Cable's ''Mystery Science Theater'' -- All about the latest show on Comedy Central

It’s only a cheesy Japanese monster movie — the dialogue is dopey, the dubbing is a disaster, and the special effects look as if they were slapped together with spit and rice paper — but Joel Hodgson is sitting in his studio in a Minneapolis suburb watching Godzilla vs. Megalon with the adoring eyes of a film student scrutinizing Fellini’s Satyricon.

”We’re thrilled to have this movie,” gushes the 31-year-old host and creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000, cable TV’s goofy B-movie send-up. ”Godzilla is a major star.”

Hipper than Saturday Night Live, cooler than Arsenio Hall, filled with more pop references than The Andy Warhol Diaries, MST is the perfect postmodern comedy. The concept is a hoot: Hodgson and his robot sidekicks, Tom Servo and Crow, have been shot into space by mad scientists who force them to watch crummy old movies. As stinkers like The Slime People, Jungle Goddess, and Rocket Attack, U.S.A. unspool in front of them, the trio sits in silhouette on the corner of the TV screen and lets loose a stream of jeering one-liners. ”How do we stand on fuel?” an astronaut asks in Rocket Ship X-M. ”I’m for it!” comes the offscreen answer. A bride collapses on the altar in The Corpse Vanishes. ”I’m Getting Buried in the Morning,” sing the hecklers.

Now in its third season, MST is fast becoming one of cable’s hottest cult hits. Time named it one of 1990’s top 10 TV shows, and fans have been even more effusive: ”I think it’s one of the funniest shows on the air,” offers Dan O’Shannon, a supervising producer on Cheers. ”It canonizes something we all do, which is talk back to our TV sets. It’s definitely on the cutting edge of comedy.”

That ”cutting edge” first took shape on a tiny UHF station in Minnesota, where Hodgson settled after abandoning a successful stand-up career in L.A. ”I was on Late Night, doing guest spots on SNL, NBC was offering me a sitcom,” he recalls. ”All my dreams were coming true, but I was really unhappy.” So he beelined it back to Minneapolis and took a string of odd jobs — ironing decals onto T-shirts, building and selling puppets.

Then, in 1988, Minneapolis’ KTMA-TV approached him looking for new ideas, and on Thanksgiving Day, MST made its local debut. ”The station got a really great response,” Hodgson says. ”The switchboard lit up.” Hodgson sent clips to HBO, which snapped up the series for its Comedy Channel (which later merged with the HA! comedy network to form Comedy Central).

Part of what made MST so attractive was its price tag. The series costs only $50,000 per episode (compared with $300,000-$600,000 for network sitcoms). It uses only the cheapest possible movies, and the sets and props are almost all homemade, including the robots (Tom is made of bits of an old bubble-gum machine, a penny bank, and a flashlight; Crow’s basic parts are a lacrosse face mask, a plastic bowling pin, and a soap dish).

Sitting in the screening room at MST‘s studio, Hodgson and cowriters Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, and Mike Nelson are absorbed in their sixth viewing of Godzilla vs. Megalon. Each of the 800 one-liners per movie is practiced over and over until you’d swear every word was ad-libbed. On the monitor, three cars bounce around the streets of Tokyo in a jumpy, ineptly edited chase sequence. ”Action sequences filmed in Confuso-vision!” cracks Murphy. ”You know in France this scene would be considered genius,” Hodgson quips. ”Suddenly we’re watching Mannix,” sneers Beaulieu. ”You know, in France Mike Connors is considered a genius,” says Hodgson. ”I haven’t seen this much action since Herbie Goes to Mexico,” Murphy jeers. ”You know, in France Dean Jones is considered…” ”Joel!” the writers screech in unison. ”Shuuuuuuttttt up!”

Please, Joel, anything but that.