From: Wall Street Journal

Date: July 8, 1991

Headline: Revenge of the Critic

Subline: Television: "Mystery Science Theater 3000"

Author: Goldberg, Robert

Page(s): [unknown]

This is an unauthorized reprint.


Picture this: Sometime in the future, say next Sunday, a guy named Joel is working at the Gizmonic Institute. His bosses aren't too fond of him--in fact, they can't stand him--and so they decide to blast him into outer space.

Make sense so far? It's the basic scenario for one of the weirdest--and hippest--shows around, an instant cult classic called "Mystery Science Theater 3000". Sure, you've never heard of it. That's what makes it so cool. Created by (and starring) Joel Hodgson, the program got its start on a tiny Minnesota UHF station. It now airs on the fledgling cable channel Comedy Central (Saturdays at 10 a.m. EDT and again at 7 p.m. EDT).

Stuck up on the satellite of love, accompanied only by robots that look like gumball machines and hoover vacuum cleaners, Joel is subjected to the fiendish experiments of his mad-scientist bosses. Most devilish of all is that each week he's forced to watch a different film, a classic like "The Slime People", "Radar Men from the Moon" and "The Corpse Vanishes". These aren't just B movies, they're F movies, all-time cinematic woofers--the kind of films that feature flying turtles terrorizing Earth.

But as the movies unspool, Joel and his robot pals, Tom Servo and Crow, strike back. Seated in a darkened theater, they lob wisecracks at the screen like spitballs. It's cinematic anarchy, a free-for-all in the cheap seats.

Like an audience at "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", Joel and the 'bots meet each on-screen piece of dialogue with a line of their own. The allusions came fast and furious, and you have to be quick to catch them all. The humor ranges from highbrow to no-brow, from French existentialism to rock and roll. Any given "Mystery Science" episode may span Issey Miyake, M*A*S*H, Anthony Braxton, the Milwaukee Brewers and Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.

I was introduced into the world of MST3K, as devotees call it, by winsome little tape from last season, "Side Hackers". It's the story of a two-man motorcycling craze (one drives, the other hangs off the side and counterbalances). "You know," comments Joel as the film begins, "now that Side hacking is so big, it's good to see its humble origins." "Side Hackers" turns out not to be just an action film, it's also a love story. "You ever seen me so happy?" says one of the motocyclists to his teammate. "Yeah," yell the robots, filling in the dialogue, "but you didn't know I was watching."

We cut away for an intermission, and Joel and his buddies are jamming, offering up a tune about this motorcycling sport of kings: "Side hacking is one big bash, the favorite sport of cheap white trash.... Lean way back *=and scrape your butt, make it look like a quarter pound of ground chuck.... Oh, side hack it!" And then we're back into the film, as our cycling heros runs to a phone booth. "I gotta call my agent," fills in Crow. "I gotta get out of this film!"

Few shows are as simultaneously juvenile and sophisticated as MST 3000, few as hilarious and as boring. Despite all the comic jabs, the films are still excruciating, and they seem to go on forever. On the other hand, when the jokes are rolling, they're really rolling. If you remember Woody Allen's "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" then you remember both the pitfalls and the subversive chuckles of this kind of pastiche humor.

Over the coming weeks, MST 3000 will be treating viewers to all sorts of new inventions ("the cellulite phone--reminds you to stop dialing and start dieting"), new tunes, and some brand new old films, like "Daddy-O" ("must be Harry-O's father"). One of my favorites is this Saturday's "Time of the Apes", a Japanese sci-fi spectacular about two unfortunate kids who wander into a lab that conducts experiments on monkeys. As a scientist injects one of the primates, the robots quip, "A little horse for a little monkey" and "Soon he'll have himself on his back."

All of a sudden, the ground starts to rumble, and an earthquake rips through the lab. "I feel the plot move under my feet," they sing. A boulder falls and bangs into a lever on a control board. "Oh no!" they shout. "It hit the plot contrivance switch!" Wham-o, the children are transported to another century, to a time when brutal apes rule the world, all decked out as fierce futuristic warriors. Which neatly sets up a fashion minute for robot Crow: "This spring's ape is dashing, daring and absolutely shameless in paramiltary garb as the House of Primates unveiled its Tarzan collection to dazzled designers assembled in Milan.... Colors scream for attention in these fun fun fun one-piece action jumpsuits.... This is one reporter who is ready to enlist in any gorilla war that looks this good."

Sometimes MST 3000 plays it deadpan; sometimes it's just dumb. But throughout, there's something lovable about Joel and his mechanical sidemen. As they sit in the dark, complaining about the quality of the junk they're forced to watch, Joel and his tinsome twosome are standing in for all of us who are subjected to television on a regular basis. And when they tear apart the programming, it's the couch-potato's fantasy, the ultimate revenge of the critic--talking back to the screen. How can you not love a show that has critics as heroes?