When Joel Hodgson announced a Kickstarter campaign to bring back Mystery Science Theater 3000, the 1990s cult cable show he’d created and starred in, the internet basically melted down. The show’s combination of bad B-movies and relentless riffing had earned it an active underground fan base, and in the 17 years since its demise MST3K had continued to live on thanks to word of mouth and online chatter. It was the perfect target for a Veronica Mars-esque resurrection, sure — but even that underplayed how big the revival would become.
Fans helped the campaign blast past its original $2 million goal, eventually raising nearly $5.8 million, turning it into the biggest crowdfunded video project on Kickstarter. Hodgson and team pledged to make 14 new episodes, and then came the cast announcements: people like Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt, longtime MST3K fans themselves, would be starring in the new iteration, with writers like Community creator Dan Harmon joining the writers room.
On the day before Hodgson and his cast were set to take the stage at Comic-Con — and announce that the [new show would be released on Netflix] — we sat down at the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego. Unassuming in a baseball cap and shorts, Hodgson was earnest and thoughtful, discussing Mystery Science Theater 3000’s enduring popularity, how he decided to cast updated versions of beloved characters, and why new movies should be spared the merciless riffing treatment of robot sidekicks Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot.
The Kickstarter campaign was a huge success, and you’ve continued to raise money from add-on sales and merchandise. Were you surprised at the response?
It sounds weird when I talk about it, but obviously the goal was to make 12 episodes — but I believed we’d do it. The reason why is because we did all those Cinematic Titanic [movie riffing] shows. We did 100 live shows, performed for 100,000 people in the course of five years. I probably met 30,000 of those people. I just did the math, and went, well, if people are willing to come see Cinematic Titanic — which isn’t Mystery Science Theater — and pay $50 a ticket, get a babysitter, go out to eat; they’re spending about $100. If those people that were willing to come in and go see a show would put in the money to bring back MST [we could do it]. It was just a back-of-the-envelope, very naïve calculation.
It’s one of those things you don’t really think about until you get to the other side. Like, "Wait a minute, I could have screwed up the brand really bad if this had failed!" If I tried it, and we got half the money, if would have looked tainted. It wouldn’t have been seen as a success. I didn’t realize that until we were on the other side. It worked out fortunately.
The original MST3K owed its success to the characters themselves as much as the jokes. Did you expect to find so many big names interested in being part of the revival?
That’s been a very gradual thing. Meeting people over the years that are doing really cool things that really like Mystery Science Theater. I knew who was going to be the usual ensemble. I cast Jonah [Ray in the lead role], and then I said you should pick the guys who are going to be Tom Servo and Crow, because you have to go into this feeling like you can win, and feeling like you’re going to be comfortable, and that you have people that you really like. He really picked out [comedians Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn, the new robot sidekicks].
They were in place, but about three months out, I didn’t have a mad scientist. I knew her name. I knew the story, that she would be Dr. Forrester’s daughter. I didn’t know who it was, and then I met Felicia at Salt Lake City Comic Con. We became friends, and she told me how much she liked the show. I started thinking about it, going, "Wow, she’s really perfect for Dr. Forrester’s daughter." That was kind of the last piece that fell in to make it happen.
It had to be a little daunting, because people do get proprietary about who plays these roles. Were people concerned about the revival given that you were recasting some of the show’s best-known characters?
I saw it. I was going, "I’m really proud of the concept." I think that’s worthy. Everybody kind of ignored that this had never been done before. It was a complete new way of doing a comedy show. Over time, I think it became easier for people to see that the concept was worth maintaining and refreshing with new people. That was the biggest hurdle, because there were a lot of people saying, "Impossible, you can’t make it without the people that [originally] did it." But even within the history of the show, the entire cast had been refreshed. To me, it was obvious, but to a lot of people is was like, "It’s either got to be you or Mike. Don’t you get that? It’s you or Mike."
You said the concept still works. Why do you think it still plays, so many years later?
There’s a lot of reasons, looking back, why I think it might work. I think one of the ideas is that it’s not topical. It’s really based on the culture of the movie you’re in. The movie is the reality that you’re riffing on, whereas if you were doing a show that’s topical, the world is the globe that you’re in. With MST, the movie is the sphere that you’re in. I think that it carries its culture with it.
I’d argue the aesthetic is also important. The fact that it feels handcrafted and homegrown; the puppets give it a timelessness.
That was one of the things I wasn’t going to talk about, but it’s a document of a day or two. It’s really live-looking. It looks like a Saturday Night Live sketch, because we do everything in-camera. There’s no post or digital effects, and I think people accept that as, "Oh this is a document of a day or two in the life of these people who are making a show." There were a lot of top people in our production that wanted a film look for the new show, and wanted it to look like it was not videotape. We had a few fights about that.
Comedy really works great if it’s a nice crisp medium that feels more live. Comedy has a harder time on film. Up until Ghostbusters, there really was no big-budget comedy film. It’s still a bit of an anomaly as far as entertainment goes.
Part of the Kickstarter pitch was that you wanted to help demonstrate that there was demand and interest in reviving this show, potentially beyond these Kickstarter episodes. Have you seen any change, given the success?
Oh my goodness. It’s been so wonderful, and so important in the life of the show, and the life of the production. When you get behind closed doors, talking with networks and the people you want to license the show, it’s your word against them. They’re going, "Nobody cares about this." Suddenly, you’re in this position like there’s no evidence. Then you say, "Wait a minute, people do like the show. In fact, 50,000 people paid real hard-earned money, so the show’s going to be made whether you’re involved or not."
Doing the Kickstarter demonstrated, in a really beautiful way, that people care, and [the property] has value. That really helped, ultimately, to keep it so we had some autonomy to make the show we felt we should make, and make a document of where we’re all at right now. It’s the things that we’re interested in, the best we can do with the money, which isn’t still a lot. It’s like $300,000 an episode, which is what people pay for a half-hour reality show. Even though it’s the largest Kickstarter for film or video in history, it’s not a lot for 14 episodes. It’s still a low-budget show.
Obviously, the show tackles old movies, where it’s easier to be detached and pick them apart. If someone told you that you could tackle any modern movie and do the same, what would you want to satirize?
People are really interested in that. It’s like I have to have a stock answer that I say just to blow it out of the water. I’ll just go, "Okay, Happy Feet. There. We’ll just riff on Happy Feet. Thank you!" Even though that movie is eight years old or something, they just want to hear you say [a name].
"There's something about new movies where we still maintain hope for every one that comes out."
Here’s my thinking on it. The reason why we make new movies is we need them. We need that experience. You want to sit in a theater, and you want to sign off on it emotionally, and be taken away in the movie. For 100 years, that’s been a part of our society. And so the idea of standing right on the edge of these new movies coming up out of the wellspring — to go "Yeah, I’m going to bat that down. I’m going to tear it apart. I’m going to look at it a million different ways and riff on it." — it’s too cynical for me. It’s not who I am.
I feel like there’s something about new movies where we still maintain a certain amount of hope for every one that comes out. You don’t want to be that person that’s cynical before it happens, because it could be awesome. We need awesome movies. I just went to The BFG, and I wasn’t planning on going. I didn’t know that much about it. I was just kind of dragged to it, and I loved it. It made me so happy, because this is going to be this thing that people find over time, and it’s going to really surprise them, and be this wonderful thing. You don’t want to disrupt that. You don’t want to go, "Listen, I’ve got to serve justice on The BFG. I’ve got to sit there and point out the foibles." You don’t have to do that.
Photography by Vjeran Pavic.