Great TV: Mystery Science Theater 3000

Although this is primarily a movie site, television is also written about here, mostly because the lines between TV and film have become increasingly blurred over the years. Just as the series of articles on Great TV is a section of this site, there have been a fair amount of articles written about the terrible, and Awesome Garbage exists to trash truly awful films and TV shows. But there are no great TV shows that make bad movies central to their raison d’etre—except for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

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Not to get too meta this early in the article (that comes later), but the telescoped concept of MST3K—where a frame is placed on top of a frame, in this case the medium of television watching three figures watch and comment on a movie in a virtual theater—is one of the most advanced concepts ever broadcast. The show itself is unbelievably meta without ever making itself inaccessible. While it takes place “in a not-too-distant-future,” the main characters (Joel Robinson/Mike Nelson and his robot pals Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo) make suspiciously 90s-centric references; although they are part of a science experiment, they are also aware that they are putting on a show that’s being watched by people, putting on skits during breaks between movie segments; and even the entire setup of the show—of three characters making fun of a movie—is an endeavor that requires of the audience, at the very least, to be cognizant of the general shape of pop culture history to understand many of the jokes. In short, it’s an incredibly complex, advanced television series that comes across as effortless.

“In a not-too-distant future…”

This is reflective of the singular nature of MST3K, a seemingly straightforward concept that has a surprising complexity to it. It’s a brilliant concept that creator Joel Hodgson came up with while working in a T-shirt factory in Minnesota. Hodgson was enjoying a quick rise in the comedy world in the late 70s and early 80s as a prop comic, even appearing on Saturday Night Live a few times, before becoming disillusioned with the entertainment industry. Moving back to his home state, he took a mundane day job so he could focus on his next move, and it was at this moment when he came upon the knock-out idea of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Securing time at a local station and having developed the idea with production manager Jim Mallon at KTMA in Minneapolis, Hodgson built the original puppets of Crow and Tom Servo by hand, along with the entire set, during an all-night work session. He shot a half-hour pilot that had the rudimentary elements that would become the foundation of the show, including movie riffing (though only by himself at that point), interstitial skits with the robots, and the famous hallway sequence that ushers the audience in and out of the theater. Premiering on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, it was successful enough to have its first season extended to 21 episodes. Within a year, the show would be picked up by the brand-new Comedy Channel, soon to be renamed Comedy Central, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 was introduced to the rest of the country.

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It became a well-respected cult hit, with its primary audience being pop culture-obsessed Gen Xers that appreciated the snarky riffing and goofy charm of the show, and—like Phish’s show taping policy—trading tapes of episodes was encouraged to snag more fans along the way. Meanwhile, the show won a Peabody in 1993 for its innovative format. And for a two-hour long weekly show, MST3K provided the audience with a healthy amount of entertainment. Filmed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, far away from the influence of Hollywood and the television industry, Joel Hodgson and the production crew (including head writer and eventual host of the show Mike Nelson) were free to produce exactly the kind of show they envisioned.

Mostly plotless, instead episodes followed a strict format: host introduction, followed by an invention exchange (which gave Hodgson a platform to continue his clever prop comedy) between Joel and the mad scientists (Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank, who had kidnapped and shot Joel into space to drive him mad by making him watch bad movies), and then to the “experiment” that week, the movie. Joel and his robot pals Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo would then go into the theater, in which the audience sees their live-action silhouettes at the bottom of the screen as the film plays in front of them. They comedically riff on the movie (sometimes opened by a short from the 1950s or 60s on various topics), and every 20 minutes or so they get a “break,” in which Joel and the ‘bots usually do a skit that’s thematically linked to the film they’re watching.

These skits are usually absurd and often break numerous logic problems connected to Joel supposedly being trapped in space (but as the show’s theme song states about such matters, “you should repeat to yourself it’s just a show, and should really just relax”), or involves a humorous analysis of certain baffling aspects of the film—or just absurd silliness relating to nothing in particular. Then back into the theater for more riffing, another skit break, perhaps involving Dr. Forrester or TV’s Frank (or Pearl, or Professor Bobo, or Brain Guy), more riffing, and then the conclusion of the experiment, in which Joel and the robots report back to the mad scientists as to the results. Then it’s credits and the episode stinger, usually a short clip from the movie that was particularly awful and funny.

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It was a relatively straightforward program that was (mostly) clean and affable, with a signature Upper Midwestern appeal—something that’s rarely seen on national television. Unsurprisingly, the show also picked up a number of young fans (this writer included), since re-reuns were aired on Saturday mornings. But let’s dig a little deeper into how the concept of this show anticipated the ironic and meta aspects that would quickly come to dominate the pop culture narrative of the 21st century before even the internet became widespread.

Frames Within Frames, References, and Metanarrative

Although a comedy show—and a relatively goofy one, at that–MST3K has been one of the smartest shows to ever air on TV. Its very concept requires the audience to grasp, at the very least, that there is a history of film to consider, and the films being shown in the program are obvious products within this history that are intentionally chosen for how poorly they represent the medium. Overlaid on this concept is the central conceit, where three beings with the approximate cultural-historical frame of reference from the late 20th century of Western civilization consistently comment upon the action, dialogue, plot, and characters appearing concurrently on-screen—and that the audience (in this case, you) are also meant to have the same approximate knowledge base to appreciate the many, many pop culture references that comprise many of the riffs.

It’s heady stuff, once you dig a little into it. Further this by the anachronistic nature of these riffs, in which a straightforward comedic comment or barb is followed by an obscure film reference from, say, the 1940s, which is then followed by a reference to a song lyric from the 1960s, which is then followed by a reference to a well-known advertising slogan from the 1990s, and then a reference to a historical event from the 1780s. Within the span of 30 seconds, the show requires a functional understanding of not just pop culture, but history in general, and why these references are funny in connection to the action of the movie they’re watching.

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The segments of the show outside of the riffing are similarly loaded with cultural-historical references. For example, one may not find a skit where Mike and the robots do Andy Rooney impersonations funny if they have no idea who this person is or why their impersonations are funny. Or when Joel covers how members of the Algonquin Round Table were a motorcycle gang: unless you’re familiar with the informal grouping of New York City-based writers in the 1920s and 30s that included Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, the gag would fall somewhat flat.

Even the straightforward riffs, where Joel/Mike and the ‘bots criticize the failings of the film they’re watching—from the terrible acting to the awful special effects or meandering plotlines—require the audience to understand enough about film to recognize exactly why these films are bad in the first place, and that what’s being commented upon is both an accurate and humorous analysis.

It’s a TV show that uses the conceit of watching a media product of the 20th century as a conduit to create a broad, anarchic rolling commentary that rolls up all of popular culture within every two-hour episode.

No wonder nerds were its main audience: people who found themselves engrossed with all matters great and small connected to pop culture before the internet and “nerd culture” went mainstream found MST3K a brilliant innovation—a show that spoke their historical-cultural polyglot.

Of course, one of the main trappings of postmodernism is evident in MST3K: mixing high and low culture, often at a whiplash pace. The show could pull off a reference to an obscure opera and then immediately follow with a childish insult and never lose a step in the process. Its ability to intersperse silly jokes and slapstick absurdity with brainy cultural quotes and erudite quips keeps every episode nimble and active—something that requires its audience to buy into the concept that it could be fun to watch a two hour-long bad movie.

This sort of postmodern approach has now become commonplace, to the point children’s shows employ similar high/low stylistic pastiches of style and content, but in the 1990s MST3K was one of the few shows (outside of The Simpsons) even attempting such a sophisticated, advanced mode of narrative.

“I’m the wind, baby!”

Pulling back from the heady analysis of MST3K’s modality, the general shape and elements of the show are highly responsible for its enduring success. It’s a brightly colored show that features two cute robot puppets, after all: it’s inviting and cozy.

The general tone is lighthearted and it’s completely separated from the “actual” world in any real sense—even the devices of fiction are largely absent in the show, including running plot lines (well, up until the end), any sort of drama or romantic interest, and even any reoccurring characters outside of Mike/Joel, the robots, and the mad scientists (and Professor Bobo and Brain Guy, but that’s later in the series).

The main characters are goofy and likeable. Joel, the original test subject and creator of the show, had a sleepy demeanor and laid-back delivery and delivered silly riffs, while Mike was much more obtuse and goofy and delivered much sharper barbs in the theater. Crow T. Robot is sarcastic and often confused about his identity while Tom Servo is more intellectual and sardonic. The interstitial skits flesh out the characters and expand how they interact with each other: the robots treat Joel like a father figure while they regard Mike more as a big brother. It’s a cozy arrangement for a limited cast show and the dynamics set up between them serve as a solid platform for the sketches they enact together—particularly when they’re set up around their established characteristics.

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It has a bouncy expository theme song that explains the premise of the show, which self-reflexively reassures the audience that if something in the show doesn’t seem to make sense, they should remind themselves it’s just a show and should just relax. Right from the start, MST3K lets the audience know this isn’t a show that’s going to take itself too seriously, and neither should they. And it’s disarming in this approach. This writer tends to watch episodes as an adult to cheer up or relax because of its good-natured, goofy tone.

The low budget of the show (each episode’s budget was somewhere around $36,000, which is a great return in investment for a weekly show that filled two hours of television) also contributes to its approachability: it has a hand-made quality that’s likable and amusing. The small crew that made the show continually reappear as various bit characters (including Mike Nelson’s wife Bridget, who also served as a writer, and Mary Jo Pehl, another writer on the show who also appeared as various bit characters before taking over the roll of the mad scientist Pearl Forrester for the second half of the series), and even the main actors—or robot voices—show up to play characters in the show. Near the end of the series, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett—who were voicing Crow and Tom Servo—were doing double duty by playing Professor Bobo and Brain Guy, two characters that became sidekicks to Pearl Forrester, in every episode.

It’s evident that this show was a labor of love from everyone involved. While cast members and writers would leave the show over time, until by the eighth season the entire original cast had been replaced, the quality of the show never dipped. Joel Hodgson left the show in its fifth season and was replaced by head writer Mike Nelson; Trace Beaulieu—who played Dr. Forrester and voiced Crow–left after the seventh season and was replaced by writers Mary Jo Pehl and Bill Corbett, respectively; and before this, cast members left for one reason or another.

The show was cancelled by Comedy Central after its seventh season, only to be brought to the Sci-Fi Channel for another three seasons before being cancelled again at the end of its tenth season. This was after a whopping 198 two-hour episodes of the series were produced, which have since become beloved by fans and live on thanks to the internet 2.0, where many episodes are available on YouTube (and the internet has made “Keep circulating the tapes” now a permanent, instantly accessible reality). Hodgson brought the show back to life in 2017 by producing another season for Netflix, with Jonah Ray as the new “test subject” and with new voices for Tom Servo and Crow. It’s an enjoyable enough resurrection, but it’s difficult to live up to the original run from the 1990s.

Fortunately, the original two series still exist and will always be there—as entertainment, a piece of nostalgia, and comfort food for those of us who watched the original series when it first aired.

“I’ve never known more about what isn’t going on in a movie.”

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is my favorite show of all time. If I were stuck on a desert island for the rest of my life, this is the piece of entertainment I would bring with me. It is perhaps the best television ever created—and functions as a feature-length movie each episode, as well.

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It’s also just my type of humor—a mixture of silly and cerebral. It engages me with its barrage of historical, cultural, and entertainment references and entertains me with the silly skits interspersed throughout. I like the characters and enjoy seeing them on my screen. It’s been one of the few constants in my life—from my early teens to my mid-thirties–that has never let me down or disappointed me. While it may sound pathetic, MST3K is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It’s informed my personality and tastes and is largely responsible for why I ended up creating a TV and film website.

Somehow, I don’t feel like this article really approaches what I really feel about this show—what short article ever could about something that means the world to someone? I could write a book about MST3K, and in this article had to choose which aspects about it I have found so incredible, but the real answer is that–to me, at least–this is the ultimate form of entertainment. It provides the viewer (well, me) with layers to enjoy. There’s a whole movie to watch, a consistently hilarious running commentary over it to listen to, enjoyable characters to identify with, and sketches and skits that range from esoteric to zany in their content. And there’s 198 episodes to watch!

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In the 90s, before the internet became common, there were few outlets that somebody who was interested in the galaxy of information this reality offers up encapsulated and elucidated in one place. For me, MST3K was that locus—where I wasn’t just a nerdy bookworm who knew too much about things nobody cared about, but had a show made just for me. A show that knew I would appreciate a good Sylvia Plath joke or reference to a literary character or obscure movie. A show that would write jokes about tropes of fiction and film conventions and commented on plot holes and bad writing. It was a show for people who snarkily riffed in their own minds about the world around them and wondered why nobody else found everything so darn amusing. MST3K was for nerds and largely retained that position in pop culture. It was a celebration of how knowing too much about everything could be the source of endless amusement—an infinite jest–that remains endlessly amusing, even after all these years.

TOTAL EDIT FOR CLARIFICATION:

So this article has gotten a lot of traffic in the past week or so since its post and the audience that has read this article thinks they should start from the beginning of the series. WARNING: DO NOT START FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE SERIES.

This show built its abilities over time. And this show doesn’t have a narrative like many shows do. Really, it’s a pick-and-choose kind of show. Some episodes are better than others, and it is difficult for newcomers to kind of wrap their head around the concept in general. So, to make it easier to newcomers, here’s a guide to episodes (available online) to watch to get into the show. Some of these are on Netflix, so paywalls are invoked even though we should all keep circulating the tapes!

Space Mutiny – Available on Netflix, this is the best entry point to MST3K to the uninitiated.

Time Chasers – Again, available on Netflix, this is yet another amazing entry into the cult.

Pod People – Available on, you guessed it, Netflix, this is yet another great entry into the series.

Wild Rebels – Wii-ild rebels! Crunchy, fruity rebels! Drink it down, you stupid clown, they’re wild! Maybe the earliest example of how good this show could be, Wild Rebels is an incredibly funny episode that is guaranteed to make a convert out of a disbeliever.

Riding With Death – The latter-day MST3K got more “modern” and began to attack the idiot culture of the previous decades. This trend brought us delightful servings like Riding With Death, which introduced the harder-edged late-season riffing against the movie and the actors themselves as a shift in attitude that was noticeable between the Comedy Central and Sci-Fi eras.

The Giant Spider Invasion – More of the Sci-Fi era of MST3K, this riff is spot-on and exemplifies what the show as a whole is about. Watch this episode and see if this show is what you’re looking for. There are a lot of episodes that reflect this type of quality riffing, but they are now blocked and invisible behind a pay wall to watch, so if you watch this and see the type of approach this show makes towards a film, if  you like it this is the show for you.

A Touch of Satan – “This is where the fish lives!” “This i where my tongue lives!” One of the tightest riffs the show ever produced, A Touch of Satan  is an amazing example of the potential of this show–and a great moment where perhaps something like Rifftrax found its potential future. Classic MST3K and something to that hints at how great this concept really is.

Horror at Party Beach: Imagine a party beach located on 1950s Long Island, and the teenagers that may fall prey to horrors that don’t involve herpes. Hence Horror at Party Beach. If you’re from the Northeast in particular, this ridiculous film may hit certain receptors within your brain.

Master Ninja I and II: :Look, Joel got short shrift in this article, mostly because I prefer Mike over Joel. But Joel created the show and created the shape of the overall product. Master Ninja I and II is a great representation of how great he was at what he invented and why this show was such a genius stroke.

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Categories: culture, television

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1 reply

  1. I found MST3K by chance (as I’m sure a lot of people did in the cable channel explosion of the early 90s) and was hooked since then. Like many people, they found it to be a show that helped bond with family, either watching it with their dad’s (like mine) or their mom, or both parents. It was definitely a show the whole family could watch and laugh to, because there was something for everyone. That, for me, was part of what made it so great.

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