So... what to write about? Some friends told me to be controversial. Start out with an opinion that goes against the mainstream and up will rise the fury of those who feel that they must, nay need to speak out on the matter! But I am not trying to start any arguments or tell anyone that Batman sucks. So something positive. Something that I am passionate about with nothing but good feelings towards. But could such a universal good exist?
Well, if you read the title, you might have an idea. It is my favorite show of all time, and has helped define my humor and even opened my mind to what would be defined as a “bad” film. For now, let us explore the greatest thing to ever hit the air-waves, cable-waves and digital-waves(?), Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 (from here on in to be called MST3K to save my fingers) started on my birthday of all days in 1990. It featured the silhouette of two robots and a human watching an old black and white film about Caesar Romero climbing a mountain. While a clever few of you might be running to the internets thinking that seems wrong, I am correct. For that is when I first saw it.
This is an interesting anecdote, so if you would indulge. I was at my grandparents house for my birthday. I was in my teens and was already a big fan of cheesy sci-fi films, the more space actiony the better. And I would often talk back to the films, mocking them, pointing out plot holes and saying where certain characters could stuff it. Often with my friends while drinking (all of drinking, age of course). I learned that it is HARD to maintain commentary for a full film. Once, while watching a Hercules movie, we broke down into degenerative comments on one of the buxom leads of the film. Teenagers...am I right.
I was sent away so that my family could set up the cake and sneak in stuff, so I was flicking around on the TV when I passed an old black and white film. Part of my brain noticed that something was off at the bottom of the screen. Finding the channel again, I started to listen.
I almost missed the party, someone had to drag me away from the TV to celibate my birthday. I spent the rest of the trip watching Comedy Central for more and discovering other episode of this wonderful show. The next time I visited I brought a whole stack of video tapes, and the circulation had begun.
Well, enough about me. What makes this show so awesome? Well….it’s bloody hilarious it is. While I would like to think everyone reading this would already know about MST3K, I still think a little history is in order. There are plenty of people I have met who have never seen it, though most have heard of it. I’ll be brief.
For those few who are virgins here, MST3K is about
“Some MAD Scientists send a hapless individual to the Satellite of Love, where he is forced to watch bad movies, and he survives by mocking the films with his robot pals as silhouettes at the bottom of the screen while also performing skits periodically and interacting with the Mads.”
The premise is pretty simple when you look at it and that's part of why it works. The writing got to be spot on when they started diving into it. But I am getting ahead of myself.
There once was a little town in the mid-west called Minneapolis. In it a young man started a comedy television show to make comments while screening movies. (Told you this was going to be brief) I have found a few good documentary's that go into detail on the origins of the show. For now lets go into the show itself.
We have a few characters:
First off we got Joel Robinson.
Played by...Joel Hodgson. Yeah, get used to that.
Then we have the lovable Crow T Robot
And this is the ever flappable Tom Servo
The MADS are Doctor Clayton Forrester.
Yes, the professor from War of the Worlds.
He is played by Trace Beaulieu, I can't overstate what a good actor he is.
And Dr. Laurence Erhardt.
Played by Josh "J Elvis" Weinstein
They started out on local access KTMA.
This was more of a test bed for the show. Whats works, what doesn't. This was successful enough to get them onto this new cable thing and Comedy Central. New finely polished sets and a new fuller looks for the bots.
Tom, Crow, Gypsy
The first Comedy Central season was where they started to really work on the writing. Up till now it was a partly improve show. You can really tell in some of the early KTMA episodes. But season 2 was to introduce the largest changes that caused the show to become what we all love. At this time Josh Weinstein left the show. Various interviews seem to indicate that he wanted the show to stay more improve while the rest of the crew were now pre-screening and writing everything before hand. Joel said he was just young, so I don’t have any reason to dispute this info. In any case that left Tom Servo and the other MAD free. Enter...legends.
Kevin Murphy, who would take over for Crow
and Frank Coniff, the new MAD, Tv's Frank. Yes that's his actual name.
Season two saw the biggest change with the introduction of TV’s Frank and a new “deep voiced man” Tom Servo. This is where we hit comedy gold. And this is in no way a dig at Josh, who went on to be quite successful on his own. If you ever liked Freaks and Geeks, you are a fan of his work. Season two also brought us the form of Michael J Nelson in bit parts. He seem affable enough. Lets hope we see more of him in the future.
While Erhardt played a co-mad, TV’s Frank was a much put-upon assistant. His role was to suffer much of the abuse while helping with the evil plans. And Tom’s new voice made him really stand out from the crowd with how erudite he was. And what a voice…..sigh.
Season three was where it all finally gelled. All the pieces just come together with the cast and the style of the riffing. And for the next few seasons it just kept getting better with three through five standing out as some of my personal favorite television. And it was halfway though season five that we had the big change-up. The departure of show creator and star, Joel Robinson.
He has said that he never felt all that comfortable being on screen. And since his character had a squinty eyed look that stemmed from the fact that he was not wearing his glasses, I believe him. But enter friendly every-man, Micheal J. Nelson.
Played by Mike Nelson, see a trend here.
The change in host started a civil war that has not stopped to this day. Joel vs Mike. Flame wars, judgments, shouting matches. Everybody had to have a favorite. I loved them both, but if forced to with a gun to Tom's head, I will go with Joel since he was my first. Kinda like how you never forget your first Doctor. But the Mike era was wonderful all the same. Bringing with it more change and even a feature film!
As an aside while a lot of people feel the film was weak, I love it since it has maybe one of my favorite riffs of all time. “Normal vieeeeew!” Some of you know what I of what I refer, but more on that some other time.
Or, right now.
After the film was the last big changes. First off was the bringing in of Mary Jo Pehl as Clayton's mother. That was to replace the un-replacable Frank Conniff when he left the show. While I hated to see him go, he at least went out with a laugh. After the film, the great Trace Beaulieu left the show. Now with Mary Jo as the MAD, Peal Forrester.
And while I agree with the consensus that Pearl was brain scratchingly irritating when first introduced as his mom, she was great after taking over. She brought a sense of menace that I never got from Clayton.
To replace TV’s Frank, they first put Kevin Murphy in an ape costume.
The man is a national treasure.
And the final add to this stew was Bill Corbett who was the new voice of Crow T Robot and played a new hench MAD, Brain Guy. Because he had a brain. Obviously.
And that lasted until the tenth and last season, resulting in the end of the show and a number of excellent spin-offs. Because MST3k can't really die.
Mike, Kevin and Bill went on to make the Film Crew, where they mocked movies with skits but without the silhouettes. This was a seriously funny show with the talent being more about oddball people rather then robots or plants. The show was short lived, but I feel that had to do with the pre-internet age. Modern distribution would have help a lot.
Joel came back with, deep breath, Frank; Trace; Mary Jo; and Josh (woo hoo) to do Cinematic Titanic. This show did have silhouettes and also did live shows. I did have the pleasure to see one of the live shows. And that proved that this sort of thing works great with an audience,
something that will be appreciated soon.
Again Mike came back and created Rifftrax, shorty joined by Kevin and Bill. The clever idea that worked here was they would just do the commentary and you, the audience at home, would play it during the movie. This has turned into an outstanding success and I heartily recommend you check ‘em out. And now they do live show simulcast around the country. I backed the first one, Starship Troopers, and have enjoyed many since then. You can also get old MST’s and Film Crew episodes as well.
And Trace and Frank are currently touring, doing live shows where they riff a film together. I have not had the pleasure of seeing this show yet, but I saw them live during the reunion show and they are pants wettingly hilarious together. Catch it if you can.
But there has been no Bots or MADs for 18 years outside the rare cameos and turkyday marathons. All good things must pass and result in change. And change is hopefully for the better as time moves on. But amongst this wasteland, a Kickstarter was kindled. And Mystery Science theater 3000 is back! And I couldn’t be happier! But more on that later. Believe me, I will have something to say about the new show.
I hope you enjoyed a little history, and I will have more about the subject matter in the future. Meanwhile, enjoy some MST3K on your own. A lot of episodes are available to observe. There are multiple streaming sites dedicated to it, groups collecting episode and putting them online. And Shout Factory, current license holder, put up a bunch of episodes on Youtube with annotations that are fun to see. And of course Netflix, with 20 classic episodes and...all the new stuff.
So please forgive my long winded ramble in this, my first written collection of thoughts on a given subject. This took a lot longer to prepare than I thought it would. There was some technical issues, some rewrites and mistakes to fix. But what really took all my time was getting all those screen grabs for the pictures. I would start looking through an episode to find one, and just keep watching. I had to watch soooo much MST3K while preparing this.
I think I need to do more of these.
Just an addendum, I saw the Rifftrax Live of the Five Doctors. Man that was funny. Uproariously so. I highly recommended you catch a repeat of it if you can.
Music note: This was written while listening to Daft Punk. I discovered while writing that the new album, Random Access Memoirs is bloody fantastic. I especially love the song dedicated to Giorgio Moroder.