Hey Joel, where you been?
Thanks to Andrew Sullivan, I happened upon the new Internet series by Jerry Seinfeld, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The premise is pretty much what you’d expect, and the episodes lean more on great conversation and less on cheesy yucks than you might expect.
But I was mostly happy to see this episode featuring Joel Hodgson, because I so often find myself wondering what he is up to these days.
Hodgson was the creative genius behind Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Much of what’s great about television comedy today owes a debt to MST3K, and not just for its characters’ post-modern acceptance being observed by an audience. The driving ethos of MST3K’s writing was that it was OK to tell jokes that not everyone would get, providing that they were funny. (As Hodgson himself once said, “We don’t care if only a few people get a joke. We just care that the right people get the joke.”) His influence on contemporary television comedy is mostly inside baseball: The show remains outside of the general public’s field of vision, but those in the industry cite MST3K as an influence all the time.
Hodgson abruptly left the show in 1993, after its 100th episode. There was much speculation as to why he did so, but everyone was pretty tight lipped about it. (It appears now that much of it came down to personality and creative conflicts.) MST3K soldiered on without him, of course. But even though it was initially still excellent in the Mike Nelson years, it was never exactly the same after Hodgson left, and by the time the series came to an end in 1999 it felt tired and forced. How much of the show’s slow, meandering collapse was due to Hodgson’s exit, and how much was simply the inevitable outcome of any new and edgy venture is up for debate.
The rest of MST3K’s crew went on to do… well, very little, actually. In fact, the post-MST3K careers of all of them seem to be little but finding new ways to recycle MST3K. This is somewhat unsurprising, I suppose – except for the case of Hodgson himself. The others took his idea and helped him make it something special, but the real creative genius was always Hodgson. It just seems inconceivable that Hodgson wouldn’t have ever come up with something else as new and fresh as MST3K since 1993, whether or not it ever became a hit. As it turns out, Hodgson may end up being the comedic equivalent of that clichéd young theoretical physicist who becomes famous for a groundbreaking paper at 24 and fades into ever-increasing obscurity as he ages.
But maybe I’m asking too much of Hodgson. After all, when you create MST3K you’ve done the TV-comedy equivalent to discovering Quantum Mechanics. You go and pull that rabbit out of the hat, maybe you’ve earned your retirement. Maybe that’s enough, my asking for anything more is just plain being greedy.
Still, it was good to see Hodgson again in a non-1990s rerun. I hope we get to see more of him soon. Until then, here’s the classic short, Johnny at the Fair: