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Mystery Science Theater 3000: One of the most underappreciated shows in TV history.


Miss AshleyJ

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In 1988, KTMA, a low budget UHF station in Minneapolis, needed some content to fill in their schedule. A local comedian named Joel Hodgson got in touch with his idea to create a TV show making fun of bad movies. 

 

and thus was born Mystery Science Theater 3000.

 

The concept of the show was simple: take, say, a horror host like the Crypt Keeper. then instead of him just introducing what you watched... watch it WITH you, making jokes and comments, an idea known as Riffing.

 

Joel would watch the terrible movies with the audience, but he would been seen in silhouette at the bottom of the screen, as if you were sitting behind him in the theater. For company, Joel built two puppets out of random items he found, Crow T Robot and Servo (name later expanded to Tom Servo), who were voiced and performed respectively by fellow comedians Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein (credited at the time by his real name Josh Weinstein because the Josh Weinstein who works on the Simpsons hadn't made it big yet).

 

The executives at the TV station wanted a mythos to the story, WHY was Joel watching these movies?

 

To answer that, Joel came up with a conceit for the show, which was provided to the audience via the show's theme song.

MST3K KTMA Intro HQ (CC) - YouTube

Joel's character is being held prisoner aboard a space station called the "Satellite of Love" by two mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forester and Dr. Larry Earnhardt (played respectively by Beaulieu and Weinstein). The two "Mads" (as they came to be called) were looking for the absolute WORST movie ever made to use as a weapon in their quest for world domination. Joel had used the parts that would have allowed him to control the movie to make his robot companions, now also including a character named Gypsum (later renamed to "Gypsy" and recently to "GPC") and Cambot, whose role was to ether operate the camera or be the camera. 

 

KTMA ran 21 episodes of the show, beginning on November 24th, 1988 with back to back Gerry and Sylvia Anderson compellation movies (one for "Stingray" and one for "Captain Scarlet") by early 1989, the station itself had to file for bankruptcy, causing them to cancel the show. 

 

But Joel and his team decided to aim higher... to reach a nationwide audience. 

 

A demo tape was sent out to the fledgling Comedy Channel, a new cable network that was desperate for programing. Comedy Channel liked what they saw and commissioned a 13 epsiode season with everyone returning, but with an increased budget, official permission to air the films they wanted, a team of writers behind the scenes and updated sets and visuals. 

MST3K Season 1 Intro - YouTube

 

The first season of the show on cable debuted on November 18th, 1989. during this time, the pressure got to Weinstein, who chose to leave the show. One of the show's writer's, Frank Conniff, took over as an new Mad character, known as "TV's Frank" to be Forrester's assistant, while another staffer, Kevin Murphy, stepped up as the new voice of Tom Servo. 

 

MST3K Season 2 Intro - YouTube

 

The show continued on. After season 3, Comedy Channel merged with another network called "HA!" to become Comedy Central. But as time went by, Joel himself began to but heads with his business partner, the former KTMA executive he'd pitched the show to, a man named Jim Mallon, who'd stayed with the show since the KMTA went under. 

 

Joel decided it was best for him to leave, doing so in the middle of season 5. To replace him, the show's head writer, Mike Nelson, became the new test subject. his character was an everyday guy temp worker Forrester and Frank had hired to help them inventory their lair, known as "Deep 13" at the same time Joel was able to escape. 

 

MST3K Seasons 5-6 Intro - YouTube 

 

By this time, the show was also butting heads with Comedy Central itself. The now successful network, to put it bluntly, wanted the show's two hour timeslots back to run more shows. 

 

At the end of the 6th season, Conniff decided to leave, to be replaced as the foil for Forrester by writer Mary Jo Pehl, who played Forrester's mother, Pearl. 

 

Around this time, the creators we able to actually get a theatrically released movie produced, which didn't work out too well because the distributors decided to show it in a "Road Show" format in college towns.

 

Season 7 was only 6 episodes, ending in May 1996, which ended with Forrester cutting the Satellite of Love loose. it drifted to the edge of the universe, where the crew became energy beings.

 

Comedy Central then officially canceled the show. 

 

After several months in limbo, the show was rescued by the then Sci-Fi Channel. Trace Beaulieu chose not to return, so writer Bill Corbett took over as the voice of Crow. Mary Jo Pehl made the leap to lead Mad and Kevin Murphy was given his first regular "in front of the camera" role. The story of the Sci-fi channel's first season, Seaon 8 overall in the national run, was the first to carry an ongoing storyline. 

 

Mike and the bots return to the corporeal plane after about 500 years (or 5 minutes, in Crow's case) to find the SoL has returned to Earth orbit, now above a parody Planet of the Apes set up, ideally lead by a gorrlia named Professor Bobo (played by Murphy in a gorilla mask, but in truth run with an iron fist by Pearl, having undergone rejuvenation therapy (previously the character had been a frumpy, older middle age midwestern housewife archetype) and having been in cold sleep for the 500 years. 

 

MST3K Season 8 Intro (Version 2) - YouTube


After a few episodes dealing with "Deep Ape", Bobo accidently sets off a thermonuclear device in refenced to Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Mike and the bots are able to get the SoL to break orbit and flee, chased by an angry Pearl and a stowaway Bobo. They eventually reach a planet of "Observers" Omnipotent beings who carry their brains in large bowls, aren't as bright as they seem and address each other as "Observer". After a few episodes here, their planet gets blown up as well, causing one of the survivors, (played by Corbett) who would earn the name of "Brain Guy" to join Pearl and Bobo. 

 

After a few more stops to visit a camping planet and Nero era Rome (which Bobo burns down) the crew start season 9 by returning to the late 20th century. Pearl and Co set up shop in her family's castle. this status quo remained through season 10. 

 

MST3K intro - Season 10 - YouTube

 

By this point, the Sci-fi Channel was starting to have the same problems with the show Comedy Central had, and it pulled the plug after season 10, which ended with the SoL crashing to Earth and Mike and the bots escaping and settling down. 

 

 

and that was the story of MST3K. the various cast members set up their own movie riffing projects, the most successful being Nelson, Murphy and Corbett's "Rifftrax" which are able to riff big budget Hollywood movies by selling you just the commentary track that you play while watching. 

 

UNTILLL.

 

in 2015 and with help from Shout! Factory, Joel was able to buy the rights of the show back from Mallon. 

 

Joel launched a kickstarter to bring the show back, using the fact the fans were funding it to drive the idea home to the major media outlets that there was demand for it. in total, over $6 million was raised to produce a 14 episode season that was picked up by Netflix and released in 2017. 

 

MST3K The Return (Season 11) Intro - YouTube

 

Joel deiced that for a new era, to bring in a new cast. For the human host, he picked actor and comedian Jonah Ray. for the new mads side, Clayton Forrester's Daughter Kinga, played by Felica Day and "Tv's Son of TV's Frank" AKA Max, played by show super fan and award winning actor and comedian Patton Oswald. Crow was voiced by comedian Hampton Yount and Servo by actor and comedian Baron Vaughn. The show ran for 2 seasons for a total of 20 episodes before Netflix also canceled it.

 

 

The show is currently in the final days of a second Kickstarter, this time to produce the show without a network, which can be seen here. (not a paid or sponsored post, I just felt like making it,)

Let's Make More MST3K & Build The Gizmoplex! by Joel Hodgson — Kickstarter

 

I plan to talk about some of my favorite movies in the not too distant future...

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