Thursday, September 12, 2013

Recommended: MST3k

In November, 1988, a local station in Minnesota premiered a show called Mystery Science Theater 3000. No one involved could have predicted how popular the work of a few comedians from the Twin Cities and Wisconsin would become, much less that it'd last 'til 1999.

The basic premise of this show was that a guy, Joel Robinson, was doing janitorial work in a Great Lakes-area laboratory when two mad scientists decided to send him up to a space station against his will. Stranded aboard the Satellite of Love, the scientists (often called "the Mads") force Joel to watch very bad old movies in order to record his response to the stimulus; they want to break his sanity. Joel fights back by turning vital parts of the ship into sentient robots that keep him company during these experiments.

The basic appeal is that Joel's main sidekicks - Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo - are knowledgeable, intelligent and extremely witty. The audience watches the picture at the same time as the three characters, who appear as a three-rows-behind movie theater silhouette while the films play out. They ad-lib lines, mock the on-screen action, and generally crack wise as the flick plays out. The writing is, above all, incredibly, unbelievably funny.

We've all been there: watching bad movies with our friends, making fun of what we're watching... But not everyone is a good comic, and some films are so bad that you can't come up with anything to make the experience fun, much less funny. To that end, the cast of MST3k goes above-and-beyond to generate real entertainment from what should be a painful experience.

The format of each 90-minute episode - which aired in a 2-hour slot on KTMA, Comedy Central, then SciFi - was as follows: an opening skit takes place onboard the SoL; usually it's Joel and the 'bots taking or goofing off. After the first commercial break, the space crew gets a video transmission from the Mads. The pair trade insults, and then have their weekly "Invention Exchange," wherein each group shows off some random, silly idea. With that done, the scientists announce that week's movie, and Robinson and pals are sent into the ship's theater to watch and suffer. There are also several intermission segments throughout the movie, which are used for little character scenes, songs, or skits where the 5 leads just goof off.

It's a great use of resources overall. What do I mean? Well, the show acquires copyright to play - and mock - old films that no one cares about anymore. In this way, they repurpose something that is, basically, defunct. But this cleverness isn't limited to the program's basic premise.

You must understand, everything old is new again on the Satellite of Love. Crow is obviously fashioned using a bowling pin and lacrosse gear, while Tom Servo is a modified gumball machine. And Joel Robinson is played by comedian Joel Hodgson, who did a lot of "found art"-type prop comedy - which inspired the Invention Exchange itself. That's why you have both sides presenting these odd creations, which are cobbled together from everyday items.

One of the best things about this show is that its humor spans all sorts of references - from popular politicians (they made a Benezir Bhutto joke years before her tragic assassination) to painters, novelists, TV shows, films. They sometimes even reference jokes that they used in prior episodes. Their lines are also, usually, pretty clean. Sure, there are some very naughty gags thrown in now and then, but there's nothing like the Dane Cook/Jay Mohr/Dave Attel-style dog-house joking that dominated the last decade or so of comedy.

I like a dirty joke as much as the next person - when they're actually good, anyway - and on the rare occasion that I tell one, I really dive right in. But it's so important to have humor that isn't just filthy, or intended to garner laughs just by being shocking. Clean humor is one of the healthiest laughs that people can have; as much as I can curse like a sailor (most New Yorkers can/do), it doesn't take much intelligence or effort to drop f-bombs; that's how lazy folks get cheap yucks. MST3k provided family-friendly jokes well and often.

And, in this age of Wikipedia, it's easier than ever for someone to hear an unfamiliar reference and learn what it's about. Of course, some of the gags that the SoL crew made are so closely-tied to pop culture things of the time, like recent airline troubles, contemporary politicians, or TV ads - it might be hard to follow for some people born in the '90's. For example, this segment is unintelligible unless you've seen the '80's/'90's Orville Redenbacher Popcorn ads, ones featuring the company founder talking to a dorky relative of his:

I'm proud that Mystery Science Theather 3000 is a fine example of how one can recycle old material – kind of like Woody Allen did in his early film, What’s New Pussycat? - and turn sour lemons into a delicious lemonade. Where some old movies were just badly-written or -executed (or have aged poorly), the MST3k cast wades in and cracks wise.

And they don’t just criticize a picture relentlessly like a bunch of jerks – a lot of times, they use the image or dialogue on-screen as a springboard for lots of creative jokes that can reference everything from singers to Minnesota culture or current (at the time) events. The crew’s jokes are so smart that they really deserve special credit for appealing to the various interests of their audience, or for never assuming that the viewer isn't intelligent.

I’ve only seen or two eps of this show’s first season - which featured some different cast members - and I stopped watching after two (admittedly good) outings when Mike Nelson took over as the guy who’s trapped on the ship. I must admit that I am hopelessly stuck on the show as I first found it, in its 2nd through 5th seasons. Still, over the course of 73 episodes – and the movie, which involved Mike, not Joel – this series gave me hundreds of laughs, and inspired me to learn a lot of new facts, as well playing a major part in the development of my own comedic abilities.

And I cannot stress that last sentence enough – this “mere” TV series not only entertained me thoroughly, it had a profound effect on my education and in becoming a genuine (albeit amateur) comedian. Whether or not you loved Lost all the way through, or Star Trek: TNG, or Law & Order, how often can one say that about a non-educational TV show?

In closing, I should relate one anecdote I learned about when I read up on the series ages ago. One of the cast noted that they were at the Cable Ace Awards (remember those?) when they happened to run into one of their heroes, the writer Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt asked the cast-member what he was there for, and the guy responded by giving the basic breakdown of MST3k: we play old 40’s and 50’s b-movies as if you’re sitting behind three guys in a theater, and we make fun of those pictures.

And, as can happen anytime one meets a celebrity that they revere, this person found out that their icon could be a total jerk. When Vonnegut heard the synopsis and learned that the series did not win an Ace Award, Kurt replied by saying that the writers of a lot of those movies were written by people who had been blacklisted by various anti-Communist pushes made by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He closed by saying, “we win.”

I love this bit.

The amazing thing about this anecdote is that (a) Kurt had a point, but (b) Kurt totally missed the point. Why did I add point (b)? Well, I have two reasons. Firstly, just because something was written under hardship doesn’t mean that a person should get off easy for writing something bad; their politically-motivated unemployment didn't ruin those scribes' ability to write well, did it?

And, of course, secondly, Vonnegut was being a hypocrite, at least insofar as he lacked any humor about the situation. In one or his novels, Kurt included a roughly-done 8-point star - which he stated was a drawing of his anus. Reveling in his own crudity, the man – I kid you not – specifically noted that this doodle would offend his aunt. Any man that can heap public embarrassment on his own kin in a published novel should be able to accept a small independent TV program that mocks poorly-made films.

I know it’s very late to make such a rejoinder, and I know he’s passed on – I felt very upset when Kurt died, actually – but he lived in New York City long enough for me to add a half-hearted, posthumous “f—k you, Vonnegut!” I can’t believe I’m typing those words, but I still mean them...

Mystery Science Theater 3000 still lives on, via DVD, and some titles are on Netflix, too. There are other online sources for viewing this show, and I promise you, you'll be doing yourself a huge favor if you sit down and check it out. I'm only sorry it's taken me so long to give them a write-up here.

My favorite episodes are Operation Double 007, Pod People, Mighty Jack, Master Ninja 1 and its sequel, I Accuse My Parents, Warrior of the Lost World, The Indestructible Man, Tormented, The Human Duplicators, Secret Agent Super Dragon, The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, The Painted Hills, Time of the Apes, Gamera, the two Godzilla entries, Fugitive Alien, Mitchell... We could be here all day.

Check any of those out. You'll never regret it. Hell, you'll owe me one.


  1. Nice rundown on MST3K,Thaddeus! The first MiStie flick I saw was "The Girl in Lover's Lane" which ended so badly that Joel and the bots spend the end credits running time making up a better finish to the story(which I believe involved an alien invasion,if I recall correctly!).

    I Accuse My Parents is now available on DVD and that was a good one. Also love Soultaker("give me your stupid soul!"),Overdrawn at the Memory Bank(if you think Raul Julia didn't make a movie worse than Mortal Combat,you haven't seen this one!) and of course,the classic Manos,The Hands of Fate.

    BTW, one of the writers/performers on MST3K,Frank Coniff,now writes for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell on FXX("TV's Frank" is back in action!)

    1. It’s always a pleasure to talk to people who love this show, too! The Girl in Lover's Lane is very sad, while Manos is so badly-filmed it kills me.

      I swear I’ll give Overdrawn a chance, but I hope you’ve seen Mighty Jack and Master Ninja.

    2. Haven't see those but will add them to my Netflix list:)

  2. My, five year old has been forcing me to watch these on Amazon streaming. He is into robots and monsters. I recall watching many of them when they were first aired back in the day. Still pretty funny stuff.

    1. Teenage me was all about this show, but I love the idea of a little one who’s into MST3k! Given the bots and the ‘50’s movies they covered, the appeal is obvious. This series is still a gem.


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