Joel Hodgson is putting on the red jumpsuit for the last time. He started playing Joel Robinson in 1988, “just another face” – per the old “Mystery Science Theater 3000” theme song – who did a good job cleaning up the place, but his bosses didn’t like him, so they shot him into space.
In space – aka cable television – Hodgson survived a barrage of cheesy movies by “riffing” on them mercilessly with two robot friends. A new artform was born.
Hodgson, 59, is bringing his red jumpsuit on the Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour – a live version of the MST3K format familiar to fans: making fun of bad movies – on a tour throughout the U.S.
“You’re watching it with 1,500 other people,” Hodgson said, by phone, from the road. “That’s the only thing that’s different, and that’s what changes the dynamic of it so much. You do a lot of moving pieces around while you’re performing because they might laugh over a setup for your joke, and you have to lay out and try to worm it back in downstream if you really like it.”
MST3K has proved surprisingly pliable. It migrated from KTMA-TV in Minneapolis to the then-new network Comedy Central (then called the Comedy Channel) in 1989. Hodgson, who created the show, left in 1993 after a conflict about creative control. With new host Mike Nelson, it survived the transition from Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel in 1997. After a cancellation two years later, it rose from the ashes on Netflix in 2017 – thanks to a Kickstarter campaign spearheaded by Hodgson, who regained control of the brand.
But when he brought MST3K back to life, Hodgson left one major ingredient behind: himself as host. He was set to bring back several original alumni for the revival, but a month before the big announcement, they all bailed.
“Which I totally understand,” Hodgson said. “But it put us in this funny position where, when the Kickstarter started, (people were) going: ‘Where’s all the other cast? What have you done?’ I think they thought: Oh, this is going to be like a ‘Laverne and Shirley’ reunion show, where everyone sits on director’s chairs and has memories, and then we show clips.”
The campaign had already raised a million dollars. Hodgson said the organizer, Ivan Askwith, told him, “People are really concerned about this, and we have to answer them. And here’s the other thing you didn’t know, Joel, is that if they don’t like your answer, they can cancel their Kickstarter. So if you say the wrong thing, you’ll lose everything.”
Hodgson said the right thing.
“I said, ‘We can do a lot of things with “Mystery Science Theater,” but we can’t make you 13 again. We can’t make you feel like you did when you first found the show, when your dad got the good cable package. But we can bring it back with new people, and I think this concept is worth being refreshed outside of Mike or Joel, and the cast that went with them.’”
The concerns died down, and Hodgson raised more than $5.7 million – breaking Kickstarter’s record for video projects.
Jonah Ray, a comedian who grew up with the show, filled the host jumpsuit – with Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount playing his robot pals, Tom Servo and Crow – for two seasons on Netflix. After a slightly stilted beginning, the new crew hit its stride with Season 2, “The Gauntlet.” Hodgson is an executive producer, director and writer on the new series.
Between seasons, the team sharpened its skills on the road with two tours. The live shows allow the MST3K company to keep performing and growing, regardless of whether (or how often) Netflix orders more episodes. For the current tour, its longest to date, Hodgson decided to perform as host – for the final time.
“I didn’t want to leave anything on the field,” said Hodgson, who is training the cast and crew to be potential future hosts and torchbearers for the show. “This is my last time to really touch it, and really kind of travel with it, and really feel it all these times. I feel like I’m going to know so much that, by the end of it, we’ll really be in good shape to keep doing it.”
Hodgson was never that comfortable in the jumpsuit from Day One. As a dry stand-up comic, who incorporated his love of magic and ventriloquism into his act, he had been on Letterman and “Saturday Night Live.” So when he sold the idea for MST3K to small-time Minnesota TV, he was “the most logical guy” to front the show.
“The thing that gives me the most satisfaction is that I created it, not that I performed in it,” he said.
For longtime fans, Hodgson’s droll delivery and paternal relationship to the “bots” is a huge part of their affection for MST3K. When fans quote lines from “Eegah” or “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” often they’re quoting him.
“You are playing with people’s memories, and it’s people’s feelings,” he said. “And I really get that. But I always kind of go: Well, thank God we made 200 feature-length episodes that are easily accessible. Because there’s a lot of material if you really, you know, want that.”
With his company Alternaversal, based in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Hodgson is developing other ideas for TV and theater alongside more MST3K-related projects. He believes the joy of shredding cheesy movies is bigger than his red jumpsuit.
“That was my real point to coming back,” he said, “to just go, ‘Hey, it’s just not locked into the Joel/Mike reality. It’s a lot bigger than that.’”