[16 March 2011]
The brilliance of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is its simplicity: one human man and two robots watch bad movies and make fun of them. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s possibly the greatest idea ever for a television show. It’s an inclusive viewing experience that, on the surface, appears to be something any viewer could do, and it gives a voice to anyone who’s ever been frustrated while watching a bad movie.
Forget that it’s hilarious, or that it ran for 11 years, this show predicted the future. Each episode is a 90-plus distillation of 21st century life. Internet commentators were hard at work during the show’s heyday, but they were a specialized group then. Now, we are them and they are us. Every facet of our lives is commented upon, from hard news articles and celebrity gossip to photos of our children. Meanwhile giant screens broadcast mindless garbage we can’t help but make fun of even as we sit and watch with what attention we have remaining.
In this episode, Mike (Mike Nelson), Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (Trace Beauliu) take in Beginning of the End, a giant locust movie in which most expenses were spared. It begins with a scene in which a young couple is attacked while making out in their car on a country road. As they kiss, Servo says, “You taste like vinyl,” just one of dozens of jokes that could easily comprise this entire review.
As the film and the jokes continued I wondered: How does one watch this? I’ve seen plenty of episodes in the past, but I never of the mental calisthenics necessary when watching. The films are generally muffled sounding, even without Mike—or, in the earlier seasons, Joel—and the robots talking. The films are also tedious, filled with drawn out scenes which go nowhere, and the mind begins to wander as thoughts of getting up to go to the bathroom or to get a snack begin to set in.
Then, something happens. Mike and the robots are paying attention, and they’re making comments directly related to what’s going on in the film. Their attention focuses our own, especially, in the case of all the films they watch, when there’s not much happening on screen. Beginning of the End is no different. It’s a mishmash of stock footage and stern-faced phone calls made from drab offices, punctuated by several occasionally convincing run-ins with giant locusts.
It’s the jokes, of course, which make the film bearable, whether it’s Servo repeating, “I’m Peter Graves”, each time the actor appears on-screen or the crew imitating the film’s theme music. The constant barrage of jokes and references makes the disc’s lack of bonus features cry out for an annotated edition that lists every reference to history, art, film, music, US geography, insect anatomy and any number of other subjects. The interstitial skits are particularly strong, including Mike’s introduction of the “8 of Chris Lemmon” to the deck of cards and Servo’s standup routine (complete with a piece of cardboard painted to look like brick wall) about the differences between grasshoppers and locusts.
Beginning of the End has everything one would expect to make a good fodder for this show: bad special effects, long sequences that go nowhere and ample repetition. The jokes increase both in frequency and hilarity during the film’s climatic battle against the locusts in the deserted streets of Chicago. If, as the theme song states, Mike is being monitored to gauge the affect bad movies have on his mind, then Beginning of the End takes him—and us—almost to the breaking point.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 astounds because it works. It may seem off the cuff, but the jokes were no doubt parsed, rehearsed and timed to death, creating a comedy machine capable of astonishing accuracy and precision. If you’ve ever watched a movie at home with a group of friends, then you’ve no doubt experienced the failure of someone trying to recreate the show’s brilliance through commentary. If not, then gather up the funniest people you know and try it. You’ll see it’s not so easy, after all.