The 1990s were a time of peak irony, but the three comedies that defined the sarcastic tone of the decade all started inauspiciously in the late 1980s: The Simpsons began as an animated segment on The Tracy Ullman Show in 1987. Daniel Waters' caustic teen comedy, Heathers, was a box office disappointment in the spring of 1989, only to gain a cult following on home video. And on Thanksgiving 1988, KTMA, a small cable channel in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area premiered a homegrown show called Mystery Science Theater 3000.
TV stations frequently licensed old movies to squeeze a few extra ad dollars out of their (frequently stoned) late-night viewers. Occasionally, these films were great, such as It's a Wonderful Life, which became a Christmas staple because it was a box-office flop that was cheap to license. But they were usually terrible.
Hiring a regular local host to introduce low-budget horror and sci-fi films was a frequent local TV gimmick, such as Memphis' favorite ghoul, Sivad, who ruled the WHBQ airwaves in the 1960s. Mystery Science Theater 3000's innovation was that the host stayed on the screen and pointed out exactly how bad the movie was.
The creator and original host of MST3K was Joel Hodgson. The Minnesota comedian spent much of the 1980s trying to get his aggressively eccentric prop comedy noticed in Hollywood, with some success. But after an NBC deal fell through, he returned to Minneapolis and got a job at a T-shirt shop, hoping to revamp his act. He pitched the concept of a movie host who spiced up the questionable films by doing comedy riffs over them to Jim Mallon of KTMA, and he built the props — two sarcastic androids named Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo — himself. The show was an instant local hit, seemingly springing from the id of the blunted late-night audience who were already hate-watching the movies. By Thanksgiving 1989, the show was airing on the startup cable outfit The Comedy Channel; when the network merged with rival Ha! in 1990, MST3K became the flagship production of Comedy Central.
With the laconic Hodgson as the show's low-key guide and a cast that included ace comedy writers J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Conniff, and Michael J. Nelson, the show introduced America to the works of anti-auteur Ed Wood, the low-rent Japanese turtle monster Gamera ("Gamera is really neat/Gamera is filled with meat/We are eating Gamera" went the lyrics the crew wrote to go with the films' ear-bleeding theme song), and the near-mythical worst movie of all time, Manos! Hands of Fate.
- Gary Glover
- Joel Hodgson (above), Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo take on No Retreat, No Surrender.
After a falling out with Mallon, Hodgson left the show in the middle of the fifth season, but not before epically pissing off Joe Don Baker by pissing on his tough-guy cop disaster, Mitchell.
The show continued with Nelson as host for the rest of the decade, moving to the Sci Fi Network for its final two seasons. But it never really went away. The extremely geeky fan clubbers were early adopters of the internet, and the VHS tape-trading culture the show inspired transitioned seamlessly onto YouTube. Hodgson and the rest of the cast hit the road with live shows like Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. Then, in 2015, Hodgson launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring the show back, on Netflix. For four years, the $5.7 million he raised was the biggest success on the crowd-funding platform. With an all new cast that included Jonah Ray, Felicia Day, and Patton Oswalt, the show has run for two seasons on Netflix.
"I know I'm lucky to have it last so long, but I never really thought about it like 'How long is this going to last?'" says Hodgson. "I feel like it's just so much a part of my life I can't really get outside of that."
Hodgson will bring his blockbuster live show, The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour, to The Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, November 23rd. "It's a live version of the TV show with 1,000 people in the room," he says.
The film that will provide the backbone of the evening's festivities is No Retreat, No Surrender, a notoriously awful martial arts movie from 1986 starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. The audience can also expect lots of songs and skits from Hodgson — who says this is his final tour — and his talented cast. "I found a lot of good people to help me," Hodgson says. "That's the secret — it's just finding people who care about it like I do."