Push the Button Frank! An Interview with the Creators of Mystery Science Theater (Mania.com)
Date: Tuesday, October 28, 2008
The venerable Mystery Science Theater: 3000 celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, and to commemorate the event, Rhino Productions has released a boxed set of four select episodes, heretofore unavailable on DVD. As part of the promotion for the set, three of the show's most influential figures—creator/star Joel Hodgson, producer/puppeteer Jim Mallon, and Trace Beaulieu who played both the evil Dr. Clayton Forrester and the redoubtable Crow T. Robot—sat down to talk with Mania.com.
Question: You've talked quite a bit over the years about how the show got started, but what about the proclivities and inclinations before then? How did the seeds of this thing come to germinate?
Joel Hodgson: There were a lot of happy accidents that kind of came together that allowed it to happen. The beginning of Mystery Science Theater was different than what it became. Obviously, when we all started working together, the energy and the collective attitude affected the course of it. I always have to preface it by saying this: it didn't come just from me. It came from all of us.
When I left L.A. after doing stand-up, I wasn't sure what I would do. I was really sick of show business, I was really sick of Hollywood, and I didn't think there was any place for me. I quit doing stand-up and started doing these other jobs in Minneapolis . . . and started making these robot sculptures out of found objects. That's where Jim and I met, because we were in the same warehouse space. He was working on his movie, and I was building props for other people and just trying to figure out what I should be doing with myself. I guess I thought in the back of my mind that I'd like to do a local TV show. Maybe a kids show, because I grew up with those, or hosting a monster movie show. That was kind of the germ of the idea.
I also remember working on this idea called You Are Here, which was about this guy after the apocalypse. It was kind of like that moment in The Omega Man where Charlton Heston is watching Woodstockand talking to the screen. So I sort of thought that I would do that on this show: I'm this guy after the apocalypse and I'm sending out messages that are movies or shows or something. And I drew a robot, Rex the Robot, who would be my assistant, and that was kind of it.
Later on, Jim approached me and I realized that he had resources. He was making TV in Minneapolis; he and Kevin [Murphy] had made all these shows at KTMA. I realized that You Are Here was not too dire of an idea, so I pitched him this other notion. It was kind of like Silent Running, the old Douglas Trumbull movie—Bruce Dern is this sort of hippie in outer space with these three robots. The only other concept I had was the theater seat thing with the guy and the robots in silhouette watching the movie. He would be like a companion: this guy will watch the movie with you, and his robots will come in and bring him popcorn or say stuff. Maybe one of two of them would sit with him.
It wasn't what it became, which is this barrage of 500, 600, 700 jokes a movie. It was softer, and to me that was a really radical concept: this companion would watch the movie with you. And that's kind of where we started. Then it was just our attitude when we all came together. It was just this shared thing that kind of took on a life of its own. We did 22 shows locally and we had a fan club and an answering machine. We started to realize that the more we talked, the more people liked the show. So finally when we got paid to do it—there was a period of about six months between KTMA and when we are able to do it full time—that's when it all came together. We were able to write it, which was the first time we actually sat down and figured out the concept of using a time code and figuring out little skits to write. It was this perfect way to develop an idea: it was this kind of Skunk Works that was off the radar, but which people were still seeing on this little UHF channel. So there was no pressure—a great way to build this little thing that just kind of came out of nowhere.
Q: How did you guys originally divvy up the characters? Was there a sense of, "oh, there's the mad scientist, he'll be great for Trace," or something else?
JH: It was super-organic. I mean with the first pilot, I don't even think that the Mads were a part of it.
Jim Mallon: They came in about three or four episodes in.
JH: It kind of came out of the theme song. That's all we knew; there were these two guys in paper jumpsuits and they had hair nets. They were lab rats more than mad scientists.
Trace Beaulieu: They were crouched behind an audio board or some kind of television screen. It was really random, it just fit in with the theme song. "His bosses didn't like him, so they shot him into space." We didn't have Deep 13 right away either. We had the editing bay, which was our science fiction mad scientist lab. There wasn't as much interaction between Joel and the Mads. They were sending the movies, but it wasn't until the theme song solidified that it really took off.
JH: That kind of fell to Trace and Josh [Weinstein]. They started developing the Mads. With the robots, it was the same sort of synergy. I made these robots and I set them on a table and Josh—a very ambitious sixteen-year-old—grabbed two robots, and Trace grabbed Crow, and that's how that happened. The first version of Servo was a baby robot named Beeper, and we could tell that that one wasn't happening. I remember popping the head off and putting the Tom Servo head on it, but we didn't know too much about the character at the time. At first Josh did a voice that was kind of like Pee-Wee Herman. Then he kind of got sick of it and dropped into the FM dee-jay kind of voice that Servo ended up becoming.
JM: I think Joel was thinking that the Mads just interrupted the movie transmission, like Space Ghost. I was sitting down with of the guys at the TV station, explaining what I was up to. His head started to hurt and he said, "you gotta make a theme song to simplify this thing." It was a nice way to explain this elaborate concept very, very simply.
JH: And I think the theme set a new tone for the show. It's musical and buoyant and it has puppets and science fiction, and all of these things. I remember Jim explaining that, like Gilligan's Island, we needed a theme song to tell the story. Again, if left to my own devices, I never would have got to that. It was all of us percolating on this in our different ways, and then just workshopping it like an improv class. Except we were broadcasting it and people were watching it and we were getting feedback.
We got this really charming letter from this kid who was like nine years old. He had his own stationary, "From the Brain of Mark." He came to the set and we put him in the show: we set him up against the green screen and I gave him these big inflatable hands. That was kind of the mood at the time. We were really open and could throw a nine-year-old on the show just like that. If it were a typical pilot, we'd have to figure all this out in about six weeks and have one chance to pull it off. I don't think that would have been possible because it's such a different kind of show.
Q: Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, says he has the best kind of celebrity because he can go about his day anonymously, but if he ever wants attention, he can just slip people the Homer voice. Do you guys ever have moments like that, where people will recognize you just by using Crow's voice or Gypsy's voice?
TB: I rarely get recognized because I was in a lot of make-up. But when I travel with Frank [Conniff], we get noticed. Frank is the logo, he's the character that people recognize. And then they hunt around for the rest of us. "Well there's one, so there might be more of them."
JM: One of the pleasures with the series was that we had success, but we didn't have gigantic success like, say, South Park. That really affected quality of life. We could stay in Minnesota and I think the networks demanded, at most, twelve days a year for publicity and promotion. So our quality of life was really excellent, and yet we had enough cache to get to some of the award shows and the like. We could get a taste of Hollywood without having to live in LA or pay the dues of a very successful show, where they really demand a big chunk of your life.
Q: Do you guys have favorite episodes? Anything where you really thought nailed it?
JM: Some just seem to lend themselves to the process better. Stuff with goofy rubber monsters or just plain visual silliness that can be entertaining on its own. That meant that Joel and Trace and the boys didn't have to carry the load 100% of the time. Episodes like those Herculesmovies, where it's big and dubbed, and there's rampant steroid use and horses pulling wagons. All that lends itself naturally to comedy. Then there are other episodes which are really talky or slow, or don't have much going on in sections, and those were much tougher.
Q: There's a lot of enthusiasm among sci-fi fans for the show and yet, on some level, Mystery Science Theater kind of makes fun of sci-fi. It's mocking the things the fans love. Do you have some insight on why that is?
JH: I think it's just because the world of sci-fi is a little more sophisticated, and they understand that there are parts of the genre that don't work. It makes the stuff that does work that much more special. We're so lucky that we happened to set the show with a science fiction theme. Sci-fi fans are very loyal and very organized. That really helped propel a lot of this. If we had gotten some other theme—a mystery or a western—it just wouldn't have meant anything. Again, it's another happy accident, where it fit into this genre.
TB: And we're fans too. We love sci-fi and I think that shows. It's like the way you can tease a good friend and it's okay, because he knows it's affectionate. You have to love something to really make fun of it properly.