August 5, 2015

MST3K: how talking back became an art form

Last month I started a look at the classic TV shows that make up my weekly viewing habits. Today, we continue our look at the Hadley household's Saturday night with a show that made it from a local Minneapolis-St. Paul TV station to the big time - or at least basic cable.  

I was still living in Minneapolis back in November 1988, and because my grandmother didn't have cable TV, I wasn't able to watch the Thanksgiving night Texas-Texas A&M game on ESPN.*  Left to my own devices with the available over-the-air stations, I settled on Channel 23, one of the local independents.  It probably didn't mean as much to me then as it does now, but the fact that I'm able to recount the details means it must have made some impression.

*I did record it though, and got to see it when I got home.  A&M beat Texas 28-24, and I was happy.  Now that I live in Texas, I still root for A&M.

KTMA was having a science fiction marathon that Thanksgiving, and at 6pm they premiered a double-feature of supermarionation movies under the umbrella of a new series they called Mystery Science Theater 3000, hosted by a local comedian named Joel Hodgson*.  I figured, what the heck, why not?

*A friend of mine saw him doing standup in a local comedy club, and was invited to come up on stage and battle him in a game of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.  He lost to Hodgson, several times, after which Hodgson revealed he'd nailed the head of his robot down so it couldn't pop up.  Gotta love a guy like that.

The premise was pretty simple - science fiction movies with commentary provided by a guy and two robots, who appeared as silhouettes on the bottom of the screen.  The comments were snarky (although that's not what we called them back then), and laced with pop culture references.  I got it, liked it - and then I don't think I ever watched another episode.  Four months or so later I moved to Maine, where of course there was no KTMA, and pretty much forgot all about it.

A few months after that I read that Comedy Central was adding Mystery Science Theater 3000 to their lineup.  "Hey," I thought (or words to that effect), "I remember that show.  They made the big time - great!"  I probably started watching it after it debuted, showed it to my wife, explained how I'd first seen the show back in Minneapolis.  This time I kept watching it.

It was a funny show then, it's a funny show now.  We loved the jokes - they appealed to the absurd sense of humor we both have, and we even got most of the more obscure, foreign film-type references.*  There was the time Joel tried to play Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" on electric bagpipes made out of a vacuum cleaner, for example.  Or how any movie with Lloyd Bridges was laced with Sea Hunt jokes, while Peter Graves got the Biography treatment.  The dumber the humor, the better we liked it.  And let's face it, those movies were pretty bad.  No matter how much Joel and the 'Bots trashed them, they deserved it.

*But then, we like Dennis Miller too, so what do you expect?

One of the biggest appeals of the series was how "everyman" it was, creating a television show out of something that almost all of us do: talk back to the screen.  Of course, in the hands of these guys, riffing on bad movies became an art form.  But as we watched the show, we discovered something important: you didn't have to be well-educated to riff, you didn't have to have seen every Ingemar Bergman movie ever seen (although it helped), you didn't need to be a Hollywood star or even a television writer to do it.  Anyone could do it, and if you watched enough of MST3K, you could even hold your own with them.  Another thing we discovered: some people appreciated our talking during a movie - while others didn't.  The ones who did continue to be our friends.*

*I'll admit I can be somewhat irritating when I get on a roll, especially if it's during a show that my wife likes but I think is stupid.  Despite that, sometimes she can't help but laugh at something I say.  However, the fact that I know when I've pushed it far enough and it's time for me to leave the room is part of the reason we've been married 22 years.

Adam West, host of Turkey Day '94
The highlight of the year was the Turkey Day marathon, 24 hours of MST3K (as it had come to be called), starting at 11pm CT on Wednesday night and running all through Thanksgiving day and evening.  I didn't give up parades and football completely, but we were usually good for four or five episodes off and on throughout the day.  It really was addictive - the more you saw, the more you wanted to see.  I think it was Turkey Day, particularly the year when Adam West did the bumpers leading into and out of each episode, that sealed MST3K as one of my favorites.  I even survived the traumatic change from Joel to Michael J. Nelson as host - they were different, but both funny.  It was one of the few shows I've watched that really was laugh-out-loud funny.*

*My personal favorite: "It Conquered the World," with Peter Graves and Lee Van Cleef.  The movie actually holds up, which is more than you can say for most of them, but the commentary is priceless.  Check it out, particularly the period from the end of the movie through the closing credits.

When the show finally left the air quite a few years ago, it became one of those nostalgia things, fondly remembered but secure as a part of the past.  Then, a couple of years ago, it came back - kind of.  Shout!, which did the MST3K DVDs, restarted the Turkey Day tradition as a mini-marathon running on Shout!'s YouTube channel, with best-of (or worst-of) episodes from the show's original run.  Suddenly, it was back as part of our lives.  Then, last year, they included commercials for a coming theatrical event for RiffTrax, a live sort-of MST3K featuring Nelson and two of the voices from the show (but no robots, alas) riffing on a perfectly dreadful movie, Santa Claus.  It was a wonderful, hilarious evening.  And from that point on, MST3K was back as part of my TV lineup.

If you're a fan of the show, you know that a big part of its early days was the propensity of viewers to tape the show and then circulate the tapes to their friends - the high-tech version of word-of-mouth.  One of the by-products of that is that most of the episodes are on YouTube, many of them in pretty good shape considering the source.  Thanks to the wonders of Google Cast, it's now easier than ever to stream your laptop on to your television*, and with that a new Saturday night tradition, same as the old Saturday night tradition, was born.

It's the nightcap to our Saturday night viewing most weeks, and, as was the case last week when we saw an episode we hadn't seen before - "War of the Colossal Beast," a sequel to "The Amazing Colossal Man," it's a particular treat.  It's also a great way to go to bed with a chuckle, which, considering Sunday will always be "the day before we have to go back to work," is the very best we can hope for.

Next time: the detective who took a licking and kept on ticking - or sleuthing, as the case may be.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, early Comedy Central when it was actually funny. Pre john Stuart


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