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‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ For the Binge-Watching Era

Jul. 10, 2017
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“Mystery Science Theater 3000” has been through a number of iterations throughout its nearly 30-year run. It premiered on the then-independent KTMA in Minneapolis, Minn., then moved to Comedy Central in 1997, where it ran for seven seasons. The Sci-Fi Channel picked it up, and it ran for three seasons before being cancelled. Then after a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign in 2015, 14 episodes premiered on Netflix in April. “Mystery Science Theater 3000” is now embarking on their first ever tour, where they will stop at the Pabst Theater for a two-show run on Saturday, July 15.

We caught up with creator Joel Hodgson, and talked about creating the show for a binge-watching audience, their record-breaking Kickstarter campaign and more.

What made you want to turn “Mystery Science Theater 3000” into a live performance and take it on tour?

We did “Mystery Science Theater” live back when we were making the show in the 90s. We did a live show in Minneapolis. So that’s always kind of been a part of it. About 10 years ago, I started doing a thing called “Cinematic Titanic,” and we played the Pabst Theater, along with another theater in Milwaukee. We did that for about seven years. That really informed a lot of the way “Mystery Science Theater” is now. When I was trying to bring it back I couldn’t really tell if the best way to bring it back would be a live show or to do a TV show. It happened to work out that we did a TV show, but I was interested in doing a live tour too. 

How do you approach a live show differently than you would a filmed episode?

It’s formatted very similarly, but you have to make some changes. Right now we’re getting all of the props built and all of the robots ready. Everything has to be built so that it lasts six weeks. Our stuff is built a lot more ruggedly than it is for the TV show. Fortunately, a ton of what we do translates to the stage because the Mystery Science Theater is done in camera. So we don’t really have any digital effects. It really lends itself well to the stage. 

Is it different interacting with your fans in a more direct way?

Yeah. You have to write the show differently. There’s this new element, which is the audience and them reacting. You can never anticipate exactly how they’ll react so you have to be ready for that. For example, if they’re laughing over the last riff, and the audience can’t hear the setup for your riff, you have to delay. You’re constantly editing while you’re performing. That’s kind of the art of it. You can’t start saying your line while other people are laughing because you’re robbing them of the reason you’re all there. I think that’s the biggest skill that these riffers have to learn and get used to.

What went into the decision of having two separate shows?

When we are fortunate enough to be in a city on a weekend we can do two different shows. Rather than just repeat the same show twice, which most productions would do, we wanted to offer two different ones. Our fans are diehard fans, and they sometimes travel a long way to get to our shows. So while they’re there we figured why not make it like a little convention, where they can see two different shows. It was just something we built into it. It’s really an experiment. We have no idea. Fortunately, even though we haven’t told people what the second show is, the tickets are selling well. I’m happy that to the audience it doesn’t matter what the movie is. For them it’s not really based on that. It’s more based on what we’re doing with it.

What was it like funding the show’s reboot through Kickstarter?

That was again kind of predicated on my experience doing “Cinematic Titanic.” I got to meet so many people, and we would sign autographs after the show. I’d bet I shook hands with 30,000 people, and I performed in front of 100,000 people over those five or six years. I started calculating that if the average person who’s coming to see “Cinematic Titanic,” which is kind of like a table read of “Mystery Science Theater,” were willing to come and get a babysitter, buy dinner and buy tickets, they were probably spending around $100 to go see the show. I thought that if those people wanted 12 new episodes of “Mystery Science Theater” they might be willing to pay that same amount. It was based on that. I was probably a little naïve, but we were really fortunate because we were able to raise enough money to do 14 episodes. It incidentally turned out to be the largest crowdfunded campaign in film or video history.

How did it feel when you found that out?

It was amazing and I was just really enthused and happy about it. It’s just one of those funny things where we had enough people who had a good experience with the show and wanted to see it come back. 

And after you got funding through Kickstarter you partnered with Netflix. Do you approach making the show differently in the binge-watching era?

It did affect the show. For example, we had to make all of the shows at once. That had some advantages. When I first started “Mystery Science Theater” we made the shows one at a time, and there are some advantages when you organize a show this way. There are definitely some cost advantages, and thematically you’re able to look at the entire season. This season was the first time that I ever attempted to put any theme within the context of the season. This season has a beginning, middle and an end to it. I think that affected my thinking on this. I don’t know how quickly people will watch it. I don’t know if they’ll watch it once a week, or sit down and watch them all in a weekend. I have no idea. The good thing is this is the first time I think that people are watching them in order. I think that back in the day when we made the show I never presumed people were watching it from one week to the next. 

There’s a new host this time around. How does he compare to when you were hosting the show?

Oh my goodness! He’s super talented. He can do everything I can do and way more. He’s a really good actor. He grew up watching “Mystery Science Theater,” and he’s really talented. So I’m just so grateful. He’s really fun to write with. He’s really fun to work with. He has a great attitude. He made it really easy. As you can imagine, if people are so willing to put in over $6 million to bring back this show, they must really care about it and have strong opinions about it. There hasn’t been a single person who has said that they don’t like Jonah. Across the board, even the people from the original cast let me know they really like Jonah as the new host. That was encouraging.  

You can purchase tickets to the show here

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