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Mystery Science Theater 3000's Joel Hodgson on Karate Ghosts and Cats

The stage setup for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 live tour.
The stage setup for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 live tour.
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We're only a few weeks into 2020, and it's been one calamity after another. Thankfully, the humans (and robots) of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are here to distract us with some Flash Gordon noises and science stuff.

Joel Hodgson’s MST3K has been a long-running staple of nerd culture ever since it first blasted off in 1988. The premise of the show was simple: Screen goofy old sci-fi/genre flicks and mock the hell out of them. Original host Hodgson (and future hosts Mike Nelson and Jonah Ray) and a team of puppet robots (Crow, Tom Servo, Gypsy, and Cambot) would cheerfully crack wise over classic stinkers like Manos: The Hands of Fate.

After initially going off the air from Comedy Central in 1996, the show would go through two more revivals (two years with the Sci-Fi — now Syfy — Channel and one season with Netflix). MST3K has also inspired several other “watch and riff”-style shows and podcasts, creating a cottage industry of people who think they’re funny talking over movies. But there are few people on this island Earth that are as funny as a gumball machine with a beak.

In addition to being a TV phenomenon, Hodgson and company have taken the show on the road over the years. On January 29, the MST3K Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour is coming to town. We got a chance to talk to Hodgson about what it takes to find films to riff on, which movie they’ll be skewering on tour, and what modern hairball of a motion picture would make the cut if they did contemporary films.


Phoenix New Times: What film will you be riffing on during this tour?

Joel Hodgson: No Retreat, No Surrender. It’s like a rip-off of The Karate Kid merged with the movie Ghost. Who’s the guy from Karate Kid — Mr. Miyagi?

Pat Morita?

Yeah, but what was his character’s name?

You had it — it’s totally Mr. Miyagi.

So Bruce Lee’s ghost is Mr. Miyagi in this movie. There’s no pottery, though. And they don’t make out. Other than that, it’s all there.

I’ve always wondered how you find some of these movies?

It’s not as romantic as you’d think, because we often have to work with a distributor that wants to work with us. So we don’t window-shop for movies and then call lawyers who call other lawyers to make a deal. We really start with a distributor we can work with. They might have a couple of hundred movies, so we wade through them in the hopes of finding one that will work.

As Jonah Ray says, "We find movies we can dance with." So we have to find something that gives us room to riff on it, that has enough production values, and has a good print. And is the sound good? Because it has to be projected in a room with hundreds of people in it.

Have you ever gotten any blowback from filmmakers whose films you’ve given the MST3K treatment over the years?

We’ve heard stuff off and on over the years, but most distributors really like us, 'cause it’s kind of free money for them. It doesn’t inhibit their rights to show the film, because we’re making a new derivative work, so they see it as a way to make extra money. Occasionally someone will say, “Well, I know my movie wasn’t Citizen Kane but did you have to go and do that?” But then, they’d take the money anyway.

Mystery Science Theater is 30 years old now. It’s a part of pop culture, and I think a lot of people go, “Yeah, that was my movie that ended up on Mystery Science!” It’s become a shorthand for being a misunderstood movie or an orphaned film. It’s kind of a badge of honor.

It's almost like being a musician who gets parodied by Weird Al.

That’s right! It’s really true, except his songs are about the most famous songs in the world and our shows are about the most forgotten movies in the world.

Of all the films that have come out in the last ten years, what’s one film that you could see being an MST3K film if it came out decades ago?

Cats, of course. I just think it’ll have a long life because it’s the kind of thing you could see them playing at a cool club or people might have on at a party. You could watch it, and you don’t really need the sound on. It’s interesting-looking, weird wallpaper.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live is scheduled ib Wednesday, January 29, at the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa. Tickets are $37.50 to $78 via the website.

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