Seething Cauldron of Pop Culture Talk

Irascible Analysis of Popular Culture

Nostalgia Challenge: Mystery Science Theater 3000

On November 24, 1988, the first episode of a new series aired on local-access cable channel KTMA out of the heart of Minnesota. The series, entitled Mystery Science Theater 3000, was the brainchild of prop comedian Joel Hodgson and feature Joel as a hapless everyman blasted into orbit by a couple of geniuses who forced him to watch bad movies as part of an experiment. To help fight off insanity, and loneliness, Joel constructed two robots named Tom Servo [voiced by Josh Weinstein and later by Kevin Murphy] and Crow T. Robot [voiced by Trace Beaulieu and later by Bill Corbit]. Together they watch bad movies and joke about how bad they are.

The format of the show is as thus: each episode opens with the series opening, showing who all the characters are and explaining the premise of the show in song form. Then there’s an opening sketch scene with Joel, and later Mike, doing something with Tom Servo and Crow. Then, after a commercial break, there’s a sketch with The Mads and the crew of the Satellite of Love, where there’s an invention exchange [mostly just for the Joel era] and then the movie of the day is announced and then sent. The crew goes into the movie theater to watch the movie, where they make witty comments and note the movie’s glaring flaws. Interspersed between segments of the movie are more sketches, usually just between the crew of the satellite. Then, upon the conclusion of the movie, there’s one more sketch between the crew and The Mads. The episode is then rapped up and the credits roll. Beginning in the second Comedy Central season, each episode ends with a “stinger” a humorous clip from the movie, usually just a few seconds long.

After one season on KTMA, the series was picked up by new-comer cable channel Comedy Central. The channel was looking for fresh content and MST3K allowed them to fill up a full two hours of programming and it was cheap to make, both of which were very appealing. This change also brought about several others. The early KTMA episode were mostly ad-libbed, but starting with the first Comedy Central season the episode began to be more scripted. During the third season, Josh Weinstein left, replaced by Frank Conniff as one of the two mad scientists and by Kevin Murphy as the voice of Tom Servo. Mike Nelson was appointed as head writer and also appeared during the sketches between portions of the movie as various characters.

During the fifth season on Comedy Central, series-creator Joel Hodgson left the show over creative problems with series-producer Jim Mallon. Joel hand-picked Mike Nelson to replace him as the show’s host and so began the Mike era. From there, the show’s riffing took on a bit more of a biting, sarcastic tone than the good-natured ribbing that prevailed during the Joel era. The difference is noticeable, but it also helps keep the show fresh. At the end of the sixth season, Frank Conniff, left the show, replaced by Mary Jo Pehl as Pearl Forrester, Dr. Forrester’s mother. Then, following the end of the seventh season, the show was cancelled by Comedy Central. Although it looked as though the show were gone for good, The Scifi Channel picked up the show and it gave it three more seasons. Following that move, Trace Beaulieu was replaced by Bill Corbit as the voice of Crow and Mary Jo Pehl took over as the mad scientist. She was joined by Bill Corbit [as Obeserver [aka Brain Guy] and Kevin Murphy as Professor Bobo, her often dim-witted assistants.

Then, with the conclusion of the tenth season, on September 18, 1999, the show was official cancelled for good. After a few more years of reruns, The Scifi Channel cut the show loose. For the first time in seventeen years, MST3K was no longer broadcast on televion. The era had finally come to an end.

Fortunately, the show has not been forgotten. A steady stream of DVD releases from Rhino Home Entertainment have been coming out with the latest, volume 17, being released in March 2010. The releases have not come as quickly as they might, due to lengthy negotiations being required to get the rights to all of the movies that were used as part of the series.

History aside, MST3K has featured a host of movies over its eleven seasons. Many of them feature a scifi or horror bent, but others are simply bad movies that would have otherwise sank into oblivion were it not for being featured on the show. MST3K has even featured more famous film franchises like Godzilla and Gamera, and the works of Ed Wood and Roger Corman. The movies range from practically ancient to nearly new, covering every decade from the 30’s to the 90’s. In addition to full-length films, MST3K also features shorts, to pad out movies that are too short to fit a 90-minute program. These shorts are off educational or informative in nature, used in schools and colleges, and are often hilariously awful, making them ripe for some great riffing. There are also a few serials such as Commando Cody, The Phantom Creeps, and General Hospital.

So what is it that makes MST3K so good? Because, for most of us, this is the kind of thing that we’ve always wanted to do. It’s great fun to kick back with your friends and just tear into some really bad movie that you wouldn’t really enjoy by taking seriously. That’s what MST3K does and that’s also why it’s best when viewed friends. Not every episode is the funniest thing ever, but with 199 episodes there are plenty that very nearly are. Do yourself a favor and rent a few. You won’t regret it.


May 7, 2010 - Posted by | Movies, Nostalgia Challenge | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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