Cast of MST3K
Joel, Trace, and Josh
Interview with the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000-May 17, 2014
We are beside ourselves with joy to have with us today, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and Josh “J. Elvis” Weinstein. You may know them better as the award winning cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Joel is a writer, comedian, inventor, ventriloquist, and renaissance man. He is the creator of the pop cultural watershed that was, and is, MST3K.
Trace is also a founding member of the show who co wrote the scripts, built the set, and went on to stay with the show for almost its entire run, playing both the wise cracking Crow and the maniacal Dr Forrester. Trace was a stand up comedian before the show took off and has found himself working on the ever amazing and “needs to be avenged for its cancellation” Freaks and Geeks (of which Josh was also a writer) America’s Funniest Home Videos, and wrote a book called “Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children” Diffuse.fm named him “one of the most admired guys in all of nerdom.”
Josh, is also founding member of the show, and has gone onto become a writer and producer of some pretty legendary projects, including the aforementioned Freaks and Geeks. He founded Stinkburger, wrote for people like Dennis Miller,David Letterman,and Roseanne, and has been the comedy scene since he was 17! I was failing Algebra 2 when I was 17.
It is the humble opinion of the staff members of the 1988 project thatMST3K was born at a transitional time in both the history of America, and pop culture in general. The Reagan Era was coming to a close, and with a few exceptions, television comedy was changing too. The middle class family dynamics of Family Ties and The Cosby Show were giving way to the blue collar snark of Roseanne and The Simpsons. Special interest cable networks were working their way into our giant cable boxes and catering to specific tastes for cartoons or comedy.
With that expansion, the local networks began losing money on their homegrown syndication shows. I remember going to my grandparents in Miller, South Dakota and watching Bozo from WGN in Chicago, or having the happy birthday song sung to us by our own Blinky the Clown onDenver’s 2. The world was changing and main stream comedy was changing (as we speculated about in our review of 1988’s Punchline).MST3k’s hometown paper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, labled 1988, “the year of attack comedy” due to the aggressive stylings of Eddie Murphy and Sam Kinison. As the character Tom Hanks plays in Punchlinedemonstrated, comedy was taking on a harsher edge of social criticism, rather than playing it safe.Of course, there were always hard-edged comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, who took their cues from Lenny Bruce’s 1960′s politically charged sets. However, those acts did not seem to translate their way into Reagan era sitcoms and TV programs. I would argue that after ’88, comedy became more democratic, less scared of the censors, ready to mix with the reality of the world, and ready to let anyone with a forum jump in and sink or swim.
The “Everyman is Tacitus” has become so common place now with Twitter and Facebook, that even comment sections on local newspaper sights allow everyone to have an opinion on something and to be able to express themselves. We no longer gain our information from one source and we have learned to analyze and process information at a higher speed and more geared towards our own personal tastes. Even as a teacher, the internet has freed us up from the single text book model classroom. We can dig up speeches, read journals, parse film clips. Heck, this very blog, is a product of that modern populist ownership of information. Some might argue that we have become a more jaded culture and one that is less informed and splintered. I would argue that we are a more discerning culture because we don’t take things at face value anymore. A politician can tell us their beliefs, and we don’t have to rely on the news to fact check them. A movie critic can pan a film, but we can read reviews from 100 million amateur film critics that tell us a different story. The internet has made us the Juvenals of our modern age. (students, you can use the internet to look up that reference).
It is our hypothesis that it was shows like MST3K that inspired this modern era of free thought. Would there be the Daily Show, The Onion,Internet Movie Database, blogging, Mental Floss, Beavis and Butt Head,Twitter, Kevin Smith films, or Facebook had it not been for the “snarky, quick, oneupsmanship” of Joel, Servo, and Crow? Would our classroom be different if we weren’t constantly making comments over 1950’s educational films like Going Steady? in Sociology class? Why, just the other day we were riffing on Rocky IV while learning about nationalism. I would further argue that it was this show that made it cool to admit that you liked “nerd culture”. It was cool watch Date With Your Family and Lunchroom Manners in an ironic way. It was like being a member of a club to be able to quote Torgo from Manos; the Hands of Fate. If you don’t believe me, look at the numbers for Comic Con from before and afterMST3K went national on the Comedy Channel. It may have been because of Batman in 1989, but we here at the 1988 project give sole credit to the cast of MST3K.
From our vast research library (wikipedia and google newspapers) we have learned that Joel had already built quite a career as a comedian before 1988. The 1988 Minnesota Star-Tribune has 6 or 7 searchable articles from 1988 about the “return” of Joel. He had been on SNL, Letterman, helped write for Seinfeld’s HBO special, and worked regularly at Comic Clubs. He went back to Minnesota in the mid-80’s and pursued other interests, but ultimately came back to comedy. J. Elvis was 17, and from what we understand, working at the station. Trace, was doing stand up comedy in Minneapolis and evidently watching loads of films and TV to come up with Crow’s unlimited knowledge of culture.
Ultimately, the three of them came together and decided to createMystery Science Theater 3000 on local Minneapolis station KTMA. It was hailed by the Star-Tribune with such praises as “a breakthrough in entertainment” and “They make the kinds of comments you wish you had said yourself.” In 1989, The Comedy Channel (soon to be Comedy Central) picked the show up and beamed it to the waiting world, including my brother and I, who rarely missed an episode. The show reshaped the comedy and sci fi landscape at a time when the world was changing all around us. We are so happy to have its creators with us today!
Welcome Mr Hodgson, Mr Beaulieu, and Mr Weinstein to the 1988 project.
1988: First before we begin, I want to ask you a deep question about the show. Do people ever tell you that they would get annoyed when you would cut away to commercials and leave out chunks of the films you were riffing on? I just want to know that I am not alone. I was always so frustrated, because I didn’t want the episode to end, and 10 year old me did not understand time scheduling.
Trace Beaulieu: I never heard this from anyone at the time and that was mostly due to the show not being available on my cable provider. Not many people who I knew where even aware of the show in the early days. Granted most of the people I knew who would be aware of a show like that actually worked on the show.
J. Elvis Weinstein: No one has ever lodged that complaint with me.
Joel Hodgson: I hate to be the one to tell you but you are alone on this.
1988: What do you remember most about 1988? Joel, The St Paul Pioneer Press (in 1988) called 1988 your “official comeback”
JH: It was a great time to be in Minneapolis, after being in LA. I It’s such a good place to be a creative person, people are so appreciative and encouraging. Man I love Minneapolis.
TB: I was watching everything back then. Cable TV was still a pretty interesting thing. The History Channel was about history. AMC actually ran movies. TLC and BRAVO had some great shows. I saw a lot of BBC stuff there. I cut cable in 2005. It’s all on the internet now. Eh, at least for now anyway. Film wise I guess the films I still remember are tied to a specific place or event. Beetlejuice, Midnight Run, Tapeheads. Back then I tended to try and see as much as I could.
JW: 1988 was a big year for me personally. It was my second year of being a stand-up comic (That’s how I knew Joel and Trace, BTW, not working at KTMA). I graduated from High School in June, spent much of the summer doing comedy on the road around the midwest, and started college at the University of Minnesota in September. We premiered MST3Kin November.
1988: On this blog, we reviewed Punchline and thought a lot about how stand up comedy had changed by the late 80’s. Bob Zany told us that one of the biggest changes was how suddenly a comedian’s name could fill an audience. The Minneapolis Star Tribune said (in 1988) that comedy had become “attack comedy”. You were all working as comedians throughout in the 80′s and to today. Do you think comedy has changed since 1988? And…do you give credit to your show for any of the changes? We like to think that all modern comedy writing and the supremacy of ComicCon is based on MST3K.
JW: I actually “opened” for the movie “Punchline”. Opening weekend, I was hired to do 10 minutes of standup in the movie theater before the movie started. I did 4 shows and I was payed in several hundred dollars worth of movie passes. I think stand-up comedy has changed a lot since 1988. I think right now is a great time in the history of stand-up, there are more people out there with truly funny, interesting acts than ever. Comedy is much more personal and less observational than it was in 1988.
I’m not sure how much influence the show had on any of it. Twitter feels more like MST3k than modern stand-up does. I think the more relevant analogy to today is the DIY ethic that pervaded the whole thing.
JH: I couldn’t tell you, however, every comic,no matter how biting his material, ultimately has to have a quality that the audience likes, or they simply won’t want to see him again.
TB: I stopped doing stand-up when MST came along. I never fit the stand-up model but I really liked to hang out with all these funny and creative people at the various comedy venues.
It’s flattering for you to attribute a change to MST but I think MST was a form of “attack” as well.
Step 1 – It’s just a show. Step 2 – relax.
1988: Trace, thinking back to MST3K, your Crow used a mind blowing amount of references (you could have cleaned up on celebrity jeopardy). My students are often impressed or horrified by my vast field of references to 80′s sitcoms like Punky
Brewster and Small Wonder and answers to random movie trivia. First, how many hours of media did you have to consume for your time on MST3K? Second, we used to play this game in college to test the limits of random knowledge of movies and TV, by playing Six Degrees of Abe Vigoda. It would be my honor to challenge you, a man who I would consider to be an inspiration in the field of seeking the treasure trove of random knowledge, to a game of six degrees. Object is the same as the Kevin Bacon game, rules are the same…six steps or less, no cheating by googling. Do you accept the challenge? If so, George Nader from Robot Monster to Abe Vigoda…and go
TB: I was influenced by a huge amount of television and movies growing up and my head was packed with a lot of trivial knowledge. You must remember however, that MST was only fully realized by the contributions of many, many funny and creative people. Frank Conniff might be a better person to play the Abe Vigoda game. I must admit that I had to look up who George Nader was.
1988: J. Elvis, why the name Stinkburger for your site? We are hoping it has to do with a frequent insult used in 1988 on Full House by the girls, or from MST3K. Also, how many hits did your website get when the President used it against Paul Ryan’s budget April 2nd,2014?
JW: It comes from the movie “My Favorite Year”. King Kaiser walks in holding a script in front of the writers: He sniffs: “What’s that smell? It’s coming from the monologue! What a Stinkburger!”
1988: Joel, a 1988 article in the Star Tribune entitled TV Supplies Witty Companions to Help Watch Bad Old Movies quotes you as saying that you were much happier making the choice to make MST3K than heading out to Hollywood to do a sitcom with fellow Minnesotan Comedian Louie Anderson. 26 years later, are you still happy with that choice?
JH: Yes, now more than ever.
1988: Looking at the rise of the comedians of the late 80’s/early 90’s into the national spotlight, we couldn’t help but notice that many of them came from the Midwest, You guys, Louie Anderson, Roseanne Barr, Tom Arnold, Tim Allen, etc. Was there something about the Midwest that just clicked with viewers, is it a Garrison Keillor influence, or is just funnier up here?
JH: I think that was a function of the market opening up because of cable — there was a need for more, new, and different voices. However, I don’t think you can include Tom Arnold in that list, because actually, he became famous because he married Roseanne Barr, which is far harder than doing stand-up
TB: There are a lot traits that people in the Midwest share. Amongst them being; depression, shyness, self loathing, lack of self worth, isolation, inability to access deep emotions, passive aggression, and tater-tot hot dish. These are of course stereotypes but I think the really funny people could address these things in a way that audiences could identify. There are few things funnier to me than painful, revealing truth. A level I can rarely tap into. As was stated in A Date with Your Family, “Emotions are for ethnic people.”
JW: Minneapolis was a great town to be a comic mostly because of the audiences. There were a whole lot of nice, enthusiastic people who came to see comedy and it made comics get confident and funny faster.
1988: You all started the show on KTMA out of Minneapolis at a time when stations were still filling their extra time with homegrown programming and losing money doing it. (This makes me think of Robert Prosky’s character in Gremlins 2, Elvira, Wayne’s World…or for me, in Denver, it was Blinky the Clown). This was also the focus of the 1989 film UHF (which we hear rumor that Joel was supposed to be in). Do you feel that we have lost anything in America by losing those low budgeted regional programs to a national audience on cable networks that developed post ’88?
JW: I’m not sure. I know we went national at the first opportunity we had so I can’t say we were trying to specifically honor that. I think the internet has redefined the notion of community. I think people can control what community they are a part of now regardless of geography and TV signal strength.
JH: I think local programming may come back, as we’re seeing, there is much interest in food production becoming more localized again. In could become profitable for the the farms, dairies and micro breweries to sponsor local shows again as people will want to enrich where they live. Besides, there are way too many comics in LA and not enough in say, Lansing, Michigan.
TB: They’re still there if you look for them. In some cases they have moved to the internet. Cleveland seems to be some sort of hub for the “Horror Host.” When I visited earlier this year I met several people keeping the tradition alive.
Frank Conniff and I were just in London where we met UK Horror Host Bunny Galore. The format of the horror host is so beloved that I think it will always be around in some form or another
1988: We looked at the attendance of events like ComicCon before the national exposure of your show and after…it boomed. We now live in a universe where it is cool to show up and accept your Razzie award for making a terrible film, where Trekkies get documentaries made about them, where I am celebrated rather than ridiculed for my vast knowledge about the Green Lantern. Do you feel like MST3K is the reason that “nerd culture” is king?
TB: We might be a part of it but not fully responsible. I think that movement started long before us. The first Trek convention was in the early 70’s. I would argue that Star Trek had a bigger influence than our little show.
What we might be more directly linked to is the questionable practice of “snark first think about it later”. It seems at times that we have become a culture of wise-crackers for the sake of making a joke. Granted there is much to lash out at but the true artists of the form have sharper arrows in their quivers. I dunno, I was always for good or bad, a smart-ass.
JW: Nah, MST3k was a symptom, not the disease.
JH: I really don’t know other than Nerd Culture being awesome
1988: The Lightning fun round: It is 1988, you are listening music while writing jokes about Gamera. The song you don’t mind hearing over and over is
a. George Michael’s Faith
b. Whitney Houston I Get so Emotional
c. Beach Boys Kokomo
d. Debbie Gibson Foolish Beat
e. Bobby McFerrin Don’t Worry Be Happy
f. Guns N Roses Sweet Child of Mine
g. None of the above, I preferred to listen to _____
JH: The Replacements Can’t Hardly Wait
TB: I was listening to: Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Billy Bragg, Brian Eno. I heard top 40 but I didn’t listen to it if you know what I mean.
JW: I was listening a lot of Elvis Costello, especially that year’s albumSpike
1988: It is 1988, you want to catch a movie that isn’t in black and white and doesn’t involve killer bubble machines and ro-men in Gorilla costumes. What are you most likely to watch out of the top 10 movies that year?
a. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
b. Rain Man
f. Crocodile Dundee II
g. Naked Gun
i.Coming to America
j. None of the above, I preferred to watch___________
JW: Of those listed, my favorite was probably Big
JH: I preferred to watch Die Hard
TB: I saw all of those films in the theater with the exception of Coming to America. I have never seen that. I guess I was pissed that the ripped off Art Buchwald.
1988: It is 1988, you have downtime. You were most likely to read
a. Tom Clancy’s Cardinal of the Kremlin
b. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time
c. Stephen King’s The Tommy Knockers
d. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities
e. None of the above, I was reading ________________
TB: I bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and tried to read it. Still on the shelf.
JW: I read, and pretended to understand A Brief History of Time
JH: Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos
1988: It is 1988, you manage to catch some other TV when you are not on TV. Would it most likely be?
b. The Cosby Show
d. The Wonder Years
e. None of the above I was watching ______________
JH: I don’t remember
TB: Of all of those Cheers was my favorite. My evenings in those days were taken up with going out to comedy clubs (see bars). I didn’t do too much prime time network viewing.
JW: Watched all of those. Late Night with David Letterman was important to me too.
1988: Bonus Questions, What are you currently working on that we can shamelessly promote for you?
JW: I just finished directing a documentary called Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me To Be? Coming soon to a film festival near you.
JH: I’m booked into lots of cons this summer, where I’ll be performing my one man show “Riffing Myself” which is the creation story of MST3k. Check out JoelHodgson.com for a convention near you
TB: Last fall I shot a comedy music video starring Frank Conniff and Dave (Gruber) Allen called The Frank. It will available on DVD soon and on-line as a digital thing. The video also features many of the cast and crew ofMST. It was a great deal of fun to get back together with the old creative family. Frank and I had the opportunity to screen the video at the SCI-FI London film festival several weeks ago in front of a very welcoming audience.
1988: Did you ever feel like you were in competition with Gilbert Gottfried and USA Up All Night?
JW: Not until now.
JH: No, but that’s pretty funny.
1988: We have one more followup question for the three of you since it deals with Minnesota in 1988. Are you aware that Miss Minnesota-USA had to drop out of the the Miss USA pageant in 88 (hosted by Alan Thicke) for shoplifting, and then the girl from Minnesota who replaced her was also thrown out for shoplifting? Comments…and….go…
JH: It’s a little known fact that beauty contestants are commonly inbred - so as you can imagine, this leads to all sorts of social problems, the most common of these is shoplifting. I once worked security for the “Alice in Dairyland” pageant in my home state of Wisconsin: it was nuts.
JW: Yes, I vaguely remember that. I’m ashamed to have shared a state with them.
TB: I really don’t remember. Oddly enough, the Miss USA pageant is not on my viewing radar.
1988: Thank you to the 3 of you for taking the time to talk with us! Your work has been so influential to us, and has personally helped me develop a relationship with my father in law who is a frequent consumer of Ed Wood films and Eraserhead. Everyone in the reading audience go forth and invest in their projects. Bonus Material: Joel talking to Allan Havey (Lou (grrrrr) on Mad Men) in 1990 about the show on the Comedy Channel