The structure of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is rather straightforward, and adheres to it in most every episode. In the early seasons, the show would open with the title song, a short skit before “Commercial Sign”.
The First Act would consist of an Invention Exchange where Joel and the Mad Scientists would introduce a (usually silly) invention before the Scientists give a brief summary of that week’s “experiment” or b-movie (and sometimes a short). Joel and the bots enter the theatre and watch the film’s First Act, occasionally broken up into halves for commercials. In later seasons, (after Mike took over) the Invention Exchange was dropped in favor of another humorous skit.
The halfway point of the show would have Joel and the bots performing a skit or mocking/parodying the film they are watching, typically in a campy, underproduced style. For example, in the third season episode ‘Pod People’, Joel, the bots and, surprisingly, the Mad Scientists recreate the recording session scene— complete with the now-famous “IT STINKS”. For comparison here are the links:
The Third Act consists of finishing the film, talking about the film or something the film inspired, usually reading a fan’s submitted letter, and finishing with Joel asking the Mads what they think with a comedic skit between the two and another famous line “Push the button, Frank” to begin the title sequence.
One of the most rewarding moments comes at the very end of the episode where a short joke or moment in the film (known as a stinger), usually notable among the many cringe-worthy moments. (Here is a compilation, all taken out of context, all hilarious)
I chose this episode to review because I am biased and would call it my favorite episode. This movie is full of perfect set-ups, and for once it was as if the writers of MST3K knew me personally and wrote this show catered to my tastes. This is not to say that no one else likes it— I’m pretty sure it’s one of everyone’s favorites. There’re just too many hilarious jokes. Here is the movie and some of my favorite quotes from it.
“He was uh… dead. Guess that’s what caused it all.” (3:40)
“I’m your boyfriend now! bluhbluhbluhbluh” (39:13)
THAT WHOLE ENDING (1:25:00)
Enough gushing (though I could continue).
This episode encapsulates everything I love about the show, from its campy, not-so-great acting, to the constant stream of references, jokes and insane characters as well as the film’s poor quality. The scene where the characters describe their favorite types of drunks is one of the best dark humor moments of the show in my opinion, and showcases the unique blend of referencing, physical/verbal comedy and low-key production methods. This episode simply gets an A (or if you’re Evan, a Peabody) in my book.
Let me know what you think! Leave a comment if you agree, disagree or have any thoughts regarding the episode! And as always, thank you for reading!
Yes, you read that title correctly— this post is the biggest complaint I have regarding my favorite show. While this blog is about my favorite show and I find it kind of silly to question decisions that can not be undone, I believe it’s important to remind one’s self that just because it is the “best show ever” does not mean it is perfect.
The main problem I have with Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the inconsistency of the humor among the various (and I mean VARIOUS) episodes. This is kind of an obvious complaint for a comedy television show, but I just feel disappointed sometimes with the potential for a hilarious episode or better timing or higher amount of jokes when I watch multiple episodes back-to-back. While it isn’t really a problem in most sitcoms if an episode is less funny than others, MST3K is an exception due to its longer than normal length. If a movie is boring and the episode isn’t as full of jokes (Seasons 1-2 mostly had this problem) or possibly too full of jokes (Seasons 6-10 mostly utilized between 600-700 jokes per episode) the episode just pales in comparison to other on-the-money episode and can leave you bored or more prone to distraction.
There is a probable solution to this problem which I’ve yet to try—watching the show with friends. If you can watch the show with a friend and there’s a funny moment or line that goes unused, why not join in and do the writer’s job for them?… at least, until they come back in and say something ten times funnier than you or I could think of.
Let me know in the comments if this complaint is important to you also, or tell me “I should really just relax” if you’re up to it.
Before discussing the unique style of the comedy of ‘Mystery Science Theatre 3000’, I want to pose two questions: Since the films featured on the show were already written, should the jokes not be seen as “written” so much as “added on” to the already laughable dialogue and absurd plots? Also, should the jokes be considered “writing” if the responses to the visual cues come so naturally?
Though it is true that the writers of the show watched the b-films multiple times to tighten up the timing and hone in on the best jokes, the writers (particularly Joel Hodgson) often utilized visual cues to create ironic references to other people, places or things. I’ve always found it funny that Hodgson was originally a prop comic who appeared on Letterman and Saturday Night Live before starting MST3K. His background of incorporating visual “stimulants” to produce comedic effects definitely helped shape the show’s famous and wholly unique style of comedy.
This inclusion of performance to coincide with writing came not only from Hodgson, but from the other writers as well—often acting, designing the sets and other backstage production in the show as well as writing for it. In an interview with Frank Conniff, ‘T.V.’s Frank’ and writer for the show, Conniff stated that while he believed his main ambition was to write for television, the performing aspect definitely played into the style of his writing. Trace Beaulieu’s art direction in the show immediately set up viewers for the type of sets found in b-movies Joel and the ‘bots would be wise-cracking about.
In trying to answer the question of how to consider the “writers” posed above, I find that the word “writing” does not do justice to the comedic styling of the show. The jokes were written in advance (after the early improvised KTMA-cable station days) in order to avoid improper timing, but these “add-on” jokes did more than make fun of the films—they gave new meanings to them. In referring to a character who resembles Elvis for instance, the “writers” do away with that character’s usual lack of depth and give them a new role as imitator, thereby creating more ironic humor and meaning to the film’s absurd plot and writing contribution. In essence, they are not adding jokes to the films so much as re-writing the films completely.
Let me know in the comments your thoughts on the writing of the show, whether you agree with me or not and/or anything else you find interesting about the writing of the show.
Here is the link to the interview with Conniff:
My favorite comedies are engrained with elements of the truth, which often leads to uncomfortable confrontations. These confrontations often stem from the “victim” being forced to reconcile or even acknowledge something uncomfortable or unpleasant. It is with themselves the problem lies, yet it’s so easy to blame the ones who present this information.
Especially when the comedy is as blunt as it is on MST3K.
Mystery Science Theater 3000’s reputation of holding no punches is accurate, and many times the actors and/or direction is criticized in a way that would leave Winston Churchill and Lenny Bruce rolling in their graves. The humor could be directed at appearance, (lack of) acting skills and just downright awful attempts at making movies. And that’s exactly the kind of humor which can easily become interpreted as personal attacks. I go crazy for these kinds of behind-the-scenes stories, but while it’s kind of a sadistic pleasure to search for angry responses to the show, it surprised me greatly to see how little animosity there actually was towards the show.
The main point of this post is to try and find out why so few people responded with malice and torches etc. There are plenty of reasons that support this, but in my opinion, the main reason why MST3K never needed to worry about hate mail came with the end credits; they thanked the authors of the First Amendment.
It’s tongue in cheek, potentially sarcastic and ultimately, an extremely bold statement that makes one think about it. The way MST3K got away with a lot of what was said came from a reminder that everyone has the right to speak about something, even if it is criticism, and the interesting thing is that they didn’t say that specifically, they didn’t get all “preachy” about people’s rights or hung up on their own opinions— they simply thanked them.
If you have an idea of why MST3K would have been able to escape the criticisms other comedies raise, leave a message in the comments.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is just one of those shows. You know the kind— the show that some people vaguely remember seeing growing up, but couldn’t tell you anything about it if you asked them. It was just on sometimes. But for everyone who was lucky enough to watch, the show grew to something more than just a smart, hilarious comedy— it became a way to interact with other fans of the show, building a welcoming and strong community.
In the early years, MST3K centered on a janitor/inventor, Joel Robinson, (played by Joel Hodgson the show’s creator and prop comic) who is shot into space aboard the Satellite of Love by two mad scientists: Dr. Forrester, played by Trace Beaulieu, also a writer for the show and TV’s Frank, another writer Frank Conniff. The two mad scientists force Joel to sit through terrible movies in order to drive him insane. Thankfully, Joel invents two robots; Kevin Murphy as Tom Servo, a puppet resembling a gum-ball machine and Crow, another puppet operated and voiced by, again, Trace Beaulieu. Together the three “riff on” (make fun of) b-movies —generally giant monster movies, sexploitation films or student horror films— in order to keep their sanity. After all, no medicine is as healthy as laughter.
My introduction into MST3K came my Freshman year of college. I was hanging out with some new friends in my dorm talking about really good tv shows. One particularly enthusiastic guy proclaimed “Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the best show ever!” His girlfriend then told us that it actually sucked and they started arguing in front of all of us about how it was good, or no it sucked and things became really awkward because the way they were arguing we all knew they weren’t arguing about whether the show was good or not… so we kind of just left.
And I decided to watch an episode that night.
I went on netflix and looked it up. It had pretty good ratings, it had been on Comedy Central so I naturally thought I would like it. I started “Gamera”, a giant turtle/monster movie in the style of Godzilla, and nearly turned it off immediately.
At first I thought “An hour and a half episodes?! I don’t want to watch a show this long!” then it quickly turned into “This show looks so… cheap.” The opening skit was alright, and the invention exchange (a prop comic bit) made me laugh, but it was also just… so bizarre. What was so amazing about this about this show again? The acting wasn’t great and it was all so cheesy. I waited it out as they entered the theater.
The jokes came immediately and with so much wit, so much stupidity and enthused performances. I wasn’t prepared at all for how much I was about to laugh at this show. Something I realized during the movie was that while the comedy in the beginning was consistently funny, as the show continued on, someone would make a joke that I didn’t get, or yell a name I didn’t recognize. In fact, I didn’t know a huge portion of the references to songs, movies, television shows, actors, famous figures, pop culture, the arts, commercials: anything was open for the gang to use as a joke—and they used everything. Interviews with the writers consistently estimate 600-700 riffs per episode were written, leaving most of the writers and fans to base the success of the show as a whole on a single principle: “if you don’t ‘get’ one joke, just wait a few minutes and another will come that will make you cry laughing.” Through understanding a reference that no one else understands, the viewer feels more connected to the show, as it seems that particular joke was written for them.
Joel left the series in the middle of the fifth season and was replaced by head writer Michael Nelson. Conniff eventually left as did Beaulieu, replaced by Mary Jo Pehl as Dr. Forrester’s mother Pearl, and Bill Corbett operating Crow. The show also moved from Comedy Central to Sci-Fi in it’s eighth season. Even throughout the changes, MST3K continued to succeed in riffing movies with intelligence and apparent/obscure references, and I find that the more episodes I watch, the more I am drawn into the community as we solve obscure references together, or the wonderful musicians/actors/art I can find just by googling a reference or a name I may never have found out about were it not for MST3K.
If you have never watched MST3K, I recommend starting with Gamera, or if you’re into cheesy horror movies more, Pod People and please let me know in the comments if you have any special memories of watching the show, favorite episodes/moments etc.