Mystery Science Theater 3000 is back for its 13th season and ComingSoon spoke with creator Joel Hodgson about its return. New episodes are now streaming online via the Gizmoplex website.
“For the first time, not one, but three humans will be subjected to the bittersweet agony of watching the world’s cheesiest movies, as returning test subject Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) shares hosting duties with the newest kidnapped Gizmonic technician, Emily Connor (Emily Marsh) and original host Joel Robinson (show creator Joel Hodgson),” says the official synopsis. “Accompanied by wisecracking robot pals Crow T. Robot (Hampton Yount/Kelsey Ann Brady), Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn/Conor McGiffin), and GPC (Rebecca Hanson/Yvonne Freese), our heroes will have to survive 13 new movies, 12 new shorts, and the unveiling of Kinga’s newest scheme for world domination: The Gizmoplex, the First Cineplex on the Moon.”
The first episode of this season starts with Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, and this film was just unearthed about a decade ago. It stars the legendary Luchador El Santo. What made you choose this film? It’s a very interesting choice.
Joel Hodgson: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. This was peculiar because of COVID and making the show has been very unusual for the last 14 months, since we did the Kickstarter, figuring out how to do all this during COVID and it’s just a constantly moving kind of horizon, you know? It’s just … we don’t know if COVID was going to keep people from being able to travel. We didn’t know the restrictions that would be involved, the testing that was involved. When we first started, we figured, oh, we’re gonna have to just all be isolated and have green screens and cameras and recording equipment in our homes, and that’s how we try to make it.
So it’s been about negotiating that and, at the same time, to answer your question, clearing films we didn’t have all the movies cleared before we started writing. Now that might sound unusual, but I always feel obliged, and the way we’ve done it in the past, is to look at all the movies and kind of arrange them into a routine from a beginning to the end of the season, meaning “what’s a good movie that’s a good opener, like an appetizer? What’s the closer? What’s the last movie? What’s the movie that’s in the very middle, or what’s the beginning of the third act for our season?” So we had to kind of lay them all end to end.
When we finally got El Santo, I looked at it and this is such a lovely print, and it’s at this beautiful time of film production in Mexico. And it’s just so rich looking, it’s so well lit. The costumes and just this world that El Santo’s in is so beautiful and cool that I just felt like this needs to be the opener. This needs to be our season opener. And of course, El Santo’s so iconic and so famous, and he kind of is shorthand for this world. And so I just felt like it was an easy way for new people to get into MST3K.
Ever since the recontinuation of MST3K came along, how has the process changed when it comes to picking films? Because I’m sure you have fans sending you hundreds, if not thousands, of bad films. Is it easier or is it harder to try to sift through how much there is?
The real heart of it is, “Can you clear the movie?” Can you afford the movie and will the people own the copyright on the movie let you riff it? And that’s really job one. We just can’t proceed without that. And so a lot of people just think, “oh, if it’s on TV, I guess they can riff on it!” They have a kind of coloring book version of the way it works. And ultimately it’s lawyers and you have to talk to lawyers and you have to pay and we have to do it all legally. So that’s kind of what’s at work. So I can’t pay attention to a lot of people who are pitching, like doing Cats or whatever, you know what I mean? I can’t really seriously do that with the show because we would have to pay them to let us use their film.
This season has three hosts. You return, and then we have Emily Marsh as the first female host. How awesome was it getting her on? I know she was on the live shows, so how cool was it getting her on the show?
It’s great. And she’s just super talented. We just did a bunch of interviews together. I think a big part of her story is just that when she learned how to movie riff, it’s completely different than any of us, whether it was me or Mike Nelson or Jonah, because she really learned how to riff in front of a live audience. Like she started when we did my Farewell Tour, and it was kind of like that’s when she started. In every show, we’d give her about 10 minutes to go out and riff with the bots in the course of the show. And that’s when she started. But then, also during COVID, We went out and did our live tour and she was out and for about 16 weeks doing live shows and just getting her chops with that cast. And so they’ve gotten really strong together and you’re gonna see that, when you start to see the shows that she’s doing with her cast. It’s road-tested!
One thing I thought was great about having the two Netflix seasons was that really reintroduced the show to a lot of audiences. What was your biggest takeaway from doing those two seasons and lessons that you’re able to apply to doing it solo and with the backing of your fans?
Well, we were really lucky. Netflix was great in that they didn’t try to interfere with what we were doing creatively, but to be able to start the brand up again and to do the shows again was really a privilege to get to do. But you can’t start like we did originally. When we started originally, we were on local television. We did 22 shows locally and then we sold it to Comedy Channel, which became Comedy Central. So that was such a different kind of trajectory. We didn’t even write the shows that we did locally. We just really did it like you would at a party, we would just riff. We didn’t really start writing until we got to do it for real, for pay. And so now the Netflix stuff was really like, how do you grab all these people and then kind of bring them into the same place? So we did a couple of different things to try to help make that happen.
Mostly it had to do with the way we wrote it, and also the way we recorded it, just so we had a little more flexibility to shape the material because we didn’t have the experience that the old cast did of doing over almost 200 episodes together. You know what I mean? We were taking all these new people, new writers, new performers, bringing them together. And so we had to concoct it slightly differently. Now this season to kind of counterpoint that, with the Gizmoplex, is much closer to the way we used to do the show, but it’s only because Jonah and his cast have done 20 episodes already. They’re the pros from Dover now, and so we can bring them in and they know exactly what to do. There’s no learning curve and they’re just stronger than ever. So that’s kind of the difference is these shows are much more like the way we did them back at Best Brains in Minneapolis. The riffs are performed, live. The guys performing with their puppets are performing their puppets for the most part. So that’s kind of how it worked.
So the Gizmoplex is such an awesome idea, and I love that it’s part of the story of the shows as well as being this live online theater. This is like such an ambitious thing undertaking for you. What was the biggest challenges in just getting the actual Gizmoplex online together?
Well, the Gizmoplex was born from COVID when we at Alternaversal just had a lot of time on our hands, because we couldn’t be touring and we couldn’t be making a show. So it was really a reaction that, because Netflix wasn’t picking us up, there was no place to really have that mouth of the river kind of experience where this is where the new shows are coming out, that would then go on to other platforms and go into streaming and stuff like our old episodes. And so that was just it. It was a naive kind of vision of a place where it all emanates from. And so fortunately a lot of the technical heavy lifting has been done by Ivan Askwith, who’s our manager for our Kickstarter, but also really wanted to take this challenge on, was fascinated with it.
He’s a graduate of MIT and is very tech-savvy and fascinated with it. So I was happy to kind of offer him that, because he’s such an important part of our team now. And it’s something he was really fascinated with and he’s obviously great at, so he and his group are doing a brilliant job, spooky labs for doing the tech development and just all the millions of details that have to be dealt with when working with something like that. I don’t have to get my hands dirty with it. I’ve just got to make sure the shows are good, and it seems simple compared to all that other stuff.
One thing I love about coming with the Gizmoplex is you’re gonna have the short of the month, and getting to do these shorter episodes, you can kind of do stuff other than films. Like the first one is this like sort of like PSA about water consumption. And I thought that was such a funny short to watch. So how freeing is it to be able to do these shorts and to tackle other types of content?
Well, it’s wonderful. And our shorts have always been such a really goofy, crazy thing we got to do. And it was so fun just to get to come back to it. It’s like it’s lighter because they’re shorter, and they’re even more frivolous and crazy than the features we do. Like this water consumption thing, when you really into what they’re saying it’s frightening. They’re just saying, “We’re putting water where it shouldn’t be, and we’re taking water from where it is!” It’s just these rich white men moving things around and saying, “We’re channeling water now!”
It just feels like the patriarchy at its apex going, you know, “To hell with Mother Nature, we’re just going to do this!” And they had the money and the wherewithal to make a PSA about it. If you think about it, it’s complete culture jamming. They’re really kind of affecting the culture in a way that they’re trying to make it just look normalized. Like yeah, “Moving water is just what we do.” And you kind of go, “Yeah, maybe just leave it where it is. It might be okay. Maybe Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. I don’t know.”
So one thing I was really curious about is when you’re doing the writing, it’s such an iterative process. So you must watch these films repeatedly. It feels like it’d be easy to burn out. How do you prevent that?
Well, you do it with a lot of people. I mean, the secret of it is always that you do it with a big group of people, and we kind of maintain the same recipe we did back in the day where there’s about, usually, six or eight people in a room and also people writing remotely. But again, because of Zoom meetings and stuff like that, you can have writers all over the country working together at the same time. But that’s kind of it. The secret is always just having enough people where it doesn’t feel like a lot of work. It’s got to feel more fun and a little bit like, I used the word frivolous but I guess that’s my word today. It feels more frivolous when you have a bunch of people and you don’t have to lift it yourself. You don’t have to do it by yourself.
I love how MST3K has been able to kind of give second lives to a lot of films and even a first life for some of the more obscure ones. Can you speak to just your role in introducing these films to a new audience? Because it’s not like it’s a mean-spirited, takedown of the film, there’s a joy to watching them, and I think you get that through in these episodes.
Yeah, these movies are adorable. I mean, I don’t know. There’s no other way to describe them. And in a culture where, I guess I just feel like for some reason the film narrative is a little bit broken right now because I think we just strangled it so hard. And then this kind of pursuit of a perfect movie experience just got everybody kind of worn out. And I think to kind of cast your nets on the other side of the boat, and there’s all these like these brilliant and weird forgotten movies that are these unique… They were all ventures. They were all business ventures for people, and sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t, and to get to go in and explore them and be funny with them is really the craft of it. And the part I love about it the most is just kind of getting to be …I mean, I like the idea of getting immersed in a movie like that for a week, and spending a lot of time and carefully going through it and finding really great jokes is just fun.