For “Mystery Science Theater 3000” fans, it’s kind of incredible to contemplate — new episodes are coming next week. A new 14-episode season will debut on Netflix on Friday, April 14.
While there are the inevitable jitters about whether the new version can live up to the old episodes, mostly what I’m hearing and seeing from fans is excitement. And one thing i’m definitely not hearing is any trepidation over how new host Jonah Ray is going to do.
Part of that is because Ray is already a funny comedian in his own right and an unabashed fan of the show. But part of is that, as a “MST3K” fan, we’ve been here before.
One of the bonus feature son the new “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXXVIII” DVD set, out last week from Shout Factory!, was a segment called “Mike, By Joel.” In it, series creator and original host Joel Hodgson talks about Michael J. Nelson, the guy who replaced him on the show when Hodgson left due to disputes with co-founder Jim Mallon.
Nelson was a relatively late-comer to the show’s writing staff, who were all culled from the Minneapolis comedy scene. Hodgson remembers seeing Nelson perform stand-up and being impressed — not that the club audience loved him, but because Nelson didn’t seem to care whether his kind of comedy was a crowd-pleaser or not. Perfect for the idiosyncratic “the right people will get it” philosophy of “MST3k.”
Nelson was hired on as a writer and utility player, playing everyone from Morrissey to Jack Perkins to Torgo during the host segments. When Hodgson left, Nelson seemed like the natural guy to bump up to the host slot. Interestingly, while Joel had sort of a big-brother relationship with Tom Servo and Crow, Mike often seemed like a junior partner and perennial “new guy” getting razzed by the bots. Hodgson said that this may have been an unconscious reflection of his role at Best Brains, since puppeteers Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy were both part owners of the company, while Nelson was an employee.
There was definitely some “Are you a Joel fan or a Mike fan?” divisions among fans at the time, but those more or less settled down. Hodgson notes with some pride that when Shout Factory! asked fans to vote for their 10 favorite episodes for a Turkey Day marathon recently, it was split evenly between 5 Mikes and 5 Joels.
The new “XXXVIII” disc is also divided into one Joel (“Invasion USA”) and three Mikes (“High School Big Shot,” “Colossus vs. the Headhunters and “Track of the Moon Beast”.) Aside from the Hodgson interview, my favorite bonus feature is an interview with Leigh Drake, the actress who played the love interest in “Moon Beast,” a terrible ’70s sci-fi/horror movie.
A lot of performers and filmmakers aren’t too happy with having “MST3K” make fun of their work (I remember director Bert I. Gordon bristling when I asked him about it during an interview years ago, which was disappointing.) But Drake said she had always been so ashamed of the movie, and the show’s riffing on it was actually therapeutic. “It was such an honor. It made all my tears and all my embarrassment about how bad it was worth it.”