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.