How Mystery Science Theater 3000 Came Back to Life

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Photo: Comedy Central

Twenty-seven years ago, Joel Hodgson created a new universe that included two robots, himself, and a spaceship affectionately known as the Satellite of Love. This universe exists in the hilariously brilliant sci-fi TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which debuted on local Minneapolis television before stints on Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), until its cancellation in 1999. Earlier this month, Hodgson revived MST3K with a Kickstarter that funded at least three new episodes, and more are on the way if the fans keep giving.

The show always centered on a man stranded in space (first Hodgson, then Mike Nelson) with two robot companions: Tom Servo is a gum-ball machine of sorts, and Crow T. Robot has a beak and is more of your run-of-the-mill ’bot. Each episode, the three characters are made to watch a B-movie as an experiment by “the Mads,” two mad scientists who harass the protagonists. The host and his robots then delightfully and sarcastically riff on the terrible films they watch. For the new episodes, Hodgson will be keeping the show’s original concept intact, but he’s made some new hires: “The Nerdist” podcast’s Jonah Ray will be the host; comedians Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount will voice Crow and Tom Servo, respectively; and Felicia Day will be the show’s new “Mad.” Hodgson hopped on the phone with Vulture shortly before announcing his casting choices to discuss how Mystery Science Theater 3000 came back and how he plans to keep it living.

Congratulations on how the Kickstarter is going so far.
It’s amazing. It’s a tremendous amount of work, but I’m so happy to be doing it.

Were you surprised at all by how quickly and how generously fans responded?
It’s been astonishing. We made about $1 million in the first 24 hours, and then we got the second million during the next week, so now we’re working on that third. We’re really shooting for that $5 million mark to do a whole new series. I don’t want to sit here and behave like it’s over and we’re done. I’m pretty optimistic and I want to encourage people, but at the same time, I don’t want to make it sound like, “Ohhh, we’ve made it,” because we haven’t really made it to the end yet.

Take us back to the very beginning of the Kickstarter idea. How did this newest run of Mystery Science Theater come about?
I always felt, if we were to do it again, we needed to invite the fan base to be a big part of it. I wanted measure the interest and invite them to be involved because they were able to keep everything going when we couldn’t. They’ve been flying the flag and circulating tapes and all of that. So when we got more rights cleared for old episodes’ movies about three months ago, my partners, Shout! Factory, and I said it was important we start with the fan base and create a sort of hybrid show that could then find even another life on an online platform or new channel later on.

The other big aspect is that these people just really care about the show, and you really need to listen to them. I’m not surprised to see what they’re capable of, and that was my motivation to get started again.

With such passionate fans, is there pressure to just give them the same show from before, or will you be trying different things?
That’s an interesting question. I think a lot of people were behaving like this would be a reunion show, or like a celebration of the past, and I was never thinking about it that way. I came in thinking this was like Dr. Who in that there’d be a new guy hosting every 100 shows or something. When I played out my ideas for everyone involved, I got a good response. It’s also, like I said, been great hearing from the fans, and helping my creativity with their input. I don’t really believe in giving people exactly what they want because they don’t know exactly what I know and where all this is going.

There are going to be new people involved with the show, but what is your exact role going to be? You’re not the host this time around, so are you the showrunner?
Showrunner is a title that’s germane to the West Coast, and the East Coast doesn’t really have that. I’ll have meetings, and people will go, “Who’s the showrunner?” and I guess I need to figure that out. [Laughs.] When we originally did Mystery Science Theater it was truly an ensemble, and we all signed off on the best takes, things like that. I’m going to find someone to be the head writer who is on set to deliver alternate jokes to our actors. In a way, you want to make it really fun on the set and have lost of ideas flowing around. The head writer or showrunner is that person. It just won’t be me.

I’m the producer and creator, and I have to think more big-picture stuff. I guess I’m an executive producer, but in today’s world, each show has like 80 of those. I still don’t know exactly my role, but I’m definitely more intimately involved with the creative stuff. Like, this week we’re looking at concept art and the visual elements of the show, like the sets and costumes. I’m also hiring a writing staff who will be writing the shows along with the new cast. We don’t just hire actors to say the lines.

It seems like it’d be important to have the actors involved in the jokes they’ll be telling. I feel like you could tell if they were just regurgitating lines.
Yeah, you really want them invested and involved so the whole situation feels right for the performers and the show.

I assume new host Jonah Ray will be writing in that capacity as well. How did you settle on him?
I met Jonah three years ago when I did the “Nerdist” podcast [Ray is a co-host], and I really liked him right away. I could tell he was a big MST3K nerd. We eventually hung out socially through other friends, and then he helped me write some jokes for an awards show I was hosting. He was the first guy I seriously thought about as a new host. About two years ago, I approached Jonah and told him this was happening and asked him to be host. He didn’t hesitate for a second, and we’ve been working towards this point every since.

You mentioned this new deal with Shout! Was this a recent development?
We just closed the deal completely three months ago. We’ve been working on it for a long time.

What mobility does this deal give you and the series? Are they actively talking to different platforms and channels for the show’s next step?
That’s the next step, but we can’t really do that now. We’re kind of prepping for that for after the Kickstarter is done. Shout! Factory has had this great roll with MST3K. The partners at Shout! used to be at Rhino Records, who put out the first MST3K VHS tapes. They licensed it and saw what was going on before anyone in Hollywood. When those people left Rhino, they brought the show with them to Shout!, where they’ve had it for the past six years or so.

The other thing they’ve done is go back in and clear movie rights for us. They’ve cleared over 100 movies for us so they are integral to the new Mystery Science Theater. It’s amazing to know we won’t have any problems with the rights of any films we choose in the future.

Are you always on the lookout for new movies to slide into the Mystery Science Theater universe?
It’s become a part of my life. We’ve been talking about doing new episodes for the past five years. I’ve always been looking at films and thinking about what kind of movies we would be doing, and if it’d just look like the old show. I’m really excited that TV sets are widescreen now, so we don’t have to crop anything out and lose part of the movie or silhouettes in the front row. We have way more real estate to look at, and more things to riff on. The whole show is just going to be a lot better-looking for all the fans.