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.”

But what of the old cast?

This is something Joel has been adamant on, the importance of infusing fresh blood and perspectives into both the on-screen and writer’s room roles of the MST3k reboot. In terms of reaching a modern audience, that may well be the way to go in creating a show that is relevant in its humor. It’s also, however, the source of the largest sticking points of criticism among the MST3k faithful: The participation, or lack thereof, of all the other actors and writers who helped create almost 200 episodes of the original series. Those fans are understandably wondering about a whole laundry list of names: Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Josh Weinstein, Paul Chaplin, Bridget Jones, etc, etc.

There have already been pieces written trying to portray the lack of confirmed participation as a supposed rift between Hodgson and former cast members/writers, but I’m not sure this is the case, or at least not universally. It doesn’t make much sense, after all, for Mary Jo Pehl to be posting the link to the Kickstarter on her Facebook if she’s not supporting it. Likewise with Josh Weinstein and others, who noted they wouldn’t be participating but still posted the link and attempted to send patronage toward the Kickstarter in a clear show of support. Nelson, Corbett and Murphy, meanwhile, have their own movie-riffing project to manage already—it’s not like they’re about to stop doing Rifftrax, which has blossomed into a very successful and cherished organization in its own right.

Still, it feels like perhaps some aspects could have been handled better. The tweets sent out after the announcement by Nelson, for instance, seem to suggest that he and other former cast members didn’t even know anything about the Kickstarter before it went live, which begs the question of what the harm would have been in at least floating the idea of participation in the new series before it was announced. The Kickstarter organizers must have known that the second it went live, hundreds of messages would be sent toward the likes of Nelson, Corbett or Trace Beaulieu, asking if they were going to be involved. This is a cult show, after all. Perhaps if these performers and writers had been consulted before the project went live, then their responses would have been something akin to “Hoping to participate, fingers crossed!” Instead, you had Trace Beaulieu posting that a cameo “won’t be happening.”

This is all very premature, however. Hodgson maintains that they’ll be reaching out to all the former cast for potential participation, and he’s a guy who has earned plenty of goodwill from the geek community. Or in short: He’s working on it.

“You gotta remember that there’s a complicated history here, for money reasons and other reasons,” he said. “I can’t promise whether any specific person will join, but we’d like to have them all. I hope once the campaign is over, we’ll be able to have a real talk about it and make it make sense for them. Keep in mind, when we started this I was 28 years old and single, and we could dedicate all of our time to it. Now everyone has all of these different responsibilities. I feel comfortable in saying that everyone is invited back, and we’ll be reaching out to everyone and be able to pay everyone well for their time.”

The relevance of MST3k

So let’s just table that casting discussion for now, shall we? Instead, let’s ask another question that is probably more pertinent to this new show’s success: Is 2015 a good market for MST3k?

I can’t help but think the answer is “Yes.” For years, I’ve been telling friends, family and pretty much any passerby who would listen that an MST3k revival of some kind actually makes more sense now than it ever did in the early ‘90s. Perhaps not in terms of finding 2 hours of open space on a major network, but in terms of potential viewership, sure. Think back to 1990, vs. 2015. The world we’re living in today is exponentially more geeky. It is nerdier in ways that no one could ever have predicted, with bastions of nerd culture having become commonplace and co-opted by popular culture in general. This is a world where nearly every summer blockbuster is a Marvel or DC comics adaptation, the highest-rated show on cable is a zombie-drama that occasionally beats Sunday Night Football in the ratings and there’s a booming online business in cute little Cthulhu plushie dolls.

It should also be noted that MST3k is a property with a huge, rabid fanbase, but the potential untapped fanbase is even bigger. The concept of movie riffing itself is so much more accessible and instantly understood by the younger portion of the millennial generation. These are the kids and comedians who pioneered say, the art of live-tweeting in the last decade. And what is live-tweeting but simply following the formula that MST3k laid out? The original series on Comedy Central and Sci-Fi Channel was simply ahead of its time in introducing a new style of comedy. In 2015, the world has caught up. And Joel agrees:

“I totally agree with that,” he said. “It’s really weird when you think about how 30 years ago there wasn’t that much stuff for geeky people out in the open, and now it’s like the world has adjusted to it. I’ve worked Comic-Cons, and it’s a family thing now, people bringing their kids. There’s a few geeks out there reproducing, and we’re really grateful for that.”

Why, then, try to bring back MST3k via Kickstarter, possibly in an online streaming fashion, when there’s presumably a TV network out there that would take a gamble on the show with such an active fanbase? Wouldn’t Adult Swim, SyFy or say, FXX jump at the chance?

“People are definitely interested, but I think working with the fans is the right tone for the show for now,” Hodgson said. “I felt obliged to go to the fans first instead of a network. Doing this is really the path that felt like the most MST3k way, because the fans helped it so much in its original run. I was afraid that if we started out at a network, we might not get to make the show that the fans want. I certainly don’t want a network interpreting the fans for me.”

And so, what we’re left with is Joel, optimistic about his chance to deliver more MST3k to those fans, to experience that old feeling of working on the show he created for the first time since his departure during Mitchell in 1993. Filming for the reboot is planned for “January 4 at 10 a.m.,” according to Hodgson, and you can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about hopefully having something to show at Comic-Con in July. As for where the show will eventually end up, he seems totally open to whichever platform will allow it to be seen by the largest audience and give its writers and performers the greatest amount of creative freedom.

“It’s really important that we acknowledge and cherish the past,” he said. “It’s not like we’re throwing anything out; we’re building on it. And maybe once we have proof that people want MST3k, we can take it to a network and show them that we know what we’re doing. I want to do 100 more shows, so whoever we can find who thinks the same way as we do and wants to make it happen, that will be the place.”

You hear that, Netflix? For the price of a box of hamdingers, you could make a million geek dreams come true.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and a lifelong MSTie. You can follow him on Twitter.