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Five Ways Joel and Mike from "Mystery Science Theater 3000" are Better than Each Other

By Rob Payne | Lists | March 13, 2013 |

By Rob Payne | Lists | March 13, 2013 |

“Mystery Science Theater 3000,” the television show that defined the nebulous idea of riffing on movies, influencing both the senses of humor and entertainment value for generations of cinephiles, has some of the most die hard fans out there. Considering the show was the only game in town for over a decade, thus cementing its cult-like status forever, this is not surprising. Even if the Satellite of Love is no longer floating around in cardboard space, the characters onboard and the writers behind the scenes set a gold standard that is nearly impossible to duplicate. MST3K is just the kind of show that causes people who love it to drop everything and watch it, preferably the instant the opportunity arises. Generally, it doesn’t matter who the host is or who the Mads happen to be, MSTies just want to laugh at some seriously bad films.

Yet there is a peculiar divide amongst even the show’s most ardent supporters: those who zealously praise the show’s original host, Joel Hodgson, and those who worship at the altar of his replacement, Michael J. Nelson. That divide is only amplified since the two eras of the series are split down the middle, with each getting about 5 ½ seasons on national airwaves (if not an equal number of episodes). Hodgsonites tend to cite the rise in cynicism for their mild distaste of later seasons, while Nelsonians have a harder time sitting through some of the earlier episodes’ lower production values and revolving cast. Some of that tension undoubtedly originated when a fan started watching MST3K - those who watched the show from the start have an abiding connection to their roots, whereas those who got on at the Sci-Fi Channel are appreciative of the new guy.

As someone who watched back when Comedy Central was The Comedy Channel, back when I had to stay up well past my bedtime to see it, I can confirm that both camps are 100% right in their preferences, as well as 100% wrong. Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Joel Has…

The “Creator” Credit
At the end of every single episode the first credit that shows up on the screen is “created by Joel Hodgson.” From the concept’s earliest days in Hopkins, Minnesota to KTMA in the Twin Cities to being syndicated on cable, Joel was the original visionary as well as the main character. As a kid, I loved his take on the gimmick, and it really felt directed at me while never condescending. In fact, I’m almost certain I learned something about culture or media or history in every single episode. Even after he left — and it doesn’t matter what season we’re talking about — Joel is the Dr. Frankenstein behind the monster. The nuclear explosion behind the Gamera. Without Joel, there would be no MST3K. No Crow. No Tom Servo. No Gypsy. No Dr. Forrester. No Mike as Torgo. Respect.

Cinematic Titanic

In 1988 Joel saw a niche that needed filling and in 2007 that niche had yet be filled up, so Cinematic Titanic was born. Because even after Joel left MST3K, and even after the show was finally canceled, there were still just too many awesomely awful movies out in the world that had gone not skewered for far too long. Some of these flicks just don’t stand the test of time, but others are failures that failed so hard they’re in the public domain for obvious reasons. There’s comedy cold in them thar reels and, with the help of a regular pantheon of talent from the all or nothing days, Hodgson keeps mining them for our pleasure. Sadly, the touring portion of the show was suspended last month, but, thank Godzilla, we still have Hulu.

“Freaks and Geeks”

Of course, MST3K isn’t the only time Joel has made an impact on a beloved, cultish television show. Or, considering the particular series, an impact on DVD players all over the world. Along with Apatow favorite Jason Schwartzman, Hodgson had a memorable, if brief, cameo as the manager of a Disco-inspired clothing store who moonlighted as a DJ at the roller rink/bowling alley in “Freaks and Geeks.” There certainly wasn’t much to the character besides his pomp and funky circumstance, but just seeing Joel on TV again after escaping Deep 13 was enough to warm the cockles of even the coldest of hearts. Coincidentally, Trace Beaulieu, who enslaved Joel as Dr. Forrester and befriended him as Crow T. Robot, also had a recurring role as a high school biology teacher.

TV’s Frank

Speaking of things our lives would be lacking without Joel Hodgson, without him the best solo sidekick in the history of sidekicks might never have been introduced to the world if not for his brainchild. What? You don’t think TV’s Frank Conniff, with his slow burn comedic timing and delivery so dry it puts sandpaper to shame, is brilliant? Not even when he turns to the exceedingly goofy so fast it could induce whiplash? If the above video doesn’t do anything for you, you must be dead. And if that’s the case, I only have one question: How’s the Internet connection in Hell?

The Worst Best Episodes
By which I mean, naturally, that due to the inexpensiveness and ease of acquiring public domain films, the Joel seasons of MST3K are rife with some of the absolute worst, nigh unwatchablest movies ever produced. Some are so awful that it isn’t surprising more than a few fans would prefer to laugh at movies from Sci-Fi Channel’s vault over Ed Wood’s peers. Bad movies? Yes, but bad movies with pacing and basic aesthetics that audiences in the 1990s and today can better comprehend . That is precisely the reason why Joel Hodgson (and the other talented guys at Best Brains, Inc.) deserves nothing but kudos and applause for, more often than not, turning the truly terrible into sublime pieces of entertainment.

From the likes of Cave Dwellers

To Pod People

To Manos: The Hands of Fate

To Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

To all the Godzillas and Gameras

So, you’ll forgive me if I scoff at your belief that Joel is obviously the weaker of the two hosts, and his seasons the weakest of the two halves. Admittedly, you don’t lack for compelling arguments.

Because Mike Has…

The “Head Writer” Credit
While it’s pretty clear that Joel is the birth mother of MST3K, it’s less clear who actually raised such a hilarious and mischievous child. After all, it’s Michael J. Nelson who received gotten the credit of “head writer” at the end of each episode, starting well before he was the host of the show. To be sure, as far as unions are concerned “creator” has more weight than “writer.” But thanks to TV series like “Community” and “Cougartown” falling into the abyss after losing their creative masterminds, it’s clearer than ever that “showrunner” is the most important job on any given show. That Mike basically had that responsibility from the very beginning means you can’t discount the Joel seasons even a little, because that would be discounting Mike.


Naturally, when the show was cancelled in 1997, there was still a demand for quality movie riffs. Some fans even dreamed the dream that someone, somewhere might riff “real” movies with budgets that were released in theaters within the last decade. Sensing that there was more than one niche to fill, Nelson started RiffTrax, which makes fun of old school short films and, indeed, modern day blockbusters. His cohorts from MST3K joined him soon enough, and now it’s arguable that Mike’s newest venture is even more successful than the thing that allowed it to happen. Recently, the Kickstarter campaign to get the crew to riff Twilight in theaters across the country quadrupled their $55,000 goal.

Movie Megacheese
A year or so after MST3K’s cancellation (interestingly, around the same time as Joel’s disco phase), one of the great pieces of film criticism was published in book form. Focusing on the kinds of movies fans always wished the show could cover, from Home Alone to The Blair Witch Project, Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese is, simply, a damn funny book. The tone of the reviews is practically the Proto-Pajiba, scathingly droll and mockingly bitchy before those were even twinkles in Dustin’s eyes. I don’t think it’s at all a surprising that many of us here love the show, and I’d wager more than a few of us cherished this in our formative years.

Bobo and Brain Guy

Naturally, neither Mike nor Joel did everything on their lonesome, and the second half of MST3K continues the series’ greatness with huge assists from Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. The former was Tom Servo for most of that character’s existence, and the latter filled Crow T. Robot’s big shoes perfectly. But where they really pulled their weight was as Professor Bobo and the Observer, nay Brain Guy, respectively. TV’s Frank will always deserve a soft spot in our hearts, but these two prove just how much fun comic duos can be.

The Best Worst Movies
The fact that Mike and his crew had access to, well, in every sense of the word, more accessible movies thanks to being picked up by pre-Syfy has already been mentioned, but it’s fairly important. Older movies that contemporary audiences just can’t relate to, if they were ever relatable, feel a little too easy to pick on, whereas movies with recognizable humans, if not recognizable stars, seem harder and more deserving if they suck. It’s simply a little or a lot more fun to rip apart movies that should know better, or at least have no excuse for not trying.

From the likes of Werewolf

To Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

To Parts: The Clonus Horror

To Final Sacrifice

And The Touch of Satan

“This is where the fish lives.”

In the end, it really shouldn’t matter. Any “Mystery Science Theater 3000” is better than no “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. His perfect riff cast would include everybody.

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