Mr. Beaks Interviews MST3K Mastermind Joel Hodgson!
Published at: Oct. 28, 2008, 11:06 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Rejoice! The MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 20th Anniversary Edition DVD is in stores today! FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS! LASERBLAST! WEREWOLF! FUTURE WAR! A three-part "Oral History of MST3K" and video of the San Diego Comic Con reunion panel hosted by Patton Oswalt! What's not to love?
At the risk of being labeled a grump, here's something I don't love: one Joel Hodgson episode. And while FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS is perfectly enjoyable, it's not exactly top-tier when compared to something like LASERBLAST, which, riff-wise, I'd put in a class with POD PEOPLE, MANOS and TIME OF THE APES.
To perhaps atone for this puzzling omission, Joel Hodgson did a round of press today in support of the otherwise wonderful 20th Anniversary set (seriously, don't let my grousing bother you; this is an absolute must-buy), and I was more than happy to take a second crack at interviewing the creator of my very favorite show of all time. We chatted for a good twenty minutes, and I tried my my best to delve into the topics that were left out of the documentary: e.g. we touch on his early stand-up days, the behind-the-scenes friction that led to his exit (at the height of the show's popularity), the disappointment of THE TV WHEEL, the alleged fury of Sandy Frank, and the arrogance of famed prop comic Gallagher. I think this is a much better discussion than the one from Comic Con, if only because I didn't have the added pressure of interviewing Jim Mallon and Trace Beaulieu (for all of eleven minutes).
Hope you enjoy...
Mr. Beaks: I watched the three-part documentary on the 20th Anniversary set, and it struck me that there is no conceivable way you could start a show like this locally and get it to a network. You had this long gestation period in Minneapolis, and you had such a raw concept: no one at a network would know what to make of this.
Joel Hodgson: I totally agree. After I left the show and moved to L.A., I saw how the culture is so different in how you develop a show. We were just so lucky.
Beaks: When you were starting the show, it seems like you were doing it for your own amusement and thinking, "Maybe someone else will find this funny, too?"
Hodgson: I was a little bit more cagy than that. I remember doing an interview way before MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER saying, "The way to do it is to make the show locally, and then sell it nationally." I knew that's what we wanted to do; it just wasn't that clear. It's not like it was a top down idea, like "One day we'll cash in on this!" I really don't work that way, and I'm not that clever. But I did know that we'd eventually sell the show and try to make money on it. It wasn't purely to amuse myself and amuse my friends; it was ideally to get it to a place where it could work, and to do it where we could get paid. That was really the goal: to do it professionally. Otherwise, it's just too ambitious and too much work - especially if you've been in the business. I did stand-up for three years prior to that, so by the time I got out of college, I'd made a living performing and writing my stuff. When you get into that, it's hard to go back and think critically about a straight job.
Beaks: You kind of walked away from that career when it was starting to take off. Was there any anxiety about leaving [stand-up] and thinking "Oh, god, I just made the worst decision ever?"
Hodgson: Not really, because I got to do everything a stand-up can do. I got on Letterman, I got on SNL, I got on the Young Comedians Special. The only thing left would be to do a [solo] special. I suppose if I would've hung around I could've done that, but I had burnt all my stuff on Letterman and SNL. That would've been one last thing, but I wasn't quite to that level. People like [Sam] Kinison were getting one-hour specials. And Garry Shandling. There was a period after where they just gave everybody a half-hour special. So that would be the only thing. But I was genuinely out of ideas. I had gotten to do as much as I could do with my stand-up, and I couldn't think of anything else. And I was missing Minneapolis and hanging out with my friends, so I got to do that. For some reason, my friends were still hanging out there and hadn't moved on with their lives. So I got to have both: I got to have a stand-up career and hang out with my friends after college.
Beaks: Having been on SNL and Letterman, when you were starting to develop the show, were your collaborators intimidated? I mean, you'd been to the big show, and they'd just been in Minneapolis.
Hodgson: The guys I picked to help, Trace [Beaulieu] and J. Elvis [Weinstein], they were both really talented. They had lots of ideas themselves, and they're both really funny. So they came in and really helped me figure out what movie riffing was. My idea was just watching a movie with companions. I had a vague idea of us making comments and talking about the movie during the breaks and stuff like that, but those guys really deserve credit for helping me figure out the toolbox of movie riffing. By the time we got paid to do it, we were ready.
Beaks: I don't know if the concept mutated a little in between the Comedy Channel days and when you moved on to Comedy Central [which was a merger of CC and Ha!], but early on, with something like ROBOT MONSTER, it'd be like watching a movie with occasional wisecracks. But by the time you got to, say, TIME OF THE APES, it was wall-to-wall jokes. You weren't really watching the movie anymore. You guys were front and center.
Hodgson: I guess I really saw what MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER was going to be when we cut together a sell-tape to show to The Comedy Channel. We took the very best stuff and put it back-to-back, and I said, "That's what the show's got to be like!" So when we finally got the money, I said, "Okay, now we can write it." I think the period of that first year was us just learning what we did live - when we did KTMA, we were just improvising - and going to that next level. And on top of that, we finally got press. That year, we were one of People Magazine's "Top Ten Shows of the Year". When you get people saying, "This is great!", it helps get you to the next level.
Beaks: Speaking of TIME OF THE APES, some of the best episodes of your run were based around those Sandy Frank movies. Is it true that he has completely halted any chance of those shows getting to DVD?
Hodgson: I don't know. I don't really think he's involved with those. I think he was just distributing them for a short time. But I'm not sure. That's kind of outside my realm. I don't know where Sandy Frank is in the scheme of things. At the time, he was just a producer who'd attach his name to these Japanese movies. I bet your readers would have a far better idea than I would [of the rights issues]. In some situations, I know far less about the show than the average MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER fan.
Beaks: When you left, did you just stop thinking about the show altogether for a while?
Hodgson: You know, it was a really big personal tragedy for me to leave the show. I was fighting with Jim Mallon, and it was kind of based on the feature film. We were starting to work on the feature film, and one day Jim came in and said, "I'm going to produce and direct the movie." And I just kind of sat there and said, "Oh, man, I don't think that's a good idea." I wasn't saying I should direct the movie, because I didn't want to do that, but it really wasn't Jim's thing. That became a fight that... if it was to run its course, it would wreck the show. I didn't think Jim and I were going to resolve that, so that's why I left. That got cut out of the documentary, but that's kind of what I said.
Beaks: I was surprised that wasn't brought up. I guess they just didn't want to touch on any of that.
Hodgson: Exactly. At the part [of the documentary] where I said I felt like I'd lost creative control, that was the end of what I was saying. Because I walked into a meeting, and Jim said he was going to produce and direct the feature, and nobody was saying anything. That's when I said I felt like I was losing creative control. I didn't think that should happen.
Beaks: Subsequently, you did THE TV WHEEL, which is one of those classic failed pilots. It was so inventive. I think you had such a great idea, and, had you been able to develop it [outside of the network], I think it might've really become something. Do you feel like it just didn't get a chance?
Hodgson: Well, coming from MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER, I really just felt like, "That's one comedic art form, and I'm going to come up with another comedic art form." It was another gesture to re-form a sketch show, to just take another run at it. But Hollywood is just completely different than a normal person thinks. The way it behaves, the way it produces, and the way it runs... I don't know how to explain it other than to say that it's a culture that doesn't really focus on the way people develop ideas. But I just had to try it because I was in this position where people were interested in what I wanted to do.
But I think everybody goes through that. When you come off of a show, you get a chance to do something. And I didn't want to go right back in and do exactly the same thing: riffing on movies. That's what people wanted, but I thought I'd try another thing. It was really fun, and people seemed to like it, but it was just too hard for Hollywood to imagine. It was too different. My brother and I developed and produced [THE TV WHEEL]. We put a lot of time into it, but I wouldn't want to put more time into it. In my mind, it's just its own piece. It's a piece that I did, and I felt really lucky to get to realize it. And when I found out it wasn't going to get picked up, I was like, "Okay, I guess I got my answer."
Beaks: From that, you met Paul Feig and Judd Apatow? Or was that through X-BOX?
Hodgson: Yeah, Paul worked on X-BOX, and we brought Judd in on TV WHEEL. Judd wrote a sketch and Paul was on camera. I think Paul might've written something, too. But that's where I met those guys, doing that. So then they put me on FREAKS AND GEEKS, and I still get calls from Judd to come back and do stuff. He's been really nice.
Beaks: Well, he's doing this movie about stand-up called FUNNY PEOPLE. I know he's been rounding up some of the old crew from his stand-up days for appearances, and I thought it would be nice to see you doing your old act somewhere in there.
Hodgson: That's actually how I met Judd. I was twenty-two and working Caroline's in New York, and he was still in high school. But he would come into the city and do a radio show with comedians.
Beaks: With your stand-up comedy background, one of the great services MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER provided was that you let everyone know what bad prop comedy was by ridiculing Gallagher mercilessly.
Hodgson: (Laughing) That was a little personal vendetta I had with Gallagher. I met him once at a club, and he was picking through my props and looking at them. I said, "Yeah, I do prop comedy, too!" And he said, "You call them 'props'!?!? When a surgeon goes in to work on somebody, do you think he calls his instruments 'props'?" And I just kind of went, "Whatever, man. They're 'props'!" He was kind of a dick, so any chance I had to take a shot at him, I would. That's his thing. He's a very bombastic man, so it's okay.
Beaks: He was one of those incredibly unfunny guys who got nonstop cable specials, so it was nice to see someone deflate him.
Hodgson: Exactly. And he's just such a funny character to make fun of. He just had his own little weird universe.
Beaks: Do you ever look back at the old shows and find yourself saying, "Oh, man, we missed the opportunity to throw in a great joke!"?
Hodgson: You know, it works the opposite. So much time has gone by that I've forgotten a lot of it, so it makes me laugh again. I'm actually surprised sometimes by what I hear. It's really fun. We did 176 shows, and made a new one every seven days, so it was just a few days of my life. To see them again is kind of fun.
Patton brought this up at the reunion, but one of the luxuries of doing so many jokes was that you could throw in one or two super obscure riffs that no one was going to get save for one or two guys. And their mind would be completely blown. They'd be like, "I can't believe they just referenced that on national television!"
Hodgson: That was the beauty part of the show: there was so much space to fill that we didn't have to be too critical of what the other people were writing; we just had to fill it up. So there was lots of room for that, and that brought us a lot of pleasure. For every obscure line you threw in, there was somebody who was going to be hit right between the eyes, and they never forgot it. Occasionally, people would come up and say, "I just can't believe you said that."
One person that said that to me was Frank Zappa. I got to talk to him before he passed away, and I asked him, "What's it like when we reference one of your records on the show?" And he said, "It's very unsettling." He found it strange, too.
As I was wrapping up with Joel, he mentioned that his new riffing venture, Cinematic Titanic, will be making stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and New York this winter. I missed their performance at last summer's Los Angeles Film Festival, so I'll definitely be in attendance this time around.