In recent years, Kickstarter has served as the launching pad for a number of TV revivals, from Reading Rainbow to Veronica Mars. Now, Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s Satellite of Love is the latest vehicle to blast off again thanks to the crowdfunding site. When MST3K mastermind and star Joel Hodgson floated plans for a revival of his signature series on Kickstarter in November 2015, the fan response was instantaneous. By the time the campaign wrapped a month later, Hodgson had raised nearly $6 million — enough to fund 14 new episodes featuring a crew of new faces and old favorites riffing on B-, C-, and Z-grade movies. Those eager backers will be able to inspect their investment when Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return premieres on Netflix on April 14. “I’m completely thrilled with the outcome, and I’m hoping that they like it too,” Hodgson — who is only involved behind the camera for this revival — tells Yahoo TV. We spoke with the bad movie connoisseur about working with a new team to put the Satellite of Love back in the air and why he considers himself the “trash can Walt Disney.”
The MST3K relaunch is one of the most successful Kickstarter projects ever. You must have known the fan base was out there, but did you expect the outpouring of support you received?
My feeling was that I at least had to give them the option; to go to them and say, “Do you care about this? Do you want this?” And fortunately, it worked out. I wasn’t surprised we got [the funding] for 12 episodes, but I was really surprised that we got enough for 14. I did some estimates on the back of an envelope once based on all the people that came to Cinematic Titanic [a series of live movie riffing performances that Hodgson staged with fellow MST3K alums between 2007 and 2013]. We did about 100 live shows and drew about a thousand or more people to each of those. So I figured that if there’s 100,000 people out there who would pay $50 to see a show, there’s probably that many people who would give $100 [to a Kickstarter]. In the end, I think it was about 50,000 people giving a little over $100 that made us make it. And I met so many people on the road that I probably shook hands with 30,000 of them! [Laughs.]
Does it put more pressure on you, in a way, knowing that the fans are also investors in these new episodes? Do you feel you have to make something that lives up to what they remember?
They’re all so nice and so appreciative that I never really felt any pressure. I felt like they trusted me, and I think I feel more of an obligation than pressure. So that’s why we worked really hard and tried to put in good, solid days and being real productive. I’d much rather work hard for the backers than I would for a TV executive who may or may not care about the show, you know? They’re pre-sold on it, they like it, and they’re fans of it. I felt much more comfortable trying to satisfy them than I would an executive.
Do you consider this more of a continuation or a reboot?
Well, it’s a continuation, because it does chronologically make sense. For example, we have Pearl Forrester, Professor Bobo and Brain Guy coming back. And Felicia Day is playing Dr. Forrester‘s daughter, while Patton Oswalt is the son of TV’s Frank. But I tried to look at it as a design project: How do you design this so it satisfies the longtime fans, but if you come to it for the first time, can you makes sense of it? Gypsy was an example of this. Why is she always voiced by a man? Why is she so dim? Those are things that newcomers wouldn’t understand, and it made me really have to rethink it. Why are those things there, and are they still germane to the story? So it’s for longtime fans, but the whole agreement with the backers was to keep it rolling so new people could find it when they’re 13 or 15.
That’s about the age I was when I discovered MST3K for the first time. It must be great knowing the show had an impact on an entire generation, but does that also make it strange to be returning to it now?
Yeah, it’s been really amazing and weird to get all these new people involved on camera and as writers. It’s kind of in their DNA, the show. It was in the world when they were teenagers and they didn’t question it. And now they’re interested in helping me take care of it. That was really nice, but very unsettling, too.
Jonah Ray is the new host aboard the Satellite of Love. How does his “Jonah” character differ from “Joel” or “Mike”?
I don’t really shape the characters very much, so I didn’t say anything to Jonah about his personality or his behavior. I really wanted him to just do it however he felt most comfortable. I would talk to him about technical things like, “Here’s the best, easiest way to get on-camera. Here’s the best, easiest way to get off-camera. Here’s the mood you want to have when you get on. Here’s what we’re doing.” But other than that I never said anything like, “Jonah is a character who has lived through incredible loss and because of that he’s struggling to grapple with.” [Laughs] That was the same with Felicia and Patton or the guys doing the robot voices. [Baron Vaughn is the new voice of Tom Servo, and Hampton Yount is voicing Crow T. Robot.] And actually, Jonah picked Baron and Hampton. He sent me videos of them so I could sign off, but he really picked them.
You’ve been careful not to reveal too many of the movies that the characters will be watching and riffing on, but can you tease the range of titles in terms of genre or era?
We try to take movies from every decade. And since it’s a new cast, I wanted to use films that are comparable to other famous MST3K films. It’s kind of like an obstacle course for the new cast to go over. You’ll recognize some of the kinds of films that we did in the past, obviously. The thinking is Mystery Science Theater works best if you don’t really know what the movie is. We’re the opposite of Hollywood where you have to billboard the movie, and sell it to people. For us, it’s almost like a haunted house: it’s better if you’ve never seen any pictures of what it looks like inside, and it’s a new experience.
When I interviewed Cassandra Peterson recently, she said that it’s gotten harder to secure rights to riff on these movies as her Elvira character. Did you encounter the same obstacle while putting together your line-up?
It’s different for us, because we did the Kickstarter so we were able to afford better movies. The movies needed to be widescreen, and the sound had to be good. I personally have an aversion to really ugly movies, because you have to spend so much time with them when you’re riffing that it’s kind of like living in a really crappy B&B or something. There were certain movies that we did over the years on Mystery Science Theater that were just ugly that they were hard on the eyes!
I want to use movies that are peculiar, and that are forgotten. There’s a lot of beautiful-looking weird movies out there with good sound. So that was kind of the thing that was a little different. I think Cassandra uses a lot of public domain movies and those are hard to find, because no one’s caring for them. The other problem with those movies is that they might be public domain in the U.S., but once you get into another country, people own the rights in those territories. And we have to worry about that because Netflix goes into all sorts of other countries. So we had to clear the movies very broadly.
If Netflix renews the revival for a second season and beyond, do you see yourself stepping back from series? Or are you always going to want to be involved with it in some capacity?
I do want to work on making provisions so it can keep going without me being involved, but I don’t see that in the near future. I think more it’s just about laying the ground work. It’s not a fair analogy, but in my lifetime I can remember when the Disney company fell into its darkest days after Walt Disney died. It’s like the guy figured he’d live forever, so they didn’t seem to set up a way of working without him, you know? Again, I don’t want to make an analogy that I’m Walt Disney. I’m like the trash can Walt Disney. I’m the Walt Disney that is digging through the dumpster. [Laughs]
I kind of think that I would like to always be involved, because it’s so much fun, and I love working with these new people. At the same time, the whole idea is to see how long it’s supposed to last. Next year, MST3K will be 30 years old. How long is it supposed to go? How long is the audience interested in it? We don’t know. I’m curious about that, but if it lasts another five or ten years I’d be really thrilled. But somewhere along the line I’d have to go, “There’s got to be a way to do this so I don’t have to be coming in every day.”
You got the chance to do something a little different when you starred on Paul Feig’s sci-fi comedy series, Other Space. That show has really acquired a cult following.
Other Space is so important to the new MST3K because I met one of our producers, Jonathan Stern, on that show. I made sure to get in touch with him when we were getting read to do this. Also, Bob Cohen, who directed the new episodes with me. He’s a longtime friend, but I’d never worked with him until he directed an episode of Other Space. I remember taking a note that I loved the way he [directed]. He matched everyone’s energy in the room, and could dial in and talk to each actor. I don’t know that I’d ever done as much acting as I did in Other Space, and it really got me thinking about performing, and just how big of a responsibility that is. The best directors just let the actors do their thing, providing very little direction other than blocking and things that are more practical.
If you were speaking directly to fans, what would you most want them to know about this new season?
The thing that the fans and backers did that was so great was allow me to really make the show that I wanted to make. I hate being in a position where I have to defend my ideas, because most funny ideas are really hard to defend. I’ve never been able to explain to anybody how something is funny. If they don’t like a joke, I’ve never been able to talk them into it. So I was grateful that we never had that issue. What you’re seeing is exactly what I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return premieres on Friday, April 14 on Netflix.
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