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07 November, 2010

Bobbie's Essays: “Somewhere in Time and Space”: The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Experiment Continues on

Mention MST3K in a room full of people and at least half of them will begin long, convoluted and sometimes heated discussions, as the other half either listens with rapt attention or flees the room.  Why?  Because anyone who is a MST-ie—as fans of the show call themselves—is obsessively seeking to enlighten those uninitiated to this comedy/fantasy world.

It all began in 1988 at a tiny Minneapolis UHF Station KTMA-TV when Jim Mallon approached the station manager with the idea of a new live-hosted show he'd dreamed up with comedian friend, Joel Hodgson and jack-of-all-trades, Kevin Murphy.  Because the station had a two-hour opening on Saturday mornings (but was short on funds), the station manager was intrigued.

Cobbling together a makeshift spacecraft set (dubbed the Satellite of Love or SOL for short) and roping in actor/ puppeteer Trace Beaulieu and a young music composer, Josh Weinstein, they came up with a concept.  Beaulieu and Weinstein would play two evil scientists called the Mads who shot a man into space and forced him to watch bad movies while they, living in Deep 13, would monitor the results.  In order to assuage his loneliness, Joel built two robots, Crow T. Robot (voiced by Beaulieu) and Beeper (later the name changed to Tom Servo and voiced by Weinstein).  They, along with Joel, would watch the movies and make quips (called riffing by fans) about them.  Clips from THE GREEN SLIME and a comedy skit by Joel were shot and shown to the station's owner, who approved it.  Mystery Science Theater 3000 was born!

Thanksgiving Day, 1988, saw the first show, INVADERS FROM THE DEEP, air.  Unsure of the audience's response, a phone number was flashed across the bottom of the screen and viewers were encouraged to call.  The next day, the entire phone answering machine tape was filled with calls!  Some callers castigated Joel for talking over the movie but most callers were excited, with one demanding "More!  More!  More!”  Happy to have a hit, the station's owner decided to make it a weekly show and for the next 13 Saturdays, Joel and the Bots (as fans call the robots) entertained fans with such titles as GAMERA vs. BARUGON, TIME OF THE APES and SST DEATH FLIGHT.  Because the running time of these and other movies was so short, the experiments were padded using ’shorts’, which, in these early days, were usually old serials like Commander Cody.  Fans ate it up!  The demand was so great, the show's run was expanded from the original 13 episodes to 21.

As the KTMA days came to a close, MST3K's creators approached Comedy Central, a fledgling cable channel, with a 'best-of' tape of the show and it was picked up.  The concept, along with the sets, changed.  No longer ad-libbed, head-writer Mike Nelson was added and Weinstein was replaced by Frank Conniff (as TV's Frank).  Murphy took over as Tom Servo's voice and puppeteer.  The show's popularity grew along with it's fan base and 11 more episodes were added to the original 13 ordered.  MST3K became Comedy Central’s signature show for the next seven seasons.  In 1993, MST3K won the prestigious Peabody Award for "producing an ingenious eclectic series.”  Between seasons 6 and 7, MST3K also filmed a theater-released movie titled THIS ISLAND EARTH, which was not well received by the show's fans.

However, storm clouds were forming on the show's horizon.  Trace Beaulieu, who's played the Mad Dr. Forrester and voiced Crow, left at the end season 6.  He was replaced by writer Mary Jo Pehl, who played Dr. Forrester's mother, Pearl Forrester.  Then, in the middle of season 5, Joel left the show.  Various reasons were given from his dislike of being on-camera to disagreements with producer Jim Mallon.  His exit was written into the show and, after watching a Joe Don Baker movie titled MITCHELL, Joel escapes the SOL, headed for Earth.  The Mads then send a dim-witted janitor named Mike (played by head-writer Mike Nelson) as a replacement subject.  Thus began what has become known as the Joel vs. Mike wars that flamed on for years on the Internet fan-based groups.  When Comedy Central announced the cancellation of the show, the Internet fan-based groups started a successful write-in campaign and in 1996, the show was picked up by the Sci-Fi channel.

Again, changes to the format were made.  Pearl became the head-Mad and, along with her idiotic sidekicks BoBo (a talking ape played by Murphy) and Observer (Bill Corbett as an alien who carries his brain in a dish), she torments Mike and the Bots by chasing after the SOL in a rocket-powered VW bus!  In addition, Corbett took over as Crow's voice and puppeteer.  Sci-Fi, true to it's name, demanded that MST3K focused on science fiction movies.  This also marked the beginning of the end for the 'shorts, the last being ROBOT RUMPUS with Gumby.

Thus began a four-year ride through outer space with Pearl, BoBo and Brain-Guy chasing along after the SOL and forcing them to watch terrible movies and under-go strange experiments.  However, as all good things must come to an end, the show was finally cancelled in 1999.  But, this wasn't the end for our MST crew!  Joel went on to produce and star in a HBO special titled TV WHEEL and continued to perform stand-up comedy.  Mike joined with Kevin and Bill to release four more bad films under the cover of THE FILM CREW, wrote several well-received humor books and released commentary tracks to horror cult classics such as PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  Mary Jo went back to doing stand-up and was featured on The Women of Comedy DVD.  July 2008 saw Mike Nelson create Rifftrax, an on-line movie voice-over of riffs.  Joel, along with Mary Jo, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Josh Weinstein started a countrywide theater act called Cinematic Titanic, in which they riff bad movies to enthusiastic live audience members.

But—I told you that to tell you this!  A decade after the show's cancellation, MST3K fans still abound.  Their Internet-based groups still hum with spirited discussions about the show and in-person meet-ups are well attended.  Show traders still keep 'circulating the tapes' and, now, the DVDs. Best Brains and now SHOUT keep releasing the shows on DVD.  How did this cow-town puppet show with zero budget grow to become such a phenomenon!?!  It certainly had nothing to do with the movies they showed!  Take for example a little gem titled MANOS: HANDS OF FATE.  Badly acted with an implausible plot and script, why in the hands of one actor with two puppets does it become a hit still discussed to this day!?!  MITCHELL, which was bad enough to drive Joel to abandon ship, would be recognized by any fan hearing the words "Any movie with 'wok-a-chicka wok-a-chicka' in it is okay by me.”  From bad creature flicks like GAMERA and GIANT GILA MONSTER to bad sci-fi movies such as TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE and SPACE MUTINY to gritty little crime dramas TORMENTED and KITTEN WITH A WHIP to Shakespeare's HAMLET, all were fair fodder to this wise-cracking threesome.  Their secret?  Treating these horrible movies with respect and humor.  And, treating their loyal audiences as one of themselves.  We were included in their little game.  Comfortable in the knowledge that 'the right ones will get it'.  And that we were them!  Fans felt as though they were part of a larger cause.  Some even went so far as to emulate the show with fan-created on-line shows of their own.

I will not get into a 'best of' and 'worst of' lists because what's one man's meat is another man's poison.  While TEENAGE STRANGLER may cause one fan to beat his head against a wall, another fan will argue it as comic genius.  Mention MST3K's last experiment DIABOLIC and some will defend its choice while other's will argue that the logical choice would have been THE CRAWLING EYE, Comedy Central’s debut MST3K, thereby creating a closed circle.  Ask any fan which was the first show they saw and they will tell you.  Often, it had such an impact on them that they can, and will, recite riffs from it.  Do I have my favorites?  Of course!  We all do!  So, to the crew of the Satellite Of Love and Deep 13, thank you for ten years of laughs, of Turkey Day marathons and MST Hour shows.  Thank you for continuing on with your live performance and your commentaries, your tours and your gentle good humor.  And, to borrow from that enthusiastic fan of decades ago, we fans say "More!  More!  More!"


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