Mystery Science Theater's Joel Hodgson on 'Aging Out' of the Show

Joel Hodgson as Joel Robinson, with Tom Servo and Crow, in 'Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live: The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour.' (Brandi Morris)

These days, the act or reacting is everywhere. Twitter is essentially one giant stream of people’s snappy takes on current events. An entire cottage industry of YouTube reaction videos thrives. Twitch allows you to watch thousands of people around the world narrating video games.

Go back in time, though, and you won't find too much in the way of reacting-as-entertainment. That, is, except for Mystery Science Theater 3000, the quirky, groundbreaking TV show that premiered on a small Minnesota TV station in 1988.

The show's premise was wonderfully bizarre: a guy and two robots stuck on a spaceship, forced to watch bad movies and coping by wisecracking their way through the films. Aside from some comic segues, the bad movie was essentially the entirety of the show, plus witty remarks by show creator Joel Hodgson and his two robots, Tom Servo and Crow. It predated even DVD commentary tracks, and presaged the way we consume entertainment today.

A live version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 comes to San Francisco for two nights this weekend. For the diehard, day-one fans, the shows include Hodgson, along with new cast members, mocking terrible films. Hodgson is calling it his last Mystery Science Theater tour—he's been on and off the road since the show was crowdfunded to resurrection on Netflix in 2017—and, in a short phone conversation from the road, he says he means it.

"I'm turning 60 next month," Hodgson says. "My whole job now is to work with the brand and get it ready for the next guy."

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That "next guy" is new host Jonah Ray, who stars in the new Netflix episodes. ("He's just a natural, positive force, and he's amazing in that role," Hodgson says.) But fans will always be particularly attached to Hodgson, who has had three decades of understanding the nerdy cult around the show. On tour, he meets many fans face-to-face, "and they're all super-sweet," he says. "You get a few people who are a little socially awkward, but I'm awkward in my own way, so it kind of works out."

A lifetime of watching bad movies hasn't dulled Hodgson's senses so much that he can't enjoy a good movie; he cites the latest Star Wars film as one he recently enjoyed. But he does find that, when he sees movies with others, some people expect him to rip a movie apart. "It's our job. You try not to bring it with you," Hodgson explains. "And I do feel like we like good movies just as much as bad ones."

For this tour, the films on Mystery Science Theater's sacrificial altar include No Retreat, No Surrender and Circus of Horrors. And if Hodgson is sad about this being his final tour, he doesn't show it.

"I'm pretty happy, and I'm totally thinking about the end of it, for me. You kind of age out of it at a certain point. I'm not going to be one of those guys that's so attached to it that they do it until they take him out in a box."

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' comes to town for three shows, on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco. Details here.