Joel Hodgson, part two: Jerry Seinfeld, Santa Claus, and Christian coffeehouses

Categories: Comedy
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Photo by Joshua Targownik
Joel Hodgson

In part two of our conversation with Joel Hodgson, he looks back at how performing for church groups influenced his development, working with Jerry Seinfeld, and how Mystery Science Theater 3000 came to find its groove.

What was it like looking back over the years? Did you discover things that you had forgotten?


One of the most shocking things I found was my date book from 1982. I scanned it and just looked at how many shows I did that year. I was a senior at Bethel and I had been doing standup, starting in the summer between my junior and senior years. I was shocked that I had done over 200 shows that year. It dawned on me that it is kind of about right. You need to spend that much time in front of an audience to find out what works and who you are.

Related stories:
Joel Hodgson, part one: Magic, homemade dummies, and Tommy Shaw


I had an advantage. That was another thing I saw looking at my date book. Not only was I working the clubs, but I was also getting all these gigs working Christian coffeehouses and churches and youth groups. I had an advantage over those other comics as I was working twice as much for a really diverse group of people. It was not just comedy club audiences. I got a lot of field experience because I was involved with the church.

My thing was about putting a lot of production into what I did. I was hauling all these props around, doing maintenance. I was a huge pain in the butt. I did work. It was just kind of different. That was another nice advantage. I didn't mind putting extra time to build props and do that extra work.

I know you have mentioned Silent Running as part of the influence for Mystery Science Theater's inspiration, but what else went into it?

It happened when I was in high school. I saw an illustration in Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for "I've Seen That Movie Too." There were two people watching the movie in silhouette. I remember thinking that would be a funny show -- if they super-imposed people in theater seats on the movie and they said stuff.

The other thing that had a big affect on me was that I had quit standup and come back to Minneapolis. Jerry Seinfeld came to town, and I was working at the Comedy Gallery. He invited me to help him write his first HBO special. He was really like my mentor. You could be a hard-working nice guy. I was burnt out on standup. A lot of them were cynical, needy people. 

I was doing art direction for each set piece we had written. I remember I had an idea for Seinfeld for a space movie. He said no, that's terrible. That's not my thing. I designed all these sets. I got how I could get a simple-enough idea to do a show in Minneapolis. It was a matter of pulling the trigger and being ready to put it all together.

Before meeting with Jim Mallon, I had the idea for show called You Are Here. It was based on that moment in Omega Man when Charlton Heston is alone in the theater and watching Woodstock. My idea is that I was alone and broadcasting a TV show, trying to find someone. I had a robot companion.

The idea of You Are Here wasn't good for comedy. I just changed the theme. I tacked in Silent Running, made it this guy alone in space with his robot companions.

How important were those KTMA episodes to the eventual development of the show?

They are so important. My idea was just companions saying funny stuff. It became 600 to 800 riffs a show. That really came from us all being together and feeling our way through it. When I look at it, it was such kismet to ask those guys to come. Even now, Josh is the best joke writer I've ever met. I met Josh when he was 15, 16, he was a really great joke writer then. Trace is an incredible character actor and great at improv. In those 22 KTMA episodes, it could grow really slowly. We did it once a week. In the morning we would talk about what we wanted to do and then try to pull it together.

The big moment came when I took the KTMA stuff together for the Comedy Channel. We strung the funniest jokes together, and realized this is what it needs to be the whole time. It has to be like that. We did 350 jokes a show the first season. The second season got to 600 and beyond. They could take as much as we could pack in there. 

Cinematic Titanic did its own version of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Do you plan to revisit any other original Mystery Science Theater movies?

I don't think so. We did Santa as a publicity thing. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a really famous Mystery Science Theater episode. We were trying to make an analogy. We demonstrated that we could do it. Ultimately, I felt like I didn't want to do that again.

Do you think riffing will continue to the next generation?

Two weeks ago, I did the Nerdist podcast. Mystery Science Theater is influential on their worldview and their comedy. I did the show live on Broadway at the Best Buy Theater. Watching them live, they are really like riffing in real time on what's happening. They are like Joel and the Bots with all the subject matter.

Also, people do movie riffing all the time. When we travel, there are all these movie riffing groups. I taught a class in it. I was really blown away by how good the kids are at it. They are writing really funny riffs, really strong jokes. It's taking off in a really funny way. I'm really glad that it's our own little art form and other people are taking it and having fun with it.

IF YOU GO
Joel Hodgson: "How to Have a Job Like Mine"
7 p.m. Saturday
Pepitos Parkway Theater
4814 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis
$18-$25
For tickets and information, call 612.827.2928 or visit online

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Pepito's Parkway Theater

4814 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN

Category: Film

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