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Saturday, February 22, 2020

'Some Really Amazing Things are Gonna Happen': Movie-Riffing Extraordinaire Joel Hodgson Talks MST3K and Mortality

Posted By on Sat, Feb 22, 2020 at 3:33 PM

click to enlarge BRANDI MORRIS
  • Brandi Morris
Joel Hodgson is giving his swan song on the Satellite of Love.

Right now, he's wrapping up the Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour, his final appearance as host of the movie-riffing show Mystery Science Theater 3000. On Monday, Hodgson and co. are are bringing the show to San Antonio for one of its final stops, but don't be fooled into thinking that the end of the Great Cheesy Movie Circus is the last we'll be seeing of MST3K.

We caught up with Hodgson on the phone to chat about the puppetry, mortality and the possibilities for more MST3K in the future.

Although this tour features an almost all new cast, the writers previously worked together for Netflix's MST3K: The Return as well as the past two live tours. What has it been like to mingle new blood with the more experienced crew?

What’s going on is they’re getting younger and younger. The average age right now of our new cast is around 30. The average age of the cast for the Netflix series and the last two tours, I’d put that around 35 or 36. So that’s kind of what’s happening, except for me. I throw off the curve because I just turned 60 [on Thursday.]

Oh, happy birthday!
Yeah!  So anyway, that’s the big difference. But we’re really lucky we found people that really love MST, and they really respect it and want to maintain it. They do a fantastic job. We auditioned them specifically for the stage, so they approach things differently, but it translates really beautifully. So, so far so good.



click to enlarge BRANDI MORRIS
  • Brandi Morris
The live show features bunraku style puppetry, with performers in all black visible onstage. What led you to adopting this style for the live performances versus the original puppetry design employed in the series?
I felt like the transition that we did for the last two tours was very literal from the TV show, and we weren’t really acknowledging we were on the stage as much. ... We weren’t exactly doing movie riffing in a way that involved the audience. It worked good, and everybody seemed really happy, but I wanted to innovate and I wanted to make it better. I wanted to improve. So that was what was at work.

I was thinking more about the puppeteers and what’s it’s like for them to puppeteer, and I wanted them to be standing rather than — we have these unique crawlers we use where the puppeteers sit on the crawlers, with the puppeteers below the desk and the puppets above the desk — and I really wanted them to be standing and facing the audience, and absorbing the audience’s energy like a real actor does, you know? So when you see the puppeteers doing sketches they’re not crouched down, they’re standing, because they’re all dressed in black. And they use their bodies way differently. You can have a lot more lateral movement by standing and moving than you can when you’re sitting and you’re crouching and, you know, you’re hiding. Basically, the bunraku allowed them to perform in plain sight, standing, like more theatrically — like an actor on the stage does.

Would you expand a little on the increased audience interaction in this tour? Is it more on an improvised basis, or is working with the audience built into the show?
When I go out there, I never know. It always feels slightly different, and I’m trying to be really available emotionally and really be who I am as much as I can. Sometimes, if I’m getting a feeling or I’m feeling a certain way I won’t do the same thing. It’s all based on what I think the audience needs and wants from me. If I get a feeling sometimes I’ll do it very deliberately and just do the [theme] song, and then sometimes things happen or sometimes I’ll do a different song. And sometimes I’ll ask them questions or I’ll make announcements.

[On Thursday,] we were in Midwest City, Oklahoma, and it was my birthday and someone yelled out, “Happy birthday!” And I said, “Oh, thanks a lot!” And I go, “You know, I thought about this and I’m really happy to be here on my birthday.” And they all laughed at me like, “Why would you want to be here on your birthday?” It was really funny, and we laughed about it, and I said, “No, I thought about it before I came out, and I just think this is just exactly what I should be doing.” I had to reiterate to them how serious I was about what I said, because they laughed like I was joking. So, sometimes things like that happen.

Part of it too is the guitar. I’m using the guitar, and the guitar has a bunch of different little rituals and mannerisms that are built into when you’re a guitar player that are really fun and fascinating that I’m just learning how to do, so that’s another piece of it, too. I’m trying my best to just be available, do my thing and let things happen if they’re meant to happen.
click to enlarge BRANDI MORRIS
  • Brandi Morris
You’ve said this final tour has allowed you to say goodbye to fans. With less than 10 shows remaining, what are you feeling?
Well, I’m amazed and I’m grateful. This is something I’ll always remember, and this tour is really special to me because it’s by myself. The other two I’ve gone out with Jonah [Ray] and it’s really just me and the way I wanted to do things. The other tours, it was really about Jonah kind of taking over, and the way he likes to play things, which, I love his style but it’s different than mine. The last two tours I really tried to defer to him on what he was most comfortable with, and then this one I didn’t have to do that, so it was a little bit more about the way I like doing things. That was kind of just a function of... (Laughs.) It’s my last tour so everybody’s letting me do it my way and have it my way, so that’s been really interesting and really satisfying, and, again, just so, so lucky to get to go out with this new cast. They’re like the fourth iteration of Mystery Science Theater performers, at least, and they’re really great. The audiences love them and I’m just so grateful to get to do it and hang out with them and get to know them. Most of them are half my age, so that’s also been really cool and really fun. I’m just very grateful. I’m really happy to get to do it, so that’s kind of the feeling.

Then with meeting people, I just think it’s a little bit about mortality. l think sometimes people look at me and they’ll arrest me when I was making this show 30 years ago, and I think it’s really important for them to see me. I’m kind of like a reflection of them in a way, so I think it’s really good for them to see me as a 60-year-old guy doing this, and it’s just about reality. It’s just about mortality and reality, and I think that’s always a great thing. It’s just like your real life friends, you know — they get old, you get old, and you accommodate and work with that. It’s the same thing with something like this, where i’m associated with it and I’m getting older and I don’t want to do it forever, and I’m acknowledging that to people.

It’s disruptive, I think, because when we’re fascinated with something on TV it gives us this feeling like nothing’s changed, right? We’re the same. Like I’m going through The Wire, and it’s really wild watching it in the context of 2020 rather than when it came out, because everything’s so dated. They don’t use their phones to figure out where they’re going to go — they look at a map. So there’s all those little barometers and little bellwethers that let you go, “Oh, yeah, time has gone by. As much as I love this show, I’m older than I was when I first watched it.”

It’s funny you say that, because MST3K recently came up in conversation and someone said to me, “Well aren’t all the reference so dated?” And I thought, no! There's a timelessness to it that may contribute to that arrested feeling.
Yeah, it’s funny, we really stayed away from political stuff. That can really anchor it to a time, and we didn’t do that. We’ve just been really lucky with so much of the stuff. I have to say, there are very few things about this show that do feel dated, but I’m really grateful for that. It somehow maintains it, and I think that’s because the reality of what we’re joking about is already in the past, so that kind of helps already. It’s not like we’re saying this is right now — we’re kind of saying this is from the past already.

You've hinted that you want a continued life for Mystery Science Theater post-Netflix, but haven't announced anything yet. Is there anything you can say at this point, or any knowledge of when you might be able to let slip more details?
The way I’ve been saying it is I encourage people to go to mst3klive.com and sign up for our email list, because I would say some really amazing things are gonna happen. So that’s where I think I should leave it with you.

$31.60-$324.50, 7:30 p.m. Monday, February 24, H-E-B Performance Hall, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, 100 Auditorium Circle, (210) 223-8624, tobincenter.org.

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