Anyone who’s ever seen the wise-cracking robots of Mystery Science Theater 3000, cobbled together from bowling pins, car seats and gumball machines, might assume that the show’s creator has done his share of dumpster diving. They might also assume that at age 52, with two successful movie-riffing franchises under his belt and a consulting gig with an aerospace firm to help pay the bills, Joel Hodgson’s days of digging through garbage are long over.
But within moments of arriving at Phoenixville’s famous Colonial Theatre for a photo shoot earlier this month, Hodgson was ducking into the back alley and hauling a bag of day-old popcorn out of the trash to use as both a prop and a snack. A few minutes later, while tossing back a few kernels in front of the camera, he quipped that “Phoenixville is known for its dumpster-corn.”
Cracking jokes from a theater seat is second nature to Hodgson. He created Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1988 for St. Paul, Minn., UHF TV station KTMA. The show’s nominal plot — Hodgson played Joel, a janitor shot into space as the guinea pig in a mad-science experiment on the effects of bad movies on human beings — served mostly as an excuse for Joel and two robot characters to watch B movies and provide a running commentary of jokes. MST3K was picked up by the Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) and became a cult hit, running for 11 years and spawning a feature film in 1996.
Hodgson left the series in 1993 after disagreements around that film version, but despite a somewhat rancorous departure, he’s reconciled himself with the show and its legacy. He’ll tell the “origin story” of MST3K with more than 300 slides in his one-man show, “Riffing Myself,” at the Troc on Sunday. (The event, presented by Geekadelphia and dubbed “Sunday in the Dark with Joel,” will also include a screening of the classic MST3K episode Pod People.)
“I think I’m Mystery Science Theater’s mother,” Hodgson said in his trademark narcoleptic drawl over lunch at Phoenixville’s Iron Hill Brewery. “It’s like that relationship: I brought it into the world and then had to leave it, and it did good on its own. It’s still growing and giving back to me, in a weird way. I really cared for it while I was there, and now it’s kind of caring for me.”
If that’s the case, then Hodgson can now consider himself a grandmother. MST3K gave birth to the art of movie riffing, practiced by a number of groups across the country, including MST3K splinter groups Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. (Just last weekend, Hodgson performed with Austin’s Master Pancake Theater at the Alamo Drafthouse.)
The fledgling art is also the subject of a class taught by Hodgson himself at Bucks County Community College last year after he moved to the area.
Hodgson traces the family tree of MST3K back to his high-school days in Green Bay, Wis., when he opened the gatefold sleeve of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Each song on the album is accompanied by a sketch; the image beside the lyrics of “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” depicts a couple in silhouette watching a Clark Gable film. “I can remember sitting there in high school going, ‘Somebody should make a show like that,’” he recalled. “I thought, ‘They’d sit there and say funny stuff during the movie.’ But nobody was giving out development deals to high schoolers in Green Bay.”
He moved to Minneapolis for college, where his roommate showed him a copy of The Golden Turkey Awards, the Medved Brothers’ infamous compendium of B movies, which provided further inspiration. The final piece came when Hodgson, having moved to L.A. to pursue standup, played the Magic Castle, the legendary magicians’ club. “The cool thing about the Magic Castle is that when you work there, you get a free membership,” Hodgson said. “They have an unbelievably huge library and a Xerox machine, so I would go up there almost every day and cruise through the books and Xerox stuff. I’d look at secrets, look at mechanics; I love magic, and my standup was all about doing live visual surprises.”
While researching at the Magic Castle, he discovered the history of “spook shows,” which he referred to as “the magician’s version of the blues.” In the days of movie palaces, magicians would alter their acts with a horror theme and perform them in the intermissions between films, ending with a blackout that would send the assembled teenage audience into a frenzy. After returning to Minneapolis in the late ’80s, Hodgson recreated and performed his own spook show. “Those three things,” he said, “are really the DNA of MST.”
During that initial West Coast stint, Hodgson performed his friendly, prop-heavy standup act on Letterman and Saturday Night Live, and appeared on an HBO “Young Comedians Special” hosted by John Candy alongside other up-and-comers like Bill Maher and Paula Poundstone. But after three years, he found himself out of options. “When I was doing Saturday Night Live,” he recalled, “Joe Piscopo came up to me and goes, ‘Man, you’re so lucky you get to do your own stuff. I have to do this whether it’s funny or not.’ I really took that to heart. He was right: I was lucky to be autonomous, and I wasn’t enough of an actor to be on a sitcom. I’d have a crisis if they had me do stuff I didn’t feel good about.”
After a brief respite in Minneapolis, Hodgson pulled together a group of local standups and writers to form the core of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Hodgson presided over the show with a stoned-sounding affability, like a ’50s kiddie-show host crossed with Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Today, he retains that drowsy, approachable demeanor, greeting fans who approach him with a warm, “Put ’er there!”
Remnants of Hodgson’s standup act survived in the show’s “invention exchanges,” sketch interludes in which captives and mad-scientist captors traded prop-comedy concoctions. But the bulk of each episode was built around a movie — creaky horror programmers from the ’50s, seedy biker flicks from the ’70s, Japanese giant-monster rampages, eccentric Russian fairy tales — shown in near entirety with superimposed silhouettes of Joel and his sidekicks making jokes. Only some of the cracks were at the movie’s expense; often, they let the pop-culture references fly fast and furious, cramming a line from Shakespeare next to a Star Trek quote, followed by a snippet of musical theater.
The “boy and his ’bots” premise was partially inspired by the 1972 film Silent Running, which involved Bruce Dern stranded in space with only robots as companions. While he’s not surprised that the concept of movie riffing has taken off in MST3K’s wake, Hodgson is disappointed that most efforts since lack framing devices.
“I really thought that Mystery Science Theater was a workbook to show you how to do movie riffing,” he explained. “I did expect people to do it, but I also expected them to come up with themes. When I teach my class, I make them have to come up with a reason why they’re having to watch a bad movie. Otherwise, if you’re watching a movie and making fun of it, you’re just an asshole.”
There are those who feel that way even about MST3K: Fans of B movies, classic horror and sci-fi and exploitation films have often taken offense at the show’s mockery. But Hodgson insists that it’s always come from a place of genuine affection. “It’s really hard to make even a bad movie,” he said. “It takes years, and it can consume people’s lives. So it would be completely wrong to take a position, like, ‘These people suck because their movie didn’t turn out, and we’re here to serve justice.’ If you detest the movie and have disdain and contempt for the people who made it, it’s not sustainable. At the heart of it, you’re a companion — and no one wants to spend time with a dick.”
Those are some of the lessons that Hodgson tried to impart to the students in his movie-riffing course. While he currently has no plans to offer the course at Bucks a second time, he is doing an abbreviated version at one-day seminars across the country. The other factor he stresses is collaboration, saying, “It just looks wrong when one person riffs on a movie. You go, ‘Couldn’t you get it together? Don’t you have any friends?’ The thing that’s nice about doing it with people is it shouldn’t be stressful; it needs to be fun.”
MST3K was fun for Hodgson for about five years. At that point, planning began for the feature-film version of the show and, Hodgson says, producer Jim Mallon suddenly asserted control as director of the movie, with Hodgson relegated to associate-producer status. “I didn’t feel that reflected my position with the show,” he said. “So one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I was leaving. I knew that it was very dangerous for Jim and I to be fighting. It would wreck the show, and I didn’t want that to happen. I remember not knowing what to do, and then I thought of the King Solomon story about the baby and said, ‘I know what to do: I’m going to walk away.’ It was a huge personal tragedy for me, and I’m still kind of twitchy about it.”
Hodgson returned to Hollywood, where he spent a dozen years developing ideas that mostly came to nothing — innovative DIY pilot concepts that felt like Ernie Kovacs in the era of Seinfeld. “It was like being a concept-car designer in Detroit,” he said. “I was designing the car of the future that they would never make, but it was fun to look at in a car show.”
Eventually, Hodgson decided the problem was in the way that he defined himself. Having created MST3K, he thought, “I’m the guy who creates new comedic art forms.” After more than a decade attempting to replicate that success, he gained a new perspective. “I started to relax and thought, ‘Why do I feel like I have to do it again? I already did it once, and that’s one more cult-hit show than most people.’ So, finally, after doing that and getting exhausted, I went, ‘I guess I’m the guy who invented movie riffing. And that’s fine.’ But I had to go through that to be able to appreciate and be content with it.”
Hodgson finally left L.A. for the much more peaceful lifestyle of small-town Pennsylvania. (He’d rather not say exactly which small town — even though “one of the few perks of being a cult celebrity is nobody knows who you are,” the other side of the coin is that “you don’t have enough money to insulate yourself from people who want to show up at your house.”) He works as “creative lead for media” for aerospace company Cannae, which makes engines for satellites — yes, the man behind Gizmonics Institute and the Satellite of Love is now crafting brand identities for actual satellites.
In 2007, Hodgson reunited with several other MST3K original-cast alumni to form Cinematic Titanic, which brought movie riffing to a live-concert setting. The group, which also features Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, J. Elvis Weinstein and Mary Jo Pehl, will embark on another tour this year, while Hodgson hopes to present “Riffing Myself” in more venues across the country.
“Cinematic Titanic has been so important because I’d never met any of the people who liked Mystery Science Theater,” Hodgson explained. “Doing it again and putting faces to the people who liked the show, seeing the humanity of it, has really helped me understand it. I was that kid who used to watch eight hours of TV a day, and I’m starting to get what it must be like for people who really love Mystery Science Theater, that satisfying experience that you rely on a little bit.”
“Riffing Myself,” Sun., Jan. 27, 4 p.m., $22.50-$39.50, The Trocadero, 1003 Arch St., 215-922-6888, thetroc.com.