When Joel Met Jonah: MST3K Generations Collide with 30th Anniversary Live Show

The meeting of the masters: Jonah, Joel and the Bots
The meeting of the masters: Jonah, Joel and the Bots Photo Courtesy of Sheila Kenny

Quiet in the front? Hardly.

The Red Jump Suit is back in action and ready for more cinematic punishment!

Joel Hodgson, the creator and original riffer of the cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 is back in the saddle and bringing bots and bad movies to Houston’s Cullen Theater.

After 30 years of cracking wise, Hodgson himself is amused. “It’s really amazing,” he deadpans in his trademark sleepy voice. “I’m thrilled. I think we did our KickStarter around 2 and half years ago, so we’ve been working on everything MST since then. It’s been totally worth the wait, I feel so grateful to be able to work with it again, to be able to innovate and bring new things to it. I mean, just bringing it back with all new people – new writers, new performers, kind of getting a new generation of people involved was kind of a big thing! And I’m just so grateful I get to see and meet these people that like MST and want to work on it and care about it and you know, have a different angle on how to do it. I know that’s an extraordinary thing to have happen.”

But if you’re a fan of the Netflix’s revival of the Comedy Central staple, you know that Hodgson is the NOT the only quipster in town anymore: stand-up Jonah Ray now dons the show’s jumpsuit (his is yellow!) and has brought the expertise of his super-fandom behind the scenes as well.

But how did Joel meet Jonah? Hodgson’s answer is simple: “That hasn’t happened yet!” Well, not in the narrative of the series at least – where Hodgson’s Robinson escaped his space prison and was last seen managing a Hot Fish Shop in rural Minnesota. “But if you are asking how I met him in real life, its funny. I met Jonah Ray doing The Nerdist podcast with Chris Hardwick. That’s kinda when I found out that Jonah was a huge fan and I liked him right away. I don’t know why, but it's chemistry – you meet certain people and you just have a feeling for them. We got to hang out, I really liked him and I thought: we should try writing together. So we got together and it went really good. It was easy and fun and I guess I started to think about him, thinking that maybe this guy could be the host! He fits the profile. And my instincts were good and right. He turned out to be better than I ever could have even imagined as far as how good he is in that role.”

Beyond Hodgson’s effusive praise for Ray on camera, the seeming-introvert credits Ray's history of performing around the country.  “When we do the live shows, he’s so good with people,” he says. "He’s actually really much better than I am with just the fans and working with the public. He’s got a great attitude.”

While the now 58-year-old performer reflects fondly on the enduring legacy of his masterwork, he does so modestly. “It’s funny: I guess for things about MST, I just have a pretty good eye. It’s a very similar thing for just finding the people who made the original show in Minneapolis. No one was really in the business of comedy that I used. They were all local people that weren’t professionals. And I think we’re lucky because MST has always been a real humble show, everyone looks at it and understands it's real inexpensive to make. So MST doesn’t have the glamour that other shows have and I think people are a little more real with us.”

With more than 200 episodes in the can, and six new ones coming to Netflix over the Thanksgiving Holiday – a question lingers… Are there a finite number of bad movies out there to riff on? Hodgson scoffs at the question: “They’re still making them! There still out there, there are still plenty to choose from.”

For Houston, the gang will be roasting The Brain, an Edward Hunt directed film with a small cult following of its own. “The Brain is an adorable Canadian horror movie with a flesh eating brain in it,” the comic explains. “He doesn’t so much eat flesh as he does gobble them down whole. I think it’s a brain – he looks more like a mad ball. But The Brain fit really well, same with Death Stalker our other [touring] feature. Both are from 1988, the year we started MTS!” A nice touch, indeed.

Athough he's often considered one of the nicest guys in comedy, Hodgson's MST is known for mocking the schlocky films it riffs. Reactions from the artists behind the real films are all over the place, he says.  "Some people really like it. People will try to get us to riff their movies. And when they’re too eager, I don’t want to use it because it doesn’t quite seem right. Its almost like: ‘Hurry up, We made a bad movie, lets exploit that!’ Or they deliberately try to make a bad movie – which is really hard to riff on if they’re winking at the camera. And other people hate it and are offended by it. Some people love it. It’s really based on their comfort level and you know how they feel about it, how they feel about something like MST in the world.

"More than anything, we’re just using the movie as a springboard to tell jokes and be funny. We don’t spend a lot of time – I don’t think we spend very much time at all talking about the movie being bad. I’d say 1 in 50 or 1 in 100 jokes is about the quality of the movie.”

Hodgson shines a spotlight on the funny people working on the series with him today. “The cast in general is really great. Tim Ryder is Tom Servo on the road, and he is one of our writers and a Second City alumni. Rebecca Hanson is Cynthia, and she’s from Second City as well. We’ve got Elliot Kalan and he’s our head writer, and he was the head writer on The Daily Show. And Matt Oswalt, Tammy Golden, Felecia Day, and of course, Jonah. So we just have a lot of great people working on it. I gotta tell you, its pretty fun just letting them do their thing and getting to kind of participate.”

One legend that has persisted over nearly 25 years was Joel’s reluctant feud with actor and star of Mitchell, Joe Don Baker. In Hodgson’s last appearance as host of the original run of the series, the janitor roasted the performer particularly hard and word got out that Joe Don Baker would beat up anyone associated with
the show, if he was able.

Does Joel still sleep with one eye open? “There’s a guy, Daniel Griffith, who is the main documentary filmmaker for MST, and he knows as much if not more about the show as I do. He talked to Joe Don Baker about this and I don’t think he ever wanted to punch me, but I think that was just him trying to be funny. I think what he took offense at was during Mitchell, sometimes we’d call him out by name. I think his trigger was that we called him Joe Don Baker – they used my name! That’s what he was carrying on about. He felt like it was a personal indictment. I can imagine being Joe Don Baker and having this stellar career with Walking Tall and all the different movies he’s done – and there’s these weirdos from Minneapolis who found one of his movies and are riffing on it. I’m sure it was very disorienting.”

Well, if David Gale, Cynthia Preston, George Buza or any of the other stars of The Brain start calling for Hodgson’s head – guess we'll know why.

The performance is scheduled for 7 p.m., November 3 at the Cullen Performance Hall, 4800 University Drive. For information, call 832-842-3131 or visit $39.50-49.50

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee