Mystery Science Theater 3000 began as an attempt to fill a hole in the Saturday-night schedule of a struggling Twin Cities UHF station in 1988. By the time it ended its run in 1999—after 198 episodes and a feature film—its creative skepticism had made it one of the touchstone TV shows of the 1990s. The catchy theme song explained the simple premise each week: A man is forced to watch a bad movie with only wisecracks and some robot friends to help him. Creator-star Joel Hodgson, producer-puppeteer Jim Mallon, and writer-performer Trace Beaulieu were there from the beginning in 1989, and they took the show to the Comedy Channel (later to become Comedy Central), where it attracted national attention and a devoted cult following. The format remained much the same, even though the lineup didn't. Hodgson left in the middle of the fifth season, turning hosting duties over to writer Michael J. Nelson. Beaulieu left when the show moved to the SCI FI Channel in 1997.
In July of 2008, most of the show's creative cast gathered onstage at Comic-Con, a reunion that made it clear no one had truly left the show behind. Mallon continues to run MST3K's production company, Best Brains, Inc. Nelson, Kevin Murphy (who provided the voice of Tom Servo), and Bill Corbett (who voiced Crow T. Robot after Beaulieu's departure) provide snarky audio commentaries for Hollywood films via Rifftrax. Hodgson, Beaulieu, and MST3K vets Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein have released a series of DVD and burn-to-DVD downloads called Cinematic Titanic, a project very much in the MST3K tradition.
The morning after the Comic-Con reunion, and in conjunction with the Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD set from Shout! Factory, Hodgson, Beaulieu, and Mallon spoke to The A.V. Club about the beginnings of MST3K, its impact, and how Hollywood failed them.
The A.V. Club: Did it ever occur to any of you that 20 years later, you'd still be talking about the show?
Trace Beaulieu: I didn't think we'd be alive in 20 years.
AVC: Living that fast on the MST3K set?
TB: We were fast, baby. Yes. We lived hard lives.
Jim Mallon: We didn't know about the danger of trans fats in those days. Oreo cookies and Wheat Thins, man.
Joel Hodgson: I think when you do a TV show, in the back of your mind you always hope that it'll get broad, it'll get seen by a bigger audience. So I do think that's true. But now, 20 years later? No, I sure wasn't thinking that that would be anything that people would care about.
JM: Very few TV shows run past three, four seasons, and some are lucky to get past one season. Our show did 10 seasons. It's not without precedent, but very few get there. And then the fact that we're still selling DVDs now 20 years later, there's no way that we could have guessed that. I was happy to have a job doing anything with comedy and getting paid. That's my horizon.
AVC: Was there a point where you realized it had kind of become a phenomenon, bigger than you thought it was going to be?
JM: Well I remember—do you remember going to the Main Street Restaurant in Hopkins, and we'd have like 11 letters from our fan club? And the ritual was to open them up and read them.
JH: Yeah, we'd eat lunch and read our fan mail. To me it was when we got national press, the People magazine top 10. I think they picked The Simpsons, and our show, and maybe Twin Peaks. That's when I was going, "Wow, it's like people get what we get about it, what we like about it." That moment, for me, I was kind of going, "Yeah, now it's on. This could actually happen. People agree with us."
JM: I think it was a weird thing, because in the beginning, Comedy Central had what, 10 million homes? And there was sort of a magic number around 50 or 60 million where they were considered a legitimate network. So it was often hard for us to even see the show, I remember we crowded into Jake's Bar in Bloomington to see the première.
JH: On Saturday morning.
JM: People asked, "What do you do?" And then we'd say, and then it was the puzzled face and you'd have to do the little story. But then that shifted. And I don't remember, maybe it was around the time of what you're describing, where all of a sudden people knew—"Oh, I know that"—and the smiles would break out. So that would be, for me anyway, the watershed moment where it changed.
TB: My dad walks around with his Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie-production jacket on, and people see the logo and go, "Are you associated with that show?" And it's little kids and older people. He's a walking billboard for this project. It just amazes me that people still recognize, just from the logo.
AVC: How did that distinctive logo come about?
JM: That's kind of funny. We never sat down and said, "The show needs a logo," probably until we got really close to actually making it. Do you remember how that evolved?
TB: We'd talked about making a big planet thing, and the letters were going to be buildings on the moon or something. Well, we had absolutely no time to make something like that, and no money. So, uh… we just started spraying goop on this big ball we had.
JH: That's foam insulation. That's the stuff that you caulk around your windows, and we had a bunch of cans of that. And Trace had this ball that he got from the Guthrie Theater in his storage. It was like a 36-inch diameter.
TB: It was a 48-inch fiberglass ball that was used in one of their productions, and it was made so meticulously that it had to drop from the ceiling of the theater and roll to a specific spot on the stage every time. You couldn't bring it in a door. It had to go out through a dock door, it was so huge. But we just sat in the shop and sprayed it with foam insulation and then cut the letters out with a band saw.
JH: And stuck 'em in. And then the foam insulation reacted with the Styrofoam, and that's how we got that melted look. It was all, again, a happy accident.
TB: Not planned, thrown together.
JH: Part of it sprung from the premise of doing everything in-camera, so we had everything built, and you could see it with the naked eye, so it was easier to kind of figure everything out. But that was our original premise, everything is in-camera, everything is a model. So to impose a dumb flat logo over the top wouldn't have worked. So the idea was to make an in-camera logo that kind of fit with the universe that we were in, which was outer space. Our idea was that it looked like the moon, it rotated, and it had the logo on it.
AVC: Was there anything about the 1990s in particular that enabled the show to become successful?
JH: One thing I keep thinking about these last couple of days as we've been doing a lot of interviews is how we were so ready. We'd absorbed 20 or 30 years of junk on TV and in the media and the stuff we'd read and stuff from college. And for some reason, we had this show that kind of devoured information. So we were all just percolating these ideas and dropping them into the body of the show. So I kind of felt like we were taking 30 years of our combined experience and just throwing it up there. We were around the same age, late 20s, early 30s.
AVC: Some of the references may now be completely unfathomable to younger people. A lot of it is based on ephemera that was floating around when you made the episodes. Did you try to balance the jokes that might actually make sense years later?
JM: We were really entertaining ourselves first. And if the group liked it, there were enough divergent personalities that if we all kind of liked the humor there, it went in.
JH: No one was saying, "Don't put that in, no one will get that." We had a very open architecture in the writing room. The only person that could remove any joke was basically an individual who said, "I have a problem with that joke, it offends me." And then we would throw it out, no questions asked.
TB: There was a lot of room in that show. It was 90 minutes long, two hours with commercials. I remember sometimes thinking, "Man, that just doesn't do it for me at all." But it didn't matter. It wasn't like we were a 22-and-a-half-minute sitcom where everything is so intensely scrutinized; there was space. And I think the thing that was great was that if it did work for somebody and didn't work for me, there'd be that rare moment where somebody out there would hear a joke and say "I get this, I don't think more than eight people would get this." And that was a very personal moment. I think we've all been approached hundreds of times by people that were just like, "I couldn't believe that was written, it's something that only me and the 50 people in my weird little corner of the universe would understand." Very few shows, if any, had the kind of luxury that we had, to be able to do that.
AVC: What's an example of something that was deemed too offensive?
JH: I remember one line. Somebody slapped… We've used this in other situations, but in this particular one, somebody slapped somebody and we put in "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" Which is from Oliver!, or…
TB: Animal House.
JH: Animal House. Oh, that's it. I remember the situation where someone just said, "You know, in this situation, it's kind of a violent act. I don't think we should be funny here." And that was really our rule. We really policed ourselves, and there wasn't any set of rules, but anybody who was a writer could walk in and say, "I would rather you didn't do that joke." And it would be thrown out. 'Cause there's just… We were wrangling so many riffs and so much data that it kind of was fine if out of 500 or 600 remarks, you want one out. No problem, we'll drop another one in. It was just this data cloud, basically.
AVC: Is there an era of bad movies that works better than others?
JH: [Shakes his head no.]
TB: One thing is the low budget B-movies of the '50s and '60s, because they're low-budget, the special effects were jury-rigged. What was the one where basically dogs were covered with rugs?
JH: The Killer Shrews!
JM: Yeah, Killer Shrews. Collie dogs with papier-mâché heads.
TB: Of course, any time there's ridiculous rubber-suited monsters or dogs covered with papier-mâché, that's just plain silly. So our guys don't have to do all the work, they just comment on the silliness that's being presented in front of them.
JH: What's the one where they made the diving bell, where they turned…
JM: The bathtub.
JH: They turned the bathtub upside down and they were able to walk across the river, or the lake.
AVC: I think sometimes the dull movies worked for me. I forget the name of the movie, but it's the one with Cesar Romero, and it's just endless rock-climbing footage.
All: Oh, yeah, right.
JH: It's true. It's so hard, because you have to screen the movies and pick one, but even then, you're not really thinking about going in and dropping in lines the whole time. Sometimes you encounter a movie like that where you go, "Oh wait, I didn't realize there was so much rock-climbing, so much of nothing really going on."
JM: That was a really cool moment. I remember the comedy then shifted to be very self-conscious, self-reflective about why exactly the filmmaker is forcing the audience to climb the mountain with these guys. Because it was so excruciatingly boring, and therefore painful.
AVC: This was largely in the very early days of the Internet. How did you find the movies? It seems like it's a lot easier to access a giant database of movies now.
JM: That actually was pretty easy, because the movies were brought to us by the networks. We never negotiated with the distributors, the networks did. And there's a whole world out there probably existing to this day where distributors who own these products or represent these products are forever badgering the programming people at all the different cable and broadcast networks to buy their packages. And so I remember talking to Tom Vitale at the SCI FI Channel, and he brought me to this closet that was just filled with VHS tape. All these different programming packages. They have supermarkets, international conventions where people have their booths set up, and their marketing stuff. So it was really a matter of the network going to those sources that had particularly terrible libraries and sending the VHS cassettes off to us for screeners.
JH: It was definitely a shift, though, cause they were used to selling 12 good movies with 12 bad movies. Thinking, "Well they're paying for the good ones, and we'll push in these bad movies." And we were going, "No, no, no, we don't want the good movies, give us the bad movies." So it was very confusing for them at first.
AVC: It seems like the same kind of confusion is giving you trouble with DVD rights now. People who aren't necessarily as open to having their films preserved in a format where they're mocked, is that it?
JM: I don't think it's that, I think it's that intellectual property has changed dramatically across the board. Everyone is much more aware that… A television commercial needs a rubber-suited monster from a B-movie and will pay tens of thousands of dollars for eight seconds of that footage. It gives you a different sense of what that film is worth vs. back in the day. And I think that's one of the reasons we were able to start when we did, there was less seeing the value in owning a strange or goofy or otherwise odd film. And now that can be exploited in a lot of different ways. People are much more hip; it's a different landscape than it was then.
AVC: Are there any episodes that you think will never see the light of day on DVD?
JM: Probably. Unfortunately. Some of our titles are owned by major studios, and it's so expensive to get their attention. They need dollar values that are into the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, before they'll even focus on something. Some, like Godzilla, they're very, very protective of their brand. I'd be surprised if they'd ever want to give us the rights for those.
AVC: So keep circulating the tapes, in other words?
TB: Keep circulating some of the tapes.
JM: The blessing is, we did so darn many of these things. We have 50 out now, I think we'll probably get another 50 out. I think that last 50 or 70 may or may never see the light of day. It's just too hard, it's too expensive.
AVC: You all shared the stage last night. The 20th anniversary seems like a great time to announce that everyone's coming back to do a big reunion of some kind, but it didn't happen. Is there any chance of that happening?
JM: The math is a little weird. If you saw onstage, you basically have two people for every position. Even Patrick [Brantseng] ran Gypsy the last three years. So part of it is, "Well, is it Mike, is it Joel? Is it Bill, is it Trace?" So we really couldn't have a big reunion of everybody. As Trace said, "The streams must never cross." We might be messing with quantum physics or something if we tried to do that. To me, what has been really great about this weekend is remembering how funny everybody is. And getting together sort of like a jazz band picking up the instruments after they've been apart for a while. Frank [Coniff] always surprises me—he looks like somebody's grandpa, sort of, and then this amazing stuff comes out of his mouth, he's amazingly funny. And it's been a long time since I've seen Frank, and remembered how incredibly funny he and everybody else on that stage was.†
AVC: Are you ruling out the possibility of a revival in any way?
JM: Well, these guys are working on their versions.
AVC: That's going well for everyone?
JH: Yeah, we've got a new title coming out in two weeks, The Wasp Woman, which is August 7th. And we're doing live shows.
AVC: With MST3K, did it surprise you that films like Manos: The Hands Of Fate would kind of take on lives of their own because of the show?
TB: We dug that up out of the graveyard and put the electrodes to the electricity. We brought that back to life. I think we can take credit for bringing that to the world.
JM: I do remember working on Manos, and I remember watching these driving scenes and having moments where I was just like, "Is this going to…?" Most of the time I didn't question it, but on that one, I really thought, "Are we going to make it? Is this going to be okay?" We had done so many shows at that time, it was a factory. We were doing a new show every seven or eight days, so it just kind of went through the system and went out the other end, and it was great. And it kind of alerted people. It created a new criteria where not only were they liking what we were doing, but sometimes the worse the movie, the more they liked it. Kind of like the bigger the rollercoaster, the scarier it is, the more people are enthused about it. "Oh my God, have you seen Manos? It's the worst."
AVC: What do each of you think is the most obscure reference that ever made it into the show?
JM: I think when we would reference the people that only we knew, those were the most obscure, because we were making ourselves laugh. I feel that people can create meaning in things that may not be meaningful to them. I remember once there was a local comedian named Gomez, and we referenced him once, he was just a guy that all of us in the room knew. What was the story with Mike's girlfriend?
TB: Mike had a girlfriend who, at the end of the relationship, took his keyboard. And there was somebody walking away from the camera in one of our films with a keyboard, and the reference was, "There's Mike's keyboard." That's pretty obscure.
JH: It was just so lucky that we could do that.
TB: It was lucky, and it was also… It was a lot about keeping the chemistry of the room, the team of people feeling good. So if it made everybody laugh and that was part of the moment, that was a positive. Because we had that luxury.
JM: I saw a debate online the other day, Crow had said, "I gotta go horsies." And people were trying to decide what that meant. I had forgotten completely about that line; it's just such a throwaway line. And I thought everyone knew what going horsies was. And apparently no one did.
AVC: This blank look tells you I don't know either.
JM: My cousin, when she was diaper training, would hop around and say "Mommy, I gotta go horsies!" So it made perfect sense to me.
JH: She must have seen a horse go horsey.
JM: I think her potty-training thing was a horse. You know how they have to make it an event? Not just, "You should learn how to do this cause it'll be important later."
JH: That's a really weird feeling, when you go online and you see people talking. I noticed they were saying… They were talking about this line I did which was, "Schaper always leaves you laughing, a-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha." Which was this dumb thing at the end of this toy commercial for Schaper, which had this bug. And for whatever reason, something was on camera that looked like that bug or something. Twenty years later, people are talking to each other, and they were calling it "stocker." "Stocker always leaves you laughing? What is he talking about?" And then you see it kind of meander, and people are kind of figuring it out, and then someone does, "It's Schaper. It's a toy line." And then they put it in context. It's amazing to me, that's something I would never have anticipated.
JM: Now they can go on YouTube and confirm it. They can see that commercial. It's kind of amazing that they can check us out and go "That's what they were talking about!"
[At this point, Mallon leaves to catch a flight.]
AVC: Where do you see MST3K's legacy these days?
TB: Well, it's now being used as a reference. When you see a movie review on TV, they'll go "This movie really needs the Mystery Science treatment." So it's become that kind of tag now. Which is—I guess that's a compliment. Slightly complimentary.
JH: One thing that's happening is social media. Where people are working on social TV and social media, where you can watch something with a group of people online and talk and do… It just seems like this common thing, people like to watch things together, they don't have to be in the same place to do it. And I just feel like the idea of commentary… They weren't doing commentary for videos when we were doing Mystery Science Theater. And so I think the idea of a running commentary while media is playing, we were the first to do that. And I think that's pretty common, whether it's people commenting on a YouTube video—right now it's typing, but eventually it'll be talking and video conferencing, so it'll be like that. Not that we created it or anything, but people who are familiar with what we do are kind of participating with that a little bit. They'd be doing it anyway, but I think it's interesting that it's possible we were the first ones to do that. Jim sometimes mentions that back when we were doing it, the screen was sacred. They didn't even put bugs up on the screen unless there was a tornado warning, you know? We kind of violated that space and imposed our thing over the top. That's another thing that's really common now, where your screen is just getting crowded with announcements and bugs and roll-ins for movies.
TB: Split screens, smaller screens.
JH: So at the time, we were kind of the first ones to do that, we put it in the context of the show.
AVC: So we can blame you.
JH: I'm trying to think of something good that came out of it, but I don't think there is. We've just made things a little bit worse.
TB: We're very sorry.
AVC: Have you tried getting Cinematic Titanic on television? Or is the form you're in now working for you?
JH: There's no advantage. The fans are really organized; we're making enough money to keep making new shows. There's no advantage. Because TV has gotten… From the time we started 20 years ago, it hasn't gotten any better, it's gotten stricter and stricter, and they need these shows to produce more, and executives who micro-manage what we're doing. We never got edited, we never got notes, and so to submit to that system again doesn't fit into our style. We don't have to do that, since we own the product. We're owner-operators. So there's no advantage, except we'd make more money up front. But it would compromise it, probably.
AVC: Part of what makes MST3K so endearing is the handmade quality. It seems like that would be really hard to get on the air these days. The Internet seems to be a better home for that kind of thing.
JH: It's working pretty good, we've done it six months, we've got three titles out. It's seems to be okay, the economy's not great, but we're selling enough DVDs and downloads. We're gonna make four more in the fall. I guess we'll have a total of eight for this year, and probably 12 the next year. We're just fortunate, it's just the timing again. The idea of a download-to-burn is kind of a new innovation, very few people are actually doing it, especially big studios. And so we're able to take advantage of that, so you can make a DVD and you don't have to watch it on your TV, you can take it into your home theater and watch a real DVD, watch our show inside the house.
AVC: Joel, you've been away from this type of comedy for 15 years, and Trace not too much less than that. Why return to it now?
TB: Joel and Josh [MST3K writer and Cinematic Titanic cast member J. Elvis Weinstein] and I had been trying to think of something to do together again. We were out in Los Angeles, what is it, three years ago? We went out pitching another concept. And we knew we really wanted to work together again. And we like this form of comedy.
JH: One thing that's kind of apt to the 20-year milestone is out of all my experiences, it's the most fun. And it's what we're best at, 'cause we kind of created the form. And so to get to come back to it is—part of why Mystery Science Theater worked is because it was about pleasure, it was about the pleasure of making it. And I think that's why people like it. We really like doing it. A lot of shows aren't like that, a lot of famous good comedy shows, there's a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make that. And people aren't having a good time making the product, but we were. We didn't get paid as much, and we're not famous, but we liked what we were doing, it kind of worked.
AVC: Did you ever feel like you left too soon?
JH: Oh yeah, I really regret having to leave, and I wish I could have stayed. I loved doing it.
AVC: Blood, sweat, and tears were getting in the way?
JH: It's really true. More than anything, I was worried about it affecting the product. And I had seen this kind of ongoing theme in comedy where comics become bitter, and then it kind of becomes manifest. I'm referencing Jerry Lewis, who was incredible when he was really happy, and then his bitterness kind of seeped into what he did to the point he couldn't even tell. So I was alert to that and realized it would get in the way. I felt like it would hurt it, ultimately.
AVC: A lot of people presumably thought they'd see you more on camera after you left the show, but apart from Freaks And Geeks, you haven't done that much. Did you turn down a lot?
JH: I don't know. I didn't really. It was so peculiar, because my experience was all very autonomous. [Before MST3K], I did my stand-up act. I did that on Letterman and Saturday Night Live and the Young Comedians special [on HBO], kind of all the places you can do it, and it was all my stuff. Doing Mystery Science Theater was the same. Not that I did it by myself, but it was all motivated by us, and never… It wasn't like an executive called me and was like, "Hey, I've got this idea, can you rough it out?" It was all from us. I kind of thought when I went to L.A., I'd have the cachet to do that again. But the system is so regimented, the way it works. You get a producer, then you have to have a scriptwriter or joke-writer who's at the head of it who becomes the producer, then you bring in an art director. And I was doing all of those things on Mystery Science Theater, so I couldn't really figure it out, how much you have to specialize to work in Hollywood. So I think I got a lot of development deals, fortunately, my brother and I did. We got development deals with Henson and with Disney.
So that kind of explains the stuff we were doing. I was trying to maintain that creative spark, but it doesn't fit in Hollywood. They figured it out 80 years ago, and they're still kind of running it that way. And I didn't fit into that. I couldn't specialize. I didn't just want to be an actor, I'm not really exactly an actor. I didn't just want to be a writer, I didn't exactly just want to be an art director. I just did development. The side project I did was Jollyfilter, which is kind of the third way to re-purpose a movie.
So that was kind of our side project, I worked with my brother Jim, and we did that for like seven years, trying to—we got a development deal and tried to make it into a feature, we did a game show with it, and just test, trying to develop it. That was kind of what I was doing in Hollywood. If I had the presence of mind to try and work it out, I would rather have stayed. 'Cause I didn't want to go, it just seemed like I needed to.
AVC: Trace, what were your experiences when you went out to Los Angeles?
TB: Well, pretty similar to Joel. I didn't go out there with any specific job in mind, and kind of wandered around for a while, went out on audition and stuff like that, and realized we'd really sculpted the perfect fit for our personalities at Mystery Science. And we did get to do a lot of different things, writing and designing and all these things. Los Angeles, if you're a writer, that's what you do, that's all you do. And when I finally got into a writing room, Josh hired me, so I used my Mystery Science Theater connection with Josh to get in. I found it very frustrating, because I was just doing one thing all day. And not always all day. So the percentage of my creativity was maybe 4 percent. Getting paid really well for it, but the sacrifice was, that's all you are, that's all you do.
JH: Trace and I art-directed Mystery Science Theater, he designed the set, and we broke the visual style of it together. And we were just saying how when we got the Emmy nomination for best Art Direction, we were as proud of that as we were for the writing. And to me, they're all the same.
TB: Whether you're using a pencil or a paintbrush or a computer or a hammer, they're all tools.
JH: Yeah, and you don't have to separate the written word from the visual when you are making and performing everything, but Hollywood wants you to do that. I don't know, it's just the system. I felt really frustrated by that, because I would write the script and then do a ton of visual development on it, way more than anybody wanted or knew how to negotiate, these executives. They just wanted a piece of paper to look through and kind of judge it. That was really frustrating, and I hadn't anticipated that. I thought with Mystery Science Theater winning a Peabody Award and getting Emmy nominations that someone would look out for me in Hollywood and go, "Okay, well, we know you have a style of being creative, we can work with that, because it's important." But it wasn't. It's like, "We make shows and this is the way we've always done it."
TB: You submit your script to another department, that department develops the next stage of it, and there's no organic-ness to it. It's like processed food. And we were making an organic, you know, staple.
JH: But I'm just glad we got to be there long enough to see it fall apart and crumble.
TB: We watched the columns fall.
JH: That's the only pleasure in it, really.