The happiest I’ve been in months was when I clicked a Kickstarter link last week. There, a man in glasses and a sport coat stood before a silhouette of a seated man and two robots and promised that for $2 million in donations he would make something we hadn’t seen in 16 years. Nerds everywhere freaked. Joel Hodgson (the dapper four-eyes) was launching a campaign to bring back the cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Once I caught my breath, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this is really such a good thing.
Hodgson created the show in 1988 for a Twin Cities public access channel, and the sci-fi tinged lampooning ballooned from there. The show ran on Comedy Central and Sci-Fi Channel for a time. Hodgson left the show in 1993 for personal reasons, and a new host, Mike J. Nelson, made it a weekly roast filled with quips and riffs. A cult grew up around watching a guy and two robots make fun of bad movies. After less than a week, 20,000 backers, and more than $2 million later, it’s coming back.
Along with The Simpsons, MST3K is the bedrock of my sense of humor, so much so that I constantly reference it to this day. I may have been a bit young to really be invested in the show in its prime, but through reruns I learned to riff because of Hodgson, Nelson, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo’s takes on movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate, Alien from LA, The Crawling Eye, The Final Sacrifice, Attack of the Giant Leeches, and more.
It was a hilarious artifact of its time, like the golden age of The Simpsons, whose third through eighth seasons overshadowed the next 20 years of the show. MST3K still rings with a VHS-tinged, DIY charm — a creative, geeky version of your buddies hanging out and watching bad movies in your parents’ basement.
Every old episode used to end with a message that encouraged fans to “Keep Circulating the Tapes,” which lent the show a secret-handshake mystique; fans now are asked to “Keep Circulating the URL.” The producers also promise new terrible movies to skewer on the Satellite of Love with a human host flanked by the two smartass robots we know and love.
But something feels amiss. Hodgson basically quit the show in the mid-‘90s because he disagreed with the direction the show was going under executive producer Jim Mallon. “It just got too hard,” Hodgson told the A.V. Club in 1999. “You can’t really be fighting with someone and doing all the stuff you have to do.” After Hodgson left he ceded control to Mallon and the show welcomed Nelson as the host.
For what it’s worth, I think Nelson’s tenure was where the show really hit its stride, so my beef with the MST3K Kickstarter may be a matter of taste, but it all boils down to one thing: We still have a version of MST3K out there already.
Seven years after MST3K was canceled, Nelson, along with Kevin Murphy (the primary voice of Tom Servo) and Bill Corbett (the primary voice of Crow T. Robot) created RiffTrax, a series of downloadable audio commentaries of the trio doing their MST3K thing and riffing on a whole new set of movies. RiffTrax kept the B-movie roast in place, but also took on blockbusters like The Avengers, Godzilla, and The Hunger Games. It’s like our beloved MST3K never stopped!
The Kickstarter offers new MST3K episodes to exist in the same universe as RiffTrax, but it doesn’t really need to. It’s not even like we get the best of both hosts with Nelson doing his thing and Hodgson keeping the MST3K flame. Instead, Hodgson is bringing in a new host named Jonah Ray, otherwise known as a co-host of the Nerdist podcast and The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail. There will be new robot voices, too.
The credits will say MST3K. I’ll know better. While it looks like Mallon and Hodgson ironed out their differences to get the Kickstarter campaign off the ground, it’ll be up to them to make us feel like we’re back in the old days making fun of terrible movies. The RiffTrax/MST3K schism looks to be less than ideal, but I’m ready for Hodgson and his new robot squad to prove me wrong.