I recently went to “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live: The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour,” which like the presidential primary also features robot puppets—or is it puppet robots?—making a mockery of things. Now, just a few weeks later, the archives of Mystery Science Theater 3000 make excellent viewing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Known by its acronym, MST3K began riffing on bad movies in the late 1980s. The premise is that the protagonist is imprisoned on a space station and trying to keep his sanity while being forced to watch cheesy movies as part of a twisted experiment.
Each episode consists of a terrible film being mocked via voiceover by the hero and his robot friends, with occasional interludes outside the theater, during which they and other characters interact. In a time of quarantines and social distancing, this oddball premise has become more relatable.
MTS3K has cultivated a loyal fanbase that has seen it through cast changes and several cancellations. The series began on a local Minnesota television station before being picked up by the precursor to Comedy Central, and later by the Sci-Fi channel. After lying dormant for more than a decade, the show was revived by crowdfunding from fans and found a new home on Netflix in 2017, only to be dropped after two seasons.
Will its fans be able to revive MST3K once again? Based on the excellent live show I saw, I expect it will find another home. It deserves to. In the meantime, Netflix is still hosting some episodes, and more episodes and excerpts are officially available for free, albeit with ads, on YouTube.
Billed as the last live tour for MST3K creator and original main character Joel Hodgson, the evening’s entertainment was no nostalgia trip. There were a few call-outs to the series’ history, but the focus was on putting on a great show with fresh material from a new cast (other than Joel).
The bill of fare consisted of a “Karate Kid” knock-off called “No Retreat, No Surrender,” in which Bruce Lee’s ghost (who bore no resemblance to Lee, living or dead) trains a kid in martial arts. It was as bad as it sounds, and casting a young Jean Claude van Damme as the villain’s muscle couldn’t save this turkey from being roasted by Joel and his robot friends. I laughed a lot, as did everyone else in the audience.
The bots, particularly Tom Servo and Crow, remain essential to MST3K, which has always been more than just a funny commentary track added on top of terrible films, a la the Rifftrax work of some MST3K alums. The bots have been brought to (mechanical) life by a few different puppeteers each, but they have been developed as characters, not just vehicles for delivering jokes.
Of course, the jokes are great, and from bad car chases, fight scenes, and special effects to terrible acting, writing, and directing, the MST3K crew has mined laughs from the depths of cinematic failure. Some lines (e.g. “every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photograph”) stand up on their own, while others rely on timing for their punch (e.g. “No, not liturgical dance!” was hysterical at a very specific point of a very bad film).
But the premise of MST3K leaves room for interactions between the experimental subject, his robot buddies, and his mad scientist overseers. That is what made the show so special.
These host segments gave the cast space outside of mocking the film de jour, and they used it for gags, sketches, and even songs. Although the show’s low budget was apparent, these interludes were often quite funny, and provide necessary breaks during superlatively awful films (e.g. the infamous “Manos: The Hands of Fate”). Perhaps most importantly, they allow the characters to be, well, characters.
MST3K is the professional perfection of the amateur experience of riffing on bad art, which is never just about the jokes. Rather, it is also about the shared experience of finding humor while suffering through a terrible film. The riffs on cinematic dumpster fires are the body of the show, but the heart is found in the host segments. As we laugh with the characters, we are drawn into their camaraderie. Watching MST3K feels like watching bad movies with friends.
This sense of fellowship is the secret ingredient that made the show so beloved, and in the pre-streaming era it was bolstered by the injunction to “keep circulating the tapes” that closed many episodes. MST3K was quietly going viral back in the VHS days, as fans would record, copy, and share episodes. Even in the digital age fan uploads often include bits of old commercials that weren’t cleanly cut out of the footage.
Of course, watching the worst movies that can be found is not for everyone, even when the films are accompanied by hilarious commentary. Like eating spicy food or distance running, some people find it masochistic rather than rewarding.
Given this intrinsic limit to the potential audience, part of the show’s success may be attributed to keeping things no more than PG-13 (often less) and generally steering clear of the political and cultural preachiness lately in vogue in comedy. Not that politics and culture are off-limits, but the show avoids wantonly alienating large portions of the public, preferring to thank the authors of the First Amendment rather than lecture the audience.
MST3K was not out to save the world; its creators knew that it was just a show so they should really just relax. They did, and apparently had a lot of fun while turning cinematic trash into comedy gold for our amusement. Here’s hoping that the show goes on. In the meantime, re-watch some episodes, or, if you haven’t seen it, give it a try while waiting the virus out.