was the beginning of the two-week stretch when Trace, as I understand
it, was out of town. Trace: Do you remember what it was that called you
away for two weeks? Visiting family at Christmas time or something? (It
was the middle of December.)
Trace: I believe I was visiting family for the holiday.
Nothing more sinister than that.
In K05- Gamera, Joel riffs the
movie alone. Anybody remember why?
Josh: I don't recall. We shot the host segments in the
morning, and the movies after lunch, so it's possible I had to leave.
My guess would be I had a stand-up gig somewhere within a few hour
radius of Mpls. that I had to drive to.
Joel: I’m sure that Josh must have had travel plans too:
remember, he was just 17 and his parents may have had a family ski
vacation planned. I can all most see them pulling up at KTMA in that
station wagon to pick Josh up after the host segment. I’m sort of
kidding here, as Josh was a very autonomous 17 year old. But it’s
entirely possible he had a road gig or something, and he had to leave
before we taped the movie segments. I know for a fact that I didn’t
want to ever riff alone, so it was never decided, it was a necessity if
there was going to be a show that week. I’m pretty positive, on the day
I had to be in the theater by myself, I was taking one for the team.
What was the deal with you
calling Gamera "Gameron"? I assume this is some sort of in-joke? Do you
recall why you did that?
Joel: Not in the least. I really was unsure about
Gamera’s name and I think there is a sort of “drift” as to what I
should call him. I do this with people’s names all the time ...
Josh: No, I think it was just a mistake that got
perpetuated by the uncertainty of "Wait, is it Gameron or Gamera? I
guess we're saying Gameron". It's not like we went back and fixed
things in those days.
About the phone calls: Were some
of them faked by you guys? Specifically in K06- Gamera, you do a
segment in which you play what sounds like a real call from a guy
claiming to be “a member of the coalition for giant mutant turtles."
Then you play another call, supposedly from a different person,
claiming to be one of the “friends of the coalition for giant slimy
lizards with long nasty tongues.” Did the same guy call twice? Did you
ever fake any of those calls you played?
Joel: It doesn’t “feel” like a joke anyone of us would
generate: it sounds a bit too “Pythony” (you know the part in “Holy
Grail” when Tim the Enchanter says “For Death awaits you all…with
great, big nasty teeth”, sound like that) I suspect they were an actual
caller (or callers), just like local radio talk shows, MST3k at KTMA
was prone to get the occasional avid fan who calls in and tries to be
funny, I mean, that’s what I would do, and we would get lots of voice
mails like that: people sort of treated them like submissions for the
show: they liked what we were doing and were sort of demonstrating that
they were kindred spirits and “got” the joke. As far as fabricating any
other of the phone calls I don’t think so.
Josh: I don't remember but I have no reason to believe
we wouldn't have faked a call for a joke. There were never any
discussions about maintaining journalistic integrity.
Joel, in that episode, you kind
of off-handedly talk about "raiding the movie library," which sort of
contradicts the theme song, implying that you DO have control of the
movies. Was that just kind of a slip of the tongue?
Joel: Yeah, I think I was probably being sloppy with the
concept. Prior to the theme song being written, the concept was a bit
mushy: I was in space trying to communicate with earth and showing
movies to try to draw people to my message that I was trapped in space
– not so strong. Writing the theme song with Josh really helped clarify
the entire product, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Also, it’s interesting
that the theme song remained pretty much intact from the KTMA days
through the entire length of the show, including the iterations to make
the changes for the Mike years of course. Almost everyday I’m so glad
we wrote line, “Just repeat to yourself it’s just a show I should
really just relax.
In the sixth KTMA episode, Tom
Servo gets his new "mighty voice." What was the thinking behind that?
Was Josh just sick of the voice he was using? Did it have anything to
do with preparing the way for the arrival of Dr. Erhardt in the next
Josh: I just didn't like the first voice I was doing. It
was too hard to be expressive with and it kinda hurt to do. I had asked
if I could change it and was pitching alternatives to Joel. One was:
"How about the FM MIGHTY VOICE, THIS IS TOM SERVO, COMING TO YOU ON THE
BIG Q105" Joel laughed and especially liked him giving himself the
first name Tom. Servo's voice change didn't have anything to do with
Erhardt, but I chose Ehrhardt's voice to sound different from Tom Servo.
Joel: It’s true, Josh wasn’t exactly satisfied with
Servo’s voice, if you remember it sort of shifted from originally being
a sort of an excited PeeWee Herman voice, to a Martin the Martian
voice, and I think one day Josh just nailed it. Actually the character
of Tom Servo is completely a fabrication of Josh’s, except for of
course the way the robot looks, and the original name “Servo”. The
mighty voice and the verbose know-it-all character of Tom Servo sort of
crystallized that day. Josh also came up with the first name of “Tom”,
he said he visualized it as a the way a top forty dj would give himself
a nickname with “Tom” in quotation marks. Fortunately it worked because
if fit Josh’s range so well (and later Kevin’s) and would become a
great counterpoint to what Trace was getting going with Crow as a sort
of naive character.
In that episode you also mention
the Mads for the first time, including mentioning their names. I know
where the names come from, but do you remember who actually thought
them up? I'm just curious who it was that had "War of the Worlds" on
Joel: I came up with the names: I just loved the name
“Dr. Clayton Forrester” and liked giving a nod to the George Pals
movie, also, Laurence Erhardt was derived from the name of Werner
Erhard, the creator of EST, and a bit you may not know: EST (acronym
for Erhard Seminar Training) was a popular self empowerment cult in the
late eighties that was running rampant through the Minneapolis creative
community at the time we started MST3k – All three of us had
experiences with friends who had been involved with the group and who
tried to get us each to join to no avail, and we basically all agreed
it was all a bit “spooky”. So, I was thinking with the Mads names I
wanted to evoke the image of 50’s monster movies and cult leaders.
Also in that episode,
it seems like Josh got a little rambunctious in the theater. Maybe he
was just a little excited about his new voice but, several times, you
were in mid-riff and something occurred to Josh and he would just start
talking right over you. This happens about four times, and then I could
swear I see you put your hand over your mic and say something to Josh.
Maybe I'm imagining things. But he does seem to stop interrupting you
after that. Did you say something to him about being interrupted?
Joel: Yes, I do remembering that happening, Trace called
it “runover” and at KTMA there was a bunch of it. But to answer your
question, it could be frustrating, But really, even at seventeen, Josh
was always quicker to the joke than I was, and I was all right with it
as long as it made the show better. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t shushing
Josh or anything because even if I covered my mic, the same noises
would be picked up on Josh’s mic. To be fair, I need to mention, as an
adult, Josh has much more finesse and doesn’t need to interrupt as
often, except maybe when discussing seventies music trivia. I also want
to say he’s since become probably one of the best joke writers walking
the planet. So, in hindsight it was totally worth it to let him “roll
over me” every now and then on camera – and then again after the show
Josh: I have no problem believing things happened just
as you perceive them. When improvising the riffing, you have to think
and fire all at once and if someone else fires first, you lose that
spot. I'm guessing I was being selfish about that on that day. I'm glad
Joel called me on it and glad to hear I stopped once he did and it
wasn't a totally pathological thing.
I'm curious if Trace remembers
his impressions upon returning from two weeks away, to find that Josh
was using a new voice, that he was now going to play a mad scientist,
and generally that things had changed a bit while he was gone.
Joel: I’m not sure on that, but your question
illustrates how casual the whole thing was. Trace has to visit his
Grandma, Josh has got a dentist appointment or what ever, so Joel has
to riff by himself. I think the general mood at that time was: MST was
like a fort you made with several friends, (except instead of being in
a back yard, it was on a tiny UHF channel) and if one of you had to go
to camp for a week or two, you may have to expect a few changes when
you came back. Now I’ve known Trace for a good 22 years, I’m sure if we
did frustrate Trace without getting his approval for the Servo voice
change, he’s kept that inside all this time , and it’s all still in
there just brewing, getting bigger, and waiting to be unleashed on me
the next time I piss him off.
Trace: I remember being around when we taped the segment
when Joel was tinkering with Servo’s voice controller. Maybe I just saw
it on tape. I think I was aware of all the changes. I really wasn’t
gone that long.
I got the
impression watching this one that you guys may have looked at the movie
a bit before sitting down to riff it this time. Several times you guys
make riffs about things that are about to happen. I know there wasn't
real solid scripting, but were you peeking at the movie at all?
Joel: Yes, for sure, we didn’t have any hard fast rules
about not looking at the movie prior to performing: we weren’t
deliberately doing improv. As you can see, it was all very nonchalant
and I think also, we were busy doing other things, and making MST was
at the time, one of several irons in the fire. As Trace say’s about the
roughness of the KTMA shows, “It was just one day out of the week”. But
each week, we’d get a little more feedback and enthusiasm about the
show, there was a noticeable buzz happening in Minneapolis, so each
week we’d go a little bit deeper, like you mentioned, scanning the
movie for possible joke ideas. As an example we never even thought of
asking for a dub on VHS so we could go home and review the movie. We
really sat down at KTMA with a big ass ¾ video machine and scanned
through the movie looking for highlights. Seriously, that was it, 10 or
20 minutes tops. Also I have to say, the Gamera series, in my mind
really solidified what mst3k was supposed to be. Once I saw that goofy
flying turtle, it was all so perfect, I bet you could see the smoke
coming MY pantlegs. So, these shows you’re focusing on are pretty apt,
they really are, as far as the movie content goes “the shape of things
Josh: My recollection is the first time we actually went
through a movie in advance to scout for jokes was "Gamera Vs Zigra."
Steve Higgins (of "Higgins Boys and Gruber", now producer of SNL) was
in town and we went back to Joel's house thursday afternoon and took a
quick pass through the movie and actually went in with some notes the
next day when we shot it.
Along the same vein, were you
also peeking a little at the upcoming movies?
Joel: Yes – for sure. Later in the first official
season, we created a rule during “Black Scorpion” that we didn’t want
to tip our hand that we had watched the movie prior. So, no
“foreshadowing” riffs, the idea was to create the illusion that we were
watching this for the first time – Once at Comedy Central, The illusion
worked on a certain level with some people believing that we each
instantly created all the jokes that came out of our mouths and they
What are you thoughts on the
things people need to keep in mind as they watch these shows?
Joel: Really, as far as I’m concerned, looking back, the
biggest breakthrough at KTMA was making the “best of” reel to sell the
show to Comedy Channel (Comedy Central). Once I watched the finished
tape all the way through, it was then that I understood that the entire
show needed more and better riffs, or simply: A wall of riffs. And that
meant we would have to start writing the riffs for the entire show: a
bit of a weird idea for the time, as it just wasn’t a part of the
creative culture to try to script the whole movie.
Also, there wasn’t a clear method of annotating all that
material: the script that emerged in season one of MST didn’t resemble
any traditional script anyone had ever seen before, it looked sort of
like early computer language, with time codes and little riffs attached
that made no sense unless you saw it side by side with a piece of
videotape with time code. So, I suppose the lesson is: all those
laborious KTMA shows had to happen so MST could make the jump to what
we know today. Most shows don’t get 22 shows to incubate, and without
all that experience it’s very unlikely we could have taken the show
from concept to execution in just a single pilot as most shows have to.
Luckily, we were able to afford to take the time to write the riffs
once we got the order from The Comedy Channel.
The other outstanding thing for me in thinking back to
the KTMA days was something that seemed very unknowable: Just how much
“riffing” could people handle during the movie? It was very unclear as
my original thesis was for Joel and bots to be companions for the
people watching the show, and I imagined us going in and eating popcorn
and riffing at a very casual pace, like it is when you’re with your
friends. Then as we started to “feel” it all, it started to take on a
life of it’s own, but it grew very slowly, and that’s why KTMA was so
critical. Each step forward, I’d be wondering to myself, “just how much
can the people at home multi-task between a movie and a bunch of people
saying totally unrelated remarks”? At what point would we “cross the
line” and drive them to turn the channel? Luckily the answer was
--never! I know it’s obvious now, but this was years before even the
first DVD commentary.
So in a nutshell, I need to mention that I don’t ever
recommend people watch the KTMA episodes, unless you feel you must see
the “warts and all” beginning of MST as a sort of “live through this”
right of passage, Also, I should mention, I find it a bit troubling
that people are demanding that these shows be released on DVD: those
people remind me of my Dad sitting alone at the kitchen table with a
knife and a block of really stinky cheese muttering “it’s an acquired
taste”. But I won’t protest people watching them either, because it
could edify someone by demystifying the process and maybe show them the
creative path we took. With more and more people getting into movie
riffing, I could see how that could be useful. But also, on the third
hand, I gotta tell ya, I would dread watching one of these old “war
horses” from beginning to end: the quality just isn’t there. Remember
we made these to be viewed, one time only, within a fifty-mile radius
of KTMA in 1988, and that’s about it. For me, knowing that people are
watching them again with a critical eye, It feels a bit like someone’s
posted something I made one afternoon, on youtube, and now I won’t ever
be able to take it down again.
Trace: A couple of things people need to remember as
they look back at these shows.
One of which is, you are looking back at them having
seen the entire run and development of the show. We were really just
figuring out the show on the fly in those days. (And for that matter
all the way through the series.) There was no map or plan. Riffing
wasn’t even part of it in the very beginning.
To question things we were doing and compare it to later
shows I guess is inevitable but it’s a little like looking at Baron von
Drais’s walking machine and saying, “Dude. Why didn’t you invent pedals
and a chain? Or a seat?”
The show grew very organically and everyone, everyone,
who worked on it, helped shape and form it into what it became.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we didn’t think we
were building an empire. We were working on a ratty little puppet/movie
hosted show in a dank UHF station in North Minneapolis. We all had
other things going at the time such as MAKING A LIVING. It is well
reported that we each got $25 a week to work on the show. Joel got more
because he had to make the props and stuff. $25 is not any money at
all, but I did it because it was fun to do.
Josh: If you watch MST eps for the kick-ass movie
riffing, there's no re ason to watch the KTMA shows. If you're
interested in seeing how the concept of movie riffing, and MST3K,
evolved, then they may be worth a look. We certainly never had
posterity in mind when we were making them and for most of the UHF run,
we treated it as little more than a hobby, spending a day a week on
each show (writing and shooting combined) almost nothing was carefully
considered, rewritten, or honed in any way. It was knee-jerk TV and it
was very fun and lucky to have the venue for such a masturbatory
endeavor. While those shows were crucial in the history, development,
and sale of the show, I don't believe it's crucial that they be viewed
by anyone but the most history-minded fans to fully enjoy later eps.