Questions With: Joel Hodgson of MST3K on the Art of Being a Generalist

To read all of interviews in our “Questions With” series, go here.

Nostalgia can prove to be a powerful thing, especially when it comes to commonplace memories from childhood or teenage years like movies, music, or television shows. For my generation, it’s shows like Boy Meets World or Legends of the Hidden Temple that make our hearts pitter-patter for the good ol’ days. But for those who grew up watching The Comedy Channel (now known as Comedy Central), Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) was a refreshing new concept that took the favorite pastime of riffing on movies with your friends and made it into a galactic comedy show that was unlike anything on television at the time. In fact, there’s nothing like it even today.

Joel Hodgson, creator and host of MST3K, is heading to the Texas Theatre this Saturday to perform his one-man show, Riffing Myself. I spoke to Hodgson yesterday to get a preview of what we can expect and also threw in our fantastically odd questions for him to answer. I quickly found out that not only is he diversely talented and funny, but he’s also extremely intelligent. He gave me a quick schooling on the origins of magicians in film, toxic adhesives, and why marijuana should be legalized.

FrontRow: What is the best movie and the worst movie you’ve ever seen?

Joel Hodgson: Well, I guess one of my favorite movies is A Thousand Clowns, and the worst I ever saw was Manos: The Hands of Fate. A Thousand Clowns, I think I saw it when I was in fourth grade, and it was just so witty and brilliant and I just loved it and I still love it. And Manos: The Hands of Fate is now known as the worst movie ever made, which was a MST3K episode we did.

FR: What was the first concert you ever went to?

JH: The first concert I ever went to was Harry Chapin (laughs). I was 15. It was great, it was in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I think I got that right. Do you remember Harry Chapin? He sang “Cats in the Cradle.” (Starts singing “the cats in the cradle with the silver spoon…”)

FR: If you were auditioning for a voice competition show, which song would you choose to sing?

JH: Oh boy, let me think about that. I guess I’d do “This River Is Wild” by The Killers. I’m not saying I have that kind of range. In fantasy, I have an incredible voice. I have a voice like Brandon Flowers. Brendan Flowers or Brandon?

FR: What’s the closest you have ever come to dying?

JH: I was working on a prop for my stand-up act and there was a new 3M adhesive that they used to sell and you used to scrape to kind of adhere foam rubber to itself. Foam rubber is really hard to glue because of its springy, coarse nature so there’s not too many things you can use. Back in the day, I wasn’t very careful about wearing a respirator when I used toxic chemicals to build stuff, and when I had finally finished building what I was working on, I realized I had inhaled really a lot of it. I started to feel really weird and I called the, you know, 411…is that it? No, it’s 911. Is it 911, the emergency thing? I called 911, and this is when I was living in L.A. and it was really shocking to me they didn’t send anybody. They didn’t send an emergency vehicle, I don’t know what happened. But, it’s Los Angeles so it might have been a really busy night or something. But fortunately, I was just panicked and I was worried. I got better. But, I thought I had poisoned myself because I had inhaled so much. I got better. I just was panicking. I thought I was going to die alone in my apartment.

FR: If you could choose any decade to live in, which would it be?

JH: I guess I’d love to live in the ’40s, you know? And mostly just because I like the clothes.

FR: What was your favorite toy as a kid?

JH: My favorite toy was called the Adams Semi-Pro Magic Chest, and it was a cardboard suitcase with magic tricks in it.

(When asked about his history as a magician and ventriloquist) Oh yeah, that figures very big into the development of MST3K. Basically, I used to spend a fair amount of time talking about magic and ventriloquism, and I demonstrate how they kind of were essential ingredients to MST3K. Ventriloquism mostly, because the robot puppets, their mechanisms are identical to ventriloquist dummies. They use a head stick stringing so that came from ventriloquism and I learned how to build puppets by being a teenage ventriloquist. And also, magic really taught me how to perform and how to be a producer. A lot of the effects in MST3K are all in-camera effects and they work pretty much like magic tricks where you can use digital effects, you can’t really do cut-aways. You really have to make it all happen in the room, which is basically the same as a magic trick so both those things are these core elements of MST3K.

One other thing, too, is that magicians invented the movie, and not a lot of people know that. Georges Méliès invented the fantasy film, and he was a stage magician. He was a really early director. The movie Hugo, have you seen Hugo? The guy that Ben Kingsley played, that’s supposed to be Méliès. Georges Méliès is the guy who made A Trip to the Moon and all that.

But the thing was, is that before there were movie projectors, there were slide projectors and magic lantern projectors and magicians right away started working with them to try and create an illusion with that and they worked with machinists to – they had to use really good machinists to do a lot of their effects. And so when film came along, it used a lot of the same thinking and magicians knew right away, like, “Oh my God, this is going to be incredible for magic to create this illusion of life and be able to project it. I’ll be able to fool people and make them believe I’ve conjured an angel or a demon or something.” They were all really alert to that, probably more than anyone else because when you think about it – before movies were invented, there was no market for it, you know? Nobody knew that people would care to watch a movie. So the Lumière brothers, the guys who really invented film, they didn’t even realize what to show. They just would show images of a train going by, a kid playing with a ball. The idea of a narrative using film, that pretty much came from Georges Méliès.

FR: Should the United States adopt a national healthcare system similar to the United Kingdom or Canada?

JH: Yeah, I’d like to try a public option. You know, capitalism works really great for a lot of things but not for healthcare because when you have cancer you can’t really bargain shop. So, I think it kind of takes it out of the equation of that. I also think that it’s a great idea that if there was national healthcare, they would spend more time on prevention and demonstrate to people on how to be healthy. There would be more emphasis on that. For instance, explaining to people that you shouldn’t drink a Coke that’s like 45 ounces. It’s not good for you. Some people just don’t get that, and unfortunately, we’re going to have to fit the bill for all these obese people. So, it’s kind of like, it would be great to avoid that.

I’d at least like to try it. I know there are problems. I have a friend who’s a doctor in Canada and he really likes it and it’s different. I went to his office and it’s not like the fancy, art-directed offices in the States. It’s a little different and kind of like going to a church, basically. It’s a little bit different feel, but it’s healthcare. Because it’s free, I think people are more apt to use it before they need it. My impression is that’s the whole trick to this: go before you need it.

FR: If global warming melted the ice caps covering 90 percent of the known world with water, what city would you hope was spared so you could live there?

JH: I guess I’d choose Chicago. It’s awesome. Everybody loves Chicago. I haven’t met a person in my life who didn’t love Chicago. Right? I was in Chicago last weekend, and I was telling my buddies I was going to Chicago and they all kind of smile and nod and go, “Yeah, Chicago’s great.”

FR: If you could change one law — make something that is illegal legal, or something legal illegal — what would it be?

JH: Obviously, legalize marijuana. I don’t use marijuana, but I have friends that do. For their sake, I wish there was more testing on it. Kind of like I wish we knew as much about marijuana as we do about cigarettes. It’s very unsafe right now because it’s illegal, and they’re making it really strong, so I feel like it’s dangerous in that regard. If it was legalized, obviously they’d have some standards on it. They would have to mute it and at least they could do some testing. I think everybody’s impression of it is like the dope from like 25 or 30 years ago, and now it’s really strong (laughs). I just feel like if it was taxed there would be money to test it and just give people awareness about it. It’s like prohibition, you know?

FR: If you weren’t entertaining and had the talent and circumstances to do anything else, what would it be?

JH: That’s a really good question. I don’t know, I don’t have too strong of an opinion about that. I haven’t really thought about it too much. Um…um…yeah, I don’t know. I had to kind of figure this out because this is all I could do, you know what I mean? It’s kind of like I don’t have any one specific thing that really great at, so I kind of had to be a generalist. That’s all I got, but it’s working.

FR: What’s on your playlist right now?

JH: I would have to look at…I don’t know. If I can open Spotify while I’m talking to you [on the phone]. You know, what I was listening to yesterday was Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, and it was the album Freakout. So I was listening to that yesterday, but the thing that got me to that was listening to Adrian Belew, who used to be the guitarist for Frank Zappa and who was also in Tom Tom Club and The Talking Heads. I tend to listen to music when I’m working out, and I tend to listen to music that’s familiar when I’m doing that. I’ll give you an example: it’s Vampire Weekend, it’s Jukebox the Ghost, it’s The National, let me think who else…Prince is on there, Oasis is on there, and…yeah, that’s a good for now. Let’s just leave it at that.


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