In the not-too-distant past, some Saturday or Sunday in the 1990s, there was a kid named Aric who was a little different from most of his friends. He lived in a small town in Washington where the epitome of culture was seeing how many Oly stubbies you could shotgun before the local high school football game and still manage to not fall down on the bleacher stairs. While other kids his age were outside playing games with such wonderfully hateful names as “smear the queer” – where one kid gets the football and everyone else tackles him in a dogpile, often while yelling various homophobic slurs – this kid was inside playing on his Commodore 64, his Tandy 1000HX, his IBM 386 and 486, and on and on.
When they were watching sports games and whatever generic sitcom was on the television, he was watching old re-runs of Star Trek and Doctor Who.
This kid, of course, was me. I grew up in a small town. Our only television was via rabbit ears with aluminum foil on the ends. We could reliably tune in three channels: a local NBC affiliate, a station that did nothing but syndicated shows (hence the Star Trek), and PBS (aka: my Doctor Who source.) My father was an avid bookworm with a large private library, as well as an audiophile. His extensive collection of books included The Lord of the Rings, which was my introduction to fantasy (he read me The Hobbit before I could speak and it was the first novel I completed on my own.) His collection of records was my introduction to comedy – including classic Monty Python and Fireside Theater. Needless to say, I had a warped sense of humor and peculiar taste in media even before I was a teen.
In the early 90s, 1990 or 1991 to be exact, my father sprung for one of those giant satellite dishes you mount in your yard. The thing looked like it belonged with Jodie Foster in Contact. However, my father was not about to spring for any premium satellite television package. We didn’t get most of the major channels. But what those old satellites did have was a semi-secret feature: the ability to tune into “raw” feeds from those major subscription channels. You see, the way cable television worked was the network primary would beam out the week’s shows on unlisted satellite channels. The affiliates would then record them for the official broadcast later. Savvy satellite users learned the schedules of these broadcasts and the various satellites to connect to. Most of them were transmitted in the clear – no scrambling.
This led to me constantly surfing these unlisted broadcasts to find new content. That’s when, one fateful night, I tuned into the middle of a bizarre show. My young mind could not understand what I was seeing. It was in the middle of the show, less than an hour left. But what I saw was one of the worst black and white movies I had ever seen. The white was too bright, the blacks more like washed out greys, and the audio track was often out of sync, filled with static, or impossible to understand.
Except for three voices. And it was those three voices, more than the movie, that confused and entertained me. It appeared to be coming from the silhouettes of three people on the bottom right of the screen. At first I thought they were part of the movie – but if that was the case, why were they cracking jokes at it? The confusion only grew as I watched. Why were these guys watching a movie about a bunch of men climbing a mountain?
Eventually I either tuned out or the show ended, I can’t remember which, but I do know I walked away not knowing what the show was or even what it was called.
Imagine me then trying to explain what I had just seen to my friends the next day. I sounded like a lunatic.
It took me several more years to find out what this show was. It was called “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and the movie they had been watching was Lost Continent, a low-budget dinosaur flick from 1951 starring Cesar Romero (The Joker in the Batman TV series) and Hugh Beaumont (Ward on Leave It To Beaver) before either of them had earned any star power behind their name.
But the point isn’t the movie. The point is the lasting effect this brief window into the show gave me. For the next two years I would remember this show and try to find it again. But without a name or even knowing what network it came from, I almost forgot it.
Until my father decided to get a premium package that included Comedy Central. And on this channel was a show called “Mystery Science Theater 3000” or “MST3K” for short. Mind you, I had no idea what the show was. But the name appealed to me.
My first true MST3K episode was a Season 4 Hercules episode. For the most part I was still in shock and full of confusion as I watched it. At least I knew the name of that show I watched two years before. But I wasn’t sure what it was about. Until the end.
The end of the movie featured the antagonist, a woman who had ensnared Hercules’ mind with some magic (which happens in pretty much every Hercules movie from the 1950s), standing over a pool of water while swelling music played. One of those silhouettes was singing an operatic love song in a falsetto voice, as if he was the woman herself. As the song climaxes, she jumps into the water to kill herself. It was this moment, and I remember it clearly, that I fell in love with MST3K.
Because as she hit the water this weird shape, who I would come to know as Tom Servo, continued singing – but as if he was singing underwater with a “bubble” or gargling voice. I lost it. It was the hardest I had laughed at a television show in my life at the time.
I was hooked. From then on I was recording episodes every week to share with my friends. God help anyone in my house if they interrupted the VCR’s programming. I lived for that weekend joy of rewinding and rewatching the latest episode over and over until I had all the jokes memorized.
The premise of the show is simple: mad scientists (first Doctors Clayton Forrester and Laurence Erhardt – Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein, respectively) then Forrester and TV’s Frank
(played by Frank Conniff), then Forrester’s mother, Pearl (played by Mary Jo Pehl) and finally his daughter, Kinga and TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, Max (played by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt) have trapped some poor rube (first Joel Hodgson as Joel Robinson, then Mike Nelson as himself, and now Jonah Ray Rodrigues as Jonah Heston) on the “Satellite of Love” in space. They send their subject bad movies and force him to watch them – by removing the oxygen from the rest of the ship so he has no choice but to go into the theater – and record it. Originally, the premise was Dr. Forrester would sell the recording to cable to make money. This eventually evolved into an ongoing science experiment to find the worst movie ever and then release it upon the unsuspecting masses of the world, drive them insane, and then take over the world.
But Joel figured out a way to keep his sanity – he cannibalized the SOL and made robot companions. He programmed them to be sarcastic and witty, and they join him in riffing the movies. They are Tom Servo (originally voiced by J. Elvis Weinsten, then Kevin Murphy, and now Baron Vaughn) and Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu, Bill Corbett, and now Hampton Yount) as well as Gypsy (J. Elvis Weinstein, Jim Mallon, Patrick Brantseg, and now Rebecca Hanson) who handles the higher functions of the ship. Cambot is literally a sentient camera that films everything for us to watch.
This recipe had been tried before in some form – the old horror movie nights on late night television, usually hosted by someone like Vampyra or Elvira, for example. The weekly showings of the cult-classic Rocky Horror Picture Show, with the audience yelling at the screen and interacting with the movie, is also similar. But something about MST3K transcended those shows and captured a fervent cult following. Maybe it was the sensible and sometimes understated Midwestern humor cultivated from the show’s origins in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Maybe it was how the hosts are portrayed as every-day, blue collar, guys. Or maybe it is just a reflection of how entertainment, movies, and comedy has evolved. Either way, it resonated with me and many, many, others worldwide.
When I moved out I took my tapes with me. I always had a VCR and TV wherever I lived. I would often fall asleep while the tapes played. Those voices, regardless of who was providing them, became my security blanket.
Without getting into too much detail, my life took a nasty turn before I joined the Army. I was depressed, an alcoholic, and a complete loner. My life was go to school, go to work, come home and drink until I passed out. But there was one shining light in that darkness: three friends who never left me. Those worn-out tapes kept me sane. No matter what happened, I had three friends who just chit-chatted while I fell asleep. It kept me from feeling completely alone.
I know that sounds sad, but I can honestly say I might not be alive today if it wasn’t for MST3K. Nothing else kept me from deep depression, including therapy and medicine, as those guys. (Note: this is not to be construed as medical advice. Please, if you are experiencing symptoms of depression, see a mental health professional. I say this as a man who regularly visits a therapist for his PTSD and other issues. There is no shame in seeking help, you’re not as alone as you think you are.)
In 1999, the show ended. Mike and the Bots managed to get back to Earth – where they immediately took up the hobby of watching bad movies on an old TV and making fun of them. And due to the nature of the show – licensing the movies – it made it impossible for it to be shown in syndication as many of the movies they riffed were only licensed for the initial run of the show. At that point, MST3K ceased to exist save for a few select DVDs and VHS tapes that were for sale.
Except for this invention called “The Internet.” During the show’s run, Internet-savvy fans began the process of converting recordings of the show to digital format. By the time the show ended nearly every episode was available on this thing called the “Digital Archive Project.” At the time it could take an entire day to download one episode – but I did it anyway.
So when I shipped out to Iraq in 2003 as a member of the United States Army, I had a portable DVD player with the DVDs I had purchased and a MP3 player that was really a massive flash drive (it stored one gigabyte in 2003!) that also contained every episode available digitally – which was pretty much all of them.
The Army is where I discovered the true reach of MST3K. While it was largely unknown in my hometown, and only a few of my friends had ever heard of it even in 2001, the Army was filled with fans of the show. And I had them all. So whenever we had downtime I became the focal point for movie watching. It was not uncommon to see ten or twenty soldiers crammed around the tiny laptop screen and laughing at the tinny voices coming through the underpowered speakers.
And it wasn’t long before I discovered that the healing powers of MST3K extended beyond just being lonely and depressed. I developed PTSD before my first tour ended, although I didn’t admit it for some time. But sleep, even when things were “calm”, became increasingly difficult. Even in a room with a dozen other men I started to feel alone. And those other men were feeling the same. We had been through hell and didn’t know how to get out of it.
So I went back to my old habit of watching the show while I fell asleep. I shared my episodes with others who had similar problems. It became a point of light I could focus on in the darkness of war: no matter how bad things got, if I could just make it back to base I knew my three friends from before the war were waiting for me. It was one of the most important slices of home and normalcy I had left.
Throughout my life MST3K has been one of the most important elements. I literally watch it daily. I fall asleep every night to either MST3K or the two spin-offs created by the show’s veterans, Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax. I have signed collectibles like movie posters and DVDs.
MST3K also helped me develop my own art. Thanks to the show and its criticism of movies, storytelling, and especially cliches and tropes, I am very conscious of these issues within my own writing. Plot holes, retconning, and the use of cliches are things I am hyper-vigilant about. And my humor tends to be observational and understated, a definite legacy of things like MST3K and all the British shows I watched on PBS and listened to on my father’s record player.
And that’s just my own personal influence. It can be argued that MST3K was the originator of “Internet culture” – it certainly survived because of the Internet. And look at media today: it is nothing but people commenting on videos and making jokes. Yes, not nearly as good as the show, but it shows how the landscape changed and MST3K both predicted and influenced it.
Even my Twitch stream is MST3K-themed, including the animated silhouettes of Mike, Crow, and Servo hovering over the webcam of me. My alert sounds are mostly taken from the show. My “tagline” comes from the movie they released (“May your forehead grow like the mighty oak” – a reference to MST3K and the fact that I’m bald.)
And now, it is back. When Joel Hodgson, creator of the show, announced a Kickstarter for a reboot in 2015 I didn’t hesitate. I backed for a rather large sum of money. It made perfect sense to me: I have done everything I can to insure the people who made this show received ample compensation from me. I’ve bought every available episode on DVD. I’ve purchased all of the Cinematic Titanic episodes and dozens of Rifftrax VODs and sound files. So I gladly gave them more for the chance to bring the show back.
Unlike many fans, I was not expecting a return of the original show runners. I understood Joel’s idea that the show should get new talent every few years to keep it fresh. So I wasn’t too concerned about these new guys, except for the fact that maybe they just didn’t have the chops to properly riff a movie.
Well, Kickstarter backers get the episodes early. Everyone else has to wait until 12:01 A.M. Pacific Time, April 14th, but I’ve been watching them for several days now. And I can say, without a shadow of a doubt: it’s back!
Yes, when the theme song played, there were tears in my eyes. Don’t judge me. I also got very emotional when I saw that Tom Servo could move his arms – he didn’t have that ability in the first ten seasons. I know it sounds absurd, but I was so happy that my “friend” of thirty years finally had the use of his arms – even though that friend is just a puppet.
Jonah Ray Rodrigues, Hampton Yount, and Baron Vaughn are the new riffers. Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt the new Mad Scientists. And they all were essentially, like me, raised on MST3K. You could say these comedians have been training their whole life for this moment and it shows.
The biggest complaint I have about the new show is that there are so many jokes, of such good quality, that you often miss many of them because you’re still laughing at one.
In short, my two best friends are back (Tom and Crow) and I’m rapidly gaining a new one in Jonah. If you’re a fan of the show you will find yourself bingeing it on Netflix. If you’ve never watched it before, this new season provides a great introduction.