Mr. Beaks Talks to the MST3K Best Brains Trust!! Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu & Jim Mallon Speak, Memory!!
Look, I've interviewed some of the biggest movie stars on the planet (Will Smith, George Clooney, Maury Chaykin), and I'm never nervous. But put me in a room with Joel Hodgson, Jim Mallon and Trace Beaulieu, and out comes the awestruck seventeen-year-old who used to wake up early on Saturday mornings to watch the first broadcast of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 and then re-watch it later that evening to catch all the jokes he laughed through the first time.
For dedicated MSTies, the twentieth anniversary reunion of the entire MST3K crew at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con was bigger than WATCHMEN or WOLVERINE (Joel and Mike in the same room is a total "dogs and cats living together" scenario). So when I was offered a 1:3 sit-down with the show's big three, I got unreasonably excited. These guys are my comedy heroes; for two hours every week, they were the smarty-pants alternative to uninspired sitcoms and generally lousy "half-hour comedy hours". Perhaps I'm being selective in recollecting the era, but it was pretty much MST3K, THE SIMPSONS, and... nothing else, really (until LARRY SANDERS turned up in late 1992).
Like most MSTies, I accumulated a massive tape collection (most of which was lost to The Great Basement Flood of 2006), and it was through this that I indoctrinated many friends and acquaintances into the cult of riffing. If I was overbearing in my enthusiasm, it's only because I desperately needed a circle of fellow travelers who understood the crap-flinging brilliance of TIME OF THE APES. I wanted people to know the glory of Ator, to be the "Chief?" to my "McCloud!!!", to share in the 'tarded magic of Torgo. As luck would have it, I avoided institutionalization.
So consider this my embarrassingly gushing way of saying "Thanks". Commence "The Chris Farley Show"...
Beaks: It's crazy to see you guys here together. I can't believe it's been nearly twenty years since I subscribed to the newsletter.
Jim: Do you remember you fan club number?
Beaks: (Sigh) No.
Joel: Then we can't talk to you.
Jim: It helps us gauge what kind of fan you are. But please, don't let us stop you.
Beaks: Obviously, when you started this twenty years ago, you couldn't have seen this acquiring the massive cult following it has today.
Joel: I said this earlier today, and I think it's true: when you start a TV show, you're hoping that it's going to work and that it'll be big. But this is clearly beyond that. Time is being nice to Mystery Science Theater. Twenty years later, we still have lots of fans, and we've sold lots of DVDs... people are still interested in it.
Beaks: And you've got Peabody Awards to throw around.
Jim: Also, you have to keep in mind we started in the days of tape. DVDs didn't even exist. So that's part of the future we'd have to imagine, which we couldn't possibly know.
Beaks: I remember you used to have the "Keep Circulating the Tapes" message at the end of the credits.
Joel: We don't tell people to do that anymore.
Jim: In lieu of the internet, that was a way of getting the show known. Comedy Central, and its forefathers, probably only had eight million households in the beginning. So by having people record the show and share it with their friends and family, it was a way, in an age without YouTube, to get the show out there.
Joel: It was our way of saying, "I want my MST."
Beaks: I remember the show getting really big as I was headed off to college, and it was cool to encounter people who had brought their own tapes to school. And noticing which tapes were well worn...
Jim: So you didn't attend class very much.
Beaks: No, I just watched POD PEOPLE all day.
Trace: (Laughing) Oh, god.
Beaks: MST3K turned heckling movies into an art, but there are some people who feel that it gave kids an excuse to ridicule any and every movie they go to. Do you feel any pangs of guilt over that?
Trace: No. People were heckling movies before we were doing it. In the theaters. Where it's not appropriate.
Joel: We only take credit for the funny ones. If somebody does it and they're really good at it, that's okay. But if they're not funny, we didn't have anything to do with it.
Beaks: Any movies you feel you were too hard on?
Jim: Good question. We were pretty rough on... what was the Joe Don Baker film?
Trace and Joel: MITCHELL.
Jim: But remember, one of the very first scenes was Joe Don passed out drunk in the back of a cab, and our comment was, "Ladies and gentlemen, the hero of our movie." I don't know if we could've been too hard. That movie deserved it.
Beaks: THIS ISLAND EARTH is acknowledged as a great Sci-Fi... well, "B" Sci-Fi movie.
Trace: It's not like we've drawn a mustache on the "Mona Lisa". The original version still exists; if you want to enjoy the movie, it's still there. What we've done is a treatment to it, and that exists as a separate entity. So I think those people should just... (considering his words) stop saying that.
Joel: It would be one thing if we did our treatment to a movie, and, in the process, the original got shredded and you could never see it again. Then you'd have a complaint. But, like Trace says, the original still exists. You can watch it however you prefer.
Jim: You know, you can be honest and tell us you're a huge fan of THIS ISLAND EARTH.
Beaks: (At a loss...)
Jim: Go ahead. It's only us in this room.
Jim: You liked Brack, right? You liked the big heads.
Beaks: I like the creature design, yes. I...
Jim: You can be honest about it.
Beaks: I admire it as a kid.
Jim: Go ahead.
Beaks: No, the only ones that really pissed me off were the Gamera movies. How dare you.
Joel: Now it comes out. Now we hear it.
Beaks: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 came about at a time when there was a dearth of smart comedy. It was comedy that was proud of being well-read. It wasn't afraid of obscure references.
Joel: We could work both sides of the street with the show because there was such a need for riffs to get through [a movie]. So I think we had an equal number of smart and dumb riffs in the series of a show. We had a big palette of things that we could use, and that was just one of them. But if it was just smart stuff, I don't think people would've liked it as much.
Beaks: But there was never a concern with going to obscure with the references. You didn't have to worry about your audience.
Jim: That is true. There was something like over 700 comments per film, so there was space to put in some very obscure references. We did do some comments that only a half-dozen people would figure out. But at the same time, we did do some broad stuff. If it was a half-hour sitcom, where you've really got to be careful going through that short time period with how you're going to scale the size of your audience depending on the type of material you're writing,... but [in MST3K] there was room for everything.
Beaks: I also remember the number of comments increasing after the first few seasons.
Joel: Well, we got paid to do it. That had a big impact. When we did KTMA, we only spent a day making an entire show; we never watched a movie before we riffed on it. When we were doing the first season, we were getting a company running, a production running, building a studio and building sets ourselves... that took it's toll, too. We were probably in the 300-joke range our first year. But once we got acclaim, that gave us license to really let ourselves go. That's why, during that second season, I think we really hit our stride. That's when we were doing those shows that had 400 to 600 riffs in them.
Jim: Trace, I was just watching [the episode] where you did that focus group bit.
Trace: Oh, yes. The movie pain.
Jim: A lot of the show was working through the pain we were going through at the time. We had just brought [MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE] through a focus group, and it was one of the most painful experiences I'd ever gone through in my life. And Trace played a focus group coordinator... it was just a way of working through the pain.
Trace: Well, we had seen the guy do it. The guy was such a character, and the questions are written almost like jokes. The focus group... for my money, it's a ridiculous device to use. People had seen us screen the movie, with people laughing all the way through it... how often do you see that? And then this focus group guy starts to dissect it. "Well, what didn't you like?"
Jim: "Who's your favorite character? Good, good. Now, who's your least favorite character?" Well, we've got five. Who are you going to pick?
Trace: It's Sophie's Choices.
Beaks: Were they thinking about cutting a character out?
Jim: They were just reflexive in terms of this is what they always do with that process. From my experience, it's a very joyless process. It wasn't about how we're unique; it was about what we were, in their world, as a film product. We had done 100-plus episodes by that point, so we had a pretty clear idea. If you hired REM to do something, and you started asking, "Okay, let's talk about R.E.M.! What should we be?" It was a little dispiriting.
Beaks: Have you ever enjoyed the same kind of freedom in comedy writing that you had while you were writing MST3K?
Jim: Before we did MYSTERY SCIENCE, Joel and I worked on stuff where we were completely our own bosses. But I think that cuts a couple of ways: sometimes total freedom can be bad; it's sometimes helpful to have boundaries to what you're doing. But this is the only experience where I've had that kind of freedom.
Joel: Trace and I have done stuff after MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER, and it's really different in Hollywood, having someone who's paying you and, really, they're kind of the middle man to go, "Well, I'm going to take this product from this writer, and show it to the person who's going to pay for it." There's a lot of second guessing, and a lot of questions that totally take you out of the moment and take you out of the fun of it. I just have to say that I've never had a writing experience like [MST3K], that's as much fun and as uninhibited since then. It's just the culture of Hollywood, where they just... have to supervise everyone. We didn't have that.
Trace: It's a different kind of writing, too, working on AMERICA'S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS. That was broadcasting. The jokes have to cover an enormous geographic area; everyone has to get it. That's not what we were restricted to on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER. We could be obscure. In fact, we tried to be as obscure as we could be at times. But with a network show... the comment I got that really ticked me off the most was "No one in the Midwest will get this". It's like, "Why I'm from the Midwest!!!."
Best part of that final comment: Trace expressed his exasperation in his Crow voice. Year = made.
The MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 20th Anniversary DVD set is out October 28, 2008.