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with Joel Hodgson, Creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000

Jimmy: Hey, everybody, welcome back to the show. This is Unpacking Peanuts, and we have such good news for you today. We have a very, very special guest in the studio. But before we introduce him, I just want to say hello, too. Hi, it's me, Jimmy Gownley. I'm your host for this evening. I'm also the cartoonist of Amelia Rules, Seven Good Reasons Not to Grow Up, and The Dumbest Idea ever. Joining me, as always, are my pals co hosts and fellow cartoonists. He's a playwright, he's a composer, both for the band Complicated People, as well as for this very podcast. He's the co creator of the original comic book Price Guide, the original editor for Amelia Rules, and the creator of such great strips as Strange Attractors, a, Gathering of Spells, and Tangled River. It's Michael Cohen.


Michael: Hey, there.


Jimmy: And he's the executive producer and writer of Mystery Science Theater 3000. He's a former vice president of Archie Comics and the current creator of the Instagram sensation Sweetest Beasts, Harold Buchholz.


Harold: Hello.


Jimmy: I am so happy, to let you guys out there in Unpacking Peanuts land know, that today we have a very, very special guest. It is Joel Hodgson. Joel is the creative genius behind the cult Sci-Fi comedy series Mystery Science Theater. 3002 recent critically acclaimed series are on Netflix, and the newest 13 episode season can be found online directly at gizmoplex.com. I imagine if you're listening to this podcast, you're at least vaguely familiar with Mystery Science Theater. But if not, the show is based around the idea of cheesy genre films ranging from old monster movies to low budget sword and sandal and Mexican wrestling films. In the show, these movies are comically commented on, are riffed throughout by three unwilling test subjects, one host and two robot friends on a satellite in outer space. Please welcome to Unpacking Peanuts, Mr. Joel Hodgson.


Jimmy: Now. Did you ever think you might want to be a professional cartoonist?


Joel: Absolutely.


Jimmy: was that something?


Joel: Absolutely. I used to play cartoonist with my sister, and we'd sit on the couch. I'd sit on one side of the couch and she'd sit on the other side of the couch, and she'd get an imaginary phone call. Hello, Joel Hodgson, cartoonist. What do you need? What's that? You need a drawing of a duck. She goes, they think they need a drawing of a duck? Can you do a duck? And I go, let me think about that. Yeah, tell him I can do a duck. She goes, he'll do the duck.


Harold: Oh, man. That's just how it is for a professional cartoonist, right, Jimmy?


Joel: Draw a duck. And I hand it to her. Phone call just kept rolling in for another character. It was really fun, though. But that's what I thought. Professional.


Jimmy: Would you have thought-- would it have been like a daily strip that you would have wanted to do like, Peanuts, or would you--


Joel: No it was simply Preston Blair style drawing an animal. This is when I was, like, in first grade, so I didn't know about the Preston Blair book, but it was like I don't think I had a notion of, like, in my mind, a cartoon was like an animated cartoon. I didn't really associate cartoons with print for a long, long time. I think it was mostly when I wanted to draw cartoons, is because I wanted them to move, and I didn't really understand the flatness and the art of comics and the way it works. I think that's something I think most of the stuff is from that Scott McCloud book, right, Harold? Like, the stuff that I got or learned about comics, that was just like an epiphany to find that book, because I didn't understand.


Harold: That’s so cool to hear that you engaging with that book all of a sudden kind of opened up that world to you. I think that just that's the genius of Scott McCloud.


Joel: I think it's a brilliant book that it's incredible. It's really incredible.


Jimmy: I think it's funny because now that 30 years have gone since that book came out, and people nitpick various parts of his arguments as if, they can sort of get one over on him.


Joel: Seven years old. Like he came up with it when he was seven.


Jimmy: Just the very thought that I'm going to explain comics using a comic is so simple and so genius.


Joel: It's so, and I think I had read that. I think I had read that before coming out when I was in Los Angeles and thinking it was just so wonderful and saying to myself, I'd love to do a comic someday and feel like I understood it well enough for it to register and for it to be.

Harold: And that's how we first met, was I was working at Archie comics, and I came to your Cinematic Titanic show at the, I think it was the New Jersey performing arts center in Trenton. or Newark. It was in Newark. I gave you my card, and the next day you called me. I said, hey, do you want to do a comic book? And, you were like, let's talk. And that was the start of our relationship.


Jimmy: So I'm sure most of our listeners are familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000. You guys know that, right? It's been a part of the pop culture landscape for over 30 years now and has had so many iterations from the early days, starting out in Just, Minnesota through Comedy Central, and now streaming, on Netflix and beyond. It's on Gizmodo.com now. At this part, Harold and Joel talk a little bit about that journey.


Joel: Yeah, comics agreed. And I think I really relied on you a lot when we were going into the comic, because I think one of the first things that was a problem was I thought, done deal, man. We just put a silhouette at the bottom of every frame like the TV show and have the funny stuff. And I didn't really recall that notion that the I starts at the top left, corner and arrives at the, bottom right corner. So essentially, because crows at the bottom right, the thing that only makes sense is for him to deliver the line. It's the only thing there's kind of space for. It's just that thing. And once I figured that out and understood that, then we had to kind of go back and start all over.


Harold: Yeah, I mean, my recollection on that, if we use --


Jimmy: Hang on. Let's back up a little bit first. Explain your relationship to each other, to begin with, like, Harold, what did you do for Mystery Science Theater on the show?


Joel: Let me tell you, Harold really helped me-- here's how Harold helped me, and I think is very simple, but a big job, which was he really encouraged me and appeared, knowledgeable enough to be able to help me with what I wanted to do. And so we spent really a lot of time, easily, I want to say it's 1000 hours. That's kind of where I was kind of comfortable with just talking and sorting it all out. Because I think a lot of it is I had a lot of baggage from Mystery Science Theater. That was part of it back then. Right.


Harold: Even our first conversation, you were processing a lot of things, and you were working on Cinema Titanic and were wanting to get the rights back to Mystery Science Theater. I think you told me that first time we met that you saw that was your legacy and you weren't done with it, and you wanted another chance at it. And I was a huge fan of the show. Diane Cook, my wife and I were huge fans. And so it's like, well, what can I do to help? How can we get there? And that was the beginning of our friendship.


Joel: Yeah. And Harold was available, and we really just spent a lot of time talking. So I think, number one, he let me complain. He's very gracious complain, really a lot until I was exhausted of complaining. And then after that, we could kind of get to work. And then it was really sorting out the legal stuff and how to approach it and how to frame it and how to start, which is not easy to do when you're starting over with, I don't know what you call it. A property. You're revisiting a property that a lot of people like and a lot of people know. And how do you match that in a way that's authentic and honest, right. That's you really who we are now, rather than, oh, it's a love letter to the halcyon days of mystery science yore.


Jimmy: Right. That would be so depressing as a fan.


Joel: Right. Yeah. Right. But people think that's what it should be. That was kind of an idea. and it was also trying to escape. The Joel-Mike thing was still so big, and I was so interested in kind of putting that to sleep. Kind of like the easy way to do this is just get a new person in there and everyone will understand. It's not Joel and Mike. It's Joel and Mike and the next person and the next person. Right. So that kind of took care of that. But those were really big things that people seem very had really strong opinions about. You could feel it. It was palpable. It was palpable that didn't think it had to be either Joel or Mike or what version of Joel or Mike is it going to be? And when I said, yeah, it's not going to be me, it's somebody else, then it kind of, we had to really lean into that and feel comfortable and confident about that. So that took a lot of time and a lot of thinking.


Harold: Yeah. And for the people listening, who who may not be as familiar with Mystery Science Theater. So the show began in 1988 as a UHF show in the Minneapolis St. Paul area, which is where Charles Schulz hails from. And it quickly became, a big deal locally. And then you guys sent it off to Comedy Channel, and they wound up buying it, and you were hosting this show. So the show is how do you describe the show, Joel?


Joel: Well, I usually ask if you have a piece of paper, and I draw it. I draw the silhouettes, and then I draw a monster. I draw people on filling the rest of the frame, and I go, does this look familiar? And if they go, yeah. I go, well, that's what I do. And if they don't know, then I go, well, it's basically a show that involves running a movie, and then people kind of remarking as it goes along. It's called movie riffing. And if they don't understand at that point, then I just put it away and go it's on that.


Harold: Yeah. But you were the original host of that show. So you and two robot characters. That in the story you build. Right?


Joel: Well, I think the other thing is I was the creator of it and I had a career. The important part is I had a career prior. I was a comedian on national television on SNL, and Letterman and Young Comedian Special. So I was kind of teed up to get to do a show. And Mystery ScienceTheater was the show I chose to do, and I chose to do it in Minneapolis on UHF to kind of get it going and grow it


Harold: like a proof of concept.


Joel: But anyway, then it was on Comedy Channel and had a nice long life on cable for eleven years.


Harold: Yeah.


Joel: So then it was fallow for another ten or twelve years or something. But it did great on, DVDs and, huge fan base VHS and stuff. And then when the internet started, all that stuff streaming, et cetera.


Harold: Yeah. Regarding the Mike and Joel thing, so basically, half of those years you were on cable, you hosted, and then you left the show, and then Mike Nelson hosted the show for the last half.


Joel: That's correct. Exactly. anyway, we tend to neglect to mention that it's a comedy show, but it is. Right. I'm happy to, reiterate it to people. and it's a puppet show. It has hosts and it has these robots companions that are kind of puppet friends that watch the movie with this guy. And that's the show. it doesn't sound that good when you explain it.


Jimmy: I was going to say I love Mystery Science Theater. I think I could pitch it better than...


Joel: You'd be willing to say some things that I wouldn't say, which would just, oh, it's hilarious. And it'll make you,


Jimmy: Here's what I would say. I would say it is going to give you new language for your day to day life. Meaning there are some jokes in your show that are so funny and so right on that they are now just things I say. This also happens with Peanuts all the time. The one that I say all the time is and I don't even know if you'll remember it, it's, boy, the glow of the essay contest is really starting to fade. Do you remember that at all?


Joel: I don't. That's hilarious.


Jimmy: It is from, the best episode, which is, “I accused my parents.”


Joel: We just screened that in the gizmoplex. Yeah, I like that one a lot, too. One of my favorites.


Jimmy: Yeah, it starts off this kid wins an essay contest, and then his life, because his parents are basically insane, just gets worse and worse and worse till at the end, I think he's like robbing a guy at gunpoint or something. At one point one of the robots says this. Boy, the glow of the essay contest is really starting to fade.


Joel: I love it.


Harold: That's great. Just to finish out our relationship. So basically, like you said, we spent like, 1000, 1200 hours, just thinking, how do we get to this place? Because you kind of had the vision from the very first day I met you. We had a long lunch, and you basically said, I want a small, little studio in Pennsylvania, with kind of my own dream team of people that I can train up the way I want to and what I'm doing to make the show that I want. And at the end of the day, and I was saying, hey, you need to crowdfund this thing because there's so much pent up love for you and the show. And if you said, I want another chance at it, boy, people are just going to come out of the woodwork to support that. And they did. That wound up kind of was the culmination of our relationship.


I was still working at Archie Comics and just kind of helping Joel on the side. it did culminate that he worked with Shout Factory, who had put out the DVDs. And, together they kind of purchased Mystery Science Theater from its owner and wound up gearing up to make a new season. Joel, at some point, I think he said, if this happens, I want you to run my company. And that was a huge honor for me to do that and for you to invite me into your process and your creative process. When I started working with you, I think we were together about three and a half years, actually physically working on the television show and the live tours and all of that, with an amazing small group of people out of Pennsylvania, Cheryl Volpe and Seth Robinson and Matt McGinnis. It was just an amazing thing for me to come into your process of how you wanted to create a show, how you approached comedy. And frankly, that one of the last things we did together was that comic book. I mean, it's so funny. We started with that conversation that kind of ended, the time I was running the company as president of Alternaversal.


Joel: Yeah, that's right. yeah, it's really interesting. And I think there was a moment that I especially remember what we did in the comic was fairly complex because we were basically repurposing old comic books, and we wanted to do it in an elegant way. And the great thing is, Mystery Science Theater is a science fiction show, and it's easy to kind of create conceits in science fiction that you can't have normally. So we were able to kind of figure that out very practically and really approach it with an open mind, because my first premise was not functioning, wasn't going to function. Remember, we did those tests with Randy Straddley where we put the silhouettes on every frame. It wrecks the entire experience. There is no stylish way to do that. It's like putting a UPC symbol on every frame of a comic, right. Doesn't do nothing for you. And so once we got to that side, then it was like, well, how is this going to work? And so that became, a job to kind of solve that creatively within the universe of the show and then translate that to the comic language.


And so Harold was really great about that and helping us understand that. Even for me to communicate, with our artists and stuff, Harold understood that vernacular of drawing and printing processes because we had to match printing processes because we'd make fake-- I guess they'd be what you would call them artifacts. We'd make fake artifacts of comics that had our characters in them, and needed to look like they were in those comics originally. So that meant communicating that I could kind of point to things. but having Harold there to intercede and kind of reiterate these processes, how would you describe what we were trying to replicate from a printing point of view? Harold, how would you describe that?


Harold: right. So we were taking old public domain comics, and they range from, if anybody's familiar with old Golden Age comics, we had a Black Cat comic, which was a female superhero really early on in the early forties that Harvey comics put out. And that was selected as one of the comics we would enter the characters into, because, like, when we're doing Mystery Science Theater, the TV show, they are silhouettes, of people in a movie theater watching this film. But in this world, Joel quickly came to the conclusion that our characters can enter the world. We can do that. It's technically possible. So why don't we have our characters become a part of these old comics? So there was a 1940s Black Cat superhero comic. There was a 1950s pre code horror comic called Horrific that we took some, stories from that Crow the robot went into as the Crow Keeper, kind of like the old EC horror comics. And then it was a very early 1960s comic from Dell, which was kind of the more Wholesome Kitty comics, but it was a Johnny Jason teen reporter comic, which was just classic. And so Tom Servo, the other robot character, that's featured heavily in the show, he becomes basically Tom Servo teen reporter, and so he replaces the main character in that comic.


And so we were working with amazing artists, like Todd Nauck and Mike Manley. And I apologize, I'm not going to mention all the amazing people that worked on this, but we had to make it look like these old 19-- these faded comic books with really bad printing processes. And we're getting scans of old printed newsprint comics in in this rough color and asking the artists to rough up their own artwork so it looks like it fits in that world. And they did an absolutely amazing job. We asked so much of Dark Horse to make this a really special comic, and it was not the assembly line process of writer writes sends it off to the penciler, who sends it to the inker and then the letterer. And nobody communicates with each other. This was a really collaborative process.


And, Joel, you were getting back pages, and we were making comments and we were changing jokes. And it was amazing to me that Dark Horse just dove in with us. And these amazing artists really knocked themselves out to match the style. You were putting Totino's pizza roll ads. That the mad scientist who's putting this book together. She's constantly trying to insert advertisements into the comic book. And so we had to have extended sequences where say, that the Johnny Jason and Tom Servo teen reporter story, which we were following panel by panel and page by page as it had been printed, all of a sudden, we needed two new pages that didn't exist at all for this Totino's joke. And so artists like Mike Manley had to match the artwork of this 1960s style. And it was a tall order. And these artists really stood up to that.


Joel: Jack Pollock, too, I wanted to mention.


Harold: Yes, Jack Pollock.


Joel: You had Jackson Pollock?


Harold: Yeah, it was a little messy, but.


Jimmy: That's pretty I got to say that's a --


Joel: And, it ran into a Roy Lichtenstein joke along the way.


Jimmy: Listen, we're going to have to take a break, and then we'll come back and talk about some Peanuts stuff. But this is a great opportunity for me to, throw something out here that I want to get on the record.


So before Harold worked, for you, Joel, and before he worked for Archie Comics, he worked for me and Michael actually in our publishing company that put out Amelia Rules, and we were basically dead in the water. So I would just like to say to any of the fans out there who are listening, who like any of this stuff, if you like my Amelia Rules comics, especially the second half, if you like Archie comics still existing. And if you like that the fact that there's new Mystery Science Theater. Thank Harold Buchholz, because he was a part of all of that. Wouldn't happen without him.


Joel: I think we should call this Uunpacking Harold.


Jimmy: Absolutely. Well, and then here's the other thing I want to say. Before my break. You said you used to whine to Harold. I'm more of a yeller than a whiner. And this is my impersonation, my impression of Harold the one time I got him furious. Okay, this is Harold Buchholz furious. Well, what would you like me to do, Jim? And I was like, Whoa! Take it down…


Joel: that is icy. Huh? Can you get that from Harold?


Jimmy: You don’t bounce back from that


Joel: …Really mad at you that would just like, ruin my day. Absolutely. I don't know if I'd come back from that.


Jimmy: In many ways I didn't. In many ways I didn't. But we will come back, right after this break, and we'll talk more with, someone Jerry Seinfeld called a cultural visionary. Joel Hodgson. We'll be right back.


BREAK


Joel: Hey. This is Joel Hodgson, the creator of Mystery Science Theater and you're listening to Unpacking Peanuts.


Jimmy: And we're back. And now we're talking with Joel Hodgson about his early days before MST3K.


Michael: Yeah, basically, you were in LA doing comedy.And was there the temptation to get on a staff of writing sitcoms?


Joel: I was very interested in it, but at that time, there weren't any sitcoms that I thought were funny. I really would have only really wanted to write on Letterman back then. I just loved that show. And unfortunately, at that time, SNL wasn't doing that good. And so it was kind of the, I can't quite remember, maybe it was like, Dick Ebersol, Eddie Murphy was on his way out, kind of, I guess is the way I remember it, kind of era of SNL. So SNL wasn't really the SNL that the first five years was like. And so I didn't see any sitcoms on the periphery that I thought were funny. They were all kind of big Leviathan shows. And I did read for the part of Woody though.


Jimmy: Did you?


Joel: On Cheers. Yeah, I remember going into Paramount and doing a reading on the Cheers set, and it was the Woody part, so I don't know if his name was Woody then. I think they might have popped it in Woody because his name was Woody Harrelson. I read for that part, but even then I didn't think Cheers was that great. Now I really like it, but I just don't think comics in their twenties are usually interested in sitcoms. or at least good ones.

Harold: You were offered a part, weren't you?


Joel: Yeah, I got invited to do, I was friends with Gary Shandling, and Shandling introduced ah,


Michael: that's the great comedy, of that era.


Joel: Oh yeah. He introduced me to, his manager, Brad Grey, and I got signed by Brad Grey, and we got offers for stuff. And, High School USA. I read for that. And I got the part as one of comic relief on High School USA, which was a Michael J. Fox sitcom. And so it was six on the air, guaranteed kind of deal. And I just didn't think it was funny. And I'm really not an actor, so I had a comic persona that I could do, but if anything outside of that, I didn't feel very comfortable.


Harold: You were in Freaks and Geeks. what was that like to actually.


Joel: That was long after Mystery Science Theater. This is when I'm like, that's too different. And I was probably 32 or older when I did Freaks and Geeks. But, yeah, at that time, it was just, I didn't want to do it, and I thought it would hurt my career if I got involved with a project that wasn't funny. A lot of people don't think like that, but I do. And I feel like if I have a fan base that likes what I do and they see me do something that's not good, I'll probably lose them. So when I passed on it, they had me meet with Brandon Tartikoff, who was the head of the network at the time, and NBC. He just talked to me, and he was a very sweet man and really was fair with me and just kind of really wanted to curiously know why I didn't want to do it. And I didn't have the heart to tell them I didn't think it was funny. I just kind of found other excuses, but I just didn't think I'd come out of it looking good. So that was kind of my reasoning for not doing it.


Harold: So to step back. So you were born in Wisconsin and raised in Wisconsin, went to college at Bethel College in the Minneapolis St. Paul area, and started doing from childhood, I guess you were doing magic. You were doing stand up prop comedy. You told me your senior year in college, how many different gigs did you do outside of the university?

Joel: I have it, and, I had a day planner, and I figured out how many shows I did that senior year, and, it was in the hundreds.


Jimmy: Oh, my God.


Harold: It's just mind boggling that you were finishing out your senior year at college and you already were that active outside of the school performing, and then that led into stand up, which then took you out to LA. As you were describing, and then you came to this moment where you had to decide what the next step was after you'd gotten on Saturday Night Live, you’d gotten on Letterman.


Joel: I got everything I wanted to do. I got on the Young Comedian special and on SNL and on Letterman, and I didn't feel like-- I guess one other option I could have played was maybe try to get my own one man. Maybe those were kind of falling out of fashion. Like the one man, like Gallagher specials. I would do Gallagher specials, and they were kind of for some reason, it escaped me. I would have really liked to have done that.


Harold: You wrote and performed in Jerry Seinfeld's very first comedy.


Jimmy:, Standup Confidential, Right? I love that. I think that's hilarious.


Joel: Thanks, man. Yeah, that was a wonderful experience. And a lot of that experience with Seinfeld really helped tee up MST. Do you want me to tell that story about Seinfeld?


Jimmy: Yeah, absolutely I do.


Harold: Yeah, please.


Joel: Okay. Well, when we were-- I was really lucky because my act was really unique and because of that. I think I've noticed this as I've gotten older. But you can pick out certain people that don't need you. They're very autonomous, and they are moving, and you know they're going to occupy that space whether you're there or not. And when you see those people, you immediately want to be friends with them because they don't need anything from you. And I think I was like that for those guys. So because of that, I'd meet great comics, and they liked me, and they'd have me open for them because my act was so unique. And guys like that were guys like Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld. And both these guys really helped me out and really kind of mentored me in really unique ways. I knew Seinfeld from LA. And I'd see him in the Improv, and I'd see him at the Comedy Magic Club. And he always was a nice guy. we didn't hang out in LA. At all, but when he came to Minneapolis-- this is after I quit, I came to watch him do a set. And I found that was a unique environment because when a guy's on the road, there's not a lot of distractions, so we could hang out. And after his set, it was at the Comedy Gallery, which was owned by Scott Hansen in Minneapolis. And, after the gig, I just started to describe to him what he was making me see, what images I was imagining. And he said, you know what? I just got asked to do my first HBO special and I'd like you to help me write it. And I said, that's awesome. And so it was really cool. He'd come to Minneapolis, for a week, and I go to LA For a week. And we worked on it. And, at the end of it, yeah, we had Stand Up Confidential, which really is the majority of Jerry's stand up. And then the kind of, webbing conceptual, webbing of his narrative and the production that went with it was the stuff that we came up with. But he was very great.


Jimmy: It's so cool because it really is, a weird and fun blend of your two sensibilities. You seem to be getting him to do things that are sillier and more conceptual than his normal observational stuff like the X ray. It's great. It's so fun. The dog costume.


Joel: Well, what's really interesting is that's the way he really is, but he's such a good comic that he'll take those ideas and just blend them into this beautiful tone poem of stand up that's hilarious. But all his ideas kind of start that way, and that's what's really fun about him. And of course, we think of him as the button down, fantastic stand up, which he is. But all those ideas start very colorful, I think, when he first talks about them. and so, yeah, I was super grateful for that experience because I was really sick of thinking about my own stuff. And it felt really good to just kind of focus on somebody else and try to amplify their message and amplify their thoughts and what they wanted. It was really good for me to just kind of get to do that.


And so after that, I started to work on a treatment for him, which is a science fiction science fiction movie. I can't really recall too much about it other than I designed this set. And he was, like, in it and floating. And I think he goes to a planet where, it's like Gulliver's travels. But I think it's a world it's a society of children, right? And he's the only adult there. And so that's all as far as I got with it. And he looks at me and he goes, you know what? This isn't a show for me. This is a show for you. And, at that moment, it was like that Gestalt moment where you go, he's absolutely right. I want to do this, but I don't want to be the guy on camera. I want him to be the guy on camera. Then I started to change the way I was thinking. And I had this idea in my back pocket that was Mystery Science Theater, which was the silhouettes with public domain content and robot puppets, right? So that was kind of that premise. And so that really got me. He just called me on. He goes, well, are you trying to make me do the subtext is, you want this to happen? Do it. You know what I mean? You want a science fiction movie, you do it. It's obviously not me. And when you think about him saying that, it's true. Like you were saying, we don't think of him that way. In that kind of colorful world, though, he could occupy it and be really great, but he's more button down. It's more a different character. But when he says that to you, it's very liberating, and you realize I'm barking up the wrong tree trying to get him to do this.


Jimmy: All right, so listen, we've selected four Peanuts comic strips to talk about with the great Joel Hodgson. And we're going to start with a classic. It's the very first 1st, October 2, 1950. Take it away, Joel.


Joel: Well, here comes old Charlie Brown. Good old Charlie Brown. Yes, sir. Good old Charlie Brown. How I hate him. So this one, I think, is… I have read the book the biography, the recent biography of Charles Schulz. What was it called?


Jimmy: Schulz and Peanuts.


Joel: Yeah, Schulz and Peanuts. And so, I do know a little bit about the backstory about this, but it's the first one that comes to mind, and it's just so radical in my mind and so indicative of, kind of like Schulz's thinking. But I'm curious what you guys think about this?


Jimmy: Well, radical is the word for it, I think.


Harold: Yeah. How is it radical to you, Joel? What makes it stand out? Like, when you're looking at the newspaper strips, when you're growing up and you see something like this, what is it that makes that so different than everything else?


Joel: Well, again, I think we've talked about this with Peanuts. It's very adult. And the way the kid's ruminating, he's repeating himself is not like, what kids do.


Jimmy: Correct.


Joel: There's some schadenfreude in there, I guess, and repeating it and kind of running it in his mouth a few times. Right. And then, oh, how I hate him. Again, I feel, like, so naive about this because I have this limited understanding of comics, but I feel like I'm saying this to you, and you guys have discussed this probably thoroughly, but they're just very adult. That's adorable. Kids who talk like adults, you can't beat it. Right. And that's what he did so well.


Jimmy: And now everybody can kind of use that. Right. The kids talking as adults thing is now just a starting point for everybody. Calvin and Hobbes or anything else. But at this point, it's hard to even realize how radical this stuff was, I think.


Joel: Yes. And it did something for everyone. It did something for adults because it's adorable, because it's imposing all these sophisticated ideas. And as kids, we felt really bright, like, being able to follow along. It was edifying for kids as well. So you kind of met in the middle. It's real crazy when there's something in pop culture that is I want to use a word that is like I don't want to say it's edifying, but wholesome. And I mean that in the best way. Wholesome being, like, something a whole person can appreciate and negotiate. So wholesome. it's this thing where, parents, it was one of the few things in the world for me that it seemed like everyone approved approved of it. And there's something really crazy great about that that you don't get in many other things, right?


Harold: Yeah. You're saying that gives me goosebumps. I have a theory. Joel, I wanted to bounce this off of you. I mean, you grew up, like I said, in Wisconsin and then in Minnesota and young adulthood, and then you kind of went out into the world, and you saw the world, and then you chose to come back to where you'd gone to school. And I had this theory that there are a lot of people who leave their hometowns and regions for entertainment hubs like New York or LA. And a lot of those people are leaving their families and their roots for a reason. And often those are the people who have the reason to get away from where they grew up. They've got reasons. And as a result, it seems like there's a lot of comedy that comes out of New York and LA that kind of rejects their roots. Right. it's not always the case, but that seems common. And I'm just thinking about you and Charles Schulz, where he never seemed to reject those roots. He seemed to be kind of comfortable with where he came from, even though he wound up moving out to California just eight years into the Strip. But there's a lot of a lot of who he was and how he grew up, and obviously lots of his memories, including painful memories that he's bringing from there, is this continuity for him. He's not starting over and starting fresh, like I think a lot of people try to do.


And I get that sense from your work as well, that it's kind of grounded in memories that go back to childhood, and some of those are fond memories. I mean, you've told me stories about you were performing in your local church and they were very supportive of you when you're doing magic tricks and stuff and the people in that church were supporting you. And I don't think everybody has that experience, but, my theory is that the people that did have those kinds of whatever they had to go through in their childhoods, they never found reason to reject it and oppose it and leave it. It's still a part of them. And I see that in your work, and I see that in Schulz's work, and I think it comes around to that concept of wholesome in the sense that it's like the wholeness of who you are and how you've grown up stays as a piece through your creative.


Joel: Well, thanks, man. Well, I think that it's funny, but there is this kind of obligation, I think, that you have when you are in that environment or you're in the church. There's this environment to be considerate of, everyone who's in the audience, right? And so if you start segmenting out the audience, you have to have really good jokes to do that. You have to explain why you're segmenting someone out. I feel like maybe there's this obligation there that says, well, we're not really having fun unless everyone can be in on it. Right. And if it was isolated or segmented or had more restrictions or was more adult or whatever. Because there are things in MST that are way more adult naughty than Peanuts ever got. But I think we treat it like we kind of say, it's all veiled, hopefully. ah, we kind of just say it's PG 14. We assume that you're either with an adult who can guide you through this or you're 14 or older to watch this.


Jimmy: That's a Seinfeld thing, too. The idea of taking things that are more adult and complex and repackaging it. Rephrasing it in a way that you could watch with your kid.

Joel: yeah. Man yeah, he's very alert to that too. I really got a lot, he grew up in a really joyous situation. His dad and mom got along great. They were funny, and his dad was funny, and so he just kind of was around it, and he was encouraged, interpersonally. So I think that's true, to be honest. It was just a fabric of my life, because my dad was like an entertainer. He was just completely an amateur entertainer and would do all kinds of things to amuse people. And I just grew up with my dad building things and putting on, building costumes. He was just in his heart, and so I grew up with it.


Harold: Who would his audiences be? Joel where would he get a chance to--


Joel: Would always be stuff at church or, school, because he was a teacher.


Jimmy: What did he teach?


Joel: He's a science teacher.


Jimmy: That makes sense


Joel: Yeah, so he was always doing things that I guess I always suspected they were a little out of the ordinary, and it made me kind of track that kind of person and pay attention to that kind of person in the world. And my dad was that guy. My dad was like I'll give you one example. Like, we went over to the Forsberg's house, and they were friends from our church, and they would have these really fun, spirited parties, and my dad would disappear, and he'd come out of the bedroom dressed in drag as Mrs. Santa Claus. And he walked through the party, and he'd get the guys to sit on his knee, and like, what do you want from his? And it's like, and and he didn't tell. I didn't really understand this was going to happen, but the way people reacted, it like it made people so happy. And it was like they would just had this twinkle in their eye because my dad did this silly, crazy thing and he could pull it off and make it funny and make everybody glad that he did it rather than challenged, alone and afraid. He had this way, and people really, loved him for it. And so I kind of grew up around that. But again, it's easier to see, now that I'm older, and I'm like, when I look in the mirror, I go, I look like my dad now, and so it makes me think of him more often.


Harold: That's funny, because you told the story of when you were at Bethel College, that you kind of got your start in public speaking there, just like reading the-- was it like reading the notes or something or the what was that all about?


Joel: It's funny. Bethel College is a Christian college. It's a Baptist college. And, they had chapel every day. It was in the gymnasium. And they had these kids that were from the speech department and the communications department, and I was a communication major, so I was kind of tracking them. And they got up, and they were really well groomed, and they just dressed really smartly, and they spoke like news anchors. They spoke like professional news anchors. They smiled, they paused. They just had all this verve in their voice. and I'm sitting there going, wow, I think I can make this funny. I think I could do this. And so I got in doing announcements. For whatever reason, I just did it poorly. For whatever reason, I just did it poorly. Like, I couldn't sound out certain words, and, I'd get the punctuation wrong and read the next announcement, and people really laughed at it. I was getting well known because I would come up and people wanted me to do their announcements because they were memorable.


Harold: So are you saying that this was 100% intentional or 80% intentional?


Joel: Well, again, there's a risk, because I wasn't calculated enough to know that it would work, but I had a feeling I could.


Harold: So you kind of lean into it.


Joel: I could have bailed and said, hey, I'm just a communications major like everyone else, and I just need practice, or if I could have got it to work, for whatever reason, it was that spirit of just I wanted to create a little mischief because they were kind of being assholes. I felt they're kind of like being a little-- it felt like they were patronizing. That's what it felt like.


Harold: And I think that the other readers, you mean--


Joel: Yeah, they were patronizing. They were treating us like we weren't college kids, like we were watching news or something. There were some beats missing that I felt like there was something that kind of frustrated me about it and said, I think I can do this. I can get this to work and be better. It can function better. If I did this a different way, it'll be more fun, more memorable, and I'll get the message across if I can do this.


Harold: And by your senior year, you have graduated into performing a ton. But that was kind of the would you say that was the beginning of your--


Joel: Yeah, it was kind of like I think it's making people your own age laugh. I think that's, like, a really important part of it, too. There's people that go, I'm great at making old people laugh. Hardy har. And you just go, well, okay, that's awesome. That's waiting for all of us when we're old, but what about now? You know what I mean? I think that was important. And it's kind of like my peers and trying to understand how to make them laugh. And I think that's what happens to all of us who get creative, is we have people spark to what we do. Right. We all have those moments. If we're talking about Charles Schulz, real, true social currency was being able to draw Snoopy. Right. If you could do that, man, things would start happening for you in grade school, right?


Harold: Yeah. Do you want to check out the next strip and we can kind of keep yeah, sure.

Joel: I'm going to jump ahead here. the other one that really registered with me, is this one from 1960. And Lucy is writing. She's on the floor, and she goes and Charlie Brown's watching her. I'm trying to draw a political cartoon that will solve all of the world's problems. She brings the paper up to Charlie's face, and she goes, see, here's Uncle Sam, here's a double piece, and here's an elephant, and here's a donkey, and here's a figure I call the Grim Reaper. At this point, she's prattling on, but Charlie Brown is looking at us like, are you getting all this? And she's going, over here is a tiny figure I've labeled taxpayer. And down here is a snake saying, don't tread on me. And then finally she says, don't you think this cartoon will solve all of the world's problems, Charlie Brown? And he's walking away now, which dawns on me, is something that I really associate with Charles Schulz's characters delivering lines. I just love it because it adds so much force. To reiterate, she goes, don't you think this cartoon will solve all of the world's problems, Charlie Brown? And he says, no, I think it will add a few more to it.


I think that this one really got me as a kid. And we had a babysitter, Dorothy Alistead, and she was great. And one day I was in her son's room. Her son's name was John. And John was older. He was like a man. He was probably in high school, right? But I thought anybody who could drive was like a man. And he probably was, right? So I did Johnny's room, and I found all those Peanuts softcover books. And so I don't know when those came out. Those came out in the 60s, mid sixties, right?


Harold: Yeah, they started coming out in the 50s and were huge in the 60s.


Joel: He had a bunch of them. And I remember just finding, them. And I was bored. There was nothing but like a soap opera on TV. This is in the afternoon after school. My mom worked, so I'd go over to Dorothy's house, and I remember just getting absorbed by this book. It was a Blue Peanuts anthology book. And I remember just getting absorbed by it to the point where I read it from cover to cover in an hour. And I never felt so accomplished because my self esteem, again, was associated with like, wow, I just read a whole book in an hour. And it was really great. But within that, I talked to John. John came by, and he saw that I was reading it, and he brought up Augh, like, he said, oh, the Augh. And he laughed about it. So it was like, here I was now I was now talking to John on an equal level. Like, I had read it, and I thought it was funny, too. And he highlighted it. And so it's one of the first times I'm exchanging ideas, like, kind of peer to peer with guy who must have been 17 or 18 at the time.


Harold: And how old were you?


Joel: I mean, I'm sure I was like, seven or eight, I guess, probably. Yeah. And so those two were the ones that really that I have in memory. Yeah.


Jimmy: Well, I think this, February 1, 1958 one is the most Mystery Science Theater Peanuts strip imaginable.


Joel: Okay, so they're looking at the newspaper. It's Lucy, and it's Linus. This sounds like a good movie. I was a teenage warmonger. It's just such a funny word, warmonger. And then great choice. Right. And he's already funny. right. Okay. And so then Lucy's going, oh, how about this one? I was a teenage camel driver. And then she turns to Linus, and she goes, which one would you like to see? And Linus says, I don't know. And he finally says, it's difficult to make a decision when you have a choice between two such obviously fine pictures.


I like this, too, because, to me, in some ways, he didn't do a lot of this kind of, like referring to things like ads in the newspaper or pop culture. It seemed like a lot of my memory of it is a lot more pure than that. it seems unique to me. Right, yeah.


Harold: It's like a topical thing you're not used to.


Joel: Yeah, kind of topical and a little bit worldly. But at the same time, I'd go, wow, this is really funny. He's really kind of pointing out the machinery of I was a teenage insert title here.

Jimmy: Right. Which, like, you point out that warmonger just being funny. He has a knack of finding those words that are just funny. Like, we always point out they never go to the optometrist. They always go to the ophthalmologist just because ophthalmologist is a better word. They never listen to Brahms. They listen to Beethoven because it's just a better word.


Joel: Yeah, he is so good at that.


Harold: and Jimmy is always talking about, whenever you put something in quotes, it's funnier.


Jimmy: Oh, yeah. Unnecessary quotes in a comic strip make everything funnier.


Joel: I really like that. the other thing I wanted to say that was kind of on my mind was a lot of how Peanuts happened to me, too, was through all the other things he did. Kind of like, his merch was really special when I was little, and, we've talked about this, Harold, like, vinyl figures were so great, and, I mean, we had them, we had a couple, and I loved them, and they were just so special and unique, and there was nothing like them. It wasn't like, hey, we're the vinyl figure makers, and we do all the figures that everybody knows about. We've got all the top sellers, and we got characters, and they're wonderful. They got the Snoopy over there, and we got all the characters. They're all lined up and ready to be embossed.


Harold: And here's Buzz Sawyer,


Joel: and we're putting pressure on the creator to have our own character, which is the, Adenoidal guy, who explains.


Jimmy: I would buy a two pack of the Adenoidal guy and Buzz Sawyer, actually, and no questions asked.


Joel: Anyway, it's funny, and I think I've been watching too many of those toy shows. I think I'm doing an aggregate of all the guys, the toys that made us, like, the guy who ran Kenner. The guy who ran Kenner. I think I'm doing him. But anyway, that was a really big thing, and then it was kind of like it blended with pop art. So perfectly crazy. That was the other thing that was happening that was beyond the comic. That was kind of how I started to hear about them and understand them and, of course, the big Christmas special. But when did that come out? What year?


Harold: this is 65. You would have been--


Joel: Yeah, so it's like, from the start there it is. Yeah. It was kind of amazing. So those are all the pieces. And then later, I think that's how I started to care about them and want to know more. I had it more served up. Like, I think I was more of on the periphery. Like, I didn't approach him from the comics first. It was these other things. And even, you had to show me an animated cartoon of it before I could get hip and read it. Right.


Harold: Did it feel different when reading it in strip form than in the animated form? Because it seems like his voice is so well preserved.


Joel: I think it's in the animation beautifully. It translates so beautifully that I kind of can't get over how cleverly they did that.


Jimmy: Our other host, Michael here, is an OG reader. He, was born the year of the strip, so he's never seen the animation because what little snippets disturb him so much, that he doesn't want to spoil the purity of the strip.


Joel: I get it. But if you're one of those people, man, that saw it, it was confoundingly great. And then for Christians, that he really lays in the the actual story, the the Jesus story is kind of, wild. And they talk about that in the book. Right.


Harold: Yeah, it it was awfully revel-- I don't think-- know on how it reads today. But the fact that he did that in 1965.


Joel: It was really against trend.


Harold: And he kind of earned that. I mean, if you just drop it in. But it was just like I guess that's my sense is 15 years of doing what he was doing. It was so true to Schulz.

Joel: Yeah. And he knew that it would carry it, and he kind of understood it and trusted it enough, that this is legit. But I seem to remember something, like, with Mendelson. Right? Was it Mendelson who produced it?


Harold: Lee Mendelson.


Joel: Yeah. And it was somehow some moment where he's just rubbing his shoulders, going, this will work, man. This is going to be fine. Well, don't worry.


Jimmy: I think the secret of it is that he has Linus. There's no other cartoon character in 1965 or previously that could talk about something like that. I mean, what are you going to do-- have Woody Woodpecker talk about…


Joel: Right. Yeah, you're absolutely right. And in some ways, it's just going to be hard for anybody to ever catch up to that. No matter whatever sacred text you would like to insert there or whatever you would want to do. It's hard to get a comic that's going to have that be that profound in that situation. But yeah, it's cuckoo that he did that.


I mean, when you think about being a child, you're very powerless. And a lot of the times you're around kids that just don't make sense. And when you finally meet one of those kids that you kind of spark to right. Like bright eyes, you're clever, whatever. We all have those moments, and it's just so great. We all need them. we all need to find those people. Right. It seemed like this had, if you needed to talk about it as a confection, it had that so abundantly, that idea that kids are capable of this. And whether they really can talk about it or not, this is what's happening. And it's really true. Like the sincerity of Linus, you'd meet kids like this who were just so pure. They were just sincere. Right. And the search for sincerity and the conversation about what is sincerity is amazing right. For kids, for everybody. And that there's these figures that are sincere walking around.


Jimmy: And we talk about Linus. His version of sarcasm is to actually just be super sincere. Like, if Lucy asks for toast or whatever, he won't say something sarcastic. He will make her the most over the top, fantastic toast just to shame her for asking for the toast. So it's like this super sincerity.


Harold: Yeah. It's like the teenage warmonger. Right, Jimmy where it's like, obviously making the choices to such obviously fine pictures. How much is sarcastic and how much is it innocent? You don't know.


Joel: Yeah. That's extremely clever. And I think the other idea here that I love so much about Charles Schulz was this feeling like somewhere there's a man sitting in a well appointed office in a beautiful home, probably overlooking a pool and drawing Charlie Brown. And that's all he has to do today, and he should be getting done right around supper time. And you just got this feeling like that it felt good that one of us had gotten to that position. One of us had gotten to that thing where they were able to summon all their powers and do this thing that whatever it is right. But it felt really good.


Harold: It was like a dream. It was aspiration it felt really good.


Joel: I could see him in the office and I don't know, I have a feeling it was from Life magazine. Right. They do pictorials of him. Remember there's one where they'd have cutouts of the Peanuts characters around. Weren't there? Somehow they were in the world or something.

Harold: Yeah. People had seen him at the drawing table. That image in their mind.


Joel: Yeah. You kind of got pictures of him and their kids and you just kind of go, what is it like being his kid? It must be electrifying. but I think that's part of it, too, is there's such a connection with that individual, that person, because it's one of those few things that just one person can do. Right?


Jimmy: Yeah.


Joel: So that's the other little thing there. That's so fun.


Harold: I don't know, like this singular voice. It's not art by committee. It's one person, one hand, one voice. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for doing this with us, Joel.


Jimmy: Yeah. Joel, this has been a thrill for all of us. We're all huge fans of you, as you know. And this was wonderful for you to make this time and come on our show.


Joel: Thanks. And, of course, I haven't ever finished thanking Harold.


Jimmy: Okay, go ahead.


Joel: I think I did. I thoroughly thanked him on this podcast. I feel like, satisfied.


Jimmy: Well, I'm going to go back to yelling at him. if we are all good now. And I think I'm just going to go back to yelling at him.


Joel: Harold in the middle.


Harold: And Joel I'm not done saying thank you for letting me be a part of your creative life. It's been amazing. Thank you.


Joel: All right, thanks, you guys. Cheers, and good luck with all this.


Michael: Thanks, Joel.


Harold: Thanks, Joel.


Joel: All right, bye. Bye.


Jimmy: So that's another episode for us. I hope you guys had as much fun listening to it as we got, to have. Just hanging out with Joel for the day. Special thanks to Joel Hodgson again for coming out and doing the podcast with us.


If you want to, continue to be a part of this Unpacking Peanuts community, we would love to hear from you. First off, you can always email us through our website. We're unpackingpeanuts.com. And you can also follow us on Instagram and Twitter, where we're at unpackpeanuts. And if you are on social media, if you're just out in the world, anything you can do to help get the word out about this podcast, it would be hugely appreciated. Let's say, you know a Mystery Science Theater fan, why don't you go ahead and hit share on this very episode and, see if you could, introduce them to our podcast as well. That would be great.

Otherwise, on our website, you could buy some T shirts. You could buy us a mud pie. You could support us on Patreon. All of those things would be much appreciated.


So now we're going to go on a little bit of a spring break. I'm working on a secret project. Michael has a project in the works. Harold's on assignment for the Head Beagle. Liz is sick of listening to us, so we're going to take two weeks off, and then, we're going to come back with the sunshine 70s. it's going to be a lot of fun. So until then, from Michael and Harold. This is Jimmy. Be of good cheer.


Harold: Yes, be of good cheer.


Jimmy: Unpacking Peanuts is copyright Jimmy Gownley, Michael Cohen and Harold Buchholz. Produced and edited by Liz Sumner; music by Michael Cohen; additional voiceover by Aziza Shukralla Clark. For more from the show, follow UnpackPeanuts on Instagram and Twitter. For more about Jimmy, Michael and Harold, visit unpackingPeanuts.com. Have a wonderful day and thanks for listening.


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