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In The Not-Too-Distant Future…

A row of theater seats, and on the right-hand side, the silhouettes of two robots along with a very human host. It may not be a readily recognizable image to some, but for me, it means a hell of a lot. The show is Mystery Science Theater 3000. After 18 years off the air, it’s returning, this time to Netflix. Thanks to a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign (full disclosure: I was a backer), a brand new season will be available and streaming on Friday, April 14.

MST3K, created by Joel Hodgson, was a cult hit. It premiered on KTMA in Minneapolis, Minnesota and went on to have an additional 10 seasons across The Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) and Sci-Fi Channel. The premise: a man (Hodgson or Mike Nelson in later seasons) gets launched into space by mad scientists. He creates a few robots to keep himself company, including Tom Servo and Crow. Together, the three riff and guffaw their way through some of the worst movies imaginable, usually B-movies (C or D even) in the science fiction, horror and fantasy genres.

I first came to Mystery Science in my early teens. I learned that Godzilla had been featured on it, and not really knowing what it was – A TV show? TV shows aren’t two hours long! – I recorded an episode. At the time, the show was on at two or three in the morning. I woke up the next day, eager to see what was in my VCR. Though Godzilla showed up in the opening credits, I was disappointed to find that the episode didn’t spotlight him. And while I enjoyed the robot puppets, a lot of the humor was over my head.

But Mystery Science lingered, and I came back to it in high school. My freshman English teacher hosted a Sci-Fi Club, and once a semester, he and the students would get together on a Saturday to watch a couple films and always an episode of MST3K. One of the episodes, “Prince of Space,” was about a superhero battling spacemen intent on conquering Earth. Of course! What else are spacemen going to do? Much to the chagrin of Mike and the bots, the Prince frequently tells the baddies that their weapons have no effect on him. “In fact, I strongly suggest you discontinue use of said weapons,” Tom Servo quips. I still remember my teacher’s booming laugh.

A few years later, I was moving from rural Pennsylvania to Los Angeles. I had a couple weeks at home between returning from college in upstate New York and heading west. It was a difficult time. It was hard for my parents to watch their only child move so far away, and it was hard for me, having gone to film school and talked about working in entertainment, to make sense of their surprise. So, after each awkward, wordless dinner, I would retreat to my friend Ben’s house. We went to high school together and attended many of those Saturday movie marathons. Inevitably, we would turn to MST3K and laugh until morning. Still, when we get together around the holidays, we’ll usually watch an episode. And if we don’t, we’ll watch another movie and do the riffing ourselves.

When my then girlfriend (now wife) and I arrived in Los Angeles, we lived in a very small apartment. It was overwhelming to move from a town of roughly 30,000 people to a city of nearly 4 million. Though we didn’t have jobs at the time and hardly any money, one of the first things I did – to provide some semblance of home and (comic) relief – was purchase a DVD set of MST3K. It included what has become one of my favorite episodes, “The Touch of Satan.” It’s about a young man who finds himself on a farm that may or may not have been touched by…Satan. He starts a romance with the daughter of the farmer. The two walk by a pond when she announces, “This is where the fish lives.”

Sometimes you don’t even need the commentary to get a laugh out of these movies.

My wife has become quite the riffer, always ready with a dry, sardonic aside. We sometimes go to RiffTrax screenings, which are broadcast in theaters nationwide. They feature the last MST3K cast – Nelson, Bill Corbett (who voiced Crow), and Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo) – before the show left the air. Turkey Day Marathons became a tradition for Mystery Science, and in that spirit, the day after Thanksgiving, my wife and I host friends for dinner, drinks and a couple episodes.

On April 9, as a Kickstarter backer, I had an opportunity to watch a sneak peek of the first new episode. I was a bit nervous. I’ve been burned by sequels, prequels, reboots, and requels of beloved properties before. After an 18-year absence, would the show retain its sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture? Would it have changed too much? Would I have changed, not bound by nostalgia to the new cast?

Within minutes, all my fears were assuaged.

The production maintains its DIY identity – albeit one with just a little more polish and moving parts. The new cast has great chemistry – Jonah Ray as the very human host with Hampton Yount voicing Crow and Baron Vaughn as Tom Servo. As do the new mad scientists played by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt. The interstitial host segments, which were hit-or-miss in the original run, are entertaining and breezy. And, most importantly, the jokes and riffs are quintessential MST3K.

Sometimes you can’t go home, but then again, sometimes you can.

Thanks for reading! Have you ever seen Mystery Science Theater 3000? What are some of your favorite episodes?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Garrett is an entertainment professional living in the Los Angeles area. In his free time, he's a shark hunter, Jedi Knight, Kaiju wrangler and dog owner. He also edits and contributes to movie discussions at 3byThree.

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53 thoughts on “In The Not-Too-Distant Future…

  1. I’ll admit I’m skeptical about the reboot but I’ll give it a chance. Letting it stay a weird cult show that people vaguely remember from the days before cable matured feels more right to me. Still, who am I to deny a new generation their riffage?

    My favorite episode is actually from the Mike Nelson era, that being the Final Sacrifice. Rowsdower….

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    • I’m hopeful, largely because the people involved are just about perfect for the job. The original creator along with a bunch of younger pop culture / comedy nerds. The fact that the reboot was not done by a studio executive mining their archived IP for something they could use and then headed up by somebody with “star power” to get it off the ground seems like it gave it the best chance of success.

      I’m looking forward to checking it out.

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        • My wife and I watched the first episode last night (I too was lucky enough to marry a fan) and we enjoyed it a lot. My main worry was that I wouldn’t like Jonah but he plays it perfectly. In retrospect I was scared they’d make it snarky and mean spirited. To me one of the great things about MST3K is you can tell that under all the mockery there’s a certain appreciation for the noble failure in the films they watch.

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        • The new cast is really good – from the riffers to the mads.

          I’ve only seen two episodes, but Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt are absolutely perfect, and have weirdly managed to recapture almost exactly the Clayton/Frank dynamic. There’s a particularly funny scene at the start of the second episode where Max repeatedly fails at correctly saying a declaration he’s making, and Kinga just keeps side-glancing at him, annoyed, in that way that only Felicia Day can do.

          And Jonah has the same sort of personality as Joel, except, well, not quite as asleep. I always preferred Mike, but if we *were* going to get Joel 2.0, this one seems pretty good.

          I also like that the show is back to being aware it’s a TV show.

          The inventions exchanges, as always, are completely dumb and pointless, but whatever. I guess we need an excuse to interact with the mads.

          So in some ways it’s almost the early days of MST3k.

          But what I’m glad they *didn’t* bring back from there were the really obscure B movie (And even lower) references. There’s a difference between ‘Genius Bonus’ and ‘No one understands a quarter of the jokes because normal people haven’t watched hundreds of really bad movies for fun’.

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          • Patton plays that moment really well!

            I’m liking Jonah quite a lot. And yeah, as much as I love Joel, his sleepiness was always a liability.

            I’m now four episodes in, and while I haven’t enjoyed all the host segments as consistently as those in the first episode, they’re pretty brief. The ones in the original series really tended to drag.

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  2. When I was in high school, there was Movie Macabre featuring a buxom Cassandra Petersen as “Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark,” lounging about offering snark in bumpers to usually pretty stinky horror flicks. That set me up nicely to discover MST3K in law school and it became a regular weekly blow-off-steam event.

    The thing about Movie Macabre was that there wasn’t opportunity for Elvira to crack her jokes in real-time while the movie was playing. The bumpers would sometimes cut back to scenes to remind the viewer what she was joking about, but it isn’t nearly as effective as Joel and the bots making the joke while the scene is playing out. That allows for a lot more jokes in a lot less time, and thus humor on MST3K could snowball to great effect.

    I’m happy to see it’s coming back.

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  3. I remember MST3K from high school. Good times man, good times. I think I first saw it in it’s Comedy Central Incarnation.

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    • So good! I love the bots, especially when they and the host talk to the movie like it’s a pet. A dark, wide shot wherein we can’t really see or hear anything – “Come here, movie! Here, boy!” Or an unlikable character is killed off – “Oh! …Well, thank you, movie!”

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      • “Well. He actually killed the dog.” — House of Cards Catty Comment Section.
        (Much less disturbing than Breaking Bad Catty Comment Section, which tends to devolve into “they’re doing way way too much work to make ricin. That’s entirely too much purification…” and other such cheery thoughts)

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  4. They have really captured the goof ball charm of the original series and the riffing of the movies is sharp. I’ve been a huge fan since way back in season 3 and enjoyed the more recent incarnations of Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic. I’m not really surprised they have done a good job with it, but you never know with this kind of thing. But so far, two episodes is, they hit the nail square on the head. They have some great movies for riffing coming up also which should be even better.

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  5. Watched the first episode last night with my wife (who is, if anything, a bigger fan of the original than me), and loved it. The riffs were great, and the interstitial sketches ranged from inoffensive to really funny (the “monster rap”), but they also found a real gem of an awful movie to mock. Reptillicus would be pretty damned hilarious even without Jonah[1] and the robots.

    [1] Gonna be a bit before I’m totally used to him, but he has just the right sort of charm for the role.

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  6. A discussion on Twitter made me think about the impact MST3K has had on popular concepts of film appreciation.

    And I don’t think it’s actually been good, despite the legitimate humor found in riffing.

    Because what it’s done is made us focus more on the bad movies than on the good ones. A movie that’s a solid piece of entertainment, well-made by competent people who enjoy their craft, will get less traction than a real stinker that gives everyone the opportunity to deploy their choicest riffs.

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      • Except I don’t think we enjoy it, even. Like, is “The Room” funny because it’s inherently funny, or is it fun-to-make-fun-of-funny? Or is it even one of those things like Tom Green, where it’s only funny because everyone laughs? And is all of this actually better than something like “Major League”?

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    • Umm huh….Bad movies get no where close to the attention big budget flicks get. There is a reason stuff low budget indy movies are low budget with crappy fx.

      One thing about movie riffing is that you have to like a lot of different genres. I used to riff movies with a bunch folks on line for years. Most of the flicks were odd niche genres like martial arts flicks or ultra low budget sci fi or real oddities from the 60’s and 70’s and lots of D grade trash cinema. Part of riffing is that it is fun another part is that it’s fun to have people to watch weird stuff with, movies that would not see the light of day without riffing very often.

      The Room is an honestly terrible movie. It’s funny on its own and funnier with funny friends. And The Room is a masterpiece compared to a lot of low budget and weird movies out there. If you think it’s the worst movie ever or that Ed Wood is the worst director ever, then you don’t really know how much bad stuff is out there.

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      • I’m not talking about big budget flicks. I’m talking about middle-level things, stuff that is neither part of the Disney Entertainment Group Master Plan nor utter garbage like Birdemic. Stuff that might actually be enjoyable to watch without being a Grand Cinematic Event.

        Which, incidentally, maybe that’s another reason why so much of the comedy on TV these days is this single-cam thing. (Cop stories were already there.) It’s because the people making stuff these days know that for movies, the middle is over. Either you’re making stuff on YouTube with a camcorder, or you’re over $200-million budget and half your cast is computer-generated badgers. But everyone learned how to Make Movies, and a single-cam TV comedy is basically a short film, so that’s how it goes.

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        • I’m not sure what kind of bad movies you are referring to. Even mid level movies have budgets that are many times the size of indy or real low budget film makers. There is less middle due to the big studies wanting giant cash machines. But the low budget flicks from now and in the past almost always go unnoticed by the main stream. A small handful of bad flicks have become notorious which is often teh result of things like Rifftrax and even more the bad movie web sites. I heard of The Room or Miami Connection through bad movie web sites and riffing friends well before they become more noticed in the larger culture. There is a large sub culture of movie fan web sites for every genre and niche out there.

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          • A friend of mine observed that the rise of the block buster and the global market for movies led to the decline of what he calls mid-level Hollywood movies. These were things that had more of a budget, shine, and start power than an Independent movie but less so than a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster or epic. The Judge with Robert Downer, Jr. is a recent example. Hollywood made a lot of these movies up until the early aughts. They weren’t going for winning awards or getting the most money like a Summer blockbuster but turning out something that adults could enjoy at movies.

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            • There is some truth to that. Also mid budget movies, especially prestige stuff, rarely bring huge returns. Big budget, world wide releases are much more likely to bring huge returns which is what the movie business wants. Big budget movies, like superhero flix, are much more likely to have a lot of other money making tie in’s like video games, toys, etc. So one big budget movie can bring money in other ways while mid level movies are less likely to have those same options.

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            • This is exactly right. It isn’t MST3K that killed middle tier films, it’s the international market. Character driven movies, especially comedies with any level of sophistication are the hardest to translate. The overhead on movies is huge if you’re going to use A list actors. Studios produce films most likely to get a big return, which in practice means something that’s going to do well in China.

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              • Everybody understands good guy fights bad guy, romance, sex, and slapstick. A lot of drama and comedy are culturally specific. Movies as diverse as Crossing Delancy, the Deer Hunter, Airplane, and the entire John Hughes corpus are not going to translate well.

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                • You can see the distinction, even in very old media. It’s easy to make versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey that kids can read, but when I studied The Wasps and The Frogs at high school, I needed a page of annotations to help explain to me the digs at public figures that had been dead for 2000 years, and the wordplay that had been laboriously translated from Ancient Greek.

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                • Airplane had a few specific jokes that don’t work well, but still work.
                  (coffee and men. you know the one).

                  Never seen Sex is Zero? You really ought to. School Rumble too.
                  John Hughes has some pretty universal stuff in his portfolio.

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              • InMD,
                Well, it’s obvious you havent’ seen many international comedies.
                Sex is Zero, Zero Motivation — comedies often translate surprisingly well.

                What doesn’t translate is Wordplay (Kolya was oh-my-god I’m missing so damn much, and that was a drama) — although 7 Deadly Sins tries, and mostly succeeds with completely freewheeling translations.

                It’s even odds that you could get Arrested Development to translate (and Simpsons is hella sophisticated, and the japanese LOVE it).

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            • My guess is that the rise of the blockbuster had a lot of causes. One very obvious one, at least to me, was the overall decline in the movie theater experience that was happening through the ’90s and early 2000s, which also happened to coincide with pretty significant increases in ticket prices, at least in New York. This meant that if I was going to drop $12 on a ticket, it was going to be for something that I wanted to see on the big screen. I watch movies like The Judge, but I’m not likely to go the theater for it.

              Another reason might be demographic. A lot of those character driven movies were made for the Boomer generation and at some point the purchasing power shifted to teenagers and parents of younger kids.

              And then there is the idea, which I’ve seen in various forms from various people, that there used to be A movies – that had big studio backing, scripts from top screenwriters or adopted from popular novels, and the big movie stars – and B movies, which were low-budget genre movies, starring folks either trying to break into acting or actors on the backside of their careers. As special effects got better and filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas came into their own, Hollywood elevated the B movie, giving it bigger budgets, which in turn attracted the A-list talent.

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    • I bristle at some forms of criticism that seem to have taken a cue from Mystery Science Theater. “Everything Wrong with…,” etc. Having said that, this kinda reminds me of Jaws. (Most things do, it’s my favorite movie.) It’s been blamed for giving rise to big, mindless blockbusters, but Jaws itself is pretty masterful. If only every tentpole movie were as good as it. I feel the same way about MST3K and those that followed in its footsteps.

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  7. Watch World’s Greatest Dad

    I almost can’t bring myself to write a review about the movie, because it would be so entirely meta.

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  8. I distinctly remember the episode dedicated to “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies”.

    That was likely the most horrible movie they’d ever done.
    I laughed a handful of times, but mostly I was surprised that a show that normally felt like it took only 20 minutes or so felt like it took 3 hours.

    If I were to recommend any episodes, I’d recommend either “The Thing That Couldn’t Die” (a downright awesome movie in its own right) or “The Mole People”. Just good, quality, 1950’s sci-fi made on a tight budget with excellent snark on top of it.

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    • For us, it was probably The Castle of Fu Manchu, which was impossibly dire even with the riffing. I’m not sure we were actually able to finish it.

      You mentioned the “spark” that animates The Room else-thread, and The Castle of Fu Manchu was utterly sparkless. It featured Christopher Lee in yellowface as Fu Manchu, which is the sort of thing that might seem kind of offensive in a movie that wasn’t so ennervatingly terrible that it can’t even generate that level of emotion.

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  9. So, um, I’m pretty sure this is one of those things created by either the worst agent in Hollywood, or the best agent in Hollywood (depends on who you ask). Described as “Patton Oswalt in Space.” (See Bojack Horseman for another.)
    And my friend got to suggest some of the movie titles that actually made it in, so we’re definitely watching.

    In other TV News, can I get everyone to boycott Gotham? Their art is just rampant thievery.
    What the hell is the Cathedral of Learning doing in Gotham???!???

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