John Joel Hodgson (born February 20, 1960, in Stevens Point, Wisconsin) is the creator and original host of Mystery Science Theater 3000. His character, Joel Robinson, was featured from the show's creation through the middle of season five.
Joel, like many of the crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000, grew up in the Midwest. Early in life, Joel had a flair for both creativity and comedy; in second grade he created the "Cracker Cracker," which was a hand attached to a board. He attended Ashwaubenon High School. In 1975, as a sophomore, he was named Junior Magician of the Year. After graduating, he attended Bethel College in St. Paul, MN, majoring in speech communication. In 1981, he won the Bethel College Campus Comedy Contest. Around this time, Joel made the decision to become a standup comedian.
Joel's standup was a prop-comedy-orientated act. He developed a persona called "Agent J."
He began performing locally in the Minnesota area. He performed regularly at the Minneapolis Cabaret Club. Later, he was booked to headline the opening of The Comedy Gallery on March 18, 1982. On September 26, 1982, he won the First Annual Twin Cities Comedy Invitational, beating some well-known comedians in the process. He took this opportunity to move down to Los Angeles.
Joel was given a gig at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles within a week and had arranged an audition to be on Late Night with David Letterman. He got booked and made his national television debut on February 15, 1983. He was then booked on a few HBO and Showtime comedy specials.
He made his debut on Saturday Night Live on November 12, 1983, with host Teri Garr. An infamous prop during the performance was a time bomb. During the act, Joel would announce that he only had three minutes to perform. He would then reveal the time bomb and proclaim that "we ALL have three minutes." The prop department thought they could make a better time bomb than the one Joel had, which was used in the show. They gave Joel the prop as a gift, but Mr. Hodgson decided that he liked his own bomb better and left the NBC prop in his hotel room. When he arrived in Minneapolis, he was greeted by the FBI. It appears that a cleaning lady found the bomb, thought it was real, and three floors had to be evacuated. The next day, New York Daily News headline announced that "SNL Comedian Bombs in New York."
Joel continued appearing on David Letterman and Saturday Night Live through the next year. In one SNL appearance, he mentioned his Mystery Science Lab. In the summer of 1984, NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff offered him a role in a sitcom called High School USA. Joel turned down the project because he believed it wasn't funny. Believing it to be a negotiation ploy, NBC doubled the money. At this point, Joel believed that Los Angeles was phony so he decided to return to Minnesota.
He made one more appearance on national television on September 18, 1984, on David Letterman. He had a new act so he could prove that he could still be original. On November 4, 1984, he did an act called "Hello, I must be going," which was his farewell to standup comedy. After the show, the props he used were auctioned off.
Back in Minneapolis
Joel took odd jobs and found ways to keep his creative mind active, like ironing decals at a t-shirt factory, repairing Gobot costumes used in Tonka trade shows, and building and selling one-of-a-kind robot sculptures at a Minneapolis store called Props.
In November 1985, he met Jerry Seinfeld after his performance at The Comedy Gallery. The two comedians would then work together when Joel co-wrote and appeared on Jerry’s HBO special, which aired in 1987.
During the spring of 1987, Joel taught a class called "Creative Stand-Up and Smartology." One of his students was a young comedian named Josh Weinstein. It was also about this time that Joel met Trace Beaulieu at Eugene Huddleston's improvisational workshop that they both attended.
By June of 1987, Joel returned to standup comedy, periodically performing at the Ha-Ha Club. His new act was called "Heavy Levity" and was more prop orientated than that of his "Agent J" routine. He was now an inventor, claiming his props were created in his Mystery Science Lab of the Gizmonic Institute. During a month in the spring of 1988, he did a short tour to prepare for his return to comedy. At the end of April, Joel made his official return to comedy with a show at The Comedy Gallery.
KTMA and the birth of Mystery Science Theater 3000
Joel Hodgson met Jim Mallon in 1985 or 1986 when Jim rented some studio space on Robert Street to edit his film Blood Hook next to a factory where Joel was working. Jim eventually became station manager of KTMA, a local low-rated UHF station.
In the summer of 1988, Mallon needed something to fill two hours on Sunday night. Mallon met with Hodgson at a deli in St. Anthony's Place to discuss a show based on standup comedy. Hodgson suggested he talk to Scott Hansen. Two weeks later, they again met, and Joel proposed the idea of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In September of 1988, work began on the pilot, which featured Trace Beaulieu as the robot Crow and Josh Weinstein as the robots Gypsum and Beeper. In the pilot, they explained the premise that Joel had built the satellite and launched himself into space. The movie chosen for the pilot was The Green Slime, though only about thirty minutes of it was riffed. Jim met with Don O’Conner, the general manager of KTMA, in early October 1988 and was able to convince him to buy 13 episodes of the show. Jim and Joel formed Hair Brain Productions.
Some changes were made to the show, including the character Beeper being dropped in favor of Servo. The show was given a budget of $250 a week; Joel received $50 a week for creating the show, starring (as himself), writing, and building the props. The first three episodes were taped sometime in October 1988. They then debuted the first two episodes as part of a Thanksgiving science-fiction movie marathon. The third episode aired that Sunday, and on it they displayed a telephone number in order to receive viewer feedback.
When the fourth episode (Gamera vs Barugon) aired, they received mostly positive feedback. The show continued on with some minor changes, such as Servo's voice becoming deeper and the introduction of mad scientists Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt.
Joel's main source of income was still standup. He would perform regularly at the Comedy Gallery. He was even written out of an MST3K episode so he could make a comedy appearance (which was not uncommon for the KTMA years).
On March 25, 1989, Joel taped a pilot with co-host Sue Scott for Seriously Weird Magazine at KSTP-TV, Channel 5 studios. The producers, including Scott Hansen, were hoping this would be the first comedy series syndicated by Hubbard Broadcasting.
The final episode of the first season included the announcement that the show was going on hiatus and would be back following the summer. It was announced that KTMA was going bankrupt shortly after the show's departure.
Move to the Comedy Channel
In April of 1989, Hair Brain Productions made a 7-minute pilot pitch tape for other stations. One station that received the tape was HBO, which was starting a 24-hour comedy network called The Comedy Channel. At this time, Best Brains, Inc., was formed with Joel, Jim Mallon, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, and Josh Weinstein.
In September, HBO agreed to pick up the show for 13 episodes, with the agreement that it be produced in Minnesota. BBI built a studio inside a 7500-square-foot warehouse, which was sublet from Trace’s brother Bryan, in an Eden Prairie industrial park. Production began in October 1989.
At this point, Joel still had his hand in standup. On October 21, Joel was taped as he performed on stage at the KCTA-TV Land O’ Loons III Showcase. The show aired December 6.
The show finally premiered on the Comedy Channel on November 18 with the The Crawling Eye. Joel's talent for creating props was showcased as each show opened with an invention exchange. Some changes were evident, such as the color of Servo, Joel's character name was now Joel Robinson, they would show serials before some movies, and the mad scientists were now outcasts. The most important change was that everything was scripted at this point.
The Comedy Channel initially promoted it as a children's show. During this first season, the show was given mostly public-domain movies until the ninth episode (Project Moonbase), when movies were likely taken from HBO's library. The first season was well received by fans and some critics, though in later years some members of the crew looked back at the season poorly for what they thought were bad episodes. The network, however, was failing, but MST3K was always singled out as the exception. Despite the success, they were not signed to another season. Fans launched a mail-in campaign, and MST3K was picked up for another 13 episodes in July 1990.
Around this time, the show was suffering from disagreements and infighting. Josh Weinstein left the show because they no longer improvised the show. Because of this, Joel and Jim went to a business therapy course. They learned to communicate better and set up some new rules. These rules included not working past 6 p.m. and not working on weekends.
The second season debuted on September 15, 1990, with Rocketship X-M, and there were more changes. The production values had improved. Servo had a new voice (Kevin Murphy replaced Josh Weinstein), there were more riffs, and the set was renovated. In addition, Dr. Erhardt was replaced by TV's Frank (played by Frank Conniff).
The writing also changed to a new system in which Michael J. Nelson was named head writer. The riff quantity began to pick up. They began producing more songs, and more guests would appear due to the addition of the Hexfield viewscreen on the Satellite set wall.
The season was even more well received by fans. Critics were praising the show as well. In November 1990, HBO executives made a trek to Minnesota. They offered MST3K a 3-season contract for 24 episodes a season.
The Comedy Central Years
The third season debuted on July 1, 1991, with the episode Cave Dwellers. The show had reached its zenith, as now viewers' comments had increased to around 750 per episode. The season is well remembered for its use of Sandy Frank movies and films from the AIP catalog. Also thrown in were movies from Film Ventures. It was one of the most well-remembered seasons. Popularity was growing for MST3K. Comedy Central ran a highly rated Thanksgiving marathon of episodes, which would become a tradition for future years.
In November 1991, the Washington Post mentioned that Joel was working with HBO Downtown Productions on an idea called The Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal Show.
The fourth season of the show was considered by many to be another high point for being a solid season and the epitome of the show. Years later, many deride it for being too esoteric and not featuring many classic episodes. However, the popularity of the show was still high. They even appeared at "Starcon '92," a large science-fiction convention.
In early 1992, BBI had discussions with Paramount Pictures (including executive Brandon Tartikoff) about creating a motion picture based on the show. The studio wanted the movie to be about the origins of the show with Joel being shot into space, while BBI wanted it to be similar to the television show. Paramount would also not give BBI creative control and wanted the option to recast anyone. Best Brains turned them down. Joel Hodgson has said he didn't want to become a "movie star."
Best Brains then presented "MST Alive" at the Uptown Theater on July 10, 1992. They lampooned the movie World Without End. It was something of an experiment to see how the premise would work in front of a large audience. Also, ideas for a live tour were being thrown around.
The show was becoming very demanding for Joel. While the schedule on a day-to-day basis was light, it left little room for outside projects, as an episode took two weeks to produce. Jim Mallon wanted Joel to focus on the show that they already had. Joel and Jim were now fighting for creative control of the show. .
Finally, on May 11, 1993, Comedy Central sent out a press release announcing that Joel was stepping down as host of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Some say that Joel made the decision on his own, as he was never comfortable in front of a camera. Josh Weinstein, however, said that Joel was forced away from the show by Mallon.
As the 20th anniversary box set was released, in interviews Joel explains his departure in more detail:
Hodgson left the show in 1993 after a struggle with producer Jim Mallon over a big-screen adaptation of the show. "I felt like it would split the company and ruin the show," says Hodgson, "It felt like 'Mommy and Daddy are fighting but we don't want the kids to know. "My leaving was kind of like a personal tragedy," he said over hot dogs at Woofie's, "but I felt like if I stayed and fought for creative control of the movie, it would wreck the show. So I walked away instead of letting King Solomon cut the baby in two."
“It’s so fun to get to come back and to get to talk about it. And when I left it was really like kind of a personal tragedy and I felt like I wouldn’t ever be able to tell my story, and so that’s like the most fun part of this is getting to come back and kind of explain, you know reiterate, what happened.”
The fifth and final season for Joel began airing July 17, 1993. Joel's episodes were considered strong by fans. Joel's final episode (Mitchell) was filmed in July and aired in October of that year. Though initially it was stated he would continue in an off-camera role, he took hiatus after production was completed and eventually left the show altogether.
Joel's first post-MST3K project didn't fare too well. He was a consultant for Paula Poundstone's new talk show, which was canceled after two episodes. He and his brother Jim then formed Visual Story Tools.
The TV Wheel
The first production by Visual Story Tools was the X-Box R & D which later became known as the TV Wheel. It was a large set that would film shows live with no editing or post production. The concept was a 32-foot turntable with a stationary camera in the middle. A pilot was taped for HBO in March of 1995, but no agreement could be made when to air the show. It finally aired on Comedy Central immediately following the final new episode of MST3K. The show wasn't picked up.
In the summer of 1996, Joel had another idea. It was a show with no real sets, but instead had environments that were projected using a process he called "Hodgson Backscreen ’90." "Static-A-Matic" was another name. Joel directed and wrote Statical Planets around this idea. The movie featured Joel, Frank Conniff, SNL alum Morwenna Banks, MST alum Tim Scott, "Let's Bowl"'s Rich Kronfeld, and voice of Sabrina's cat Salem, Nick Bakay. The film was never released in full.
After leaving MST3K, Joel would make guest appearances on other television shows. One of his first appearances was on Space Ghost Coast to Coast (after writing an episode). He may have appeared on one of the episodes of the Paula Poundstone show. He also had a recurring role on the critically praised Freaks & Geeks as a disco-loving clothing store owner. He eventually came full circle and appeared on MST3K one more time, though he was not involved in any theater segments.
Behind the Cameras
After Statical Planets, Joel mostly did consulting work for other shows. He was the "magic consultant" on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. He got a job as a script doctor for a while (one such script was George of the Jungle). He co-wrote the direct-to-video Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves in 1997. He was involved with the creation of Robot Wars. He worked with Penn & Teller on occasion. He also did work on the game show You Don't Know Jack. He was working on Jimmy Kimmel Live as a producer, writer, and effects director. Currently, Joel and Jim Hodgson are the executive producers of The Discovery Channel's Everything You Need to Know.
On November 3, 1997, Joel issued a cease and desist order to Lisa Jenkins (known as Agent J) when he felt his privacy was being invaded and Lisa was embellishing the extent of their association on her website. Lisa quickly responded to Joel’s request and removed the material in question from her site.
- ↑ Phipps, Keith (April 21, 1999). "Interview: Joel Hodgson". A.V. Club. The Onion. Retrieved on 2006-09-05.