The very first thing I ever wrote on the internet was about a cult classic television show that, ironically, inspired most of what you see on the internet. You know: making fun of bad things, irreverent and often nonsensical skits, riffing like there's no tomorrow. Yet, before there was a way to do that...there wasn't really a formula on how to do that. Not until a little show finally saw the light of day in the late 1980s and continued throughout the 1990s. That show was Mystery Science Theater 3000, and as it's creator and original host, Joel Hodgson, once said: "What we were doing wasn’t really considered comedy. There was no form prior to that," he said in a recent interview. "It’s really about people taking action and being inspired and saying 'These are the thoughts in my mind that I must show you.'"
It's kind of inane looking back at the old post now. It was written in a rush, very short and far from personal. Yet, the intent was there, just a bit scrambled, and now I hope to redeem that intent with something far more deserving for a classic television show that had a following, had a great run, has people that appreciate it, yet seems to never get that good "fan writeup" that it so deserves; a piece about, now why it was great, but why it was important. And not why it was funny, but why it was personal to an entire generation that was invited to watch movies with funny people that influenced what we find funny today.
It was a show that was ahead of its time. In today's pop-culture infused world and the shrinking sense of togetherness we all have from the internet to share these thoughts, Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have found a nice home with today's audiences, and it can be proven in the many knockoffs and homages the show has across the board and the continuing success that the creators, writers and players of the show have to this day putting on live shows, appearing at conventions and establishing new brands. It would come at a cost, though, because today's viewing audiences might be more open to the concept of riffing bad movies, their attention spans have dwindled and sitting for two hours watching a show probably wouldn't appeal to most. It came at the right time: cable networks hungry for content to put up and creators in small local markets with content to supply for them.
Unlike a lot of shows "ahead of their time," Mystery Science Theater 3000 had a hell of a run. It was a commercial success as much as a critical one, but fans were scattered and the only assurance they had were when fan letters were read on the show itself that proved "we are not alone."
It more than made an impact for over a decade with 197 episodes and a feature film under its belt, which is a good chunk of time and content to make an impression on an entire generation that grew up with the show. What's funny is that the entire conceit and presentation of the show is based on what the writers and hosts and creators and riffers grew up with during their generation. They reference the things of their childhood and youth and current events and we reference them referencing that. A strange, bizarre cycle fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 find themselves in, and one they welcome because they are sending out there in to the ether themselves for a new generation that enjoy smart, referential comedy.
In The Not Too Distant Past...
I don't know anyone that can actually recall when they first started watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 when it was first on. It was one of those shows that you kind of stumbled upon and either got sucked in to or turned the channel because you didn't "get it." It was a show people would refer others to, saying they were up one night watching that new comedy channel on cable and this weird, sleepy-eyed guy and two robots make fun of bad movies.
"That's it?" was probably a response.
"Yeah, that's it," would be the reply.
It cascaded from there as word of mouth grew of the show and the comedy channel, later known as Comedy Central, actually did a good job promoting the program. They didn't have a lot to go on, and they knew they had a very smart and funny shot at their disposal, so soon marathons and many ad promotions flooded the airwaves. This was before a lot of Comedy Central shows we now take for granted, the South Park and Daily Shows of the world, and it helped lay the foundation of what that network would eventually become. Yet, at the same time, there's not been a single show like it. Not even close.
So trying to fully recall my first episode or first exposure if impossible. The only thing I know for certain is that Joel Hodgson was still the host and TV's Frank was the sidekick to Dr. Clayton Forrester (aka the "mads" that sent Joel the bad movies he was forced to watch). So I'm thinking was probably Season three or so, about the time the show really started to take off.
My earliest memory of one an episode was probably Hercules Unchained, simply because it's impossible to forget a badly-dubbed Steve Reeves, shortly followed by one of the many Gamera films they riffed most likely. I would stay up late on the weekends to catch the show, it aired late on Saturdays and being in school throughout the 1990s, staying home on weekends was pretty much the only thing left to do. I missed out on a few of the later seasons due to lack of channels carrying the show, but some of my favorite memories was sitting at the foot of my bed or on the floor in the living room with a blanket, treats and snacks and soda and watching MST3k. Outside of riding my bike during the summer, sneaking viewings of R-rated horror movies and playing my Super Nintendo, that's one of my most fond childhood memories of activities I did on a regular basis.
Nobody watched MST3k in my family but me. Nobody even knew what it was, which is why fans then felt a bit isolated as we sunk into our fantasy land of robots and movie riffs. Maybe that was another vicarious thing we did, or at least I did: in a way I was being invited in to a world with another lonely guy and his two self-made friends and get to spend a couple of hours with him and laugh. For introverts like myself, just having someone look at the camera and say "Welcome to the Satellite of Love" was inciting. It's also probably why I was such a fan of Pee-Wee's playhouse when I was a kid, MST3k was kind of like the maturation of that by the time I was a teenager and even now as an adult.
I remember introducing the show to my parents, probably about 1992 or so, or maybe they just walked in on me watching it, but either way they didn't grasp it or get in to it. It was just a goofy show with puppets and bad movies. I think that's what it was to most people, and most people probably didn't want to sit for two hours every week and watch that. Years alter, well in to the Mike Nelson years, I remember them seeing it on television. They said something along the lines of "You still watch this?"
"Of course I still watch this. Why wouldn't I still watch this?"
And I'm still doing it today. It's the only show that I watch on a repeated basis over a decade after its been off the air.
I quickly fell in love with the idea of just making fun of bad movies. Hell, some aren't even bad movies, they're just fun to poke fun at of and lend themselves well to mocking. It's just a natural reaction and part of us as humans to look at something and make fun if. Hodgson knew that early on, from the many things that influenced his idea of a show and knowing it could be molded in to something anew, by the time MST3k figured out its formula, it never let up nor did it ever have a "bad" episode...because making fun of movies is never not funny.
There Was A Guy Named Joel and a Temp Named Mike
While the sustaining factor was the timeless riffing of movies, fans really fell in love with the whole mythology and character of the show as well. As great as post-MST3k riffing has been with Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, both headed by former writers and show creators, the characters of MST3k were things we really grew an affection for. Aboard the "Satellite of Love" (a reference to a Lou Reed song) an experiment was taking place: to find the worst movie ever that will bring humanity to its knees. Every week a human was exposed to a bad movie and every week he survived.
Tom Servo, voiced by Kevin Murphy, is probably my favorite out of the bunch: a small, "hovering," red gumball machine-looking robot with a powerful voice, excellent singing and just damn good comedic timing. Then you had Crow, voiced by Trace Beaulieu for the first many years and later Bill Corbett. While Servo was arguably the intellectual and talented persona, Crow was the wild card of the group and enjoyed being completely random at any given moment and would do everything from write bad screenplays to wearing many costumes.
There were other smaller characters as well, such as Gypsy the ships "engineer" that loved Richard Basehart like no other, and the ever-quiet cambot that was our eyes and ears to the Satellite of Love (the SOL for shorthand) and, at least early, "Magic Voice" who was phased out after the first few seasons but usually indicated commercial signs or would put everyone in their place.
Then you had our human and main host of the show. There's a debate amongst the nerd culture of the internet about who was the better host of the show, but it's all a matter of taste. You had Joel Robinson played by creator Joel Hodgson from the show's earliest beginnings to about the middle of Season 5 then lead writer Mike Nelson taking over as character...Mike Nelson.
Joel had a parental instinct to our robot pals, Crow and Tom and Gypsy. The story goes that he was kidnapped and forced on to the SOL by two mad scientists. To help in his movie watching, he built his robot friends to keep him company, but unfortunately used parts of the SOL to do so that otherwise would have saved him. As a result, he's often protective of them as a father-figure, and they love him as a result of that.
Of course, that wasn't always the case, as Joel also enjoyed torturing them from time to time too...
After escaping in Season 5 in an escape pod hidden in a crate marked "Hamdingers," the mad scientists found another subject, Mike Nelson. Mike is more of a "brother" figure to Crow and Tom, more a step-brother they didn't ask for actually, and they treat him as such - often using him as a punchline in the host segments and teaching him "the ways" to do things aboard the SOL making for a very funny yet different dynamic than with Joel..
While the riffing is great with both, most note that the Joel-era episodes are usually more savvy and smart, not to mention obscure with its references that can sometimes go over your head, while the Mike-era episodes tend to be more broad and easily digestible. Both, though, are funny, so the argument doesn't really go anywhere other than what people like personality-wise. They're still riffing, making references and put at the mercy of the "Mads."
The Mads, too, had an ongoing history. It began with Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt, played by Trace Beaulieu (Crow) and Josh Weisnstein (Servo in the early years) respectively, sending up Joel Robinson. This was early, public access years, which you can still find on the internet before the show got picked up for cable. The first season kept the same players, but Erhardt vanished after the first cable season and was replaced by TV's Frank, played by Frank Conniff and probably my second-favorite character of the show's run. Frank was the sidekick to Forrester and often treated...well you can just watch this clip and understand their relationship.
Eventually Frank and Forrester (Conniff and Beaulieu) departed the show shortly after Joel Hodgson and Pearl Forrester, Clayton's mother, took over as the lead "mad" to send then-Mike his bad movies. She was eventually joined by Observer, aka Brain Guy, played by Bill Corbett who had also taken over the role of Crow and by Doctor Bobo, the Planet of the Apes-inspired sidekick treated much like TV's Frank, played by Kevin Murphy who was still acting as Tom Servo. Throw in the abundance of "guests" and recurring characters and villains and you had a show that was willing to do anything to get a laugh, even make fun of Morrissey. So everyone played multiple characters throughout the show's run, except Joel. Joel was always Joel.
MST3k didn't shove these little stories down your throat. It tended to just unfold naturally through the host segments, the little skits we watched a few times throughout the movie like little water-breaks so we don't lose our minds with the bad movie. It was these characters and breath moments of vaudeville-like humor that gave the show some personality, and also why fans love it so much.
Let's Keep Our Sanity...
The show underwent a few changes here and there, such as early on having invention exchanges (based much on Joel Hodgson's former stand up act as a prop comic) and later on having the entire destruction of worlds and time warps, but it was essentially the same set up each week. Begin with intro, have some host segments, then get in to the movie with host segments interspersed to take a break from the movie, then have an outtro. Usually the host segments involved references to the movie or short being watched, and they ranged from brief absolutely nothing happening skits to very elaborate musical numbers. See the bottom of this article for ten of my personal favorites, but the structure was a comfortable fixture. You didn't dwell on the movie too long and you certainly had a variety of diversions with the host skits.
Even the feature film followed this exact format. Why ruin a perfectly good formula? The feature film kind of showed who got this comedy and this show and who didn't. Reviews really reflected that as most critics never even heard of the show. It was still a cult following, so dipping its toes in the movie market was a bit of a test and certainly a risk, but most "got it" because most film reviewers are film fans at heart. I remember Siskel and Ebert enjoying it (Siskel and Ebert At the Movies, coincidentally, another show that highly influenced what you see on the internet now). What's interesting, watching that clip now, is that Ebert has since become quite the MST3k proponent as a number of his reviews seem to reference the classic show. I do wonder if he realizes that or not, but as a fan of both, I love how they run together; Two great things from my youth coming together.
The biggest change was when the show went to the Sci Fi channel shortly after the film. I remember, at the time, there was a worry it wouldn't get picked up by Comedy Central and they were on the verge of cancellation. But the Sci Fi channel, now "Syfy" for some reason, was like Comedy Central before it: new and hungry for programming. Why not take a risk on a show with a nice following and cheap to produce? It gave the show a few more years, and we got some damn good episodes as a result from it. I could take or leave the host segments by this point, but still looked forward to every minute with the characters I've come to know and love for a decade.
Yet, I can't stop thinking about how much a show like this is missed. There's no "hungry" network anymore, and I know Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax have their followings, but man...television really needs a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 again. Someone needs to take these old movies and make fun of them, but with these characters and those host segments and that writing. MST3k didn't win a Peabody as a fluke, it won it because it's a damn good show. But maybe it's best to remember it as it was, a time and place, and an influential pillar of pop-culture.
Sit Back and Relax...
"Legacy" is not a word I use lightly, but if there's a show out there that has one, and that most people aren't entirely aware of it having one, it's MST3k by a mile. By that I mean: the influence of the show is all around you, you just don't know it. Most people might not have even heard of the show, but they're probably aware there's a lot of elements that they find funny that the show, in the early days of cable television and well before the internet made it trendy, was pioneering. Take for example a parody of a Bergman film: this type of thing can probably be found everywhere on the internet today, but back when television was all that was available, it was well ahead of its time. A lot of what MST3k did was too irreverent to be a skit on Saturday Night Live or too intelligent to be on any other show.
Now go and look at the three or four minute shorts you see on the internet that you laugh at. Yeah...kind of the same schtick, and there's a good bet that those young writer/directors/actors grew up with this very show that inspired them. Now they go and do their own parodies of things of their generation, like video games, movies or music. MST3k was doing this when there wasn't an internet to do it on.
Of course, that's just the silly skits, of which there are hundreds from the show. Then you have the element of riffing itself. You don't realize how smart the show is until you actually try riffing something on your own. Most people, when watching a bad movie and talking to the screen, usually do one of three things: 1) Make a silly noise reflective of what's happening on screen 2) Do a sex joke or 3) Do some low-brow toilet humor.
MST3k elevated that. Oh, it had those innuendos and occasional fart jokes too, but then it would have some random reference to Fillini or Bergman, plug in a quote from a musical lyric or have some absolutely random, almost forgotten nod to some television show you probably don't even remember or some author you never heard of. Hell, on the MST3k Wiki site there's a whole segment in each episode's page that goes through to explain the more obscure riffs and references.
How is that elevation? Because riffing doesn't need to be knee-jerk reactions that just present some low-brow humor, it can be smart, witty, and maybe have you looking up what they're referring to and finally get the joke now that you get the reference. That was sort of the whole point of the show, as Hodgson noted in a recent interview, it's also what has sustained it. "People have accepted it as its own comedic art form," he said in a recent Huffington Post article. And so it has, because nobody does it better and no show is willing to go down that road again. "From the time we are little kids, we grow up watching the screen," he said. "There's a certain point where you realize you can say stuff back. That impulse is always going to be there."
It takes a damn smart comedic mind to refine that impulse, and guys like Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Jim Mallon, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, Bill Corbett, Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff know how to refine it and pretty much allow us to enjoy what they do seeing as most of us can't do it. I also think it takes a certain audience to get this, and though it may still be a bit niche after all these years, it's a passionate, dedicated and still-growing audience usually consisting of movie fans who just love to vicariously live through what these individuals put out there. None of us are smart or talented enough to do (seriously, just try, you'll give up after ten minutes), so instead we leave it to those that know what they're doing, and in the meantime we'll enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Fans still love this show and these people to this day. There's countless blogs, I've even linked to recent articles throughout this page, and plenty of internet memes to ensure a long lasting legacy of pop culture. It's funny: this show built from pop culture became ingrained in it and influenced our generation as much as previous generations influenced it. That's all the more apparent once the internet became a mainstay and people began to come together in support of it well after the show aired its final episode. Fans found each other, the cast and producers have gone on to do other similar things and found success, Hodgson himself noting he's more famous now than when he hosted show which is "a little weird" to him, but all the more deserved because, at the time, he and that entire crew probably had no clue just how much influence they had on people like me, and how appreciative I am of it.
For Mystery Science Theater 3000...
More importantly is how it all comes back to who I am today. Not just comic sensibilities and my desire for comedic timing and riffing. I love doing that but never go into the depths of what MST3k brought to the table. The show's legacy for me actually is much simpler than that: Mystery Science Theater 3000 made me love movies. It made me obsessed with them. Those late weekend nights swathed in darkness, candy and riffing set me on a path to watch more film, good and bad, to study it in school, to be involved in the film industry I am now, to write blogs and reviews about movies because my love of movies can pretty much be traced back to those late night watchings of MST3k.
What's interesting is how much more appreciative I am of this show now than I was then. Sure, the internet community can finally make you sit and say "wow, I wasn't the only one that watched this show afterall," but I still watch this show. As in every single weekend. I just select a couple of episodes and load them up and watch them late at night just like I used to. Now as an adult, I can get those more obscure references and appreciate the smart comedy that the show had alongside the more silly comedy that I loved when I was a teenager. I still follow the writers and creators on Twitter, there's still the official MST3k Sattellite News website running and enough facebook pages to make you kind of realize you aren't, and weren't, alone in loving it.
The show has aged gracefully too, because making fun of bad movies is pretty much timeless. Sure, the cultural references from the 90s might date it at times, and the episodes where they first get on the internet and play with computers is not exactly novel now, but the comedy is still there. The set up and quality never diminished and the irreverence as effective now as it was then because so many today emulate it.
So I not only continue to regularly watch the show just to feel nostalgic of my teenage years of Turkey Day marathons and late-night snacking, I also watch because I'm appreciative of good comedy. Of smart comedy. Of comedy that we probably didn't know was going to be as influential as it ended up being when it was on the air, and a show that probably could have lasted for another ten years easily and that we don't realize we truly miss until someone brings it up.
Maybe this isn't so much of a blog about a great show, as much as it is a thank you for just existing.
As great as making fun of the movies was on the show, the host segments is what gave Mystery Science Theater 3000 character and identity, so here's a dozen of my favorite host segments (along with links to a ton more, so click away). I'm leaving out the invention exchanges for the most part, which kind of puts a stall on anything about the mad scientists as most of their humor stemmed from that, and only focusing on the primary host segments.
The Dumbest Visitor Ever
This is a great example of the fun dryness of Joel as host, and maybe that's why I like it so much. It's not an overly popular one, I don't think. It's mundane, silly, irreverent, then shows the meaningless of it all as our visitor shows up and says and does nothing but collapse in to a pile of bones. It's all the other things that seem odd here that are really funny too, including a mooing toy cow with wings.
MST3k had a ton of visitors, others inluding Amazing Colassal Man (aka Glen), the 90s one-hit-wonder (and something that really dates the show in a "that's cute" kind of way) Lisa Loeb, and one of my favorites, Hugh Beaumont from Leave it to Beaver and the classic line "Well...it's time to die."the
Crow On Women
A fake documentary as only Crow T. Robot can give us. One of the better late sketches for Crow, which could be often hit and miss but this one was a hit, just because Crow is so oblivious.
The fake documentary / PSA host segments were always some of my favorites. Others include "Why Doesn't Johnny Care?" with a great Tom Servo narration, a rather disturbing look at the fashion trends of Jackie Coogan, or this analysis of the acting ability of Kathy Ireland as a guessing game.
Worm Hole Traveling
A fun host segment that I had choosing, because I felt this bit of fun was similar, only just much smarter, than the Mike's tripping host segment which uses a "time loop" in similar fashion (or, in another related segment, Servo explaining Quantum Linear Superposition). This is just a very creative and fun segment that I really enjoyed.
Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas
A very straightforward musical number, but one that has become a holiday tradition to me. MST3k loved the holidays, with numerous Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas inspired episodes and host segments. This one is probably my favorite of the bunch, and, as usual, Tom Servo steals the show in the musical bit.
For an alternate version, they use similar melody a few years later with Mike on a Christmas episode which at least ends up better than their fist shot at doing a Christmas Carol. Keep watching that skit, the gift exchange is another Christmas moment that really was a strong contender for this Top Ten.
Also, you can buy your Joike Christmas Ornaments here.
He's the Best / Idiot Control Now
Sure, the song is fun (making fun of a song sung in the movie, Pod People, earlier in the show) but the funniest parts are two brief moments: TV's Frank with his T-shirt saying "he's the best" and Joel Robinson's "it stinks" which has sense become an internet meme. This segment is a favorite amongst most MST3k fans, much like the episode itself.
Equally silly from that very same episode is Trumpy is Magic host segment. Damn, that was just a good episdoe from top to bottom. From really smart moments to absolutely strange random ones to just a good riffing of a bad movie.
Don't Give No Matches to Mikey
I had to choose a weird Mike Nelson host segment, weird being relative to the already weirdness of a lot of those years' segments, and it was kind of down to this one or the Mike's BBQ segment, because both are so incredibly weird and strange, with little to nothing to do with what's happening, that it made it hard to choose. Mike's host segments were often random and silly yet strangely alluring - like not knowing what's behind all that wrapping paper on a gift. This one is very short, really odd, but it's how the bots and Nelson sell it that gets me every time. That 1000-yard stare, the southern drawl, the llama squeeling. Then the reaction by the Mads...just enjoy this one.
Mr. Hoover Autopsy
Similar to the Idiot Control Now segment, this is a direct parody of a scene from the film. We haven't seen much of Gypsy in this countdown, but this is probably my second favorite Gypsy moment (first being her helping Joel escape which didn't make this list). The way the camera is used, the way the bots act, Joel's line delivery. It's a fun and simple little skit.
Joel played the "teacher" role well for his robotic pals, such as this one where he teaches them what is and isn't funny when floating and, another favorite of mine, a serious discussion of the Pina Colata song (yes, seriously).
Now, if you want a direct comparison to how the relationship between the Bots and Mike worked, well here's Mike trying to "Rap" with them in a similar fashion and teach them things.
The Mike Nelson era of host segments contiunally got more and more rediculous as the years went on in to the Pearl Forrester years, certainly more broad in terms of comedy, but sometimes being rediculous is just awesome. Here we have numerous funny moments highlighted by a Brazilian children's show at the end that involves Mike Nelson wearing something that leaves little to the imagination.
Earth vs. Soup
Easily the best Crow-centric host segment, because Crow is as Crow as you've ever seen Crow in this- his attempt at writing a screenplay. Crow did this type of thing a lot, such as his failed Batman play or his attempt to direct a movie or his other failed screenplay about Peter Graves - and dragged Joel, Mike, Gypsy and Servo in to his strange ideas.
In relation, one of the better Earth vs Soup callback segments years later was Crow's re-imagining it as a Blaxploitation Movie.
Hired! The Musical
There were a lot, and I mean A LOT, of musical numbers on the show, from swing choir battles to love songs about creepy girls to covers of the Gamera theme song to 1930s catchy tunes about breasts to many elaborate clone-Tom-Servo productions, and I could do an entire Top Ten on those alone, but I need to keep it simple and sweet and only select a few, this one being the last: Hired! The Musical, based on the short film they just watched. It's varied and actually rather elaborate for a 3 and a half minute musical number summarizing the entire short.
Slots for Bots
This one is entirely a personal selection. I have no judgement if it's funny or not, but damn is it relatable and probably the single host segment that made me a fan of Tom Servo. You see, when I was a kid I took a trip with other students to an amusement park. The only ride I cared about was bumper cars. Man, did I love bumper cars. Well after waiting for a half out, we finally get our turn and everyone ran to a car. I jumped in, waited for the signal that everything was starting and pushed my foot down and...
...well nothing happened, for a good ten minutes while everyone else was having fun and just kept bumping in to me. I'd move a little, then it would just die. This video is a reflection of my eight/nine-year-old response to that.
Tom...I feel your pain. Here, let's work out this whole "make out" thing.
Anything with Torgo, Seriously...Anything.
And amazingly, the best host segment actually had nothing to do with Mike or Joel as host or even the Bots, but instead the Mads. Torgo's Pizza, job interviews, dead sidekicks and second-banna heaven...Mike Nelson as Torgo was always a highlight and a great recurring cahracter on the show. They usually involved great interplay with the Mads, and here's probably the best of all the awesome Torgos. This pizza sketch is a no-brainer, I think any Mistie would agree.
For those that don't know, Torgo was a character in the film Manos: The Hands of Fate, which made for the show's most legendary episode. Actaully, if you didn't know that...shame on you.