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Joel Hodgson began his career as a stand-up comic, magician, and gizmo inventor before retiring at the age of 24. Returning from exile in the late '80s, Hodgson cemented his place in pop-culture history by creating Mystery Science Theater 3000, the cult TV show in which he and a group of robots watched and mocked B-movies. Beginning at a local Minneapolis station, the program found its niche among viewers of the then-fledgling Comedy Central in the early '90s. To the surprise of many fans, Hodgson left the show at the height of its popularity in 1995, once again disappearing from the public eye. But he's kept plenty busy: With his artist brother Jim, he founded Visual Story Tools, a small, L.A.-based idea and product factory. There, the brothers have worked on a number of projects which have allowed Hodgson to continue tinkering away behind the scenes, and which seem to be paving the way for larger things. Though Mystery Science Theater fans were just treated to a return appearance in the show's 10th (and final) season opener, Hodgson prefers to keep a low profile working behind the camera. He did, however, recently spend some time talking to The Onion.
The Onion: I've read your press release, so I know what you've been up to, but most people I've spoken with about this interview say something along the lines of, "What the hell has he been doing?" So, for the benefit of those people, what the hell have you been doing?
Joel Hodgson: Well, let's see... I've mostly just been in Hollywood, working on stuff and kind of trying to figure out how Hollywood works, as opposed to Minneapolis.
O: There's a difference?
JH: Yeah, it's way different. I work with my brother Jim. We have a little... It's kind of like a production and content company called Visual Story Tools, and we do stuff like write scripts and do some special effects. Basically, we're just trying to realize ideas using the written word, but also using powerful computers and such.
O: What are you working on now?
JH: The latest thing is a thing that's kind of like a Tamogotchi. Right now, the test name is "Pet Cassette." It's this thing that hatches using your VCR; it kind of hatches in your television and lives in your TV. My brother says it's like sea monkeys for your TV. We got that done. It's computer-generated, and we're getting ready to meet with toy brokers and try to find a home for it or a partner to make it.
O: It plugs into the television?
JH: Into the VCR. The premise is that this creature is in the cassette. He's packaged in the cassette, and then the cassette liquefies and gets pumped into your television, where the creature hatches out of it and kind of cavorts around in there until you reverse the process and he comes out.
O: So, it's basically a videotape?
JH: Well, yeah. It looks like a videotape, but it behaves differently than a videotape.
O: How do you and your brother divide the work at Visual Story Tools?
JH: I usually generate the initial idea, and he's been doing a lot of fulfillment stuff as far as making sure things get done. He's a studio artist; that's kind of his background, doing sculpture and stuff like that. He's really familiar with fabricating stuff, building stuff, and producing stuff. He's been doing that, but lately we've been... We just wrote a pilot for UPN together, so he's starting to do what I would call content stuff, too. That's kind of how it divides up. I kind of start it and he kind of finishes it. He's like a producer right now.
O: Can you tell me about your film Statical Planets?
JH: Absolutely. That's a test we tried to do. We shot about 14 minutes of film. What it was was kind of a William Castle idea. Do you remember William Castle?
O: I've read about him.
JH: He was famous as a producer. He produced Rosemary's Baby and stuff like that, but he also did a lot of... He kind of took advantage of the 3D craze. In the '50s, movies were really feeling threatened by TV, so they started to add all these gimmicks. He was at the forefront of that. He'd come up with these really goofy gimmicks.
O: He had the skeletons floating overhead, right?
JH: Yeah, that was "Emergo." It was a skeleton in a box that came out at a certain point in the movie. He did The Tingler, and I think that was done in "Percepto." The premise of that was that he had motors hooked to the bottom of the seats that would travel with the film. He did Mr. Sardonicus, where at the end of the movie the audience gets to vote on whether Mr. Sardonicus lives or dies. And, supposedly, he'd have two different reels showing him either living or dying.
O: But there was just the one, right?
JH: Right. Most people decided he would die. It was kind of based on that, and what we did was create this thing called "Static-a-matic," which is an illusion that [makes it] look like everyone in the audience is getting a powerful electric shock. Basically, the whole film was done with virtual sets, and we had to create our own rear-projection system, because we didn't want to composite it digitally. We wanted it to be within the film. I guess that right now, the thing we're having our agent look into is working with a company to stream it on the Internet, because we figured out a way where it would work with your monitor. It was one of those things where we were trying it, and we just kind of hit the wall as far as doing it as a feature. We really just wanted to test it. I create stuff kind of backwards. Like Mystery Science Theater... We made Mystery Science Theater before we wrote a script for Mystery Science Theater.
O: You already had the robots and everything?
JH: Exactly. There was no script. We didn't write a script for Mystery Science Theater until we had done, like, 20 shows. The way I work out production problems is usually by doing a test. That's why, instead of pitching Pet Cassette, we made Pet Cassette. Same with Statical Planets and stuff like that. And it's the same with Mystery Science Theater or Higgins Boys And Gruber, which was also a show back in the early days of Comedy Channel [the early incarnation of Comedy Central]. When the channel launched, they had Mystery Science Theater and Higgins Boys And Gruber, which were both shows I created. A lot of scripts in Hollywood are written, and they can't really be made into shows: They're just really good scripts. They're just good reads. A lot of writers can't translate into the visual realm, so you get a lot of bad product, basically. "Good script" doesn't always equal "good product." That's why I try to solve it before I do it. It's kind of awkward compared to the way things are done out here, but it's kind of the only way I know how to do it.
O: Now that you know the process better, do you resent it, or do you try to find ways to work within it?
JH: I think it's okay. It's just that if you want to do TV, that costs a lot of money. It's so expensive. A pilot now starts at a million dollars. You try to find analogies to things in real life that cost a million dollars, and that's, like, buildings and stuff. You realize that a lot of people have to participate in it. I've made my peace with it. It's cool. It's okay. It's just the nature of it. It's like being an architect, I guess, and you have to convince everybody to build the building. We have a deal with the Odyssey Channel, which is the new Jim Henson/Hallmark channel. We're developing shows for them. We just kind of listen to them and go, "Where do you want to go? What are you interested in?" And if they like them, you proceed, and if they don't, you take them to somebody else or come up with more ideas.
O: Would you appear in any of these things, or are you more interested in staying behind the camera?
JH: Umm... Yeah. That's always been really confusing for people. I did it on Mystery Science Theater just because I was the logical guy to do it. I'd been on Letterman and Saturday Night Live, but I'd really stopped performing. And so I was kind of reluctant, but I knew I would be the easiest sell in the event that somebody wanted to pick up the show. But once it got so popular and the movie was on the horizon, I started to go, "You know, I just don't... I don't really... I didn't really have that in mind, to be a movie actor." 'Cause, if you notice, I'm not really an actor. I just do this guy. Like, even when I went back and did the season opener on the Sci-Fi channel last weekend [April 11], people were going, "You looked kind of uncomfortable." And I was. I never had to act with another person. I was on the set with Mike [Nelson], and I was going, "I've never done this with another person in the room. It's only been robots." There was never anybody else in there. I can't really do it. I don't think I'm an actor. That's really not what I want to do. I don't think I could be on camera.
O: What made you decide to retire from doing stand-up?
JH: I was 23 or 24, and the only thing available was being on a sitcom. After doing stand-up, agents usually plug you into sitcoms. I didn't really want to do that. I got offered a job on a sitcom, and I just didn't think it was funny. At that time, I didn't think any sitcoms were funny.
O: Well, most aren't.
JH: Yeah, they aren't. I just didn't want to do it. I had this [track] record that I was really proud of, of doing these shows and doing exactly what I wanted to do, and the idea of going on a sitcom and having to do jokes whether they were funny or not just didn't sound very good. And that was kind of all that was available through the Hollywood system. So, I just decided to quit and go back to Minneapolis and hang out with my friends, which I'm really glad I got to do. I just kind of thought for a while, and after a while, I realized I wanted to keep doing it. I just had to figure out a way.
O: Were you working at all?
JH: I was doing lots of stuff. I worked at a T-shirt factory, and I was making robots out of found objects and selling them. And that's kind of how the look of Mystery Science Theater happened. Those robots. I kind of used the same thing to decorate the set. I did that, and I slowly started to get back into it. Jerry Seinfeld asked me to write his first HBO special with him, and that was kind of my chance to get back into it. That kind of showed me that, hey, this is really fun. I want to keep doing it. After a certain amount of time, I started to do my stand-up a little bit locally, and I did a college tour. Around that time, I hooked up with Jim Mallon, and I kind of pitched him Mystery Science Theater. He was in a position at this local TV station to allow it to happen.
O: Was it strange being back on the show this year?
JH: Yeah, it was really strange. In some regards, it didn't feel like any time had gone by once we were shooting it. But it just seemed smaller than I remembered it, and I also kept thinking about what kind of person I would be if I would have stayed.
O: Did you come up with any answers?
JH: I just wouldn't have been happy, I don't think.
O: Was it the movie that made you leave?
JH: The big thing is that Jim Mallon and I were kind of fighting over creative control of the show. And it just got too hard. You can't really be fighting with someone and doing all the stuff you have to do. I think what made the show work for me was that I really loved it. I really liked the audience, and the whole process was... I was really happy doing it, and I realized that I'd turn into Jerry Lewis or something if I started to kind of hate it. And that was starting to happen, just because of these conflicts I was having internally with Jim. I had a pretty good deal set up, so if I left, it would be okay. If Jim wanted to run the show his way and it succeeded, I would make money on it. And if it didn't work, that would be okay, too. It was just kind of the way to do it. The thing would have blown up if we both would have stayed there. I like to look at it like the story of King Solomon, when the baby was brought before him. [Laughs.]
O: They had a pretty good run after they left.
JH: Yeah, absolutely.
O: Did you follow the show?
JH: No, not really. It's too much like work. It's not really relaxing. I think I could have done it if I would have taped it and brought it to work and watched it and, like, studied it. But the idea of sitting at home at the end of the day when you're supposed to be relaxing, and it's on... It's a strange thing to explain to people. Another weird product of that is that I kind of [forget] movies really fast now. Fans of the show will come up and want to talk about a movie. I did the first 100, and I learned really quickly that I should dump them from my mind. There's just too much stuff. It's like this treasured thing that you kind of lose. I don't retain movies after I watch them. I don't remember everything about them any more.
O: Any movies? Because I can see where you wouldn't necessarily want to have Eegah! in your mind for the rest of your life...
JH: It's really weird. A guy today was talking to me about Superman II. And I watched Superman II about six months ago, and there are parts of it I didn't remember. He was expecting me to remember, because people think of me as this videophile, and I kind of have to smile and nod and go, "Oh, yeah, I know what you mean." But I can remember parts of it. A good analogy is that my girlfriend is an attorney, and she has to read so much for her job that at the end of the day, when she wants to read for pleasure she rushes through it, kind of gleaning the information. She's not reading for pleasure. It just shows how your work affects you in different ways.
O: Do you feel that Mystery Science Theater has had a lasting effect on the way people watch movies and television?
JH: I think so. We're kind of coming out of this trend, but I have to say I noticed a lot of arcane references in a lot of different TV shows where they really didn't belong. I think that became a style for a while, to be really eclectic. And Mystery Science Theater worked because it wasn't the emphasis of what was going on. We were just these voices saying stuff. I think people got into that for some reason. I'm kind of glad it's over now, because I'm tired of it. I just burned out on it. Now, I'm much more into much more direct, more simple things, I think. It was always fun to hear that the vice president watches Mystery Science Theater, and that Spielberg watches it. Bill Gates watches it. It's true. I met him one day and he said, "Me and my friend used to watch the show all the time. We laughed so hard." You just go, "Oh, that's cool."
O: I could never figure out how the scientists were monitoring your mind on that show.
JH: They were just videotaping it. Just observing.