“In the not-too-distant future...”: The Story of Mystery Science Theater 3000
By John C. Alsedek:
I’m guessing that a lot of you are familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000, which ran on KTMA, Comedy Central, and the Sci-Fi Channel (now SYFY) from 1988 until 1999. The basic premise was that a hapless custodian (originally Joel Hodgson, later Michael J. Nelson) was launched into space by a mad scientist (Trace Bealieu), who then forced him to watch bad movies. Thankfully, Joel made a trio of robots out of spare parts: Tom Servo (voiced by J. Elvis Weinstein, later Kevin Murphy), Gypsy (voiced by Jim Mallon), and Crow T. Robot (voiced by Beaulieu, later Bill Corbett). While Gypsy ran the ship, Joel/Mike watched the movies in the company of Servo and Crow, with the three of them riffing mercilessly on cheesy B-films such as Prince of Space and The Killer Shrews.
My first exposure to MST3K was around 1992 when a friend popped in an episode recorded off Comedy Central. Having grown up watching horror hosts such as Doctor Shock and Son of Svengoolie, of course I loved it instantly. Not everyone did though. While most of the actors and directors lambasted by the MST3K crew took it with good humor (beefcake 80s star Miles O’Keeffe has watch parties of their version of his Cave Dwellers), that wasn’t universal; most famously, Joe Don Baker reportedly threatened to beat the crap out of Nelson for his, um . . . , unflattering commentary regarding Baker on the actor’s 70’s detective flick Mitchell.
During its eleven-year run, Mystery Science Theater 3000 went through multiple permutations and cast changes. The original lineup consisted of Hodgson, Beaulieu, Weinstein (as the mad scientist's assistant), and the voices of Weinstein, Beaulieu, and producer Jim Mallon. That group remained till the second season on Comedy Central, when Weinstein left and was replaced by Frank Conniff. Hodgson left midway through season five and was replaced by Nelson, who was already a writer and frequent guest actor for the show. Conniff left after season six; following an abbreviated season seven on Comedy Central, MST3K moved over to the Sci-Fi Channel. Unfortunately, Beaulieu opted not to continue, which led to a complete makeover of the on-camera cast for its remaining two seasons; Mary Jo Pehl, Corbett, and Murphy played a new trio of antagonists who continued making Nelson and the ‘Bots watch bad movies. This was the show’s setup for its remaining two years.
Following MST3K's second cancellation in 1999, the primary figures—both past and present—began collaborating on other similarly themed programs. One group, including Hodgson, Beaulieu, Conniff, Pehl, and Weinstein, formed Cinematic Titanic in 2007. The format was similar to MST3K, with the cast silhouetted in front of the screen while riffing on that episode's movie; unlike MST3K, the actors are playing themselves. Cinematic Titanic was performed both for video release and live between 2007 and 2013, at which point the demands of coordinating schedules for five people living in different parts of the country brought an end to the show. However, Hodgson succeeded in bringing back a new, crowd-funded version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 2017, starring a wholly revamped cast that included Jonah Ray, Felicia Day, and Patton Oswalt. Hodgson was able to get most of the former MST3K members to do cameos, with the exception of Nelson, Beaulieu, and Conniff. The new Mystery Science Theater 3000 ran for two seasons on Netflix but was not picked up for a third; Hodgson remains hopeful that it may yet return on another platform.
Meanwhile, Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy had joined forces on a pair of like-minded projects. The first was The Film Crew, a short-lived project that began in 2006. In it, the trio were sort of all in the Joel/Mike role: jumpsuit-clad workers forced to watch bad movies by their boss. The Film Crew threesome did four films (Hollywood After Dark, Killers from Space, The Giant of Marathon, and The Wild Women of Wongo), as well as occasional segments on American Movie Classics, the Sundance Channel, and National Public Radio. However, with the similarly themed RiffTrax also launching in 2006, The Film Crew wasn’t continued.
RiffTrax, on the other hand, has proven to be perhaps the most popular of all the post-MST3K programs. Originally done solo by Nelson, Corbett and Murphy soon joined in and were occasionally supplemented by guests such as MST3Kers Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Nelson, Fred Willard, Weird Al Yankovic, and Neil Patrick Harris. There is no backstory—the actors simply play themselves. What makes RiffTrax unique is this: rather than selling the films with their commentary included, they sell the commentary tracks by themselves for the purchaser to match up with their own copies of the films. By doing it that way, Nelson & Co. don't have to worry about licensing the movies themselves; as a result they've been able to riff on contemporary Hollywood blockbusters as well as the usual low-budget fare MST3K used. RiffTrax also does live shows nationally and has even recorded an album as The RiffTones, with original songs based on the films they lampoon.
One of RiffTrax’s most celebrated episodes was its dismembering of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. We’ll be spending some time with Wood and his "masterpiece" next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.