When hopes for a new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix were dashed last November, creator Joel Hodgson assured fans, “[While] this might be the end of the first chapter of bringing back MST3K, don’t worry: It’s not the last chapter.” Shortly after that, Hodgson took MST3K on the road with a new cast which wrapped in March — just before the global pandemic hit the US and most of the country shut down.
Despite the interruption, the MST3K team got to work right away on a charity special (the MST3K LIVE Social Distancing Riff-Along) and, of course, got to work on resurrecting MST3K. Again!
Hodgson had just arrived home from the recent live tour, mere days before widespread shutdowns were enacted. Like many other things, the global pandemic interrupted the next steps necessary for bringing Mystery Science Theater 3000 back. “We were planning on recording our six live shows … How do you do that remotely? So we’re really thinking through that and we’re really going to start talking to the fan base about that. What does that look like? How do we do that? … That’s what we were going to do when we got back, is just get ready for that, get ready to do a Kickstarter. And we want to proceed really thoughtfully, because it’s such a weird time. So we just are thinking about it, figuring it out right now.”
While the live shows and the Netflix series featured different cast members, some combination of recent players and puppeteers could show up in a future MST3K incarnation. Hodgson says, “If we do these live shows, it’s a composite of Jonah [Ray], and people from the cast from Netflix, and it’s me, and it’s Emily [Marsh]. So it’s really going to be a mix. For example, the first tour we did [the Watch Out for Snakes Tour] was Jonah, right? That’s Jonah and the cast and Cynthia, who’s Rebecca Hansen. So that was those two. And then we did [The 30th Anniversary Tour] … And that one, it was kind of split between Jonah and me. So we kind of took turns riffing. And then the third one was me … And then in success, if we raise more money, if people want more, then we’re going to let Emily start doing some on her own … My impression is it’s kind of rotating with hosts. I’m going to phase myself out probably.”
The narrative is really important to me. What is the story of Mystery Science Theater? How does Gizmonic Institute fit into it? What was the purpose of Gizmonic Institute?
Of course, MST3K cast transitions have generally been given the lore treatment — longtime fans will remember Joel’s handoff to a new host, Mike Nelson, nestled in the host segments of 1993’s Episode 512: Mitchell. How could a cast shakeup fit within the current show’s structure? Should we just relax?
“It was so funny because we spent all this time [and came up with] a really great narrative as to why all this works, and how it all intersects … ‘What’s going on? Why is Jonah there? And why is Joel with Jonah? And then why is Joel with Emily?’ And so we did a whole narrative arc on that. And it’s funny because I know I put that [‘You should really just relax’ lyric] in the theme song for a reason, so I wouldn’t have to work that hard on it. But the narrative is really important to me. What is the story of Mystery Science Theater? How does Gizmonic Institute fit into it? What was the purpose of Gizmonic Institute?”
“The thing you get to do after a show’s been around for 30 years is you get to go in and kind of fit everything together and figure out, what is the story … It’s kind of getting to do speculative fiction on your own fiction.”
Despite the pandemic and the move away from Netflix, the many creative elements of MST3K are still working together on current and future projects. Hodgson explains, “Alternaversal Productions is my production company. And we really do all the intellectual property for Mystery Science Theater. [We’re] the ones who did all the creative work for the new shows. We wrote and produced the shows. And have proceeded with that for the 20 feature-length episodes on Netflix, but also the three live tours, comic book, etc. So we really generate that internally.”
“And that’s a mix of using writers from the show, but also internally there’s Sharyl Volpe who’s our operations manager and she’s a writer-producer. Same with Matt McGinnis. He’s a writer-producer. And we really worked together almost daily, working on these creative elements. And then once we get them in a good spot, then we can start bringing in the rest of the writers for projects.”
Hodgson intends to involve fans as much as possible in any future MST3K interaction, saying, “I think we have to have a really clear idea of what everything is before we offer [a Kickstarter] to the fan base. And so we’ll be doing that in the next few months and just talking to them — and basically the vehicle to do that is MST3K.org, where we’re going to promote the charity we’re working on. But also it’ll be a place where we can talk about it, and kind of just do fan engagement on a really old-fashioned roots level with just forums and stuff like that, so people can talk and we can start to survey them about ‘where is Mystery Science Theater in the year 2020?’”
That fan interaction and transparency was a sticking point with Netflix. “My only frustration I think was they had an embargo on when we were making the show that we couldn’t really keep people abreast of the making of it. We did that afterwards, you know what I mean? But that [was] really frustrating, and our fans were really gracious about it … I think that’s the thing that I would like to do over if possible is be able to bring people in on it as you’re making it.”
The overall Netflix experience was positive for Hodgson, especially in bringing attention to MST3K, “It’s amazing having 20 shows on … the biggest platform in the world? [Editor’s note: Netflix is indeed the biggest streaming platform at 183 million subscribers] … But again, I don’t really have any complaints because [it’s] grown our fan base so much more. When you think about [the way] their algorithm works, so anybody who likes Patton Oswalt, suddenly they’re getting shown MST, and then all the movies and all the content that we have in there. It really helps … It’s totally worth it. Again, it’s just so many people are getting to see it, that I just can’t see a downside at all.”
But as the gears turn in the background on a Mystery Science Theater 3000 comeback, another special has just been announced at the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Panel Panorama during IGN’s Comic [email protected] livestream to tide over fans — and raise money for a charitable cause, MIGIZI (from the press release: “MIGIZI is a Native American nonprofit organization whose main facility was heavily damaged during the violence that coincided with the George Floyd protests.”).
“I’m really lucky because I got J. Elvis Weinstein and Bill Corbett to reprise their characters [as Tom Servo/Gypsy and Crow T. Robot, respectively] and so we’re going to riff. We’re going to raise money for MIGIZI, and if we raise $10,000, we’re going to riff a short as Tom Servo and Crow and Joel Robinson … You’ll see at the end a sketch, and a doorway sequence. You’ll see us all running out of the theater … And then we’ll do a short, just like we did back in the day over 20 years ago. And have silhouettes too. So we’re going to recreate an old MST for a short. And obviously there’s stretch goals and stuff. Where we hope to raise more money.”
“I think if people pledge they get to go to have a VIP virtual screening. And then we’ll have a world premiere screening on MST3K.org that’ll be another way to raise more money. We’ll hopefully churn more money for MIGIZI on that night as well. And have stuff like that. But I’m really excited about it, and I’m really so grateful to J. Elvis and Bill Corbett for wanting to help and come back and reprise their roles.”
Until then, be sure to watch the full Mystery Science Theater 3000 Panel Panorama on IGN’s [email protected] livestream (embedded above!) and check out our full Comic-Con 2020 panel schedule. And until Mystery Science Theater 3000 (hopefully) returns: Keep circulating those tapes!
Here are some additional tidbits Joel Hodgson provided in our interview. Enjoy!
On early robot prototypes:
“The funny thing was is a lot of people don’t know this, but I’ve made about 60 or 80 robots out of found objects before I did the Mystery Science Theater robots. I used to sell them in a store in Calhoun Square called Props. I used to just make them. I made them for friends, it just was my gig. I collaged robot sculptures. And sold them. And so that was the one part of the show that I knew I could do. It didn’t take a lot of thinking. Like the other parts of the show, which is just figuring out the concept.”
On the all-nighter Hodgson pulled to create the first MST3K set:
“Long story short, the last thing I left on my list was to make the robots. And I think I pulled an all nighter to make [them]. I remember I had that moment where I saw Crow on the workbench, and it was like Pinocchio. I go, “Oh, that’s a good one. That’s definitely going to work.” Then I made Gypsy, and I made another robot that we called Beeper, or I called Beeper, which was a baby robot. And after we did the proof of concept, it’s like nobody really sparked to it. And so I brought it home and popped its head off and put a gumball machine on and that became Servo. So Servo wasn’t on that first proof of concept — but the next show we did, he was there.”
On watching weird old movies for fun in 2020 (sans riffs):
“You know, I’ve got kids now, they’re teenagers. And it’s like, with a society that is so drenched in the moving image, it’s really a rite of passage to understand the idea of an ironic viewing. Every kid goes through it. Every kid has a moment where they go, ‘Wait a minute, this movie is funny, but this movie that wasn’t meant to be funny could be even funnier.’ So I think that I’ve noticed, it’s just kind of an age where kids, it happens to them, you know? Where everybody kind of has that moment.”
On riffing over old MST3K episodes:
“I noticed this interesting thing about the first season … I think we were probably getting about three or 400 riffs a movie, and the usual Mystery Science Theater has six or 700 riffs. And so I thought, I think we could lay another layer of riffs on this. And so we did, and we added probably 150 other riffs over the top of it. So they watched it. It was really wild.” [Editor’s note: You can watch this in the MST3K LIVE Social Distancing Riff-Along which you can watch here]
“Last year at this time, last summer we had a workshop that we maintained for about six months prior to going out on the road … I do love that stuff [but] I’m not particularly great at it, I love hot gluing things together and shooting spray paint on them, but I can’t really make things roadworthy so they can travel on the road and be at 100 performances and function every night … For that you need really good mechanical people who know how to build stuff … So I was really grateful to have a couple of people like that.”
On naming the Xbox:
“Yeah, “Xbox” was a version of [a 1995 pilot Hodgson worked on] The TV Wheel. But the Xbox was the pilot. I trademarked everything except the option for games. I trademarked it for apparel, I trademarked it for TV. I just didn’t trademark it for games. But yeah, the first pilot was called Xbox… Because when you look at [the rotating stage that formed the basis of the show] from the top, it looks like an X.”
Samuel Claiborn is IGN’s Managing Editor and both fixes and breaks pinball machines in his garage. TCELES B HSUP to follow him @Samuel_IGN on Twitter.