Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An oral history of Mystery Science Theatre 3000

One of my favorite shows during my middle and high school years was the Comedy Central hit Mystery Science Theater 3000.  It's such a simple concept for a show that you both can't believe it hadn't been done before and that it could have sustained for so long.  The hook: a guy named Joel has been shot into space as part of an experiment to see how many bad films he can endure.  To try to keep his sanity, he built robot friends Crow and Tom Servo, who join him at the screenings and make them bearable by talking back to the screen.

(You have no idea how difficult that was to summarize without just quoting the very catchy theme song.)

I have a lot of fond memories of watching the show each week.  In particular, I'm amused as I recall my father's reaction went from "What is this crap you're watching?" to "Is 'Sampo' on this week?" (The first movie he saw was The Day The Earth Froze, where "Sampo" seems to constitute half the dialogue) to "You have GOT to see this part in the movie they're watching with Sean Connery's brother!"

A huge part of the appeal for me was the show tended to have more arcane references than a Dennis Miller act.  (That in itself is now an arcane reference.  This was back when Dennis Miller was actually funny, witty and one of my comedic heroes.)  There's a special kind of laugh that comes from hearing an obscure reference, recognizing what it draws upon and connecting it to the action on screen.  It's what's known in the biz as "a two-percenter," a joke that only two percent of the audience would get.  I love unexplained two-percenters... when I get them.  MST3K was chock-full of them.

Wired has recently honored the show with an excellent oral history.  Some excerpts are below:

Creator Joel Hodgson on the earliest inspiration for the show:

It was an idea I’d had tucked away in the back of my mind since high school: On Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, there are illustrations in the liner notes. And for the song “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” it’s got little silhouettes watching a movie. I remember going, “Someone should do a show like that. Run a movie and have these people in silhouettes say stuff.”

Writers on what makes a good MST3K movie:

Bill Corbett (writer-performer): When we watched the movies, we were looking for a bunch of things. It couldn’t be god-awful in terms of sound and picture, although we did a bunch of them that were borderline in that regard. And the ones that were just boring and really, really talky—where we couldn’t find any space to get any jokes in—those were rejected pretty quickly. We also tended to stay away from super­violent or NC-17 stuff.

Kevin Murphy (writer-performer, producer): There was one submission called Demon Rugsuckers From Mars, or maybe just Rugsuckers From Mars. [Ed. note: It’s actually titled Over-Sexed Rugsuckers From Mars.] It’s about vacuum cleaners. And there was a scene with this dorky bearded fellow making graphic love to a vacuum cleaner. That was the one time I thought, what the hell am I doing with my life?

And Kevin Murphy on why the Sci-Fi Channel Years were more of a pain:

It began getting difficult when USA Network started exercising more control over the Sci-Fi Channel. And then we picked up these fucking production executives from the network. We had these bitter, dry, humorless trolls in charge of our show. And they were giving us notes. And they were insisting on our having a story arc. What the hell do you want with a story arc? This is a puppet show.

Check out the whole oral history here.


  1. I not only loved the television show, but often wished I had the robots with me at the theatre whenever I found myself watching a bad movie..

  2. Bah. Dennis Miller is still funny. Unless he was calling football.

  3. Utter, mad genius from start to finish. The more rough and ready 'Joel Years' were fun, but I was always a Mike Nelson fanboy in that regard. The 'Space Mutiny' episode remains one of the funniest things I have seen to date - that's the episode you show any MST3K virgin to win them over straight away.