In my last installment of Cultelevision, I sang the praises of a show that, honestly, I think only like 12 people remember, despite the fact it was probably the funniest thing on television in quite some time. It was only on for three years, and only on the Fox network or E (in America), so I can understand how someone could miss it. But my next cult favorite ran on four different networks (one local channel, then the Comedy Channel, Comedy Central, and the Sci-Fi Network here in the states), was on the air for over 11 years, spawned a book, and made a theatrically-distributed motion picture, and is still remembered vaguely, if at all, despite the fact that it’s one of the most innovative programs ever.
There’s a hoary old expression: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Well, when life gives you bad movies, you make Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The first time I mentioned the show to esteemed Den of Geek editor Sarah Dobbs, she said, “Oh, that show where they make fun of old movies? Meh.” She might not have said it exactly that way, but she wasn’t a fan of the program. She maintained that she and her friends could do the same thing, and be funnier at it. She must have smarter friends than I do, because there is no way the people I know could be that funny.
Before the Internet was the Internet, this show was the darling of geeks everywhere for taking the best of the worst old science fiction, fantasy, and horror and turning it from horrible to hilarious using only sharp wits and sharper tongues. But what was the purpose, and why?
The purpose of the show was that a series of mad scientists (Dr. Clayton Forrester, Dr. Lawrence Erhardt, who I hated and only featured on the local season and the Comedy Channel season; Dr. Larry’s replacement TV’s Frank; Dr. Forrester’s mother Pearl Forrester; and her sidekicks Professor Bobo the Planet of the Apes monkey and The Observer AKA Brain Guy, collectively known as The Mads) kidnapped a man and forced him to watch bad movies, searching for the one film that was so bad it completely breaks his will and allows said mad scientist to take over the world. The marooned man in space, a janitor (series creator Joel Robinson) or a temp (head writer Mike Nelson) respectively, has no control over the films he watches, because he used those special parts to build some wise-cracking robot pals by the names of Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu, then Bill Corbett) and Tom Servo (J. Elvis Weinstein, then Kevin Murphy), with another robot, Gypsy (J. Elvis Weinstein, Jim Mallon, then Patrick Brantseg), to run the ship while they’re all watching horrible movies.
It’s a loose conceit, I’ll grant you that. Hell, the show was deliberately low budget and cheesy, much like the movies they lampooned. The difference is, unlike most of the movies they took on, the show was sharply written and gut-bustingly funny, seemingly becoming funnier as the movies got worse and worse (I point you to Manos: The Hands of Fate as an example).
Regardless of who took on the roles of Crow or Tom Servo, or who played the subject of the experiment, or which set of Mads was in charge of the experiment, one thing that remained constant was the hilarity level. The featured cast was all writers on the show before they stepped in front of the camera, and most of them had a preexisting background in show business or stand-up comedy before joining the cast. The influx and transitions between performers also helped keep the show fresh, as new blood generally helps any series that lasted as long as MST3K did.
So, the show was a cult favorite, and got good ratings in spite of the production values. Why did it stop?
As with pretty much every other cult television program, the problem boiled down to two issues. One issue was, of course, station management changes. The Comedy Central era ended because of a change in station management. After a petition, a letter-writing campaign, and a full page advertisement in the Hollywood trade Daily Variety, the fledgling Sci-Fi network picked up the show. Three years later, there was a change in top brass at Sci-Fi, and in a measure designed to cut costs (the negotiations with the copyright holders of the original films was a constant, and interfered with official DVD releases to this day), the show disappeared again, despite being the only popular thing on Sci-Fi at that time.
Despite these troubles, the love of the show continues, and the former staffers of Best Brains Inc. (MST’s parent company) continue to ply their trade. Mike Nelson (either by himself, with other MST3K staffers, or with celebrity guests like Neil Patrick Harris) has launched RiffTrax, downloadable MST-style riffs of more accessible material yet still awful movies, like The Phantom Menace and Glitter. Mike, Kevin, and Bill have produced three movies so far for a series called The Film Crew, which is basically MST3K without the Shadowrama puppetry and a change in backstory. Series creator Joel Hodgson (along with original players Trace, J. Elvis, TV’s Frank Conniff, and “Mrs. Pearl Forrester” Mary Jo Pehl) has launched Cinematic Titanic, promising more Shadowrama riffs of bad movies available for download, on DVD, and even done in a live show format!
If the fact that the show’s produced 11 official DVD sets doesn’t prove it has a cult following, then the fact that there are no less than three MST3K-like new ventures designed to suck the wallets of fans dry (and a Flash animation series based on the adventures of the ‘bots which is available for your watching here) should say something. If there is a demand, then someone will fill the need.
As Joel and the ‘bots always used to say: Keep circulating the tapes! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got Joe Don Baker movies to watch.