Photo: Shout Factory
The first time I saw Mystery Science Theater 3000 was back in the early ’90s. My then-future-wife had gotten a bunch of VHS tapes of the show from a friend. We sat on the couch, shared a bowl of spicy popcorn, and laughed our respective derrières off.
There was nothing else like it on television. The premise: A grown man (who looked 12 years old) and two wise-ass robot puppets are trapped in space on the Satellite of Love with nothing to do but watch horrible movies sent to them by a pair of mad scientists. They maintain their sanity by making fun of the films, serving up a rapid-fire sequence of jokes and obscure cultural references, interspersed with goofy sketches featuring cheesy props and wacky inventions. Each show ended with a message encouraging fans to record the shows and share them with friends, which of course they did.
It was the birth of viral video, 15 years before YouTube.
MSTK3 started on a local station in Minneapolis, bounced between three cable networks, and finally ended in 1999 after an 11-year run and one feature film. The show’s creator and host, Joel Hodgson, left in 1993 and was replaced by head writer Mike Nelson, and various other cast members shifted over the years, but it has maintained a small but rabidly loyal cult following, known as “MiSTies.”
Now, MST3K is back. Earlier this month, Hodgson and the show’s new owner, Shout Factory, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a reboot of MST3K. At press time, they had managed to raise more than $2.5 million, or enough to produce 3.5 new episodes to be streamed across the Web.
This Thursday, they will revive a treasured MST3K tradition: the Turkey Day marathon. Six truly odious films, replete with snappy commentary, will be streamed back to back starting at noon EST.
(You can watch them all on Yahoo here. Note: You’ll have to refresh the page after the end of each film for the next one to load. What, you expect us to do everything for you?)
Yahoo Tech managed to score a phone conversation with the father of MST3K, comedian Joel Hodgson. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Yahoo Tech: Whose idea was the Kickstarter?
Joel Hodgson: The Kickstarter was my idea. I’d been working with Shout Factory trying to get the rights to MST3K for the last five years, and we finally closed the deal three months ago. I just think it’s really important to me that we start with the fans and talk to them, measure how interested they are and how much they care. If I had just done a traditional network deal and then talked to them, it didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t care whether it was 10 people or 100,000 people, I just wanted to know who they are, what they want, what their expectations are.
It seems to be going well so far.
It’s going great. We just announced the new “mad” [scientist], Felicia Day. Then we have a new evil henchman we’re announcing next Monday, who is amazing. And we also just announced the new bots, two comedians, Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount.
But why are you going with fresh blood? Why not bring back the old cast?
Oh, man, I’m 55 years old, that’s why. I think to really get into movie riffing, you need to be able to absorb a lot of media, and people in their 20s and early 30s just have way more time to absorb a lot more things. It’s the age we were when we all started. I was 28 when I started Mystery Science Theater, and Jonah [the new host] is 30. I think of it as a time when all your pistons are still firing. It’s like rock and roll. The optimum age is you’re in your 20s and you peak at 30. You don’t usually start a band with people in their 50s.
We all had a nice long run. I did 100 episodes; Mike [Nelson] did 97 episodes. I always imagined Mystery Science Theater as being like Doctor Who or Bond or Saturday Night Live, where you refresh [the hosts]. The show got canceled just as Mike was getting to the end of his run, so people never really understood that’s what I wanted the whole time.
People today have much shorter attention spans, consuming video in two- or three-minute segments. Do you think younger viewers will have the patience to sit through 90 minutes of riffing?
To me, Mystery Science Theater has always been an all-ages show, and people watch it with their families. I’m super-proud families can watch it together. I understand kids watch really short videos on YouTube. But I think of it like sports. Baseball or football games take three hours to play, but some people just like to watch the highlights on Monday on ESPN.
Mystery Science Theater works really well that way. Once people see it, they’re going to go to work extracting all the memes out of it. The day after we put out a show, there might be 100 to 200 memes released from that show. So you can produce this big thing, and then it’s the organism of the Internet to make it into smaller pieces.
If you had started MST3K today, with the Internet in full flame, what do you think would be different?
If we had Kickstarter 15 years ago, [the show] never would have ended. There were enough people who wanted it to keep going, so it would have been just like Futurama or Family Guy or anything where they kept it going because people liked it. Back then you needed a couple of [network] executives who really liked it and felt they could keep their jobs. Now it’s different. You can measure your audience and understand them. You just know a lot more about each other now.
What is going to be your role in the reboot? You won’t be on camera, so how are you going to interact with the new crew on the Satellite of Love?Well, there’s nothing for me to do as creator of the show if I’m not on camera, right [sarcastic]? There’s so much to do. We’re doing all this visual development right now for the new world of Mystery Science Theater; What does the Satellite of Love look like/ What does the lair for the “Mads” look like? Where does it all happen?
There’s costumes, there’s new puppets, and there are new creatures and characters. I’m working on a couple of robots. Sound design, music, and just the look of the thing. Casting the people, finding the head writer. Making sure everything works.
One day I won’t have to be so busy, but right now I’m the busiest guy, getting everything together.
Is there pressure to maintain the old low-budget, cheesy look, or are you going to try and modernize it?
Absolutely. The thing that served us so well is that everything was like a Saturday Night Live sketch. All the effects were done in camera, and we did everything with models. There were no digital effects and no postproduction. It really looked like a document on a specific day. I want to maintain that.
But I don’t want to make the set and the props be kind of a love letter to the ’90s. We want to make things as nice as we can and move the ball forward creatively and visually. So I’m not going to inhibit the look of it. But the way the show will be made will be all in camera and what I call “super-live,” where everything you see on camera really exists in the studio.
We want to keep it safely within the parameters of the original show while allowing us to improve and use things like 3D printers and CNC machines and do CAD drawings to design things. We don’t want to inhibit creative people; we want to use tools that are current. We don’t want to say, “Oh, this is like the Arts and Crafts Movement — we have to do everything the way we did in the ’90s.” I don’t want to do that to people.
This week on my “invention exchange,” I’m giving you a time machine. If you could go back in time and change one thing that happened since you started MST3K, what would it be?
I guess I’d invent the Internet 10 years earlier, so the show could have kept going.
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When not stuffing his face with turkey, Dan Tynan will be watching the MST3K marathon and tweeting about it.