Tuesday, November 25, 2008

It was 20 years ago today...(well, actually this past Monday)

This week marks the 20th anniversary of one of my favorite creations of all time. Nope, not butter, although that’s a very good guess. I’m talking about “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” a show about a guy trapped on a space ship watching awful movies with his robot friends. And I’m saying it loud and proud right here and now: it was pretty much the funniest damn show ever made and, to date, the only show to ever make me laugh so hard I sustained an actual physical injury. (And I never played piano again.)

Sure, there’ve been other funny TV shows, even some funny shows without puppets. But they were all 22 to 42 minutes long. Big deal. The writers of MST3K were funny for an hour-and-a-half every episode, mocking everything and everyone from Jackie Collins to “Harold and Maude” to Russian literature and Dada-ism. In a world filled with comedic sprinters, these writers were marathoners. (See, right there? They would have thrown in a clever “Is it safe?” joke. I have no such skill.)

“Mystery Science Theater” was a primer on exceptional writing. It proved in a profound manner that you don’t ever have to pander or dumb a joke down to make people laugh. Smart humor is good humor and even if half the room is scratching their heads at a Frida Kahlo joke, the other half of the room is thinking it’s the greatest thing ever because, seriously, it’s a Frida Kahlo joke! Who the hell makes Frida Kahlo jokes? Everyone who’s ever gotten an MST joke that rendered the rest of the room silent knows what a great feeling it is, like you just earned your PhD in cultural awesomeness.

Plus the show was just plain hilarious. I firmly contend that unless dolphins start performing cabaret or cats learn to give the finger, I will never see anything more miraculous than “A Patrick Swayze Christmas.” And lines like, “If you’re like me – and I know I am” and “How much Keefe is in this movie? Miles O’Keefe” will never not be funny. TV Frank’s plaintive love song to “Nummy Muffin Cookle Butter,” Torgo the Pizza Delivery Man, the Joey the Lemur Song – I love them all with irrational glee.

MST also worked because it had heart. It had that Midwestern humor that hits hard but never hurts. For as many films as they skewered, you always felt they still had affection for them – and when you think about some of the movies they had to sit through, that’s pretty damn impressive. (Joe Don Baker in “Mitchell” alone would have driven me to criminal acts.)

The characters gave the show heart, too. I never thought I’d anthropomorphize puppets made of gumball machines and bowling pins, but Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot had, well, depth, as did villains, Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank, whose deeply disturbing yet weirdly endearing relationship cracked me up to no end. And then there was Joel and Mike (I really want to say “Maude” here, too, but I’ll refrain). Whether you were a Hodgson fan or a Nelson fan or, like me, a fan of both, there’s no denying the charm and good-natured lovability each brought to their role.

So please join me today in celebrating the greatness that was “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” It was the best cow town puppet show ever.

And don't forget to check out the MST crew's latest projects: Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax. And if you want to indulge your nostalgia like I plan to, pick up a copy of the 20th anniversary MST box set. And if you want to read a far better tribute to MST than mine, check out Wil Wheaton's paean here.


onepinkshoe said...

I love MST3K! Mr. B Natural was my favourite.

Dana Detrick-Clark from Serious Vanity Music said...

I tip my hat to the only team to ever make a Ruth Underwood joke. Ever. Tom Servo...you complete me.

Michelle said...

I've been singing the song from the commercial for "Turkey Day" like I do every year (mostly in my head).

We gather together to watch cheesy movies, on Comedy Central on Thanksgiving Day. With Mystery Science Theater 3000
(gasp to get more air)
It's thirty straight hours and it's called Turkey Day.

Love it!

NancyRoo said...

Hear, hear! I'm glad you gave a shout out to Joe Don Baker. Mitchell's one of my very favorites!

Chewbob said...


I'm all about the Joel. I hearts me some serious deadpan. Mike as a little too animated for me. HOWEVER, I still enjoy the Mike shows, despite wishing the whole time that Mike was actually Joel.

Man, I miss the days when an awesome party consisted of sitting around with my friends and watching butt tons of MST3K. I haven't gotten to do it in a LONG TIME. I needs me some more nerdy pals!

ALSO: The MST3K joke I got that no one else did was in Pod People, when the actors shouted, "Tommy, can you hear me?" and (I think it was Tom Servo) replied with, "Can you feel me near you?"

TOM SERVO IS MY FAVORITE ROBOT. I keep meaning to build myself my own Tom Servo for my apartment. One of these days.

Aaaaaaaaaaand this comment has gone on way too long now.

Priscilla said...

I'm a long-time reader & fan of this blog, but this post compelled me to comment for the first time. Thank you for doing such a wonderful job of articulating everything that made me fall in love with Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

My younger brother and I stumbled across it on the Sci-Fi channel a few years ago, and were instantly hooked. The smart, sharp, and consistently hilarious writing is probably the main thing that's caused us to be so attached to this show. Because we got into the show when we were pretty young, it's been cool to see how, as we get older, so many of the references which were once obscure now make sense.

As far as we're concerned, this is our favourite show of all time - nothing else comes close in terms of making us laugh till we cry (The Final Sacrifice comes to mind - watching this has become an annual end of summer vacation tradition) or encapsulating the concept of 'labour of love'. Like The Grinch and a Charlie Brown Christmas, Jack Frost and Santa Claus vs. the Martians have become holiday staples in our house.

And with that much too long post, I bit you a hearty 'huzzah'!

crone51 said...

Possibly the funniest show *ever*

Kathe said...

Oh Liz, you are the most awesomest person on the planet and possibly all of the universe! I love this show, miss it so much and frankly, nothing makes beverages come out of my nose faster than watching "Mitchell!". :)