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The Secret of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Success

Dumb movies, smart jokes, repeat.


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Host Jonah Ray on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Photo from Netflix.

On Nov. 24, 1988, Thanksgiving Day, viewers of the Twin Cities TV station KTMA became the first to see Mystery Science Theater 3000. Its first moments established what sort of show they’d be watching pretty much from the first joke. “All right, hey, thanks for coming to Mystery Science Theater 3000,” host and show creator Joel Hodgson says with the friendly, sleepy air of a TGI Fridays host already deep into a weeknight shift. “The guys from the station sent me this facsimile that the next film is called Invaders From the Deep. I don’t know what would upset these people so much that they would need to invade or what it is they’re in that’s so deep.”

The casual irreverence, the willingness to mock every aspect of a movie from the title on down, the precise wording (“what it is they’re in that’s so deep”): Much of what would make MST3K an influential favorite can be found in that first episode, even before it begins its signature riffing or introduces the robot friends that will aid in the mockery. All it needs is an obscure reference only 10 viewers will get, but which those 10 viewers will really appreciate.

Since its launch, MST3K has undergone many well-documented ups and downs—a pickup by Comedy Central, Hodgson’s departure, the addition of new host Mike Nelson, a pickup by what was then known as the Sci-Fi Channel, cancellation, years of absence, Hodgson’s return and an accompanying Kickstarter campaign, the addition of new host Jonah Ray for its two seasons at Netflix—but its core remains fundamentally the same. Dumb movies, smart jokes, repeat.

In 1988, Hodgson was no stranger to show business. He’d had a successful run as stand-up comic that included appearances on SNL and Late Night With David Letterman. He turned down an NBC sitcom, then, when they doubled the money, he turned it down again. “A lot of people don’t know this, but I read for the part of Woody for Cheers,” Hodgson tells me by phone. “I don’t know if his name was Woody then, but, if it was, I should have known Woody Harrelson was going to get it, right?”

But Minnesota offered Hodgson a chance to try something daring he might not have gotten away with somewhere else. “I kind of knew I had a certain amount clout coming back to Minneapolis, and I wondered if I could use that to make a TV show made in Minneapolis rather than going to New York or L.A.,” Hodgson says. It would no doubt have been easier to get a typical TV show made on the coasts, but something strange and experimental, put together by hand and involving puppets and bad movies, might be better launched from the Midwest. With some help from performers from the late-’80s Twin Cities comedy scene, some of whom would stay with the show for years, it worked.

MST3K is now based in Los Angeles,* but the move to the coast hasn’t endangered its longevity: not counting an 18-year gap that produced no new episodes, the show has endured multiple cast and production changeovers and outlasted all imitators. This past Thanksgiving, it debuted a six-episode season subtitled “The Gauntlet” on Netflix that doubles as a commentary on binge-viewing habits and features ripe targets like Mac and Me, a 1988 E.T. rip-off overloaded with product placement from McDonald’s and Coke. What’s more, people loved it. “I felt like overall I got really good marks from the press,” Hodgson says. “From what I can tell, everybody’s pretty happy.”

Or, almost everyone. “Occasionally you encounter people who are grumbling about it and have ideas on how it could have been better, but from that tends not to be anything that I can control,” Hodgson says. “Most of the time they’re mostly just wishing they were 13 again, and I can’t do that. … There’s a funny disconnect that happens, where you are forever a certain age while you’re a viewer.” Hodgson’s solution has included making a break from the past with Jonah Ray as the new host and a supporting cast that now includes Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn, Patton Oswalt, Felicia Day, and Rebecca Hanson. While the format remains the same—down to the often elaborate single-take host segments—those working within it have changed. “I’m 58 years old,” Hodgson explains. “Maybe I shouldn’t be the guy on camera anymore. Let’s get a 35-year-old guy to do it, let’s get a new guy who’s got more current riffs.”

For Hodgson, that sort of change is wired into how the show works: “The host of Mystery Science Theater is kind of like the way they talk about James Bond. The first James Bond you see is the one that kind of imprints on you and is the one you think is the only Bond, and then later, you start to go, oh, wait, Roger Moore did this and Sean Connery did this. I think that’s true with MST3K.”

Having just completed a six-week, 41-show tour with Ray, Hodgson has gotten a chance to see the fondness of new fans firsthand. “The new audience was really there for Jonah, and they go, yeah, we know you created it, that’s awesome. We’ll applaud for that, but I could tell they were a little more interested in what Jonah was doing. Which I think is just as it should be.” Asked how he was settling into the role, Ray admits to some early jitters, saying, “I was a lot less scared for sure. I would look closely at Season 11, and I could see tons of fear in my eyes wondering if I was going to blow it or not.”

Where the show will be in 30 years remains an open question, but Hodgson never considered it lasting this long or anticipated it would have the legacy and impact it’s had, one that would lead to everyone from Dan Harmon to The Name of the Wind author Patrick Rothfuss pitching in on the new episodes. “It was not like I understood it was happening while it was happening,” he says. “I always thought, ‘Oh, this show’s for college kids. This is a college kid show that they watch in their dorms.’ I didn’t know there were 13-year-olds whose dad just got the good cable package and they were watching it, every single one of them, over and over again. So to realize they’re accomplished adults now and they love MST, I’m grateful and kind of amazed by that.”

Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.

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This post originally appeared on Slate and was published December 5, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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