It all began with a group of misfit comedians and low-budget television producers in Minnesota in the 1980s.
Joel Hodgson, a nationally-recognized prop comic and magician who had the audacity to turn down NBC’s offer for a role in a sitcom not once, but twice, had all but abandoned his career in stand-up after Los Angeles and Hollywood left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. He returned to Minnesota, where he taught classes in comedy and occasionally performed at clubs with some of his students and comedian friends, Josh Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu.
Joel used the time he wasn’t teaching or performing to make props and gag gifts in an old warehouse – a warehouse that happened to be next door to the office of one Jim Mallon, a producer and director on the local public access channel KTMA. The two met and decided that one day they would have to work together. That one day came in 1988, when Jim found he needed to fill a two-hour programming gap with some original content. He approached Joel with the idea of hosting some sort of stand-up comedy competition. Joel had other ideas.
Joel pitched the idea for a show where he would host bad movies – not an original concept of itself – but Joel took it one step further. Using a prop technique he called “Shadowrama”, he would film himself in front of the movie as a silhouette, talking about and to the movie. His original concept involved a man, alone, in a post-apocalyptic world who has conversations with movies in an attempt to stave off loneliness. But the idea seemed too dark, so Joel decided to add in some robot friends and set it in space, a’la “Silent Running (1972)”
Joel contacted his friends Josh and Trace and asked if they would help him puppeteer the robots he created. They built the first “Satellite of Love” set and Joel built the puppets the night before the first shoot. The pilot, a fifteen-minute long short that featured the movie “The Green Slime (1969)” with Joel riffing between host segment breaks, was shown to the general manager of KTMA who ordered 13 full-length episodes at a budget of $250 per episode.
Joel, Jim, Josh, Trace and Jim’s cameraman, Kevin Murphy, made some changes to the design, the basic story, and gave the show a name: “Mystery Science Theater (named after Joel’s prop company, Mystery Science Labs) 3000”.
The first two episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on Thanksgiving Day, 1988. According to Nielson, they garnered an average of 4,000 households viewing – not a lot, unless you happen to be a public access channel.
But nobody knew if the viewers liked it or got the joke. So, when the third episode aired three days later, it was preceded by the announcement of a phone number viewers could call and leave a message about the show. The entire tape was filled within an hour with mixed, but generally positive, reviews.
A month after its debut, the show was featured in an article in the Minneapolis Star & Tribune. People began to tape the episodes and share them with their friends. Joel and The Bots, as they became known, made it a regular part of each episode to share answering machine messages and letters from fans. Eventually Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein would take on multiple on-camera roles: the first as their robot counterparts, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, and the second as two evil mad scientists who launched Joel into space as part of an experiment to break him by forcing him to watch bad movies. The show finally had a premise and a plot – six episodes in.
After the first season KTMA filed for bankruptcy – leaving MST3K, as it became known to its legion of local fans, without a home – but help was on the way. HBO was planning on launching an all-comedy cable network called The Comedy Channel in fall of 1989 and they needed original content, on the cheap. In September the contract was signed. In November MST3K debuted on a national stage.
A new writer was added to the crew, Mike Nelson, and he quickly rose to the role of lead writer. Josh Weinstein, still a teen, would leave the show before Season 2, requiring writer and cameraman Kevin Murphy take over the role of Tom Servo, and Frank Conniff replace the second mad scientist. Over the next several years, MST3K would gain a cult following, spurred on by favorable reviews in everything from USA Today to the New York Times.
In 1993, Joel left the show for a variety of reasons, including some creative disputes with Jim Mallon and a desire to not be in front of the camera, and writer Mike Nelson stepped up as the new dupe in the satellite. Some fans revolted, some fans whined, and some loved it.
The show continued for another five seasons, with Trace Beaulieu leaving and Bill Corbett coming on as the new Crow, before airing it’s final episode ten years after debuting on KTMA. It even spawned a feature film released in theaters – going to the movies to watch people watch movies? It’ll never work.
But that wasn’t the end. Joel went on to form Cinematic Titanic with MST3K veterans Josh Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl. Together they did much of what was done in MST3K: their silhouettes made fun of bad movies. The debut episode was called “The Oozing Skull” – and is available to Amazon Prime Members for free streaming if you follow the link.
Meanwhile, Mike, Kevin, and Bill continued riffing movies in their own way, by making DVD commentary tracks called Rifftrax which they sell independent of the movie – the buyer simply syncs the audio file up with the movie and enjoys both the original content plus the riffing. They also obtained the licenses for several shorts and older, campy, movies – these they offer in DVD form as well as Video-On-Demand on the site.
Yes, they even riffed Casablanca – my favorite movie. And it works.
The show itself survived on Youtube, on torrent sites, and through ancient VHS tapes copied, recopied, and digitized. Shout Factory! sells DVDs of some episodes, as well as offering them up for streaming on Netflix – there are even fan sites with the sole purpose of providing streaming links to every known episode.
This year, as an homage to the 25th Anniversary of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel Hodgson, with the help of Reddit.com, revived the annual “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon” and aired six MST3K episodes on a Youtube livestream.
Speaking of streaming episodes, MST3K has always been an odd-ball in the realm of “piracy”. Early on, and throughout its ten seasons, the end credits of each episode extolled viewers to “Keep Circulating the Tapes” – in an era when television content producers were attempting to prevent the “illegal” recording and sharing of shows on VHS.
This attitude has continued into the modern, digital, era. Youtube and other video sharing sites abound with episodes of MST3K. While they are sometimes, though rarely, taken down – it does not seem to be at the hands of Best Brains or Shout Factory!, but at the hands of the copyright holders for the movies being riffed. Rather than fight piracy, the veterans of MST3K simply ask their fans to also buy legitimate copies when available. Rifftrax, for example, is known for being heavily torrented – primarily because it can be annoying and time-consuming to sync up the riffs to the DVD. The most reliable method involves ripping the DVD to a video file and then carefully adding in the extra audio track – a project that can take several hours. So, it becomes far easier to torrent the already synced file and watch it.
Rather than waste money and resources fighting this, Rifftrax offers a “Donations” page. And if you read the comments on the torrents, nearly every one is a user extolling other downloaders to make a donation.
So what is in the future for the MST3K alumni? Rifftrax is still going strong, but Cinematic Titanic just had their final performance in December. Surely there must be something in the works? They just can’t stop, can they?
But that isn’t what gets us MSTies (the fans) the most excited. It was a simple answer to a loaded question:
User bubbasteamboat asked:
Hi Joel! Thank you for being here. MST3K is a uniquely fabulous show that has obviously withstood the test of time. Under what circumstances can you see bringing it back…maybe instead of on cable, keeping it online?
To which Joel replied:
You know, I would be up for it no matter what comes, but obviously you can’t beat the computer for getting your content right now. Online is really compelling right now.
You read that right…Joel would love to bring MST3K back – and online would be his preferred venue. Of course there are a lot of hurdles to overcome: one is getting Jim Mallon, who owns the rights to the show, to sign off. The state of Joel and Jim’s relationship is unknown – but the lack of collaboration since the split in the 1990s leaves one to question if it is repairable. The other hurdle is where to do it, how to do it, and how to fund it. They would need to build the set, get the gear, and, possibly the most expensive, get the license rights to the movies so they could release them the way they did in the old days.
Impossible? No. Tantalizing? Yes.