By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated December 03, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Not since Letterman left NBC has television been shaken by such a traumatic defection. Last month, Joel Hodgson, worshiped host and creator of Comedy ! Central’s cult TV hit, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Saturdays, 7-9 p.m., Sundays, 10 a.m.-noon; reruns daily at midnight), jettisoned himself from the series and was replaced by head writer Michael J. Nelson. Every week since 1989, Hodgson and his two automaton pals, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, had turned wretched old movies like Hercules Unchained and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians into wretched old movies with hysterical, wisecracking voice-over commentaries. Although Hodgson’s decampment has worried some fans, the show’s two robot stars have remained conspicuously silent about the shake-up-until now. We caught up with the elusive celebrity droids, a.k.a. Trace Beaulieu (Crow) and Kevin Murphy (Tom), on MST3K’s spaceship set (photo at right) near Minneapolis, where the ‘bots chatted about Joel’s abdication, his heir, the price of robotic fame, and other pressing issues of the day. So, how’s Mike Nelson working out? Is the show any different? Crow: There’s a different rapport. It’s not as parental as with Joel, who created us. Tom: It’s more like we’re pals, or coconspirators.

Where did Joel go? Tom: For his own privacy, we can’t tell you where. But before he left he said that he wanted to work on new ideas. That’s what he does best. He’s out there somewhere, working on new TV concepts. (Most recent Joel sighting: He was a consulting producer on ABC’s just-canceled Paula Poundstone Show.)

Do you miss him? Tom: Well, the nice thing about being a robot is that emotional memory is something that can be conveniently turned off. Crow: Joel who? How do you put together the show? Do you improvise? Tom: Each episode takes about a week to make. We spend the first day watching whatever film we’re working on, making comments as we go along, starting and stopping, while our typist jots down the jokes. It takes about eight hours to go through the first viewing. Crow: It’s a little like watching paint dry-and commenting on it. Tom: We spend the next few days writing the host segments-the sketches we do during movie breaks-while the sets are being built. Crow: Then we watch the movie again and put the lines in the right places. Tom: You triathlon runners can identify with what we go through. Crow: Then we have a read-through and full dress rehearsal. Tom: In other words, no, it’s not improv.

Are there movies so bad you can’t riff on them? | Crow: If they have too much violence, nudity, racism, or sexism Tom: to a point where it’s just disgusting. My favorite example of a film we couldn’t use is the Rugsuckers From Mars. One scene had a very unappealing gentleman making graphic love to a vacuum cleaner.

Crow: But our main problem is we have a really low budget. Tom: Yeah, there’s a slew of all-star disaster films out there hanging like ripe apples, but we can’t afford the rights. Crow: We’d love to do Charro!, the Elvis Western.