[9 April 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The bad movies. That’s all anyone ever wants to talk about. Manos. Mitchell. The audacity of taking on a pseudo classic like This Island Earth. The creative constitution it must have required to endure the aesthetic horrors of Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Mancho, or Attack of the the Eye Creatures. But there remains so much more to Mystery Science Theater 3000 than Arch Hall Jr., Coleman Francis, and Merritt Stone. As a matter of fact, one of the first things critics latched onto where the sensational skits, in between bits that often commented directly on the film being shown. Yet there were also times when the material was merely “inspired” by the work being presented, said muse mutated into wit that transpired the sloppy celluloid circumstances. It’s these boffo blackouts that deserve reconsideration and concentration. SE&L, confirmed MiSTies, will highlight 10 of the best forays into funny stuff the Satellite of Love and its occupants ever attempted.
There are a couple of caveats when diving into this list. First, we purposely avoided anything where music was involved. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was famous for its satiric songs, and trying to pick 20, let alone 10 would have been impossible. Therefore, only atonal humor will be discussed. Also, we’ve stopped the reflection at Season 7, the non Sci-Fi Channel version of the series. There’s no real reason for such a barrier, except that more people are familiar with the updated concept of the show, and some of the older material needs its day in the sun. Finally, supporting characters like Dr. Clayton Forrester, Dr. Lawrence Erhardt, TV’s Frank and the Mole Men have also been excluded. They’ll get their moment sometime in the near future. With all the stipulations in place, and in celebration of the latest DVD release (Volume XXVI) from Shout! Factory, let’s begin in chronological order:
Back when the series was still being broadcast across actual antenna airwaves by local Minneapolis station KTMA, a special holiday edition of the show featured this fabulous history lesson from everyone’s favorite “bird dog thing”. From the pilgrims arriving in a van and taking turns “starving”, to the Indian’s spraying their guests with mace (don’t ask), the robots get the spirit of the occasion, if not the factual certainties. An important discussion, if only for finally explaining the connection between Turkey day and the reason people start Christmas shopping the day after.
As with any new sport, descriptive phrases and jargon are mandatory. They help reporters explain the action and bolster color commentators ability to earn ESPN highlight reel airtime. For this Ross Hagen rehash of every competition oriented cliché ever conceived, Joel and his automated pals provide such expressive lingo as the ‘Hickory Dickory Die’, ‘Fruitful Snootful’, and the ‘Tension Envelope’ routine (popularized by Nutsy the Clown). It’s enough to knock competitive darts, Ninja Warrior, and all other non-mainstream athletics off the pop culture radar.
Anyone old enough to remember single company sponsorship in television will smile at this remarkable riff on Kraft and its long-form infomercial breaks that championed their various faux foods and cheese spreads. Here, a spot-on Tom Servo (channeling Ed Herlihy) describes how Klack Industrial Saladoos-based snack and snippets can be used to make mouth watering family favorites like Skin Mittens, Cooter Cakes, and the traditional Gut Whistle Pie. Just don’t forget the Flesh Button dressing, or a heaping platter of Creamy Crust Puppies. Now that’s fine eatin’.
After an onslaught of giant monster madness, Crow can no longer stand the whiny goody two shoe-ing of everyone’s favorite short-panted pint size. So he lets his aggressions out in the most fruitless display of childish chiding possible. Taking the opportunity to do the same, Servo joins in. Joel tries to help his pals have a more positive perspective on the friend to all oversized beasties. It only lasts for a little while before the bile begins rising all over again.
It’s icy chills and snowbound thrills as Joel and the ‘Bots describe the frostbitten pleasures of training, Alpine style. We experience the gory goodness of the latest craze - speedskating combined with kickboxing. Then there’s cat snapping, where kittens are taken to absolute zero and cracked like Turkish taffy. And let’s not forget “shi-ing” which is also referred to as playing ping-pong or badminton with a Barbie doll frozen in a bucket of ice. And you thought snowmobiling and hockey were the best things about the months of November to February (or August to May, if in Minnesota).
Ross Allen was a well known animal trapper who violated several ethical, moral, and PETA inspired values with his raping of the Florida Everglades. As protest, Tom turns the tables on the great blight hunter, subjecting him to many of the same humiliating outdoor tortures that Allen himself employed to make his living. With Joel along for visual illustration (he uses a small action figure to simulate the pain being inflicted), we get the kind of pointed payback that only a fire hydrant like puppet and a stand-up comedian trapped in space can dish out.
Hoping to gain some insight into how his robot pals think, Joel asks them to visualize their own fantasy families. For Tom, it’s a portrait of his father, Gigantor, and his two moms - Haley Mills and Peggy Cass. For Crow, it’s an oversized deadly dynamo of a dad, who combines homespun wisdom with lasers that fire out of his chest (“pyeww, pyeww”). Of course, Gypsy only envisions a world filled with nothing but Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea‘s Richard Basehart. Why? To quote the cast: “I dunno.”
A post-apocalyptic Kathy Ireland inspires this brilliant breakdown of Mike and the gang’s feminine side. Over the closing credits of this crappy film, Tom chides Crow over his copy of Places in the Heart and his complete Sally Fields collection, while the little gold guy gives his human buddy a Six Weeks, Dying Young, and Irreconcilable Differences combo. Between a Herbert Ross festival, Savannah Smiles, and the mere mention of Madame Sousatzka, there’s not a male chromosome left in the Satellite of Love. Just remember to quote freely from Rich and Famous and everything will be okay.
The late, great Swedish filmmaker is lovingly spoofed when Mike and the ‘bots take a break from this horrible foreign fantasy film to offer up a moody monochrome gag. Though there is probably no more than a page of actual dialogue, the entire skit is filmed at a pace that makes snail’s nervous over how slow it proceeds. The payoff is well worth it, however.
This was it - the supposed end of the series. Comedy Central had failed to renew the contract, and even worse, a typical season of episodes (12 to 24) was reduced to seven. So how do you send off the greatest TV show ever? Easy, you mimic the greatest film ever. This classic 2001 lampoon, complete with pointed visual cues and recreations of classic moments, left fans free associating for days. It’s all here - including a final image that summed up how special Mystery Science Theater 3000 was to fans and cinephile’s worldwide.