Talking in a movie theater used to get you escorted out of the building by officious ushers. But in 1976, The Rocky Horror Picture Show made talking to screens a cultish national pastime. A decade later, former stand-up comedian Joel Hodgson converted cracking wise at quirky films into an eventual 30-year career with Mystery Science Theater 3000. Now, on its 30th-anniversary tour, the show comes to Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre Oct. 24.
“I wasn’t surprised that it worked,” Hodgson says. “Some people go, ‘We didn’t know people would like a little private thing like a TV show.’ I don’t play that. I thought it would work like gangbusters. Did I think it would last 30 years? No. I was hoping for a 10-year run and it exceeded that.”
Hodgson’s inspiration for MST3K came early. The primary trigger was the illustration accompanying the lyrics to Elton John’s “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which depicts a couple silhouetted in front of a scene from Gone With the Wind.
“I was in high school looking at that, thinking, ‘You could do this with a green screen, pick a movie and have people say stuff,’ ” Hodgson says. “Then we started working backward. MST was the first comedy show to use a shared screen, meaning the comics and the audiences were looking at the same thing at the same time.”
Hodgson originally created MST3K in 1988 for the KTMA channel in Minneapolis, where it was an immediate sensation. The Comedy Channel (now known as Comedy Central) heard the buzz about the show — whose premise revolved around a space lab janitor stranded in an orbiting satellite with his self-created robot companions and an evil scientist who forces him to watch bad science fiction movies to monitor his reactions — and gave it a national platform. A cultish adoration followed by self-proclaimed “Mysties” nationwide.
After dozens of bad films and scores of adventures with companions like aforementioned robots Crow, Tom Servo and Gypsy, and mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and his sidekick TV’s Frank, Hodgson left MST3K at the conclusion of the fifth season, citing discomfort with acting in general. Show writer Mike Nelson took over, but the newly reconfigured Comedy Central cancelled the show after two more seasons.
When the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) picked it up, it was handed its second cancellation after a two-year run, followed by a 60-episode syndication package. Five years ago, Hodgson worked with reissue label Shout! Factory to release MST3K on DVD, and two years later he acquired the show rights from former creative partner Jim Mallon. Hodgson then launched what became the largest Kickstarter film/video campaign in the site’s history. This led to Netflix picking up a reboot, featuring new riff host Jonah Ray, and new mad scientists Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt. The highly anticipated second season will air on Netflix next month.
“We’re the highest-rated show on Netflix right now, and we’re 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes,” Hodgson says. “It was scary to bring it back and have an all-new cast and writers and great to have it land and have people be happy with it.”
If MSTK3 is a cult show, it’s mankind’s biggest cult. In addition to a recently-release Mystery Science Theater comicbook, ’bots Crow and Tom Servo will soon be inducted into Fort Mitchell, Ky.’s Vent Haven ventriloquism museum. Hodgson grew up as a ventriloquist and says that Tom and Crow are rigged based on dummies. The Vent Mask will join them, a device he invented that turns people into real dummies.
The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Live 30th-anniversary tour, Hodgson will be joined onstage by new host Ray as the two riff on a Canadian science fiction film called The Brain. As Hodgson notes, the cast is constantly editing on the fly because they’re tied inextricably to the film being presented, and they have to wait for the audience to stop laughing before setting up the next joke.
For the new production, Hodgson felt he needed to take an active role to celebrate the re-launch’s success.
“We tried to figure the best way to celebrate and since I’m the first guy and Jonah’s the latest guy riffing, we felt it was important,” Hodgson says of the two of them appearing onstage together. “We’re thrilled to go out and meet the people that kept it going.”
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Live 30th-anniversary tour comes to Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre Wednesday, Oct. 24. More info/tickets: tafttheatre.org