DADDY-O'S DRIVE-IN DIRT
SCI FI ARCHIVES
archives of the MST3K pages previously hosted by the Sci-Fi Channel's SCIFI.COM.
JIM MALLON SPEAKS!
Jim Mallon, who arguably had more to do with shaping MST3K over its
11-years on TV than anybody, is perhaps the least-known member of Best
Brains. So we were delighted when Jim recently contacted us and
suggested an interview with no preconditions or off-limits topics. We
think the result was an eye-opener, and we bet you will too.
Q: Comic-Con will be your first public appearance in, what, 12 years? Are you nervous? Do you have any idea what to expect?
part of MST3K has always been a great honor for me, and getting
together with the entire creative team after all these years to
celebrate the 20th anniversary and the first Shout! Factory DVD release
is really pretty cool.
us a little of your background: We don’t know much about you
before your college days. Where did you grow up, go to school, that
sort of thing. What did you want to be when you grew up?
grew up in Rochester, Minn., where my dad was an engineer for IBM. I
started making comedy movies in the fifth grade. I was inspired by
“Laugh-In,” and my friend had a regular 8mm camera. When I
was in seventh grade, Sony came out with the first inexpensive b/w reel
to reel video gear. Our junior high bought one, and I was hooked.
Later, in high school, I made a parody of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild
Kingdom and put it on public access.
exploits at UW-Madison are legendary at this point. What’s the
one thing about the whole Pail & Shovel experience that you
remember most fondly, and what was the worst thing about it?
best part of that experience was the day-to-day fun of coming up with
great ideas and having the resources and team to do them - from
bringing the Statue of Liberty to Madison to planting 1,000 pink
flamingos on Bascom Hill to the World’s Largest Toga Party. The
media loved what we did and magnified the results. The worst thing was
being told by a University engineer that the portable generator was
about to blow, and that we were about to lose all of the lights
illuminating 10,000 drunk students at our Toga Party!
Q: When and how did you meet Kevin Murphy?
and I met at WHA-TV in Madison. He was working on the remote truck
crew, and I was the single camera film/video department. Later I hired
him as a key grip on Blood Hook and eventually as the videographer at
Q: How did you end up at KTMA?
put an ad in the newspaper for a “film director.” Having
just finished directing Blood Hook, I happened to be one! Really what
they wanted was someone to screen the movies in their library, but they
took a look at my resume and offered me the Production Manager job. I
grabbed the job because aside from paying the bills, it provided access
to production gear. Camcorders and IMovie were still a long way off.
Q: When did you first become aware of Joel Hodgson and how did you two first meet?
A: I met Joel at the warehouse where we were editing Blood Hook. He had a space adjacent to ours.
Q: How did you feel about being thrust into puppeteering? Had you ever done it before?
had done tons of puppeteering through grade school and a fair amount of
acting in Rochester’s Children’s Theater from grade school
through high school, so it was actually pretty easy for me. The hardest
part was figuring out how to deal with Gypsy’s huge size.
Eventually I built a harness that solved that problem.
a question every MSTie has wanted to ask you for 15 years or more: Do
you, in fact, own copies of the first three KTMA episodes?
A: In fact, I do! I just saw the 3/4” cassettes last week.
it possible, then, that the host segments (since the movie segments
would have rights issues) from those episodes could someday be
released? MSTie completionists out there are dying to know.
We’d like to put some of them up on mst3k.com. Because of the age
of the tapes and the format, though, we need to find a facility to help
us make the Quicktime files. 3/4” machines regularly ate the
tapes when the format was new. I would hate to have that happen now.
in the days when you were always promoting your latest product, you
(and I mean Best Brains in general, not just you in particular) called
KTMA, and even Season One, a “work in progress” and tried
to direct fans toward the later work. But now that you don’t have
those commercial forces working on you so much, how do you feel about
those old shows when you look back on them? Have you reconsidered your
opinion of them?
I haven’t looked at a KTMA episode in years. The main difference
was that they were improvisational - we had no resources to review the
work before or after. So in general, my memory is that they were very
uneven and rough, with flashes of genius. I was watching a Frank Lloyd
Wright documentary this past weekend. His early work is clearly not his
best but it’s fascinating knowing that they were steps on his
path. In that sense I can understand why people who are really into MST
think these shows are fun to look at.
KTMA period has been pretty well chronicled, but is there something
about that time that you think fans have never heard about?
itself could have been, and perhaps should have been, the basis for a
sitcom! Basically, the station existed as get-rich scheme. The owners
bought the place and attempted to juice up its ratings so they could
flip the station and make a fortune. It is one reason MST had such bad
movies to work with, as KTMA had a tiny program budget and therefore
had purchased some of the cheapest movie packages on the market.
It was just crazy. For example, the chief engineer had been given the
vending machine concession, so he made sure those machines ran
perfectly while we did not even have frame-accurate editing in our edit
suite. Also, the sales staff worked so much out of a certain saloon
that the bar put up a plaque commemorating that “satellite”
Q: Tell us about the fateful meeting in New York with the HBO and Comedy Channel people when you sold the show. What went on there?
don’t have clear memories of a specific meeting. All I remember
was the chaos of people running around dropping in and out of meetings.
They had seen our demo and wanted the show, but not without all sorts
of ridiculous changes. I do remember a very somber Stu Smiley saying
that we needed to straighten out our agent if we wanted this deal to
happen. Actually, our agent, Rick Leed, really should be credited with
preserving the series by getting us the copyright, something that would
be unheard of today.
nerdy MST3K question: In the ACEG, it’s explained that Episode
104, Women of the Prehistoric Planet, was in fact the LAST episode shot
in Season One, despite its sequence number. But the reason is never
given. I know it was almost 20 years ago - do you even remember anymore
memory is there was a sense on the network level that we got better as
the show went on. So I vaguely remember them re-ordering the shows to
put the “better” shows first.
story of how Josh Weinstein discovered Mike Nelson, and his quick rise
from temp to head writer has been told many times. How do you remember
Mike’s arrival at BBI and his rise to power?
remember Mike as always killer funny. As what was funniest tended to
carry the day at Best Brains, Mike very quickly earned the respect of
did a phone interview with you and Joel sometime around Season Two, and
when I asked about Josh’s departure, you kind of hemmed and hawed
- and Joel interrupted you and said, “Let me put it this way,
he’s 18 years old.” I think you’ll agree that J.
Elvis has matured into an incredibly talented writer and performer.
What are your memories about the circumstances of Josh
I remember is that it wasn’t really a referendum on Josh’s
creative talents. I think Joel’s statement accurately reflect my
memory. Josh was very young at the time.
some ways I’ve always thought of you in the same way I think of
Lorne Michaels at "SNL," the guy that had to keep a firm hand on the
tiller of the franchise all the while dealing with a group of very
creative people. It’s a job that sometimes leads to becoming
unpopular. Former "SNL" cast members like Mike Myers and Harry Shearer
don’t have many kind words for Lorne, although they acknowledge
that his was/is a tough job. I wonder if you could expound a little on
the unique joys and challenges of managing creative people.
on MST was rewarding and thrilling at almost every turn. Because we
were out in the woods of Minnesota, we were really left alone. And what
was paramount to this group of people was what was funniest. So in many
ways it was a very pure creative environment. We were also a group of
people who were experiencing their first TV project on a national
level. We were jazzed to be there and you could just feel that.
To be in the company of really creative and funny people was
intoxicating. Like the show itself, it was like living life with a
funny narrative. I really miss that. Even lunches were hilarious, the
topics, the takes, the jokes. It was amazing.
However, it was always challenging wearing many hats. I wrote, ran
Gypsy, built stuff, directed, and reviewed edits. I also dealt with the
many difficult and complicated (and sometimes heartbreaking) issues
arising from working with the networks, managing a business which for
many years had a tiny budget, and doing my best to make sure everyone
was pulling in the same direction.
The truth is there are legitimate issues in the production of a TV
series that are divisive. It was challenging to find myself on BOTH
sides of many of these issues. I was a writer interested in preserving
the integrity of the show, and then a half-hour later I found myself
taking a call from the network regarding selling the series, which the
writers would perceive to be a violation of that integrity. Those were
very difficult moments.
There was a ton of investment and emotion with our staff. People loved
being there. So when an issue came up it was always challenging to
figure out the best thing to do. In retrospect, I think we did a pretty
good job negotiating this extraordinary situation, but of course we
were not perfect.
recently as part of our ongoing episode guide on the site, we covered
the episode where Gypsy performed her tour de force “Gypsy
Rose...Me!” Did you like the segments where it was essentially
all Gypsy and she was singing or whatever? Or did you prefer just kind
of staying to one side and saying, “Ramchips!”
loved what the writers did with Gypsy, evolving her from one word
statements to actual performances. If you look back to the host
segments as I have done while working on the mst3k.com site, Gypsy has
a really clear, joyful sense about her. She was a nice counterpoint to
the other ‘bots.
Joel has revised, to some extent, his story about why he left the
series. Back in ‘93 he told fans he didn’t want to be
the host anymore. When people ask him about it now, he says he DID want
to continue as host, but that you and he were fighting and that he left
“for the good of the show.” I wonder if you could offer
your perspective on what really happened back then.
MST3K was dynamic; that is, like the show the production environment
changed over time. My memory is that Joel got frustrated with aspects
of the evolution, and he decided to preserve what he termed his
“creative ecology” by leaving the series. This was a huge
change which involved input from all the major players: Joel, me,
Trace, Kevin and eventually Mike.
take it that you were the person who dealt with the networks the most.
My sense is that it never got easier. Can you relate some stories of
dealing with the suits?
the beginning Joel and I dealt with the networks. It was always an
interesting dance, as in many cases the networks’ needs were
different from the needs of our show. At first, CTV, as it was then
known, wanted us to make a shorter version of our show. They also
wanted us to use material from different sources within each episode.
They did not believe that audiences would sit still for real-time
riffing of a feature length movie.
Another network desire was that we make the show in New York. When we
balked at moving out there, they changed it to flying out on Monday and
flying home on Friday. We balked at that, too. They finally agreed to
our terms on content and production but only offered us a tiny amount
of money. Our agent, Rick Leed, got them to agree to let us keep the
copyright. I believe the network thought the show was only going to
last one season anyway, so they granted the copyright to us. Over time,
as the show began to garner positive notice in the national press, the
relationship with the network changed dramatically, and for the better.
When John Newton took the helm at Comedy Central, we enjoyed our best
relationship. He was a great guy full of quaint expression and loved
nothing better than coming out to Eden Prairie and hang out. When we
moved to the Sci-Fi Channel we were a bona fide hit, so the
relationship was respectful from the get-go.
Q: In a similar vein, can you relate some tales of dealing with the Hollywood suits while making the Movie?
MST3K: The Movie with Universal was a real eye-opener for all of us. We
learned very quickly that the studio system tends to strain the joy out
of projects, which was the opposite of how we worked. Still, it was fun
to be working in a different medium, and shooting the movie was very
fun, though I could have done without the one hour of notes every night
from our studio shepherd.
If you could go back and do that movie experience again, knowing what
you learned the first time through, what would you do differently?
A: Hmmm, great question. It probably would have been better to do it as an
independent feature and then find a distributor who would have been
excited to have the project. The problem was we did not want to layoff
staff, which would have happened if we had made it ourselves. In the
end, Universal shelved the movie after a really good first week or so.
They put the rest of the promotional dollars into the Pamela Anderson
opus, "Barb Wire."
Q: Tell us about life after MST3K. You kind of dropped out of sight. What have you been doing?
put everything I had into MST for 10+ years. By the end of the series
run, partly because of some very difficult issues in my personal life,
I was exhausted and found that I needed to just hibernate. During this
period I explored a number of new directions, including photography and
virtual reality. About a year ago, I began to see a new direction for
MST through the Internet. Around the same time I approached Shout!
Factory to look for a new home for the series on DVD.
has been, to use a familiar phrase, a work in progress. I wonder if you
could talk about your vision for the site, and, well, what happened to
the flash cartoons?
relaunched mst3k.com this June, and I am very pleased with the look and
feel of it. The goal is to provide a web presence for the series very
much in tune with the spirit of the show. We hope to expand the site
over time to cover its history and legacy, including rare KTMA footage
I had high hopes for the Flash animation, but it turned out they were
four times as expensive as I was led to believe. We really could not
afford to do them, and when that became clear I pulled the plug and we
shifted the web site direction. I am sure at some point we will put the
cartoons back up on the site--and who knows, perhaps we will make more
comment section was ablaze a few weeks ago after Joel told a convention
audience that he contacted you last summer about some sort of reunion
episode or episodes and that essentially you turned him down. Would you
like to offer your side of that story?
and I did talk late last summer about the possibility of a reunion
series. The more we talked the more it became clear that there were many
hurdles to overcome. For example, who would play Tom Servo? Kevin?
Josh? What about Crow--Trace or Bill? Or even Gypsy, for that matter.
Where would we make this? LA? Minneapolis? Who would be in charge of
the experiment? Would it be Dr. Forrester or Pearl? Who would write the
episodes? Who would own the copyright? So we only got so far in our
back-and-forth before I told Joel I had to focus on the pending launch
of mst3k.com. A couple of weeks later Joel launched his new show.
the past ten years, and certainly since the series went off the air,
you’ve chosen to stay out of the public eye. That has allowed
other people to make up all sorts of rumors about you which have gone
unanswered. Is there anything you’d like to say to set the record
like what rumors? No, I have not become the ruler of a South American
country...yet. I am happy that we seem to have found a nice sweet spot
with mst3k.com. It is good to have the series on the web in that form,
and I am excited about what we can do with it. I always pay attention
to the joy-compass in my life and try to follow it no matter what weird
places it brings me.
Q: And now, the question every other cast member has been asked but you: What’s your favorite episode?
A: Hercules Unchained!
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