Robot Roll Call: Mystery Science Theater 3000


“It’s like watching an aquarium.”

— Crow, on Laserblast

It might have run for years on Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel, spawned a feature film, and inspired thousands to trek to the frozen steppes of Minnesota for conventions and live shows, but Mystery Science Theater 3000 always just looked like something that a few underemployed comedians tossed together in their garage; thus its appeal. Sticking a host and a couple puppeteer-animated robots in silhouetted seats to mock some Z-grade film was never the most inspirational concept, as becomes clear when watching the show’s 20th anniversary DVD set. The whole thing could have used a third more jokes, not to mention skits substantially less jerry-rigged, and much less space filled by teeth-grindingly bad cinema. But that would have been a different show, something more than a barely gussied-up cable-access lark.

Back in 1988, comedian Joel Hodgson moved back to Minneapolis after getting some attention with a string of appearances on David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. He had the prop comic’s love of gadgetry, a dumpster-divers’ appreciation for repurposing junk, and a singularly lo-fi presentation. That, his links to a network of underemployed comics, a connection at local station KTMA, and an old idea for a show based on Charlton Heston watching Woodstock in The Omega Man, all came together in MST3K. The concept riffed beautifully on the old local small-market channel tradition of bringing in a campy host to introduce the many dusty old films used to fill time, cheaply. Hodgson and crew’s idea was that Joel was lost in space on the Satellite of Love, where mad scientists forced him to watch bad movies with a couple robots (Tom Servo, who has the unctuous voice of a small-market public radio host, and Crow, the sarcastic brat) cracking wise.

MST3K looks today like even more of a blast from television’s past, when there weren’t network sitcom reruns and reality programming clogging the dozens of channels spewing out of flat-screens across the land. Once upon a time there were channels that served only a small geographic area and had miniscule budgets with which to fill 18- or 24-hour days with something; there was no CW to fall back on. Packages of bottom-tier films were cheap, so in between F-Troop episodes and prewar adventure serials, those stations ran the lowest denomination of genre flicks. Served up in batches by wobbly summer-stage wannabes, the movies cycled in an interminable loop in the deep stretches of weekend afternoons or late nights, for the edification of bored children and insomniacs in rec rooms from Buffalo to Eden Prairie. MST3K just added jokes.

The humor is targeted at those who might have a B.A. in English but watched plenty of Star Trek when they should have been finishing up with Henry James. It wasn’t hardcore geek humor—what with the Lou Reed and Joyce Carol Oates references—but certainly geek-friendly (thus the UNIX jokes). By simply giving voice to the quips many viewers would be running in their heads anyway, MST3K juiced the normally enervating process of watching a bad movie, but without smirking superiority or Rocky Horror Picture Show reenactment-style glam overkill. (It was made in Minnesota, after all.)

The stream of Monty Python-style non-sequiturs, new endings for actors’ lines, and instant catchphrases (“Gymkata!”) were interrupted by staged material featuring the robots and Hodgson (or later his replacement, the slightly more high energy Mike Nelson, whose arrival sparked a schism in the cult that never quite healed). Though occasionally chuckle-worthy, the interstitial material was far from the highlight of the show. But the songs and skits at least added breathers so that viewers could get up for a beer; everyone needs a break from cyborgs and werewolves, after all.

Crow T. Robot, Mike Nelson and Tom Servo

After garnering cult-status heat in the Twin Cities, MST3Kwas in the right place and time to get snapped up by the just-launching Comedy Channel. The show kept shooting in Minnesota, added about ten bucks to their production budget (clips from the original KTMA episodes included on this DVD set show exactly how far they did not come) and continued on in the same vein for about five years, until the Comedy Channel had become Comedy Central and dumped them once South Park started to take off. A few seasons at the Sci-Fi Channel followed, before it all came to an end in 1999.

The four episodes collected in the 20th anniversary set—Future War, First Spaceship to Venus, Laserblast, and Werewolf—definitely showcase films with the right kind of subpar special effects and wooden dialogue, but they don’t really do justice to the series. It’s not a greatest-hits package, no collection that didn’t include the sub-Godzilla Gamera or Joe Don Baker’s Mannix-esque masterpiece Mitchell could claim that title. What it really seems like is just another of the four-episode sets that Rhino has been putting out, only this time packaged with a few (overly talky) special features on the history of the show.

The highlight of the 20th anniversary set is probably the final Comedy Central episode, 1978’s Laserblast, an ugly mix of ’70s era, van-driving, bare-chested teen alienation and underheated science fiction, sporting a roster of dues-paying washups like Roddy McDowell and Keenan Wynn. Somehow Leonard Maltin gave the disaster two-and-a-half stars, which provides several minutes of easy material for the Satellite of Love crew.

Almost as painful to behold is Future War, which unlike most MST3K fare doesn’t have the filter of distance, having been shot just a couple years before the episode aired in 1999. Like straight-faced version of an Andy Samberg Saturday Night Live spoof, it mashes up cyborgs, dinosaurs, hot nuns, time travel, an odd fixation on cardboard boxes, and many many people wearing sleeveless plaid shirts into a senseless goo. Fortunately, Future War also has a cyborg-sleeveless hero showdown in a church, setting up one of the episode’s better lines: “It’s liberation theology versus Opus Dei!”

In some ways, MST3K is a relic from the past, just like most the movies they riff on. Given how much television has outpaced Hollywood in the couple decades since the show launched, there doesn’t seem to be much room for this kind of low-tech proto-slacker entertainment. There aren’t many real jokes here, the material is more like goofs your annoying friends make after dragging you to see some bottom-dwelling February release. MST3K‘s cable-access vibe and back-of-the-classroom giggle comes as a relief in a time when even comedies feel as fiercely modulated and polished as the biggest-budget action film.

Comedy just doesn’t need to work that hard.