Comedy By Robots Is The Most Human of All: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Lands in Medford
Joel Hodgson is in Little Rock, Arkansas when I finally reach him on the phone. The creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000—the cult classic and a currently top ranked as one of Netflix’s most popular shows—is on the move, and it has taken nearly two weeks to set up a 15 minute interview.
In the late 80s, Hodgson began airing episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in his adopted town of Minneapolis: at first glance, seemed like a slapdash community television show, ripe for stoners. A B-grade movie screened with silhouetted commentators in the foreground taking pot shots at the shotty dialogue and sagging storyline. But, given a slightly more than passing glance, the show emerges as cultural and comic genius parading as pander—clever scripting, intricate backstories for the commentators, and clever plotlines unspooling.
Moreover, what is remarkable is that a seemingly silly concept and show has endured—and arguably improved into something close to high art over the decades. And yes, it has been decades, nearly 30 years, and some 200 episodes.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 ran for a decade in the 90s, went into syndication and, two years ago, was revived as a Netflix series (support by nothing less than a record-breaking $6.3 million Kickstarter; yet another testimony to the show’s wide-reaching and enduring popularity). The Netflix show is just one puzzle piece for a larger picture, explains Hodgson, as the show also has spawned a comic book series (from Oregon-based Dark Horse comics) and a live, theater version of the show—which is why Hodgson is in Little Rock when I finally reach him on the phone.
“You’re from Wisconsin,” I say, and with that simple question, he is off and talking.
Like myself, Hodgson grew up in Wisconsin and I ask if there is something about that environment that breeds creativity and comedy: During the 20 or so years, from the late 70s to the mid-90s, Wisconsin was an unlikely springboard for genre-bending and creating comedy, from the spoofy Airplane movies to The Onion newspaper, all gathering a loose tone that spoofed popular culture and created slightly askew realities; a theme and format even more announced in Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In those shows, if you have somehow have never seen an episode or don’t know the basic premise, I bet you have seen an image of the show or flipped past it channel surfing and been arrested by its oddity. When first launched, the shows picked up on zeitgeist of the moment—on the movie critics Siskle & Ebert. And now, in hindsight, the show also served as a precursor to contemporary culture in which Twitter and Yelp comments are as entertaining as the main dish.
But the shows were not simply about cheap shots at B-grade movies, but added an entire narrative about the main character, being held captive by robots and circling the earth as a plan for world domination loomed. That cleverness and those intricacies hold a viewer beyond the initial hook and have built an entire universe and cult following—one that has expanded beyond the original run of shows, and into a comic book series and the current tour of live shows.
Each is a “little billboard,” Hodgson says, for the larger, sprawling universe. Then, for a moment, he stops talking. He sounds out of breath. “Do we have to walk up that hill,” he asks to someone standing next to him in Little Rock. “Either we need to stop walking or stop the interview.”
Like the shows, he is seemingly surfing different narratives all at once—his present conversation with me about the show and its meta-themes, and then a more immediate conversation with his walking partner—and he simply keeps on talking. “It is like keeping a balloon afloat,” he says, explaining, I suppose, the show’s constant banter as well as maintaining its spot in the cultural conversation, and then he switches to talking about how the show is different for him to produce and for what people perceive. “People find meaning (in it),” he says, “and, if not, then I just have to entertain them.”
I’m scribbling as fast as I can to keep up with his thoughts that jump from worm holes to maintaining an artist’s integrity, when his publicist, who I didn’t even realize was on the line as well, interrupts: “You have one more minute,” she informs us; but, mostly me, I suppose.
Hodgson, though, just keeps on talking.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 will present its live performance with the film No Retreat, No Surrender. 7:30 pm, Monday, January 20, Craterian Theater, $39 – $45.