Joel Hodgson on the MST3k Revival, Criticism and #BringBackMST3k

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Literally one day before Joel Hodgson launched a Mystery Science Theater 3000 Kickstarter and its accompanying hashtag, #bringbackMST3k, I was remarking off-hand to Paste editor Josh Jackson that something big and MST3k-related must be on the way. It was impossible to miss the machinations and wheels in motion, if you were paying attention. First, Mike Nelson’s Rifftrax announced that it would be selling some episodes of MST3k through its own website, finally giving Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy a way to more directly be compensated for their roles in the series. Then, Shout Factory announced it had finally and decisively pried the rights to the series away from longtime Best Brains executive producer Jim Mallon. The possibilities grew exponentially overnight.

Still, I didn’t think that I’d be on the phone with Joel some two days later, but I guess that’s just how dreams come true—when you’re least expecting it.

Yes, talking with Joel Hodgson has long been something I’ve wanted to check off my bucket list. I’d met him once before, briefly, at a performance of his “Riffing Myself” show in Chicago. I’d also had a chance to interview Mike before in the build-up to the Rifftrax presentation of Anaconda, so Joel was the other big MST3k interview I’d been waiting for: The creator of my favorite TV show of all time. Rather than simply focusing on the nostalgia, however, I knew we should spend our time discussing any of the dozens of questions that fans have about the new MST3k, a project with a $2 million minimum Kickstarter goal and stretch goals that reach all the way to $5.5 million. It is, to put it bluntly, an extremely ambitious goal that few Kickstarter projects have ever been able to match. For the record: I’ve already made my donation.

In case you’re still foggy on the details, though, let me quickly run through what we already know. The new series will not feature Hodgson on screen except in possible cameo roles, and will reboot the series with a fresh cast—a new host, new robot voices (but the same robots) and a new mad scientist tormenting the crew with terrible movies. None of the other original cast members are officially involved, although Hodgson says they will all be invited once the Kickstarter is complete and they know what kind of budget they’re working with. Shout Factory appears to officially own the show, producing the reboot “in partnership” with Joel.

“Shout! Factory purchased the MST3k IP from Best Brains for a significant sum and has entered into a new agreement with Joel to produce new episodes,” said Shout Factory founders Richard Foos, Bob Emmer and Garson Foos in a statement to Paste. “Shout is not making a profit from the Kickstarter campaign. The raised funds will go toward the production of the new episodes, backer rewards and cost associated with running the campaign.”

Shout, clearly, is covering its bases here and attempting to head off some of the fan criticism asking why they’re not financing a new MST3k series and instead leaving the number of eventual episodes in the hands of Kickstarter backers. As long as the purchase details remain undisclosed, fans will simply be left to assume that the “significant sum” involved in the purchase shows Shout Factory’s commitment to the new series. According to Joel, this is no new development, but rather the culmination of something that has been in the works for the last five years. Pressed for information on his role and title in the new show, his response was the following:

“I don’t want to say I’m the showrunner because that’s like a Hollywood term and MST3k has its own culture,” Hodgson said. “I guess you could call me creator and producer, but I just kind of hate that because it’s so outside MST3k’s culture. I’m much more excited about the show itself. I just got designs for some of the new characters and we’re working with concept artists right now, asking what are they dressing in, what are their costumes like?”

That was the tone of our conversation in a nutshell. Hodgson is clearly excited and reenergized by the possibilities of the new series, but at the same time he’s playing things fairly close to the chest. When I led off with questions about ownership and Shout Factory’s acquisition of the series, he reacted somewhat defensively, and I don’t really blame the guy—in the last week, he’s no doubt had to field these questions a million times already. Thankfully, he’s taken full advantage of his internet platform and has been forthcoming with information in both his Reddit AMA and via updates on the Kickstarter itself, which has clarified many things, such as the breakdown of production costs and how, for instance, the first three episodes of MST3k end up costing $2 million. Unsurprisingly, it mostly comes down to one-time costs of building a new show from the ground up, coupled with the simple reality of inflation.

A new host

Another topic of much speculation has been the show’s new host. All the new characters—host, mad scientist and bots—are yet to be announced, but will be revealed during the course of the Kickstarter. Internet sleuths seem fairly certain of themselves that the host will be revealed as Jonah Ray of The Nerdist podcast, but Joel is staying mum. Instead, I asked him about what kind of presence or personality a MST3k host should bring to the party in 2015. (Jonah Ray was confirmed as the new host in today’s Kickstarter update)

“Well obviously, they have to be really funny,” Hodgson said. “I saw someone write something interesting the other day, saying the host needed to be someone who can absorb 8 hours of current media a day, and that’s kind of true. You need someone with the knowledge and understanding of what’s going on in the world today, and someone whose heart is in the right place. The host and bots have to be people you want to spend time with. [The robots] are assholes, but you have to love them.”

This is a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly, and something I believe is an underappreciated aspect of the original series. MST3k is a show about making fun of bad movies, yes, but despite that basic framework, it really doesn’t revel in negativity. If anything, the host and robots find things to love about these films, which have never received any love before. After all, where would the legacy of Manos: The Hands of Fate be today without them? This is somewhere I feel Rifftrax occasionally gets a bit too confrontational—the original show wasn’t simply about criticizing faults. It was far more whimsical and innocent than that, and here Joel seems to agree, while also making it clear that the new cast need to develop their own voice.

“I thought I’d just treat the character like someone you’d actually want to spend 90 minutes with,” he said. “Ultimately in the new show though, I don’t want to inhibit anyone, because that’s where the funny stuff comes from. The big thing for me now is to sit back and see where it goes and not inform it too much. There are great new people whose work I admire coming to the reboot, and they love MST3k. We shot some stuff in LA last week and just seeing the cast together was really awesome. Seeing the new guys doing the robots, the host and the Mad, they have really developed personalities already and are different and interesting. I think that’s what had to happen.”

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