I imagine MST3K would be a hard thing to package and sell to an executive.
We were so lucky, the channel we were selling to was just starting and had so much time to fill -- they were desperate, we were fortunate.
Was it always going to be a sci-fi premise with space and robots?
Prior to doing Mystery Science Theater I was trying to cook up an idea I could do locally. It was a show called "You Are Here." It was sort of based on that scene in The Omega Man where Charlton Heston is sitting in an abandoned theater watching footage from the concert film Woodstock, repeating over and over to himself, "look at all the people." The premise had the show set after the apocalypse and this guy had lived through it and was trying to broadcast to see who was out there. So he's running old movies, and I remember a drawing that I had of a robot, Rex the Robot. So that was the concept. I thought something like that could have a chance late at night on local TV in Minneapolis. It wouldn't be too different from other "Shock Theater" monster movie shows that I watched as a kid.
I was also inspired by a local show in Green Bay Wisconsin where I grew up. It was called T.J. and the A.N.T, an acronym for "Television Jock and the All Night Theater." It was so cool -- this guy who called himself T.J. would turn on a camera in the edit bay of this local TV station, WLUK, and do a show all night, all by himself! It was mostly movies and weird cartoons. But T.J. was kind of this thoughtful hipster, sort a like Jerry Todd from SCTV. If you stayed up late, it felt like it was just you and him watching these old movies. I think that show was an important subtext to what was to come.
I met Jim Mallon who was to become my partner in Mystery Science Theater, and he was this guy who was a production manager at this little TV station. He was kind of like one of those guys in high school who had all the keys to everything. He was making his own little pilots that he wanted to do on the TV station. He approached me with his idea which was to do a local comedy contest. I wasn't very interested in it -- because I had already left stand-up, so I put him in touch with Scott Hansen who at that time was Minneapolis' chief comedy honcho and that was that.
Then I started to think about it, and thought, "wait a minute... there's this channel, and maybe I can do something, because they have this film library." So I took the "You Are Here" thing and imposed one of my all time favorite movies, Silent Running, over it, which is about a guy marooned on a space station with three robots. The silhouette thing was to tie it all together which is an idea I'd seen occasionally in old cartoons.
I then called back Jim Mallon and pitched him the idea for Mystery Science Theater 3000.
It's great that was it was so accepted, because really, in theory, it might have worked for a time without it if it was just talking about movies. But the fact that you packaged it with the characters and robots, and the whole storyline -- that really kept people coming back.
I did that deliberately because I wanted the silhouette to be distinctive. I knew it wouldn't work if you were just making fun or happened to be sarcastic. You had to have some reason -- like "The Prisoner" -- where you are forced to watch the movie. Because otherwise, why don't you leave if you don't like it?
After I quit stand-up comedy, I made robots from found objects. Which, I have to mention, I picked up from watching a documentary on Star Wars, I think they called it kitbashing. They'd build the miniatures out of other model kits. I started going down to the Goodwill in Minneapolis and bought tons of plastic bits and pieces, and with a hot glue gun started cobbling together my own funny robot scuptures. Over the course of about a year I made over 60 robots and would sell them out of a gift store in Minneapolis called "Props." That lent itself to using robots in MST. I needed an overall look for MST and knew that "Kitbashing" was a cheap and easy way was to It. I also pulled an all-nighter the night before we did the pilot and built the first three robots.
So, what were doing in the summer of 1977 when Star Wars came out?
Two things: I remember seeing an ad for Star Wars in Rolling Stone magazine, and I remember saying to someone: "This is going to be huge." The other thing that happened was seeing the trailer, and I couldn't really remember it properly. I remember seeing an image of Chewbacca but my memory couldn't really recall what I was looking at. They were just flashes of images that I couldn't later describe because it moved so damn fast and it was completely and wholly different than anything I had ever seen.
We all really wanted to see it, and there was this huge theater in Green Bay called the Bay Theater. It was this really beautiful old movie palace, with a massive pipe organ and a domed ceiling with lights that made it look like stars. It was a beautiful, beautiful theater. It was packed. I remember picking up on the audience that was there. Everyone was in a funny/excited mood. Somehow it brought together all these people. It was like a live show, a thoroughly exciting experience. You can't compare it to anything in some ways. The closest thing I want to compare it to is a concert -- this is the '70s remember -- and the closest experience I had ever had to watching Star Wars was seeing the band Styx at the Brown County Coliseum, or going to see "Laser Floyd" at the planetarium up to the university.