little bit when you did the sketch for the Godzilla Vs. Megalon replacement disc, and we saw Tom Servo hover for the first time.
Joel Hodgson: Yeah. The cool thing about that is, in the theater, Tom's really going to be able to fly. Crow's going to be able to walk around and climb up the side of the theater. They're going to be much more animated. Crow's got a jet pack, too, so sometimes he can go fly around with Tom. So, absolutely. More than anything, the world is more visual than it was 15 years ago, and Mystery Science Theater is a very visual show, so I just want to make sure that's intact more than anything.
StarWars.com: One of the reasons that I've always felt MST3K resonated with people -- and it might be strange asking the creator this question, because I'm not sure if when you're in the middle of it, you're aware of it -- is that it always had a very positive spirit. Especially considering that you're movie riffing, which could easily turn into something cynical, and it never really did. The show promoted creativity, it promoted original thought, and it just had fun built into it. I'm curious if you're aware of that and if it's something you're eager to hold onto as you bring the show back.
Joel Hodgson: Well, I really like the way you frame the question, because I just think we always wanted to avoid being cynical. When we started, it was kind of the beginning of cable, and I think there were a lot of forces that said, "Oh, you gotta be edgy! Now that it's cable, you can say and do anything." They treated it like it was some kind of liberty. "It's your constitutional right to be dirty!" We just kind of bristled at that. We just went with our strong suit, and we just didn't want to go there.
We never had any meetings about tone, we just had a very unique way of editing ourselves. There was no arbiter that edited the material. It wasn't me, it wasn't Mike [Nelson]. Within the room, anybody could say, "I don't like that joke, let's take it out." It was anybody's right to take it out, and we always had plenty more jokes. I think that had a lot to do with it, just staying light, and everybody respected it.
I don't know if I tried to design that in there. I think it just happened naturally.
StarWars.com: Well, it's the type of thing that would be hard to design into it and do consciously. It probably comes out of the type of people that you are.
Joel Hodgson: I think you're right. I really think you're right, and it would be so fake if somebody said, "Remember, we've got to be positive." [Laughs] It would just seem so controlling. We had to make the show so fast; we made a new show every eight days, and so, it was really kind of us. It was what we thought was funny and the way we wanted to do it.
It just worked out and, again, I really appreciate the way you framed it. Really, my theory of art is, people find meaning in your work if they're used to finding meaning in your work, but you can't insert meaning into your work. That's not the point of it. The point is to do an expression and then, on the other side, that's someone else's job to put the meaning in.
StarWars.com: You came back to MST3K for the 20th anniversary, which was really meaningful for fans. Now we're here. How do you feel about that journey and what do you want to say to fans?
Joel Hodgson: You know, I'm really grateful for a second chance. I felt kind of unsatisfied having to leave the show when I did, and so I'm really just super glad they're up for me coming back and they're supporting me. I really care about it. I really want it to get back to normal and get back to being in the world again. That's been a big job, and I think that probably started at least six years ago when I came back for the 20th. That was the beginning of it. It's taken a really long time, but that's okay.
StarWars.com: I have one more question for you. In Star Wars, Princess Leia gives the Death Star plans to R2-D2 and C-3PO. What would happen if she didn't have Artoo and Threepio, and she gave them instead to Tom Servo and Crow?
Joel Hodgson: Oh, I think they would just think they were really smart, and they would go right to Darth Vader. They would just turn right around and go, "You know what, this is way more valuable if we just talk to Darth Vader."
StarWars.com: They'd pick what looks like the winning side.
Joel Hodgson: [Laughs] Yeah. "We know Darth Vader will pay us. What do we get if we stick with Princess Leia? We know her take on money. She's not gonna pay us." So I just think that would be their move. [Laughs]
StarWars.com: It would have made for a very different movie.
Joel Hodgson: [Laughs] It would have, yeah.
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content writer, and spends his days writing stuff for and around StarWars.com. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.