Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988–1999), usually abbreviated MST3K, is an American cult television comedy series created by Joel Hodgson and produced by Best Brains, Inc. It features a man and his robot sidekicks who are trapped on a satellite in space and forced to watch particularly bad movies, especially (but not limited to) the science fiction genre. The gimmick of the show is that the man and his robots make a running commentary on the film, making fun of its flaws and wisecracking their way through the film. Series creator Hodgson originally played the stranded man, Joel Robinson. When he left in 1993, series head writer Michael J. Nelson replaced him as new B-movie victim Mike Nelson, and continued in the role for the rest of the show's run.
The format proved to be popular. During its eleven years and 198 episodes (including one feature film), MST3K attained a fiercely loyal fan base, and much critical acclaim. The series also garnered a Peabody Award in 1993.
- 1 Premise
- 2 Background and history
- 3 Reactions
- 4 Characteristic elements
- 5 The cast
- 6 Home video releases
The "plot" of the show never pretended to be anything other than just an excuse for the movie commentary and the comic sketches in between the so-called "host segments."
Two mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester (named after the main character in The War of the Worlds), played by Trace Beaulieu, and his sidekick Dr. Laurence Erhardt, played by Josh Weinstein, launch Joel Robinson (Hodgson), a janitor working for the Gizmonics Institute, into space and force him to watch truly horrible B-movies. They do this in order to measure how much bad movie-watching it takes to drive a person crazy, and to pinpoint the perfect B-movie to use as a weapon in Dr. Forrester's scheme of world domination. Forrester's scheme was that when he found a movie so bad that it broke Joel's spirit, he would unleash it on an unsuspecting populace and turn everyone into mindless zombie slaves. (The sycophantic TV's Frank, played by Frank Conniff, replaced Dr. Erhardt in the second season premiere following Weinstein's departure from the series.)
Trapped on board the Satellite of Love (S.O.L.) — a reference to the Lou Reed song — Joel builds four sentient robots that populate the ship (ostensibly because he is lonely, and as a homage to the 1970s film Silent Running). The robots are Tom Servo (voiced first by Weinstein, then by Kevin Murphy beginning in Season 2), and Crow T. Robot (voiced first by Beaulieu, then by Bill Corbett beginning in Season 8), who accompany Joel in the screening room; Gypsy (voiced first by Weinstein, inhaling as he spoke, then by Jim Mallon and later by Patrick Brantseg, both using a falsetto voice), who does not appear in every episode but handles the "higher functions" of the S.O.L. (such as steering the ship); and Cambot, the recorder of the experiments who is visible only during the opening credits and occasionally interacts with the others. Also making intermittent "appearances" in the show's early years is Magic Voice, a disembodied female voice whose primary role is to announce the start of the first commercial break in each episode.
Joel has no control over when the movies start, for, as the theme song states, "he used those special parts to make his robot friends". He must enter the theater when "Movie Sign" flashes, though, as Dr. Forrester has numerous ways to punish Joel for non-compliance (including shutting off all oxygen to the rest of the ship and electric shocks). As the movies play, the silhouettes of Joel, Tom, and Crow are visible at the bottom of the screen, wisecracking and mocking the movie (a practice they often referred to as "riffing") to prevent themselves from being driven mad.
Just before or after most commercial breaks, Joel (and later Mike) and the bots perform skits, songs, or other short sketch pieces (called "host segments") that are sometimes related to the movie they are watching. These segments sometimes even feature "visits" by prominent characters from a shown movie, such as Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate, "Jan in the Pan" from The Brain That Wouldn't Die, and Mothra from Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. But before too much frivolity can transpire, the "movie sign" lights flash, signaling the resumption of the movie.
Many episodes without movies long enough to fill the show's runtime also include screenings of unintentionally hilarious short films or "shorts", including propaganda-style films from the 1950s, a training film for Chevrolet sales managers, and films intended to teach children about posture or personal hygiene. These are less frequent in later episodes.
Background and history
After being approached by producer Jim Mallon to create a movie-host show to fill time for a two-hour slot on Twin Cities UHF station KTMA-TV (not a cable access channel, as is sometimes reported, but an over-the-air station that continues to exist today as WUCW-TV), Joel Hodgson initially came up with the concept for the "Mystery Science Theatre". Drawing partly on his own comedy act (which he was performing in the area at the time), the show's format was to showcase Hodgson.
In September 1988, Hodgson enlisted Twin City-area comedians Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein to help him shoot a pilot for the show. The robots and the set, in their crudest format, were built overnight by Hodgson. The next morning, shooting commenced, and a 30-minute pilot, in which selections from the 1969 science-fiction film, The Green Slime, were the test subject film. Joel watched the movie by himself, and was aided during the host segments by his robots, Crow (Beaulieu), Beeper, and Gypsum (Weinstein).
Mallon met with station manager Donald O'Conner the next month and managed to get signed up for thirteen consecutive episodes. The show had some slight alterations-- the set was lit differently, the robots (now Crow, Servo and Gypsy) joined Joel in the theater, and a new doorway countdown sequence between the host segments and the theater segments was shot.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered at 6:00 PM on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988 with its first film, Invaders From the Deep, followed by a second episode, Revenge of the Mysterians, at 8:00 PM. Initially, the show's response was unknown, until Mallon set up a phone line for viewers to call in. Response was so great that aside from the first 13 episodes, the station extended the season to 21, with the show running to May 1989. During this time a fan club was set up and the show held its first live show at Scott Hansen's Comedy Gallery in Minneapolis to a crowd of over 600. All success aside, the station's declining fortunes forced it to cancel MST3K.
Comedy Channel/Comedy Central era
Just as its run at KTMA was ending, however, the creators used a short "best-of" reel to pitch the concept to executives at the Comedy Channel, a national cable channel that was then being created. It became one of the first two shows picked up by it. After two seasons there, the Comedy Channel and rival comedy cable network HA! merged to become Comedy Central. During this change, MST3K became the cable channel's "signature series", expanding from 13 to 24 episodes a year, which would continue until its seventh national season, as the show gradually fell out of favor with the network's management.
Comedy Central ran a 30-hour marathon of previous MST3K episodes during Thanksgiving, 1991, including special promos and a "making of" show that featured a behind the scenes look at episode scripting, filming, voicing, and puppet construction.[Citation not needed at all; thank you very much] Bill Corbett, who later was both the voice and puppeteer behind "Crow T. Robot" and "Brain Guy", first stumbled upon MST3K during this marathon and became an instant fan.
The show's run coincided with the growth of the Internet, and numerous fans (MSTies) devoted websites to the series. The Internet also facilitated tape-trading of previous episodes among fans, a practice the show's creators encouraged by including the phrase "Keep circulating the tapes!" in the closing credits of episodes during seasons 2, 3, and 4. Before season 5 started, the practice was discontinued after Best Brains' lawyers alerted them that the phrase may constitute a support of piracy.
There were two official fan conventions in Minneapolis, run by the series' production company itself (zanily called "ConventioCon ExpoFest-A-Rama" (1994) and "ConventioCon ExpoFest-A-Rama 2: Electric Bugaloo" (1996), the second being a misspelled reference to the movie Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo). Some noted celebrity fans of MST3K are film director and producer Steven Spielberg, songwriter-musician Neil Young, musician-composer Frank Zappa (whom the show honored at the end of episode 523 on January 22, 1994, a month after his death), writer-director Paul Schrader, former Vice President Al Gore, Time film critic Richard Corliss, singer/songwriter "Weird Al" Yankovic, actors Emilio Estevez and Neil Patrick Harris, rock band Rush (who mentioned the show in the liner notes of the Counterparts album), and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann.
Change of hosts
When Joel Hodgson decided to leave the series, halfway through season five, an episode was written in which his character escaped from the S.O.L. (after being forced to sit through the Joe Don Baker movie Mitchell). Joel escaped with the help of Gypsy and Mike Nelson (a temp worker hired by Doctor Forrester to help to prepare for an audit from the Fraternal Order of Mad Science), after they discovered an escape pod (amusingly named the Deus ex Machina) in a box marked "Hamdingers". To replace Joel, Dr. Forrester sent Mike up in his place. The series head writer Michael J. Nelson played Mike from 1993 until the end of the series. Debates (sometimes heated) raged in fan forums about who was the better host for quite some time, but in more recent years a consensus has developed among the fanbase that acknowledges that each performer had his merits.
The Mystery Science Theater Hour
Among the many troubles the Best Brains staff had with Comedy Central was the latter's desire to cut the show down to a 60-minute timeslot. As part of this effort, in the summer of 1993, the MST3K staff selected 30 episodes to split into 60 one-hour segments, hosted by Mike Nelson in his "Jack Perkins" persona. The resulting repackaged series was titled The Mystery Science Theater Hour, and its first-run airings of these half-shows ran from November 1993 to July 1994. Reruns continued through December 1994, and it was syndicated to local stations from September 1995 to September 1996.
A feature film, in which Mike and the bots worked over This Island Earth, was released in 1996 during the gap in the show's run between seasons 6 and 7. Unfortunately, Universal Studios invested few resources into the resultant Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. Distributor Gramercy Pictures had a limited advertising budget and put all of their funds into another film, Pamela Anderson's Barb Wire.
The film was never given wide release, instead playing for a limited time in different cities and then moving to another city. The result was that many fans did not even know it had been released.
Sci Fi Channel era
When Comedy Central dropped the show after a seventh season of only six episodes, MST3K's Internet fan-base staged a precedent-setting write-in campaign to keep the show alive. (This included taking contributions from MST3K fans worldwide for a full-page ad in the television trade publication Daily Variety magazine. One notable contributor to the campaign was TV personality and Biography host Jack Perkins, whom Nelson had impersonated on the series several times.) This effort led the Sci Fi Channel to pick up the series, where it resumed with some cast changes and ran for three more seasons.
By this time, Trace Beaulieu, who had played Dr. Forrester and Crow, had already departed the series. Mary Jo Pehl took over the lead "Mad" role as Dr. Forrester's mother, Pearl, who had been featured as a regular in season 7. Her sidekicks were the idiotic, Planet of the Apes-inspired Professor Bobo (played by Murphy) and the highly evolved, supposedly omniscient, yet equally idiotic Observer (AKA "Brain Guy"), played by writer Bill Corbett. Corbett also competently took over Crow's voice and puppetry; with this replacement, the series's entire central cast had changed. In the middle of the first season on the Sci Fi Channel (the eighth national season overall), Mallon handed over the voice and puppetry work for Gypsy to BBI staffer Patrick Brantseg.
At first, Sci-Fi Channel officials mandated that every movie featured on the revived series had to fit within the channel's broad definition of science-fiction (which included horror and fantasy), instead of the varied genres present in past shows. But by the final season this restriction seemed to be loosened, allowing movies such as Girl in Gold Boots, and the Joe Don Baker film Final Justice.
The series finale, Diabolik, premiered on August 8, 1999, although a "lost" episode produced earlier in the season, Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders, was the last new episode of MST3K broadcast on September 12, 1999. Reruns continued on the Sci Fi Channel until January 31, 2004. Including the feature film, in total there were 198 full episodes of MST3K.
As with the run on the Comedy Channel, the Sci-Fi Channel run ended due to a change in management. As a two-hour show involving long negotiations for the use of third-party films, MST3K was a tough sell for networks, despite the fan base and ratings. However, Best Brains insists to this day that they would have loved to run the show forever, and even after 200 episodes there wasn't a shortage of bad films to potentially riff.
- " 11 - Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1999)
- A space traveler and his smart-ass robots watch and crack-wise about bombs like The Brain That Wouldn't Die and The Killer Shrews.
- Cult-ability: Mike Nelson, writer and star (replacing creator Joel Hodgson), recently addressed a college audience: "There was nobody over the age of 25. I had to ask, 'Where are you seeing this show?' I guess we have some sort of timeless quality."
The reactions of those parodied by MST3K has been mixed. Sandy Frank, who held the rights to several Gamera films parodied on the show, was "intensely displeased" by the mockery directed at him. (The crew once sang the "Sandy Frank Song", which said that Frank was "the source of all our pain" and implied that he was too lazy to make his own films.) Because of this, Frank reportedly refused to allow the shows to be rebroadcast once MST3K's rights ran out.
Murphy says that Joe Don Baker wanted to beat up the writers of the show for attacking him during Mitchell.
Kevin Murphy later said Baker likely meant it in a joking manner, although Nelson said he deliberately avoided Baker while the two were staying at the same hotel.
Others have been more upbeat: Robert Fiveson and Myrl Schriebman, producers of Parts: The Clonus Horror, said they were "flattered" to see the film appear on MST3K.
Miles O'Keefe, the star of the film Cave Dwellers, called Best Brains and personally requested a copy of the MST3K treatment of the film.
The crew of Time Chasers held a party the night the MST3K treatment of their film aired. Reactions were mixed, but director David Giancola said, "Most of us were fans and knew what to expect and we roared with laughter and drank way too much. I had a blast, never laughed so hard in my life."
Several unusual elements of Mystery Science Theater 3000 provide a unique feel to the show.
- Theater silhouette
- The theater silhouette — a row of rounded chair tops with Tom Servo, Joel or Mike, and Crow sitting at the right side — is a simple row of rounded shapes cut from black painted foamcore board. Mike (or Joel) and the robot operators sit down in front of these, facing a blue screen. When shot from the back it gives the illusion of sitting in a theater. A photograph of this appears in the book The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. Its characteristic appearance has been used in several works, often as an homage to the show.
- Door sequence
- Featured in most transitions between the theater segments and "host" segments is a camera tracking through a tunnel leading from the bridge of the Satellite of Love into the Mystery Science Theater, or vice versa. Access to the tunnel from the bridge is through a hexagonal doorway, originally decorated with a large, gear-like "G" (for Gizmonic Institute, the original lair of the Mads). As the camera (implicitly Cambot) moved through the opening doorway, a countdown of hatches, decorated with unusual artifacts and numbered "6" through "2" (in the style of a film leader countdown), moves out of its way, finally opening on the theater and the film. The hatches and decorations occasionally changed throughout the series, usually after a production move or cast change.
- Midwestern References
- Many of the riffs and cultural references made by the humans and bots in the show are specific to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, reflecting the origin of the show (filmed throughout its eleven seasons in this area) and the Best Brains staff's Midwestern roots.
- Riff density and callbacks
- Once the Best Brains staff gained some experience from the earlier KTMA shows, they gradually increased the amount of riffing until they estimated they were doing about 700 jokes per 90-minute episode. Many of those riffs are "callbacks", or references to earlier episodes and running jokes.
- Guest characters
- The MST3K cast was occasionally augmented by "guest stars" from the films — characters so memorable that they made interesting visitors to the Mads' lairs or the Satellite of Love. (See "Recurring guest characters" below.) These film characters were always portrayed by Best Brains staffers, giving some screen time to behind-the-camera workers. Other "guests" were real-life people portrayed by MST3K cast and crew. Two, however, were actual celebrities. Minnesota Viking Robert Smith appeared in a season 8 episode as "Howard", a "gift" to Pearl from her ape worshippers. Film critic Leonard Maltin, who had been mercilessly mocked for some of his ratings of MSTied films, gamely appeared as himself in season 9, in a good-humored attempt to help Pearl torture the SOL captives with Gorgo, another film he claimed he liked.
- A brief (generally, three to five seconds) clip from that episode's movie (or occasionally the accompanying short) which played following the end credits of the show. The clip generally highlighted a moment or line of dialogue that the show's writers found to be particularly amusing. The tradition started with the second-season episode featuring Rocket Attack U.S.A., with a shot of a blind man walking down the street, then suddenly stopping to exclaim "Help me!"
- Joel Robinson — Joel Hodgson (1988–1993)
- Mike Nelson — Michael J. Nelson (1993–1999)
- Crow T. Robot — voice and puppetry by Trace Beaulieu (1988–1996), Bill Corbett (1997–1999)
- Tom Servo — voice and puppetry by Josh Weinstein (1988–1990), Kevin Murphy (1990–1999)
- Gypsy — voice and puppetry by Josh Weinstein (1988–1989), Jim Mallon (1989–1997), Patrick Brantseg (1997–1999)
- Cambot — Apparently voiced one time only by Kevin Murphy
- Magic Voice — variously voiced; but as of Season 4 was consistently (more or less) voiced by Mary Jo Pehl. Prop Mistress Beth "Beez" McKeever provided the voice for her two Sci Fi era "appearances".
- Dr. Clayton Forrester — Trace Beaulieu (1988–1996)
- Dr. Laurence Erhardt — Josh Weinstein (1988–1990)
- TV's Frank — Frank Conniff (1990–1995)
- Mrs. Pearl Forrester — Mary Jo Pehl (1994 (1 episode), 1995–1999)
- Professor Bobo — Kevin Murphy (1997–1999)
- Observer ("Brain Guy") — Bill Corbett (1997–1999)
Recurring guest characters
- Jack Perkins (Michael J. Nelson) — in real life the host of the A&E Network's Biography program, Perkins first appeared in MST3K simply to annoy the Mads by describing the movie with glowing praise. When MST3K appeared in syndication as The Mystery Science Hour, Nelson's fake "Jack Perkins" hosted the show.
- Jerry and Sylvia (various actors) — two "mole people" from the movie The Mole People (featured much later as a Season 8 episode) who occasionally assisted the Mads and stopped by for social events. Presumably named after Sylvia and Gerry Anderson, the creative team behind Space: 1999 and Supermarionation shows like Thunderbirds and Stingray, some of which were featured as KTMA-season episodes.
- "Krankor" (Bill Corbett) — a vain, would-be conqueror with an unfortunately chicken-like appearance and a drawn-out, braying laugh, "Krankor" (technically, "The Phantom", dictator of the planet "Krankor" in the movie Prince of Space) appeared in a host segment when MST3K riffed Prince of Space, and returned three episodes later in a host segment for Invasion of the Neptune Men, a movie with a similar plot.
- The Nanites — Self-replicating, bio-engineered organisms that work on the ship, they are microscopic creatures that reside in the S.O.L.'s computer systems. (They are similar to the creatures in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Evolution", which featured "nanites" taking over the Enterprise.) The Nanites made their first appearance in season 8. Based on the concept of nanotechnology, their comical deus ex machina activities included such diverse tasks as instant repair and construction, hairstyling, performing a Nanite variation of a flea circus, conducting a microscopic war, and even destroying the Observers' planet after a dangerously vague request from Mike to "take care of [a] little problem".
- Ortega (Paul Chaplin) — an unintelligible, decrepit, cigar-smoking henchman from the movie The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Ortega recurred probably more frequently in the three Sci Fi seasons than any other "guest character", perhaps because of his similarities to Torgo.
- Pitch (Paul Chaplin) — a devil from the Mexican movie Santa Claus, Pitch was one of the few characters from the Comedy Central seasons to return in the Sci Fi Channel seasons.
- Torgo (Michael J. Nelson) — a rebellious monster henchman (with bad knees) in Manos: The Hands of Fate, Torgo was among the most frequently returning "guest characters" of MST3K. He got his knees fixed and accompanied TV's Frank to sidekick heaven and was never seen again (episode 624 Samson vs. the Vampire Women).
- Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl) — Dr. Forrester's horrible mother appeared once in season six (episode 607 Bloodlust). The character returned in season seven as a replacement for TV's Frank (Frank Conniff), and then became the main villain in the Sci Fi era. This is the only time a guest star was made into a regular character. (Professor Bobo and Observer were added as regulars from their initial appearances.)
- Santa Claus (Kevin Murphy) - Appeared twice on the show, including a fight with Pitch, bellowing, "I'm here to chew candy canes and kick ass, and I'm all out of candy canes!"
- MST3K has only had two non-staffers make guest appearances on the show: Minnesota Viking Robert Smith (as "Howard" in episode 803 The Mole People) and film critic Leonard Maltin (as himself in episode 909 Gorgo). All other guest appearances were filled by a Best Brains crew member or a regular cast member in disguise.
Home video releases
The re-airing of episodes on TV and packaging of episodes for purchase are difficult for MST3K due to rights issues involving the movies featured within the episode. Long negotiations are involved, and some (if not many) episodes are not possible due to dissatisfaction with the mockery made of the film.
Ironically, according to the official website, many of the problems in releasing the episodes is the increased cost of the movie rights thanks to the exposure that MST3K has given them.
Rhino home video released several episodes from the Comedy Central era on VHS in the late 1990s. Although out of print, most are still readily available, except for the episode featuring The Amazing Colossal Man, which was pulled due to rights issues. All other episodes have since been re-released either on single DVDs or as part of the "Collection" series. (see below)
Best Brains also produced VHS tapes including the Play MSTie for Me series, the Tom Servo's Favorite Host Segments series, as well as the Poopie series of outtake collections. They also released several Sci-Fi era episodes that have since been re-released on DVD by Rhino. The last original Best Brains video product was The Last Dance - Raw!, backstage footage from the filming of the final episode of MST3K, Diabolik
Since the show has been off the air since 2004 (and there have been no signs of it coming back), much of MST3K's loyal fanbase rely on DVD releases by Rhino. There have been ten various releases of single movies (one episode, featuring the movie Beginning of the End, was recently discontinued due to rights issues), along with ten "Collection" sets of the show. Collection sets consist of four movies and/or "shorts" DVDs each, and each set may contain movies from any era. There is also an Essentials collection, containing two movies (the previously released Manos: The Hands of Fate and fan favorite Santa Claus Conquers the Martians) and a shorts collection (only available when ordered directly from Rhino). The feature film Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie was released on VHS and DVD in 1998, but the DVD version offered no special features or deleted scenes and was withdrawn from the market in 2000. A fan-produced special edition was released in 2003 containing deleted scenes, trailers and other bonus features. Copies of the discontinued official release sometimes sell on eBay or Amazon.com for upwards of $100.
Recently, some fans have expressed anger and disappointment in Rhino Home Video, due to glitches on discs in Collection Volumes 5, 7 and 8. In one of these cases, Rhino officially announced that the errors were from the original analog master tape and could not be fixed. This led to further criticism over why Rhino would release a DVD knowing it suffered highly noticeable audio and video errors without mentioning the problems earlier, and note that Rhino could have tried to obtain a broadcast copy without said problems or released another episode instead. Rhino responded to these complaints by stating that choosing another film would result in another lengthy process of rights negotiation, further delaying the set's release.
Best Brains themselves have also produced DVDs including Play MSTie for Me Triple Decker (a collection of musical numbers from the show) and Tom Servo's All Time Favorite Host Segments Vol 1 (with bonus Poopie 1). They are available directly from BBI through the Satellite News web site and through mail order.