For most of us these days, our exposure to the kind of localized television that Horror Hosts grew out of was an incredibly idiosyncratic, mid-western program that was as difficult to describe as it was to see early on. When I first heard about it in 1994, there was essentially one video tape – Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, recorded by a friend of mine – that I could use as a reference point. In spite of searching (and finding) plenty of people online who each had scores of these kinds of tapes in their personal collections, the idea that this was a show, and was on week after week, absolutely perplexed me.
It wasn’t much later that the local FOX affiliate in Eugene, OR ran The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Hour on Sunday’s, not only giving me a chance to actually see this show, but to become a fan, too. By the time the Movie came out a bit later, I was hooked. But I came into the show nearly at the end. By the time I was seeing new episodes as they were being aired in the late ’90’s, Mike was the host, the voices of all the bots had all changed, and the Mads were a whole new group of characters I was sort of unfamiliar with. And the clock was running out. Their riffs and jokes were not only so insular as to make it slightly impenetrable for people unfamiliar with the show and their many running gags and jokes. (Not to mention the rapid-fire pace they would lob jokes at you. It wasn’t long before they would be canceled, not even able to make it into the 21st Century, let alone to the 2990’s.
Still, MST3K managed to synthesize all the lessons of localized television and brought us a show with that kind of sensibility, which not only made it to cable and, to some degree, mainstream acceptance. It owes everything to the home-spun aesthetic that was pioneered by people like Ghoulardi & Vampire, but with their own sci-fi take on what is funny about shitty movies and TV. The sets were laughable. The robots were made out of junk-store parts. There were essentially three people making the show for most of the time it was on the air, with a handful of writers and crew members to make sure there were scripts and props and whatnot. This hand-made quality not only endeared fans, but spoke to the heart of the show: we are going to evoke huge, sci-fi concepts with a few cheap sets and a whole lot of imagination, just like the movies we show. In a sort of post-modern version of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, MST3K (somehow) managed to last for 11 seasons, almost 200 episodes, and spread out over three broadcast homes. It’s an impressive feat for such a unique show, born directly out of Horror Hosting and late night features.
While MST3K is not a Horror show in particular, nor is it even that scary of Halloweeny (their holiday of choice is Thanksgiving, where you can sit around and gorge yourself on bad movies), there is a long tradition of Science Fiction getting lumped in with horror, and I usually try to squeeze in at least one “invaders from space” movie ’round this time of year. Their dedication to the same kind of aesthetics and ideas of a Horror Host, however, are present in every aspect of the show, and they may well have been the last of their kind to start in cable access and make it to the big time.
For those who have not seen it, it’s premise is a sort of hybrid of Silent Running and Robinson Caruso (in Space). “Joel Robinson” works for Gizmonic Institute, a place largely managed by Mad Scientists, who then launch Joel into space in order to inflict terrible movies on him, in a search for the worst film imaginable, with which they can use to take over the world. Joel, to help beat the loneliness, has built four robots out of various things he found around the spaceship, tenderly named the Satellite Of Love. Joel turned this dire situation into a weekly show for the audience at home, and joining him are Crow, Tom Servo, Gypsy & Cambot.
Each week, the Mads send a movie, and Joel and the bots watch it, cracking wise as the movie plays on from their silhouettes in the corner of the screen, using the occasional breaks they’re given to sing songs, act out skits, or otherwise pontificate on their plight and the movie they’re watching. People like Ghoulardi used to insert himself into movies he was showing, and people like Woody Allen were experimenting with a version of interacting with movies, to various degrees of success. But it was the MST3K crew that developed this style of “riffing” comedy, based on the idea that Joel and the robots would be hanging out together while the movie played, in the same way a group of friends would make dumb jokes as the movie went on in the same room. It was the crew at Best Brains that realized that the Horror Host was there throughout the whole movie, so why not have them joke around with the film? After all, who’s really watching the terrible movie that closely, really?
While certainly inspired by the kinds of Shock Theater! duds that would fall between the cracks of Frankenstein and Dracula, by the time the ’80’s had rolled around, an entire culture of people dedicated to “Bad Cinema” was starting to crop up. Kids raised on the kinds of late-night, drive-in style films that were being made in the ’60’s and ’70’s had grown up into a group of connoisseurs that understood what make movies truly bad. Filmmakers caught on, and production companies would rush something that might get a reputation for being terrible, and thus, might be a back-door into Hollywood for a desperate creator. And, for many, it worked; one only need to look at the work of people like Roger Corman – and the stars that grew out of working with him during his 60+ year history in cinema – for evidence. You might be in a real stinker today, but tomorrow you might be directing The Last Picture Show, and could become a creative sensation.
1980 saw the introduction of both The Golden Turkey and The Golden Raspberry Awards, born out of this same class of filmmakers who were willing to make things on a shoe-string and with no discernable stars, and by the ’80’s had rolled around, the US was steeped in Sci-Fi disasters, monsters where you could see the zippers, cheaply made thrillers, teenage schlock, and everything in between.
While the work of “horror hosts” had an influence on MST3K, there are three specific pre-cursors that are worth mentioning, as they had conceptual bits that this crew would use as the backbone of their work. CBS Children’s Film Festival ran from the late ’60’s to 1984 (in some form, often under a different name), and showed terrible movies (edited, of course), hosted by Kukla, Fran and Ollie (a puppet team). Still, no one was making fun of the movies full-time until Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection in 1985, which used the sort of Woody Allen style overdubbing to mock the duds they found. (Hosts would mock the films between the reels, but the LA Connection made jokes while the film was running). The Canned Film Festival in 1986 managed to feature comedic skits woven into (and between reels) of a longer film, another element that MST3K was particularly good at. But in all three cases, these elements were not used to their full potential, and more pointedly, only CBS Children’s Film Festival was actually seen by any of MST3K creators.
The essence of MST3K was born out of Joel Hodgson’s stand up routines, where much of the background material of Sci-Fi gags and prop-comedy elements were already at work. Joel was building contraptions and robot-type characters to use in his act, largely out of junk store bits he found here and there. When Joel met Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Jim Mallon and Kevin Murphy at KTMA, it was clear that his hare-brained comedy might be able to find a home at their station.
Joel had a number of ideas that were difficult to explain, and ultimately shot a pilot with them – The Green Slime – which involved a rough approximation of what he (and, now, they) had envisioned MST3K could be. The station was impressed enough by the cheap budget and the amount of time a show like this could fill, and give them free reign to make 13 episodes, all produced in house, to be shown when there was little else to interfere with their other programming. With a premier on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, there wasn’t much else to compete against, and KTMA didn’t see the harm in letting them air two episodes, back to back, as they had little else to offer. The show was an immediately hit, and grew to be so popular that what started as an experiment was expanded to 21 episodes. By the end of their first year on air, the show was being courted by cable TV.
The Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) picked up the show, to be retooled for a first “official” season, with a modest budget and actual writers joining the team. As time wore on, Joel and the gang hit on a formula to maximize the jokes-per-episode ratio, and ironed out the production side of things to a well-oiled machine that lasted for a number of years. Their dedication to interacting with fans, keeping everything in-house, and making props themselves added to their reputation as something special, and even after Joel left and Mike transitioned from head writer to host, they managed to keep their grass roots (and fans), becoming one of the hippest shows on TV. Tapes were incessantly traded among fans in a pre-digital world, and with a movie contract on the horizon, it seemed as if they were on their way to an eternal hit.
In 1996 when Comedy Central canceled the show, it was clear that the future of the program was becoming uncertain. Fans rallied, started a letter writing campaign (in the tradition of other canceled Sci-Fi shows), and soon enough the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) showed interest. But this relationship did not start off well. Sci-Fi gave notes on the show – and the changes that they insisted on making signaled that there wasn’t much of a future for the team. Part of the problem was a dedication to the craft; the writers and producers – even at the very end – wanted to keep doing what they had been doing well, knowing a good thing when they saw it, playing to their strengths as the show changed and evolved. The Sci-Fi Channel, however, imposed a number of demands, scheduled the show at strange times, insisted that the bots have story arcs from episode to episode, and in the end made it difficult for the crew to work on MST3K the way they wanted to. When the word came down to cancel the show (again) in 1999, it seemed like a very natural place to end what they had begun, with almost 11 years of work under their belt.
While it has been a tough time learning to live in a world without new episodes of MST3K being made, the influence and impact of this show is immeasurable. We now live in a world where things like Sharknado are not only made, but celebrated, and our culture’s dedication to terrible movies has only increased in the years since. Both Joel and Mike have their own spin-offs – RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic, and there are even rumors of a MST3K revival at some point. (Fingers crossed.)
More importantly, they kept alive this idea of home-made TV, something that could take a cable access aesthetic and bring it into the rest of the world. This persists now in a number of outlets online, and YouTube is littered with DIY type endeavors that are direct descendants of the chaotic (and charming) world. The technology has changed the way we see and interact with these kinds of shows, and their formats are very different than they used to be, for sure. But without seeing their dedication to both the idea and to the campiness of their craft, these creators and DIY makers would have had few inspirations available to help them see that any idea – no matter how crazy, could work. Your idea may be silly. It might even look ridiculous. But with a little love and care, that thing can be as hilarious as Tom Servo, and that’s an incredible feat for anyone.