A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Mike Nelson for Tastes Like Chicken Magazine. Wasn’t sure how much longer the site was going to be around and I wanted a lasting record of my first (and possibly only) celebrity interview. So here it is.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’S MIKE NELSON
Interview by Boom Boom Storm Cloud
Illustration by Frank Michael Cvetkovic
Boom Boom Storm Cloud: So, Mike Nelson–
Mike Nelson: Yes, that is me.
BBSC: Do you prefer Mike? Michael? Mr. Nelson? Master Nelson?
MN: Mike is perfectly fine.
BBSC: Mike is fine. Good. So, first off, I just want to say that you were on probably one of the most boring documentaries ever. I mean, you’re in space, you have robots, and all you do is watch movies.
MN: (laughs) Yeah.
BBSC: Okay, so you’re doing a show here at Shadowbox Cabaret in Easton Town Center [in Columbus, Ohio].
BBSC: Are you doing a tour? A series of shows?
MN: No, this is it. This is a special gig just for Shadowbox.
BBSC: What prompted this?
MN: They called me a while back because they were doing some of the pieces from my book. They had adapted some for the stage, and they wanted to have me come and look at the shows. I just thought it’d be fun to come out and meet these guys. They said they wanted to talk about a proposal, so I came out, saw the show, and I really liked it. So they asked me if I’d be a part of it.
BBSC: And how does it translate?
MN: Well, the whole experience of it is pretty similar to Saturday Night Live, where they have their whole gig going, and then they bring in somebody, and everybody kinda dances around me and tries to make me look good. It seems to work.
BBSC: Nice. Well, speaking of your books, you’ve written three that I know of: Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese, Mike Nelson’s Mind Over Matters, and Mike Nelson’s Death Rat.
MN: There are a couple more. There’s Happy Kitty Bunny Pony, which is an art book, actually. And Goth-Icky is also out. It’s a series of books. So, those are the first two, and I think there are two more.
BBSC: Are you going to be writing more, or is this it for the foreseeable future?
MN: Hopefully, if the series goes well, there’s… we’re just ahead of it, ahead of the game now. There’s four of them done and two of them are out, so I probably won’t start on another one for a year.
BBSC: Are these novels?
MN: No, they’re more… uh, gosh. What would you compare these to? It’s kind of… well, it’s sort of a gift book. It’s got this great color art that’s like the Happy Kitty Bunny Pony. It’s the cutest art. It’s found art that they then sort of jazz up. It’s the design company that does the art, and then it’s just my commentary underneath all of that, so it sort of ties it all together and makes it funny and fun to read.
BBSC: A friend of mine loved Death Rat, and he was wondering if you were going to do more novels.
MN: I may. It’s sort of a tough thing to do. You kinda got to write it first and then sell it, and my career’s a little busy right now for that. All of my writing is for projects that I’m currently doing, so it’s hard to set aside time for such a large thing that is on spec. I mean, [John] Grisham can sell a novel before he writes it. I can’t. Most people can’t. You have to write a whole lot of it first.
BBSC: Yeah, Grisham can go in and say, “Yeah, I got one about… um, uh… a court case… and a lawyer!”
BBSC: And they’re like, “Yeah–
MN: “Yeah, sure, write it down. Here’s a check.” (laughs)
BBSC: Yeah. “Here’s some money.” So, you said your career is pretty busy with other stuff. What kind of other things are you doing?
MN: I just did some hosting bits. I just came off of it, so I did a lot of writing for that. I write and host things for the Starz Network, and also for Encore.
BBSC: I heard about that. It’s sort of a “Midnight Movies” type of thing.
MN: Yeah. And I’m working on some videos with The Film Crew, who are Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, and I, and we come together to do any film-related stuff. We’re doing some DVDs for Rhino Video, who also released our Mystery Science Theater collection. So I’m working on that, and I’m working on an animated movie that’s kind of in the early stages. I don’t want to go into any detail, but….
BBSC: Fair enough.
MN: Just a lot of different projects.
BBSC: Is it something that you’re writing? The animated movie?
MN: Yes, I’m just doing the writing. We got artists who are doing the design.
BBSC: I can’t wait for that. Okay, so you are best known, it’s safe to say, for Mystery Science Theater 3000. What kind of stuff did you do before MST3K?
MN: Music. I was a musician. Not a professional one, but I studied music in college. It was like college band stuff. And then I also did theater. I always thought I’d do something in music or theater. But with standup comedy during the Eighties, you could actually make money at it. So I tried it out and kind of went from there. And then I met the guys from Mystery Science, who were also– almost all of them– standup comedians.
BBSC: Did you do standup for a while?
MN: Yeah. About a year and a half.
BBSC: So, how did MST3K come about?
MN: The first host, Joel Hodgson, was approached by the producer, who was working at a local TV station. He said, “We have all of this gear that we can use for side projects. Do you have any ideas?” And Joel came up with a little sketch of some robots and said, “Maybe we could host a movie or something.” So it started as a hosted movie thing, and they weren’t even going to sit in the theater. And then they thought, “Well, we have some comedians here, so let’s let them sit through it.” So that’s how it came to be. I came aboard when they sold it to The Comedy Channel, as it was called at the time.
BBSC: And you were a writer for that [MST3K] for about five years before switching to host.
BBSC: Any funny stories about being with MST3K?
MN: Oh, man.
BBSC: Dirty robot jokes?
MN: (laughs) No. I can tell you a secret, though, about the danger of working with robots.
BBSC: I love secrets.
MN: (laughs) Crow had Ping-Pong balls for eyes– in case that wasn’t obvious– and we often did fire and smoke effects. And, about half the time, his eyes would burst into flames.
MN: Yeah. And Ping-Pong balls burn really well.
BBSC: Oh, wow.
MN: So there are these takes where Crow’s eyes would be shooting flames.
BBSC: I would love to see a blooper reel of that. That’s got to be amazing.
MN: Yeah. We got a little bold with fire sometimes.
MN: It was so fun to burn and blow up puppets.
BBSC: Very cool. So, after MST3K now, what is your life like? You’ve written some books, you’re doing a movie–
MN: Yeah. I love the variety of it. I still get to work with the people that I love, like doing this gig, and I speak at colleges.
BBSC: That’s great.
MN: So it’s that variety that makes it fun, you know?
BBSC: Okay, I have another weird question about MST3K. This comes from a co-worker of mine.
BBSC: I did a little asking around. You know, like a “What questions would you ask Mike Nelson?” quick survey thing.
BBSC: This is the best one that I got: “What is Gypsy really like? She seems really tall.”
MN: (laughs) She would be tall, yeah. The theory was that she was so smart that she had no computer ability left for speaking, so she sounded kind of dumb. But she was the smartest one. But she was also supposed to be a tube that snaked throughout the whole ship. The effect didn’t really quite pull off that way. It just looked like some drainage hose, which… which it was.
MN: But that was the theory.
BBSC: So, in MST3K you watch old bad movies and make jokes of them. How do bad movies from yesteryear differ from bad movies of today? It seems like with movies from the Sixties or Seventies, you can watch these movies and make fun of them, and it’s fun and funny to watch them. But bad movies of today seem just really bad and unwatchable.
MN: Yeah. I think, for instance, this goes back a little ways, but what was it? Armageddon? The movie?
MN: It’s just unwatchable. It’s just so loud and punishing and brutal. I don’t know what it was. The people who made B-movies, like Roger Corman, I don’t think they took it too seriously. They knew what they were doing. They were trying to entertain the audience. In the Fifties and Sixties, movies were fairly innocent.
MN: As the Sixties turned into the Seventies, we noticed that bad movies– which in every other way were pretty decent for our purposes– suddenly there’d be some horrible graphic violence or something that we had to deal with, and that just wasn’t the spirit of our show. So it just took this turn at some point.
BBSC: Do you think that it’s just a matter of time? Like, twenty years from now will The Chronicles Of Riddick be hilarious to watch?
MN: I think age has something to do with it. You know, the looking back at an era. What did I see? I saw a little bit of St. Elmo’s Fire, which is a timepiece from the Eighties. It was quite amusing to me– having grown up pretty much in the Eighties– to see that.
BBSC: So what is going on with the Encore Channel and the “Midnight Movies” type of show?
MN: Well, there were three days that we hosted movies. Since we shot them all at the same time, I don’t know how they spread them out. But I think there’s supposed to be one or two more dates. We just wrapped a bunch of movies with little skits– that’s The Film Crew thing. But I don’t know when they’re airing, I’m afraid.
BBSC: Do you ever go home at night and say, “Damn movies!” and just wish you never had to see another movie again? Or do you just really love movies?
MN: (laughs) I’d say that I’m an average to slightly-above-average fan of movies. I think there was a mistake in assumption from a lot of people that we at Mystery Science were all B-movie fanatics, and that wasn’t the case so much. We were all comedians, and this was our chance to really do the best comedy we could do. We actually ticked off some people who actually like some of those movies. People always think that I know a ton about movies, but I really don’t. I’m more of a comedian and writer, and movies happen to be what I’m known for.
BBSC: Alright then. Finally, tastes like chicken has had this long-running dispute that goes back seven or eight years, and it’s a question that became a tradition to ask everyone interviewed for the magazine.
BBSC: In your professional opinion, do dogs have lips?
MN: Yes, they do.
MN: Oh, I think very definitely.
BBSC: Cool. So, with having been with MST3K for ten years, in your professional opinion, do robots have lips?
MN: Uh… not so much. No.
BBSC: No? Alright, Mr. Smartie I-Have-An-Answer-For-Everything.
BBSC: Would robot dogs have lips?
MN: Yes, they would.
BBSC: Fair enough.
MN: Now I’ve settled it for you. (laughs)
(You can find the original interview at TLChicken.com.)