Getting to the Heart of MST3K at Comic Con@Home

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Last Night Comic Con@Home took attendees on a deep dive into the world of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  The long running show has taken on many incarnations over the decades and the panel included show creator Joel Hodgson as well as former cast members J. Elvis Weinstein and Bill Corbett.

The vibe was distinctly different for this comic con as everyone met at home through video conferencing.  The effect is a panel that feels distinctly intimate though occasionally lacks the electricity of the standard convention. But no level of a pandemic can take away the pleasure of watching three great comedians get together and talk about the history of one of the most innovative shows ever created.

Their combined history spans the entire length of the show giving some fascinating insights into the evolution of the characters. Tom Servo, for instance, started out as Beeper an R2D2-style character that only really shows up in the first few episodes of KTMA.  The character then took on a Pee-Wee Herman persona but after that didn’t gel he eventually turned into a kind of radio show host voice. Though they may seem like minor tweaks those choices went on to influence to the trajectory of the character for more than two decades.

Joel, on the other hand, notes that he wasn’t sure how to originally approach the role of host on the show. For avid viewers of MST3K the host role evolved the most through the decades. With three (four if you count the COVID Riffathon that went on Youtube) hosts and counting each one has approached it in a new way. Hodgson laid the groundwork by treating the bots like a father or an uncle.

Courtesy of Comic-Con International youtube

Though fairly common now (thanks to MST3K, whether you know it or not) the act of riffing was breaking new ground as the show was created. After watching the show for years the ability of a riff to land or not land is key. Joel, Bill and J. Elvis shared insight into what makes it work and it’s not what you would expect.

“I think there’s a myth that we only wrote riffs for ourselves and that’s just not true,” noted Corbett. “Very often I’d write riffs for the others and it wasn’t even something you think about.”  This is in contrast to the Joel era where it went in a round-robin fashion. “If you notice I got every third line in the show, we wanted to pass the joke around,” said Hodgson.

The unifying factor among all of their experiences was, unsurprisingly, the film itself. “In the beginning, we were much quieter and didn’t realize you had to riff through the whole thing,” Hodgson explains. “Once we got to Comedy Central we knew you had to do wall-to-wall jokes and treat the film like an acting partner,” Hodgson notes that you had to treat the film like it was Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers film. You had to make fun of it like it was in the room with you. That adds a whole new layer to shows.

Watching them all interact is always fun. Despite the gap in their experiences with the show they all more or less knew each other from Minnesota and treat each other like life long friends and colleagues. Something about the format of the show continues to give it new life and allow it to evolve. Even though no one on the panel is currently working with MST3K they continue to riff through mediums like Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax. They are constantly creating new content and evolving the art of the riff. It’s a sight to behold. Watch The Full Panel Here