So in Hannah’s post about Cinema Etiquette, she established some of the behaviour that we all generally find unacceptable at the cinema – things like eating loudly, using mobile phones, hanky-panky in the aisle… it’s not on, people. I totally agree with everything she said, but it made me think of the times when I’ve watched something with friends with the intention of talking over it. You know what I mean – you watch a film you’ve all seen loads of times and you add your own commentary; or you watch a film that you know is spectacularly bad like a B-movie or a unanimously panned film and you just crack jokes and ad-lib over the top. If you’ve never done it you should try it, it’s brilliant fun. If you’re not sure you could do it, or you’d prefer just listen to people do this rather than take part, that’s where Mystery Science Theatre 3000 comes in.
Damn, that’s some fine television. If you’ve never watched an episode, read this post and then scroll down to the end of this page where I’ve linked to a whole bunch of some brilliant episodes that are available in their entirety on Youtube, magically in one piece, not broken into segments of 9 and a half minutes. I absolutely love this show. I can’t explain how brilliant it is, although that’s sort of the point of this post so WATCH ME TRY!
Created by Joel Hodgson in 1988, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was a television series which essentially showed a B-movie with commentary from the shows main characters. The premise was that Joel Robinson (played by Hodgson) had been sent into space on the ‘Satellite of Love’ by an evil scientist, Dr Forrester, and his sidekick Dr Erhardt. They force him to watch terrible movies every day, hoping to find a film which has the potential to drive someone insane thus aiding Dr Forrester’s plan for world-domination. Joel can’t control when the films start or finish – well, that’s not strictly true. If you listen to the original theme tune, you’ll hear this:
Now keep in mind Joel can’t control when the movies begin or end,
Because he used those special parts to make his robot friends
Joel has kind of made his own situation worse, and I don’t know why but that just makes this whole show so much funnier and sweeter; Joel creates Crow, Servo, Gypsy and Cambot to keep him company while he’s trapped on the spaceship, and Crow and Servo join him to watch each film and heckle it. It sounds so basic when it’s written down like that, but it’s so brilliant. The show exploits the hammy acting and sometimes stupid plots of cheap B-movies, particularly low-budget sci-fi films, by the gang’s constant commentary throughout. But it’s a lot more than just a bunch of random characters riffing over a film.
Joel Robinson was a janitor at Gizmonic Institute when his bosses decided to send him up into space on The Satellite of Love as part of an experiment to see whether a truly terrible movie could drive a man insane. Despite his situation, Joel remains fairly laid back and at ease with his situation. His commentary is sarcastic but balances out the ire of Servo’s occasional outbursts and Crow’s stupidity. In series 5, Joel escapes and is replaced by…
Mike (played by Mike Nelson)
I guess that among MST3K fans you might find a debate along the lines of “Kirk or Picard?” but I’m going to have to say that I think Joel and Mike are both brilliant characters. Mike Nelson stepped into the role after Hodgson decided he was uncomfortable with being in front of the camera and had some disagreements over the show’s creative direction and control. The premise of the show remained the same with Mike although some segments were dropped, such as the Invention Exchange due to the fact that Hodgson was the one responsible for coming up with the new props. The robots engage in some light-hearted teasing of Mike, as he is a nice but somewhat dimwitted guy.
Crow T. Robot (originally voiced by Trace Beaulieu, later by Bill Corbett)
Initially, Crow T. Robot (the ‘T’ stands for ‘The’) was sort of sweet, in my opinion, but in the later episodes he’s a bit more bitchy and kind of angry. Either way, he’s always hilarious. Crow is always keen to dress up as characters from whichever film they’re watching, such as the Hell beast from ‘Manos Hands of Fate’. He’s a huge fan of Kim Cattrall and – this is probably my favourite thing he does – he mistakes most animals as cats. According to Wikipedia, Crow consist of: a soap-dish eye cowl, ping-pong ball eyes, a split plastic bowling pin mouth, a hockey face mask webbing, and a Tupperware body. Hodgson created Crow the night before the pilot was filmed. Crazy skills! Crow also has a tendency to get over-emotional, like in this, one of my favourite Crow moments:
Tom Servo (voiced by Josh Weinstein, later by Kevin Murphy)
Servo is cute but cutting. His commentary tends to be more sarcastic than the others, and more cynical too. He’s made out of a little gum ball machine with a skirt made out of a bowl – maybe that’s why he’s so grumpy sometimes. He has a habit of singing along, too; whether it’s the terrible soundtrack of a film, making up a song based on a line that’s just been spoken, or singing a song that exists and is relevant to the scene, Servo will take any opportunity to burst into song – sometimes taking up a whole interval to do so, like in this actually really impressive clip:
or this one:
The other two main robots are Gypsy and Cambot, although they don’t feature as much as Crow and Servo. Here’s a picture of Crow and Servo serenading Gypsy, gondola-style.
The films in each episode are often split into sections, and in each interval the gang leave the screen and do other stuff until the film starts again. This includes sketches, parodies of what they’ve just watched, demonstrations of Joel’s latest inventions, interactions with Forrester and Erhardt and occasionally a musical skit. Here’s an absolutely hilarious moment from the ‘Bride of the Monster’ episode from series 4. At the start of the film, the gang are shown the first half of a short film from 1940 entitled ‘Hired’, a training film for employees of Chevrolet. During the interval, Joel, Crow, Servo and Gypsy put on a little musical treat…
There’s also the Invention Exchange, where Joel would present his invention to Forrester and Erhardt who in return would show him theirs. It was a way to showcase the props and gizmos created by former prop-comic Hodgson. These inventions were mostly stupid and useless, providing solutions to problems that didn’t exist. Here’s one of my favourites, purely for they use the old-fashioned gag in a cool way:
And it’s not just me who loves MST3K. Eagle-eyed fans have uploaded their own sightings of MST3K references in other shows and films on this now-archived website. I especially love that it’s referenced in The Simpsons.
I first discovered MST3K when the feature film, which was released in cinemas in 1996, was shown on television late one night. This is a great place to start for anyone who hasn’t seen the show and wants to see what it’s like – the film featured within the film is ‘This Island Earth’ which has enough action in it for the gang to constantly riff on it without the need for in-jokes, which sometimes happens in other episodes.
I know how stupid it sounds. A bunch of wise-cracking, smart-arses making jokes over a film, but it’s just brilliant. The cast have taken on similar projects since the show ended in 1999, such as Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax which are both definitely worth checking out.