Talking Mystery Science Theater 3000's 25th Anniversary With Creator Joel Hodgson
In the not too distant past, last Sunday A.D., television's favorite cult comedy about robots in space riffing on cheesy movies celebrated its silver anniversary. That's right, it's been 25 years since Mystery Science Theater 3000 hit the airwaves, and we spoke to creator/star/test subject Joel Hodgson about all the shows classic music moments. From its iconic theme to the best Christmas song ever written about Road House, MST3K has always left music obsessives sent-up and satisfied. So join us on the Satellite of Love as we've got movie sign!
Michael Kienitz Joel and the Bots
This Thanksgiving sees the return of the Turkey Day Marathon which see you hosting a stream of MST3K episodes online all Thanksgiving. How did the return to this tradition come about?
It was really interesting because I pitched it to [Shout! Factory - MST3K's DVD and digital video distributor] and they said they were just talking about that. It was one of those things where the technology was there to do it because you didn't need a network to do it and they could do it with the rights for the shows so, that's kind of it. It was very quick and very fast.
Congratulations on 25 years of Mystery Science Theater 3000! I think along with the riffs and robots, it's been great how big of a part music has played on your show.
Thanks, I actually have a really good story about the origin about the arcane reference in Mystery Science Theater and it's musical. It's fresh in my memory because there was a 25th Anniversary Event in Chicago and there was a similar question about "how did you figure that you could drop in references that were really broad that they'd never expect to hear on TV." The way I got to that was in the ether in the 70s. I remember George Harrison's song "Crackerbox Palace" which was a Top-40 song at the time, in that song he references Madeline Khan in Blazing Saddles when she goes "it's true! it's true!" He said that and I thought "Holy shit, George Harrison watched Mel Brooks movies!" That kind of was the motive. It was the sampling I got from that. The nature of [the show] we had so many riffs that there was room for those kind of references.
Also, I got to talk to Frank Zappa before he died. I asked him "What's it like to hear us reference your music" and he goes "it's very unsettling." I thought that was pretty funny.
The latest Shout DVD release of the show, the 25th Anniversary Collection, features the documentary called Return to Eden Prarie which surprised me to find out Crow's name comes from a song reference too.
Yeah, that's from Jim Carrol's Catholic Boy. It's a great New York kind of album that's perfectly timed right around 1978, my freshman year of college when music was reinventing itself. There's a song on there called "Crow" and I felt that that song was the embodiment of what I wanted this character to be. I also liked the idea of a robot having a Native American name. In the midwest, where I'm from, there's a lot of Native Americans and I had a best friend in college who had a friend named Tom Crow and I thought that was so cool.
During the formative years, were there any other bits of musical inspiration that impacted the show?
Well, obviously Satellite of Love is from Lou Reed. And, I just thought the song had such a strange quality to it so I really wanted to drop a reference to Lou Reed, he launched so many ships musically. Also, Rocket Number 9, which was the motivated camera whenever you saw an establishing shot of the ship, was obviously a reference to Sun Ra.
The silhouettes also came from the Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album too, right?
Absolutely. Each song on that album has an illustration, so it's this old big double album with these lavish pencil drawings to kind of set the mood, kind of like Sgt. Pepper. There's this one illustration for a song called "I've Seen the Movie Too" with the silhouette of a man and woman touching each other watching a movie and I remember exactly where I was in high school when I first saw it. I was at my friend Mike Wilkenson's house and we were working on the homecoming float. All these kids were there and we were playing that album. I remember seeing that and saying "you could green screen this and have people there saying stuff." I took a field trip tot he local TV station and kind of understood how green screen work. It would probably be pretty easy, but nobody was giving out development deals to high school students in Green Bay, Wisconsin in the 70s so I just kind of kept it in my pocket. I was in a position after being a comic on Letterman and "Saturday Night Live" and was in the position make a show, so that's what I pulled out.
At what point during the creation of the show did you come up with the iconic theme?
I imagined the show of the guy in this satellite with his robots watching these movies as kind of a pirate radio station. There's something about that concept, like in Europe where they would just go on ships and broadcast, I've always loved that. I wanted to be like a guy was circling the Earth and he's breaking into your TV channel. After the pilot, someone suggested that it was hard to understand so why didn't [we] write a theme song? I got together with John Weinstein and we wrote the lyrics. That's where the concept really came together, that's where the Mads came from and the idea they were showing these movies. After the third episode, I got together with my girlfriend's cousin, a guy name Charlie Erickson who's a great composer and musician. I kind of knew him well enough to sing to him what I thought it was and thought of it like "...in the Warm California Sun." He just kind of transposed it right there on the keyboard and made it a better song. We tried to mimic Devo and the Replacements production-wise and I was doing my best to sing like Paul Westerberg.