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Joel Hodgson of 'Mystery Science Theater 3000′ riffs on bots, B-movies

The show creator’s final live tour hits the Straz Center in Tampa on Dec. 3.
Joel Hodgson and his robot pals - from left, Gypsy, Crow and Tom Servo - will bring their live tour of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" to the Straz Center in Tampa on Dec. 3. [Shout! Factory]
Joel Hodgson and his robot pals - from left, Gypsy, Crow and Tom Servo - will bring their live tour of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" to the Straz Center in Tampa on Dec. 3. [Shout! Factory]
Published Nov. 27, 2019
Updated Nov. 27, 2019

By Joel Hodgson’s estimate, there are 500 to 700 riffs in a typical Mystery Science Theater 3000 live show.

“They’re laughing the whole time — well, not the whole time, maybe every 30 seconds, or 10, And you have to manage that,” the show’s creator said by phone during a recent tour stop in Charleston, S.C. “The art of it is to lay it out and edit live, because the audience will laugh over setups. If they’re laughing over critical information for my joke, I might have to let it go.”

It’s a logical, architectural approach to comedy, but that’s always worked for Hodgson. More than 30 years after developing Mystery Science Theater 3000, the cult cable series beloved for mercilessly riffing on terrible B-movies, for a low-budget local station in Minneapolis, he still thinks of himself as a designer and creator at heart.

This week, Netflix canceled a Kickstarter-funded reboot of the series after two seasons. This interview was conducted before news of the cancellation.

Hodgson’s latest creation is this live tour — his last, he says — which hits Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday. He’ll once again be paired up with robot pals Crow, Tom Servo and Gypsy on a real-world version of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Satellite of Love, cracking wise on some terrible movie, with a few songs and skits between “movie signs.”

The tour comes a few days after Mystery Science Theater 3000’s traditional Thanksgiving binge-a-thon, during which fans can scream six classic episodes on shoutfactorytvlive.com. Before that feast, Hodgson chatted about Florida movies, bringing bad movies to the stage and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A number of Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies were filmed or set in Florida: Devil Fish, Teenage Cave Man, Attack of the Giant Leeches, Blood Waters of Dr. Z. Florida had a solid B-movie industry back in the day, but is there something about Florida, and Florida movies, that invites that treatment?

I think so. At a certain time in our nation’s history, it was the new land, right? They were going, What do we make out of this place? All those things that emerged were part of it. Movies are always looking for an exotic location. It’s like in Italy, or all that stuff in Eastern bloc countries, or the Philippines. That (Roger) Corman mentality.

Florida was literally built on tourism in a swamp, on trying to convey an image of paradise.

Weeki Wachee and Cypress Gardens and all that, yeah.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 doesn’t strike me as something that was ever designed to be performed live. Was it?

Actually, it’s funny. Probably the second or third season, we did our first live MST, and it was electrifying. It was clear that the live show was actually better than the TV show. We did a live version in Minneapolis and I was astonished how good it was. It’s actually the greatest way to see it.

In your mind, are you performing as Joel Hodgson or Joel Robinson? Is there a difference?

Oh my goodness, that’s a great question. I couldn’t tell you. I’m not that much of an actor. I never have been. So I have a feeling it’s me. I couldn’t even tell you who that guy was, back in the day.

I’ve enjoyed the behind-the-scenes videos you’ve done for this tour. But is there a part of you that’s ever felt like, “Let’s just keep the magic, magic. Let’s not show people the secret behind the trick"?

Back in the day I felt that way, but it’s gone 30 years now, so now I’m happy. The big thing with MST has always been, I wanted to show how it all worked. I wanted (the audience) to make their own things. I’ve always been interested in that.

When people see the bots up close for the first time, what do you think they notice?

Oh, I couldn’t tell you. I’m certain it’s kind of sobering. It’s like if they see me — if they get up close to me and go, Oh, he’s got hair in his nose, or a pimple or something. They’re like, Oh, that’s right, he’s a person. There is that little sense of reality, but they want that. It’s really good for them, and good for me.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live

$49.50 and up. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.

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