The last time Joel Hodgson riffed a movie under the “official” banner of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the year was 1993. Mitchell was that film, and MST3K fans know it very well—beyond being one of the best episodes in the show’s first five seasons, it’s the bittersweet installment where fans said goodbye to “Joel Robinson” and hello to Michael J. Nelson as the series’s second host. It was a torch-passing moment, and one that naturally kicked off endless debates as to which host was superior. As it was with the “Kirk vs. Picard” question, so it was with Hodgson vs. Nelson.
Time, of course, makes such arguments eventually seem pointless. As the decades passed, MST3K slumbered in the cultural consciousness, with die-hards like myself biding our time by watching re-runs and ranking every single freakin’ episode, until the show miraculously returned in the form of a series from Netflix and Shout! Factory. Returned to glory, it’s currently introducing a whole new generation to the joys of movie riffing, even as the new show, with host Jonah Ray, prepares to debut its season 12 on Netflix this Thanksgiving Day.
But before that premiere comes another momentous event—the official return of Joel Gordon Hodgson to full-on MST3K riffing, courtesy of the upcoming MST3K 30th Anniversary Live Tour, which kicks off in Maine on Tuesday, Oct. 9. It’s by no means the first time in 25 years that Hodgson has riffed a movie—he did plenty of them under his own Cinematic Titanic banner in the years that followed the show’s cancellation—but it will be a symbolic return, nonetheless. It will also be quite a sight for the show’s faithful to see Joel in the old jumpsuit once again, but the now 58-year-old author and performer is trying to simply remain focused on the task at hand.
“We’re just in such a busy, crazy time for the show right now,” explained Hodgson over the phone. “We just delivered season 12 to Netflix, and we’re doing approvals on the comic book, and we’ve been working hard on getting the live show ready since mid-July. All of this stuff is happening at once, and we’re planning the 30th anniversary at the same time. It’s really crazy right now.”
As such, Hodgson is perhaps less concerned at the moment with the momentousness of personally taking to the stage again than he is with every other aspect of the tour designed to give the audience the best possible experience.
“Ultimately, the audience’s reaction has so much to do with the feeling of performing MST3K,” he said. “So all I’m really looking at now is ‘do we have funny riffs?’ Or ‘is the sound good; are the props working?’ Beyond that stuff, riffing is such a living, organic thing. It’s so much about the other people I’m riffing with, and the audience in the theater, that it’s kind of out of my own hands.”
Hodgson has always felt this way in particular about the writing process on MST3K, saying that he and the others “wouldn’t have an inkling, not in the least,” when they were working on an episode that would eventually be hailed as a series classic. Sometimes, the writers found themselves surprised that fans didn’t react more strongly to particular episodes or jokes. On the other hand, the fandom continues to embrace certain characters or episodes with passion that still surprises Hodgson to this day. It’s all part of the unpredictability of seeing one’s creation be cherished and eventually co-opted by its fandom, who likely feel a greater sense of ownership than ever after they raised more than $6 million on Kickstarter to bring MST3K back to life.
“I could lie to you and say that we all saw a certain episode coming; that I really savored writing for Pod People or something like that, but you never truly know until they’re out there,” he said.
During the live tour, the MST3K riffers will be tackling several films that were released in 1988, the same year that the show first debuted on Minneapolis public access TV. First up is Canadian monster movie The Brain, “an adorable movie about a giant brain that eats people” in the words of Joel, followed by Deathstalker II. The latter has its own MST3K connection, given that its sequel, Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell received a classic riffing during season 7, in the Mike Nelson era of the series. It likewise gets an “adorable” rating from Joel, being “full of monsters and zombies and your typical too-much-fighting-in-the-third-act” nonsense. That proved a better option than the originally announced first entry in the Deathstalker series, which had to be switched when Hodgson and co. realized just how much questionable “adult content” would have to be cut to make it acceptable.
“I think that either one of these movies would probably make a great episode of the series, honestly,” Hodgson added. “MST will work with most movies, if the writing is on point. Since we started doing the show on Netflix though, it’s different searching for films, because we’re looking for widescreen movies in Academy aperture, and they have to look good because people are watching on really big TVs. If it first the criteria, it’s fair game.”
As he prepares to return to the stage to what will no doubt be thunderous applause, Hodgson can’t help but feel thankful for the opportunity to once again be shepherding his most famous creation. Lessons have been learned since season 11, in terms of how to make a modern MST3K without the cushion of an initial season on public access TV, and Joel seems confident that the revival’s best days are ahead of it.
“Returning was tough, because we needed to hit the ground running, but I think people are going to be very excited when they see the lineup for season 12,” he said. “It’s slightly unreal that we get to do this stuff at all, to go on tour and to make more MST3K. I’m pretty thankful for that.”
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident bad movie geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.