Ever watch a terrible movie with friends? Isn’t that experience sometimes better than watching a good film with them — everyone just sitting around, lobbing jokes at the shoddy production values, terrible acting and implausible plotting?
Well, if you have, you probably already know about the cult series “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (or MST3K as it’s known by us fans, the MSTies). The show is about an inventor named Joel Robinson (played by creator Joel Hodgson) who is sent into space on the SOL (Satellite of Love, but the acronym’s double-entendre is purposeful) by his jealous employer Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and his assistant, TV’s Frank. There Joel is subjected to the worst movies imaginable for Forrester’s amusement. To keep his sanity, Joel creates two puppet robots, Crow (voice of Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (voice of Kevin Murphy), to riff on and poke fun of said films. All this is conveyed in a catchy little tune at the beginning of every episode, with the funny aside, “if you’re wondering why he eats and breathes … it’s just a show, you should really just relax.” In the later seasons, Joel leaves the show and is replaced by the head writer Mike Nelson. Since it’s essentially a sci-fi show, Mike vs. Joel fights ensue among fans the same way people argue about Kirk and Picard. Other cast members switched as well, including Crow, who ended up being voiced by Bill Corbett.
What makes this show remarkable is just how witty and perceptive the critiques are. There are observational jokes about production gaffes, such as a scene in “Space Mutiny,” where a woman is seen working at her post after she was seen getting killed earlier in the film, and Crow comments “I think it’s very nice… to give that dead woman another chance.”
There are also attacks on film’s internal logic, such as how the superhero protagonist of “Pumaman” supposedly has the powers of a puma … which apparently includes flying (“at a thirty-degree angle, defying the laws of physics”) and faking his own death (“Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen!”), as Tom states, “just like a real puma.”
Fun pop-culture references are spread throughout the episodes as well, such as a Southern-fried horror film called “Touch of Satan,” in which two characters ride up in an orange muscle car while Mike quips “and then the Duke boys showed up,” or a scene in “Pod People” where an alien starts moving objects around telekinetically via shoddy stop-motion, where Joel remarks “So we’re stuck in Gumby land now” (and later “Oh, so the alien makes student films then?”)
Some jokes become legendary. There is the aforementioned “Space Mutiny” where they list off a bunch of names for the comically hunky, muscle-bound hero, such as “Big McLarge Huge,” “Lance Bulkhead” and “Bob Johnson.” Or anything from the film “Manos: Hands of Fate,” which is a ’60s oddity considered to be the worst film ever made; quips like “Every shot looks like JFK’s last photo” or when a bunch of women in nightgowns start fighting, “I think we’re seeing the reason this film was made.”
But the skits in between the film and commercial breaks can be just as funny. While they are not my favorite parts of the show, they are not without merit. In fact, their skit about a “Patrick Swayze Christmas” from the episode “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” is a time-honored tradition my friends and I have shared for the past four years.
Most importantly, I think this is a show for the film lovers in all of us. Some of the jokes, such as the ones involving gaffes, are funny due to our knowledge of film techniques and its language. Other jokes rely on knowledge of pop-culture and films in general. And, finally, it creates a fun environment to enjoy films that might not otherwise be enjoyable. There is something profound about watching bad movies, and it helps you understand what makes films good in the first place. In fact, I’d argue anyone who wants to be a filmmaker should see “MST3K” to understand making films — mainly what not to do.
Unfortunately, the show was cancelled in 1999. The last scene is Mike and his robot friends as roommates in Mike’s old apartment, watching a show and making fun of it out of habit. It was a sad moment for me. I didn’t watch the episode when it first aired, but online instead. However, the impact was more emotional than I expected, because I had loved these characters and their wise-cracking antics since I was a kid.
In the end, if I can get at least one more person to watch this great series, as well as buy some Rifftrax commentaries from the former cast, then I’ll have done my duty as a MSTie.