“It’s all based on this simple idea,” explains show creator Joel Hodgson. “That people say shit when they’re watching movies.” That simple idea led, 25 years ago, to one of the most endearing and enduring cult favorites on TV: Mystery Science Theater 3000. And, 25 years later, the show’s popularity is more vibrant than ever, and Portland’s fan base is the most active in the country.
Prop comic Joel Hodgson had bailed out of Hollywood by the late 1980s, and returned to his native Midwest. Finding a home for both his hot-glue gun wielding gizmo construction skills and his concept of a show where people talk back to movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted Thanksgiving Day 1988 on KTMA, an ultra-low budget Minneapolis TV station. The premise: two mad scientists send a regular guy into space, the focus of an evil experiment to gauge a lone human’s capacity to withstand an endless barrage of bad movies. Stranded aboard the “Satellite of Love,” Joel maintains his sanity by building a couple of wisecracking robot pals, and together they mercilessly heckle the movies that are screened before them.
At first ad-libbed, then carefully scripted, Hodgson, along with a growing stable of writers, perfected the art of real-time verbal abuse of bad movies. Called “riffing,” the jokes (somewhere around 700 per episode) can range from crude bathroom humor to obscure cultural references, anything from Jiffy Pop to Pinter plays. All delivered in silhouette superimposed on the bottom of the screen. In between movie segments are “host segments,” featuring various skits (sometimes movie-related, sometimes not), musical production numbers, as well as a glimpse at life onboard the ship, and the curious relationship between the castaways and their Earthbound overlords.
The show’s local popularity led to a shot the following year on the fledgling Comedy Channel, which was to later become Comedy Central. It was a hit there too, and the cable outlet, hungry for programming, quickly made MST3K its centerpiece. Thus began an impressive 10 year run that encompassed nearly 200 episodes (at 2 hours apiece), an unceremonious cancellation followed by a full-blown resurrection thanks to The Sci-Fi Channel, and a complete turnover of on-screen talent, including Hodgson’s own exit halfway through the show’s run, replaced by head writer Mike Nelson. Despite many changes and challenges, the show never once jumped the shark. For 10 glorious seasons, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was never not funny.
And once new episodes were gone for good, it quickly became apparent that the show’s rabid fan base wasn’t going anywhere. A vibrant tape-trading community gave way to a fiercely dedicated online presence — there are countless MST3K fan sites, offering meticulously detailed episode guides and deep background on the most obscure minutia, and pretty much every episode resides copyright challenge-free on YouTube.
I write for one of those fan sites, by the way. Annotated MST is slowly but surely isolating and defining each and every cultural reference made in the show’s 10 year run, one episode at a time. Here’s one of the episodes I annotated:
Fans of the show exhibit a high level of analog sociability, too. In its cable heyday, gathering together in groups to watch new episodes became commonplace, and there were several heartily attended MST3K conventions. Currently there is a network of MST3K Meetup groups, and Portland’s is the largest and most active in the country, with regular screenings of classic episodes at the Lucky Labrador Taproom and Hollywood Library.
The MST3K alumni have branched off into two rivalry-free factions: Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, both of which continue the riffing tradition in slightly different formats. Both groups have performed live (Cinematic Titanic recently retired) and both noticed a key demographic in their audiences: people far too young to have been original fans. Yep, turns out MST3K is a family tradition, handed down from generation to generation.
And this year, in the glow of MST3K’s 25th Anniversary, Joel Hodgson announced he’s exploring the possibility of re-booting the series. Stay tuned.
So – with that hopeful thought in mind and in honor of the 25th Anniversary, I humbly present 25 MST3K episode suggestions. These pretty much cover the arc of the show’s evolution, and the full range of fare that MST3K dug into over the years, from rubber monsters and plastic ray guns, to 1950s teensploitation movies and pre-Apollo trips to the moon, to 1970s made-for-TV stink-bombs.
Episode 104: Women of the Prehistoric Planet
This episode features the final appearance of one of MST3K’s founding Mad Scientists, Josh “J. Elvis” Weinstein, as well as head writer and future host Mike Nelson’s first speaking role (the voice of a killer satellite), and the origin of the MST3K uber-catchphrase “Hi-Keeba!” The 1966 movie is a deeply racist space opera wherein deeply white Earthlings lord it over the backward savages of a distant planet. Spoiler alert: turns out the planet is actually Earth! Damn you all to hell!
Episode 201: Rocketship X-M
A new season begins with the introduction of writer Frank Conniff as Mad Scientist Dr. Forrester’s new assistant “TV’s Frank”, and writer Kevin Murphy as the new voice of robot Tom Servo. The movie is a 1950 standard issue sci-fi adventure that plays fast and loose with astrophysics and plenty of stock footage to tell the story of a bunch of guys and a pretty gal who embark on an expedition to the moon (eXpediton Moon, get it?) but wind up on Mars instead. Whoops. They spend a night camping, clash with the locals, then scamper back home to Earth, where their rocketship crashes and everybody dies. Hugh O’Brian rounds out the cast.
Episode 207: Wild Rebels
This 1967 low-budget biker movie attempts to cash in on both the (then current) popular fear of motorcycle gangs, and the 60’s cinematic love of anti-heroes. Real life failed crooner Steve Alaimo stars as failed stock-car driver Rod Tillman, who stumbles into the employ of a bank robbing biker gang and reluctantly turns police informant. He fails miserably in both endeavors, ultimately accomplishing nothing and learning nothing. Heck of a job, Rod!
Episode 210: King Dinosaur
This 1955 quickie is one of eight films in the MST3K canon directed by “Mr. BIG” Bert I. Gordon, famous for his prolific production of B-grade giant-bug and balding high-schooler movies. Relying heavily on footage borrowed from other films, it tells the story of a group of white American astronauts who discover an Earth-like planet populated by giant reptiles. They respond in the classic fifties American fashion: they blow the place up with an atomic bomb.
Episode 211: First Spaceship on Venus
A 1960 East German/Polish space opera based on the novel The Astronauts by Stanislaw Lem, who also gave us Solaris, this one features a multi-racial/national and mixed gender crew who arrive on the planet Venus only to discover it has been pre-nuked for their convenience. After some of the crew die horribly, the others return to Earth to continue their dogmatic, poorly dubbed anti-nuclear diatribes.
Episode 302: Gamera
From 1965, this is the first of the Japanese Gamera movie series; Gamera being a giant, flying, fire-breathing turtle who is “friend to all children.” Gamera also happens to occasionally destroy large tracts of Tokyo, presumably killing thousands of people, including, presumably, children.
Episode 315: Teenage Caveman
A 1958 Roger Corman effort that clearly came in under budget, this one features future Man from U.N.C.L.E. star Robert Vaughn as a rebellious teenage caveman who defiantly questions caveman law, perhaps because he’s in his mid-thirties.
Episode 319: War of the Colossal Beast
This episode features, hands down, the most popular short in MST3K history: Mr. B Natural, wherein a prancing, Peter Pan-ish “man” with boobs and great legs appears in the bedroom of a preteen boy and convinces him to take up playing coronet in the school band. Hello, therapy. The 1958 movie, another Bert I. Gordon epic, is a sequel to Episode 309: The Amazing Colossal Man, and features a diapered 60-foot tall Glen Manning, who, it turns out, was not killed in the first movie, but has nonetheless begun to decompose. He’s also developed a mighty hankering for baked goods.
Episode 320: The Unearthly
This episode begins with a pair of MST3K’s most beloved shorts: Posture Pals, wherein a trio of status hungry grade schoolers achieve social dominance through improved posture, and Appreciating Our Parents, wherein a young lad gets a mildly hallucinogenic awakening to the value of helping out around the house. What are Mom and Dad doing downstairs after dinner is long over? The dishes, that’s what! Wake up, Tommy! The 1957 movie stars John Carradine as a mad scientist who cures depression by turning his afflicted patients into deformed zombies. But still, the co-pay was only 15 bucks. Also featured is the hulking Tor Johnson, uttering the immortal line “Time for go to bed!”
Episode 322: Master Ninja
This “movie” is actually two jammed together episodes of the failed 1984 TV series The Master, which starred Lee Van Cleef as “the only Occidental American to ever become a ninja,” and, as his young disciple, a nearly incoherent Timothy Van Patton. Van Cleef’s distinctly un-ninjalike gut soon becomes hard to ignore, as does Van Patton’s unsettling predilection for flat-chested extra-petite damsels in distress.
Episode 323: The Castle of Fu Manchu
The MST3K writers have declared this one the most difficult film they ever tackled: “we NEVER knew what was going on.” From 1969, it features a decidedly Occidental Christopher Lee in his final appearance as the decidedly Asian supervillain Fu Manchu, in a decidedly convoluted plot to dominate civilization. Something about opium crystals and/or a machine that freezes Earth’s oceans. And there’s a DIY heart transplant surgery performed with everyday items found around the house. It’s fun!
Episode 402: The Giant Gila Monster
This episode features a loving tribute to that golden era when public intoxication was funny, celebrating such “funny drunks” as Crazy Guggenheim, Dean Martin, and Otis from The Andy Griffith Show. The 1959 movie features teenagers, hot rods that look like bathtubs on wheels, sock hops, a forced perspective giant reptile, nitroglycerine, and of course, funny drunks, one of whom is a “famous disc jockey.” Freshen that up for you?
Episode 403: City Limits
This episode features Joel’s deft use of an umbrella in silhouette to hide a bit of brief nudity on the screen. The movie is a 1985 low budget post-apocalypse saga wherein teenagers, synthesizers, motorcycles and mullets converge upon the aligned low points in the careers of James Earl Jones, Robbie Benson, and Kim Cattrall, to whom Crow T. Robot sings an ardent ode of love.
Episode 404: Teenagers from Outer Space
This 1959 movie is one of eight riffed by MST3K that use Bronson Canyon, in the Los Angeles Griffith Park area, as a location. It’s the story of a group of middle-aged teenagers, sporting v-neck/turtleneck hybrid sweaters enhanced with masking tape and wielding dime-store toy ray guns, who’ve been sent to Earth to scout for grazing land for their “Gargon herds.” Gargons, it turns out, look a lot like lobsters. Just regular old lobsters, too, they didn’t even glue fake wings on them or anything.
Episode 424: Manos: The Hands of Fate
Thanks to MST3K pulling it out of obscurity, Manos: The Hands of Fate now ranks high on any newly forged list of The Worst Movies Ever Made. It’s the 1966 work of Texas fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren, who literally made the movie on a bet, using his own money ($19,000) and however many friends and volunteers he could scare up. No one on the cast or crew had a lick of acting or filmmaking experience, and it’s all up there on the screen. Manos is currently enjoying an afterlife most movies of its kind could never hope for. A relatively undamaged print was recently found – it’s being restored frame-by-frame, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, to be http://www.manosinhd.com/released on Blu-ray. At Comic-cons around the country, people dress up as characters from the film, and there’s Manos: The Hands of Felt, a live puppet show interpretation. Manos has become the Gold Standard for bad movies, and MST3K saw it first. Well, except for a handful of people in Texas in 1966.
Episode 512: Mitchell
A pivotal episode that had fans on the edge of their seats: not because of the movie, but because in this episode, Joel escaped from the Satellite of Love, and was replaced by new host Mike Nelson. All went well, and a new era began. In the 1975 movie, Joe Don Baker is Mitchell, a bloated beer-soaked police detective who plays by his own sloppy baby-oil slathered rules. Rumors circulated that Joe Don Baker was angered by his treatment at the hands of MST3K, and vowed revenge, just as soon as he sobered up.
Episode 515: Alien from L.A.
To fill time during the movie’s lengthy end credits, Mike and Crow engage in a fierce battle to determine who is more into totally femmy movies, such as Fried Green Tomatoes or Beaches. It was a draw. The 1988 white South African movie demonstrates that, as an actress, supermodel Kathy Ireland makes a great supermodel. A halfhearted attempt to 80s up Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, the story involves an underground totalitarian society, which looks very industrial warehouse-y and seems to be populated with a lot of white South Africans.
Episode 610: The Violent Years
This episode begins with another favorite short: Young Man’s Fancy is a prime example of corporate America’s happy willingness in the 1950s and 60s to bankroll thinly veiled commercials that were inserted into high school curriculums coast to coast. It’s the story of teen girl Judy, who’s able to contain her “squishy” hormones only with the help of modern kitchen appliances, and is thus able to cook her way into the heart of the college boy of her dreams. The 1956 movie presents the argument that if parents make the mistake of having a life of their own, they risk driving even an innocent young daughter into a life of violent juvenile delinquency. Point taken.
Episode 614: San Francisco International
The pilot of a failed 1970 TV series, this “movie” rolls out an assembly line of B-list made-for-TV movie actors struggling to keep the whole thing propped up between commercial breaks. Pernell “Adam Cartwright from Bonanza” Roberts plays a smug, strutting airport administrator who does “my job, my way.” When the show went to (short lived) series, his job was filled by Lloyd Bridges, who went on to parody the role in the 1980 comedy movie Airplane!
Episode 702: The Brute Man
This episode showcased writer Mary Jo Pehl as Dr. Forrester’s domineering mother, Pearl. Dr. F’s reaction to seeing her go out on a date is a classic: “Oh, well. He’s not the first oily man that’s taken Mom to the mat.” The 1946 movie is practically an autobiography of star Rondo Hatton. Once voted “handsomest boy in high school,” Hatton was diagnosed with acromegaly, a pituitary gland disorder that causes extreme disfigurement of the head, face, and hands. After a bout of suicidal depression, Hatton was discovered by Hollywood, and went on to play a series of roles as brutish thugs in B-movies. The Brute Man was his final film.
Episode 801: Revenge of the Creature
After MST3K was rescued from cancellation by The Sci-Fi Channel, this episode brought writer Bill Corbett into the role of Crow T. Robot, along with many other new characters and concepts. The 1955 movie is a sequel to the much better Creature from the Black Lagoon, and presents the standard 1950s B-movie protocol for dealing with breakthroughs in the field of zoology: capture it, enslave it, then shoot it.
Episode 812: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies
This one has it all: the work of grim and greasy low budget film auteur Ray Dennis Steckler, who turns the camera on himself for quite a lot of this 1964 movie, we get a doughy salesman lured to his death by carnies, lots of incomprehensible dialogue, a roller coaster ride, more carnies, extremely overdressed hoochie-koo dancers, and deformed zombies who may or may not have been carnies. A fatal police shooting in a rustic Pacific coastal setting, and we’re done.
Episode 822: Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
This one presented a challenge for the MST3K writers: the star of the movie was the talented, respected, and recently deceased Raul Julia. They managed to riff away, just the same. Shot on videotape (and it shows!) this 1983 made-for-Public TV movie was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and was first broadcast over New York’s PBS affiliate, even though, thanks to never actually being finished, there were gaping plot holes.
Episode 902: Phantom Planet
This 1961 movie is practically a blueprint for the low budget Americans-in-space sci-fi epics of the 1950s and 60s. A hunky, thick-headed flyboy and his wormy, philosophical sidekick find their way to a distant planet. The wormy guy dies on impact. After a suitable interim of insulting local customs and wooing local gals, hunky guy hightails it back home, leaving a trail of freedom, democracy, and casualties in his wake. USA!
Episode 1013: Diabolik
In the final MST3K episode, the host segments clearly overshadow the movie, which wasn’t particularly hard to do. It’s a 1968 Franco-Italian 007 wannabe, except the hero is an international super-thief, complete with an underground lair and a girlfriend with an impressive collection of wigs. After 10 seasons on basic cable, MST3K closed up shop with Pearl and her minions finding work elsewhere (“Look, Nelson – move on. I am.”) and Mike and the bots packing up and bracing for a crash-landing back on Earth. Once on the ground, they move into a garden level apartment together and settle in to…watch movies.