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.