Thirty years ago a quirky little show had its rough debut on a Minneapolis local TV channel called KTMA. The premise was simple: a man watches some of the worst films ever made and supplies humorous commentary, accompanied by his two robot companions, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo.
It took a couple seasons to work out the formula, but once they did Joel Hodgson, Jim Mallon, Trace Beaulieu, and the rest of the “Best Brains” crew had a genre-defining show on their hands. From 1988 to 1999, across 11 seasons (including the embryonic and now hard-to-find KTMA episodes), the cast of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” reviewed nearly 200 films, while the cast and crew slowly changed.
Hodgson stepped down as host midway through season five to pursue other projects, replaced by head writer Mike Nelson. Beaulieu, the original voice of Crow T. Robot, left at the end of season seven and was replaced by writer Bill Corbett. After seven seasons with Comedy Central, the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, while a feature film was released in theaters in April 1996. But the basic premise of a man and two robots riffing on terrible or cheesy films remained the same all the way up to the end.
Now, three decades after its debut, MST3k, as it’s affectionately known, has legions of fans around the world, has spawned innumerable imitators and successors (most notably a revival series on Netflix and the web-series “Rifftrax” featuring the latter-day cast of the show) and its legacy is showing no sign of slowing down. So, what makes this show continue to attract people 30 years later?
Carefully Timed, Smart Jokes
Part of it is, of course, simply the humor; a group of very talented, very funny people reacting to some of the strangest and poorest films ever made. The Best Brains developed a distinct style of comedy, blending encyclopedic knowledge of cultural and entertainment subjects with clever wordplay and precision timing. They generally didn’t simply override the film, but carefully matched the gags to the events on screen, so what was said and what was happening came together to form the complete joke.
As the letters the cast used to read at the end of each episode demonstrated, the show made many, many people happy, and gave countless viewers a smile when they needed it most. That alone is worthy of commendation. But the show probably wouldn’t have found the audience it has if it weren’t for another factor: the jokes are not just funny, they’re often extremely smart, playing on cultural reference points that most of the audience won’t even get, but those who do will laugh twice as hard.
This doesn’t just appeal to the viewers. It also serves as a kind of cultural time capsule. Part of the MST3k “formula” was the writers’ vast knowledge of cultural and entertainment subjects. Since each episode was so long—about 90 minutes—each probably averaged well more than 100 individual jokes. These ranged over nearly every subject imaginable, from history and religion to politics and pop culture.
Thus, in a single episode, we could have references to “Gilligan’s Island,” Oktoberfest, the Clarence Thomas hearings, Batman, the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, the Vietnam War, “The Great Race,” the Nuremberg Trials, the Nativity, “Twin Peaks,” and Jimmy Durante. Very few viewers would get all the esoteric references on a first viewing, and many would be inspired to seek out the reference. So the attentive MST3k viewer would find himself exposed to a whole host of cultural, entertainment, and historical touchstones that he might never have known of otherwise. To watch a single MST3k episode is to receive a crash course in American culture of the 1990s.
Introducing an Element of Good Judgment
Now, the value of that culture, or of any element of it, is up for dispute, another large part of the show’s appeal. It’s about characters who are force-fed the “worst” that Hollywood has to offer, and respond by mocking and deriding the films. It shows the viewers, essentially, that they don’t have to take what the culture gives them.
Or, rather, it reminds us that we, the audience, are fundamentally in charge. We decide whether a film gets watched and what reception it will receive. The artists, filmmakers, and arbiters of taste can put out whatever they want, but ultimately it is the viewer who accepts or rejects it.
On that subject, there are the movies themselves, which are among the strangest, most incompetent, most absurdly conceived films ever made. Whether meant to fill out the second half of a double bill or churned out by ambitious would-be filmmakers working on a shoestring budget, the films featured on MST3k covered all genres and all decades from the 1930s to the 1990s, from cheap-o horror and sci-fi flicks to ill-conceived dramas and crime films, to big-budget, badly dubbed Russian fantasy epics.
However, there is another side to this dynamic. Ironically enough, by presenting these trashy films to the world through their irreverent lens, the Best Brains ensured that they would be seen. They didn’t just give people something to laugh at, they also helped to uncover and keep alive the work of hundreds if not thousands of people.
Bringing Lost Shows to a Wide Audience
To take perhaps the most famous example: the season four episode featuring the film “Manos: the Hands of Fate” is widely regarded as the show’s finest hour, with surely one of the worst films of all time as its subject. At the heart of the movie is the character Torgo, the big-kneed caretaker of “the Master,” whom both the Brains and the audience immediately latched onto for his strange, stuttering performance and bizarre movements.
After the episode was aired, of course, the once ultra-obscure film became famous and the story of its making was uncovered. Torgo was played by an actor named John Reynolds, a young man who suffered from depression and tragically took his own life shortly after the filming wrapped.
Following the movie’s appearance on MST3k, his performance became so popular that fans tried to get him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Later, when Rifftrax did a new roast of “Manos” for one of their live shows, Torgo’s appearance drew cheers from the crowd.
Think about that: this was the actor’s only film role before he took his own life. For 30 years, it was seen by practically no one, and seemed doomed to disappear entirely. Today, that same performance is so beloved that his very appearance draws cheers.
Nor is this the only example. Although several of the filmmakers and actors featured on MST3k did take offense at the ribbing (and the Brains arguably went too far at times), others embraced the joke and found a new generation—or, for many, their first generation—of fans. People who had struggled through a cheap film shoot decades before with little compensation and no appreciation now were asked for interviews and autographs. In one way or another, they had brought joy to audiences, which is precisely what entertainers are meant to do.
There are two things to remember about movies: first, that they only survive as long as people watch them. Second, that you never know what may inspire someone, or touch them, or just hit a note with someone in the audience if only it has the chance.
By presenting these ridiculous, horribly made films to the world, MST3k gave them that chance. That, more than anything, I think is its noblest legacy: it not only kept these films alive, but helped to spawn an entire industry based around finding and preserving films that don’t have any apparent value.
This allowed the work of thousands of people to be seen and appreciated. In spite of the ridicule, it showed that even some of the worst films ever made still have value.