Grapevine: Mystery Science Theater 3000

What is this “it” which is to him “up”, and which he can perhaps “handle”?

Turn Down Your Lights (Where Applicable)

It is the not-too-distant future, next Sunday, AD. With War of the Worlds on hiatus at this point in the nexus, I find myself in a situation not too dissimilar from where I was about a year ago when it came time to talk about Max Headroom. MST3K logoYou can’t talk about music in 1988 without mentioning “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, you can’t talk about movies in 1988 without mentioning Die Hard, and you can’t talk about Science-Fiction TV in 1988 without mentioning Mystery Science Theater 3000. But really, at this point, what’s left to say about any of them beyond, “They’re really quite good,” and “Okay, I think by now I finally understand all the references.”

From my ramble about Out of this World, you might remember that back in the ’80s, TV stations had a lot more independence, and unaffiliated stations in particular had to scrounge for programming where they could get it, and even very small stations would often end up making some of their own shows. Locally produced TV for a purely local market is something you don’t see a lot of any more, but it used to be a common model (Particularly for kids’ shows. See also: Romper Room).

One of the most popular forms was the Late Night Horror Movies We Can Get the Rights To For Cheap Anthology, and that form’s become kind of enshrined in our culture. Get some crappy old horror movies on the cheap, stick your weather man in a Dracula costume, and have him introduce it. The form had originated in 1954 with Vampira, a Los Angeles-area hostess playing a sexed-up vampire inspired by Morticia Addams (Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was born out of an ’80s attempt to revive the character). By the late ’50s, Screen Gems had packaged the Universal monster movies and early Columbia horror films under the label Shock! for licensing to independent stations, leading to a spate of local shows often titled some variation on “Shock Theater”. Linkara in Longbox of the DamnedBy the ’60s, the Creature Features package added many of the films of Roger Corman, Hammer Studios, Toho and Daiei. Hosts such as Vampira, Morgus the Magnificent, Joe Bob Briggs, Zacherly, Count Gore de Vol ( Washington, DC-area host Dick Dyzsel, better known as the host of the local kids’ show Bozo the Clown) and Svengooli would introduce the movies, usually with a short comedy sketch, and reappear at the commercial breaks. For the most part, their schtick and material varied from “bad” to “worse”, but there were more than a few stand-outs, and lots of the hosts became minor local celebrities. Coast to Coast AM‘s George Noory has cited Morgus as an inspiration, Drew Carey was influenced by Ghoulardi. And Roddy MacDowell’s character in Fright Night is an homage to ’60s host Sinister Seymour. So influential was the format that these sorts of Horror Hosts still exist today, despite the fact that the TV environment has changed so much by now that they’re pretty much entirely redundant.

In another part of the late ’60s and early ’70s, CBS had brought back ’50s puppets-and-live-actor trio Kukla, Fran and Ollie to host the CBS Children’s Film Festival. Unrelatedly, in 1972, Douglas Trumbull made an environmentally themed science fiction movie called Silent Running (no relation to the 1985 song by Mike + the Mechanics), about an astronaut who hijacks a space ship carrying the last existing plant life from Earth (the rest having been wiped out by capitalism, because fuck the environment, it’s the ’70s) and heads out into deep space with no companionship save for two maintenance robots he’s reprogrammed in an attempt to keep his sanity.Silent Running Fast-forward a bit. If you somehow don’t know this, back in 1988, Minneapolis-area prop comic Joel Hodgson came up with a premise for a comedy series and pitched it to the independent Twin Cities TV station KTMA-23 (Now CW-affiliated WUCW). Drawing inspiration from the tradition of late night horror hosts, from Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and from Silent Running, he concocted a backstory about an inventor who’d built a “Satellite of Love” and launched himself into space, where he built three robots, Gypsum (voiced by J. Elvis Weinstein, going by his maiden name “Josh”), Crow (voiced by Trace Beaulieu), and Beeper (voiced by no one, as he spoke only on beeps), to look after the place while he watched movies and offered color commentary. With producer Jim Mallon and cameraman Kevin Murphy, they produced a 30 minute pilot in which Joel demonstrated his latest invention (a chiropractic helmet), saved the station’s plant life from a space virus, and watched selections from the 1969 film The Green Slime.

The pilot sold to KTMA and a season of 13 episodes (later extended to 22) was commissioned. This sort of thing had been tried before in recent years, particularly with Mad Movies and the LA Connection and The Canned Movie Festival, but neither had managed to quite hit the sweet spot, the former confining their riffs to a separate segment, and the latter doing a wholesale replacement of the film’s audio track a la Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lilly. Despite being extremely rough around the edges, Hodgson’s version managed to find its audience almost immediately (though there were still a handful of call-ins to the station very irate that the hosts were talking over Gamera vs Barugon). Over the course of the season, the premise would evolve and be fleshed out: Beeper gained the ability to talk and was renamed Tom Servo, Gypsy was revealed as female, the camera became anthropomorphized as the mute robot “Cambot”, and Hodgson’s character became “Joel Robinson”, not a professional inventor, but a janitor for “Gizmonic Institute”. Episode 7 introduced Beaulieu and Weinstein as Drs. Clayton Forrester and Larry Erhardt, mad scientists who’d shot Joel into space, possibly on a whim. The nature of the experiment was still vague at this point; the implication seems to be that Joel is hosting movies to raise money for a rescue mission.

Those early episodes are pretty rough. The Last Race posterThe material, largely ad libbed, is hit-or-miss, the acting and production lacks polish, and, since no one in a legal position to do so thinks it is even remotely a good idea to watch them, they’re only watchable in the form of Nth generation off-air fan-made tapes with dodgy audio and severe generation loss (Also, the first three episodes aren’t available at all, and some episodes may be incomplete). Much of the material would be revisited later in better quality, albeit with some omissions. That said, not among those episodes they’d later remake are the ones I consider highlights of the season, Saul Bass’s psychedelic environmental sci-fi film, Phase IV (Yes, the ant movie), and The Last Race, in which Lee Majors and Chris Makepeace try to cross a post-apocalyptic US ​​in a race car with Burgess Meredith on their tail in a fighter jet.

The KTMA season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 did well enough, but KTMA as a whole was strapped for cash and declined to renew the show. Joe Estevez in Soultaker on Mystery Science Theater 3000Fortunately, a demo reel of the show sparked interest from The Comedy Channel, which picked up the show. With access to actual sets and lighting, they decided to up their game a bit, rebuilding the ‘Bots, and hired Michael J. Nelson as a writer so they could start having actual scripts. The relationship between Joel and the Mads also became more antagonistic, with the Mads now explicitly trying to drive Joel insane. Weinstein wasn’t as interested in the more tightly structured format and left after the first season to be replaced by Frank Conniff as “TV’s Frank” and Kevin Murphy as the voice of Tom Servo. Midway through the fifth season, Hodgson himself left the show, prompting Nelson to take his place. Between seasons 6 and 7, TV’s Frank was “killed off”, and a feature film was made, based around This Island Earth. The movie was okay, but uneven and not a good fit for the series format. The short seventh season featured a metaplot mocking the process of dealing with meddling studio executives while trying to make a film. Comedy Central finally dropped the show, and the series ended with the regulars ascending to a higher plane of existence and Dr. Forrester regressing to infancy.

A fan campaign to save the show led to it being picked up by The Sci-Fi Channel in 1997, and this is, weirdly enough, when I finally got to see it. I’d heard of the show for years, but the byzantine vagaries of our cable system meant that Comedy Central would have cost us some obscene amount of extra money per month. So up until they switched to a channel I got, my only exposure to MST3K was in the form of Adam Cadre’s MSTings of The Eye of Argon and A Royal Wedding. Ironically, in the fall of 1997, I went off to college, where the campus system did carry Comedy Central, which was cool because now I could watch The Daily Show With Craig Kilborn, at least until they replaced him with some loser who I’m sure will never make it.

It is, of course, a tradition among fans of any long-running series to conclude that everything sucks if it happened after some particular, easily identifiable point in the series history, like when KITT became a convertible, Cousin Oliver came to live with them, Scrappy Doo was introduced, Billy Connelly took over from Howard Hessman, Fonzie jumped over that shark, or the fucking fiftieth anniversary year was marked by them not bothering to have a season at all just a dull special built around a cheap 3D gimmick and a plot so transparent and predictable Power Rangers would have rejected it as too obvious. But in the case of the Sci-Fi Channel seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000, there might be a legit argument to be made. I’m told that basically none of the people responsible for bringing the show to Sci-Fi were still there when it actually arrived, and one gets the sense that once the deal was done and they were committed, various Sci-Fi Channel executives said, “Okay, now let’s watch an episode. What’s this show about again? OH DEAR LORD WHAT ARE THEY DOING TO THAT POOR LOW BUDGET FILM? Someone call Joe Estevez and apologize at once!”

With Beaulieu gone, Bill Corbett took over as the voice of Crow, and also as “Observer”, an (allegedly) hyper-intelligent alien who served as a sidekick to the new antagonist, Pearl Forrester. Mary Jo Pehl had played Dr. Forrester’s mother (as well as numerous minor characters) several times over the past few years, and was now rewritten as an aspiring tyrant. The framing story plots became more complex, with Mike and the Bots returning to corporeal form on the Satellite of Love many centuries in the future, only to find Earth turned into a Planet of the Apes (Thanks to the dating habits of Mike’s family). After Mike accidentally causes the destruction of Earth, Pearl and a surviving ape, Professor Bobo, pursue them through space and time, soon joined by Observer, the only survivor after Mike accidentally causes the destruction of his planet. They eventually make their way back to present-day Earth, where Pearl takes up residence in her ancient familial castle and pursues various ridiculous schemes to conquer the world.

Under orders from their new corporate overlords, the movie selection played it safer for these last three seasons, and stuck more to science fiction and monster movies rather than the wider variety of B-movies and exploitation films used in the earlier seasons. The movies tended at least to be generally coherent, so there were no perfect trainwrecks like Manos: The Hands of Fate, but as a side-effect, they also got a little samey: season 8 featured both Return of the Creature (the sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon) and I Was a Teenage Werewolf, as well as two late ’50s/early ’60s Japanese alien invasion movies so similar that even Mike and the Bots are nearly broken by it.

But by an odd twist of fate, the second or third episode I happened to catch was the season finale, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank. Overdrawn at the Memory Bank VHS box coverOverdrawn at the Memory Bank was a 1985 TV movie made by PBS-affiliate WNET-13 in New York. Based on a short story by John Varley (Who also wrote the screenplay for the 1989 film Millennium, in which, coincidentally, Philip Akin had a supporting role), it starred Raul Julia as Aram Fingal, a film buff in a corporatist dystopian future, whose mind gets trapped in a supercomputer due to a mishap during some compulsory therapy after he gets caught watching Casablanca at work. As the Bots observe, you really should not show a really good movie in the middle of your really crappy movie.

It just being the way things go, I’d seen Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (The other MST3K-treated films I had previously seen in their original form are I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Soultaker, Gorgo, Alien from LA, and Laserblast (I was surprised they didn’t comment on the shitty continuity editing when he first gets the laser gun, since the only reason I remember seeing this film is that my dad riffed on that when it aired as a Saturday afternoon movie somewhere in the late ’80s)). I even liked it, what with combining Raul Julia, Casablanca and dystopian sci-fi. I’d made a point of taping it at some point: I still had the VHS tape, it was right there between the Kenneth Brannagh version of Much Ado About Nothing and Trancers II: The Return of Jack Deth. And here they were, making fun of it. Calling my attention to the fact that it looked slightly cheaper than an episode of Doctor Who, that the plot stumbles all over the place, that no one other than Raul Julia is exactly… an actor, that it’s worse than Max Headroom about using ridiculous made-up syntho-flavo-future-speak, or that they never bother to explain key elements of the premise, or that all the visual effects were clearly done on a Video Toaster (And I mean that literally this time, it’s not just me using that as shorthand for cheaply done 1980s video effects).

The whole thing was hilarious, and I was hooked. But more than that, because this was a movie I already knew, and knew well, the experience of watching it wasn’t simply, “Hur Dur Let’s Laugh At The Stupid Movie No One’s Ever Heard Of.” It was instead simultaneously the experience of watching an old movie that I liked from my youth and also of recognizing and taking a perverse pleasure in poking fun at its flaws, and learning that I could enjoy something even more by acknowledging its shortcomings. It was how I learned that something could fail interestingly, that it could, in fact, be more interesting as a failure than it ever would have been as a success. And so yeah, it’s a big part of the reason I grew up to be the sort of guy who writes a blog like this one.

The show puttered on through a couple more seasons, eventually ending with Mike and the Bots returning to Earth when the Satellite of Love crashes at the end of their viewing of an Italian James Bond-esque heist film, Diabolik. There’s occasional talk of a reboot or revival, and a couple of web-based animated sketches came out in the early part of the century, but nothing concrete. Most of the performers involved would go on to do similar projects. In 2006, Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy launched RiffTrax, a series of comedy commentary tracks intended to be played in sync with movies, including recent Hollywood blockbusters, sold separately — placing the onus on the viewer to provide the movie itself neatly solving what would otherwise be a prohibitive licensing issue. The team also perform live shows, riffing older, more easily licensed movies and public domain short films. The project was a follow-up to The Film Crew, a comedy team which did humorous host segments for several cable movie shows, and which culminated in the release of four DVDs of MST3K-style commentary on public domain films, accompanied by short comedy sketches starring the trio as wage-slaves in a DVD commentary track factory. Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Mary Jo Pehl did a series starting in 2007 called Cinematic Titanic, which evolved MST3K’s silhouette format as the performers produced “nanotations” to be attached to the same sorts of movies favored by the earlier show. The framing story held that the performers had been conscripted as part of a preservation project intended to thwart a “tear in the electron scaffolding” which threatened all digital media.

If you’re watching primarily to see merciless riffing on an unwatchable movie, you’re going to like the early seasons better. For me, with my weird fascination with metanarratives and pseudonarratives and framing stories, there’s still a lot to love in the later seasons. In fact, most of my favorite episodes are from the Sci-Fi era: Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, The Final Sacrifice, Track of the Moon Beast, and Squirm. Again, relevant to my interests are the short films, among those not-to-be-missed are “Mr. B. Natural” (Infamous for the presence of a Mary Martin-inspired strange, androgynous supernatural musical being), “Out of this World” (in which angels and demons vie over the work ethic of a bread deliveryman), “Last Clear Chance” and “The Days of our Years” (a pair of safety films by Union Pacific Railroad which ask the question, “Why don’t they look?”), and “A Case of Spring Fever” (In which an imp removes all springs from the universe to teach a lesson to a middle-aged doughy guy about the importance of coiled metal).

It’d be silly to say that Mystery Science Theater created “making fun of stuff”, but it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t basically the killer app for elevating “guys making snarky commentary about something else” into a form of consumable entertainment in its own right, and in that sense, it’s basically the grandparent of like 95% of new media, from The Nostalgia Critic to Retsupurae. Of things that were on TV in 1988, I’m not even sure Star Trek the Next Generation has had that big of an impact.

Keep Circulating the Tapes


  • Shout! Factory will be hosting a “Turkey Day” Mystery Science Theater 3000 streaming event on November 26. Shout! Factory is also the current distributor of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on DVD
  • Cinematic Titanic‘s DVD releases are available through their website
  • Rifftrax releases are available through their website. The next Rifftrax live show will be Miami Connection in Nashville on October 1 and 6.

2 thoughts on “Grapevine: Mystery Science Theater 3000

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