It happened. I still can’t believe it. On Friday, April 14th, we saw the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Geeks across the country rejoiced after an almost twenty-year gap in new episodes.
Remakes get made all the time though, so what makes this any different? Honestly, it might be that geeky audience. The original creator was able to bring it back because of funding through Kickstarter. It’s the crowning achievement from an enthusiastic fan base that refused to let MST3K be forgotten. It has a special place in the hearts of its audience, (including mine, as we’ll see) and it’s all thanks to a prop comic named Joel Hodgson.
How did Joel achieve such a following? How did he create something, that even he couldn’t have guessed, would mean so much to so many? It’s simple…he just did something he loved.
To see what I mean, we have to go back to the very beginning. To my fellow Mystery Science Theater fans (MiSTies) I pulled most of my research from this must-read article from wired.com. Do yourself a favor and read through the whole thing because it has excellent insights into the show’s production from the people involved.
After moving to Los Angeles from Minnesota, Joel Hodgson was making a name for himself, getting on Letterman and Saturday Night Live in the early 80’s. He was then offered a role on a sitcom, which would also star a pre-Back to the Future Michael J. Fox, called High School U.S.A. Hodgson didn’t think it was all that funny and rejected the offer. Then, he was offered double to tempt him to accept the role and do something he didn’t initially want to do. According to the Wired article, this didn’t sit right with Hodgson at all. He even left Hollywood to go back to Minneapolis, where he developed his own ideas.
Hodgson was a self-described TV junkie, loved when he could find the odd movie that came on, and had his own brand of prop comedy. He mixed parts of those things together and developed something that was truly unique. He started everything himself. Hodgson scraped together a crew, created the props, including the puppet robot companions, made the jokes, and pitched the idea to a local Minneapolis station, KTMA. After viewing a short pilot, they decided to air a season of Hodgson’s creation in 1988 (a very good year, for no personal reason at all). KTMA gave Joel and company cheesy movies they could use, the worst they could find (la la la), and the show was born. They eventually were able to get on the Comedy Channel, what Comedy Central was called at the time, and the rest is history.
Think about it, all of this began because one guy decided he wanted to take what he loved and just do that. What if Joel had just been out for money as the priority? What would Mystery Science Theater look like then? Would we even have it? Where would his career have gone? For the record, the sitcom he was asked to be on was turned into a made for TV movie, and the stars all went on to do other things in various directions, with just as varying degrees of success.
But what even is success? Did those actors do things they loved to do? I know that Joel Hodgson seemed to do something he loved. I mean, I don’t know the guy, unfortunately, but he was able to do a lot of things he was already pursuing, and he got to do it every week, creating something that didn’t exist before his ideas came along. For a long time, he and his tiny crew got to do things their way too. Eventually, things got complicated, but the foundation was there. The show exists because Joel rejected the, seemingly, better offer to do something he wanted and had passion and pride in, instead. And making fun of movies, the foundation of Hollywood that wanted to buy Hodgson’s support, is the best reaction I can think of.
How has this choice played out? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I know the joy of meeting someone else who already loves the show. Friendships have been built on this one connection. I post on Twitter about some storytelling idea I have, sweat over writing an article and get two likes total. I post one gif from a scene of MST3K, and ten people immediately retweet it. What? The fans love this.
Joel Hodgson couldn’t have known that choosing to do something that he loves, over sheer money, would spread that passion and joy around the country.
For me, it takes me back to a childhood before a lot of things hit the fan. My parents went through a divorce, something far too many kids have to deal with. It sucks, but you learn to live with it, and you move on. It leaves its mark, though. You hold on to things that take you back, when your family used to be whole. One of those things for me is Mystery Science Theater. It was one of the few family traditions where we all were together and connected. No arguing, no wondering if we all wanted to do this together, no hurt feelings, just togetherness. This relaxed, beautiful state of being is literally in the theme song: “Just repeat to yourself; it’s just a show, I should really just relax.”
After my parents split up, MST3K still worked its magic. My brother and I would watch the re-runs that would air every week and we even, without knowing, saw the last syndication of the show. (Which so happened to be The Screaming Skull episode). My brother and I will sometimes, literally, only talk in quotes from the show as if it’s a functioning language. Every time I watch an episode, it takes me right back to that family unit of my mom, dad, and me, all getting together to enjoy a friggin puppet show.
Who knew that an idea, involving a glorified pinball machine, a stitched together lacrosse net attached to a bowling pin, and a sleepy-eyed host making fun of movies that no one should have to see, would help create rare, untainted good moments in a home that would eventually split apart.
This is why you pursue the things that you love. You don’t know what will come of it. Taking the money for money’s sake may lead you away from what you love entirely. Go with your gut. Is a choice you are making something you want to do because it’s the thing you are passionate about? Or is this something you have to do so that you can be recognized, or appreciated later, or paid to do so that you can do something similar to what you like?
Joel chose to stick with what felt right and something he genuinely wanted to create. Two decades later, and there’s such a demand for a return, he was able to fund fourteen new episodes (so far). Looks like a good choice to me.
When you do what you love, people know. Your audience feels it. Whether that’s people who read your book, view your art, taste your food, laugh at your jokes, hear the melodies you create, or how you bond with co-workers from the office. Is it something you love? Is it something that is you? If it is, that’s sincerity. You reach people that way. You may not even know how you affect people, but it can be powerful whether you realize it or not.
Maybe that’s what success is.
— My brother and I do what we love, talking about geeky things on our podcast The Brothers Geek and we want to talk to people that also love those geeky things, so we invite you to check it out —