The television series Mystery Science Theater 3000 has built up a cult following that transcends its simple concept: A host and some wisecracking robots make fun of bad old movies. The show has lasted for years, recently switching cable outlets (from Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel) and releasing a movie, appropriately titled Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. The Onion recently spoke to host Mike Nelson about the series' success and recent lifestyle changes.
The Onion: How's it going now that you've made the transition to the Sci-Fi Channel?
Mike Nelson: It's been very, very good, I say cautiously. No, it's been nice to be promoted and made to feel like we actually belong somewhere.
O: As opposed to Comedy Central, right?
MN: As opposed to the unnamed network.
O: Have you found the Sci-Fi Channel's requirement that you cover movies that fit within its format restricting?
MN: No, not really, because sci-fi is sort of a loose definition. If it's got a guy who's invisible in it in the fourth reel, but it's a teen movie, it's sci-fi. You know, there are a lot that are teen movies first, but have a werewolf in one scene. So it hasn't been restricting for us. It's been pretty much the same movies, because they almost always have some element in them that vaguely qualifies them as sci-fi.
O: On the other hand, you did have to get rid of some of the short subjects you were doing before.
MN: That's the one thing we miss. We're trying to think of a way to get those out there soon, because we really enjoyed doing those. We travel with them, and when we do shows, we project them and do Q&A afterwards. Those always work well, even though they weren't meant to be seen in that live environment. They still tend to work, because people love to see the old attitudes projected up on the screen.
O: You've also changed the basic format of the show. Has that given you new freedom?
MN: Yeah, it has. We've always felt that even though we tend to devote a lot of time and energy to the live-action segments, it's really the movie stuff that drives everything and makes the show what it is. So we've never been as reverent to our live action as perhaps some of our fans are. For us, there's a little bit of an attitude of, "To hell with the history of it." We play pretty fast and loose with the rules.
O: You mentioned the fans: It seems a lot of people do get upset over the changes. Do you find that peculiar?
MN: I've actually made a fairly conscious effort to not pay attention to fan reaction. Not because I don't care; it's just because that tends to creep into the writing room a little bit. Kind of like, "Oh, there was a negative reaction to this one aspect," and whether you know it or not, that may creep into your decision whether or not to do that kind of thing again. And I think that sort of pollutes the writing a little bit. It's kind of like a really skewed focus group, because if we have a million viewers a certain week and 30 of them are on-line, those 30 become the voice for everyone who watches the show. It's not fair to the process to let that creep in.
O: On the show, you always refer to movies hurting you. Do you ever find that they legitimately do hurt?
MN: [Laughs.] There is at times actual physical pain. We finished one recently with Peter Graves called Parts: The Clonus Horror. And actually the writers ended upas we were screening it for the final time, after the comments had been recorded and we were just kind of doing clean-upgiving the finger to the screen involuntarily. Because you end up hating the things they've done so much that it almost reaches the point of real physical discomfort.
O: What's the most painful thing you've ever had to watch?
MN: Uhh... Boy, I think a film called Monster A Go-Go by a Wisconsin filmmaker. It was a bunch of movies tacked together, and you end up hating it and hating the world when you see something like that.
O: How did you get into this business?
MN: I started in acting and writing, and I did stand-up comedy. I sort of floated around the business, and knew some of the people who were involved. It started sort of loosely: They asked me to come around and try out to write, and I've been with them for eight years.
O: Do you see an end to this for you? Do you see a moment where it just becomes too painful and you'll have to move on?
MN: [Laughs.] It's actually weird. I know that in this business you tend to be viewed suspiciously if you stay with something too long, and you actually claim to enjoy it, but that's how I feel about it. There's enough variation in the work, and there's enough travel and enough breaks, and I enjoy the people I work with. So for me, I'll keep doing it for a while. I'm sure I won't do it my whole life, but maybe an unnaturally long period of time. They'll be prying the remote control out of my hand in the nursing home. But I actually still really enjoy it.
O: It seems like it would be fun to do, but a lot of people do move on.
MN: Yeah, for some reason it's not considered weird to stay if you're a baseball playeryou'll play baseball your whole careerbut it's considered strange to stay with a successful show or project for a long period of time.
O: When you took over as host, how would you describe that transition?
MN: Umm... painful.
MN: No, it was a little rocky for me because I was head writer, and I still had those responsibilities, and I actually concentrated a lot on that and didn't concern myself too much with how it was received, whether good or bad. So it wasn't bad for me. There was some negative reaction, but there was a lot of positive reaction.
O: So you tried to remain blissfully ignorant?
MN: Yeah, I think that's the attitude to take, blissfully ignorant at all times.
O: If there's one thing you wanted to say about MST3K, what would you say?
MN: Watch in moderation. Enjoy in moderation.
O: If you don't enjoy in moderation, what happens?
MN: Your skull actually begins to melt. So use it carefullyit's a tool for evil as well as good.
O: Does MST3K have a mission? Is there a lesson to be learned from it?
MN: To milk all the money you can off a puppet show. I think that's the overriding lesson. I'm not sure there's anything to be learned other than that people make really stupid movies.
O: And the lesson you get from that?
MN: Stop making so many stupid movies. Boy, I just saw one last night: Sudden Death with Jean-Claude Van Damme, which I had to watch because I'm writing an article on it. But, oh man, it's not only depraved, it's... You know, if a movie is just hideously stupid, I can sort of excuse that, but they always have to add a depravity to it as well, so sexual predators can enjoy it or something. I don't know. It's really sick.
O: What percentage of the bad movies you watch would you say are just evil?
MN: Actually, with the ones that come to us, it's a fairly small percentage. I think once it hit the '80s and even the mid-'70s, movies tended to be sort of evil. There was a lot of misogyny, and if it didn't start with a graphic rape or something, it was considered real square. And that sort of continued on; it's like all B-movies that are made for TV or made for video have to have this element of depravity, and that's a little weird to me. It used to be that you had a big scary monster in a rubber suit, but now depravity rules.
O: With some movies, it seems like the whole milieu is kind of depraved, like Laserblast. That one was kind of disturbing in the way it looked and felt and everything.
MN: Yeah, I've always wondered about that. You know, moviemaking takes so much energy, especially when you talk about an independent forum, and we tend to get movies that were independently produced. And this is your vision; this is what you wanted to say. I wanted to say this, I wanted to say Laserblastthat's what I had burning inside of me. That seems very strange to me.
O: And Leonard Maltin gave it two and a half stars.
MN: [Laughs.] That makes no sense. Someone was asleep at the review there.
O: Maltin has been getting it kind of hard from you lately.
MN: Yeah, I think with some of those, they watch like five minutes of it. But, you know, for every movie, there's a fan in this video-watchdog culture [who believes that] everything produced, no matter how crappy, deserves to be treated with reverence. I completely disagree with that attitude.
O: Have you ever gotten threats because you made fun of a movie?
MN: No, but a lot of people have been really disappointed and sort of hurt by it, like, "How can you say this is a bad movie?!" I've never understood that, because the movie exists in its pure formyou have it on your pristine laserdisc of Laserblastso why do you care? You can sit and screen it in your basement all night long. But people really get pissed off about it. We did Marooned, which I think was re-titled Space Travelers when we did it. There were a lot of stars in itI think Gregory Peck and James Franciscus. We heard through the grapevine that director Joe Dante was just outraged that we could dare touch that movie, which he didn't even direct. He was just outraged. He thought it was a great movie. And it's just plain not a great movie. Why take it personally? It's just a movie you like; you weren't even involved in it. I don't get that.
O: It seems that some movies you do are the ones that fall into the category of films that used to be classics, like This Island Earth. Movies that used to be much better than they are now.
MN: Yeah, and I think that works for us, because the movie should have a little bit of inherent entertainment value. We can't produce everything and carry everything; we're just sort of feeding off it. It helps if the movie is mildly entertaining on its own. This Island Earth, even looking at it through the lens of history, is still not that good a movie.
O: Looking back a year later, how successful was Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie?
MN: Well, the thing is, I think the 13 people who saw it were pretty pleased. The problem was mostly in the releasing. We got really good reviews, and when it opened, they said, "Well, we're going to open it in 25 theaters." And that's the most it ever played in, so it's kind of hard to be a hit when you're only in 25 theaters. They had a certain expectation of it in mind, that it was going to be just this quirky traveling film, and we thought it could have been bigger. But looking back on it, it doesn't bother me at all. The whole process was sort of painful, and I don't think it was even our best effort, even though I'm proud of the film. We worked incredibly hard on it. But, you know, it doesn't bother me at all. It's just a thing that we went through, and now it exists.
O: The standard complaint was that it was just a good episode of the show and nothing more.
MN: I think that may be fair, but I think that's good enough. Because it works really well in an environment where there's a lot of people. When it plays to a crowd, it does work really well. And a lot of people would complain, like, "It was really, really funny, I laughed all the way through, but it was kind of like an episode of the show." And I would say that people see Pauly Shore moviesand laugh once if they're incredibly luckyand yet you reconsider something that you wouldn't think twice about wasting money on. It's kind of a weird argument, but I understand where it comes from.
O: So, what does the future of the show look like?
MN: Oh, so bright we gotta wear shades. We just got nine more episodes ordered from the Sci-Fi Channel. So it's doing well, I guess. It's doing fairly well in the ratings, and they're pleased with it. And we've kind of hit this point where we're in the gravy period of the thing. We've had a good ride off of it, and now whatever comes is gravy. That takes a lot of the pressure off, so everyone's just having fun with it. We'll keep doing it as long as they let us. Or at least I will. Everyone else will be long gone, but I'll be holding on.
O: You'll be working both the puppets at the same time.
MN: Yeah, I'll have one on each arm, and you'll see the rods coming out of the bottom.
O: I remember someone once referred to your old network making "bizarre and inappropriate offers." You haven't gotten any of those yet?
O: It sounded kind of lurid when I read it described that way.
MN: That does seem a little weird. They were inappropriate perhaps in that [the network] didn't want to order any shows but said, "Well, how 'bout one special for next year?" And that's just not enough to keep a company afloat. So I think that's what was meant by inappropriate. We've talked a little bit about doing other things for the Sci-Fi Channel, but they would have to be worked into the schedule, because it's pretty full-time work right now.
O: What's the single most obscure reference you've ever made?
MN: Well, once, I think it was Crow made a reference to a woman I dated who stole my keyboard. I never heard from her again, and Crow made a reference to that on the show. That's an unfairly obscure reference that only my closest friends would get.
O: Did you ever get the keyboard back?
MN: No, never heard from her again.
O: Are you still bitter over that?
MN: Very bitter. It wasn't MIDI though. It was right before MIDI came out, so I guess I shouldn't be bitter. I couldn't really do much with it anyway.
O: Does anyone hear from [former MST3K cast member] Joel [Hodgson] anymore?
MN: Yeah, I keep in touch with him. I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. He's working on a show out in L.A. with [former MST3K cast member] Frank [Conniff]. They're working on Sabrina The Teenage Witch. Joel is doing props or effects or something.
O: How's [former MST3K cast member] Trace [Beaulieu] doing?
MN: He's doing well too. He's just starting out there. I think he's working on a comic-book project or something now. I talk to him regularly, too. I've seen so many people from Minneapolis move out to L.A.; it's just part of the business now. There's a little Minneapolis out there now.