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30 years of riffing: ‘MST3K’ celebrates milestone, Midwest roots with live show

Jonah Ray (left) and Joel Hodgson with two very familiar bots to fans of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." | Courtesy "MST3K"

Jonah Ray (left) and Joel Hodgson with two very familiar bots to fans of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." | Courtesy "MST3K"

For the past thirty years, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” has riffed and poked fun at all kinds of poorly made b-movies. While the cable TV series has seen its fair share of minor changes over the years (and some host changes), the show’s concept has largely remained the same: The show’s host, who is trapped by mad scientists against his will, is forced to watch the films with robots Tom Servo and Crow T Robot. They make the most of the opportunity by making fun of what they’re watching.

Show creator Joel Hodgson, who played original host Joel Robinson, feels the show wouldn’t be what it is without its Midwest roots.

“We’re either from Illinois, Wisconsin or Minnesota,” says Hodgson. “All first-generation writers. So that was a big part of what we referenced and talked about.”

‘MST3K’ 30th Anniversary Tour
When: “The Brain” 7 p.m. and “Deathstalker II” 10 p.m., Nov. 16
Where: Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport
Price: $42.50-$52.50
Info: athenaeumtheatre.org

Hodgson grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he found his love for entertaining others with comedy and theater performance. He continued honing his passion for entertainment in Minneapolis during college.

While he later moved out west to Los Angeles to pursue various opportunities, he would return years later with the idea for “MST3K.” The show first aired in 1988 on KTMA-TV (now WUCW) in Minneapolis.

“It was a very abstract idea 30 years ago,” Hodgson recalls. “It’s still hard to explain. The way we made the pilot was to actually make a short version of the show to explain it to the station manager. That’s really the concept of the show. It didn’t work as a script. I didn’t think it made sense as a script, so we went ahead and made it.”

The first sign of success came in the form of a phone machine filled to the brim with positive messages.

“We set up a phone machine and put the number up on TV,” says Hodgson. “In the morning it was filled with comments from people who had seen it and really liked it.”

The show would later air on The Comedy Channel (1989–1991), Comedy Central (1991–96) and The Sci-Fi Channel (1997–99). Last year the show made its return on Netflix with new host Jonah Heston (played by Jonah Ray). It remains one of the most watched shows on Netflix.

Following its return on air, “MST3K” made its transition to the live stage. This year, Hodgson is upping the ante for a 40-plus date tour to celebrate 30 years. For the first time since 1993, Hodgson will revive his character and don the familiar red jump suit. He will co-host the live shows with Ray.

Behind the scenes at "Mystery Science Theater 3000" with Joel Hodgson (from left), director Robert Cohen and Jonah Ray. | Photo by Darren Michaels © 2016/ Courtesy "MST3K"

Behind the scenes at “Mystery Science Theater 3000” with Joel Hodgson (from left), director Robert Cohen and Jonah Ray. | Photo by Darren Michaels © 2016/ Courtesy “MST3K”

“It just made a lot of sense since it’s the 30th anniversary and we figured why not have the original guy and the new guy, the earliest and latest guys spanning 30 years,” says Hodgson.

So how will the two hosts co-exist? A riff-off, suggests Hodgson. “We have a competitive element that we go through, an actual riff competition,” he says.

“It’s a really different experience than the TV show,” he adds. “It’s very live and different every night. It’s a living thing so it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen. It’s very interactive. There is lots of audience interaction.”

The live show also features longtime improvisers and Second City alumni Rebecca Hanson and Tim Ryder. Ryder does the voice of Tom Servo while Hanson is the voice of Gypsy and plays the role of Synthia, the clone of Pearl Forrester.

For the Chicago stop, there will be screenings of “The Brain” and “Deathstalker II,” two movies not yet shown on the TV show. The shows feature all new riffs as well as hilarious sketches.

“They fit the profile for ‘Mystery Science Theater,’ which is basically these adorable, kind of forgotten movies,” says Hodgson. “’The Brain’ is a Canadian movie from 1988. It’s got this man-eating brain taking over a city in Canada. ‘Deathstalker II’ is a fantasy movie with wizards and creatures.”

While audience members will have to wait to find out what references get used to poke fun at the movies, Hodgson promises a peppering of Chicago references. Previous TV episodes referenced things like the Museum of Science and Industry. “We love Chicago,” he says.

The live show is a primer for the new season of “MST3K,” which will premiere November 22, exactly 30 years to the date of the show’s first episode. The new season will feature six episodes.

“We’re feeling more comfortable and having more fun with it,” says Hodgson. “We felt like last season we stuck the landing and people were pretty happy with it and they liked the new cast and the new writers. Everything went good. We’re much more relaxed doing it this time.”

Hodgson is grateful people still like his creation all these years later.

“It’s my own creative art form,” he says. “So, I really love and am thankful that people like it enough to keep it going after 30 years. It’s a job I was born to do.”

Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.