This past weekend a large chunk of geekdom as well as a the whole of the UK celebrated the 50th anniversary of one of television’s most enduring icons, the more-popular-than-ever ‘Doctor Who’. I am a big fan of modern ‘Who’ (please check out my post over at Needless Things about my relationship with The Doctor), although I stayed away from the weekend’s festivities due to having a ticket to see ‘Day of the Doctor’ in the theater last night, which was a whole lot of fun.
As great and deserving as all that hoopla was, there was another television milestone celebrated this weekend that meant far more to me than the Whoniversary:
25 years and 2 days ago, the first episode of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ aired on the Minneapolis-St. Paul based television channel KTMA.
(I’m going to assume you know at least a little bit about ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ as I write this. I have no desire to whip up a history of the show for you. If you want to know the whole story, check the Wiki.)
I lived in Ohio then, and in Georgia starting the next year, so I never saw MST3K (which is how it is most commonly referred to now) during its original cable-access roots. But soon it moved to The Comedy Channel (quickly renamed Comedy Central) and at some point, I stumbled upon the show, in the middle of an episode. It was probably in the second or third season. I don’t remember what movie it was. I was probably 14 or 15 years old. But I do remember stumbling over it with my brother Adam and we had no damn clue what was going on.
There was a movie on TV, a shitty movie, it seemed, but there were three shadowy figures blocking part of the screen like they were sitting in the front row of a movie theater. Only one of them seemed to be human; what the others were, we hadn’t the foggiest. My brother was only ten, so I’m not sure how much he comprehended, because it sure as hell took me a good 15 minutes to figure the damn thing out.
Those guys in the front were making fun of the movie they were watching.
We found out, in the show’s interstitials, that the human’s name was Joel and that his two companions were robots, one named Crow and the other a gumball machine named Tom Servo. They lived in a satellite of some sort and were apparently there against their will. But it was very odd and we still didn’t have a grasp.
Until, right after, they played another episode and we heard, for the first time, the theme song that I will know word for word until the day I die, one of the most perfect theme songs in history simply for its straight forward statement of the show’s conceit; it told you everything you needed to know:
It was brilliant. The entire premise of this stupid show, in 83 silly seconds.
This wasn’t an anomaly. This wasn’t some strange occurrence on a fledgling cable channel. This was a show. And there were more.
And I was going to watch it. A lot.
It was usually on late at night, which meant setting our ancient and clunky VCR to burn the magic onto six-hour long-play VHS tapes. I would wake up the next day unable to contain myself that I had a new MST3K waiting for me to watch when I got home from school. I couldn’t wait to see Joel (and later Mike) and the bots tear into another 50s or 60s piece of shit masquerading as a film. I had heard of none of them, with the exception maybe of Gamera and similar man-in-rubber-suit movies.
Most of them were science fiction because, well, the supply of extra shitty sci-fi films from the middle of last century is endless. Which was fine by me. I loved science fiction, but I also knew, even then, that most work in the genre was low-budget ridiculous pap. Not all of them had badly acted aliens and Ed Wood quality flying saucers, though. There were horror films, crime films, adventures films, and whatever the fuck Manos the Hands of Fate was.
I’ll admit I cared less about the host segments than I did the in-theater riffing. I loved Joel and Mike and Crow and Tom and Frank and Doctor Forrester but the public access level humor was usually more miss than hit for me. There were of course some very funny moments in this connective tissue, but that really is all they were to me: a break in the action to sit through before we got back to the main attraction. I know a lot of MST3K fans feel differently, but for me it was all about the movies.
‘Mystery Science Theater’ started as a cable access show and it never shook that aesthetic and attitude, even in 1996’s theatrical feature. It felt DIY because it was DIY. And it was this aspect of it, this feeling that even in its eighth season it was still being shot in someone’s basement, that made MST most special to me. Because it made it feel like my secret. It was this little, grungy, weird show and it was mine. Even if I knew other people who watched it, it still felt like it was made for me. Nobody else could understand it. Appreciate it.
It was my secret.
And it kind of was. Because not a whole lot of people knew about the show, let alone watched it. As the years have passed, it seems like everyone has at least heard of MST3K. There are probably folks who can sing the theme song even though they’ve never seen an episode. But it wasn’t like that in the early 90s. Before the internet. Before Netflix. ‘Mystery Science Theater’ was a show I watched on my own (sometimes with my brother) and I liked the solitude of it. It was like when I discovered ‘SCTV’ as a child; no other kid at school was watching it. And that was fine by me.
Over the years, the show evolved. The host changed. Behind-the-scenes folks came and went, many of whom were also on-camera talent, so we lost them, too. The voices of the robots changed. After being canceled on Comedy Central, the show went to the Sci-Fi Channel. I’ll admit I didn’t keep up with it the entire time. I know I haven’t seen all of the Sci-Fi era episodes. But I never lost my affection for the cast and crew of the Satellite of Love (and didn’t get the Lou Reed reference for many, many years).
And I’ll never forget the names behind this magic: Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, Jim Mallon, Bill Corbett, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl…
And this show, this bizarre cable access show about a dude and some puppets watching the worst cinema imaginable, got 11 seasons and a movie.
(Take that, ‘Community’.)
A world that allows that to happen can’t be that bad of a place, can it?
In case you haven’t seen a lot of MST, here are three of my personal favorite episodes:
CAVE DWELLERS (Season 4, Episode 1)
This unwatchable ‘adventure’ film about cavemen features an abysmal opening credit sequence presented in the classic ‘shoebox format’, a prehistoric hang glider, and my favorite exchange in MST3K history:
Upon seeing the acting credit for a certain once and always Tarzan:
Joel: How much Keefe is in this movie, anyway?
Tom Servo: Miles O’Keefe.
EEGAH (Season 7, Episode 6)
Famous for starring two-time James Bond villain Richard ‘Jaws’ Kiel as a giant caveman trapped out of time (I guess I like movies about cavemen), this film is most notable to me because it is directed by Arch Hall Sr., an auteur of junk who I believe was a worse filmmaker than Ed Wood. I know this because my friend Bill was obsessed with him and made us watch several of his films. All of them starred his son, Arch Hall Jr., who is quite possibly the worst actor of all time. And yes, I’m including Sophia Coppola and the other guy from Weird Science.
SPACE MUTINY (Season 9, Episode 20)
Whoa boy. Space Mutiny is a South African film that is basically a science-fiction retelling of Mutiny on the Bounty. It is a Star Wars / Star Trek / BattleStar Galactica rip-off from 1988 that would have felt right at home in 1956. It is maybe the worst film I have ever seen, largely because of how ambitious it is. The effects, the acting, the writing… the most talented artists in the world could not simulate its horribleness. Which of course makes it perfect fodder for Mike and the Bots. I mean… you just have to watch it. It’s on YouTube.
Do yourself a favor. Click HERE. I’ll wait.
Other great episodes that are a must-see are: Manos the Hands of Fate, Gamera, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, The Puma Man, SoulTaker, Laserblast, the Joe Don Baker masterpiece Mitchell, Teenagers from Outer Space, Touch of Satan, Jack Frost, and Alien from L.A., starring a young and dubbed Kathy Ireland. Although to be honest, nearly every episode is worth watching at least once.
Oh, and the movie they made is great, too, making fun of ‘legitimate’ science-fiction classic This Island Earth:
Unlike ‘Doctor Who’, MST3K isn’t on the air anymore. But it’s not gone. It lives on. In Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, featuring members of the original show. In podcasts like Earwolf’s How Did This Get Made? In live shows, like The Doug Benson Movie Interruption.
And in my parents’ living room, every Christmas, when my brother and I flip through the channels looking for cheesy movies, the worst we can find. My favorite year involved a fabulous triple-bill of awful: Click, Little Man, and Baby Geniuses. Oh boy. Although we didn’t exactly riff on Baby Geniuses; it’s hard to crack wise when your jaw is permanently on the floor.
MST3K was and is very important to me. It helped sculpt my sense of humor. It got me through lonely and tough times as an awkward and nerdy kid. It gave me something that was mine, even if there were lots of other people watching it.
So this Thanksgiving week, I give thanks to Joel Hodgson for using those special parts to make his, and my, robot friends.
Happy 50th, ‘Doctor Who’.
Happy 25th, ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go ram my ovipositor down your throat, and lay my eggs in your chest.*
* (But, I assure you, I am not an alien.)