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01 April, 2014

For the Love of Laughter, Horror (and Hosts), and CHEESE!

S. J. Martiene


For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed a good laugh, a good fright, and have been exposed to my fair share of bad movies.  Growing up with Bugs Bunny, The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Johnny Carson, The Dean Martin Roasts, and the endless one-liners from the ORIGINAL Hollywood Squares game show, I became quite skilled with the “aside”, sarcasm, innuendo, and just downright belly-laughing guffaws.  Oh yeah, I failed to include HEE HAW in that mix (along with too many other names and shows).  That show instilled its own kind of humor which is still with me to this day.  During my pre-teen and teenage years, I was fortunate to spend some of my movie-watching hours at the drive-in.  To this day, I can remember vividly some of the shock, schlock, and shivers.  I remember the taste and the smell of the popcorn, the anticipation of the Intermission Countdown, and the crackle of the speakers. All of these are wonderful memories indeed, and helpful to drown out the painful thoughts of the hometown drive-in that was destroyed to make room for a strip mall.

Accompanied with this outside-the-home movie enjoyment, we had our own TV Horror Host (The Fear Monger).  Between his Saturday night escapades, I was exposed to arguably the greatest TV decade EVER, particularly for the horror, suspense, and crime genre.  Seriously, with fare like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The NBC Mystery Movie, Circle of Fear, and movies like The Legend of Lizzie Borden, Crowhaven Farm, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, and Gargoyles how could I NOT love it!!  I still watch these on coveted DVDs today!!!  Ah the 70’s, full of highs and many personal lows, but little did I know that it would be nearly another 20 years of living before another show would cram EVERYTHING together for me in a nice, neat Cowtown Puppet Show package.

FAST FORWARD:  March 1992

So I went to school, went to work, had moved to South Florida where I would meet my future husband and we would start our family.  In March ’92, I was watching The Comedy Channel (Comedy Central’s first name), and I discovered something beautiful.  There was this guy, with two robots, in a spaceship theater, and they were TALKING through The Crawling Hand. It was love at first sight.  Whenever work and life schedule would permit it, I was watching this show.  Then, I noticed the show always ended with a salute to “The authors of the First Amendment and The Teachers of America” AND then it would say…”KEEP CIRCULATING THE TAPES”.  SO I started recording the episodes as often as I could.   And it is this show that I have taught my boys to love and that we are STILL watching a quarter-century later:  Mystery Science Theater 3000.

As many know, MST3K started as a local show in Minneapolis (KTMA) in 1989 and was the brain-child of comedian-extraordinaire, Joel Hodgson.  It revolved around a maintenance guy (Joel Robinson played by Hodgson) who worked for two nefarious characters, Dr. Erhardt (Josh “Elvis” Weinstein) and Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), at Gizmonic Institute.  He was forced into a human experiment of watching painfully bad movies to break his spirit. Erhardt and Forrester thought that the success of this experiment would further their advancement in conquering the world.  Joel, getting lonely in space, created robots from things he found around the ship.  These robots would become his children, friends, and sparring partners and two of them would even accompany him into the theater to share his movie experiences:  Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot.

Josh Weinstein gave Tom Servo life during the KTMA year and the “official” Season 1 on Comedy Central.  Trace Beaulieu managed Crow T. Robot from the beginning until MST3K left CC to join The Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) in 1997.  All of them, along with Kevin Murphy (Future Tom Servo), Michael J. Nelson (future host), and Bill Corbett (future Crow T. Robot), Frank Coniff (TV’s Frank who replace Weinstein in Season 2) and many others added their own comedy touches within the writing of the show.  The humor would normally stay current with many pop culture references to the 60’s and 70’s (which I identified with completely).  Every once in awhile, there will be a topical political joke or pun that could get lost in future years.  The greatest thing about this show is that it was great at being an “EQUAL OPPORTUNITY POLITICAL JOKESTER”.  What I mean by that is that the SHOW did not take sides, and I loved that so much.  I remember that is why I loved Johnny Carson because he railed BOTH sides of the aisle.  For this reason and because the show never strayed from what it was – three characters sitting and making fun of movies, it will likely remain a cult favorite.  And let’s face it, most of us have talked to our TV sets all our lives!!!   AND…they got to do it in a THEATER…..now THAT was cool.

Another element that endeared me to Mystery Science Theater was it contained many characteristics of the “Horror Host” movies so prevalent in my younger years.  I became acquainted with the opening segments and skits between commercial breaks.  As a kid, I always felt this broke the tension of the very SCARY movies being aired that night.  As an adult, I found these bits filled with dry humor and wonderful sight gags that I continue to use today.  The tribute to the Horror Host was quite evident.  There were mad scientists, invention exchanges, running jokes from episode to episode, cheap props, and the destruction of civilizations – all neatly confined on the bone-shaped ship called The Satellite of Love.  Of course, there was an Umbilicus that connected them to Deep 13 (The Mads’ Lair), but that is going to lead to some tedious detail about the show’s final years…and well…..JUST WATCH, okay?????  In addition, there were all kinds of visitors and intruders on the SOL over the years; from Demon Dogs to Nanites.  Even a quarter-century after its birth, MST3K is still gaining fans and getting DVD releases each year.  Not bad for a show that used broken pieces of a Hungry Hungry Hippo game and Millennium Falcon model as parts for the set.
Lastly, the show EMBRACED the bad movie.  Lord knows that if Hollyweird knows how to put out one product well, it is the cheesy flick.  Not all of the MST3K library includes the horror/sci-fi genre either, sometimes it would delve into the Action (MST3K #614 San Francisco International), Fantasy (MST3K #505 The Magic Voyage of Sinbad), Teenage Angst (MST3K #507 I Accuse My Parents), and the occasional Ed Wood or Coleman Francis film (because they deserve their own category, don’t they? ... hmmmm???).  Personally, I love the horror and science fiction genres the best; HOWEVER, many laughs are to be had at the expense of these other films, along with the short subjects that sometimes accompany movies who’s running times needed padding.  If you are a child of the 1960’s, you may remember actually viewing some of those short subjects in school.  Personally, I remember seeing Keeping Neat and Clean (MST3K #613 The Sinister Urge) in one of our Health Classes, AND I am pretty sure I also was lucky (ahem) to see The Chicken of Tomorrow (MST3K #702 The Brute Man). I’m sure there were many others too.  It’s a shame today’s kids are not exposed to these cinematic morsels, but MY BOYS ARE…. hee hee hee.  And no, don’t call CPS, it is NOT an enforceable offense – I've checked.

We are fortunate today that Mystery Science Theater lives on through tapes, DVDs, and even is streamed through Netflix, Hulu, and shows can be found on YouTube.  Many of the show’s members branched out to do their own incarnations of MST3K in other ventures.  Joel Hodgson headed Cinematic Titanic which did live appearances and DVD releases.  They disbanded in 2013 as members (which included Frank Coniff and Trace Beaulieu) decided to do other projects.  Hodgson revived the old Comedy Central format of an MST3K Turkey Day celebration by running a humorous and heartfelt marathon on a YouTube channel on Thanksgiving Day 2013.  It was simply AMAZING!!!  The most successful spin-off has been the RiffTrax collaboration of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett.  The RT crew leaves NOTHING unscathed:  Shorts, serials, good movies, bad movies, blockbusters, or the blockbuster.  They utilize video-on-demand where customers have the option to download the movies to their own devices OR purchase DVD’s.  RiffTrax can also bypass excruciating “rights” purchases by just selling commentaries to movies most of can rent or readily acquire.  Do you know how much fun it has been to watch ALL the Star Wars movies completely riffed???  It is sheer joy, my friend…pure joy.
In conclusion, if you like to laugh and you don’t mind some of your precious little films getting stepped on, seek out Mystery Science Theater 3000, Cinematic Titanic, and RiffTrax.  DO IT!!  Do it NOW…..DON’T LOSE ANOTHER DAY!!!






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