Joel Hodgson Riffs on Himself

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Mystery Science Theater 3000, for those of you not in the know, was a fantastic sort of found art satire in the 90s. I watched it religiously in grad school. In many ways helped me to get through it. After a hard week, Saturday’s getting up and watching Joel and the ‘Bots was a great break. 

The basic premise–for those of you have never heard of the show–is that Joel Robinson (played by Joel Hodgson) is marooned in space with his robots, forced as part of two evil scientists’ lab experiments to watch really really bad movies. And yes these are actual really bad movies, most of them science-fiction, the kind you would see at two in the morning when you have crushing insomnia and nothing else is on. Of course this was before cable and streaming, when pretty much anything was available anytime.
 
In MST3K, at the bottom of the screen, you would see the silhouettes of Joel and his two robots. The rest of the screen would be taken up with the execrable movie they was forced to watch. At the beginning and end, and during a few rest breaks in the middle of the movie, Joel and the ‘Bots and the mad scientists and sometimes some guest visitors would also do a few skits, which often involved props of the type of Joel Hodgson used in his previous career as a standup prop comic.
 
Often the movie would be preceded by a short, such as an episode of some cheesy 1930s kids’ science-fiction serial, or an old educational hygiene film from the 50s, or some corporate promotional film. This was the first part of what made Mystery Science Theater 3000 great, watching films that a strange person such as myself raised on Rocky Horror and the Psychotronic Film Encyclopedia and Star Trek and the Twilight Zone would watch anyway, even without the commentary.
 
But the commentary… The commentary went far beyond the realm of standard high school wisecracks. These guys were hysterical, and they knew their obscure pop-cultural references as well as–well–as well as me.
 
That was another big fun part of the show, trying to untangle with friends what some of the obscure references were. And remember, this is before the Internet.  You couldn’t just type in a string of words into a search engine and get back one million results.
 
Another appealing aspect of the show was the sheer gimcrackiness of the sets and props, which of course perfectly reflected the cheesiness of the movies upon which they were riffing.
 
Joel was with the show from its start through roughly half of its 200 episodes. He left and his role was taken over by Mike Nelson, the show’s head writer. This inevitably has led to a religious division and camps of those who prefer Joel-MST3K to Mike-MST3K. Of course, having started with Joel, I had a preference for him, but I actually like the Mike episodes quite a bit, too. It was near the end when they got rid of the two mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester and his sidekick TVs Frank, and replaced them with Clayton’s mother and an ape and some alien, that I enjoyed it a bit less.  I still liked the riffs, but the in-between skits in particular begin to seem over-engineered and strained. Part of the charm of the show up to then, including little skits that they did, was its air of improvised cheesiness.
 
I don’t think it was discussed at the time why Joel departed. I’ve read on-line that it was apparently due to creative differences between Joel and the show’s producer. Joel wanted the show to go in one direction, Jim Mallon wanted to go in another, and Joel, fearing that the battle would destroy the show entirely, decided to leave.
 
I haven’t seen much of Joel in the last twenty years or so, although I heard he was writing for Paula Poundstone’s brief sitcom for a while. Then a few years ago he became involved with a live MST3K reboot called Cinematic Titanic––and now that we do have Internet you can look that up yourself.
 
Joel’s talk last night at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax, in Los Angeles. It was basically a chronological autobiography highlighting in particular those points of his life that would later lead to MST3K. The audience, myself included, absolutely loved him. I found it fascinating to see here and there elements of MST3K, in his early years, and I often felt he was a kindred spirit, because so many of those elements were things that had popped up in my childhood as well. Of course there is the science-fiction connection. Joel is only five years older than I am so he got a head start, but of course with reruns we were all able to see pretty much the same shows.
 
Interestingly, he was very much into progressive rock, as I was. He mentioned Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, two of my favorites during my teenage years. He also, almost inevitably, given his progressive rock interest, talked a lot about Roger Dean and his influence on Joel’s later work. Apparently in addition to the very trippy album covers Roger Dean was famous for, he had books with a lot of his other projects as well. One of these, significant in terms of MST3K, was Dean’s model mash-ups, where he would take pieces from different plastic model kits and use them to build completely new things. Shades of the props and robots Joel would later be building
 
As a kid Joel also was big into magic tricks, as I was, although of course he went much further. As a young man he was a professional stage magician and a comedian. He showed great pictures from those years, including his business card and some school photographs from his yearbook. As a kid (say, about eleven or so) he was allowed to take his picture with one of his puppets. His high school yearbook photo shows him levitating a sphere between his outstretched hands.
 
I had always thought of MST3K as a sort of local Minnesota thing done by local Minnesota talent that caught on nationally, but apparently Joel had an early and quite successful career in LA as a standup prop comic. He showed clips from an HBO special he was on. He also did appearances on Letterman and Saturday Night Live (this would’ve been the late 70s and early 80s). He also knew Jerry Seinfeld and help to write his HBO special, which no doubt was one of the steps on that comedian’s trip to stardom.
 
Joel got tired of standup in LA and moved back to Minnesota and hung out was his old friends there. He discussed how he was looking for another project, and the evolution of the projects over several different iterations and how Jim Mallon, from local television station KTMA, approached him wanting him to provide content. This eventually lead to a demo tape, which Joel showed last night, and it was fascinating to see the earliest incarnation of MST3K on video. Of course, many of the later elements were there, but they were, if you can imagine, even rougher and more cheesy.
 
Two years or so at KTMA may allowed them to hone what was essentially a new genre. They then got involved with the Comedy Channel, which is of course where the rest of the world would soon discover them. They produced another demo tape, this one more polished than the first, that looked remarkably like the early episodes of the MST3K became we all know and love.
 
The influence of Joel’s family and friends and church, if you can believe it, growing up in Wisconsin, was prevalent throughout his talk. Despite what seems to us to be an anti-establishment quirkiness, his mother and father were obviously very supportive of him. After all, how many parents would let their kids take their elementary school photo with the puppet they had made? (Speaking of puppets, Joel showed us old ventriloquist dummy catalogs that will give me nightmares for years).
 
He brought a magic lantern, sort of an old slide projector that used to be used for presentations in old vaudeville shows. His father Bill (a teacher and summer janitor at the local school) had found this and about three hundred 3×3 glass slides in the school’s attic, pictures of (what would have been at the time) exotic scenes from around the world. The school gave him permission to keep it, and so Joel’s father started to use the slides as material for his own sort of proto-MSTK3K presentations at church socials and so forth. Joel had brought the projector with him, and gave us (with digital recreations of the slides) his own little Bill Hodgson show. The audience loved it.
 
During the question and answer session, I learned:
 
1. That someone once called them (this was after Joel had left) and had made a bad movie (Hobgoblins, I think it was) on purpose so it would be on MST3K.
 
2. And once when he was appearing on Saturday Night Live he left a bomb prop behind in the hotel (the Berkshire), when he left for home, and they called him the next day and said that there’s been a bomb scare and they have evacuated the hotel. Saturday Night Live wasn’t doing so well at the time, and decided they could use the publicity, so they had him back the very next week to riff on it. He added that this led to them changing the line “guests of Saturday Night Live stay at the Berkshire Hotel” to “most guests of Saturday Night Live stay at the Berkshire Hotel,” as he had been banned there.
 
At the break, people gathered in the back terrace and Joel was very gracious, chatting with people, shaking hands, and having his picture taken. I told him that he had helped me me through grad school, and asked him if he could remember what the riff from Swamp Diamonds (“Viva la Fold Out Couch!”) meant. I’ve never been able to find it, and always wondered. He said he was sorry, he couldn’t. It felt surreal. I wanted to tell him how great I thought he was felt it just wasn’t coming out. “I adore you!” I said, and again he smiled and thanked me and was very gracious.
 
I was quite surprised at the number of twenty- and thirty- somethings who were there, kids who weren’t alive, or just infants, when the show was on. It’s not like it’s shown on reruns on TV. But in this age of Apple TV and Internet and Roku and Netflix and YouTube, the classics live on forever.
 
They played Santa Clause Conquers the Martians after the break, and I watched a bit of that. It was great to be in a roomful of people who also got the joke. 
 
Then I walked up to the front lobby where the concession stand was. Joel was there chatting with someone. “I feel like I didn’t adequately convey how great I thought you were,” I said, and he smiled and thanked me again and I think he was really touched. Either that or worried that I was driving into stalker territory. I asked him if he would be back (he didn’t know, of douse) and where he lived now.
 
“I don’t like to tell people where I live” he said, graciously. This made me feel bad, like maybe he was embarrassed now that he had gone from Letterman and Saturday Night Live and MST3K to living in some small Pennsylvania town. I hope he doesn’t feel that way. He will always be great. So it’s either that, or maybe he did think I was a stalker.
 
Sherman, my beloved cocker spaniel, has been very sick the past few weeks, with heart problems, and now an inability to walk at all. It’s been very hard on me. I’ll have to take him into the vet tomorrow (Monday) afternoon to have him put down. I’ve been spending the weekend with him. This was a wonderful happy-making break in what has otherwise been a grim few weeks. 
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