On November 24th, 1988, the first-ever episode of Joel Hodgson’s classic series Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered on a local station in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 30 years later, the 12th season of the show (and the second in its rebooted guise with new host Jonah Ray) will begin streaming on Netflix.
Before breaking out the celebratory turkey day meal, however, Hodgson has to finish getting ready for the upcoming 30th anniversary live tour, which kicks things off on Tuesday, October 9th with a show in Portland, Maine. What’s more, the comedy writer, director, producer, and actor has his work cut out for him, more so than usual. Why? Because he’ll be donning the red jumpsuit once worn by his MST3K character Joel Robinson for the first time in 25 years.
With less than two weeks to go before the 30th anniversary tour begins in earnest, Hodgson hopped on the phone with Den of Geek to talk about riffing on movies in front of a live audience for the first time in years.
Den of Geek: I imagine this will be good practice for talking at length in front of audiences on the tour.
Well, it’s funny. We’ve been doing so much stuff. Our comic book just came out. There are six issues that’ll be coming out during the next six months. We just delivered the new series to Netflix, and we’re doing the live tour, which goes in about nine days. So it’s a very, very creative time right now, and one of the most creative things I have to do is talk to people, because I make up a lot of stuff. It’s a wildly creative time right now.
It sounds like you’ve been very busy. Do you ever give yourself time off?
I’m looking forward to being done with the tour, because that’ll be a chance to rest, and we’re working on another project then that’ll be much more serene and not quite as intense. We’re just so fortunate and lucky. A lot of this has to do with how really lucky we are that the fans brought back the show, which did really good on Netflix. We’re one of their highest rated shows right now, so that’s really helped a lot with these other things. We’re really grateful to be busy. I waited a long time to be this busy.
Before this, you did the Watch Out For Snakes! live tour with Jonah Ray and company. Do you have a ritual that you go through whenever you’re preparing for these live shows, or is it all automatic at this point?
My goal is always to get as healthy as possible, but again, it’s been so busy that I’m actually now looking forward to being on the road. I think I’ll be much healthier on the road than I have been. That just means taking time to eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, and stuff like that. It’s actually interesting, because a year ago last summer, that was our first road trip. I had never done the road like that before. I was a stand-up before I started MST3K, so I had a fair amount of experience flying to shows and being in a location for a week, but then flying home right after. The idea that you’re sleeping and living on a tour bus is really different. Before I did it with Watch Out For Snakes!, I was kind of terrified of it because it seemed kind of like going into space. How do you live on a bus? How does it work?
But it’s actually very elegant because the part of traveling that wears you out is sitting in one position and driving for six hours. When you’re on a bus, you’re sleeping while you’re traveling, so it’s kind of amazing. You get on the bus at the end of a show, you go lie in your bunk and go to sleep, and when you wake up you’re at the next gig. It’s a slightly unreal feeling, but it’s also really amazing when you like putting on shows. It’s almost like you’re not moving, but you are. It’s pretty cool.
So what I’m trying to say is that, because we had the experience of the tour a year ago last summer, I’m not as afraid of the road as I was. I kind of know what it’s like, and I’m looking forward to it in some ways because it’s pretty exciting and fun to go and do these shows in these venues. I’m less afraid of it than I was before.
Plus, per your stand-up past, you’re also doing this with Jonah, who’s also a stand-up and has toured extensively like this before. Many of the people involved have had similar experiences with stand-up and touring, so I imagine that collective experience has served as a great knowledge base for you.
No kidding. I’ll give you an example. Both Rebecca Hanson, who plays Synthia, and Tim Ryder, the guy who’s playing Tom Servo, have performed all over the place for Second City in Chicago. They did a bunch of touring with that group. Grant Baciocco, who’s our lead puppeteer for the TV series, is going to play Crow on the road. He has also done a ton of road stuff before. He did this really bizarre alternative show that toured all over the world. It’s basically improv with puppets. And, of course, Jonah’s done stand-up for years and years. So we’re all kind of used to it, and it’s really fun now that I think about it. It’s genuinely fun to do, especially if you’re with people you like to be with.
With the show’s return for season 11 and the Watch Out For Snakes! tour, you were still mostly working behind the scenes. With this 30th anniversary tour, however, you’re donning Joel Robinson’s red jumpsuit for the first time in years.
I haven’t riffed on a movie live for probably seven years, and even then, I haven’t been in the jumpsuit for 25 years. It’s totally going to be weird. I can’t even speculate about it yet. Everyone who is performing with me is so good. It feels like I have to get to their level, because at this point, they’ve done 20 MST3K episodes and 40 live shows in the past year or so. They’re about 60 shows ahead of me right now.
What has the experience been like so far, getting ready for the new tour while knowing you’ll be riffing again, this time with Jonah?
He’s just so great. He’s so good with people. He’s way better with people than I am. I’m really glad about that, and I have to kind of manage it. I let him do a lot of the heavy lifting as far as meeting people goes. He’s actually nicer than I am, so that’s always very humbling. But now I like it because it’s like, “Look at Jonah go.” He’s so much easier to talk to. He’s happy to do it, and he’s good at it too. I think people come away going, “Wow, Jonah’s so nice and Joel’s just okay.” I’m glad about that, though, because Jonah’s the face of the future, so he’ll have plenty of time to get gnarled and bitter, you know?
Are you really bitter, though? I mean, is that why it’s been so many years since you riffed on a movie before a live audience, or played the Joel Robinson character?
Let me rephrase that, because I’m actually very positive about this. I left MST3K because I started to feel like I wasn’t having a good time. I really care about it enough to not pollute it when I’m not feeling good. So I left because I was going, “I don’t think I’m going to be very happy here.” I really care about it, and I think that’s essential. But I’m talking about after the show and doing public relations. Shaking hands, playing with people, interacting with fans and things like that.
Ah, okay. I get that.
I think Jonah’s especially good at that, but to get back to your question, it’s very great to have all of these people who have had this experience with MS3TK. Like Elliott Kalan, who’s our head writer, as well as Jonah, Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt. They all had these experiences with the show when they were teenagers, and they all remember that and want to try to keep it going today. It’s really nice, the feeling that they really care about it and that I don’t have to take care so much on my own. I’m so grateful that this whole thing got to come back to me, and that I got to see who these people are who want to do it now.
You popped up a few times on camera, albeit incognito, in season 11. Any chance you’ll return in season 12?
That’s a great question. I feel like I shouldn’t say anything right now. We’re on lockdown. We’re just giving a little information at a time. But yeah, I really shouldn’t say. I don’t want to give away anything.
The MST3K Live 30th Anniversary Tour kicks off the second week of October with shows in Portland (Maine), Boston, and Washington D.C. Tickets are available here.