TV Talk with Breanna: Go to the Movies with Mystery Science Theater 3000

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By Breanna Shiflett

 Although there are hundreds of great television shows from the last decade or so, it’s important to take a step back and recognize how the industry got to where it is today. For example, the ‘90s were filled with many shows that we consider to be “classics” today, such as The X-Files, Friends, and Full House. However, if you were to ask someone what their favorite shows are from that time period, it’s more than likely that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would not be on be mentioned — not because it’s undeserving, but simply because it was low-key. This didn’t stop the show from leaving its mark, though, as it still has a cult following today and is, in essence, still ongoing even over a decade later.

 Mystery Science Theater 3000 is not exactly a traditional show. It began airing in 1988 on KTMA, a local Minnesota channel, as a small project between comedians Joel Hodgson (the creator), Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, and Jim Mallon. The show ran for 11 years, ending in 1999 with just under 200 episodes, and ran on both Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel. During the fifth season, Hodgson left and was replaced by writer Mike Nelson, who stayed with the show for the remainder of its run and even starred in its feature film, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.

 While the show doesn’t really have a plot, its main premise can be perfectly summarized through its theme song, which explains that the main character, Joel, is “a regular joe” who works as a custodian at Gizmonic Institute. That is, until his bosses shoot him into space and force him to watch cheesy movies (“the worst [they] can find”). It’s important for the audience to “keep in mind Joel can’t control when the movies begin or end, because he used those special parts to make his robot friends.” These robots — Cambot, Gypsy, Tom Servo, and Crow — keep Joel company on the Satellite of Love, but more importantly, they keep him sane by helping him riff the movies that they are forced to watch. The theme song even addresses how implausible the whole thing is by stating, “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts, just repeat to yourself ‘it’s just a show, I should really just relax.’”

 Each episode of the show is two hours long in order to account for the time Joel and the ‘bots need to watch a full-length movie with a few “host segments” where the gang talks about the movie in between. The films that the crew watches are generally from the 1950s to the 1970s, and many of them are in black and white. The movies range from such titles as The Crawling Eye to The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, but no matter what the film is for the week, the audience knows it will be bad.

When screening for bad movies, the cast had criteria in order to select which ones would appear on the show. It was agreed that the movies all had to have some remnant of a plot that the audience could hold on to, and that they at least had some nice production value. Most importantly, though, as Hodgson stated, “It can’t be a movie that’s self-conscious at all – it can’t be a movie that knows it’s a crummy movie.”

 So what’s the point of watching a guy and some robots make fun of really bad movies? One of the things that makes MST3K so enjoyable is the fact that most people can relate to making fun of a bad movie just to be able to finish it. When watching the show, it’s not hard to jump in on the riffing and make some of your own jokes about the movie. While it may seem odd to watch awful movies for entertainment, it’s possibly even more fun than watching one that is Oscar-worthy.

Although the show was cancelled in 1999, its legend still lives on. In 2006, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo throughout the majority of the show), and Bill Corbett (the voice of Crow during the second half of the series) created Rifftrax, a web-based series that used the same general idea of Mystery Science Theater and applied it to newer movies, such as the Twilight series and The Avengers. The following year, Joel Hodgson and the rest of the original cast, as well as later cast members such as Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, debuted Cinematic Titanic, which was essentially MST3K on tour. The show’s cult following has made both of these projects extremely successful, and it’s almost as if the show never ended.

While it may not exactly be a conventional show, that shouldn’t be reason to pass over Mystery Science Theater 3000. The show is a whole experience in itself, with its unique setup, humor, and style. Many episodes of MST3K can be found on YouTube, and boxsets are sold with four episodes in each. Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic DVDs and audios are sold on their respective websites, and special Rifftrax screenings are often shown in theaters throughout the Leesburg area.