Mystery Science Theater 3000: A Look Back
In the early 90s, Comedy Central, then not called Comedy Central, was looking for new programming for its upstart cable channel. Enter a quirky show from Minnesota cable access about a guy stranded on an orbiting satellite and forced to watch horrible movies alongside two wisecracking (and sometimes malfunctioning) robots.
I was about 13 when I first came across the show. My parents had just ordered cable television and this eventually became a staple of my television viewing. I’d stay up, make some popcorn, and watch intently on the (then) bigscreen television and all its 27 inches. At the time, there were a lot of jokes that I simply just did not get and went right over my head. I just liked the idea of a bad movie being made fun of, the constant riffing on characters and a dumb story and feeling like I was in a theater with some friends and we were all just having a good time.
Enter 10+ years later, and thanks to DVD I have fallen in love with the show once more. Now, with years under my belt, more knowledge of things in general, I get those jokes they pull out, the references they make and understand the show on an entirely new level.
It’s a show for film fans.
When they reference Fillini films or Bergman style, I now know why. When they talk about editing, jump cuts, angles…everything when it comes to producing a film, I now get it. Certain actors, classic movie one-liners, and the obscure references to classic Hollywood…I get it…and love it even more.
If feels spontaneous, but it is not. MST3k, during its height, was one of the wittiest, smartest and flat-out well-written shows on television (even garnering itself a prestigious Peabody award).
So thank you, Mystery Science Theater, for showing me what bad movies truly are and also showing me that anything can be made to be funny.
Personal story aside, let’s take a quick look at the history of the show:
-The show originally aired on KTMA from 1988-1989. This is often referred to as “Season 0” and had 21 episodes. This was bare bones MST3k, much of it spontaneous riffing without anything thought out other than host segments, which were based on Joel Hodgson’s comedy act. But we saw the original concept of the Satellite of Love (SoL), the robots Crow and Tom Servo and the mad scientists emerge. Trace Beaulieu was Dr. Forester and the robot Crow and Josh Weinstein was his sidekick, Dr. Erhardt and did the voice of Tom Servo.
-Season one, the first on the Comedy Channel, was pretty much the first we saw MST3k as we know it today. The sets, the bots were all there. Importantly, though, is this is when the show began to think things out. Instead of being sponteanous, they started to write the jokes, determining when and where to place them, who should say the riff and so forth. Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy came on to the show as writers.
- Josh Weinstein left the show around this time. It’s believed it’s because he preferred the ad-libbed format than a planned out one. Kevin Murphy took over the voice of Tom Servo and Frank Coniff came in as the new sidekick, known as “TV’s Frank.”
-From that point on, all went well. In season 5 Joel left the series and was replaced by Mike Nelson. Joel was known as a bit of “father figure” to the robots Crow and Tom, Mike, though, was literally the “new guy” and the bots treated him as such. I think both have their benefits. Both are rather laid back and their riffing alongside the bots is relatively the same. Mike is a little edgier, and Joel a little sweeter to his mechanical friends (and they to him). Since then, Hodgson has stated he wished he had stayed, if even for a little longer.
-“TV’s Frank” departed after season 6, replaced by Dr. Forrester’s mother, played by Mary Jo Phel (another writer). After season 7, Trace Beaulieu left, leaving Pearl Forester to continue the “experiments.” Bill Corbett came on to do the voice of Crow. Eventually, he would also play “Brain Guy” alongside Mary Jo, and Kevin Murphy would play “Professor Bobo” as well…all to send Mike his bad movies.
-This was also the first season on the Sci-Fi channel. Comedy Central, coming into its own by this time, dropped the show. Host segments (breaks from the movie, usually involving skits) became more elaborate, movies more science fiction and horror related. The show remained there, and remained consistently funny, until it’s eventual end in late 1999. While I became a little bored with the host segments by this time the movies were always great.
10: Hobgoblins – An odd movie about little creatures that make people’s dreams into reality, then they die…for some reason. Of course, these aren’t so much creatures as they are fluffy hand puppets discretely shot to hide forearms.
9: Space Mutiny – Cheesy, early 90s scifi movie with the most absurd hero you could imagine. What was his name? Slab Mclargehuge? Butch Deadlift? Blast Hardcheeze? Thick McRunfast? Can’t quite recall…
8: Prince of Space – A poorly dubbed Japanese film about a flamboyant caped alien fighting chicken-men would have been funny on its own, throw in the MST3k crew, and imagine the possibilities.
7: Pod People – It’s like ET…but not.
6: Any Gamera movie – After a while, they start to blend in. MST3k did about 7 or 8 Gamera movies (basically a Godzilla knock-off), and they’re all equally great. These were all Joel episodes, going back to the old KTMA days.
5: Time Chasers – Did you know that kids in the future are all gay agents? It’s true, this movie proves it.
4: Santa Claus – It’s Santa versus Satan in an all out steel-cage match! Actually, it’s just about winning the heart of a little girl, still Santa versus Satan, though. A weird Mexican children’s film that is more disturbing than anything you would want your children to watch.
3: The Final Sacrifice – Rowsdower! Zap Rowsdower! That is the name of our hero…actually our hero is some mousy little twerp, but the burly, beer-drinking, flannel/jean wearing Rowsdower will help him in his quest! A fantastic Mike episode.
2: Manos: The Hands of Fate – Probably the most famous of all MST3k episodes, Manos is simply one of the worst movies ever made. To this day, I have no idea what the plot was or what the hell was going on, but I still have that Torgo theme music stuck in my head. Joel and the bots make it worth your while.
1: Mitchell – Another famous episode with Joel, riffing on a Joe Don Baker classic. Unlike Manos, though, this movie is actually watchable. That doesn’t mean it’s good, mind you. So many great jokes, one-liners and Joe Don bashing, it never gets old. Keep an eye out for the “intense” chase sequence that involves…wait for it….changing lanes.
The fact is, Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains a timeless show. The humor never gets old, the broad riffs are balanced incredibly well with the smaller, more detailed (and sometimes obscure) pop references. It’s a show that you watch today, years later, and no doubt for years to come. It’s an influential part of my childhood and is now an influential part of my adulthood.
It was arguably ahead of its time. Thousands of videos on the internet today show people doing the exact same thing the MST3k crew were doing almost 20 years ago - making fun of things that are bad, that are good, and those things in between.