TV Review: Mystery Science Theater 3000 | 197 Episodes of Solid Nerd Humor

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Now that I have graduated college, I have a lot of free time before I begin working part-time at Busch Gardens Williamsburg and while I’m looking at possible grad school opportunities. This is time I’ve tried putting towards creative writing assignments and other hobbies around my house, but the desire to goof off has come up plenty. One of the ways this has emerged is that I’ve been revisiting one of the most influential shows of my life: Mystery Science Theater 3000. Episodes of the series can be found on Netflix, and even more can be found in full on YouTube. As a result, I can settle down for an evening and watch an entire 90-minute episode of the show, taking in both a movie and a television show.Mystery Science Theater 3000 ran from 1989 to 1999 for 197 episodes. Although the show’s cast has rotated during the run, the basic premise remains the same. Mad scientists have launched an average joe to a satellite floating in space dubbed the Satellite of Love. On the satellite, the poor schmuck is forced to sit in a theater and watch bad movies every day so the “mads” can find the perfect bad movie to conquer the world with. The protagonist for the first few years was Joel Robinson, played by Joel Hodgson from 1988-1993. When Hodgson left the show, he was replaced with Mike Nelson, played by Michael J. Nelson.

The show shifts between host segments and film segments. In the host segments, Joel or Mike interacts with the robots Joel built (Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, Gypsy, and Cambot) and have humorous bits with the mad scientists. In the film segments, Joel/Mike, Crow, and Tom enter the theater and watch the movie-of-the-week. The shows plays the movie of the week, with silhouettes of the S.O.L crew at the bottom of the screen, showing the three characters watching the movie and riffing on the feature presentation. The riffs can range from comments on the actors, criticism of the production values, pop culture references, to even adding humorous sound effects to random moments.

This series is one of the most influential pieces of media I have ever known. I first discovered the show when I was nine years old, when the Sci-Fi channel aired reruns at 9 a.m. On Saturday mornings. MST3K (as the show is often abbreviated as) was a show my dad was a fan of, and since I had discovered it on my own, I found myself hooked. I’d get up early on Saturday mornings just to watch the show, the same way kids in my age group probably woke up early to watch Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

Of course, most of the show’s content flew over my head. This is a show that definitely rewards the viewer for his or her level of intelligence. A good number of jokes involve looking at the actor on film and saying he or she resembles some other celebrity. Sure, there were some that I could understand immediately, but others passed me by. 

The show’s easiest and probably most successful brand of humor came from the obvious: pointing out how bad the movie was. This was something that I had never really seen or done before in my young life. After all, I watched movies to enjoy them. Mike and the bots (the reruns I watched were pretty firmly in the Mike era of the show, so I didn’t even see a Joel episode until I was in high school) showed me that another way to watch a movie was to simply look at what was on screen, and find a way to make the actions, characters, story, dialogue, and anything else more absurd by default.This was best demonstrated by the very first episode of the show I ever watched. In the ninth season of the show, Mike and the Bots were subjected to a 1990 low-budget Canadian movie called The Final Sacrifice. The movie was about a teenager who decided to investigate into his father’s death years earlier. The boy soon gets caught into an adventure that takes him to rural Canada, where he and a drunk drifter named Zap Rowsdower (yes, that is his name. The riffers get a lot of mileage out of that) try to flee in terror of an evil cult. Their journey leads them to discover a lost kingdom and results in Troy and Rowsdower (*snicker*) defeating the evil Sartorus and bringing the lost Ziox civilization back to its former glory.This is not a good movie. This is a movie you should not watch unless you are getting the Ludovico treatment. It’s very cheap, full of terrible special effects, lousy performances, poor plotting, and a real lack of concern for anything resembling depth or character. It’s a movie that’s so bad, time would have forgotten it if MST3K hadn’t found it.Despite this, it is honestly one of the most important movies I have ever seen.I’m not kidding. It’s a bad movie, and you honestly should only watch it if you have theMST3K crew floating around at the bottom of the screen making jokes about Rowsdower’s hockey hair or Troy’s shrill voice. Even with the film’s numerous issues, it’s important for how this movie affected me. When I first turned the channel to this episode, the show was probably 40 minutes into the film. Even though I didn’t have a complete understanding of what was happening with the story, I did manage to get into the humor of the show easily. The reason for that was simple: the characters were all one dimensional and easy to make fun of.Years later, I’d find the full version of this episode on YouTube and would be able to watch the film from start to end. After the opening credits, Troy decides to find out what happens to his father. This leads to a dull, slow, ten minute sequence of Troy searching through trunks in the attic. This sequence has no dialogue, no passion, and is so poorly lit (Mike asserts a book light is the light source used), that it should be so unbearable to watch. However, the riffers have honed in on the kid and his simple action and found a gold mine of humor to pull from the sequence.They pull out every nerd cliché with this kid. We don’t have any real idea of who this kid is outside of his quest, but Mike and the bots assume the worst. They riff on this kid the minute he appears (“He is just poured into that sweater”), and only pile on joke after joke at his expense. Lines like “Man, it’s a good thing I don’t have friends, ’cause then I wouldn’t be able to do this,” “Ah! ‘Sex:Male.’ See! I am!” and “I’m 25, I hope I hit puberty soon” arise from very little context, but provide a running gag to ensure that the viewer isn’t bored by the lackluster film on screen.This is further exemplified when Rowsdower enters the frame. They see the “hero” of the movie, with his torn denim jacket, mullet, thick mustache, and beer belly, and take these traits to the extreme. Jokes like “I wonder if there’s beer on the sun,” change the character of Rowsdower for the more tolerable. This even makes the sequences that should be exciting more absurd. The riffers watch Rowsdower running through a field and exclaim “The sides of his heart are exploding like old tires…”This changed a lot at how I look at bad movies. The style of humor exemplified in this episode was something I could easily understand and apply to further episodes of the show. It’s something that really taught me a lot about humor and how long a joke can last. Most episodes of the show find one aspect of a character or a movie, then find a way to see how much they can get out of it. Fat characters usually have a lot of humor about their eating habits thrown their way. Whiny characters are made even more annoying by the jokes hurled at them. Even the location of a movie draws a lot of humor (there’s tons of jokes at the expense of Canada in The Final Sacrifice).Combined, all of this created probably one of the funniest and most influential comedy series in my life. The Final Sacrifice is one episode that I find to be one of the funniest in the series run, and is one of the few episodes I’m able to quote a lot more frequently than others, especially if I’m making jokes about drunk people. It’s never going to be a good movie, and it’s even absurd to put it on the same level as movies I’ve written about for this site. However, it’s one I’m never really going to forget. It’s a gateway movie, one that allowed me to see even worse movies, but find a way to enjoy them. It’s something I’d be able to carry when I watched more mainstream bad movies like Troll 2 and The Room, and I’m sure theMST3K treatment is one I’ll continue to apply in the future.Episodes of MST3K can be found on Netflix and YouTube. This critic’s ten favorite episodes include ‘The Final Sacrifice,’ ‘Track of the Moon Beast,’ ‘Quest of the Delta Knights,’ ‘Invasion of the Neptune Men,’ ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate,’ ‘Space Mutiny,’ ‘Hobgoblins,’ ‘Soultaker,’ and ‘Merlin’s Shop of Mystic Wonders,’ although he recommends you check out more. These are his recommendations for solid episodes that will get you into the series.

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