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Michael J. Nelson was the head writer for Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a decade as well as the on-air host for several seasons. He has penned several books including Mind Over Matters (Harper Collins), Movie Megacheese (Harper Collins) and a novel Death Rat (Harper Collins).


J.M. Spalding: Writing comedy is often seen as one of the harder tasks a writer may perform. You've penned several books, dealt with films and you've branched out into other areas. Your work is fluid, continuous and your observations are intelligent and sensible. Tell me, if you would, about your earliest experiences with the written word.

Michael J. Nelson: Yes, sometimes I kick myself for having chosen to write in such a high-risk medium. My stuff is pretty much pass/fail. It either works—that is, it's funny—or it's total crap to the reader. I think I'd like to try heart-wrenching novels of childhood trauma for a while. That way, if it's really bad, at least no one can attack me for the subject matter, or say, "Man, that wasn't funny." Because then I can say, "Yes. Thank you."
As to my early experiences with the written word, I think I pretty much wrote poetry about doomed love like every geeky high school kid. Whatever craft I have was probably learned doing radio shows and stand-up, and I did student plays, that type of thing. For me, the most enjoyable thing about writing humor is getting the specifics right. I have something of a scientific mind (only without that whole "smart" thing those people always seem to have) so I like to experiment with the exact right "thing" for the joke.

How would you describe your experience writing Death Rat?

Somewhat terrifying. Probably because it's a "first novel," even though it really isn't a hugely ambitious thing. It is meant primarily to amuse, perhaps take a few jabs at the media, pop stars, pompous Minnesotans along the way, but once I started, it went along pretty well.

I have to add that I don't particularly like the actual process of writing. I'm not like some writers who would do it fourteen hours a day even if they had no deadlines. I like the whole package of writing, but I enjoy variety and I'd rather be sitting around with other people, making each other laugh, than staring at a computer monitor.

You've had a lot of experiences with cinema throughout the years. Do you think movies are getting better or worse?

I think ninety per cent of them are about the same. It's more the extremes of bad taste and bad judgment that studios are willing to peddle that make some movies incomprehensibly terrible, beyond what we could have possibly imagined. Also, as I get older, my own ability to recognize crap grows keener. I'm less likely to "keep an open mind," which nine times out of ten means, "let go of your own critical judgment and let someone else's bad, or distasteful, or immoral, or cruel philosophy just wash over you."

How did you come to work on MST3K?

I was doing stand-up comedy in the Minneapolis area, and I had become friends with Josh Weinstein who was on the show when it was still local. I was acquainted, too, with Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu, though I'd never worked directly with them. Once they sold the show to The Comedy Channel, they realized they needed one more person, so Josh talked them into taking a look at me. I came to their new studio on the same day they all got there, they looked at me with heavy suspicion, and after a few writing sessions, it became clear that it was going to work. I stayed for ten years.

You spent a lot of time on MST3K, I'm wondering if you ever get the urge to go back to that kind of work?

Absolutely. And not to be pessimistic, but I just can't see myself working in such an ideal environment again. A lot of things lined up just perfectly to enable us to work the way we did, with the people we did, and even in the relatively short time the show was off the air, television has changed dramatically. If we went in now with the idea for MST, they would have us hung in the lobby of the Universal building. It would be televised to favorable reviews and huge ratings.

That said, it's not hugely disappointing that I won't be able to work like that again. It was a special bonus in my life that I did, and I still have those people as friends. I'm fortunate to be able to do the kind of work I do, spend a lot of time with my family, work in the field of my choice, so I have no complaints.

What would you say is the best of the MST3K episodes that you appeared in?

I'm afraid I'm unequipped to answer that. I still can't look at it without thinking about the writing, or a particular take, or how much we wrestled with such and such a concept. And to be honest, I haven't seen a whole episode in years.

I noticed in MST3K: The Movie, you have a patch on your right shoulder (in the military this would be where your combat patch goes) and it is the state of Wisconsin. Could you tell me a little bit about that? As well, what does the inscription read, if you remember?

I believe it is simply the state seal of Wisconsin. I don't remember exactly, but I think it read simply, "GO PACKERS! WOOOOOOO!"

Speaking of the movie: Starz Theater showed it twenty-one times in one week during January alone. What is your reaction to that?

That strikes me as odd. Did they lose the rights to Beastmaster II: Through the Portal of Time, and Just One of the Guys?

Road House is the worst film of all time. Do you feel any films of the last 2 or 3 years come close to challenging Road House for the title?

Well, Road House is the best worst film of all time. When it's on, you just have to watch it. But in that regard, no, I don't think any film has unseated it. I have some hope that Vin Diesel will come through for us, but as of yet, he's just made us groan, and not laugh. I thought Coyote Ugly might have a chance, but that kind of fizzled, too.

Putting aside Road House, what are your thoughts on Glengarry Glenross?

I love it. Big hammy actors, spraying their hammy acting across the screen, spitting out that hammy, and occasionally very odd dialogue—it's great! I remember when it came out an acquaintance told me he walked out of it because to him, "it was just like being at work."

He was dead serious, by the way.

You've alluded in other interviews to some of the frustrations inherent in trying to get a show past the pilot stage. Could you talk a little about the process?

Well, one huge thing I've learned is even if you go into a project mentally prepared to make the kind of compromises you know you'll be asked to make, even if you bend to the capricious whims of the executives, you still have a minute chance of getting your comprised piece of junk on the air. So you may as well keep trying to do quality work and hope that through some fluke, someone with decision-making power might actually connect with what you're trying to do, and see it through to the end.

I can't stress enough how single-minded television is right now. I'm not whining, because I'm perfectly happy not working in TV, it's just amazing how desperate they all are to chase the viewers, so right now, they won't even hear anything that isn't a reality show. And what amazes me is they actually take meetings with people who have reality show ideas. How hard could it possibly be to come up with those!? Get an intern to spend fifteen minutes and you've got at least ten years worth of programming.

Michael J. Nelson and son

On a Thursday night in a perfect world, what's on any given network from 8 to 10?

Fawlty Towers. A few Laurel and Hardy shorts. The Sherlock Holmes TV series with Jeremy Brett. An All Creatures Great and Small. And a Twins game.

Will they all fit? If not, can I free up some room by dumping any number of those ungodly sitcoms where young, attractive married couples played by untalented actors go back home to live with eccentric parents?

By the way, can I cast my rather insignificant vote that we disallow all "unscripted" television that isn't sports or documentaries about fire ants? The reality TV thing is disgracing not only television and our culture as a whole, but the human soul, as well. I think it's so foul that it may be harming animal's souls too. And I'm pretty sure it's not helping slime molds, either. In fact, I think it's hurting the universe on a molecular level. Can we please stop? Please?