For thirty years now, fans of low-budget B-Movies, Made-for-TV stinkers, and bad foreign imports have gathered in front of their televisions to enjoy those cinematic “less-than-classics,” in the company of a series of nerdy guys in coveralls, accompanied by a trio of smart-mouthed robots, all while being tormented by a succession of mad scientists. I’m speaking, of course, of the pop culture phenomenon known as Mystery Science Theater 3000, and its devoted legion of fans known as MSTies.
The show was the creation of Joel Hodgson, an aspiring stand-up comic from Minneapolis, who had relocated to Los Angeles to try to break into television. Despite appearances on David Letterman’s show and Saturday Night Live, and a proposed deal to co-star with Michael J. Fox in a project for Brandon Tartikoff, Hodgson grew dissatisfied with Hollywood, and returned to Minnesota. There, he pitched an idea he had been developing for a hosted movie show to Jim Mallon, at the time the head of production at Minneapolis television station KTMA. The concept involved the prop comedy that had been Hodgson’s forte on the stand-up circuit, combined with the station’s library of Public Domain films.
The premise of the show was that Hodgson’s character, Joel Robinson, had been confined to an orbiting space station, named the Satellite of Love, by a pair of mad scientists bent on destroying his mind by forcing him to watch bad movies. To save his sanity, Joel constructs three robots: Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, and Gypsy. Together, they watch the movies while riffing, or poking fun at, the obvious inadequacies of the films in question.
The series debuted on KTMA on November 24th, 1988—Thanksgiving Day, which began the close association between the show and the holiday, which is celebrated by the annual “Turkey Day Marathon.” Originally, Hodgson and Mallon, who had negotiated ownership of the program for their Best Brains, Inc. partnership, were given a contract for thirteen episodes. Once fans began calling the station in droves, giving the management a way to gauge the show’s popularity, that initial order was increased to twenty-one episodes. Those early KTMA episodes were rough, as one would expect from a local television production shot on a virtually nonexistent budget, lacking the polish and sophistication the series would eventually achieve. What was present, however, was the show’s sarcastic brand of humor, laden with pop culture references, and its trademark visual style.
As that initial season ended, events were happening that would bring the little local show to a nationwide audience. In July 1989, KTMA filed for bankruptcy protection, necessitating drastic reductions in expenditures. One of the casualties of the reorganization was Mystery Science Theater 3000, whose hopes for a second season were dashed by the station’s financial woes. At the same time, HBO was shopping for content for its recently announced Comedy Channel. Best Brains submitted a demo reel, and the new cable network bought it, making MST3K one of the first two shows for the Comedy Channel.
That would be the home for MST3K for seven seasons, until 1996. The Comedy Channel era brought many new faces to the cast and crew, most notably introducing Trace Beaulieu and Josh (billed as J. Elvis) Weinstein as the “Mads,” Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Larry Erhardt. Both were with the series from the beginning as writers, and they voiced Crow and Servo, but this would be their first time in front of the camera. Weinstein would leave after the first season, with his character of Larry being replaced by Frank Conniff as “TV’s Frank,” while Kevin Murphy replaced him as Servo’s voice.
While the show’s numbers were never huge for the Comedy Channel (soon to be rebranded as Comedy Central), MST3K’s devoted followers were no doubt vociferous in their love and support for the series. It continued virtually unchanged until the fifth season, when, due to increasing clashes with Jim Mallon over the creative direction of the show (including the Mystery Science Theater 3000 feature film), Joel Hodgson decided to leave the show. The show’s head writer, Michael J. Nelson, was chosen to replace Hodgson, and the characters’ transition occurred in episode #512.
Nelson would host the show for the remainder of its original run, including its cancellation by Comedy Central in 1996, following a shift in the network’s programming focus under new leadership. An aggressive campaign by the series’ fan base convinced The Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) to pick up the series, though there were several changes to the show’s cast. Trace Beaulieu left, following Conniff, who had left the series at the end of season six to pursue a screenwriting career. Mary Jo Pehl, who had replaced Conniff as the second Mad in the character of Clayton’s mother, Pearl Forrester, became the lead Mad with his departure. Bill Corbett replaced Beaulieu as the voice of Crow.
The series would run for three more seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel, before the network’s indifference finally doomed it. The original run ended in 1999; however, the fans refused to let the show die. In subsequent incarnations such as Cinematic Titanic, The Film Crew, and most notably Rifftrax, various combinations of series veterans have reunited to keep the spirit of riffing alive.
In November of 2015, Hodgson, who had been in negotiations with Mallon and Best Brains to reacquire the rights to the series, announced a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to revive the series for an eleventh season, with a goal of $2 million. The campaign actually raised more than $5.7 million, enough to fund fourteen new episodes, which debuted on April 14th, 2017 on Netflix with Jonah Ray as the host, and Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the Mads. A second revival season was ordered, which was released on Thanksgiving Day, 2018.
For thirty years now, Joel, Mike, Trace, Josh, Frank, Kevin, Bill, Mary Jo, and a host of others have kept millions of fans happy by sharing the enjoyment of watching bad movies, acknowledging that they’re bad, and reveling in it. By doing the same thing we do, while sitting in our living rooms, watching these same movies. Here’s to thirty more years of “movie pain,” “nightmare fuel,” and good, fun, riffing.
Creature Feature © D. Dyszel 2018
Dick Dyszel - Voice Actor