Jim Mallon interview


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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?
A: Being 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.

Q: Give 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?
A: I 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.

Q: Your 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?
A: The 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?
A: Kevin 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 KTMA.

Q: How did you end up at KTMA?
A: They 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?
A: I 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.

Q: Here’s 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.

Q: Is 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.
A: Yes. 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.

Q: Back 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?
A: Well, 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.

Q: The KTMA period has been pretty well chronicled, but is there something about that time that you think fans have never heard about?
A: KTMA 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” office.

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?
A: I 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.

Q: Painfully 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 what happened?
A: My 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.

Q: The 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?
A: I 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 everyone there.

Q: I 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 Weinstein’s departure?
A: What 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.

Q: In 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.
A: Working 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.

Q: Just 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!”
A: I 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.

Q: Lately, 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.
A: Making 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.

Q: I 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?
A: In 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?
A: Making 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.

Q: 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?
A: I 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.

Q: MST3K.com 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?
A: We 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 and photos.
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 someday.

Q: Our 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?
A: Joel 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.

Q: For 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 straight?
A: Hmmm 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!