Comedian Joel Hodgson shows us a great card trick: The “MST3K” creator returns soon with 14 new episodes of his popular TV series

By on December 14, 2015

In 1983, Joel Hodgson — introduced here by host John Candy as a “comic, magician, spy” — was featured performer on HBO’s “The Eighth Annual Young Comedians Show,” where he performed one of our favorite card tricks . He was one of our favorite stand-up comedians for awhile, and still relatively unknown outside the comedy world until five years later he created and launched the successful cult TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000” on a Minneapolis public access station in 1988.

Hodgson has been in the news a lot lately because his Kickstarter-funded reboot of “MST3K” — which ended this past Friday night — raised more than $6.3 million dollars, setting a new record for a crowdfunded online video project (surpassing the record set by the Veronica Mars movie, which had raised $5,702,153).

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48,270 fans and backers of the reboot of the show have helped Hodgson’s “MST3K” campaign raise $5,764,229 on Kickstarter, plus an additional $600,000 from online merchandise sales. The series, which featured a host and his robot puppet pals making fun of some of the worst movies ever made, aired for nearly 200 episodes across three networks and made the leap to the big screen for a 1996 movie before ending its original run in 1999.

Last Friday, December 11th, Hodgson hosted a “Final Countdown” telethon broadcast live from Los Angeles, where he showed showing classic episodes, and in New York City, fans were invited to RSVP to attend a “Final Countdown” viewing party at Kickstarter’s Brooklyn Headquarters (in Greenpoint).

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Hodgson has tapped Jonah Ray as “MST3K”‘s new host and Felicia Day as the series’s new villain. Comedians Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn will take up the robot-friends mantle (and puppets) as Crow and Tom Servo, respectively.

Hodgson — born in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, in 1960 — originally started out as a young magician and ventriloquist, performing in and around Green Bay, Wisconsin, before moving to Minneapolis, where he studied theatre and mass media. He added comedy routines to his magic show, and by 1981 he was winning comedy contests and was well on his way.

He moved to L.A. in 1982, where he became a regular performer at the Comedy Store, the Hollywood Magic Castle, and the Comedy Magic Club, where he spotted by Barry Sand, the producer of TV’s “Late Night with David Letterman,” and by age 22, he was making his network TV debut on the late night show, his first of four additional appearances.

He also appeared as a featured guest four times on “Saturday Night Live” and by late December of 1983, he was making this appearance on HBO’s “The Eighth Annual Young Comedians Show.” This particular episode also featured Bill Maher, Paula Poundstone, and the Amazing Johnathan.

You can read an incredible oral history on Wired.com about Hodgson’s adventures right here.

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Hodgson left the demanding and ultimately unsatisfying world of stand-up comedy and magic in 1985, and after working as a comedic actor on short-lived TV shows and not enjoying the experience too much, he moved back to Minneapolis, where he did all kinds of things to pay the bills, including working in a T-shirt factory. His real interests at the time, however, were designing and building sculptures, toys and props (including robots) for other comedians to use in their stand-up shows.

In 1986, he co-wrote an HBO special with Jerry Seinfeld, and he continued to try to find work on network sitcoms, auditioning for a lot of parts on TV shows but never quite landing “the one” that would rocket him to stardom (one of those auditions was for the role of Woody Boyd on NBC’s “Cheers,” a role that was replacing the original bartender Coach, who died off-screen in season four 1985–86; the job that went to Woody Harrelson).

Hodgson ultimately ended up developing a TV show — which relied on his skills for building toys and robots and other gizmos, along with his on-screen acting talents — called “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” for a UHF station in St. Paul, Minnesota, KTMA, public access Channel 23, debuting on Thanksgiving Day 1988, when (according Hodgson on the Kickstarter page), “the world was in the final throes of Teddy Ruxpin-mania.”

He would star along with his three robot pals — described in the Wired oral history as “the pseudo-suave, sarcastic Tom Servo; the bigmouthed, perpetually eye-rolling Crow T. Robot; and the sweet (but appropriately spacey) sidekick Gypsy” and inspired “by the 1972 sci-fi drama Silent Running—in which Bruce Dern plays an outer-space botanist who befriends a trio of robots” — in the new show, “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which first began airing in 1988.

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Hodgson would play the long-suffering but inventive host “Joel Robinson,” a likable janitor who is blasted into a the exile of outer space in a ramshackle spaceship called the Satellite of Love, where he and his robot pals are forced to watch an endless supply of utter crapola — in other words, lots of cheesy Hollywood B-movies.

This, of course, opened the doors to all of them for sitting around making satirical comments and wisecracks about the movie they’re watching, essentially creating ludicrous new storylines, and while it wasn’t the first program to do so — the idea of mock-dubbing had been around for quite awhile by then — “MST3K” found a new audience through their inventive comedic take on it, led by Hodgson’s clever writing, and the show became a huge success.

“MST3K” originally aired on the small Twin Cities-area station before becoming one of the first two shows to be picked up by the Comedy Channel, the forerunner of Comedy Central, whose programs were broadcast from the HBO Downtown Studios at 120 East 23rd Street in Manhattan, NY.

Hodgson appeared in the first 107 episodes before shocking the show’s fanbase when he left in 1993, his departure scripted into the episode (the robot named Gypsy ejects Robinson from the Satellite of Love in an escape pod after incorrectly believing Joel’s captors were plotting to kill him).

In later interviews, somewhat remarkably, Hodgson said that the reason he quit “MST3K” was that he wanted to focus more on creating behind-the-scenes and working in production, and he also claimed he was actually uncomfortable with acting and being in front of the camera, but there were other factors at the time, including the fact that he and producer Jim Mallon had been fighting over creative control of “MST3K.”

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Jim Mallon with Gypsy, Trace Beaulieu holds Crow, and Kevin Murphy has Tom Servo in this behind-the-scenes photo from “MST3K.” (Shout Factory)

The show’s head writer for most of it’s eleven-year run, Michael J. Nelson, took over as the on-air host (also named Mike Nelson), whose comedy troupe RiffTrax — along with Bill Corbett (“Crow” and “Observer”) and Kevin Murphy (“Tom Servo” and “Professor Bobo”) provide similar snarky commentary to accompany Hollywood blockbusters, B movies and mental-hygiene shorts, and will return to movie theaters across the country soon for an encore screening of their recent, hilarious riff on the 1972 oddity Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny.

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Mike Nelson poses with Gypsy, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,”, which debuted on a small Twin Cities station in 1989. (Shout Factory)

“MST3K” finished its run on the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) in 1999, after an additional 90 episodes and two Emmy nominations. The show also eventually moved from the small screen to a big-screen in 1996, for an extended “movie” version of their show with snarky commentary on the 1955 sci-fi classic This Island Earth.

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More recently, Hodgson and cast members Frank Conniff (TV’s “Frank”), Trace Beaulieu (“Dr. Clayton Forrester” and the original “Crow T. Robot”), Mary Jo Pehl (“Pearl Forrester”) and J. Elvis Weinstein (“Dr. Erhardt” and the original “Tom Servo”) have been working together as Cinematic Titanic, riffing on feature-length B movies much as “MST3K” once did.

Hodgson and his company Alternaversal have also acquired the rights to the original show, in a joint venture with home video distributor Shout! Factory, and he’s recently said they’ve both been working behind the scenes towards making this happen for more than five years, and closed on the deal to get everything going three months ago, opening the door for future projects. For years, Shout! Factory has been releasing essential DVD collections of classic episodes, most recently dropping the four-disc MST3K: Volume XXXIVon December 1, 2015.

He had turned to Kickstarter and online merchandise sales to see if the audience was still out there, and the answer was a resounding “yes!”

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From Wired:

Hodgson: “I’ve talked to a bunch of fans about their lives and what MST3K means to them. I’m overwhelmed by how people took to that show. It really affected them. I thought, if enough people still love it, maybe we can bring it back. Even avid viewers sometimes don’t realize that every major role in the show had been swapped out over time. So in my mind, the show is built to be refreshed with new people and new ideas. It’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as it applies to MST3K: If it doesn’t change, it’s not the same show. And fortunately for us, as long as there are movies, there are always going to be cheesy movies.”

He had originally planned to create a new 12-episode season of the show, with a live online telethon held at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles, but after hosting the Friday night telethon, which featured Patton Oswalt and Felicia Day — who will both appear on the new show, along with the show’s new host, Jonah Ray, and actors Baron Vaughn, and Hampton Yount — Hodgson announced they will now do a 14-episode season instead, including a holiday special.

The relaunch of the show brought out celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld, Mark Hamill, and Joel McHale, who have all agreed to make cameo appearances on the new season of “MST3K,” and Hodgson has also extended invitations to Bill Hader, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jack Black, who may also be appearing on the show as well. In addition, “Mythbusters” co-star Adam Savage has agreed to join the show to consult on the practical effects that will be required for the new season.

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Joel Hodgson and Jerry Seinfeld have been friends since the early 80s

The NBC show “Community”‘s writer-creator Dan Harmon and Ernie Cline, Justin Roiland (“Rick & Morty”), Dana Gould (“The Simpsons,” “Super Adventure Team”), Rob Schrab (he’s directing the new LEGO Movie), and Ernest Cline, the New York Times best-selling author of Ready Player One and Armada, will also serve as guest joke writers on the new show. Robert Lopez, who co-wrote Frozen‘s mega-hit “Let It Go”, will be on board for songs, and original “MST3K” theme song writer Charlie Erickson is also returning.

You can follow what happens next on Facebook, Twitter (@MST3K), and Instagram, and, of course, here on Night Flight.

Here’s an extended HBO promo edit from December 16, 1983, which mentions the then-upcoming the “8th Annual Young Comedians Special” at around the 6:30 mark. You can also see some of promos HBO did for their other late December shows, like “Video Jukebox Christmas,” “Kenny Loggins in Concert,” “Not Necessarily the Year in Review: 1983,” and their comedy special “HBO in Space,” among others.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.