By Rick Bentley
Fans of the cable series “Mystery Science Theater 3000” can get into heated discussions about who was the best host of the show: Joel or Mike.
Those passionate beliefs are in the behind-the-scenes feature included in the first boxed DVD set “Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition,” hitting stories this week. The set also includes four bad science fiction films that get on-screen criticism from the show’s space-bound cast. Shows have been released before on DVD but not as a boxed set.
The series started in 1988 on local television in Minneapolis-St. Paul before moving to the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) in 1989 and then to the Sci Fi Channel in 1997. There were 198 episodes and one feature film produced from 1988-99.
Joel Hodgson, the show’s creator, left the show in 1993. The story at that time was that Hodgson, who started his career as a stand-up comic, wanted to do other projects.
But that’s not true, Hodgson says.
“I really didn’t want to go. But at the time I was having creative differences with Jim Mallon,” Hodgson says in a telephone interview. Mallon, like everyone involved with the show, was also a contributing partner and voice talent.
Hodgson’s biggest goal, once he decided to leave, was to figure out a way to keep the show going. He knew he would profit from future shows. He and other show creators owned the show.
“So I looked at how can I do this and it not look bad,” Hodgson says.
The series continued with head writer Mike Nelson as the new on-screen human host.
And the show’s fans have talked ever since about who was best host.
Those discussions aren’t really a priority for Hodgson. He’s just happy that a show about a human trapped on a cheesy-looking spaceship with a group of robots made from spare parts, who all shout funny lines at bad movies, has been such a hit. He feels fortunate the show remains so popular that each new DVD of the series released sells better than the one before.
The early episodes of the series were more free-form than the later years. Hodgson and the rest of the cast, during the first few years, never saw the movie they were verbally attacking until they filmed the episode.
“The show ended up being kind of its own comedy art form. We had free rein to fill it with all manner of ideas. I didn’t edit. I kind of felt like I let everyone bring what they wanted. Of course there was no stress on a particular joke being funny because we were working anonymously,” Hodgson says.
That improvisational style changed as the show gained popularity. Eventually a full writing staff was hired. But the free-form style was closer to the inspiration for the show.
Hodgson recalls how he would sit in a common television room at college. If a show came on he didn’t like, he would make comments.
Hodgson learned that two types of shows aren’t good joke fodder: movies with puppets, because characters with wooden heads obviously don’t have brains, and movies in which the stars appear to be winking at the camera, because if the actors don’t take the movie seriously then there’s nothing more to joke about.
Most fans of the series have now turned to DVDs to get their “MST3000” fix. But Hodgson and several of the cast members are performing live versions of the show around the country.
And there is one thing Hodgson is upfront about. When he’s asked at fan events about who was the better host, he always says it was Mike.