Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Junk Drawer: Spotlight on Mystery Science Theater 3000

Once upon a time, there was a TV station called KTMA. With a programming diet consisting mainly of reruns, commercials and wrestling reviews, their ratings were not exactly going through the roof. If KTMA was going to stay on the air, it was going to need a injection of fresh ideas. But where would those ideas come from? And who would provide them? Just when things seemed to be at their bleakest, however, a hero arrived.

His name was Joel Hodgson. An established writer and stand-up comic, Joel proposed a series centered around the worst movies ever made. However, instead of just showing the films, he added a unique twist: feature an audience that would provide a running commentary of witty put downs, wise cracks, quips and insults. Intrigued by the proposal, the powers at KTMA decided to give Joel's idea a chance.

Of such humble beginnings a classic was born.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" ran for a year on KTMA, developing a loyal following almost immediately. In 1989 it was picked up by Comedy Central. "MST3K" (as it is known in shorthand) was a critical and commercial hit, garnering legions of devoted fans (this writer included) who proudly dubbed themselves "Mysties". Besides being laugh-out-loud funny, "MST3K" introduced a whole new generation to the joys of junk cinema while celebrating the dubious talents of Coleman Francis, Beverly Garland, Ed Wood and Roger Corman.

The basic premise of "MST3K" was as follows: Joel Robinson (Hodgson), the janitor at Gizmonics Institute, is shot into space by Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) an evil (but inept) mad scientist. Assisted by his devoted (but inept) sidekick TV's Frank (Frank Conniff), "The Mads" forced Joel to watch cheesy movies while they monitored his mind. Helping Joel riff on the flicks were robot pals Crow T. Robot (voiced by Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy). Running the higher functions of the Satellite of Love (where Joel and company are marooned) is Gypsy (voiced by Jim Mallon) and shooting the show was the little seen Cambot.

When Joel and the 'bots weren't heckling such films as "Warrior of the Lost World" (which starred "that 'Paper Chase' guy"), "Teenage Caveman" and "Attack of the Eye Creatures", they put on clever skits and sang such original ditties as "My Wild Irish Ireland" (praising the "Alien from L.A." star Kathy Ireland), "The Creepy Girl" (Tom Servo's crush from "Catalina Caper") and "Clowns in the Sky". Another key element were the "Invention Exchanges" that took place between the Mads in Deep 13 (their lair) and Joel. These included such handy items as "The Junk Drawer Organizer", a karaoke machine that played only public domain songs (like the "impish 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'"), "The Rat Pack Chess Set" (with Sinatra, naturally, as king) and a "Do-It-Yourself Fabio Kit".

But the cornerstone of "MST3K" was its smart, funny writing. A typical episode featured thousands of jokes, which ranged from put downs ("This has more pauses than a Pinter play!") to pithy one-liners ("Here's Speedy Delivery Guy and has he got a package!") to pop culture references and spot-on vocal impersonations. Along the way, "MST3K" popularized such catch phrases as "Hi-keeba!" (uttered by Wendell Corey in "Women of the Prehistoric Planet"), "Oh, bite me, it's fun" and "They're on a collision course to wackiness!"

After 5 years at "MST3K"s helm, Joel Hodgson stepped down to pursue other projects. In his place was "MST3K"s head writer Michael J. Nelson. Often when a beloved star leaves a series, the quality and popularity of a show is seriously compromised, sometimes fatally. But Nelson easily slipped into his role as temp worker Mike, shot into space after Joel escaped (with Gypsy's help) in an escape pod labeled "Hamdingers". Also working in Nelson's favor was the fact that "MST3K" fans already knew him from such choice cameo bit as Morrissy, Torgo and Steve Reeves.

"MST3K" would go on for another five years, but the departures of Beaulieu and Conniff and a move to the SciFi channel weakened it a bit. In 1999, the movie sign went off for good, saddening Mysties everywhere.

Fortunately, "MST3K" lives on in VHS and DVD form. There is also their big screen feature film "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie" which earned a coveted "Two Thumbs Up" from Siskel and Ebert. For a more detailed look at "MST3K", there is The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide written by the show's performers and writers. My own personal copy of this book is dog-eared from use.

Gone, but certainly never forgotten, "MST3K" is a wonderful reminder that originality and creativity can still flourish on television. Or, to quote, Ruskin, "When love and skill work together expect a masterpiece."

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