Satellite News - The Almost But Not Quite Complete History of MST3K - Part 1


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Part 1: Prehistory (1984-87)

"Joel Hodgson, Minneapolis Minnesota, white male human....starting now."

Joel Hodgson - Comic, Magician, and SpyBy the fall of 1984, Joel Hodgson had had it.

He'd spent the last two years in Los Angeles, and it was more than enough. Perhaps it was because success had come so quickly, seemingly without effort. Perhaps it was because that success, once gained, seemed so empty. Whatever the reason, Joel Hodgson's blooming career had lost its luster for the one person to whom it ought to have been most important: Joel himself.

By any measure of the time, he was a hot property. Billing himself as a "comic, magician and spy," his act combined his off-beat persona, witty wordplay, magic and clever props such as the "chiro-gyro" (a device that fit over his head and then rotated, appearing to twist his head around several times) and a stick of cotton candy that appeared to scream when he bit it. There was no act quite like it. And there was no performer quite like the 24-year old graduate of Ashwaubenon High School in Green Bay, WI.

He was scarcely into his teens when he was named Green Bay's Junior Magician of the Year. During his junior and senior years, he had stunned and delighted his classmates and neighbors with what he called the Folderol Magic Review, a 45-minute show which consisted of illusions, music and comedy. He attended Bethel College in St. Paul, MN, first as a drama major, then as a speech communications major, but concentrating on his studies was impossible. He dropped out and began performing full time.

In 1981, he'd won a campus comedy contest. That got him noticed by local impresario Scott Hansen, who selected him to headline the grand opening of his new Minneapolis comedy club, the Comedy Gallery. His stand-up career had officially begun, and very quickly it became clear that the Midwest could only offer so much.

After winning the Twin Cities Comedy Invitational in 1982, the Left Coast was beckoning. Hodgson moved to Los Angeles, hit the club circuit and was an almost immediate hit. He quickly attracted the attention of TV producers, and appeared in several HBO comedy specials.

Within only a few weeks of his arrival, he met a guy whose wife's cousin was a producer on Late Night With David Letterman. (Yes, L.A. is really like that.) Hodgson gave the producer a tape of his act, and only weeks later Joel found himself on a plane headed to New York to appear on "Late Night." Joel became a favorite of Letterman's, in part because Joel's offbeat persona proved a perfect foil for Letterman's patented bemused takes to the camera.

While in the NBC building, Letterman introduced him to Lorne Michaels and the staff of Saturday Night Live. Michaels signed him for an appearance as well. The SNL crew took to him at once. His quirky worldview meshed with theirs and they loved his material and him. In all, he would make five appearances with Letterman, and four on SNL. Among those who enjoyed the performances, and saw Joel's potential, was NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff.

Back in Los Angeles, he was in constant demand, working at several different comedy clubs. In the process, he would meet and become friends--or enemies--with some of the biggest names in the stand up comedy world. Jerry Seinfeld would become one of the former, Gallagher reportedly became one of the latter (the story goes that Joel came offstage one night and found the mustachioed prop comic digging through Joel's props without permission--Joel never forgave the intrusion).

But even as he was becoming a hot commodity, he found himself becoming disenchanted with success. Being occasionally recognized in public made him uncomfortable, and he was turned off by the Hollywood "system." Fearing that he was turning into a "show-biz person," he contemplated quitting. But it was an incident with NBC and Tartikoff, in 1984, that finally led him to decide to give up comedy.

Tartikoff's office contacted Joel, and offered a starring role in a new NBC sitcom. They sent him the script for the pilot, and after reading it, Hodgson turned the part down, telling Tartikoff's people it just wasn't funny. Perhaps predictably, the executives mistook Hodgson's complaints, assuming they were just a bargaining ploy. Their response was to offer the role to Joel again, at triple the amount of money they'd first offered.

That was the proverbial last straw. Hodgson was appalled that the executives could not grasp the notion that he would turn a project down purely on its merit and that no amount of money was going to get him to change that stance. Of course, he refused the offer, and in a few months he was back in Minneapolis, declaring he was quitting comedy.

(Incidentally, the series, called High School USA, which Hodgson astutely pegged as "a Fast Times at Ridgemont High rip-off," was one of Tartikoff's most notable failures. Three episodes aired before it was yanked from NBC's fall schedule.)

With performing seemingly behind him, Hodgson made a living with a series of jobs, including working at a t-shirt factory and building toys and robot sculptures. He was drawn back to the comedy scene in 1986 by his friend Jerry Seinfeld, with whom he co-wrote an HBO special (Joel also appeared in it briefly), and in the spring of 1987 he started teaching a class for aspiring comics called "Creative Stand-Up and Smartology." Among his students was a promising teenager named Josh Weinstein.

Realizing that "not doing comedy for me was like living my life with my arm and my leg tied behind my back," Hodgson made his official comeback at the Ha-Ha Club in Minneapolis that same year. Gizmonic gadgetry was now, more than ever, the centerpiece of his act, and he referred to the place where he created the gizmos as the Mystery Science Lab.

In reality, he was creating his props in a Minneapolis-area warehouse that happened to be next door to a film production studio where a guy named Jim Mallon worked.

| Welcome! | 1984-87 | 1988 | 1988-89 | 1989-90 | 1990-91 |
1991-92 | 1992-93 | 1993, part 1 | 1993, part 2 | 1994, part 1 |
1994, part 2 | 1995, part 1 | 1995, part 2 | 1996, part 1 |
1996, part 2 | 1996-97 | 1997 | 1997-98 | 1999 | 2000 | Epilogue |