One of my earliest memories was playing in my grandfather’s living room while he watched TV. I remember him laughing merrily at the screen, and I would occasionally look up. I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what the film on the screen was, but I distinctly remember three silhouettes sitting in the bottom right corner of the screen; A cylindrical object that looked like a gumball machine, a man, and a beaked creature with an unusually shaped head.
This faint memory was lost to me until the age of twelve, when I sat down in my middle school uniform with a bowl of cereal balanced in my lap as I went channel surfing for a few moments before having to leave for school. I found the title of a movie that sounded familiar to me, but I didn’t quite know why. I felt as though my mother, or uncle, or grandfather had spoken of it before… So I clicked on the channel. I saw those same silhouettes at the bottom right hand corner of the screen. Two robot puppets and a man told jokes over a terrible B-movie from 1955 called, This Island Earth. That’s when my perspective on comedy changed forever. That’s when I discovered Mystery Science Theatre 3000; The Movie.
I recorded the rest of the film and watched it three times, sometimes laughing so hard that I was unable to breathe. I didn’t know then that Mystery Science Theatre 3000, or MST3k, was formerly a TV show. I didn’t know that the movie I had watched first was actually a dark mark upon the show’s history as a whole, their typical quality of jokes and production stifled beneath studio control. I didn’t know that it began as a small, local project in Minnesota in 1988, I didn’t know that it had a cult following on two popular TV stations, and I didn’t know that Mike Nelson wasn’t always the host of the show. As I rented more and more episodes of the show from the library, iTunes, and any other means by which I could get my hands on new content, I soon became weirdly protective of the show; Team Mike over Team Joel, Team Servo over Team Crow, Team Sci-Fi channel era over Team Comedy Central era, and Team “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and Werewolf are the best episodes of the series” (BECAUSE THEY ARE.).
That summer, I was sitting in my local movie theatre with my mom, watching previews for upcoming theatre events. An announcement stopped all conversation between us when we heard, “From the team that brought you Mystery Science Theatre 3000 comes Rifftrax Live; Plan 9 From Outer Space!”
Rifftrax? What’s that?
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was cancelled in 1999, and the cast and writing staff went on to other projects, including the short-lived series, The Film Crew, publishing several books, and hosting a movie review segment on NPR. Creator and first host Joel Hodgson and most of his original MST3k team (J. Elvis Weinstein [the original Tom Servo], Frank Coniff [TV’s Frank], Trace Beaulieu [the original Crow/Dr. Forrester], and Mary Jo Pehl [Pearl Forrester]) reunited to make Cinematic Titanic, a live riffing group that would tour the country. The second generation host, Servo, and Crow (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett) reteamed to make a riffing on a larger scale. Now they could do movies that were more mainstream, not restricted to public domain B-movies alone. Twilight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Roadhouse, Harry Potter…you name it! The way they got around legal issues was by recording their riffs in time with the movie and releasing them as MP3 tracks that could be synched up by each individual customer with the corresponding movie. Their live shows, broadcasted across the country through Fathom Events, were just a further extension of their comedy.
I went to the Plan 9 From Outer Space live show, Rifftrax’s first, and it stands out as one of my favorite movie theatre experiences of all time. These shows introduced me to performers like musician Jonathan Coulton and comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who have also aided in shaping my sense of humor. The Rifftrax team now have done twenty two live shows, one of which was a Mystery Science Theatre reunion, and have three more on the way, including their most recent, Samurai Cop, which I will be attending in a matter of minutes.
For almost a decade now, I have been a proud MSTie, trying my best to explain concisely a nearly thirty year-long history of these comedians to friends of a generation that has never seen the show. But then talk began of rebooting the show, bringing this unique comedy to an enitirely new audience…on NETFLIX no less!
But when Joel announced the reboot, I was worried. Which Servo would he use? Which Crow? Which HOST for that matter? Mike took Joel’s spot only when Joel left the show over creative differences with the producing staff. With Joel at the helm once more, what would this new project look like?
The answer that Joel arrived at was the best possible solution; An entirely new staff. For Crow, he chose comedian Hampton Yount, who is an absolute deadringer for the character and is himself a diehard fan of the original series. For Tom Servo (the love of my life in puppet form) he wisely chose Baron Vaughn, who I approve of wholeheartedly; He’s got Tom’s sarcastic wit and is an excellent singer, and that’s all I can really ask for! The new host is Jonah Ray, a brilliant writer, stand up comedian, and close friend of my idol, Chris Hardwick. So at least in terms of our lead cast, I very much approved.
I got a bit more concerned with casting of the new “Mads,” the show’s antagonistic dynamic duo or trio that sends our heroes the “cheesy movies” to monitor their minds. The characters themselves are a fantastic addition, as they will be the offspring of original Mads Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank. The performers were a bit more confusing…playing Kinga Forrester is internet icon Felicia Day and TV’s Son of TV’s Frank is Patton Oswalt. Both of them are established names with many popular projects under their belt, rather than the relative unknowns who originally performed these roles.
The reboot’s fourteen new episodes drop at 12:01 AM tonight, and with new press coming out this week, my concern has grown significantly. Weinstein, Murphy, Beaulieu, and Corbett, the four previous “bot” performers always handled the puppetry themselves. Now, the bots are wrangled by professional puppeteers from the Jim Henson Studios. Vaughn and Yount only provide the voices and manipulate the mouths of their respective bot to match their movement.
Joel also said in an interview that the riff style has also changed from the original production, stating:
I think the biggest change for the new series is that we really collaborate with the movie more, in that we don’t really talk over the movie. We’re really careful about letting the movie deliver its dialogue. I think we were just a little sloppier before. Personally, I feel like the audience now listens faster and absorbs more so we really wanted the movie to show through and we used the negative space to collaborate with it.
This overall feels like a slicker, more professional presentation for the Netflix audience, but I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. Call me a purist, but what made MST3k so great and gave it the cult following it got was how improvisational, inexpensive, and homegrown it was. The key performers weren’t established actors. Errors were made in the puppetry and in the joke delivery. It felt like a group of friends coming together to make a funny project. That’s what it began as, at least.
So I need this new MST3k to prove to me that it’s still homegrown. I need this new team of professionals to respect its predecessor and original spirit. I am eager to see how the comedic style has changed in eighteen years of the show being off the air, and I can’t wait to see the third generation players of Ray, Hampton, and Yount interact together. And finally, I can’t wait to see Mystery Science Theatre 3000 find an audience in an entirely new generation.
…just do it right. That’s all this MSTie asks.
All gifs from giphy.