Joel Hodgson never set out to start a wisecracking revolution. In fact, his conception for what would become the beloved cult series Mystery Science Theater 3000 was simply born out of a selfish desire to create a television show that incorporated a few of his favorite things: "bad movies, sci-fi, and puppetry." The rest is pop culture history.
Just a year after its Thanksgiving Day premiere on a UHF channel in Minneapolis in 1988, MST3K made its national debut on the Comedy Channel, an HBO-owned cable network that eventually morphed into Comedy Central. Eight years and a second cancellation later, the futuristic sketch show in which a lost-in-space janitor (first Hodgson, then Michael Nelson) and his robot friends are forced to watch god-awful movies made its way to the Sci-Fi Channel, where it aired for another three seasons before being cancelled yet again in 1999.
As the series continued to run in syndication for years, and found new life via home video and digital streaming, its fandom has never wavered. That fact became glaringly obvious on November 10, when Hodgson launched a Kickstarter campaign to "Bring Back Mystery Science Theater," with the goal of raising $2 million to create three new episodes. In less than a week, Hodgson had surpassed that number.
By the time the campaign concluded on December 12, nearly 50,000 backers had contributed a whopping $5,764,229 to the project, enough to produce an entire 14-episode season of the once-dearly-departed series and set a new Kickstarter record for the most amount ever raised for a film or video project, narrowly besting the $5,702,153 that the Veronica Mars movie raised in 2013. And that doesn't even include the $600,000 raised outside of Kickstarter, which leaves Hodgson with $6.3 million in the MST3K bank account, and a near-30-year-legacy to live up to. (With Dan Harmon set to write and Patton Oswalt joining the cast, its future looks bright indeed.)
Just days after his Kickstarter ended, and hours before a well-deserved vacation, Rolling Stone spoke with Hodgson about MST3K's undying fandom, what the new show will look like, and why penguins are infinitely funny.
You don't launch a crowdfunding campaign if you don't think there's going to be some serious fan interest behind it. How confident were you that you'd be able to reach your original goal of $2 million?
We thought we'd hit it within the month; I was completely astonished when we went past that. Then beating Veronica Mars and getting the world record for highest funded video or film project was amazing. That stuff was not anything I really took seriously until we finally started getting close. [Laughs] And then I started to go, "Oh, man. We should probably hype this. Maybe we should say something about this to get people enthused."
When you did hit that original goal with relative ease, did hitting your reach goal in order to make the full season seem like a foregone conclusion?
No. We really did spend the whole month working to win people over who had questions, so a big part of it was really letting people know where this was going. It really helped to be able to hear what the fans wanted to know. That's what's amazing about crowdfunding: You really are making a product right in front of people. Half of it was about, "We have these different cool rewards," but the other half of it was kind of like, "This is what it's going to be. These are some of the people who are involved." It's a glimpse of the future.
At what point did you start exploring the possibility of rebooting the show in earnest?
We finally got the rights back about three months before the Kickstarter … so about four months ago. Shout! Factory are my equal partners on this, and I really felt like we had to go to the crowdfunding [route] and tell fans what's happening. If we simply sold it for network and then told them what we're doing, I don't know if the viewers would feel betrayed? I don't think that's it, but I just felt like it was really important to say, "This is happening. I want you to be involved if you want to be involved," and really seeing where they were at. So that was the really the big thing: I trusted the fans and that completely paid off. Now we're really seeing the benefits of it.
We were just on the phone with a network, pitching the new MST3K to them, and they were really responsive because of the crowdfunding and because it made so much news. So it's not just me in the room now; it's me and 50,000 of my friends who want the show to come back.
To what do you attribute its ongoing popularity?
Because it's magic? [Laughs] I'm kidding. I have a lot of reasons why I think it works, [but] it's better to ask the fans, really. My theory about art has always been that you make something, you have a purpose and a reason for it, and then the audience finds the meaning in it. Lesley Kinzel, a writer who is starting to help us do stuff now, wrote an article and said that, "I was 12 years old, I found this show, and I immediately felt understood." I was just trying to be funny.
What sort of programming void was the show was filling?
There never was a show like MST3K. There was never a show where people talked over the movie, so once we got it working, we realized there was a ton of space to fill. We talked about all manner of things… and just the things we thought were funny, and it struck a nerve because it felt so unfamiliar to people … They found it really unusual.
If you compare it to what else was going on at that time, that would have been sketch comedy or sitcoms or comedy movies, and they're all really different delivery systems than Mystery Science Theater. If you look at a sitcom, they might have 50 jokes in 22 minutes. We had 800 jokes during a movie. So there's a lot more heat on them to deliver: "We've got to have a fantastic joke to go to commercial." If you look at us, we don't do that. It's within the moment. We don't play by the same rules. So I think people just saw it differently and looked at it differently, and that worked for us.
A lot of the success of MST3K also has to do with timing. We just happened to start when cable was starting, and cable didn't know what it was going to be, so they let us on because they needed to fill time. A lot of those things are just lucky.
"People have actually come up to me and said, 'You've got to riff on Sharknado,' and I kind of go, 'They're already funny. They don't need us.'"
In a way, MST3K was a precursor to the social media-fueled way that people watch television today. When they're live tweeting a show or movie or posting to Facebook while watching, they're essentially riffing. Do you see a connection between those two things?
I think so. Everybody talks back now, and I think we came at a time when media was just becoming disposable. Mystery Science Theater started right when there were mom-and-pop video stores popping up. They didn't even have chains like Blockbuster or Hollywood Video yet. So it was at the beginning of that time where people were suddenly realizing, "I don't have to watch TV. I can go to the video store and find something I really want to watch, or something I really want to watch that's ironic that I think is more entertaining." So I think it's possible MST3K was the first ironic viewing show. That was happening in arthouse cinemas with midnight movies. When I was in college they were showing Plan 9 From Outer Space and Robot Monster in theaters, so I just picked up on that and said, "Why isn't anybody making a show about this?" So it was really in the air. I didn't create it.
Do you think the show helped usher in this sort of new wave of intentionally "bad” movies that are almost winking at themselves — like, say, Sharknado?
I suspect so. They are more self-aware and it's a different formula, but I guess it's that same premise. I have a theory about it: You look at a movie like The Blair Witch Project, where there was all this confusion. My impression was that half the people going to Blair Witch thought it was a real documentary and that this actually happened. And I think that happens with kids watching these deliberately bad movies now going, "Oh, what idiots." It's like kind of like Twitter bait: "Oh, I've got to talk about how stupid this is."
People have actually come up to me and said, "You've got to riff on Sharknado," and I kind of go, "They're already funny. They don't need us." These people are obviously confused, like, "God, they screwed up Sharknado." They don't know it's an absurd notion for a horror movie!
How, if at all, will the new series tap into that Twitter-minded market?
I get that question a lot, especially in these meetings that we're having now, and I always say it's like baseball: Everybody plays baseball, but sometimes you want to watch pros do it.
In terms of the new show, how will it be the same as the original MST3K and how will it be different?
The big thing is practical effects. One thing I've noticed over time that really worked for us is that we did everything in-camera; we really didn't do anything in post, and that worked to our advantage because I think people perceived it as a document of a day. And it really is, because we shot the show for two days—one day we did the host segment and the other day we did the movie segment—so it's almost in real time. I call it a miniature golf aesthetic, where all of the effects are practical. You're seeing people come back to it, like J. J. Abrams in The Force Awakens, where he's doing a lot of practical stuff. And for some reason it just really works well for the people viewing the product, but it's also really great for the people in the room making it, because you're all on the same page. We're going to do this once and we've got to get it right. That's a long way of going around to say the new Mystery Science Theater is very much like that. It's completely in real time and for the most part, a live show. It'll practically be produced live.
When can people expect to start seeing new episodes?
We go to work at 10 a.m. on January 4th and we're shooting to start delivering shows in the fall if everything goes right. We're hoping to have a sneak peek up by Comic-Con in July.
Will it be streaming or is it coming back to television?
We're trying to figure that out right now. We don't know exactly. The idea was to try to create a hybrid. We just want to do what's best for the show and its fans.
"I'd love to go after Happy Feet 2. I just think penguins are just infinitely funny and interesting."
Looking back on the series now, what are the things that stand out to you most about it — the moments or elements you're most proud of?
The shows that have emerged as our best shows … it wasn't clear while we were making them that they would be our best shows. That comes after the audience watches them, and I think that's one of the amazing parts of it, because we made them so fast that we didn't labor over it.
One of the nice benefits of having a really active fan base is that they will say, "Oh, this was awesome. This is our favorite." They kind of ignore the ones that don't work that well, and really, really celebrate the ones that they love, and that helps me. There's a canon of about 30 episodes that I agree with the fan base are really good episodes, and those are the ones I'm looking at in light of what we're going to do now. I try to keep it really equal as far as the Mike Generation and the Joel Generation, but those are the things I'm using as bellwether for the new show.
In an ideal world, putting aside licensing rights, are there any particular movies that you would love to feature?
I'd love to go after Happy Feet 2. I think that would be awesome.
I just think penguins are just infinitely funny and interesting.
Why do you think there's so much hunger for new episodes?
Oh, man. I just think people feel like, "Why did this show ever stop?" Because it's not that expensive, and people really liked it, and so I think that was what was so maddening for people. "Why did it ever get canceled?" I don't know. But we're coming back.