The fruits of the meta-comedy pioneered by Mystery Science Theatre 3000 are everywhere, from The Daily Show’s news riffing to countless E! snarkfests, not to mention the director’s commentaries found on pretty much every DVD sold.
But Joel Hodgson wasn’t thinking about inventing a new strain of humor when he launched the B-movie-lampooning show, known to fans as MST3K, in 1988.
“We really kind of stumbled into it more than anything,” he said recently by telephone (from “an undisclosed location in space” — he doesn’t want fans to know where he lives). “It has to do with the nature of cable … our show worked because it was super cheap and really long.”
Adds Hodgson, “it was just one of those things where it was a fairly obvious idea to me and it was one that I had never seen before.”
MST3K first aired on a local Minneapolis cable outlet.
“Those 22 shows we did locally, I just find now they’re pretty much unwatchable, but we needed all that time to figure it out,” Hodgson said. “It’s the kind of show that you couldn’t have pitched to New York or Hollywood at the time. They would have said, ‘You want to run a movie and talk over it?’”
But the deceptively simple premise of Hodgson and his robot sidekicks wisecracking over execrable films eventually became the flagship program of Comedy Central, then known as the Comedy Channel. It won a Peabody award in 1993, Hodgson’s last year with the show (Mike Nelson took over as host until the final episode in 1999 on the Sci-Fi Channel, where repeats aired until 2004).
A couple of years ago Hodgson announced Cinematic Titanic, which stops at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord for two shows on Jan. 29. Featuring Hodgson, original cast members Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein, and former cast members Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, it’s a live version of MST3K, which hews closely to the original format. “It’s us approaching another movie, writing it today and riffing on it live,” says Hodgson, who claims the idea came from a Philip Glass concert.
Fans of the show’s frequently obscure humor won’t be surprised to hear minimalist composer Glass mentioned as an influence, along with the Muppets, comedians Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman and pop music from the 1970s. For example, Frank Zappa’s proto-snark with the Mothers of Invention and the Jethro Tull concept album Thick as a Brick figured in Hodgson’s imagination. “It was like the counterculture couldn’t make movies — they could make albums that suggested movies,” he explained of the latter. “They had to put everything on vinyl — they were recording artists. But conceptually they were almost like TV shows in a weird way.”
Ultimately, MST3K evolved through a combination of instinct and necessity.
“We kind of realized that the best show is where we’re saying things every time there’s an empty space — it kind of became obvious that that’s how we would do it,” Hodgson said. “So I didn’t really see it as a meta-comedy, like I’m going to bend comedy to fit an idea. It was more like a reaction.”
The show’s Comedy Central success spawned other productions that seemed to borrow MST3K’s technique of overlaying commentary upon content. VH1’s Pop-Up Videos was one of the first, and every time Beavis and Butthead sat down on their ratty couch to watch television, they owed a debt to Hodgson and his crew. Ironically, he was urged to write for both shows. “I said, ‘No, I don’t think so’ — that was very peculiar.”
The show was nominated for a few Emmys, but never won. “I think that might have been a political thing, because we didn’t really have agents from Hollywood working and filibustering for us,” Hodgson says. “But it was really cool that they liked what we were doing.”
They did score a few Cable ACE awards, and in 2007 Time magazine included MST3K among their 100 Best Shows of All Time. But it’s his Peabody prize, one of the most prestigious in electronic media, that stands out the most: “It’s a real validation of the show, and it just amazes me,” Hodgson says.
Hodgson recalls a visit with Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon. “He’s got this room with these Emmy awards, and then he’s got the Peabody award sitting there. I said, ‘Yeah, I got one of those too’ [and] he said, ‘You know what, that’s the only award that really actually means something’ — that really made me feel good.”
Cinematic Titanic uses a rotating list of films, the best of which evoke a seriousness of purpose falling spectacularly flat. Rattlers, a 1976 horror fest starring nerve gassed snakes, is a likely candidate for the Concord shows, but the final choice hadn’t been made at press time.
Hodgson says they steer clear of deliberately bad movies: “We can’t use that, because then you’re making fun of somebody who is trying to be funny and that’s really hard,” he says. Production values are critical — without them there’s too much space to fill. “If you have weird movies, like a Japanese monster movie, [there’s] a lot to look at. The ones that work best are the ones that are trying to deliver a feeling of really being earnest.”