There’s something magical about Mystery Science Theater 3000 that no matter who attempts to revive its in/famous riffing format – be it YouTube imitators, the people who made it, or your local nerd at the Coolidge Midnites – no one has been able to replicate the recipe. MST3K was lightning in a bottle that managed to shine bright for close to 11 years. A perfect mixture of creativity, personality and charm that made something truly unique that has endured until this day.
When you watch the show it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that made it work so well. It’s almost easier to look at the failures of its successors to identify what they’re missing. RiffTrax, despite being run by three of the show’s longtime cast and writers, lacks the vital ragtag aesthetic. The disembodied voices of commentary tracks reminds us of how warm it was to see Mike or Joel and the bots in silhouette at the bottom of the screen, constantly pointing or shuffling even though our attention was focused on the film at hand. The choice to choose popular movies robs of us the surreality of finding strange, unknown films that are almost impossible to believe exist (if I want to watch JURASSIC PARK, it’s funny enough on its own, thanks). And there’s a mean streak; a sense of heckling, not the warm love that was paid to even the biggest of clunkers that appeared on the show.
Then there’s a slew of YouTubers, some of whom hew so closely to the source that they will even go to the length of building robot puppets and adding a silhouette in the “theater.” But these frequently lack the knowledge base of MST3K – the ability to pull riffs not just from insulting the characters on screen or referencing the nerd canon of video games and STAR WARS, but being able to draw from all realms of western culture, be it film, history, politics, sports, you name it. I don’t mean to badmouth these earnest attempts to recreate a series thousands of people have loved and miss dearly, but I use them to highlight the perfect storm that was MST3K so that perhaps we can appreciate just how unique and untouchable of a work it is.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 started as humbly as a TV series could – on Minnesota cable access. Premiering on November 24, 1988, the show mined the station’s movie library for oddities and was completely improvised. Creator and star Joel Hodgson, a local stand-up comedian, pulled an all-nighter before the filming of the first episode to build the first rendition of “the bots,” which were originally portrayed by Trace Beaulieu (Crow, Dr. Forrester) and Josh “J. Elvis” Weinstein (Tom Servo, Dr. Erhardt).
The result was combination of single-camera host segments shot in the vein of children’s television and delirious theater segments that truly felt as if you were hanging out with your friends watching bargain bin movies. These early episodes were rougher around the edges; the riffs came slower and the sets were ramshackle even by MST3K’s standards. But the charm made it a hit – as big a hit as KTMA in Minneapolis could produce. This soon caught the attention of the fledgling Comedy Channel (later to become Comedy Central). Desperate for programming, this two-hour show that could be made on a micro-budget was exactly what the new network needed.
Despite garnering interest from studios in larger markets, MST3K was able to maintain creative autonomy by remaining in Minnesota, away from the commercializing clutches of executives with endless streams of notes and suggestions. If you need evidence of how corporate oversight can damn even something as innovative as Mystery Science Theater, look at the last three seasons on the Sci Fi Channel where the suits clearly forced them to inject uncharacteristic and unwelcomed story arcs into the host segments, effectively wrangling the otherwise freewheeling atmosphere that led to gags like the invention exchange.
There was a careful rhythm to the host segments and the theater segments. The initial host segments relied on one- or two-note jokes – goofy, childish, often running off of a pun. Using his prop comedy expertise, Hodgson would devise a variety of useless inventions for the bots and the mads to show off, such as mind-controlled guitars, chocolate bunny guillotines and 3D pizza. Rarely going past the five minute mark, these quick openers would set a light mood with a bit of world-building before seguing into the evening’s movie. These are the moments that define the show’s aesthetic. Jumpsuits, machinery and a lot of plastic tubing defined the visuals. Hodgson mastered the hapless, but optimistic everyday Joe(l) role and the puppeteers excelled at making us believe in these characters. They repurposed the formula that made Mr. Rogers and Lambchop childhood favorites and expanded it into a show for irreverent adults – where comic mania meets schlock media. Essentially, it was Elvira as a puppet show.
After the host segment, the cast would then crawl into the theater and the show would begin. Although the series is most remembered for its use of 50s sci fi, they would dive into a variety of genres and eras from 80s VHS schlock horror to bottom of the barrel kaiju flicks and corny spy movies. It didn’t matter the actual quality of the movie being shown, what mattered was that they were all weird. The films on MST3K are misremembered as being bad movies when most of them were really just offbeat. That the series was set on a satellite orbiting Earth was appropriate because these films felt like they were being beamed from space – films that refused to conform to conventional standards and carved their own path to storytelling. Pacing issues and awkward silences gave the cast room to riff without talking over lines. Strange editing tricks and bizarre special effects gave the films flavor for Joel and the bots to feed on. A bad movie is plain unwatchable; these films were fun. There’s an inherent joy in HERCULES UNCHAINED and a delirium to THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS that keeps you glued. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE has a massive cult following now because, in its own way, it was an artistic success. Inept as it is, it’s the type of movie that tapped into fans’ imaginations with derelict sets and a hypnotic atmosphere. It was memorable, which is more than can be said for most professional Hollywood movies. To dismiss any film on the show as “bad” misses the central tenet of MST3K that “bad” films can be rendered “good” under the right viewing conditions.
By 1995, MST3K had made a name for itself and Universal and Gramercy Pictures optioned it for a feature. By that time a lot of changes had come and gone – Hodgson had left due to hostilities with Mallon and was replaced as host by writer Mike Nelson in the middle of season 5. Weinstein was long gone, being replaced as Tom Servo in Season 2 by Kevin Murphy. And even the beloved Frank Conniff had come and gone on screen before plans for a movie came about. The crew was spared from filming in L.A. but did have to move to Energy Park Studios in St. Paul, Minnesota. With more money came more scrutiny, but the film remained true to the heart of the series. There were some changes – Dr. Forrester became slightly more malicious (torturing Mike and the bots and demanding they bow before him) – but the whim was still there and a plot never interrupted the goal of riffing an old movie.
The science fiction classic THIS ISLAND EARTH was chosen as MST3K: THE MOVIE’s movie-in-the-movie. It was decided that any mainstream audiences probably couldn’t handle something as obtuse as a MANOS or a MONSTER-A-GO-GO, so the crew went with a film that was legitimately good and is still remembered as one of the better examples of its genre. Released in 1955, THIS ISLAND EARTH has left an indelible mark on sci fi – from the burnt out worlds of AlLIEN to the desire for contact in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (Spielberg even featured it on a TV set in E.T.). The aesthetics would be considered camp by modern standards, but it features creative and daring visual effects that make it a joy to watch even without riffs.
The crew bring their A-Game to the theater, showing off their ability pick up on even the most minute details from the classic Universal-International picture and turn them into brilliant comedy (“Doesn’t the fact that it’s universal make it international?”) If someone has never seen the series, it’s a perfect introduction. Oddly enough, the movie is not only shorter than THIS ISLAND EARTH (nearly a half hour of the film was cut) but it’s shorter than any episode of Mystery Science Theater. Gramercy demanded cuts be made to trim the running time down to a clean 75 minutes after dropping a host segment, the theme song, and making an ending change.
Unfortunately, the film was a box office bomb. The blame here lies with Gramercy Pictures, who did so little advertising that even die-hard fans had no idea a movie had been made. It was dumped into theaters and quickly left, grossing only slightly over $1 million. After the film, Beaulieu left the series and Comedy Central cut their ties with the producers, prompting a move to the Sci Fi Channel. It went on for three more seasons until 1999 when the plug was pulled for good. But the mark MST3K left on American pop culture has endured, carving the path for cult classics like THE ROOM to take on life and inspiring every jerk who ever made up a story on the internet about how he shouted at the screen during a bad movie and “the entire theater turned into a MST3K riff-fest.”
Of course, now the series is coming back for real. Hodgson launched a successful Kickstarter campaign raising nearly $6 million to revive the show in its original format with a new cast of comedians Jonah Ray in the host seat, Hampton Yount as Crow, Baron Vaughn as Tom Servo and Twitter-verified show-people Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the Mads. Whether this new season can put the pieces back together again and recapture that magic, or if it will end up as another in a long line of challengers coming at the king, remains to be seen. Until then, keep circulating the tapes.