MST3K at 20: Talking to Hodgson and Beaulieu

MST3K Talking to Hodgson and Beaulieu

There must be something in the air north of the Mason Dixon line. With the exception of Los Angeles, the colder towns are notorious for spawning horror movie hosts.

Whether it was L.A.’s Vampira, New York/Philadelphia’s Zacherley, Cleveland’s Ghoulardi or many, many others, from the 50s to the 70s these people in really bad horror makeup would dominate weekend afternoons and late nights with horrifically bad monster movies. From there they seriously damaged the psyches of many of their teenage fans. Two of those fans were Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu. They used this inspiration to create their own riff on the theme, which they called Mystery Science Theater 3000.

“Ghoulardi was a legend when I was growing up,” Hodgson, who created MST3K recalls. “All those guys were legendary. For me what was electrifying was it the show was shot in your town. I grew up in Green Bay and we had a guy who had a show called Eerie Street that was on Channel 5. The guy was a vampire and I was just fascinated by it. I think it was even more powerful because it was local. We obviously owe a great debt to those shows. When I quit doing standup and moved back to Minneapolis, I felt if I was going to do a show I’d do a kids or monster movie show. Mystery Science Theater really was a monster movie wraparound show.”

“It’s probably the nine months of the year that are just freezing cold,” adds Beaulieu, who not only wrote many of the show’s lines, but was the original voice of Crow T. Robot. “I know when I was growing up, that’s what we had. We had three channels and one of them had a horror host, too. Over time I found out they were mainly guys who were bored, liked to dress up and their TV stations had a good horror library. Call it horror cabin fever. Everybody loves Halloween. So the combination made it happen. That’s my theory anyway.”

What’s now amazing is MST3K is now celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. To celebrate, Shout! Factory has just released a tin featuring four movies Hodgson, Beaulieu and company gave the business to, Future War, Werewolf, Laserblast and First Spaceship on Venus, but also lots of fun stuff. This includes a Servo action figure, a complete history of the show through its many incarnations and even a reunion documentary the cast and crew did at this year’s San Diego Comic Con.

In its own way, this is incredibly remarkable considering the show’s exceedingly humble roots.

As Hodgson hinted, he has been a working West Coast improv comic when he decided it was time to go back to Minneapolis. Once there, he bumped into an old friend of his named Jim Mallon, who was managing a local UHF station called KTMA. It was there that he recruited Beaulieu and the original MST3K crew for virtually no money at all.

“When I first approached KTMA, I knew there were public domain movies through things like the Psychotronic Film Guide and the Golden Turkey Awards,” says Hodgson. “The station said they had a bunch of movies in their library, so why not use those? This gave us a chance to learn what movies worked and what didn’t. I mean what was great is they seemed to have had the entire Gamora series, and we used them a lot. Things really started happening when we used them.”

According to Hodgson, the UHF experience was essential to the show’s soon-to-be international success.

“That was very important because we got to do 22 shows through them before we ever did a show for Comedy Channel,” he said. “It was like a workshop where we figured out what worked and what didn’t. We also learned how to riff on movies. We figured it out there. So we were much further ahead that most people who signed with Comedy Channel.”

It also didn’t hurt the show was done for virtually no money.

“I think the entire show budget [at KTMA] was about $500 back then,” says Beaulieu. “Joel got a little more because he built the props. In 1988, I was making $25 a week. I think Joel got $45. We were all also doing stand-up and doing other things to make a living. Back in those days, Mystery Science Theater was really more a lark. It wasn’t a lucrative venture, but the project was so much fun to work on that led to its success. It helped us get one meal at Denny’s a week.

According to Beaulieu, the late 80s were a great time to be on TV with a low budget and an original idea.

“Absolutely,” says Beaulieu. “Cable had just been deregulated just before we started. The Comedy Channel was just hungry for programming. The had 24 hours to fill and we filled two of them. That was one whole part. And we were cheap. I think we cost $30,000 for those two hours of programming. We were like Spackle. We were like duct tape. Fortunately the fans did embrace us. Talk about harmonic convergence’s. We were all of those things.”

At the same time, the Crew was smart about their money. Beaulieu brings up a good example of this.

“We stayed in Minnesota,” he remembers. “We had an office warehouse which we got free rent from my brother’s company for a year. That helped a lot. It helped us get up and running. We could build a standing set, shop and office facility. The New York offices did want us to go there, but their facility was much smaller and they couldn’t beat the price and space we had. So again, we were very fortunate. The other good thing is because of the distance and our success, they left us alone for the most part.”

Another thing they did was retain the rights to the show.

“It was very unusual at the time,” says Beaulieu. “What happened was our agent went to Comedy Channel and said that they were paying us nothing, so let us keep our rights. That turned out to be great in the long run. I still get a tiny stipend every so often. The mailbox money I get from that is enough to keep my mailbox painted.”

Finally, the core of it all was the movies the Crew would riff on. Not just any psychotronic film would do after all.

“The movie had to fit a number of requirements. It was not only being cheap,” says Beaulieu. “It also had to fit the criteria that we could riff on it. It had to have some meat for us to grab on to. There had to be something for us to throw in our comments. Juicy bad acting also didn’t hurt. A rubber monster or two was a benefit. I mean, you think if you were going to throw in a monster, you’d put a little effort into it.”

“When we went to Comedy Channel, we did have help,” says Hodgson. “Frank Coniff was the one who screened all the movies and narrowed it down for us. We would then sign off on which ones we wanted to do and Comedy Channel then would make the deal.”

The end result was Mystery Science Theater 3000 became Comedy Channel, now Comedy Central, first certified hit. For a new network, it was ratings manna from heaven. The relationship stayed pretty rosy for about five years, then the inevitable happened. The first was Comedy Central had a new hit on its hands, South Park. They also had a change in management, who didn’t care for MST3K the way the older management used to.

So the guys moved on to another young buck cable network desperate for good, original programming, the Sci-Fi Channel. By this time though, Hodgson would have left and was replaced by a new host, Mike Nelson. Beaulieu also didn’t stick around. Not that the two old timers hold anything against the new guys. In fact, they all showed up at San Diego and still work with each other on two new projects, Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax.

“Cinematic Titanic is Joel Hodgson, Josh Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Coniff and myself,” says Beaulieu. “We are back under this new name mocking bad movies. We are now going direct to DVD as well as doing live shows. We have one coming up on October 25 in Minneapolis. Then we go to St. Louis and do a show on November 1. Then we’re doing three shows in Chicago.

“It’s a different presentation. We’re still in silhouette, but it’s a different array. It’s also just us. No puppets or props. There’s a bit of a back story as to why we’re doing this, but it’s only to give the fans some context and overcome the need for backstory.”

If anything, Hodgson believes today’s technology is bringing in a whole new generation of, for lack of a better term, film riffers.

“Absolutely,” he exclaims. “The weird thing is when we started 20 years ago, there were all these new cable channels who needed cheap programming. The big difference is you needed about $200,000 worth of gear and a studio to do it. Now you don’t. At all. You can do it in your home.

“Further, there are lots of people doing it. We personally now have Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax which used to be Film Crew, and that’s just us. I was down in St. Louis at a science fiction convention and a guy there handed me a bunch of disks of his group riffing on movies. They called it Mystery Spatula Theater. It’s like Mystery Science Theater, but it’s also a cooking show. At DragonCon I met this guy who has a group called Cinprov. There they don’t bother to see the movies and just riff on them in an improv manner, kind of like how we started but their improv abilities are much higher. Some of them are pretty good. Industrial Light and Magic has their own group, called Flex, and they’ve been doing it for five years. They let me sit in with them and also brought in Cinematic Titanic for a live show.

“We did all those shows,” says Hodgson, “but in those days it was pretty hard to imagine that things would have a life like they do now. Yes, back then there was VHS, but we all thought those were for big time movies, not what we did. We probably have about half the rights to all the movies that we did. Next year, we should be doing a lot of the old shows on iTunes, so then they’ll be readily available.”

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