Saturday, February 20, 2010

The enduring joys of MST3K

Almost 20 years ago, my mother and I were visiting my sister Shelley and her family in Maryland for Thanksgiving weekend. On that memorable Thursday morning, we went out shopping with the kids, and when we returned, Bob, my brother-in-law, cried out, "You gotta see this!" He was in the bedroom watching television and laughing like crazy. It wasn't the Macy's parade. On the screen was a Gamera movie with three little silhouettes in the lower right-hand corner. From time to time the silhouettes would make wisecracks about the movie.

Yes, this was my introduction to Mystery Science Theatre 3000, courtesy of Comedy Central's very first Turkey Day marathon in 1991. I was instantly hooked. I've always loved watching bad movies for the wonderfully unintentional humor they provide, and I've often supplied a running commentary of my own jibes with the help of some like-minded friends.

But MST3K was a different animal altogether. Tearing up the movies was what they were all about. Those three silhouettes turned out to be Joel Robinson (series creator Joel Hodgson) and his 'bots Tom Servo (voice of Kevin Murphy) and Crow (voice of Trace Beaulieu). Joel has been stranded in space on the Satellite of Love (yes, just like the Lou Reed song) by mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (also Beaulieu, named after a character in This Island Earth) and his henchman, TV's Frank (Frank Conniff). Forrester and Frank live in an underground facility known as Deep 13, a nod to Universal's ridiculous 1956 film The Mole People. As a matter of fact, mole people frequently visit Deep 13, particularly on Turkey Day when Thanksgiving dinner is being dished up.

Taking a page from the 1971 Douglas Trumbull cult classic Silent Running, Joel uses parts of the satellite to construct four robots to keep him company. Gypsy, seen on the left in the picture above, runs the higher functions of the ship. Tom Servo and Crow don't do anything important, but they join Joel in the theater and help provide quips when Forrester beams bad movie "experiments" up for them to watch.

Tom has a rich singing voice, is somewhat pompous and easily offended. Crow also has an enlarged sense of self-importance and does most of the offending. Nevertheless, these hunks of metal manage to endear themselves to you more than you'd believe. And the puppetry that Murphy and Beaulieu perform add immeasurably to the characters. Cambot is the fourth robot on the SOL, but he is only seen in a mirror during the opening credits of the show, since his responsibility is to make a video record of all the goings-on.

What makes MST3K a cut above juvenile, sniggering fare like Beavis and Butthead is the high level of sophistication in the quipping, or "riffing," as it is properly known. The MSTies are certainly not above cheap jokes or scatological humor when appropriate, but they also draw from historical and current events, politics and the arts, performing and otherwise. You really have to keep on your toes to catch all the references, but when you get 'em, they're hilarious.

The MSTies loved to push the envelope, too, even for cable. They frequently used the term "dickweed" to describe a character in a movie who was...well, a dickweed. Other examples: when a creepy guy strokes a girl's hair in the Bela Lugosi cheapie The Corpse Vanishes, Joel moans "Lovely...lovely," the words uttered by the rapist/murderer in Hitchcock's sicko Frenzy. In Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell, a character has unidentified wet white stuff all over his face, and one of the MSTies cracks, "Guess what I've been doing?"

Sometimes they got censored. In the original broadcast of The Human Duplicators, Richard Kiel watches another actor walk upstairs, and Crow comments, in Kiel's voice, "He's got a sweet pooper." Certainly not the naughtiest thing they ever said, but I guess Comedy Central thought it was too gross and cut the line from subsequent airings. You can see it below. As an added bonus, I've added a string of riffs from the same film that's so fast and furious you can barely catch your breath.

Not all of the episodes are gold, though. The classics strike a perfect balance between bad movie and good riffing. If the movie is boring, no amount of clever commentary can save it. Teenage Caveman and The Lost Continent come to mind. Conversely, if it's not bad enough, the result is the same. The show really fires on all cylinders when taking on incredibly inept epics like Manos: the Hands of Fate, made in 1966 by a Texas fertilizer salesman, and I Accuse My Parents, a bizarre hybrid crime/musical/juvenile delinquent/family drama made by poverty row studio PRC in 1944. It's material like this that makes the MTSies shine. And, of course, the shorts—bizarre ephemeral educational films from the 50s and episodes of ridiculous serials—were always funny.

Hodgson left the show in 1993, citing creative differences, and head writer Michael J. Nelson took over as the new human on the SOL. Though his sharper, more cynical attitude was a 180-degree turnaround from Hodgson's sleepy delivery, Nelson filled the role admirably. Prior to taking over as the lead, he had supplied original musical numbers and did cameos as various characters in addition to writing the show.

Comedy Central cancelled MST3K in 1995, and Sci-Fi (or Syfy as it is now known) picked it up the following year. Beaulieu and Conniff had already departed, and writers Mary Jo Pehl and Bill Corbett took over, respectively, as Forrester's also mad mother Pearl and the new voice of Crow. No longer in Deep 13, Pearl traveled through space and time in a converted VW bus with new henchmen Professor Bobo (Murphy), a Planet of the Apes-influenced speaking gorilla, and the otherworldly Observer (Corbett), a pale, supposedly omniscient creature from the future who carries his own brain in a large petri dish, causing Pearl to refer to him as "Brain Guy." Both are inept and worship their power-hungry—but equally clueless—mistress.

At first I thought the Sci-Fi episodes were the weakest, but having been able to revisit them regularly on DVD and online, I've had to revise my opinion. At first I missed Beaulieu's giggling, petulant Crow, but Corbett brings a hard-bitten Brooklyn sass to the character. One of the best in the SciFi series is Horrors of Spider Island, an inept nudie-cutie with horror elements that is absolutely ridiculous.

Every episode featured sketches provided by the cast during breaks in the film known as "host segments." Some were absolutely brilliant; others sunk like stones. Some episodes had terrific riffing during the films and lame host segments, others had great sketches and dull movies. Most often, however, everything worked.

Sci-Fi dropped the show in 1999, and despite an aggressive campaign mounted by loyal fans, including a full-page ad in Daily Variety, the Satellite of Love drifted off into deep space. Nelson, Murphy and Corbett moved on to The Film Crew and RiffTrax, both styled like MST3K in that they riff on movies, except that the cast can only be heard, not seen. I met the RiffTrax cast at ComicCon in 2008, and of course, I had to sing "Harry Alan Towers" to Kevin Murphy. If you're a fan, you know what I'm talking about.

Hodgson, Beaulieu, Conniff and Pehl started Cinematic Titanic in 2007. The cast stands in silhouette on multilevel platforms to do their riffing, keeping the MST3K legacy alive. They're joined by Josh Weinstein, who was the original Tom Servo and a staff writer on MST3K prior to the Comedy Central years. Both Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic do live shows around the country, and I understand they're very well received. I haven't seen them yet, but I hope to have the opportunity soon.

Conniff also appears in a Los Angeles-based live stage performance called Cartoon Dump, which I did see. A spoof of those regional children's cartoon shows with live host segments, it features Conniff as Moodsy, an anthropomorphized owl with a severe depression problem, supporting Compost Brite (Erica Doering), the bubbly, over--the-top host. Between sketches, they screen examples of the world's most wretched animation, fished out of a dumpster that is prominently displayed onstage. Occasionally Hodgson steps in to provide the voice of Dumpster Diver Dan, a puppet who roots around in the trash looking for cartoons. It's hit-or-miss, but when it's on, it's pretty hilarious. And some of the cartoons are unbelievable in their awfulness.

Children of MST3K these projects all may be, but I'm happy to report that the original hasn't even begun to pass its sell-by date. It's still just as much fun to revisit over and over again and even the then-current references haven't aged badly. I'm sure some sort of reunion is in the offing—it just has to happen! In the meantime, let me leave you with a prime slice of MSTie deliciousness.

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