Back to the Satellite of Love: Joel Hodgson talks the behind the scenes journey back to Mystery Science Theater 3000

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Jan 31, 2016, 6:52 PM EST (Updated)

So, your crowdfunding project to resurrect a beloved, but niche, TV show about riiffing on movies, with your robot cohorts, made $6.3 million (including outside funding) -- making it the most successful Film & Video campaign on on Kickstarter. Now what? Well, if you’re Joel Hodgson, you have to set about making 14 episodes (at the very least) of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival. That is a hefty task that might earn some sarcastic comments from Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot.

But if Joel’s inside robot voices are expressing concern, the writer and creative force behind the new MST is not showing it too much. Instead, the Wisconsin native has a plan and has been busy casting, writing and talking with networks about bringing the show to air. While the Kickstarter blockbuster is relatively recent, Hodgson’s dedication to bringing back the 1988-1999 show is not. Instead, he has long thought about the timing and approach for his creation’s return ever since we last saw him as the host aboard the Satellite of Love in '93. And now Mystery Science Theater is in preproduction and is, indeed, returning.

In the following conversation, the comedian discusses the scary moments associated with crowdfunding success; opens up about his approach to pleasing his fan-investors and the reasons behind selecting a celebrity cast that includes Patton Oswalt, Felicia Day and Nerdist’s Jonah Ray; and reveals whether, despite his role as showrunner, he’ll appear in front of the camera.

When you’re getting headlines from mainstream media outlets about breaking Kickstarter records, does it feel like it legitimizes the project? Because it seems like one can’t simply dismiss this show.

Yeah. It helps in so many ways. It is really different. We’re starting to have meetings, and starting to meet with networks. It is so different now. They really look at it like, you’re here and brought 50,000 people with you that are willing to put their money where their mouth is. You’re never really sure until you try it, so I’m grateful I got a chance to do it.

Was there a hesitation in the moments before you launched the Kickstarter where you wondered, “What if the fans aren’t there?”

Absolutely. It becomes very real. People do want to put it into context, like you must be certain or else why would you do it? But that’s not really true. It would have been atrocious if we had tried and nobody would have gotten involved. It would really have hurt us as far as going to Hollywood and talking to them. And the premise of the Kickstarter is not only making shows for the fanbase, but to grow it and get it in front of more and more people. But the fear is really there, and the potential for failure very great. I am super fortunate it didn’t happen. When you’re older, that’s a real problem because you can anticipate trouble, and you can feel it. It is not like when drivers are 18 and can’t foresee their own death. But people who are 55 can do it very easily.

You don’t just have fans now, you have investors. Especially compared to the old days, $6 million is a lot of money. Where will that money go, and why does MST3K need that much?

That is a really good question, and one of our first questions that came forward. We spent a lot of time – especially the second day, because we raised a million and a half within three hours – answering questions like that. We did a detailed breakdown to show where the money went. With crowdfunding, one of your first jobs is the fulfillment of all the products and things people want, like posters, T-shirts, hats, stickers. The other half of the fulfillment is shows. The cost per episode is about $250, 000. Fifteen years ago it was about $100,000 to make a Mystery Science Theater. My feeling is it’s still kind of in the neighborhood of what they had for the old shows. We also have to figure in the cost of licensing the films -- which is not that expensive because they’re not great movies – but it is still in the five figures to do that. I guess the analogy is, even a half hour reality show costs more than that. Even in today’s dollars, it is a really good deal for a 90-minute show.

How do you manage the star power of Patton Oswalt, Felicia Day, even Jonah Ray while being true to the spirit of the original, which wasn’t about featuring well-known faces?

Can people outside of Minneapolis riff on movies? I would say yes. The advantage of being able to raise this money is, people know about Mystery Science Theater. They like it. But I think it is almost too precious if you then go, on top of that, we have to go to Minneapolis and find all middle acts in a comedy club, and have them sustain a show so many people have high expectations for. It is not exactly fair or realistic to think they could do it. I have recruited nice, normal people who are doing most of the writing. The people we billboarded are really there to impress the casual viewer and celebrities. Also, they are friends of mine, are super funny and make me feel confident. Having Patton Oswalt involved in the performing and the writing makes me feel more relaxed, and makes me go, “This guy can handle it.” That is really what you have to think about when you’re thinking about introducing a naïve, young writer to this situation: People have expectations. It is not fair to do that to somebody. But it is important to the concept; the reason Mystery Science Theater succeeded was it was outside the LA/New York culture, and people thought it was a very fresh thing. And I know that’s very important. If you look at how many writers there are on the show, a very small percentage of them are famous. It could be 10 percent.

Will you have any involvement with Minneapolis for this incarnation?

We do have people from Minneapolis writing on it. Minneapolis is so important to the Mystery Science Theater story because it is very...oh boy, I don’t know how to explain it. Minneapolis is so important: the mood of the place, how encouraging the audiences are. I really think that had so much to do with why it worked; just what we did on this little UHF channel. There were so many people who just dug it right away. When you’re doing something they like, they really let you know. There are no strings attached. I think there is something special about that.

Much of the work you’re doing on this is behind the scenes, but there is a reasonable expectation to see you show up on camera. Will you return?

Yeah, absolutely. I am looking forward to it. Again, it was really important that we not get made with that. It was important I wasn’t in a jumpsuit on the front page. That I am just in a sport coat so they know I’m not on camera; I’m just an executive. That was the messaging we had to do. I thought it would be unfair and confusing to go, “I’m going to be back!” and then also put forward these new people. So there’s Joel, the executive, creative lead, or showrunner, and there’s this new array of people. I wanted it to be clear what was happening. But just so you know, I am really looking forward to it. I was thinking about it today when I was on the elliptical. I was daydreaming about a couple characters I’d like to do.

Part of the investment as a fan is you think about movies you’d like to see riffed on. I have been thinking a lot about 1980s movies, which was a formative time for me (and maybe for Patton or Felicia, or others involved in the show now). What era do you think will most movies be coming from?

A couple answers there. Since we’re putting in an all-new cast, I want the movies to feel somewhat familiar. We don’t have anything from the ‘50s or ‘60s. Maybe one. But I am hesitant to...I have strong feelings about trying to profile the movies just because I feel we’d never done that on MST. We never, ever billboarded what the movies are going to be. There is a really good reason for that; the MST experience is you are going to see movies you had probably never seen before. That’s really good because comedy works best when there’s surprise. If I start billboarding, then everyone is going to go watch those movies. But I understand what you’re saying. Mystery Science Theater works with anything, and we’re constantly going to be swimming upstream. The only thing it hinges on is licensing the movies, and the cost of that.

So far, this looks and feels familiar. But along the way, were there any alterations to the concept you considered and abandoned? For instance, not have a guy on a satellite with two robots.

No. My job is to correct the things that don’t work. And so, I think that’s one of those things that just works really well. Then, the other benefit is the cast has been completely refreshed. The first day, people were going, “Where’s the original cast? What have you done? What’s going on?” We had to spend this time, a critical second day, writing five answers to five burning questions. One of them was, where’s the original cast. We had to say, what is going to make this show survive is to invite the original cast back. But it’s not about us, it’s the next generation. That was the real scary, real wild, unhinged part of this whole thing. I put my thoughts down, and the fans signed off on it. They understood what I was saying, and my thinking about it in a holistic way. What’s best for the brand to keep it moving, rather than what’s best for your memories of the brand. That was the nuttiest, scariest part. If they had hated that, that would have been it.


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