Hecklers tend to amuse themselves more than they amuse the heckled and the heckler-adjacent.
Occasionally, however, heckling becomes an art form all its own.
Case in point: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
That is not the case in point I want to point out, however.
The absolute pinnacle of heckling as entertainment occurred on a long-running cable show in which puppets portrayed robots and doughy Midwesterners portrayed castaways in space. “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
There was a story line involving mad scientists using the worst films ever committed to celluloid as a form of punishment, but all the cheeseball trappings and goofball interstitials were all just an excuse to mock exceptionally mockable movies.
The show, canceled in 1999, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its birth with a tricked-out boxed set of DVDs and collectibles. And the man who created “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1988 but walked away from it in 1993 is talking about the show again after many years of relative silence.
Joel Hodgson says he got the idea for “Mystery Science Theater” in high school.
“I was listening to Elton John’s album ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ while working on a float,” he says. “There were illustrations for every song and one was of three heads watching a Clark Gable movie.”
Hodgson says it occurred to him that silhouettes cracking jokes at the expense of a movie might make for a good, not to mention inexpensive, show.
Flash forward a dozen years or so.
It’s 1987 and Hodgson is a successful comedian, illusionist and puppeteer who appears regularly on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live.”
Hodgson befriends Jim Mallon, a production manager at KTMA, a UHF station in St. Paul, Minn., and the pair decide to shoot a pilot based on his silhouette premise.
The sci-fi film “Silent Running” provided inspiration for the show’s “man and robots marooned in space” plot, and Hodgson built the sets and props himself in a single evening.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000,” aka “MST3K,” premiered on Thanksgiving 1988 with a cast composed of Hodgson and two Minnesota comedians, Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein.
“I knew Trace and Josh because we were in a writing group together,” Hodgson says. “They were the funniest guys I knew and also more openminded than most stand-up comics.”
The first year of the show on KTMA was totally improvised and unscripted, and Hodgson believes it’s nearly unwatchable as a result.
“I cut together a highlight reel of the show’s funniest moments,” Hodgson says. “But I said to Jim, ‘Look, if we’re going to get paid to do this, then each episode has to be as funny as this (highlight reel).’ ”
From that point, the show was meticulously scripted and rehearsed, with jokes culled from multiple viewings of the films.
Hodgson’s highlight reel caught the interest of execs at the fledgling Comedy Channel (which later merged with a network called Ha! to create Comedy Central).
The show ran for seven seasons on Comedy Central, but Hodgson left in the middle of the fifth.
He has always claimed that his departure was motivated by fatigue, but Hodgson now acknowledges he was having creative differences with Mallon.
The cast and crew had been offered the opportunity to do a feature film version of the show and Mallon wanted to direct it, Hodgson says.
“There had always been a strict division up to that point,” Hodgson says. “I ran creative. He ran production. He was a very good line producer.
“I told him, ‘If you direct the movie, I don’t want to be on camera,’ ” Hodgson says. “I was serious.”
After that, Hodgson says, things became very uncomfortable for him on the set.
“It was like we couldn’t tell the kids mommy and daddy were fighting,” he says. “So daddy just had to go away.”
Hodgson says he envisioned various loyalists splitting into two camps and splitting the show apart as a result.
So he left.
Hodgson calls it “one of the big personal tragedies of (his) life.”
The show went on for a season and a half on Comedy Central and three seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel with head writer Mike Nelson at the helm (Hodgson calls Nelson a “really talented, super funny guy”).
Mallon shut Hodgson out of everything “MS3TK”-related for a long time, Hodgson says, but they have since called a shaky truce.
Now, after years of perusing various projects, the former cast and crew members of “MST3K” are mocking bad movies again.
Mike Nelson and friends are over at Rifftrax.com, Hodgson and his stalwarts can be found at CinematicTitanic.com and Mallon is producing new “MST3K” cartoons at MST3K.com.
Hodgson says he isn’t surprised that he’s still talking about “Mystery Science Theater 3000” two decades later because everyone involved in the show gave it their best effort.
But he is surprised when people tell him how the show affected them.
“When I meet people who tell me they show it to their grandkids and people who had traumatic experiences and say watching the show made them feel better,” Hodgson says, “that’s clearly outside of what anybody was thinking in the beginning.”