Kickstarter campaign underway to bring back MST3K

Anticipation and controversy hits the net as Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson hits Kickstarter to reboot groundbreaking film parody TV series.

Latest MST3K Kickstarter update splashscreen.

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2015 – Longtime Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans have flooded social media sites this month to express their views regarding Joel Hodgson’s recently-launched effort to reboot that legendary comedy series. catches the mood:

“Ever since original Mystery Science Theater 3000 co-creator Joel Hodgson announced his Kickstarter campaign to create new episodes of the seminal geeky-late-night, movie-riffing television series, fans everywhere have been giddy with excitement. The Kickstarter has already made enough to do a few episodes, with hopefully more to be unlocked as the campaign’s monetary total grows.”

Joel and the Bots. Video still from early episode of MST3K on Comedy Central. (Via Kickstarter, other sites)
Joel and the Bots. Video still from early episode of MST3K on Comedy Central. (Via Kickstarter, other sites)

MST3K back in the day

A mainstay on the 1990s cable TV menu, MST3K, as it’s known to its fans, was permanently canceled by the SyFy Channel in 1999. Having cleared a number of longstanding legal issues regarding rights to the original MST3K, including its concept and format, Hodgson apparently thinks it’s about time to revive that popular series, many episodes of which continue to circulate widely today in a variety of formats. It’s for that reason that he’s launched his Kickstarter campaign, geared toward raising enough capital—in 2015 dollars—to relaunch the series with a new cast and an updated format.

Back in the late 1980s, Hodgson, MST3K’s creator, teamed with producer Best Brains, Inc. to pilot the original concept as a locally-originated and hosted movie and comedy filler series to air on Minneapolis TV channel KTMA.

For years, stretching back to late 1950s TV, Great Lakes and Midwest television stations cherished a longstanding tradition of filling otherwise unoccupied or un-contracted late-night and weekend air time with cheap, low budget movies.

Often featuring shoddily made, eminently forgettable horror films that local outlets could license for a song, these shows were typically hosted by station staffers already on the payroll. The hometown hosts would don costumes and portray goofy or ghostly characters who added value by poking fun at these awful movies during studio and commercial breaks.

Ernie Anderson as Cleveland TV's "Ghoulardi," an early pioneer of local TV movie trashtalking comedy shows. (Via Wikipedia)
Ernie Anderson as Cleveland TV’s “Ghoulardi,” an early pioneer of local TV movie trashtalking comedy shows. (Via Wikipedia)

In the early 1960s on Cleveland TV channel WJW, Ernie Anderson—aka, “Ghoulardi”—was one of the early and wildly popular pioneers of this concept which spread throughout the Midwest and elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s. His edgy, beatnik-inspired character spawned a generation of Midwest TV imitators.

Shows of this nature inspired Hodgson to come up with his unique, updated concept, in which a hapless, low-level factory worker-bee—Hodgson himself—was purposely stranded out on a deep-space satellite by a mad corporate scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester.

Joel was then forced, as an “experiment,” to watch terrible movies week after week, aided and abetted by a small team of robots—Gypsy, Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo and the rarely-seen Cambot—that he’d created onboard not only to keep him company but to trash the worthless science fiction and horror films he was being forced to watch.

Like its predecessors, MST3K too breaks from each film to air comedy skits that often intersected with the plots or characters in each week’s film. But what made MST3K unique was that Hodgson’s episodes kept the jokes and snarky comments flying even as each movie aired. MST3K’s signature device displayed live silhouettes of Joel and two of his ‘bots seated in a row of movie seats at the bottom of the TV screen, gesturing wildly and trashing each film nonstop.

Within a few weeks of its 1988 debut, Hodgson’s show was a hit on Minneapolis TV. But for a variety of reasons, KTMA abruptly canceled the show. Hodgson and Best Brains got lucky, quickly finding a new national cable home on the then-new and still program-hungry Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central). Similar to the experience at KTMA, MST3K and its cheesy but funny Minnesota sets soon became the Comedy Channel’s earliest hit.

Trace Beaulieu, MST3K's original mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester at a 2008 comic-con. (Via Wikipedia)
Trace Beaulieu, MST3K’s original mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester at a 2008 comic-con. (Via Wikipedia)

After a few Comedy Channel seasons, Hodgson left the series, purportedly due to creative issues. He turned over hosting duties to the series’ head writer, Mike Nelson who headlined the show for the remainder of its original run. Robot voices, villains and mad scientists also evolved over the years, as the series remained a popular hit.

Comedy Central unceremoniously jettisoned MST3K in 1997. But, in response to a huge groundswell of fan outrage, the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) picked the series back up, airing new MST3K episodes for three more seasons before also cutting it loose in 1999. That final cut marked the end of the road for MST3K. More or less.

MST3K in the wilderness

After the show’s final cancellation, Mike Nelson, along with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (who voiced Servo and Crow in later MST3K episodes) decided to relocate from Minnesota to Hollywood. There, for many years, they’ve hosted live bad movie riff shows under the banner of RiffTrax, building new audiences on their earlier popularity and success.

As for MST3K, the show’s half-life has yet to expire. Many shows are still available to viewers and fans in a variety of formats. Netflix, for example, offers many of the vintage shows on DVD, though some of the most popular movie episodes—like “Mitchell,” a notorious 1975 detective stinker starring Joe Don Baker—can be hard to get. (It’s current footnote: “Long wait.”)

Echoing the “Mitchell” problem, and largely to interlocking legal, copyright and royalty issues, new fans and old have frequently been frustrated, however, in attempts to find, purchase or stream their favorite MST3K episodes.

Joel Hodgson explaining Kickstarter effort to reboot MST3K. (Via Kickstarter)
Joel Hodgson explaining Kickstarter effort to reboot MST3K. (Via Kickstarter)

Hodgson’s new Kickstarter effort

But launched this month after teaming with Shout! Factory, the company that makes many of the old shows available in home video format (and more recently via streaming video), Hodgson’s Kickstarter initiative, if successful, could not only help ease these issues regarding the old series, but could help re-launch the show’s proposed new episodes successfully by building on its old but still faithful fan base. A recent article in Variety highlights some key details of the new relationship:

“With the new deal, negotiated by Shout’s David McIntosh, Shout! Factory now has the proprietary rights the ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ from Best Brains, Inc., including all brand assets and global intellectual property. The media company is partnering with Hodgson and his company Alternaversal, LLC on future endeavors surrounding the ‘MST3K’ brand, including plans for new content development, digital media initiatives, live events, merchandise licensing programs and content syndication to international territories.”

Is Jonah Ray headed off to exile on the Satellite of Love? (Via Wikipedia)
Is Jonah Ray headed off to exile on the Satellite of Love? (Via Wikipedia)

New MST3K cast members

Hodgson has provided updates on his Kickstarter site, indicating that the proposed new MST3K would launch with a new cast of characters, including a new host, “Jonah Heston,” to be played by Jonah Ray according to Nerdbastards. “You may have heard some of his Nerdist podcasts” notes the site, also adding

“In a recent update, Hodgson announced that Felicia Day has been hand-picked to play the new Mad Scientist ‘token bad guy’ in the MST3K reboot… Day’s character, Kinga Forrester, is the daughter of classic-series villain Dr. Clayton Forrester, but not much else has been released about her character yet, other than that she will be ‘someone who could be both comedic and threatening…and if possible, both at the same time,’ according to Hodgson on the MST3K Kickstarter update page. Hodgson goes on to say:

“‘I don’t remember where I first saw Felicia, but I remember knowing right away that there was something really interesting about her: both the way she looked and the way she behaved. She was beautiful, and yet, so capable of being character-y too: I suppose that makes her ‘adorkable.’” 

More interesting Nerdbastards tidbits:

“You probably recognize Day from 2008’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, where she played the titular character’s love interest. More recently, she’s been stealing more geek hearts with her stints on Supernatural, Eureka, and The Guild. Both a beauty and a brain, with the heart of the ultimate geek, Day would certainly be a good fit for the reboot, which is intended to appear as webisodes.”

Felicia Day, slated to be MST3K's new Mad Scientist? (Via Wikipedia)
Felicia Day, slated to be MST3K’s new Mad Scientist? (Via Wikipedia)

Additional info continues to crop up on Kickstarter updates and via other fan sites. Aside from Jonah Ray and Felicia Day, other proposed cast members include comics Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn who are slated to voice Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo respectively. However, no contracts with any cast members have been signed as of this writing.

With regard to budgeting, as of this writing the Kickstarter campaign has raised over $2.7 million, close to its approximate goal for producing three new MST3K episodes. Hodgson has indicated that if he is able to get $5.5 million in pledges, he and his partners will be able to produce a full season of 12 episodes, a current standard for many original cable or streaming TV series.

Fan and social media controversy

Both the new cast and the substantial funding Hodgson is requesting have raised considerable controversy in social media. Many fans of the old show are angry that Nelson and his compadres apparently won’t be returning to the series. Others question the amount of funding being raised, noting that the original show always did well on a shoestring budget, also observing that the obvious cheapness of MST3K’s sets added to the show’s charm.

Hodgson has provided detailed responses to many of these key questions here. Key details:

  • The participation of Mike Nelson et. al. is still up in the air. They’ve been approached, but individually, there seems to be little interest. Part of the issue likely stems from the fact that many of MST3K’s cast members were poorly compensated for their work and have not received any residuals that might have accrued as old shows were repackaged and re-sold in various formats, more of an issue with Best Brains, apparently, than with Hodgson.
  • Additionally, Nelson et. al. have established their own properties and royalty streams over the years and may have little time or interest in revisiting MST3K.
  • Hodgson also provides a fairly detailed sketch as to where the money is actually going, indicating that, as usual, the price of everything has gone up considerably since 1999, but adding that the fees for Kickstarter funding efforts are considerable as well. Hodgson also notes that entirely new sets will need to be built (with audiences expecting higher quality and hence higher costs) and, re the previous issue, a new cast will clearly need to be compensated in a suitable fashion as opposed to the way the previous cast was treated.

MST3K fans, stay tuned: When the Kickstarter campaign ends, we’ll bring you the latest results.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17