Started in a Minnesota cable access studio in 1988, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein and Producer Jim Mallon began work on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3k, as it is called).
Hodgson had been playing the club circuit and made a name for himself as a ‘sleepy-eyed’ prop comic. From his many appearances on SNL and late night talk shows, he was beginning to see where any success would lead and he didn’t like it. He envisioned playing the role of the ‘wacky neighbor’ on any number of sitcoms for the rest of his life and decided to make his own show instead.
Joel on the HBO Comedy Special
The premise (all covered in the opening theme song), was that Joel was shot into space by his bosses who were evil scientists looking for ways to rule the world. Dr Clayton Forrester (a reference to War of the Worlds) and his assistant Larry sent really bad movies up to Joel and recorded his reactions. In an attempt to cope with the situation, Joel created his robot pals Crow (voiced by Beaulieu), Tom Servo (Weinstein) and Gypsy. Each episode began with the ‘invention exchange,’ which utilized Hodgson‘s skill as a prop comic and visual comedian, before an alarm would sound, forcing Joel into the theater.
As the bad films painfully played on the screen, Joel and the robots appeared as silhouettes at the bottom of the screen, attempting to hurt the film right back with references to other films or random remarks.
The KTMA era of the program was met with resounding success by local viewers, resulting in a fan club and live shows. This early stage of the program was all ad lib and greatly differs from the later more polished efforts.
Joel and gang pitched a ‘best of’ material to the Comedy Channel and got picked up as one of their first original programs. MST underwent some drastic changes, however. The bots and sets were spruced up, Mike Nelson became head writer and the episodes were now written rather than impromptu riffs. This didn’t sit well with 18 year old comedian Weinstein and he left the series (he later resurfaced on the excellent cartoon series ‘Mission Hill’).
Weinstein was replaced by camera man Kevin Murphy as the voice of Tom Servo and by Frank Conniff as Forrester‘s assistant, TV’s Frank. The new changes resulted in a very different program.
The first series (before Weinstein left) included stinkers like The Crawling Hand, the Mexican horror flick Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy and the serial ‘Commando Cody in Radar Men From The Moon.’
Many viewers loved the full films, but even more preferred the incredibly bizarre ‘shorts.’ Often concerning the awkward and mysterious concepts of dating and marriage in the 1950′s, many of the shorts made so little sense that it remains unclear what the point really was (this refers to Mister Be-Natural, Century 21 Calling, Young Man’s Fancy and A Touch of Spring Fever)
What To Do On a Date (w/Joel)
Joel and the bots enjoyed great success at Comedy Central, including the now infamous Turkey Day Marathon which featured 30 straight hours of MST3K.
It was during the first such marathon that I discovered the show and by the eight film, I was laughing at commercials. I had crossed over the threshold and would never be the same again. Unlike many fans, I had never seen any of the movies that MST3K covered.
Not a Godzilla or Gamera fan, these were new films to me. It struck me as absurd when I met a sci fi memorabilia store owner who showed so much anger at Joel and the bots ‘ruining good movies.’
Crow, Tom Servo and Gypsy riffed alongside their creator Joel Robinson (as he was called in the show) for 5 years before the young comedian had decided that he was ready for a new song to sing. He developed the TV Wheel for HBO (which sadly did not get picked up) a real-time sketch comedy program which involved the talents of many comedians such as David Cross.
With Joel gone, many a fan of the series was wary of ‘the new guy,’ Mike Nelson. Of course, Mike was no stranger to the program. He had operated behind the scenes as head writer for some time and appeared numerous times as any number of characters from Morrissey to Michael Feinstein to Jack Perkins. Any worries about ‘how will the show survive’ quickly disappeared as Mike took the program on to another 5 years of success, including a feature film.
Last Clear Chance (w/Mike)
All good things come to an end and after first Frank Connif and later Trace decided to leave the show (Beaulieau worked on the incredibly odd comic book ‘Here Come The Big People’), new blood arrived in the form of Bill Corbet as Crow/Observer and Mary Joe Pehl as the decidedly manic Pearl Forrester (Clay’s mom).
Mary Joe Pehl and Bill Corbett brought a new life to the program, allowing it to survive for another two years until Sci-Fi decided to pull the plug. At first, I was resistant to the new blood and stopped watching, but have since discovered the Three Stooges hilarity of Professor BoBo and Brain Guy alongside Pearl.
The program moved from Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel for its last few years and even enjoyed special episodes that allowed the crew to do something they never thought possible… riff on big budget bad movies.
Academy Of Robots’ Choice Awards Special
The last episode featured Mike and the Bots crashing to Earth. A quick jump in time saw them living in a double wide enjoying a meal of white rice watching The Crawling Hand. A deeply depressing and insightful ending, it also offered viewers the unique perspective of seeing the cast making jokes in front of a tiny monitor without us actually seeing the movie.
Many filmmakers and stars that have appeared in the films roasted on screen by Mike, Joel, Trace, Kevin and Bill, have had mixed reactions to their treatment. Not surprisingly, the producer of the Gamera and Fugitive Alien films, Sandy Frank (referred to in song by the Bots as ‘the source of all our pain), refused to allow his films to be released on DVD with the MST3K treatment. Star Joe Don Baker (ridiculed so much that he is reduced to a farting overweight clown) said he would personally punch each member of the crew for their words. On the DVD commentary of Squirm, director Jeff Lieberman was genuinely upset that MST3K didn’t ‘get’ his film and instead decided to trash it.
Personally, I think they were kind.
On the flipside, star Miles O’Keefe actually requested that his film Cave Dwellers appear on the program and was happy with the result. Similarly, the cast and crew of Time Chasers staged a reunion when the film aired on MST3K.
After the program met cancellation once and for all, the cast and crew reformed to work on the interactive PC game Darkstar in 2000… still in production.
In 2006, Murphy Nelson and Corbett got back together to form RiffTrax, a podcast version of the old MST formula. The idea is that you download the podcast and play it alongside a feature film, such as Daredevil or even the hit TV series Heroes and Lost.
Mike even teamed up with Neil Patrick Harris on the Willy Wonka remake.
Daredevil – RiffTrax
Working alongside Shout! Factory, the guys will once again riff away at really bad movies. The premise here is that they will provide commentary to films that do not have any. That’s a LOT of movies and the fact that they are starting with Hollywood After Dark starring the Rue McClanahan is a sign that we have a ways to go.
In closing, let me say that the show is certainly not for everyone. I myself use it as a kind of mental wallpaper, leaving it on as I work at home or cook dinner. I find it calming and familiar. Others find it to be obnoxious, distracting and an insult to the people who made the movies.
In The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, Kevin Murphy wrote that he once met Kurt Vonnegut at a hotel. The famed writer took the time to tell Murphy that even makers of bad movies deserve some respect, leaving Murphy ‘faced by an idol.’
I agree, to an extent. I mean, what are the chances that Kurt had ever seen ‘Monster A-Go-Go’ or ‘Castle of Fu Manchu’?
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Vol. 2 (Angels’ Revenge / Cave Dwellers / Pod People / Shorts, Vol. 1)
Mystery Science Theater 3000 – Mitchell
Mystery Science Theater 3000 – Red Zone Cuba
Mystery Science Theater 3000 – Eegah
The Film Crew: Hollywood After Dark
A Year at the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey
Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide