What I Need from the MST3k Reboot

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.

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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. 

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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?

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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 showBut 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.

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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.

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…just do it right. That’s all this MSTie asks.

 

All gifs from giphy.
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The One With The Power Outage

In the seventh episode of Friends, entitled, “The One With The Blackout,” New York City encounters a massive power outage, leaving the friends stranded without electricity for hours, and of course, shenanigans ensue. Now, while last night didn’t end with me fighting off a violent cat, meeting a flirtatious Italian, or getting trapped in an ATM with a Victoria’s Secret model, it DID end with adventures and fellowship brought on by a sudden power outage in my hall of residence.

While I am here studying abroad at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, I am living in University Hall Apartments. There are five levels of flats, each flat housing four or five students per flat, all-in-all accommodating over 100 residents. So, when the power went out at 10:30 PM, you can imagine that there was quite a bit of unrest amongst us residents. 

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Look at all of us, huddled together with whatever light source we could scrounge up! Photo by author.

Where was I when the power went out? In the most convenient of places, of course; right in the middle of washing my face in a bathroom with a single light and a closed door. So my world was suddenly shrouded in darkness as soap and leftover mascara seeped into my eyes. For a brief moment, I wondered if perhaps the combination of the two substances that was currently stinging the hell out of my eyes had rendered me blind…did blindness really take hold that quickly? But then, I flailed my arms about until I found the light switch, wherein I discovered that I was NOT blind, but in the middle of a power outage, or, at the very least, in the middle of a horror movie. I was halfway expecting to get attacked by some bloodthirsty New Zealand mythological beast who only feasted on the flesh of pasty American girls (hey, poorer plots have been produced!).

I finally managed to scrape the soap/mascara nonsense off of my face and join my bewildered flatmates outside of our apartment, where we found about twenty other residents looking equally bewildered, clutching phones, candles, and flashlights (or, as the Kiwis say, “torches”). After a few minutes of quiet speculation, the fun began. I finally met our next-door neighbors (who hilariously called my American accent, “jarring,” for the record!), then went on an excursion to the very top floor where a large group of power outage-refugees had gathered to commiserate. It wasn’t long before one flat had managed to find the resources to throw a miniature rave, complete with lighting and music from the interior of their darkened apartment. After awhile, myself and a few friends crashed the flat of another friend, who had somehow managed to rig up twinkle lights and was subsequently one of the most popping venues in the vicinity. We shared stories, laughed at our ridiculous circumstances, and very simply enjoyed each other’s company.

Now, I’m not about to preach some sort of “anti-technology” moral, because believe me, I love Netflix as much as the next guy (Season 4 of House of Cards, amiright?), but this moment was oddly beautiful to me. If the power hadn’t gone out, every single one of us would have had a very different night. I would have washed my face, gotten into bed, checked Facebook and Instagram one more time, fallen asleep, and that would be the end of it. But since our electricity was forcibly (albeit accidentally) taken away from all of us at the same time, it forced us all to go outside and socialize face to face, rather than on a device. The fact that I hadn’t even met my own next-door neighbors is astonishing and quite sad. I crashed a flat of someone I barely know and had fellowship with people I might never see again. I laughed and now have memories with people I can’t possibly recognize in the light of day because it was so terribly dark, but isn’t that magical in a way?

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Nothing like a late-night party in a the candlelit flat of a stranger! Photo by author.

To whatever or whoever caused the campus-wide blackout for an hour and a half last night, I sincerely thank you (and if it’s a “whoever,” I hope that you are taking your recent firing relatively well), because had it never happened, my night would have ended fine, but flavorless. What is life without the crazy detours and unexpected turns? So if there is a moral to be had, might I simply recommend that you not wait for life’s power outages to place you into a new social situation, because they may never happen. It’s nights like this that you remember for how absurd and alive they make you feel.

Now, if you don’t mind, since the power IS back on now, Ima get back to House of Cards…