Mystery Science Theater 3000 was quite possibly the lynchpin which united the myriad factions of retro culture during the 1990s. While every hotrodder, garage punk, surf guitarist, rockabilly chick, swing-dancer, trekkie and monster movie aficionado I ever met loved MST3K, so did pretty much everyone else with a functional sense of humor and a triple-digit IQ. Case in point, back in 1994 I remember listening to a professor introduce himself on the first day of a 500-level microbiology class at THEE Ohio State University by stating, “I seem to have forgotten the syllabi. Well, we’re off to a very auspicious beginning.” After an awkward pause, he finally thought of something interesting to say, “OK, show of hands, who watches Mystery Science Theater 3000? I steal most of my jokes from that show.” Remember, this took place in a time when cable was still largely considered second rate programming, and Comedy Central was a relatively obscure upstart network. MST3K was far more popular than it had any right to be.
So much has been written about MST3K over the years, but for any reader unfamiliar with the premise, here’s a brief synopsis. In the not too distant future, the malevolent Dr. Clayton Forrester and his lackey, TV’s Frank, launch Joel Robinson, a janitor at the Gizmonic Institute, into space and force him to watch horrible B-movies as some sort of sadistic experiment. Trapped on board the ship, nicknamed the “Satellite of Love”, Joel builds several sentient robot friends. Two of these, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, watched the B-movies with Joel, whilst making jokes, wise-cracks, one-liners, witty zingers and non sequiturs at the expense of the films. The viewer could see their silhouettes in the lower right hand corner of the screen, as though you were seated right behind them in a movie theatre. This was the concept of the horror host carried through to its logical point of absurdity. It was both hilarious and wonderful.
There were also numerous skits between film segments with Joel and the robots trading barbs with Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank. The invention exchange was a recurring gag, in which each side presented some ridiculous contraption they’d hastily assembled before the show. My all-time favorite was the “Fridge Udder”, which consisted of a cow patterned refrigerator where the ice and water dispensers were altered with milk-dispensing teats. Hearing Crow T. Robot repeatedly say “teat” on television before being injured whilst “fridge tipping” is the stuff dreams are made of. At the risk of going off on a tangent, inappropriate language was screened much more vigorously in the 90s than it is today. Back then, you couldn’t call someone a “dick” on basic cable, but somehow Crow and Tom Servo always got away with calling each other “dick weed”. It may have been misinterpreted as a benign botanical term akin to “pussy willow”, yet, I digress.
After one season on KTMA in Minneapolis, Minnesota, MST3K ran for seven seasons on Comedy Central from 1989 through 1996. For many members of Generation X, this was our first exposure to the cinematic genius of Ed Wood, Roger Corman, and the gargantuan terrapin awesomosity that is Gamera. It’s astounding to think about, but in the era famous for Terminator 2 (1991), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Independence Day (1996), millions of youths were tuning in religiously to see the likes of
- Rocketship X-M (1950)
- It Conquered the World (1956)
- Bride of The Monster (1956)
- Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956)
- War of the Colossal Beast (1958)
- Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)
- Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)
- The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy (1959)
- Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
- Gamera vs. Barugon (1966)
Any way you slice it, that’s an awful lot of black and white golden age science fiction that most of us never would have seen otherwise.
In addition to the guys-in-rubber-monster-suits genre, MST3K screened a plethora of exploitation films, introducing extinct youth subcultures such as beatniks, greasers, and clean-cut outlaw bikers to a whole new audience.
- Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955)
- The Violent Years (1956)
- Untamed Youth (1957)
- Daddy-O (1958)
- The Sinister Urge (1959)
- Girls Town (1959)
- The Rebel Set (1959)
- The Beatniks (1960)
- Wild Rebels (1967)
- The Hellcats (1968)
The outdated attitudes, posturing and slang of the characters in these movies seemed comical enough in and of itself. Adding Joel and the robots’ commentary to the mix often resulted in laughter to the point of tears and incapacity.
A recurring theme of 1990s retro was initiation through ironic distance, followed by genuine affection. Moreover, many of those who initially watched MST3K to mock and laugh at old B-movies, and the passé values of the times they reflected, ended up actually liking vintage sci-fi and exploitation films. Liking them non-ironically, mind you. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a gateway drug, which often lead to the enjoyment of Elvis movies, dabbling in obscure Japanese daikaiju, scouring eBay for bootlegged DVDs of Invasion of The Saucermen (1957), and finally metastasizing into a full-blown addiction to Turner Classic Movies.
Note to hardcore MST3K purists: Hold off on the hate mail. I intend to do follow up posts on MST3K – The Mike Years, and MST3K: The Movie.