Keep Circulating the Tapes — The Best of MST3K

After being off the air for nearly a decade, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999) is perhaps more popular now than it was during its initial run. While it has maintained a loyal fan base since its cable access launch in 1988, it continues to attract new fans — or MSTies — thanks to the release of 15 DVD anthologies of some of the show’s funniest experiments. Not to mention the countless websites devoted to the series and its satirical treatment of bad movies. Some of these movies have even re-entered popular discourse after being featured on the show, such as Manos: The Hands of Fate. Despite its strong niche popularity the series remains an acquired taste. Its mixture of broad shtick with esoteric observation is not hard to grasp, even for the uninitiated. Still, however, some viewers might find it hard to take pleasure in watching others watch bad movies.

The premise of the series is simple enough that the show’s original theme song distills its basic plot quite nicely:

In the not-too-distant future — next Sunday A.D. — there was a guy named Joel, not too different from you or me. He worked at Gizmonic Institute, just another face in a red jumpsuit. He did a good job cleaning up the place, but his bosses didn’t like him. So they shot him into space. We’ll send him cheesy movies. The worst we can find (la-la-la). He’ll have to sit and watch them all, and we’ll monitor his mind (la-la-la). Now keep in mind Joel can’t control where the movies begin or end (la-la-la). Because he used those special parts to make his robot friends.

The “experiments” sent by the evil Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) are among cinema’s tragic failures, which are lampooned by Joel Hodgson and his robot pals, Crow T. Robot (voiced by Beaulieu), Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy), Gypsy (Jim Mallon) and Cambot. We watch the cinematic travesties with Joel and co., who sit in a row of theater seats silhouetted against the movie. They laugh at the screen and make self-reflexive wisecracks that highlight the often uncontrollable badness of the movies they are forced to watch.

Joel and the bots mike and the bots

Unlike its premise, the history of the show is rather convoluted. After a mid-series network switch from Comedy Central to the Sci-fi channel in 1996, the show changed hosts (Mike Nelson replaced Joel), Trace Beaulieu was replaced with Mary Jo Pehl as Forrester’s evil mother, Pearl, and the voice of Crow was replaced with that of another series writer, Bill Corbett. Despite the acting replacements and the loss of Beaulieu and Hodgson, the writing staff remained relatively unchanged throughout the series’ run. The show’s most commercial outing was with Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie in 1996, which skewered the now revered Universal sci-fi flick, This Island Earth. In fact, the feature film represents a bridge between the “Joel years” which preceded it and the “Mike years” that followed it on the Sci-fi channel. An “almost but still not quite complete history” of the show is available here.

Part of the show’s longevity stems from a request by the writers to “keep circulating the tapes,” which would appear during the credits of each episode. In the days before streaming internet video, home recorded VHS tapes were traded among fans who might have missed an episode or an entire season of the series. The trend continues to this day with some sites selling bootleg DVDs of episodes not yet released officially on video. In fact, some of the best episodes remain unreleased due to copyright claims and licensing restrictions. Until they are all released, I’m sure the show’s creators would like you to keep circulating those tapes.

Torgo

Postmodern Silliness

We, the audience, are back-row participants in the fun. Put rather dryly, the humor derives from the double-exposure of watching the film and listening to Joel and the bots simultaneously. The jokes are timed to interrupt the narrative as little as possible, thereby allowing the audience to experience the film in a rather unobstructed sense. Much of the humor is observational and thus tied to the happenings on screen, yet some of the most effective jokes are broad reflexive gags that highlight outmoded social and cultural attitudes, or point out inter- and extra-textual meanings across a wide range of films. In this sense, the show demands the audience to be schooled in the finer, if somewhat marginal, aspects of pop culture. How else can we explain the inclusion of a Herbert von Karajan reference in the offbeat 70s horror film, The Touch of Satan? Without veering too far into high theory, Mystery Science is postmodern humor without pretension. It unearths the forgotten disasters of cinema to pick them apart, line by line, and call attention to their relationship with other films. In one of the show’s best “meta” jokes, the cast spends the final minutes of Laserblast reading Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide in hopes of finding other films that were also rewarded 2.5 stars out of 4 by the editors of the Guide. To the cast’s dismay, Maltin’s Guide suggests that Amadeus, Being There, Unforgiven, A Fish Called Wanda, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are on par with this utterly hilarious 70s sci-fi bomb.

I came to know Mystery Science in 2001 when it had already been canceled by the Sci-fi channel. My wife, who was then my girlfriend, introduced me to her collection of VHS episodes, and in a very short time I was hooked. With a name vaguely reminiscent of George McFly’s favorite TV show, Science Fiction Theater, the show appealed to me with its high-brow assault on some very low-brow movies. As an antidote to the sarcasm of the movie segments, the show’s bumper sequences are often silly, campy riffs between Joel/Mike and the evil earthbound scientists. Some of the funniest host segments feature the cast in a recreation or “homage” to that day’s film, where Joel/Mike and the bots don costumes and reflect the attitudes and behavior of the characters.

Not everyone understands the joy of watching the gang skewer a particularly bad movie. In his review for the feature film, Jonathan Rosenbaum snickered, “Of course making up your own wisecracks and passively listening to the wisecracks of ersatz spectators aren’t precisely the same activity. The potential creativity of the audience has been usurped…” Usurped is a strong word. I think this critical hesitation says something about our relationship with movies and how we watch them, which invaraibly leads to a feeling of being left out of the fun. Rosenbaum believes that passively listening to someone else make jokes somehow undercuts the whole enterprise of back-row heckling. In a way I see his point, but film viewing requires passivity. I would argue that the show rubs some viewers the wrong way because it asks its audience to forgive moviegoing etiquette and incorporate the wisecracks into the narrative. Whereas we might normally criticize the hecklers up front for ruining our moviegoing experience, Mystery Science Theater asks us to loosen our 1:1 relationship with the screen and participate in a weekly roast of a cheesy movies. It might not be active participation, but then again, why not? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about MST3K screenings where people shout the jokes back at the screen like a Greek chorus.

Entering the Screening Room

The List

With nearly two hundreds episodes to its credit, dozens of classic lines and memorable moments, and some perfectly roasted films, Wright on Film presents its Top Ten Favorite Moments from Mystery Science Theater 3000. The list comprises a selection of the funniest lines, gags, or entire films featured on the show. Join the chorus with your own favorites, if they aren’t among the ten chosen here.

10. The Skydivers (1963)

skydivers

“Somebody with Attention Deficit Disorder edited this film.” This Colman Francis gem about a group of professional skydivers is a bleak and dreary exercise in cinematic boredom. Not much actually happens in this movie, except for the frequent discussion and enjoyment of … coffee. “Coffee? I like coffee,” says one character. Mike replies, “Thus we peer into the complex inner workings of this character.” The film itself is almost unwatchable, due in no small part to the dreary grayness that saturates every frame of this film. Not much happens here, as evidenced by this exchange: “Wonder how high they’re gonna jump.” A guy responds, “I don’t know.” Crow quips, “Wow, they really captured that kind of situation.”

9. Soultaker (1990)

soultaker

No, that’s not Martin Sheen as the Soultaker, it’s his brother, Joe Estevez, a veteran character actor who has appeared in dozens of direct-to-video genre pics, frequently with Robert Z’dar, another DTV favorite. Two of the funniest riffs by Mike and bots have to do with the size of Z’dar’s face: “He looks like a catcher’s mitt with eyes!” and — as Z’dar looks at Estevez — “Man, that guy’s face is small.”

8. Puma Man (1980)

puma man

An international co-production about a super hero with the powers of the ancient Aztec Pumaman (who might also be from an alien planet). It’s hard to determine what is funnier, the film’s visual effects or Donald Pleasance’s overwrought performance. The rear-projection flying sequences are completely inferior even for the period. Luckily the poor effects don’t go unnoticed by Mike and the bots: “I’m falling at a 60degree angle, defying all the laws of physics!” Pleasance’s oddly affected British pronunciation of “Puma Man” (more like “Pee-yoo-ma-man”) never tires of being funny, especially since he seems to be relishing every syllable. Honorable mention also goes to the film’s funky disco score, which only adds to the joy of this 70s mess.

7. Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders (1996 and 1982)

Merlin!

“Rock’n’roll martian…” So, basically this film purports to tell one story about the mystical sorcerer but is actually two different films by the same director cut together. It’s not that obvious, unless you happen to notice the 180 degree plot shift, the change in film stock, the different lighting styles, and most fundamentally the different fashion styles. One was made in the mid 90s, while the other reeks of the early 80s. Looking past the blow-dried hair and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial references, the film’s most memorable character is a skeptical newspaper columnist who claims to eviscerate new businesses with his influential reviews. Of course, he sets out to review Merlin’s shop by leafing through his book of spells and making sarcastic remarks into a tape recorder. We’re not sure if the actor is overdoing it, or if the character is that ridiculous, but he nevertheless provides plenty of fuel for Mike and the bots. When his wife complains of his lack of tact and sympathy, the bots chime in: “If she had a store, I’d crush her!” Later, during one of his tedious interior monologues, Servo adds, “I talk to myself a lot. Long monologues complete with sarcasm.”

6. Boggy Creek II: …and the Legend Continues (1984)

Boggy Creek II

“Can I borrow a cup of shirt?” A professor and three of his students head for the Arkansas backwoods in search of the legend of Boggy Creek, a woolly behemoth that is not unlike Bigfoot. Along the way, we must contend with the professor’s droning monologues, a sweaty swamp hillbilly, and Tim, the kid who refuses to wear a shirt. There are several jabs at Tim’s shirtlessness, Arkansas, hillbillies, and some technical oddities like the film’s inconsistent look: “My flashback wasn’t color corrected when it came back from the lab so it was kind of dark.”

5. Cave Dwellers (1984

Cave Dwellers

One of a few MSTied movies to feature a main title credit sequence with footage from a completely different film. Thanks Film Ventures International! Set somewhere in the middle ages, this Miles O’Keeffe vehicle is about a He-Man named Ator, whose quest is to keep the Geometric Nucleus out of the hands of Zor. This one is very popular at our house as the one that started it all. It was the first VHS my wife bought. At the time, her youngest sister was taking the train in to the city for a weekend visit, and she wanted something fun for them to do. One look at Zor’s silly swan-topped black battle helmet, along with Crow’s apt quip, sealed the deal for the two of them: “You know that hat has a slimming effect on you.” It’s a small moment of silliness that was capped later in the episode when Joel and the bots donned the same oversized helmets during one of their host segments.

4. The Final Sacrifice (1990)

final sacrifice

“So, Rowsdower, is that a…stupid name?” Arguably the most popular title not to be officially released on DVD, this also happens to be one of my favorite Canadian films. When an ancient cult idol is found by a boy, he sets out to discover the truth behind his father’s death. Incidentally, he must evade capture from the Ziox cult and its evil leader, Sartoris, by hiding in the back of an unsuspecting Canuck’s pickup truck, who may or may not be a former cult member. This God among men is Zap Rowsdower, our beefy anti-hero with a priceless mullet, thick Ontario accent, and penchant for stonewash denim. Ridiculed endlessly by Mike and the gang, most of the Rowsdower jabs are hilarious, including a few about his hockey hair. However, my favorite is a dig at the kid. He asks his grandmother if he is like his dead father. Crow replies, “No, he was masculine and likable.”

3. This Island Earth (1955)

This Island Earth

Granted, this is the feature film “experiment” and not from the original series. We’ve included it here since it contains some of the show’s best riffing. That is not to say that there are more jokes here than in an average episode or that they are funnier, but the source material definitely provides much to be satirized. In a recent interview, Mike Nelson spoke about the elevated status of the original This Island Earth as one of the “best” 50s sci-fi flicks and noted that it’s still not very good. Perhaps the same people who have such reverence for the film haven’t actually seen it. Or maybe they haven’t seen the MSTied version, which points out many of the film’s shortcomings. Or maybe they have seen the Mystie version and can’t help but hold the original in higher esteem (what I like to call the Manos effect.) The “science and technology” montage is wonderfully silly, as is the “Normal view” song. My wife was lucky enough to see this movie during its theatrical release and while MST3K is hilarious on the small screen, the jokes feel even bigger with a large audience. For my wife, MST3K: The Movie still holds the title for the most she has ever laughed at a movie. Ever.

2. Time Chasers (1994)

Time Chasers

“So in the future kids become gay agents?” I’ll admit that it was hard to get over the loss of Trace Beaulieu as the voice of Crow and initially I wanted nothing to do with Bill Corbett. Then came the release of Volume Five of the MST3K DVD collection and the awesomeness that is David Giancola’s Time Chasers. We are introduced to the less kind, more acerbic Crow T. Robot who is clearly unhappy with the casting of Matthew Bruch as our hero, Nick the time-traveling scientist. Crow yells “Hey wait a minute. This isn’t our star, is it? I will not accept this as our star, sorry.” This new Crow isn’t afraid to get angry and hold a grudge, “Movie! Hey Movie! Can I see your supervisor? This will not stand.” And who can blame him? Our hero is dressed in stonewash jeans, sporting a mullet and riding a 10-speed. And he looks to have a dinner roll attached to his chin. At least Rowsdower had a pickup. One thing is for sure, the crankier Crow gets, the funnier the jabs become. One of the best set pieces is the mezzanine office of the evil J.K. Robertson, which looks like it was filmed at a public library. The host segments are also very strong, with a hilariously gruff “alternate reality” Mike taking over mid-way through the film.

1. Mitchell (1975)

Mitchell

Who’s the puffy guy who is a big blurry sex machine? Mitchell! That’s right, Joe Don Baker is the pushy, puffy, greasy and sleazy cop who manages to bust up John Saxon’s crime ring and bed Linda Evans (a “loser actor bouquet” indeed.) Where to begin with Mitchell? Joe Don Baker’s face and girth make good fodder for the guys. You’d think there was a limit to how many fat, lazy and drunk jokes can be funny. But there isn’t. And it’s even funnier in song: “Mitchell, Mitchell — eye on the sandwich! Mitchell. Hearts poundin’. Mitchell. Veins cloggin’, Mitchell!” Not to mention that this is the episode that sees Joel’s escape from the Satellite of Love and introduces us to Mike. Unlike several episodes, Mitchell is a fairly watchable movie with actual Hollywood actors, including Martin Balsam and Baker (who has appeared in a few James Bond outings). Its humor, then, isn’t based on the unprofessionalism of the filmmakers but instead on the contrived plot and uncharismatic title character. Which are endlessly funny. Not to mention the low speed car chase. We’re still trying to figure out why Mitchell is eating an orange at an upscale restaurant. Apparently Mitchell doesn’t care for the ways of society and chooses to live by his own rules.

Keep circulating those tapes.

MST3K

2 thoughts on “Keep Circulating the Tapes — The Best of MST3K

  1. Being a Card Carrying MSTies since the mid 90s, I love the show and agree with your #1 …Mitchell is friggin’ funny. I also enjoyed War of the Colossal Beast, Hercules, the Beatniks, Kitten With a Whip, Revenge of the Creature and Agent for HARM…I enjoy the fact that this show is fun to watch over and over and over. I love to blast the movies myself with the guys. A puppet show and a movie, what a great idea. The show is pure genius.

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