“When we write a joke, we never ask, ‘Who’s gonna get this?’ We always say, ‘The right people will get this’.”
-MST3k star and creator, Joel Hodgson (pictured above with robots Crow and Tom Servo), on the show’s writing process.
Since rewatching Max Headroom last year, I’m wondering how well that which was once important to me has held up. Hoping to understand their initial appeal and how they came to be, from time to time, I’ll be revisiting TV shows and films that were once very important to me as part of a series I call “My Childhood Lied?” For the inaugural edition of “My Childhood Lied?” I’ve chosen to revisit one of the most important television series to infect my developing brain: Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
Yes, I’m using the Canadian spelling of “theatre.” It’s not my fault the Mid-West got it wrong.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (heretofore MST3k) chronicled the existence of sleepy-eyed janitor and would-be inventor Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) who’d been shot into outer space by mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). Joel, floating in space aboard the bone-shaped Satellite of Love, was forced to watch the world’s cheesiest movies as part of Forrester’s experiment. To keep from getting lonely, Joel builds some robots, two of which follow him into the theatre. Together, Joel Robinson, gumball-headed Tom Servo (initially played by J. Elvis Weinstein, later Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (played by Beaulieu until the show’s 8th season) sit in silhouette and crack jokes during educational shorts, b-movies, z-movies and even the odd episode of General Hospital.
In addition to the theatre wisecracking, the Satellite of Love crew would appear in sketches or interact with the earth-bound Clayton Forrester and his assistant, known as TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff).
The above either sounds amazing to you, or you wouldn’t want to be within ten feet of a television airing it. If you laughed at Frank Conniff referring to himself as TV’s Frank solely by virtue of appearing on one TV show, you’re in the right mindset for MST3k.
Revisiting the series, it’s easy to see why it made such an impact on me as a kid. As the above quote from Joel Hodgson indicates, MST3k never once spoke down to the audience. Each episode contained a barrage of jokes that not only skewered that week’s experiment, but culture in general. MST3k had the only writers room that could crack jokes about Aristophanes or do a sketch where Naked Lunch and Camus’ The Plague had been turned into pop-up books.
It’s incredible that a show this smart was ever greenlit, much less kept on the air for more than a decade. In the wastelands of teevee in the 90’s, mediocrity seemed to triumph over creativity nearly every time. How else can you explain the popularity of Friends and Ally McBeal while smart series like Newsradio and Homicide: Life On The Street clung to the airwaves with varying degrees of success? MST3k’s longevity is nothing short of a miracle.
The series’ hip, reference-heavy humour makes a lot of sense given when it was created. Increasingly post-modern shows like Sledge Hammer, No Soap Radio and Police Squad (and its Naked Gun film spin-offs) made minor blips on the air, but TV was becoming increasingly aware of itself as evidenced by the pop-culture riffs commonly found on hit shows like Night Court, Growing Pains, Alf and The Young Ones*. It was also the decade of “Weird Al” Yankovic and Pee-wee Herman. Even our screen monsters were subject to post-modern winking at the audience. Freddy Krueger (d)evolving from supernatural child murderer to a game show host wannabe who killed nubile teens between quips, for instance.
I’m always surprised when someone writes that we now live in some kind of manic, pop-culture-referencing society what with Family Guy and viral videos and such. Surely, the height of self-awareness in entertainment was 30 years ago, eh, lazy pop-culture critics?
Back to the subject at hand: MST3k has aged quite well. If anything, the series’ jokes have only become funnier as I’ve gotten older. It’s easy to see why it was a hit with me and so many other viewers. Watching MST3k was my first experience ever feeling like a piece of art/entertainment had been made exclusively for me. I imagine others who liked its smart, smart-ass banter and sketches felt the same way. I recommend MST3k to anyone game for a smarter, weirder kind of television. There are minor caveats, however.
The first seasons of MST3k, featuring J. Elvis Weinstein in place of Frank Conniff as Dr. Forrester’s assistant, are the perfect example of a show finding its footing. This is not the fault of Weinstein, who’s more at home when the series was improvised instead of scripted. The second season introduced TV’s Frank and the series’ growing pains had more or less ended. By the show’s third season, MST3k had finally hit its stride.
By the show’s fifth season, a somewhat controversial change occurred when Joel Hodgson left the show and was replaced by series writer Mike Nelson. Nelson would be riffing with the robots until the series’ tenth and final season.
I’m not one for the Joel vs. Mike debate, but the show did decline on the latter’s watch. While Mike’s first few seasons on the Satellite of Love are a lot of fun, the show’s last three years are largely devoid of energy. In these seasons, wherein the show moved from Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel, the jokes often plumbed easy targets like unattractive actors. The sketches between the films at this time were largely perfunctory and dumb.
This divide has less to do the loss of Joel, who did provide the show with a sweet-natured quality, than the losses of Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu. Conniff, whose job off-camera was to pick many of the experiments from the pile of VHS’ the staff would root through, had a wonderfully bizarre sense of humour the show needed. Beaulieu, in some respects, was the real star of the show. As Crow T. Robot, Beaulieu made excellent use of his gift for impressions and somehow made an awkward-looking robot puppet seem alive. As Dr. Forrester, Beaulieu displayed a manic intensity that put him on par with John Cleese at his best. His chemistry with Conniff resulted in some of the funniest and strangest sequences I’ve ever witnessed on TV.
When Beaulieu left after the series’ only film (1996’s MST3k: The Movie) and its cancellation from Comedy Central, MST3k never really recovered (Conniff left between Beaulieu and Hodgson’s departures). Mary Jo Pehl (replacing Beaulieu as the series’ antagonist) and Mike Nelson were never as strong as the show’s stars as they were when they played recurring guest characters. There were some great moments in those final seasons, but the show had lost a lot of its spark.
This divide is even more pronounced in the two post-MST3k comedies by the show’s two hosts. Mike Nelson’s RiffTrax offers audio files of Nelson (often joined by Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who replaced Beaulieu as Crow in the Sci-Fi years) riffing on modern movies. While popular, there’s still the lack of fun that plagued MST3k in its final years. Joel Hodgson’s Cinematic Titanic, meanwhile, is an impressive sequel to MST3k, which features silhouettes of Hodgson, Beaulieu, Pehl, Conniff and Weinstein riffing on b-movie fare so often featured on MST3k. Cinematic Titanic is the more worthy continuation of the concept.
While copyright wrangling prevents all 198 episodes of MST3kfrom ever getting a home video release, there have been 20 box sets released as of this writing. The latest DVD release is sub-titled “MST3k vs. Gamera”. All of the experiments featured in this set are Joel-era episodes featuring a Japanese series of films about Gamera. Gamera being a giant, flying, fire-breathing turle that defends the Earth and is friend to children everywhere (especially boys in short-shorts, it seems). It’s a fine place to start if you’re looking to pick up a set.
The easiest way to get into the series, however, would be to watch one of the many educational shorts mocked over the course of the series. Such as…
As for full episodes, any of the following would be a great place to start….
Gamera vs. Guiron
Santa Claus Conquers The Martians
Teenagers From Outer Space
Monster A Go Go
Manos: The Hands Of Fate
Operation Double 007
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die
Red Zone Cuba
The Brute Man
Overdrawn At The Memory Bank
MST3k made me the man I am today. Well, that may be overstating it, but it definitely encouraged my already pop culture saturated sense of humour. If you’re looking for a show that’s funnier than peak era Simpsons and cheaper-looking than Beakman’s World, you’re in for a treat.
*One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong.