One guy, two robots, and lots of laughs

[29 October 2008]

By David Hiltbrand

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

“Mystery Science Theater” 3000 came from modest roots: a goofy TV series on a small UHF station in Minneapolis in 1988.

But over time, the show would soar to - well, fairly modest stature. It was a marginal program that migrated from one basic cable channel to another in the ‘90s.

But through its decade-long run, “MST3K” (as fans shorthand it) gained a reputation as one of the wildest and wittiest programs the medium has ever produced.

Now the cult series is being honored with a 20th-anniversary boxed set: four DVDs and other goodies in a lunch box-like tin container ($69.99).

Although the cast went through some changes, the premise of “MST3K” stayed the same from the time it debuted on Channel 23 in the Little Apple, airing just before a wrestling show:

A sad-sack janitor, Joel Robinson (played by creator Joel Hodgson), is marooned on an orbiting satellite with only a couple of dinky little robots for company. Each week, an evil scientist (comedian Trace Beaulieu, who also provided the voice for Crow T. Robot) forces them to watch the worst movies imaginable, groaners like “Attack of the Giant Leeches,” “The Castle of Fu-Manchu,” “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and others.

As the cinematic turkey unspooled, Joel and his ‘bots would unleash a nonstop stream of puns, wisecracks and alternative dialogue at the screen. Their richly layered wordplay and far-ranging references made “MST3K” the “Finnegans Wake” of TV comedies. When it won a Peabody Award in 1993, the show was hailed as “an ingenious eclectic series ... with references to everything from Proust to ‘Gilligan’s Island.’”

It’s rather remarkable that this combination of bad films and brilliant humor made it through its first year.

“Initially the show was on KTMA, a really tiny station,” Beaulieu says on the phone. “I think you had to have a round antenna on the back of your set to get it. It was really done as a lark.”

“For the pilot I used ‘The Green Slime,’” Hodgson says in a separate phone interview. “I knew that those sci-fi movies use a lot of goofy production. I also believed they were really funny in themselves.”

The following year the show went national on the Comedy Channel (since renamed Comedy Central). That meant an actual budget and, as a result, amped-up humor.

“We had been improvising,” says Hodgson. “When we started getting paid, that’s when I decided we needed to write them. I wanted it to be much tighter and we could afford to because now we could spend eight hours a day (on the scripts). Prior to that we did (a whole episode) in a day.”

At this point, “MST3K’s” 90-minute episodes began averaging a dizzying 600 to 700 comic riffs per film.

Though cheesy sci-fi fare remained the show’s bread-and-butter, it expanded its repertoire.

“We covered a lot of genres,” says Beaulieu. “Westerns, teen exploitation movies. We did a biker movie. There was a spate of wannabe Elvis crooners in the late ‘50s. We did a couple of those, including ‘Daddy-O’ with Dick Contino.”

Because of the show’s giddy, freewheeling spirit, many people assumed it was put together by a bunch of stoners.

“People would say, ‘Surely you write them when you were high,’” says Hodgson. “No, we never did.”

He ruefully recalls the one time they laid in a stock of tequila and Mickey’s Big Mouth malt liquor and tried to write.

“Everybody had headaches. It didn’t work,” he says.

Hodgson left the show in 1993 after a struggle with producer Jim Mallon over a big-screen adaptation of the show. “I felt like it would split the company and ruin the show,” says Hodgson, “It felt like ‘Mommy and Daddy are fighting but we don’t want the kids to know.’ “

He was replaced as the human guinea-pig-in-space by head writer Mike Nelson.

“That was the cause of some very dark months in the winter of ‘94,” says Christopher Cornell, who runs the encyclopedic fan site Satellite News (mst3kinfo.com). “Joel vs. Mike turned into one of the worst flame wars in the history of the Internet, with people screaming at each other on bulletin boards.”

Beaulieu left in 1996. “I had done about 150 of them at that point and it just wasn’t fun anymore,” he says. “You kind of know when it’s time to get off.”

“MST3K” spent its last two seasons on the Sci Fi Channel (1997-99). But throughout its run, it never left its production base in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie.

Because of that off-the-beaten-path locale, the series always enjoyed complete creative freedom.

“We weren’t influenced by people coming to the set or telling us what to do,” says Beaulieu. “No one wanted to come to the Midwest. We were left to our own devices.”

The setting also lent the show a piquant and unspoiled flavor. “That was part of the charm,” says Cornell, a former Philadelphia Inquirer staff member. “It had a quirky Midwestern quality to it, not something that came out of a TV factory in New York or California.

“It’s surprising to me that we’re coming up on the 20th anniversary,” continues Cornell. “It’s been nearly 10 years since it’s been on the air and people are still talking about it.”

No doubt the robots are buzzing, too.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/one-guy-two-robots-and-lots-of-laughs/