In the not too distant future (April 14, 2017, by all accounts) and somewhere in time and space (Netflix), cheesy-movie juggernaut Mystery Science Theater 3000 will return to the small screen. MST3K, created right here in Minnesota by Joel Hodgson, has amassed legions of fans—myself included—since it first premiered in 1988, and anticipation is high for the revival.
I reached out to Elliott Kalan, head writer for the new series, to talk about the show. Kalan was previously known for his work as the head writer for The Daily Show, podcasting about bad movies on The Flop House, and writing for Marvel. He had been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 since he was young, and I connected with him about what to expect in the new season and what it means to go from fan to creator of a work. We also discussed the way that Mystery Science Theater 3000 inspired his comedy career and how his work on The Daily Show prepared him for this job.
For many geeks, our fandoms define us. We are inspired to create things based on works we love, from elaborate cosplay to art and fanfiction. Some fans, like Mr. Kalan, get to go a step further and make the transition from someone who stayed up until midnight to watch a crazy late-night show to working on that crazy show themselves. We discussed what it meant to make that transition from fan to creator.
Jonathan Carnes (TCG): Do you have a favorite original MST3K episode, and if so, what about it sticks out to you?
Elliott Kalan: It would be very hard to choose one original episode over the others. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart, though, for “King Dinosaur,” because it’s the first episode I ever saw when it ran as a midnight rerun. I’d read about the show in TV Guide and desperately wanted to see it, and when I discovered my local cable package included Comedy Central I did a super pleading job on my parents to let me stay up and watch MST3K. It was everything I ever dreamed of. There was something so beautifully shaggy and surreal about the long Larry the Lemur sketch that said to me, “Yes, this is the place for you.” It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before.
TCG: Was your writing process significantly different for MST3K than for previous work, like The Daily Show?
Elliott: Extremely different. Writing for The Daily Show was essentially writing at high velocity. You started working in the morning—or if you were lucky, the previous afternoon—and you were done by the end of the afternoon so that the show could air that night. MST3K, on the other hand, was a process that took more time—and, in a strange way, more mental effort because you had to fit your jokes into very specific time slots between lines of dialogue, like jigsaw pieces. In the similarities column, though, both shows’ greatest strength is drawing on a hivemind of references and life-accumulated data that could be applied to a new context to make them funny.
TCG: For Twin Cities fans, obscure references to places within the Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area have always made watching MST3K feel extra special. Can you comment on how that was worked into the new episodes?
Elliott: We tried to do some Twin Cities area references—Joel [Hodgson] definitely had a few that he included. It was harder for me because I just don’t know the area that well. I definitely loved the local references of the old episodes, even when I didn’t get them, because they hinted at this whole part of the country I didn’t experience growing up. I tried to contribute in my own way by including a bunch of references to tristate-area things.
TCG: In what way, if any, did MST3K inspire your career in comedy? And conversely, how did your career prepare you to take on this show?
Elliott: MST3K very much inspired me to build a career in comedy. It wasn’t my only influence, but it was an enormous one on me, something I really internalized and made part of my comic voice. It’s the show I’ve wanted to work on more then any other since I was 13 or so. MST3K had a tone of smart, nonhostile fun that was a very comfortable space for a sensitive young nerd. And that’s a feeling I’ve tried to maintain as much as I can in my work.
On the other hand, my career prepared me for MST3K by training me to produce a lot of material in a limited amount of time, synthesize a lot of information and possible jokes into a polished line, and develop strategies for writing jokes when the material—in this case, the movie—isn’t giving you much help.
TCG: Do you consider yourself more a Crow, Tom Servo, or Gypsy, and why?
Elliott: I think I’m very much a Tom Servo. I’m a pedant who likes to point out when he knows more than other people, I’m short, and I break out into song at the slightest provocation. The only real difference is that Servo has always had beautiful deep voices—Baron [Vaughn]’s is especially lovely—whereas my voice is a lot more like Crow’s.
TCG: Do you have any advice for people who want to break into comedy?
Elliott: Hoo boy. Too much advice to include here! My main three pieces of advice are: One, be persistent. If rejection bothers you, then comedy is not the career for you. Two, put yourself out there. Don’t wait for someone to give you a comedy job; start writing and producing your own online videos, tweets, comics, whatever your medium is. The Internet makes it easier than it’s ever been before to expose your work to the world and create a following. Don’t hide your light under a bushel! And three, be a nice person. People like to help nice people out. Nobody likes to help jerks out.
TCG: Will MST3K continue to focus on older B-movies in this season, or does it branch out into newer works?
Elliott: We’ve got movies from a wide range of decades, but for this season Joel wanted to plant us in the tradition of mostly older B-movies. We’ll see where we go in season 2!
TCG: Have you gotten to spend much time with Bill Corbett, Mike Nelson, or Kevin Murphy? And if so, what was it like to work with them?
Elliott: Bill and Kevin—and Mary Jo [Pehl], as well!—came back and did some acting for the series, and gave me notes and comments on the scripts for their scenes, and it made the whole thing even more of a dream come true. They were extremely friendly and welcoming, and it was inspiring to see what they brought to the material and how they elevated it. It’s an amazing feeling to see people you’ve admired since you were young speaking dialogue you worked on. It’s also really intimidating and anxiety producing!
TCG: What are your earliest memories of MST3K?
Elliott: My earliest, earliest memories are of hearing about this kid of secret, rumored show where robots make fun of bad movies and desperately thinking, “I need to see this!” After that, it was just being an instant superfan when I finally watched it. I was an adolescent, so I’d sneak into my basement to watch the reruns when I was supposed to be in bed. I remember putting a special reserve on the Amazing Colossal Episode Guide and making my dad take a detour on our way to a vacation so I could go pick it up at the store when it came in. And also a lot of trying to explain the show to my relatives and them not understanding it. That part hasn’t changed.
TCG: How does it feel to go from a fan of something to being a part of creating that thing?
Elliott: It’s amazing. I’ve had such a lucky career, and getting to be a part of bringing MST3K back is just one of the most exciting things I can imagine. My childhood bedroom has an ad for MST3K: The Movie that I ripped out of a magazine as a teen on the wall, and if I told that kid he would get to work with Joel himself and actually write for Crow and Servo, he would probably die of shock. So I don’t think I’ll go back in time and do that.
You can catch the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 starting April 14 on Netflix. And if you’ll be in the Twin Cities on April 15, you can check out the free screening and Q&A with MST3K composer Chuck Love and music producer Tom Scott—you could even win a theremin! If you’re interested in Elliott Kalan’s other work, look up Presidents Are People, Too! (an audio series with historian Alexis Coe about the human dimension of the people who held the office of president), The Flop House (a podcast about terrible movies), or his work with Marvel comics.