April 10, 2024

The New Top Ten: Mystery Science Theater 3000

Considering the number of times I've mentioned Mystery Science Theater 3000 here, it can't be a bombshell that it's now part of the Top Ten; in fact, the only thing surprising about it is that it wasn't there in the first place. (We'll get to that later.) And let me assure you that this isn't a case of hometown favoritism either, although it didn't hurt to be from Minneapolis at the same time that Mystery Science Theater made its local debut.

It all begins on Thanksgiving night, 1988. Now, if you've been reading this site for any length of time, you'll know that as far as television goes, Thanksgiving is synonymous with only two things, parades and football, and the parades were long gone. (As were the drumsticks.) Normally, I'd have been watching the late football game, but we were at my grandmother's apartment—and no, we didn't have to go over the river and through the woods to get there—and, as she didn't have cable TV, I had to make due with the over-the-air stations, one of which was KTMA, which was premiering a new series called Mystery Science Theater 3000, hosted by the local comedian Joel Hodgson. I'd heard of him, had seen ads in the local alternative papers for his stand-up act at various clubs. In fact, a friend of mine, attending one of his shows, had been 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 own robot down so it couldn't pop up.

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. Riffing, they called it. For the premiere, they were doing a double-feature of Supermarionation movies, Invaders from the Deep and Revenge of the Mysterions from Mars (which you can see at the links). The comments were funny, sarcastic, smart-assed—qualities I'd well-developed by 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 later, I read that Comedy Central was adding Mystery Science Theater 3000 to its lineup. It was nice to see a hometown show make good, and I started checking it out. This time, I kept watching. It was a funny show then, it's a funny show now; the more absurd, the better. There was, for instance, the time Joel tried to play Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" on electric bagpipes made out of a vacuum cleaner. There were running jokes about Peter Graves on Biography, Ted Kennedy's driving, Jack Ruby fantasy camps, and Rush Limbaugh. There were catchphrases: "A planet where apes evolved from men." "Bite me!" "By that time, my lungs were aching for air." Gorgo, Gamera, Godzilla, Torgo, Santo the Silver Maskman, Japanese sci-fi, biker movies. The Thanksgiving Turkey Day marathons. The dumber the humor, the more obscure the references, the better. Most of the episodes were on YouTube, and eventually, long after the original series had ended, it was incorporated into the regular Saturday night viewing schedule.   

So why wasn't it on my original list of Top Ten shows? Who knows? Not every program I enjoy made it; there's only room for ten, after all. But then a funny thing happened one day: a channel on the streaming service Pluto devoted to MST3K 24/7. And then there was a Shout! TV channel devoted to MST3K. And a YouTube channel! Suddenly, it wasn't just for Saturday nights or Thanksgiving marathons; it was for whenever you felt like it, good for when nothing else fit, when things weren't going well, or for just vegging out. It didn't matter that we'd already seen some of the movies two or three times; in fact, it seemed as if every time we watched Beginning of the End or Radar Men from the Moon or Lost Continent, there was something we'd missed the first five or six times. It was the epitome of what my friend David Hofstede refers to as "Comfort TV," good for whatever ails you. And it was obvious that it deserved not just a place on the Top Ten list, but a high one.

There are, of course, two basic questions for any MSTie: one, where do I stand on the great Joel vs. Mike question? If it's not quite to the level of "Which Darren is your favorite" on Bewitched, it's still important. Mike—Michael J. Nelson, the show's head writer—stepped into the lead role when Joel Hodgson left the show, and shepherded the series through its move to the Sci-Fi channel, the big-screen movie, and the eventual end of the series, and there is a school of thought that one has to be either Joel or Mike. I don't buy it, and while it may have taken awhile to get used to Mike as the host (he'd appeared many times as various characters during the Joel era), it was for the most part an easy transition for me. Besides, how could you not like someone who not only could tell a joke featuring Muir Mathieson, but could pronounced his name right?

The second question, perhaps more relevant to today: what do I think of the MST3K reboot, which Joel Hodgson launched a few years ago, following a monstrously successful crowdfunding campaign? Well, the short answer is that I'm glad there are three more seasons, but as is the case with so many remakes and reboots, you can't really go home again. Joel himself has only occasionally appeared on the show, while an entirely new cast of voices play the robots Tom Servo and Crow. Perhaps I'm just too old, but I'm also too attached to the old cast to warm to the new one; the voices themselves sound like they're just not quite right for the characters. Additionally, the riffs and cultural references don't quite fit my demographic, and the movies aren't the black-and-white sci-fi flicks that I enjoy the most. And the low-budget feel of the original was an important part of its charm. But then, that's just me, and I know there are lots of people out there who enjoy the new series just fine.

Be that as it may, it's the classic version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that takes its rightful place in the new Top Ten, along with Judd for the Defense and Maigret. Those shows made the list because they make me think, but MST3K belongs there because I can watch it over and over and it makes me laugh out loud, and there are very few shows about which I can make that statement. As long as we have shows like this to watch, we're in good shape—to infinity and beyond, coining a phrase. There's more I could say, much more, but I have to go now: Samson vs. the Vampire Women is about to start. TV  


  1. Some of the lines, once heard, always stay with you: "Every frame of this movie looks like someone's last known photograph."

  2. Being able to watch MST3K on Pluto is a Godsend. Anytime there is nothing else to watch, we can count on watching this.
    I've heard many of those lampooned did not appreciate the humor. "Even people who make bad movies deserve respect" is often what they say. But I think they miss the point. Would they rather these movies be forgotten, deteriorating on a studio shelf somewhere? Well, maybe. But MST3K gave them a second life they never would have had. In many ways, made them more popular than when they were originally released.
    Also, MST3K is the worthy successor to all those late night local monster movie hosts. They just took it to the next level.

  3. Hobgoblins was on this weekend, one of my favorite MST.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!