Nerd Culture

Mystery Science Theater 3000's Joel Hodgson on the Live Tour and Whether the Show's Returning for Another Season

The current cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Creator Joel Hodgson is second from the right.
The current cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Creator Joel Hodgson is second from the right. Courtesy of Right On PR
Local fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, prepare yourself. The Satellite of Love will be touching down in the Valley sometime in the, um ... not too distant future.

More specifically, the famed spaceship from the cult movie-riffing television show, which was revived on Netflix earlier this year, will land tonight at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix. And its crew of movie-skewering jokesters, robotic and otherwise, will be along for the ride, including Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, Gypsy, and its current host, Jonah Heston.

The Mystery Science Theater 3000 live tour, a roving IRL version of the program featuring its cast, will take over the Orpheum on Thursday night. And, as you’d expect, it will feature the same M.O. as the show: riffing on awful movies with a barrage of jokes.

In this case, it’s Eegah: The Name Written in Blood, the 1962 schlockfest about a caveman’s encounter with civilization.

It’s the latest iteration of MST3K, which was a cult cable hit back in the ‘90s that got new life after a popular Kickstarter campaign raised $6 million and helped resurrect the show on Netflix.

New Times got a chance to speak with MST3K creator Joel Hodgson recently by telephone about the live tour, the show’s influence on comedy, and whether it will return for another season on Netflix.

How did the live tour for Mystery Science Theater 3000 come about?

Oh my god, well ... basically ... when I started thinking about bringing it back, one of the paths was to bring it back as a live show, rather than a TV show. That was kinda before we really decided to do the Kickstarter and make the show first. So the development of Mystery Science Theater as a stage show has gone hand in hand with the [revival] of the TV show from the beginning or kind of the last three years, I guess. So I tried to design the TV show so it would translate really well to the stage as well.

Is it similar in some respects to what y'all were doing with Cinematic Titanic, your other movie-riffing project? In other words, live riffing on a bad movie in front of an audience?
Well, yeah. I mean, Cinematic Titanic was kind of the first experiment with movie-riffing live, other than when we did one live show with Mystery Science Theater back in the '90s when we were doing the show. And I learned so much. We did Cinematic Titanic for six years. I did like 100 live shows with them and I just learned a ton, so it has a lot to do with how we're doing this live show. Just having that experience and knowing what it feels like and knowing what the audience is like is really useful.

So it had a lot to do with it.
And, of course, [Cinematic Titanic] was kind of a reader's theater version of Mystery Science Theater, whereas we just stood at the side of the stage with scripts and read our riffs. And this is really like Mystery Science Theater, so you're going to see Kinga and Max, you're going to see the Satellite of Love and Jonah and the robots. Cynthia and the Boneheads. So you're just going to see a lot of the show and, of course, they'll riff on a movie and do invention exchanges and sketches. So it's very different in that regard. There's a lot more production involved.

What's your role during the productions? Do you emcee or playing your character from the show?
I'm really just there as the producer and director. I'm also introducing the show and emceeing it a little bit. It looks like I'm going to be doing a few things backstage now that we're putting all the pieces together. And so mostly it's that. It's mostly just to go out and meet these people who backed the Kickstarter event, it's a chance to go and meet everybody and do these 24 to 25 cities ... and just provide that Mystery Science Theater live experience and create that for those groups. It's kind of like the expanding universe of Mystery Science Theater just to see what it can do ... and fortunately, movie riffing works really great live, I'm happy to report after doing all those Cinematic Titanic shows and just seeing how it works. I'm really glad about that.

click to enlarge The stage setup for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 live tour. - COURTESY OF RIGHT ON PR
The stage setup for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 live tour.
Courtesy of Right On PR
So are all the jokes pre-written or will they be doing off-the-cuff riffing?
Well, we always write 'em and I guess the best way to explain it is you're basically making a Mystery Science Theater in front of a live audience. And so you kind of can't help but react to them and respond to them. And again, the guys that are performing — Jonah [Ray], Baron [Vaughn], and Tim [Ryder) — are really good improvisers. So I'm not going to really say we make up the show in front [of an audience]. Mostly it's scripted, but there are things that happen and it's live, so that's the easiest way to explain it.

So where in the overall narrative or continuity of the show do the live shows occur? Because (spoiler alert) doesn't Jonah get killed at the end of the current season on Netflix?
You know, that's so funny you bring that up. And nobody mentioned that until about, eh, a month ago when we had written the scripts. So I didn't even think about it like that. I think of that as happening in the future of the show, you know? Or maybe the live tour takes place basically in-between "Starcrash" and "The Many Loves of Hercules." So I think that's where it takes place, roughly, so for six weeks [Kinga Forrester] grabs Jonah and makes him go to Earth.

Or should I think to myself, "It's just a TV show, I should really just relax," or whatever?
No, I think you're absolutely right and I'm a little frustrated I didn't think of that. I'm a little frustrated I didn't go, "Oh wait. These [live shows] are actually Season 11, Episodes 15 and 16." Like, I didn't think that to myself. So, that was kinda it. Mostly, I was just thinking, "How do you create the [live] show?" Like, Kinga and Max stay on Moon 13 but they're doing video, they're kind of Facetime-ing the whole show with Jonah and the bots. So I spent most of my time occupied with, "How in the world can we do this in an elegant way?"

So why did y'all seemingly kill off Jonah at the end of the first Netflix season?
Well, I don't think I should really talk about that right now, you know? I don't think I can really go into it, 'cause I think there's going to be a lot of things revealed in the second season that kind of tie it all together and I don't want to burn all those ideas off.

Well, let me ask the next logical question: There's going to be a second season of the show on Netflix?
Uh ... yeah. Hopefully.

When will y'all find out about that?
Uh ... I don't know. We're just working on it right now. We're talking to [Netflix] right now. So hopefully we'll know soon, but I couldn't tell you. I don't know exactly when that we'll be able to announce it. And, besides, they like to be the ones to announce it, anyway.

As someone who's been a longtime fan of the show, it just seems like the sword of cancellation has always hung over MST3K, no matter what medium or channel it's been on. Is that just part of the frustration of doing a show like this?
Well, I think it's the same thing every TV show that's ever been made lives with. We've been really lucky, we've done 11 seasons and over 200 episodes, so we've had a really nice long life. But, yeah, it's possible, maybe, it's real possible that some people maybe get a two-season deal, but I always feel like everyone else is kind of going from season to season. You gotta sing for your supper in TV and it's all predicated on how many people are watching and if the person distributing it thinks if you're drawing enough audience.

Are y'all worried about not coming back? Because Netflix isn't necessarily renewing its cult hits, like Sense8, for instance.
I don't know. I think the Kickstarter was such a good, healthy thing for us to kind of demonstrate that the backers really care and that they're willing to throw in. And part of this, too, is just making the brand healthy again, so that's why we're doing the live tour. Movie-riffing works in a lot of different ways, fortunately, so we're just going to start experimenting with that. It was kind of cool, because this is like spring training for movie-riffing while we're waiting. And after we made those 14 episodes, we went right to work on these and kept the writing staff in practice and kept the performers working on this show. So I'm just looking at a way to keep the brand healthy and keep it moving as much as possible. And some things you just can't control. So it's just like everything, there's always liabilities, I guess.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.