Cult Heroes of the Week: Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson

It’s hilarious. It’s offbeat. Those who don’t get it won’t, and those who do usually find out the hard way that quoting a line from Mystery Science Theater 3000 has the power to alienate an entire room and solidify one’s status as a complete “geek”. And then we go find a better room.

One fateful, frigid day in 1988 in Minnesota, Joel Hodgeson created cult history. Armed with a peculiar TV show concept, a slot on a local UHF station, three hastily made puppets and a group of dedicated and wacky people, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was born. Joel spent five years working at what he described as the “perfect job” as a man with his hands in nearly every aspect of the show, most notably as its star Joel Hodgson (later Joel Robinson).

Joel had a shy, “stoner” type personality and look (a holdover from the show’s pilot, during which he was completely exhausted after spending the previous night making the show’s puppets). He had a sense of humor that was at the same time deadpan and kooky and his relationship with The ‘Bots had a cozy family feel (as in real life, he was The ‘Bots’ creator on the show). When riffing a film Joel’s tone was one of goofy, gentle reprimand with him frequently getting up to “interact” with the action onscreen. Many, fans have always preferred Joel as the star, rather than the other very talented and able man that Joel chose to replace him as host when he left.

Michael J. Nelson was a waiter at TGI Fridays when he was offered a spot in the show’s writing room. He so impressed the crew that he later became head-writer for the rest of its eleven-year run. Mike made appearances on the show for years as oddball characters during the host segments before becoming a permanent presence in front of the camera as the show’s new host, Mike Nelson. Like it or not, he brought change. Mike boasted a quick wit and self-deprecating sense of humor, but as nasty as he could be to himself he was downright merciless with the films he was subjected to. Likewise, rather than the gentler ribbing Joel received from The ‘Bots, as the newcomer Mike was doomed to be continually treated as if he were in a college hazing. The abrupt change either sat well or it didn’t, and subsequently an INTENSE debate began between hardcore Joel and Mike fans.

It’s really a shame, because both of these men are terribly talented in so many areas. Most people have their favorite, which is to be expected, but to truly love the show is to see each host’s era not as a separate entity that is infinitely better or worse than the other. To really love and get the masterpiece is to respect them as two pieces of an amazing whole that marked an unbeatable eleven years in cult television history.

Essential Joel Hodgson:

  • Mystery Science Theater 3000
  • Cinematic Titanic, his post-MST3K project in which he continues to riff on bad movies and tours with Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Connif (former cast members of MST3K).

Essential Mike Nelson:

  • Mystery Science Theater 3000
  • Rifftrax, Mike’s movie-riffing project, joined by MST3K alumni Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
  • The Film Crew (a short-lived movie-riffing project also featuring Nelson, Murphy and Corbett)

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