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Indy PopCon: MST3K creator Joel Hodgson 

click to enlarge joel_top_2_.jpg

First off, Joel can't tell you anything more about the potentially huge news tucked at the end of last month's big Wired oral history of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, namely that, to quote from Wired, this spring he's "hoping to start a new online incarnation of the show, one that will feature a fresh (and as-yet-unannounced) host and cameos from many MST3K alumni." It's a little to early for any more details, he says. But he did field plenty on questions on the history of the show, including its ties with "maker" culture and unique Midwestern sensibility. Hodgson will present his autobiographical monologue Riffing Myself during Indy PopCon; it's something of a narrated home movie/slideshow of his early life, with, of course, plenty of riffs on his earlier incarnations along the way.

NUVO: As we hit the 25th anniversary of the national TV debut of MST3K, I wonder what your take is on why the show clicked when it did?

Joel Hodgson: There are a lot of things at work. People love movies, and the length of a movie is a perfect amount of time, 90 minutes, 80 minutes. I don't know why but from the time we're little kids, we have these experiences with movies, and compared to TV, it's kind of like a whole meal compared to a snack.

So people love movies, movies are magical and when they work, you are taken by them; you are taken up into the movie and you kind of forget who you are. That's why we like them.

Along with that, there's this fascination with how it works. So it's kind of a like a magic show; people love magic and they love learning about magic, and I think they love learning about how movies are made.

A bad movie is like a bad magic show, and a bad magic show is as good as a good magic show, right? It's just as much fun. Our society's so sophisticated that the idea of an ironic viewing is a really common thing that you do with your friends, people you really like. So it just worked out that way; all those pieces came together in a nice way. We worked really hard at it, and it just worked out.

Also the context travels with the show. It's not like we're a show like The Daily Show, where everything we're commenting on is topical. Everything we're commenting on travels within the body of the show. I just watched The Magic Voyage of Sinbad last night, and almost everything we commented on was within the body of the movie, so it travels along with it.

NUVO: Was there something about TV and pop culture at that point that helped to make MST3K a success? There aren't a lot of shows being created for UHF stations now.

Hodgson: You know how they say Jesus came along right when the Romans had invented papyrus and the story of Jesus could travel all over the world? Mystery Science Theatre happened when basic cable happened, when it really came into being. I'm not pulling a John Lennon and saying, 'We're as popular as Jesus.' But we were just super-lucky that cable happened. And VHS - we encouraged people to circulate the tapes and they used them, sent them to their friends and turned each other on to it.

click to enlarge Hodgson, as Joel Robinson, with robot pals Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot.
  • Hodgson, as Joel Robinson, with robot pals Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot.

NUVO: Given that fans more or less voted MST3K into Indy PopCon [organizers booked Hodgson after fans voted MST3K one of their favorite TV shows in a poll on the PopCon site], I wonder if you've ever been a fan of a show or anything else where you've been a really active supporter, to the level of filling out petitions, writing letters?

Hodgson: That's a really good question. I really appreciate the people who have kept Mystery Science Theatre alive in their hearts. And if there was a show that I loved and I felt like I needed to be outspoken to save it or bring it back, I would definitely do that. I'm a Mad Men nut, but that doesn't need any saving. So I haven't ever had to do anything like that. I do support musicians I love and pay for their music. I think that's the biggest, best way to support people; to pay for things.

NUVO: What kind of musicians are you into, do you support?

Hodgson: Well, do you want my Spotify list?

NUVO: Sure, why not?

Hodgson: There's Jack White on here. The new NRBQ. Flora Purim. Flamin' Groovies, an old band. Sparklehorse. Captain Beefheart. Paul Westerberg. There's a funny Mexican version of "Hang Fire" by the Rolling Stones; they're called the Smoking Stones, the Mexican knockoff of the Rolling Stones. Spike Jonze is on there.

NUVO: One thing that kind of blew my mind was when I started getting into Sun Ra and realized you had named Rocket Number 9 [we're deep in the show's lore here; it's an external camera on the Satellite of Love] after a Sun Ra song.

Hodgson: It's funny; that NRBQ I was looking at is another Sun Ra song called "We Travel the Space Ways." And I got to Sun Ra through NRBQ because they did a version of "Rocket Number 9."

NUVO: What was your biggest challenge in putting together Riffing Myself?

Hodgson: I did it just like we did Mystery Science Theatre where you have just an insane amount of material and then you kind of edit it down. We always over-produced riffs and then kept the best ones. I think the first time I did it there were only 600 images and I only got halfway through it the first time I performed it. I said to the fans, 'I only got halfway through this,' and they said, 'Oh, we'll come back!' So I did it a second time, and I cut it down to about 300 slides; I produced way too much stuff, and that was even after me editing it. That was the biggest job; how do you cut it down; how do you make it work in 90 minutes.

The one I'm doing at Indy PopCon is truncated; the live version is about 45 minutes, and it's really highlights, the Cliff's Notes version. And then I do a VIP event, behind the scenes, that's much more elaborate, where people can stop me and ask questions while I'm doing it, like 'I want to know more about that.'

click to enlarge Hodgson reunited with former MST3K castmates in 2007 on a new movie-riffing project, Cinematic Titanic.
  • Hodgson reunited with former MST3K castmates in 2007 on a new movie-riffing project, Cinematic Titanic.

NUVO: And how'd you come up with the idea?

Hodgson: It just came from doing six years of Cinematic Titanic and hundreds of interviews. A narrative kind of emerged; I realized that throughout all these interviews I had basically told the story from the very beginning to the making of the show. Everybody pretty much knows - there's a lot of information out there - about Mystery Science Theatre once it was made, but I realized I had enough information and visual material to present how it happened. I've always loved documentaries, learning how the things that I really care about work, how they happen. The story of how it happened is always so much different than the perception of it. I thought it was time to do that, and that's what really motivated it.

It really is geek culture; it's really for people who are geeks about it. I think someone wanted to book me into the comedy club, Crackers, and I said, 'Listen, this isn't just for the casual person who wants to go to a comedy club and watch something funny for 90 minutes. This is really intense and it's only going to be meaningful if you know a fair amount about Mystery Science Theatre.

NUVO: Were you happy with the way the Wired interview came out and the way your comments were presented? You talked pretty openly about the circumstances surrounding your departure from the show.

Hodgson: I think it was pretty good. I got to talk about the big problem in a big enough forum that's widely enough read. I don't like having to spend too much time on it, but I felt that both Jim and I got to talk about it, which was really good. I thought, overall, it was a pretty thorough article and story on MST from the beginning to the end.

NUVO: I wondered if you took issue with the way Jim Mallon says that you were kind of an authoritarian leader, how you thought it was your show.

Hodgson: I think if you read it carefully, the meaning will emerge. That's what I would encourage people to do. If you read the story again very carefully, people will get to the answer.

NUVO: And on that note, one thing that emerges from looking at the choices you've made professionally is that you've opted out of situations where you thought you no longer had creative control. Can you talk a little about those decisions - in terms of leaving MST3K or, earlier in your career, moving back to Minnesota from L.A. after getting offered terrible pilots.

Hodgson: Well, it was really a function of the time. Back before the Internet you couldn't present an alternative version, and before DVDs you couldn't present a director's cut. The only thing the public would see was the thing that would get on TV. It was really a different time and you had to be extra careful. I don't think it's the same now because if someone does a project and they hate it, they can talk about it on Twitter and tell people. Back then, there was no way; that was your piece. I didn't know anybody in L.A. in show business, I didn't know anybody in New York in show business; all I had was my act, and I felt like I had one shot to get it right. Not very many people get a second chance.

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