by Chaz Kangas
Our favorite cult comedy about robots in space riffing on cheesy movies recently celebrated its silver anniversary. That's right, it's been 25 years since Mystery Science Theater 3000 hit the airwaves, and recently, archivist label Shout Factory released the 29th volume of episodes from the cult-favorite show.
Michael Kienitz Joel Hodgson
We spoke to creator and star Joel Hodgson about its classic music moments, from its iconic theme to the best Christmas song ever written about Road House.
RFT Music:Congratulations on 25 years of Mystery Science Theater 3000! It's been great how big of a part music has played on your show.
Joel Hodgson:There was a 25th anniversary event in Chicago, and there was a similar question about "How did you figure that you could drop in references that were really broad that they'd never expect to hear on TV?" The way I got to that was in the ether in the '70s. I remember George Harrison's song "Crackerbox Palace" which was a Top-40 song at the time, in that song he references Madeline Khan in Blazing Saddles when she goes "it's true! it's true!" He said that, and I thought, "Holy shit, George Harrison watched Mel Brooks movies!" That kind of was the motive.
Also, I got to talk to Frank Zappa before he died. I asked him, "What's it like to hear us reference your music?" And he goes, "It's very unsettling." I thought that was pretty funny.
The latest Shout DVD release of the show, the 25th Anniversary Collection, features the documentary called Return to Eden Prairie, which surprised me to find out Crow's name comes from a song reference, too.
Yeah, that's from Jim Carrol's Catholic Boy. It's a great New York kind of album that's perfectly timed right around 1978, my freshman year of college when music was reinventing itself. There's a song on there called "Crow", and I felt that that song was the embodiment of what I wanted this character to be. I also liked the idea of a robot having a Native American name. In the Midwest, where I'm from, there's a lot of Native Americans, and I had a best friend in college who had a friend named Tom Crow. And I thought that was so cool.
During the formative years, were there any other bits of musical inspiration that impacted the show?
Well, obviously "Satellite of Love" is from Lou Reed. And, I just thought the song had such a strange quality to it, so I really wanted to drop a reference to Lou Reed; he launched so many ships musically. Also, "Rocket Number 9," which was the motivated camera whenever you saw an establishing shot of the ship, was obviously a reference to Sun Ra.
The silhouettes also came from the Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album too, right?
Absolutely. Each song on that album has an illustration, so it's this old big double album with these lavish pencil drawings to kind of set the mood, kind of like Sgt. Pepper. There's this one illustration for a song called "I've Seen the Movie Too," with the silhouette of a man and woman touching each other while watching a movie, and I remember exactly where I was in high school when I first saw it. I was at my friend Mike Wilkenson's house, and we were working on the homecoming float. All these kids were there, and we were playing that album. I remember seeing that and saying, "You could green screen this and have people there saying stuff." I took a field trip to the local TV station and kind of understood how green screen works. It would probably be pretty easy, but nobody was giving out development deals to high school students in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the '70s so I just kind of kept it in my pocket. I was in a position after being a comic on Letterman and Saturday Night Live to make a show, so that's what I pulled out.
Continue to page two. At what point did you come up with the iconic theme?
I imagined the show of the guy in this satellite with his robots watching these movies as kind of a pirate radio station. There's something about that concept -- like in Europe where they would just go on ships and broadcast -- I've always loved that. I wanted to be, like, a guy who was circling the Earth and he's breaking into your TV channel. After the pilot, someone suggested that it was hard to understand, so why didn't [we] write a theme song? I got together with Josh Weinstein and we wrote the lyrics. That's where the concept really came together; that's where the Mads came from and the idea they were showing these movies. After the third episode, I got together with my girlfriend's cousin, a guy name Charlie Erickson, who's a great composer and musician. I kind of knew him well enough to sing to him what I thought it was, and thought of it like "...in the warm California sun." He just kind of transposed it right there on the keyboard and made it a better song. We tried to mimic Devo and the Replacements, production-wise, and I was doing my best to sing like Paul Westerberg.
Do you have any favorite music reference you've made?
There is one, and I couldn't tell you the movie, but there's a drunk in the movie, which is always kind of a mainstay, because a drunk sees a flying saucer and throws away his bottle because he thinks he's seeing things. There's one where this guy is just pounding whatever was in his flask, and we made him say, "Any world that I'm welcome to is better than the one I come from." That's just a particular favorite because it made everybody laugh in the room, and I felt proud that I could drop in a lyric that I just felt was so eclectic.
One of my favorite episodes is "Pod People," which shows off the show's musical chops both in parodying the movie's music as well as the original song "Clown in the Sky."
Thanks so much, I'm so proud of that. I love the sketch when we do "Idiot Control Now," and it's one of my favorites because it's the only time we're collaborating with the Mads. We're doing the sketch all together, and I just watched it recently and was blown away because they don't get along or do any thing together, so for them to work together felt like a Bugs Bunny moment.
I'm also proud of the Anthony Newley reference in "Clown in the Sky." It was just like putting out Easter eggs all the time for people. It was just in the air when I was growing up, and when it became clear that movie riffing worked and people liked it, there was so much space for it. We had to do 700 to 800 riffs, and that meant there was room for everybody to put in things they wanted to, and it just worked somehow. And now, thanks to the Internet, people can look stuff up if they're confused about it.
The secret to movie riffing is that there isn't as much heat on it as a sketch show or a standup, where every joke has to count and carry all its weight. It's not the same with movie riffing, because there's so much of it. Also, I love "Clown in the Sky" so much because it was really about us, the writers and the people who made [the show]. Over time, I'm really proud of that.
What made you decide to first put original music in the show?
I think a lot of that came from The Muppets. When you watch The Muppets, they have a ton of music, and some of that goes with puppets, but that's the environment we all came from. All of us were audiophiles who were interested in music. When I was in high school, the only reason I went to the library was to read Rolling Stone magazine. We all brought stuff to the table about music we liked and different skills. Also, we found ourselves singing along to the movies like "He Tried to Kill Me with a Forklift." It's such a natural thing to, instead of riffing, to sing along with the soundtrack of the movie and insert jokes there, and that lends itself to doing more in the host segment.
Over the past 25 years, do you recall which songs have had the biggest fan reactions?
Well, I've got to say "Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas" has clearly taken on a life of its own. People love that; I think people view it as an antidote to too much Christmas when you get bogged down listening to "Deck the Halls" too many times. One that I really loved was, a Mike, Bill and Kevin episode, at the end of "Werewolf" where in the credit sequence they do a medley of all the songs that the backbeat kind of sounds like. That one just really blew me away.
You performed some of the original music during the MST3K Live shows in the early '90s. Was it a challenge performing those songs live?
I remember mostly doing "Satellite of Love," and changing the lyrics to "I've been told that you've been bold with Gypsy, Crow and Tom." That's the only music I really remember doing in that show and, fortunately, Lou Reed's in my range, so I could do it.
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