Thirty years ago, there began a television phenomenon the likes of which the world had never seen. It is still an idea that sounds strange: a guy and some puppets watch a bad movie and crack jokes the entire time. What? That cannot seriously be a television program. Imagine when the show first premiered in 1988, looking in the newspaper listings and seeing a two-hour program with the impossible name of Mystery Science Theater 3000? It’s crazy! So crazy, in fact, that it completely worked. Not only did the show last for 10 seasons – an impressive number for any television show, much less a cult one – in 2017, it was brought back to the small screen with the help of the biggest Kickstarter campaign at the time.
Obviously, this means that MST3K has legions of diehard fans around the world, even three decades later. With Season 12 on its way and the recent release of Dark Horse’s new MST3K comic book, we thought this would be a good time to throw some trivia fun out there onto the internet! As we’ve established, many fans are going to know all there is to know about their favorite basic cable puppet show of the 1990s, but we feel like these below facts might be so on the fringe, that even the most dyed-in-the-wool fans may have forgotten. So put on your jumpsuit, hop on your sidehack, and join us, because we’ve got movie sign!
On August 8, 1999, Mike, Tom, and Crow riffed on their final bad movie. The crew watched the actually not bad Diabolik (sometimes known as Danger: Diabolik!) starring Space Mutiny’s John Phillip Law (fun comic book aside: Grant Morrison based the design of Fantomex on Law’s portrayal of Diabolik), and then returned to daily life in Minnesota.
Suddenly, it was September 12 of that same year, and we were treated to episode #1003, Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders. This episode was supposed to have been the third in this final season, but rights issues interfered with the timeline and gave Misties one final dollop of bad movie for the road. This was appropriate as it turned out to not be the final episode either, even if we had to wait almost 20 years for the next one.
On the face of it, it sure doesn’t seem like there would have been a lot of shows before MST3K featuring a man trapped in space with only his quirky robot pals for company. However, there was precedent: 1972’s Silent Running featured Bruce Dern as a botanist committed to keeping Earth’s remaining forests alive on a massive spaceship, cutting himself off from his home planet.
Joel Hodgson made no bones about the fact that Silent Running was at the forefront of his mind when he created the show. Not only does Dern’s character in the film pass the time by teaching his robots poker, he also wears a jumpsuit with patches, not at all dissimilar from Joel’s. Obviously, MST3K was making a sly nod and wink to a classic sci-fi film in a show that was rife with many such sly nods and winks.
Way, way back in the day, when we first discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000, we felt it was one of the most original shows ever to have been created for television. We still feel that way, and we feel that very, very few shows since have exhibited the same creativity. It turns out we were at least a little bit off, though, because we did not know about Disasterpiece Theater.
Premiering in 1980 on local San Diego station XETV, Disasterpiece Theater was hosted by Jay Curtis under the clever name Sal U. Lloyd, and he would show terrible films (some of which would eventually be on MST3K) along with commentary via subtitles. Like MST3K, Disasterpiece Theater began at a small station in a small-ish town and developed a local cult following, even once beating Saturday Night Live in the local ratings. Unlike MST3K, it was cancelled after just one season.
In the early 1980s, Joel Hodgson was making a living as a successful stand-up comedian. After spots on HBO and Letterman, Joel made his first appearance on Saturday Night Live in the fall of 1983. His opener was how he only had three minutes to perform and then, producing a bundle of dynamite with an attached alarm clock, he told the audience they all had three minutes left.
It was a solid bit, but the Berkshire Hotel in Midtown didn’t find it quite so hilarious when Joel left the prop in his room after checkout. Three floors of the hotel were evacuated, and the bomb squad was called in. Joel, already on his way home, had no idea of the chaos he’d left behind, until federal agents met him at the airport. Everything was all cleared up, but suffice it to say, Joel wasn’t welcomed back to the Berkshire. But at least, on SNL, he didn't... bomb.
We were very excited when stand-up comedian Jonah Ray was announced as the newest host of MST3K back in fall of 2015. Not only was he a hilarious stand-up comedian, but he had also written on The Soup, co-hosted The Nerdist Podcast, and co-hosted the great stand-up showcase show The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail. So we already knew his bona fides were in order.
Joel Hodgson had met Jonah when he guested on Nerdist and was quickly taken with the young comic. Not only did Joel trust him to fill his shoes as host, he also had him choose who would operate Tom and Crow for Season 11. This ended up being a wise move since Jonah would have to work with them closely; this brought us Baron Vaughn as Tom Servo and Hampton Yount as Crow, easily two of the funniest comedians in Los Angeles, California. Robot roll call, indeed!
Season 11 if MST3K was rather a star-studded affair. Patton Oswalt as Son of TV’s Frank was already a huge get, but Joel also called some favors in and had quite a few marquee names making appearances — Jerry Seinfeld, Mark Hamill, and Neil Patrick Harris, to name but a few. They also called back many familiar faces from previous casts, like Mary Jo Pehl, Kevin Murphy, and Joel himself.
On the other hand, the original run of shows only ever featured two guest stars. A lot of the time, if the writers wanted to do a sketch based on a film, Mike Nelson would make an appearance as one of the characters, or sometimes as other low-level celebrities like Jack Perkins. Other than that, there were only two famous faces ever actually on the show, both from the Sci-Fi era: Minnesota Viking running back Robert Smith and film critic Leonard Maltin.
Speaking of Jack Perkins, The Mystery Science Theater Hour is an oft-forgotten corner of MST3K history. In the early days, the show’s two-hour runtime was a boon to the then-burgeoning Comedy Central network, which had 24 hours a day of programming to fill. And hey, they could only air Ghostbusters II so many times. But as time marched on, the network began to fill that two hours more easily, and began running abbreviated versions of episodes, which were also later syndicated nationally.
The Mystery Science Theater Hour was hosted by Michael J. Nelson as Jack Perkins, who would introduce the episode in lieu of the usual opening theme song, or otherwise recap the first half of the movie for the following episode. The sets were stripped down and antics kept to a minimum, but these are still fun bumpers in the vein of the Turkey Day marathons.
One of the odder things about MST3K is that, although it was written and performed by a crew of very nice, mostly Midwesterners, the central concept of the show is, well, kind of mean. Along those lines, any viewer can see right away that it was rare for the writers to get at all dirty or mean-spirited with their humor (Joe Don Baker, don’t read this part). Even that didn’t always soften the blow.
One of the more vocal detractors of an MST3K-ed film has been Jeff Lieberman, who directed the 1976 southern gothic worm horror film Squirm. Lieberman makes no bones about the fact that his films are slices of cheese. His real problem with the sale of Squirm to MST3K was that it would lower the value of the film and decrease his residuals.
It’s a fairly safe bet that more of these films’ creators were displeased with their work being trashed publicly than were happy with it (we’d tend to bet that the majority remained indifferent). As it turns out, David Giancola, writer and director of 1994’s Time Chasers, was actually very pleased that his film got the MST3K treatment.
Time Chasers was Giancola’s first feature film, fully financed by his own production company, Edgewood Studios. As cheaply as Time Chasers was made, $150,000 was still a lot of money for some guys from Vermont making a living shooting local commercials and weddings. When MST3K bought the rights to the film, Edgewood not only finally broke even, it began to gain a cult notoriety that’s very beneficial to a small New England production company.
Don’t worry, it’s not because of the show. The year was 1956, and Tom Graeff had just finished assisting director Roger Corman on his film Not of This Earth (actually one of Corman’s best, though that’s a low bar to clear). Inspired, Graeff wrote his own sci-fi screenplay and began raising funds for it. Graeff brought Teenagers from Outer Space (episode #404) in at $14,000 but couldn’t give the film away.
Warner Bros. “bought” the rights to the film, but Graeff never saw one dime. His investors sued him, and then Graeff’s troubles really began. He ran an ad in the Los Angeles Times announcing God had spoken to him and he should now only be referred to as Jesus Christ II. A legal name change attempt was thwarted, and he more or less disappeared, only to meet a sad end at his own hand in San Diego in 1970.
Okay, let’s try to get less dark here. Any show on the air for a good number of years is bound to change, but with MST3K, the first season and the tenth season are like apples and movies. In the earliest days of the show, when J. Elvis Weinstein was in the cast and Tom Servo had a much deeper voice, the robots’ personalities and roles on the show weren’t as clearly defined as they became.
When Joel left, the invention exchanges went with him, and when the show left Comedy Central, they left behind the fan mail and still store. Even before all that were the RAM chips that Joel would give the ‘bots as a treat if they could say a good thing about the movie and a bad thing about the movie. It’s a cute little touch, but definitely does feel like a Season 1 thing.
By the time the mid ‘80s rolled around, Joel Hodgson had been a working comedian for some time, and the wear and tear was starting to show. Maybe because the comedy boom was beginning to wane a little bit, maybe because working the road can be exhausting, but most likely just because he was bored, Joel returned to Minneapolis, where his career had really begun.
Though Joel could have stayed in L.A., it was Minneapolis where he began comedy and where he began MST3K, and it was there the show would stay. Comedy Central wanted to bring the show to New York where all the other shows were made, but Joel negotiated to stay in Minnesota. The show therefore has an even less “showbiz”-y feel, and remains homegrown today (even if it’s now shot in L.A.).
When Joel left the show, to say fans were shocked would be an understatement. Not only was he the creator and host, the entire project was so definitively him. Joel remained fairly tight-lipped about why he left the show he created for a few years after his departure, but it turned out it was because Jim Mallon wanted to make Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.
Joel said in 1999 that he and Mallon had really begun to fight a lot about the creative direction of the program. Joel saw that they weren’t going to reach a solution, so he left before the show could ruin him or vice versa. It all worked out in the end for everyone all around, but it was a strange time back there before Joel filled in the missing piece of the puzzle.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 almost immediately became a cult classic, and as goofy a show as it was, it was also very cool to be into it. You were in on something if you were a Mistie; it was like a secret club. Naturally, what makes anything cool is when musicians want to be in on it – real bona fide rock stars!
Frank Zappa was well-known throughout his career as having eccentric tastes, up to and including the underproduced and overacted monster films of the 1950s and 1960s, many of which ended up on MST3K. One day in the office, Kevin Murphy, second voice of Tom Servo, was told that Frank Zappa was on line one. He thought it was some kind of joke until he answered the phone. Sadly, Zappa passed before he could work with the show on anything.
In 2007, it was announced that Satellite News, official site of MST3K, would be home to a new series of flash animations that would star the ‘bots. Entitled The ‘Bots Are Back, this new cartoon would have a new episode posted every week. Alas, this only lasted for four weeks.
Jim Mallon claimed that the cartoons were more expensive to make than had been estimated, but many feel that the cartoon just wasn’t that good. Mallon returned to the voice of Gypsy, a voice he originated, and while Crow was voiced by former writer and sometime performer Paul Chaplin, he’d never really voiced a ‘bot before. Whatever the reasons, very few people — even the most hardcore Misties — actually remember them. Push the button, Frank.