Mystery Science Theater 3000: A Memoir

The impending revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix has put me in a nostalgic and bittersweet mood. With the backing of the biggest streaming service in the world and the most successful film/TV Kickstarter campaign in history, the ratings-challenged, twice-cancelled, cultishly beloved TV show is now officially in the mainstream (or has at least become a powerful force in a more fractured media landscape). During my teenage years, MST3K was my Star Trek. In Canada, where the show never aired on broadcast television, it felt like a secret that only I (and a few friends) were privy to.

MST3K is the kind of show that invites obsession. Despite the simplicity of its premise (a guy and two robots on a satellite in outer space are forced to watch bad movies; they preserve their sanity by providing humorous running commentary), its 10 seasons spawned a dense mythology: two hosts, two sets of villains, a complete cast change-over, and a complex web of in-jokes (“Watch out for snakes!”; “Rock climbing”; “I thought you were Dale,” etc.). The show fostered a sense of fan community with its on-air letter readings, “MST3K Information Club,” and closing-credits incitement to “Keep Circulating the Tapes.” Fans bought ads in Variety to protest the show’s cancellations from Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel, and the feature film was greenlit after Universal executives attended an MST3K convention, and. It was also one of the first shows to benefit from the grassroots potential of the internet: in his review of MST3K:TM, Roger Ebert marvelled at the level of traffic on the show’s CompuServe message boards.

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I discovered MST3K as a wiseacre 11-year-old when I rented Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996)—the franchise’s sole feature-film spin-off, and only representation at my local Blockbuster. At the time, I thought I’d found comedy nirvana. I still recall the feeling of liberating anarchy (Wait… these guys… are making fun of the movie while it’s playing???), and I remember my pal and I having to pause the tape after certain of the jokes (“Oh no, Tinkerbell’s going down—pull up, Tink!!!”) had us gasping with laughter.

Alas, the movie doesn’t hold up. Fans are familiar with its woes: the studio’s insistence of dumbed-down riffing (“It’s Bootsy Collins!” was replaced with “It’s Leona Helmsley!”), the abbreviated running time (just 73 minutes), the poor choice of movie (This Island Earth, a normie’s idea of a bad movie), and the unfortunate overreliance on scatology and gay jokes. Compared to the ramshackle TV show, there’s a stilted, overpolished quality to the whole enterprise, as if everyone was on their best behaviour for the multiplex neophytes.

51HJn8cw4oL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Whatever its flaws, it was still a good entry-point for an 11 year old, and I spent the next few years consuming everything I could from the MST3K universe. I saved my money and collected all the Rhino Home Video releases, watching them over and over again. I pored over The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, coveting the dozens of episodes that were unavailable in the pre-YouTube era. I read and re-read host Mike Nelson’s post-MST3K books Movie Megacheese and Mind Over Matters, and was a regular visitor on Satellite News. Sometimes, when I was feeling especially obsessed, I would seek out movies that MST3K had featured and try to imagine what the gang said about them (for this reason, I own Laserblast and Final Justice on DVD). Play me the original cut of Manos: The Hands of Fate and I could probably recite the entire MST3K commentary myself.

If the MST3K movie is useful for anything, it’s as a historical document of how the production and dissemination of niche/“fan” culture has changed. In contrast to this timid film, recent movie spinoffs of cable shows like Sex and the City and Entourage have been comfortably sold as fans-only propositions. In 1996, the only outlets for an idea like MST3K were cable television or a feature film; by 2006, Rifftrax (a website led by series vets Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy) was selling downloadable MST3K-style commentary tracks for Hollywood blockbusters, later transitioning to video-on-demand offerings, live events, and one-night-only theatrical screenings. YouTube has opened a whole new platform for MST3K’s amateur progeny: your Nostalgia Critics, your Angry Video Game Nerds. Tube and torrent sites have carried on the “Keep Circulating the Tapes” ethos—undoubtedly a headache for MST3K’s owners, but also crucially important to the show’s recent explosion of popularity. The rise of the internet has allowed MST3K’s owners to more easily nurture and harness its fan community, while also retaining the brand’s “insider” patina.

I’m happy to live in a world where an MST3K revival can earn $5.7 million on Kickstarter and get a big Netflix push. For selfish reasons, I feel a little melancholy that MST3K no longer feels like my little secret, but I’m glad that a show that meant so much to me growing up has become a shared cultural reference point. I’m sure the revival will be funny: the cast (Jonah Rey, Patton Oswalt, Felicia Day, Baron Vaughn, Hampton Yount) and writing staff (led by Elliot Kalan, with contributions by Dan Harmon, Paul & Storm, Dana Gould, and old-timers Bill Corbett and Mary Jo Pehl) could not have a stronger pedigree, and the making-fun-of-bad-movies premise is basically foolproof. I’m glad that Joel Hodgson—the creator, original host, and nerd-culture-demigod—is the revival’s guiding light, and I’m glad that the first publicity photo suggests a commitment to the show’s chintzy, handmade aesthetic. And yet… (*deep, heavy sigh*)… I can’t help feeling that some of the old magic will inevitably be gone.

In 1988, Joel Hodgson was a prop comic who had landed appearances on Letterman and SNL and palled around with Jerry Seinfeld before returning to the Midwest, disillusioned by the Hollywood system. Killing time at Minneapolis’s public access station, he pulled together a few pals from the local comedy scene, built some crummy puppets, pulled from the station’s vast library of terrible videos, and half-assedly improvised a commentary.

When it moved to the Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) in 1989, the show inevitably became slicker: it amassed a writing staff, screened its movies beforehand, and featured more elaborate sets, props, and sketches. Still, MST3K never stopped feeling like a public access show. Instead of a who’s-who of superstars, the writers were clever journeyman comics with chemistry and a shared Midwestern sensibility. Instead of Jerry Seinfeld, Joel McHale and Mark Hamill (three of the guest stars announced for the revival), its cast drew almost entirely from the writing staff. Instead of nonstop laughs, the riffing would keep viewers on their toes with obscure references and inside jokes (MST3K die-hards will be glad to tell you what “Circle Pines” or “Stop! She stole Mike’s keyboard!” mean). Instead of a slate of so-bad-they’re-good crowd-pleasers, the movies were often public domain garbage from which truly unique discoveries (Manos: The Hands of Fate, Red Zone Cuba, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, Monster A-Go-Go) were made.

I think there’s a good chance that the new MST3K will be funnier than the original. I can’t imagine I will like it more.

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