From: David Arnold <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Tue, 03 Dec 91 08:36:31 -0500
Subject: Another Washington Post article'MST3K' Means Fine Television
Tom Shales, Washington Post, 11/27/91
(Reproduced without permission)
Only one movie series on television claims that the films it shows are "the worst we can find." It's "Mystery Science Theater 3000", on cable's Comedy Central channel, and its boast is hardly idle. Each week is unreeled a certified piece of absolute crap.
Bad movies are hardly scarce on TV, of course, especially cable. What makes these stand out is that you get to watch other people watching them-- specifically, one human being and two robots. The premise is that the three of them have been marooned in space by "evil overlords" and sentenced to sit through some of the lousiest motion pictures ever made.
Thus is an all-time pet peeve -- people talking aloud at movies --transformed into a hilarious laff riot. It's the best thing that ever happened to worthless junk, a pure if slightly perverse pleasure to watch. "MST3K," as it's known to its fans -- who in turn are known to one another as "Misties" -- is my new favorite television program, extrememly wonderful and instantly indispensable.
There is nothing about it I don't like and nothing about it I would change.
On Thanksgiving Day, Misties will have cause to be truly thankful, and to become truly misty. Comedy Central is programming 30 straight hours of "MST3K" drawn from the last three years of weekly installments. That's 15 turkeys for Turkey Day, the channel brags. The official starting time is
12:01 a.m. Thursday.
Among the titles to be shown: "Jungle Goddess," "Time Of The Apes," "Catalina Caper," and "Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster." Real bombs, real clunkers, real dogs. Bravo, bravo, bravo!
Oh, it's an acquired taste, all right, but once you acquire it you may become its helpless slave for life. The fan club membership is approaching 10,000; "MST3K," which airs Saturday mornings and late Friday nights, is easily the most noticed thing on Comedy Central.
The network, formed when Ha! and the Comedy Channel merged last year, is now available in 21 million cable homes, including 400,000 in the Washington area. It is carried on systems in Fairfax and Arlington counties and in northern Prince George's County, but not yet seen in the District or Montgomery County.
Joel Hodgson, the man behind the series, is also the man in front of the series. The 31-year-old standup comic plays Joel Robinson, chief maroonee, foil to robot pals Tom Servo and Crow. Tom Servo, who looks like a bubble- gum dispenser, and Crow, who looks like a mutated hood ornament, are voiced by Kevin Murphy and Trace Beaulieu, two of Hodgson's co-writers.
They and the others who write and produce the series have been nominated for an Ace award for best comedy series on cable. Ok, so an Ace is the most meaningless award in the world -- it's still an award! (They'llprobably lose anyway, to HBO's overpraised and self-congratulatory "Dream On.") An affable, laid-back, soft-spoken fellow who suggests a cross between silent movie comics Harry Langdon and Stan Laurel, the sleepy-eyed Hodgson says from Minneapolis, where the show is produced, that he's been sassing back at movies for much of his life.
"It really started at home and in college," Hodgson says. "When I was a little kid I assumed, like most kids, that everything on TV was right. When you're a kid, you think God makes the movies -- you know? It was weird growing up and finding out that a lot of it wasn't right. There were things TV didn't really know about."
"So our show is kind of about liberty, the liberty for people to know that not everything on TV is correct, or the final word."
Hodgson and the robots introduce each show, and hear from the evil overlords what movie they're going to be subjected to, and rush out of the theater during commercial breaks, sometimes to put on a skit that may restage a particularly ridiculous scene from the film.
During a showing of a ludicrous juvenile delinquent movie called "Daddy-O," Joel and the 'bots, as he calls them, did a song called "Hike Up Your Pants" in honor of the hero's nearly armpit-high trouser line. A Godzilla movie was accompanied by "The Godzilla Geneology Bop" tracing the monster's ancestry and noting that such figures as Yoko Ono and Steve Guttenberg dangle from distant limbs of the family tree.
While the film is rolling, you see the backs of Joel and the 'bots' heads sitting in the lower right corner of the screen. Occasionally Joel will reach up and tweak an actor's nose or something like that.
Now, why are they stranded in outer space, riding around on what they call "the satellite of love?" This is important to the concept. "If it were just a theater," Hodgson says, "with people walking in and making fun, a viewer would go, 'If they don't like it, why don't they get out?'"
For all the cynical derisiveness that is endemic to it, the show has an intoxicatingly friendly feel, partly because it brings to mind kid-vid shows from TV's past (the opening credits, with theme song, are a parody of sitcom openings from years gone by" and partly because the attitude toward the bad movies is essentially affectionate.
"It's fun to watch a bad movie," Hodgson says. "As we grow up and get more sophisticated, the things people thought were really grand in the past become really funny. Sometimes if a movie is good and time goes by, it becomes a bad movie. It becomes incongruous to what's going on in the world and becomes funnier."
Is it a kid's show, or an adults' show? Hodgson says he gets lots of mail from children so young the mothers have to write the letters (the kids draw pictures), but he also hears from doctors, lawyers, sci-fi nuts, teenage girls, computer nerds and "slackers" -- people who just watch TV all the time.
When he started the series on a UHF station in Minneapolis four years ago, Hodgson imagined it would appeal only to videophiles, "sophisticated people who really understand TV." Now he's happy that he hears a little bit of everybody and that the MST constituency is so vast. "It would bum us out if it was all one or the other" kind of viewer, he says.
While kids may like to watch the robots and the cheesy films, many of the 700 remarks Joel and the 'bots make per movie (up from 200 per movie in the first season) have to be sailing right over the kiddies' heads. Recent programs included references to Lillian Hellman, Norman Cousins, Beethoven's sonatas, Enrico Fermi, Isaac Asimov, "Of Mice And Men," Calvinism, nihilism and surrealism. There is also the occasional pharmacological aside.
During the showing of the ignominious debacle "Robot Monster" (the one with the guy in the gorilla suit and the fishbowl head), Tom Servo observed, "I've seen Dali paintings that make more sense than this movie does." Such touches make "MST3K" more than a string of sarcastic jokes. It's a thousand points of reference, hopscotching the culture.
And yes, a movie can be too bad even for this show. "It's hard to do movies that really aren't motivated at all, that are so bad you can't make sense of the plot," Hodgson says. Surprisingly, perhaps, he hasn't heard complaints from any of the filmmakers involved in any of the films he and the 'bots have hooted at.
But he did hear once from actor Miles O'Keefe, who played Tarzan opposite Bo Dereks' Jane -- though that's certainly not the film that screened on "MST3K." It was an even worse O'Keefe picture; Hodgson can't remember which one. "He called us and said he really liked it," Hodgson says. "He said his friends always call him and give him a hard time whenever the movie is on anyway. He was very nice about it."
The secret of "MST3K" is that you're not just watching a bad movie, you're watching a bad movie with friends.
Hodgson is now working on other show concepts for HBO Downtown Productions -- more naive art in the spirit of "MST3K." One is "The Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal Show," a variety hour supposedly being staged at a country lodge.
Whatever he does, he wants to stay headquartered in Minneapolis and not go to Hollywood or New York. He and his cohorts are able to produce a two-hour "MST3K" for $50,000, Hodgson says, estimating that it would cost four times as much to do the same show in Los Angeles. One of the many endearing things about the program is its Midwestern grass-roots ambiance. "MST3K" is clearly homemade and not a store bought cookie.
As for the title, "Mystery Science Theater" is obviously enough, but what does the "3000" signify? "We just said 'Lets make it 3000 so it's really cool,' " Hodgson says. "It doesn't mean it's taking place in the year 3000. It just means it's "that cool"."