It's hard to believe someone as baby-faced as comedian Joel Hodgson has become one of the country's comic veterans. But next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the launch of his "Mystery Science Theater 3000," a Twin Cities television production which became a national sensation.
Hodgson returns to Minneapolis this weekend to reveal the secrets behind creating the show.
In the early 1990s during a time when local television mightily resisted a reputation for cheesiness, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" dived in headfirst and reveled in every last pungent morsel.
MST 3000 was a place where everything looked like it had been made from household junk — because it had been.
The premise: Mad scientists had kidnapped a fresh-faced Midwesterner named Joel and stranded him high above the earth on the Satellite of Love, or SOL. There they forced him to watch terrible movies from the past to see how he would react. To maintain his sanity Joel would watch with two robots, called Tom Servo and Crow, providing snide commentary for the movies.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered in 1988 on what was then KTMA-TV channel 23 in the Twin Cities, according to Hodgson. Since then, it's only grown.
"Mystery Science Theater is like, more popular than ever," Hodgson said. "I am kind of like, more famous than I have ever been, and it's a little weird."
Weird enough that Hodgson has also developed a show called "How to Have a Job Like Mine." He's a packrat and on Saturday night he's going to show some of the things he's kept from over the years to an audience at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis.
"All the photos, all the notebooks where I invented all that stuff," he said.
Then they'll watch an episode of the show together.
Hodgson now lives outside Philadelphia but he cut his comedic teeth in the Twin Cities, first as a stand-up. He parlayed an interest in magic and ventriloquism into an act where tricks seldom worked, but where he often produced amazing devices and weird toys he'd build himself.
"Being in Minneapolis is such a big part of that," he said. "Because the audiences are so great. They are so willing and so interested and I think that that helped me more than anything."
Hodgson recently found a day planner from his senior year at Bethel College. He counted and discovered he had done over 200 comedy shows.
"Doing good stand-up is like being a good masseuse," he said. "There has to be tension and there has to be release. And so you just kind of figure it out and it's really a function of doing it a couple of hundred times."
His act was so bizarre and funny he rode it all the way to the national circuit, even appearing on Saturday Night Live. But he burned out on stand-up, and just quit.
Going through all his stuff for the show has been instructive for Hodgson. It's allowed him to understand the origins of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Just after he quit his stand-up act he met Jerry Seinfeld who asked him to help him write his HBO Special. Hodgson enjoyed the experience, and wanted to do more.
"In fact, my first idea of a show after I did Jerry's show was a show for Jerry which was about him in outer space," Hodgson laughs. "As stupid as that sounds. And I pitched that to him and he goes 'Yeah — no!'"
Hodgson quickly realized he had really come up with a show he wanted to do himself, and a year later MST 3000 was on the air on channel 23. Hodgson left the show as the host in 1993, but he's still performing Cinematic Titanic, live commentary on a movie in front of an audience.
He's happy doing it, but he has a job on the side doing media work for — get this — a guy who designs satellite engines.
"It's real," he said. "I'm not making it up."
As if we could ever doubt him.
MST3K: "Johnny at the Fair"