Our Old TV: Mystery Science Theater 3000

by Les Chappell

Welcome back to Our Old TV, a recurring feature where members of the TWTV team explore the television programs and events that were foundational to their viewer experience.

There are a lot of things that drive a person to spend their time writing about television—or pop culture in general—either for a living or as a hobby. Certainly a deep and abiding interest in the format is key, but there’s far more too it than that. You have to know what you’re talking about, and be able to draw from a broad pool of resources and references to put the subject matter in context. You have to be willing to sit through the bad to get to the good, and be able to say why it’s bad in a way that doesn’t come across as simply being mean. And if you’re going to stick with it, you have to have a sense of humor when you’re doing it, otherwise neither you nor the reader is having any fun.

And really, having fun is the most important part of doing this. If you watch enough television and movies, regardless of what you’re watching you’re going to stumble onto something bad. There’s many different flavors of bad that you’ll suffer through—actors who can’t act, writers who can’t write, production values and aesthetic better suited to community theater—and if you’re going to deal with it, you’re going to have to figure out how to express your thoughts beyond “it sucks.” And for my money, the best way to do that is to find the lighter side of the badness, to laugh in the face of death (so to speak) and show it that you’re the smarter one.

Where did I get this perspective on critical thinking? I owe it to a bunch of guys in the Midwest, who took a public access station, a bunch of junk and a few films so bad most respectable networks would only air them as late-night filler. From this hodgepodge was born Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show that forever changed the way I, and a legion of others, would react to low-quality creative works.

For those of you who might be unaware of what Mystery Science Theater 3000 was, the concept of the show was fairly simple—so simple, in fact, that it could be spelled out in a theme song of less than a minute and thirty seconds one that still gives me more joy than any other theme song out there):

That’s the narrative abstract of how it worked, but this was mostly a loose premise to present the series’ unique approach to bad movies. Working in the loose premise of “mad scientist forces man and robots to watch bad movies,” the creative team of Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Jim Mallon and company would take an older film of less than stellar quality and offer commentary in the form of various jokes and asides. At certain points they’d break from the film with “host segments” of short comedy sketches, where the man and robots would react to the film in an manner proportional to just how stupid they found what they were watching.

Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Crow T. Robot and Tom ServoNow the act of cracking jokes during a bad movie is certainly nothing original, even at the time—bad movie nights are a tradition almost as old as the double feature. What made Mystery Science Theater 3000 so unique was the sheer breadth of intelligence that Hodgson and company brought to the table. In one film—be it a black-and-white B-movie, a low-budget direct-to-video or a bafflingly constructed foreign film—the jokes could be a reference to anything from a Beatles song to a James Joyce novel to Humphrey Bogart film, balanced the next minute with a fart joke or sight gag. They could extrapolate from any little element of the film and turn it into a recurring joke, pick up on any recognizable actor (or actor who happened to resemble a recognizable actor) and pick on them ceaselessly, or turn a film’s generic ending music into an epic medley of songs they could hear in the mix:

As the show went on longer and longer, they’d work various references to earlier films into both the riffing and the host segments, with some like the ridiculously oily Torgo or pizza-faced Ortega even becoming recurring characters. Plenty of shows could reward you for having a sense of humor, but MST3K rewarded you for paying attention. You wanted to go back over and over to catch every joke, and you wanted to be smart enough to get the most obscure jokes—if you couldn’t, you’d look it up almost immediately after to get it the next time you watched.

And not only was it smart, it was a show with character. The show’s set and robots all had the look of being cobbled together from junk, which they were—you could see the old tools and Star Wars props they’d built the Satellite of Love from, and the obvious bowling pin and gumball machine that made the robots Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. Thanks to a strong writers’ room headed by Nelson (who would replace Hodgson* as the host) the personalities of the robots and extras were distinct and the sketches and riffs were consistent, and when they failed it was usually due to the fact that the movie itself was too dull or awful to be a source of real comedy. More to the point, it was also an incredibly good-natured show, one that spoke of its Midwest sense of humor: while it tore these movies to pieces it was never cruel about it, and would never do anything it couldn’t back up with evidence. If anything, they were as bemused by the ineptitude as the viewer was, snickering at the most unintentionally comic moments and offering dismissals of the film’s general failure:

“If we pretend we know what’s going on, this is actually kind of interesting!”

“So the basic premise of this movie is that everyone is nuttier than all get out?”

“Let’s chip in and buy this movie a life!”

“You know, just because you can edit doesn’t mean you should.”

[Door slam] “Oh, that was the sound of the director giving up and leaving.”

*The Joel vs. Mike feud is as old and fiercely fought as the Kirk vs. Picard feud, but I’m resolutely on Team Mike. It’s possible that’s because I came to the show after Hodgson had already left, but even watching those episodes after the fact I still prefer Mike. Joel always struck me as too passive and good-natured, while Mike had a more active style of humor particularly in his more antagonistic relationship with the bots. Crow and Servo respected Joel, they took pleasure in picking on Mike.

My first exposure to MST3K came entirely at random, when on one Saturday my brother and I were channel-surfing and landed on the Sci-Fi Channel (because this was in those glorious days where SyFy wasn’t ashamed to be called that). I don’t even remember exactly which episode it was we stumbled on, only that neither of us quite understood what we were watching—a black-and-white film that had some other people talking over it—and we wanted to know more almost immediately. We wound up renting Mystery ScienceTheater 3000: The Movie, which eviscerated the sci-fi film This Island Earth, and likely watched it more than twenty or thirty times trying to get the exact rhythm of it down. I’d never seen anything like it, and I wanted more of it.

Final Justice, Mystery Science Theater 3000Which of course was easier said than done. This was the late 90s, where you couldn’t just go to YouTube or The Pirate Bay to watch episodes, and sadly I came to the show after its heyday on Comedy Central when it aired regularly*. (You wouldn’t know it to look at the network now, but in the pre-Daily Show days the network’s schedule was almost exclusively populated by MST3K repeats, with legendary marathons on Thanksgiving.) And due to copyright issues on some films, you couldn’t just go to the video store and rent episodes—even today the DVD releases are sporadic at best, box sets released with episodes out of order and of varying quality. The show’s creative team was very aware of this, and for years the phrase “Keep circulating the tapes” would appear in the end credits of every episode to appeal to the show’s fervent fan base.

So if I wanted to watch it, I either had to stay up ridiculously late or wake up early on a Saturday morning, or learn how to operate a VCR and program it to get those episodes on the one time you knew they’d be airing. I opted for the latter and recorded almost every episode of the Sci-Fi Channel era, and of all the various films and shows I watched when I was younger I don’t think there’s anything else I watched over as frequently, over and over with my brother or my friends, than those season eight or season nine episodes. And in the rapidly developing world of the Internet, it was my first exposure to an online fan community, and I devoured what analyses and discussions I could find (some of which, like the original episode guides written by the writers, are still online today).

Even now, it’s tough to select a favorite episode from those days: was it Space Mutiny, and the many names of its muscle-bound dolt of a hero?

Or The Giant Spider Invasion, which comes from my home state of Wisconsin and foretold a prophecy that would come to pass not two years ago?

Or The Final Sacrifice, and its unquestionably idiotic decision to have a hero named Zap Rowsdower?

Or Riding With Death, and its 70s mellowness filtered through original showkiller Ben Murphy?

Or Werewolf* and its… well, everything about Werewolf?

*For fans of obscure trivia, the movie was partially filmed on Glendale Community College, where Dan Harmon took several classes and got the inspiration for Community.

And let’s not forget the excruciating Hobgoblins, with one of the greatest lines in MST3K history:

And when I got to college, the experience continued—by that point the show had been off the air for years, but it had also been on long enough that everyone knew what it was, and my world opened up past those Sci-Fi channel installments. My roommate Ted and I would regularly quote lines at each other, and “Master Ninja theme song!” became a recurring joke. Down the hall, my friend Luke had connections to the Digital Archive Project and we suffered our way through every Tor Johnson film that the most inept of directors would throw together. By the end of college, I had a book stuffed to the brim with DVDs, the fruits of the circulated tapes – almost 200 episodes collected.

Hobgoblins, Mystery Science Theater 3000But in a way, that took some of the fun out of it. I’m not going to shake my walking stick and say that television was much better before technology like DVR, Netflix and Hulu made everything accessible all at once (especially as Cory’s touched on that subject to some degree). But what I will say is that there was a specialness to MST3K that so many other shows lacked, a fantastic sense that you were part of a select group who appreciated that sense of humor and took the time to do so. You couldn’t find this show in repeats, you had to go looking for it or find people who knew what it was. Even though I haven’t owned a VCR in years I still have all of those tapes in a box somewhere in my mom’s house in Wisconsin, boxes and labels faded and banged up, tapes grainy from repeat viewings but still fully serviceable. No intrinsic value, but sentimental through the roof.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way too, as the influence of MST3K is beyond pervasive in today’s culture. Doug Walker’s Nostalgia Critic series owes a huge debt to the series, and Loading Ready Run’s Unskippable series transplants the riffing concept seamlessly to overimportant video game cinematics. But more importantly, I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that the pervasive form of live-tweeting through TV shows and award specials wouldn’t exist without MST3K. That communal effort of making fun of something that everyone knows has problems isn’t just a distraction, it’s turned into something of an art form—Patton Oswalt and Retta in particular provide reactions for the record books. MST3K made it possible to be snarky as something’s airing, and to feel comfortable sharing those ideas with a group.

Thankfully, the tapes continue to circulate and a respectable amount of MST3K remains available by legal means. Beyond DVD volumes that still come up from time to time, a variety of content goes through streaming on Hulu and Netflix, with offerings at time of writing ranging from The Final Justice, Horrors of Spider Island, Warrior of the Lost World, Manhunt in Space, Secret Agent Super Dragon, Monster A-Go-Go and The Rebel Set. The original cast also continues to churn out content in the same vein: Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett operate RiffTrax, which sells MST3K-style riffs on current films and collaborates with such figures as Joel McHale and Neil Patrick Harris, and a large part of the original cast has united to continue tearing into older films with Cinematic Titanic.

So if it’s something you’ve never visited or haven’t visited in years, it’s certainly worth the time to go back to. In years of watching television I’ve never seen anything like it, and I don’t think there’ll ever be anything so smart and so original to warp young minds like mine. And in a world where discussion of TV takes on so much breadth and intensity, let’s take to heart the most important message Mystery Science Theater 3000 had to teach us: “Just repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax.’”

Previously on Our Old TVCory Barker on the NBA Draft

9 Responses to “Our Old TV: Mystery Science Theater 3000”

  1. Andrew Seroff (@Aseroff)

    Love it =) But when talking about the Mike vs. Joel, did you mean to compare it to Kirk vs. Picard? Or maybe I’m not enough of a Trekkie to have heard about Kirk vs. Spock.

    • Les Chappell

      That was, in fact, what I was trying to do – I was looking at the RiffTrax for the Star Trek reboot at the time and they got jumbled in my head. Has since been corrected.

  2. et11robot

    I’ve read a number of things lately that were written by people who discovered the show during the Sci-Fi Channel era. I’m pleasantly surprised to hear that the show was still expanding its audience at that late point in its lifespan. I discovered the show in occasional bits and pieces viewed at my brothers’ houses – who were fortunate enough to have Comedy Central.

    I’ll always be Team Joel, but Mike can really nail certain types of jokes. Particularly, Mike blandly staring off into space and fidgeting around with his CDs while the music from The Creeping Terror played ad nauseum is a favorite Mike moment.

  3. Roundtable Review: Flash Gordon, “The Planet of Peril” and “The Tunnel of Terror” « This Was Television

    […] For our first show, we’ll be looking at what is not only one of the earliest installments of the genre, but also the oldest program that we’ve ever discussed here at This Was Television, the 1936 Flash Gordon serial. Now, while not technically a television series, Flash Gordon is in many ways a precursor to the episodic nature of TV storytelling, a program where you have to come back on a weekly basis to see what happens next. There are also plenty of structural similarities to shows that have come since: Flash Gordon is very much a prototypical hero for the genre, he has an ensemble cast in Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov, and his story even has a Big Bad in Ming the Merciless. It seemed like an interesting start for the project; and more to the point, it seems like a fun exercise to look back at the absolute earliest example of programming and see how it holds up in a modern light. Is it a hidden gem of history, where the lack of special effects mean storytelling takes over; or will it be an anachronistic entry better suited to an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000? […]


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