‘We’ve Got Movie Sign!’: A Film Geek’s Paean to Mystery Science Theater 3000
Consider the following snippet: “In the not too distant future…”
Does that mean anything to you?
Here’s a bit more: “In the not too distant future, somewhere in time and space…”
By this point, you either know this line or you don’t. If you do recognize it, chances are you’re smiling. If you don’t know it, well, you should.
The line comes from one permutation of the theme song of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show better known as MST3K to those of us who love it. MST3K is to most other cult television shows what The Godfather is to other gangster films, at least those of the non-Scorsese variety. That’s to say it sets a fan-inspiring standard shared only by shows like Star Trek and Dr. Who.
Since its cancellation eighteen years ago, MST3K has remained popular through re-runs, DVD releases, spinoffs such as Rifftrax, The Movie Crew, and Cinematic Titanic, and a new season, due to hit Netflix on April 14.
The MST3K premise is simple: An ordinary guy, Joel, (Joel Hodgson) is forced by mad scientists to watch bad movies, and he pokes fun at them (the scientists and the flicks). Later, the first guy escapes, and another ordinary guy, Mike, (Michael J. Nelson) is also forced by the same mad scientists (but later by one of the scientist’s mothers, along with a sentient chimpanzee and a telekinetic alien) to watch bad movies, and he pokes fun at them, too. Like I said, simple.
The guys are on a spaceship called the Satellite of Love, and their only companions are sentient robots: Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, Gypsy, Cambot, Magic Voice, and Rocket Number Nine. Crow (Bill Corbett in later years) and Servo (Kevin Murphy) are the ones we see the most of during the show, as they sit in silhouette with the host and watch the films.
During the earlier seasons, Joel hosted invention exchanges with the mads, in which they’d trade quirky gizmos like methane whoopee cushions, tongue puppets, a Jack Palance impersonation kit, and one of my personal favorites, Jim Henson’s Edgar Winter Babies. As the show progressed, these exchanges eventually went away, but for the entire run, many of the host segments involved singing, dancing, and educating the bots on some puzzling aspect of human behavior.
My first MST3K exposure was in 1991 during its third season, when I happened across their treatment of 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It was a Sunday night, and I remember coming in about fifteen minutes into the episode. Initially, I thought I’d happened upon some kind of programming mistake: There was a movie playing, after all, but there were irritating shadows in front of the screen, and I couldn’t hear the film dialogue. Once I figured out what was happening and finished the episode, I was hooked and looking for more.
Created by Hodgson and produced by Best Brains in 1988, MST3K first aired on KTMA in Minneapolis, where it ran for a year on public access before being picked up by Comedy Central (née The Comedy Channel) and eventually moving to the Sci-fi Channel until its cancellation in 1999. During its run, Hodgson turned hosting duties over to Nelson, robot voices changed, and production values increased, but not enough to ruin the cheese factor.
Not all MST3K episodes are equally executed. Some installments shine from start to finish (“Space Mutiny” and “The Horror of Party Beach” come to mind), while others have slow spots. But if you’ve ever watched a low-quality movie and felt you could’ve done a better job, you probably get the spirit of the enterprise. And when the riffers are running on all cylinders—whether they’re supplying alternate dialogue, asking pertinent questions of the actors, or singing along with the movie soundtrack—they’re cruising at lightspeed.
One of the other things that keeps the avid fan coming back to MST3K is the running gags, one of the best known being “The Nine Billion Names of David Ryder.” This bit takes place in one of the most popular episodes, “Space Mutiny,” as Mike and the bots rattle off various nicknames for the film’s muscular, lunky hero, David Ryder. This memorable gag, which contains a laundry list of such testosterone-centric names like “Splint Chesthair,” “Thick McRunfast,” “Punt Speedchunck,” and “Blast Hardcheese,” was itself inspired by a running gag from Season 2’s episode “12 to the Moon.”
Apart from all the laughs, silliness, and songs, the true beauty of MST3K is that it manages to poke fun at substandard movies while celebrating them and placing them into their pop cultural context. Sure, most of the movies are stinkers, but the show’s approach is often so earnest—especially on the parts of the bots, who really want to understand the characters’ motivations—that it betrays a love for the phenomenon of movies, whether they’re good or bad.
Now, all these years later, just as the films being riffed were documents of their eras, the MST3K episodes, with their extensive running gags and cross- and sub-referencing, have become cultural artifacts in their own right. Watch the series, for instance, and you’ll eventually encounter four separate references to White House Chief of Staff John Sununu in riffs on films that originally released in 1955, 1957, 1964, and 1965. Similarly, in an episode like “Space Mutiny,” based on a film that borrowed liberally from its own contemporary Battlestar Galactica, the MST3K riffers manage to squeeze in references to Stevie Nicks, Sting, Debbie Reynolds, and God.
Ultimately, though, MST3K all comes down to the comedy, and it’s high grade material. In fact, I occasionally tell people that if I know anything about humor, that knowledge has come from three places: P.G. Wodehouse, Monty Python, and Mystery Science Theater 3000.
So if I’m any good at making things funny, it’s only because I learned from the best.