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A Brief Introduction to MST3K (Passing the Savings on to You)

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.

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