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Creating Contraptions Is Not Mystery Science to Him

Television: Joel Hodgson, the former star of 'MST3K,' has started a company that creates Rube Goldberg-style magic for the Digital Age.

November 28, 1998|DAVID KRONKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joel Hodgson was flying high. In fact, he was in orbit.

As Joel Robinson, the sleepy-eyed, genially mopey janitor forced to sit through and heckle crummy movies on the award-winning cult TV hit "Mystery Science Theater 3000," Hodgson had critical acclaim and a loyal fan base.

Sure, he was on cable, Monopoly money compared to network megabucks, but as creator and executive producer of his Minneapolis-based series, he had more creative freedom than most TV artists.

And yet, in 1995, Hodgson jettisoned himself from "MST3K," the moniker by which the show's fans know it, in its fifth season, bailing after mercilessly slagging Joe Don Baker's performance as a boozy cop in a queasiness-inducing flick called "Mitchell." Except for brief appearances on such things as "The TV Wheel," a special Hodgson created for HBO, Hodgson has flown beneath the radar since then.

And that's the way he prefers it. With his brother Jim, a sculptor who has been a consultant for New York art museums, Hodgson has started Visual Story Tools, a company that creates Rube Goldberg-style magic for the Digital Age. In their Sun Valley warehouse-cum-laboratory, the two tinker on quirky contraptions that amuse them and allow others to rethink the way they look at television.

They've created, among other things, a miniature carnival ride for the new live-action opening sequence for the Cartoon Network's quixotic cult fave, "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," and have consulted for effects on the FX series "Penn & Teller's Sin City Spectacular." They're developing a handful of series for the upcoming cable channel named for the late Jim Henson.

That hasn't prevented some fans--including some who have left withering postings on Hodgson's Web site--from feeling that the former prop comic and magician (he recently appeared at the Magic Castle) has squandered his career. Hodgson, however, insists he's perfectly happy remaining behind the camera.

"Performing on ["MST3K"] was kind of a necessity because I was the most well-known guy," Hodgson said in his Sun Valley work space. "I had done 'Letterman' and 'Saturday Night Live.' So it was kind of a promotional thing, kind of like Chuck Barris. I read where he hated doing 'The Gong Show,' but it worked for him."

'He Loves the Creative Process'

Hodgson collaborated with his friend Nell Scovell on the direct-to-video hit "Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves," and they were script doctors on "George of the Jungle" (they convinced wary Disney executives to let the apes speak). The brothers created tricks and special effects for the first season of "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," an ABC series that Scovell co-created.

"Joel's so inventive," Scovell said. "He approaches his projects with so much love. He loves the creative process; he's not about making money. He's about creating something new, not just something successful. He's so pure in a town without a lot of purity."

Yet for all the fun and clever gizmos they create, the brothers Hodgson address their creations in serious, strictly business fashion. They discuss their work in arid, practically academic fashion--Jim Hodgson uses phrases like "peer groups" without any irony; his brother dryly intones such bons mots as "Jim and I are real students of creativity."

The Hodgsons differ from most writers pitching ideas in that rather than type up scripts, they first build model sets to see if their ideas will fly.

Many of the Hodgsons' ideas employ puppetry, including "MST3K." "We really try to develop things from the ground up," Joel Hodgson said. "Most people involved in making shows tend to be involved with the story. And we're different because we get involved with all the various aspects, try to consider where you would hide all the puppeteers and then write the script. It creates a bottleneck if you create something that looks great on paper but can't be shot. You can pitch really beautiful ideas, but there's a stark reality as to what comes out.

"Most people in our position just have a word processor," he said. "We feel that should be the second step. That's why we over-deliver [by building miniature sets]. I hate nothing more than that term-paper mentality, where 'We have to save the show!' because you didn't anticipate the puppet couldn't do something you scripted and you stay up all night rewriting."

Remaining Artistic Despite Politics

The brothers were inspired by their father, who built Rube Goldberg-style objects in his spare time. Jim Hodgson's art background has proved a boon for the duo's creations, and he doesn't seem to have had trouble adapting to Hollywood's often less artful mentality.

"There is more dough here, and the opportunities are much broader, I'm realizing," he said. Asked to compare Hollywood's cutthroat politics with those in the art world, he said simply, "It doesn't seem any different."

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