Sunday, April 19, 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 of mainly reruns, commercials and wrestling shows, their ratings were not exactly going through the roof. If KTMA was going to stay on the air, it was going to need an 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, 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. But instead of just showing the films, he added a unique twist: feature a captive audience that would provide a steady stream of witty put-downs, wise cracks, ad-libs and insults while the films were being screened. The powers at KTMA decided to give Joel's idea a shot.

Of such humble beginnings a classic was born.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" debuted on Comedy Central after running a year at KTMA in 1989. It was both a critical and commercial hit, garnering legions of devoted fans (this writer among them) who proudly call themselves "Mysties". It introduced a whole new generation to the joys of junk cinema while celebrating the dubious talents of Coleman Francis, Beverly Garland and Ed Wood.

The basic premise of "MST3K" (as its known in short hand) was as follows: Joel Robinson (Hodgson), the janitor of 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" force Joel to watch cheesey movies while they monitor his mind. Helping Joel out in the riffing chores 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), a sweet, gentle soul who happens to be the world's greatest Richard Basehart fan. Shooting the show is the little seen Cambot.

When Joel and the 'bots weren't heckling such films as "Warrior of the Lost World", "Teenage Caveman" and "Attack of the Eye Creatures", they put on clever skits or sang original songs like "My Wild Irish Ireland" (which celebrated the "Alien from L.A." star Kathy Ireland), "The Creepy Girl Song" (Tom's crush from "Catalina Caper") and "Clowns in the Sky".

Another prize element of "MST3K" 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 plays nothing but public domain songs, A Rat Pack Chess Set (with Sinatra as king, of course) and a Do-It-Yourself Fabio kit.

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