On Tuesday, June 28th, 2016, multiple casts of Mystery Science Theater 3000 joined in Minneapolis, MN for a live reunion streamed across the country via Rifftrax, a venture led by the show’s head writer and second host, Mike Nelson, second (and definitive) Tom Servo, Kevin Murphy, and second Crow T. Robot, Bill Corbett.
But let me take a step back.
If you’re not in the know, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is about a man trapped in outer space on a craft called the Satellite of Love and is forced to watch bad movies by an evil scientist. To survive these experiments, the man makes fun of the movies with the help of his robot companions that he built (Joel) or inherited (Mike). The show’s opening credits explain the premise, too.
The concept exists purely to watch a movie with running comedy commentary. The show ran from 1989 to 1999, starting first on a local Minneapolis TV station, KTMA, then transitioning to the precursor of Comedy Central (originally called “The Comedy Channel”), and finally to the Sci-Fi channel before it was cancelled. MST3k is the brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who portrayed the series’ first hapless test subject Joel Robinson. Joel hosted the show until midway through the 5th season when Mike Nelson stepped into the role of “Mike Nelson” and replaced Joel on the SoL. The opening was modified when Mike took over. But the premise remained the same: make fun of bad movies.
Over the course of the show, many performers came and went. Originally, the mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (portrayed by Trace Beaulieu who also voiced Crow T. Robot), was assisted by Dr. Ernhardt (played by writer/comedian Josh Weinstein) who disappeared after the first season on the Comedy Channel. He was replaced by TV’s Frank (played by writer/comedian Frank Conniff). Weinstein also voiced and worked the puppet for Tom Servo, Joel’s bubble gum machine headed robot, and writer/performer Kevin Murphy assumed control of the bot until the show’s end in 1999. After Joel left in season 5, Frank Conniff departed at the end of season 6. Frank was effectively replaced by writer Mary Jo Pehl who played Dr. Forrester’s mom, Pearl. Trace Beaulieu left at the end of the abbreviated 7th season, which was also the last season on Comedy Central. Pearl Forrester became the primary “villain” when the show moved to Sci-Fi and writer/comedian Bill Corbett joined the show to assume the role of Crow and a new character called Observer or “Brain Guy” who worked with Pearl.
After the show ended in 1999, the various writers and performers went their separate ways. Joel worked in Hollywood on various projects. Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, and Josh Weinstein all worked in LA as writers on various shows and projects. Mike Nelson wrote a few books as did Kevin Murphy.
But in 2006, Mike worked for a small film studio called Legend Films and they asked him to do movie commentary on a few movies in their catalogue like Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness. They came up with an idea to do movie commentary ala MST3k, but via tracks recorded separately that could be synced to avoid needing to acquire movie licenses. They called it Rifftrax. Nelson eventually brought along his buddies Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.
Joel also still had the movie riffing bug. He, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, and Josh Weinstein formed Cinematic Titanic, which toured the country doing live movie riffs. The Rifftrax gang also started doing live movie riffs, but streaming them live to theaters throughout the country via Fathom Events.
Meanwhile, MST3k is living a new life on DVD and in streaming through a company called Shout Factory. Once Cinematic Titanic ended, Joel worked with Shout Factory to reacquire the rights to MST3k. Seeing opportunity through Kickstarter, Joel ran the most successful campaign in the history of the platform to create a new season of MST3k. A new young writer and comedian, Jonah Ray Rodrigues, who works for Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist, has been named the new host.
Wow. That was a big step back.
The MST3k reunion hosted by Rifftrax was also that enterprise’s 10th anniversary and its 20th live show. Mike, Bill, and Kevin were joined by Joel, Trace, Frank, Mary Jo, Bridget Nelson (Mike’s wife, who played many roles on MST3k over the years and has riffed with Mike and Mary Jo on Rifftrax), and Jonah Ray. Josh Weinstein chose not to participate.
Over the years, MST3k fans have fallen into various camps. Joel fans vs. Mike fans. Trace fans vs. Bill fans. Old vs. young. All a lot of nonsense really. MST3k is about making fun of bad movies. The talented writers and comedians who contributed to the show over the years only heightened the show’s reach and creativity. While I’m more a fan of Mike’s era on the show, there are some truly hilarious episodes during Joel’s tenure on the show. Sometimes Joel’s delivery alone moves a funny line to hilarious. Take this example from his final episode, Mitchell.
And I’ve never seen much point in comparing Trace and Bill’s runs on Crow T. Robot; they’re different, but hilarious in their own right. Trace’s Crow is a puckish, self-absorbed clown. Bill’s Crow has more attitude, but is insecure and prone to outbursts of rage.
Despite whatever divisions exist in the fan base, the reunion was full of nothing but good laughs and cheer. The writers and comedians who created and perfected this brand of comedy led the way by being funny. It was like a college reunion of good friends. Comedy is content, but there’s also an alchemy in personality. I felt glad just to watch them perform together. They can make one another laugh in ways that felt genuine and part of the live experience. This was never more evident than at the end when all performers appeared on stage together for a “Riff-a-palooza.”
The show opened with Mike, Kevin, and Bill riffing an educational short film for kids called “The Talking Car.” It sounds cute enough, but the eponymous talking car is a regular car with a pair of animated eyes and a mouth. A little boy almost gets hit by a car and his dreams are then haunted by three talking cars. It’s quite horrific, but the jokes were pretty sharp.
Mary Jo and Bridget followed up with a riff of an old sales short about fancy kitchens? I guess. It was called “A Word to the Wives” and it starred the dad from A Christmas Story. I confess, I think just about anything Mary Jo says is hilarious. Her delivery is always just the right mix of biting and “gee, gosh.”
Next up, Trace and Frank tackled a short film called “More Dates for Kay.” It’s such a strange short that I’m not exactly sure how to describe it. Basically, a young woman isn’t very popular, so she began a social outreach campaign that seemed an awful lot like hooking… Frank and Trace help make those connections for you in case you missed them. This was the strongest individual riffing team and effort in my opinion.
Mike, Kevin, and Bill came back out and took on a hilariously melodramatic short called “Shaking Hands with Danger.” It was made by the Caterpillar construction equipment company and is all about negligent men injuring or killing themselves in various implausible scenarios. The guys also took the opportunity during this window to show a greatest hits reel of Rifftrax over the years as well as formally introduce their senior co-writers, Conor and Sean.
Finally, Joel and Jonah took the stage. Jonah was still an unknown quantity. With the new show coming soon, I was very interested to see how he performed. I also wanted to see Joel perform again. I attended one of the Cinematic Titanic shows when the troupe appeared at George Washington University and thought he was great with the live audience. The good news is that Jonah is a natural. I was a little bit nervous about him, but after hearing his performance, he’s a solid riffer with a great delivery. He did screw up a riff, but it set up Joel for a great live moment. When Bill introduced them, he took a moment to thank Joel for creating movie riffing. A nod to the founder in this time of reflection and transition was especially needed.
The final segment was, like I noted earlier, a massive riff with all of the guests. They riffed a short film of the original Superman serial starring George Reeves. This one was particularly interesting because it was paid for by the government as an ad for postage stamp bonds… the connection between Superman and the stamps was tenuous at best.
But just when we thought the night was over, the Rifftrax crew wrangled everyone back on stage for one final riff. It was a short film from the highly popular “At Your Fingertips” series. This one was focused on Grass. Yep. Grass. If you’ve never seen one of these things, it’s entirely about how kids can make things with grass. What can you make with grass? Everything, apparently. Even things that no normal person would ever want to make with grass. It made for strong riffing material and a great finish.
When it was over, my mouth hurt. I had been smiling and laughing for two hours straight. The mark of a good night.
At the press conference before the reunion, the riffers were asked about which MST3k episode they liked which doesn’t come up much. An underrated episode. Mike responded almost immediately to say he really enjoyed The Girl in Gold Boots (a Season 10 entry about a country girl who becomes a “dancer” in LA, which I rather enjoy, too). Joel posed a question back to everyone regarding the famous (possibly most famous) episode of MST3k Manos: The Hands of Fate a movie during Joel’s run that ranks near the top of worst films on the show and ever made. Joel asked what everyone thought of it. He noted that he knows it’s regarded as a fan favorite, but he doesn’t think it’s a particularly strong riff. He didn’t understand why it’s so well regarded.
Allow me to respond.
I think Joel is forgetting about the MST3k “fiction.” Remember that the show is about a guy who has these terrible movies inflicted on him. When the staff happened upon Manos, they clearly recognized how terrible the movie is. In the episode, both TV’s Frank and Dr. Forrester apologize for sending the movie even though it’s their job. Throughout the episode, the bots break down over how terrible it is. Even Joel, who was normally easy-going and laid back, screamed at the movie during an interminable scene where characters just looked at one another. His line was, “DO SOMETHING!” if I remember correctly.
But my point is that the episode is not necessarily remembered for the stellar riffing on the material (which, in my humble opinion, is still quite good). No, it’s remembered as a fantastic overall episode. And in the fiction of the show, this poor guy has to watch this awful movie. I feel like the MST3k audience perceives Joel/Mike and the bots as a shield against the movies on the show. If nothing else, that’s how I perceive them. They’re on the front line, exposed to the movie up close and personal. And so I think MST3k fans have sympathy for the characters as they’re exposed to this awful movie.
It’s even more than that, though. Frank Conniff noted how the show brought Manos out of obscurity and it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s such a remarkably strange movie. Bad, yes, but it has such unique characters. Of course, the most notable character, Torgo, is so weird, off-putting, and unique that he can’t help but be memorable. In fact, the character left such a strong impression that Mike Nelson portrayed Torgo out of the theater for a couple of seasons.
Anyway, my main point is that, as goofy as the premise is, fans bought into the idea that Joel and Mike are forced to watch these movies. As such, the episodes have to be taken in totality, not just the riffing. Because Manos is recognized as a very bad movie, it stands out for fans because of that fact. They identified with the plight of the characters.
Manos was also the first movie to be so oppressively bad and disturbing. Yes, there was King Dinosaur, Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Manchu, and Monster A Go-Go, but Manos really is in a category all its own. I’ll be honest, I think Invasion of the Neptune Men is worse mostly because Manos is at least watchable in a “car accident” kind of way, whereas Neptune Men is boring, repetitious, and punishingly inept in every possible way. But Manos was also shown at a time when MST3k’s popularity was reaching its peak, meaning a lot of people saw it. King Dinosaur and Time of the Apes are more like deep tracks.
I hope Joel and his new writing staff and performers remember this as they finish crafting the new season. Movie riffing is absolutely the number one ingredient in making MST3k, but the creators would be wise to remember how much the audience commits to the fiction that frames the riffing. Some of my favorite MST3k episodes feature the characters breaking down throughout the movie like Manos, Wild World of Batwoman, any Coleman Francis movie, Invasion of the Neptune Men, and Hobgoblins. I’m sure there are more, but those are the ones that come to mind. I just think it lends credence to the premise when the characters occasionally get mad about the movies inflicted on them they can’t control. Therefore, that’s why I would suggest Manos is so beloved to Joel. It’s not the riffing specifically, but the fact that the audience is “in it” with Joel and the bots.