Mystery Science Theater 3000

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From left to right, Crow T. Robot, Joel Robinson, and Tom Servo (the latter dressed as a candystriper).

Mystery Science Theater 3000, also called MST3K, was a cult television comedy series created by Joel Hodgson and produced by Best Brains Inc., based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Its premise involved fictional characters making fun of old and sometimes forgotten low-budget movies, a format which proved to be influential. Original episodes aired on The Comedy Channel, Comedy Central and the Sci Fi Channel from 1989 to 1999. The show started with a short run on Minnesota UHF station KTMA channel 23 from November 24, 1988 to 1989; in 1990, it became one of the first two shows picked up by the new Comedy Channel, along with Hodgson's other creation, the short-lived Higgins Boys and Gruber. While never a huge ratings hit, MST3k attained a fiercely loyal fan following and much critical acclaim; the series garnered a Peabody Award in 1993.



Two mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester and his sidekick Dr. Laurence Erhardt, launch Joel Robinson, a janitor working for the Gizmonics Institute, into space and force him to watch truly horrible B-movies. They do this in order to measure how much bad movie-making it takes to drive a person crazy, and to pinpoint the perfect B-movie to use as a weapon in Dr. Forrester's scheme of world domination. (The sycophantic TV's Frank replaced Dr. Erhardt in the second season premiere.)

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Trapped on board the Satellite of Love (S.O.L.) — a Lou Reed reference — Joel builds the robots that populate the ship (ostensibly because he is lonely, and as an homage to the 1970s film Silent Running). The robots are Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, who accompany Joel in the screening room; Gypsy, who does not appear in every episode but handles the "higher functions" of the S.O.L.; and Cambot, the recorder of the experiments who is never visible but occasionally interacts with the others. Also making intermittent "appearances" in the show's early years is Magic Voice, a disembodied female voice whose primary role is to announce the start of the first commercial break in each episode.

Joel has no control over when the movies start. As the movies play, the silhouettes of Joel, Tom, and Crow are visible at the bottom of the screen, wisecracking and mocking the movie (a practice they often referred to as "riffing") to prevent being driven mad.

Just before or after commercial breaks, Joel and the bots sometimes perform skits, songs, or other short sketch pieces (called "host segments") that are often related to the movie they are watching. These segments sometimes even feature "visits" by prominent characters from the movie, such as Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate. But before too much frivolity can transpire, the "movie sign" lights flash, signaling the resumption of the movie.

Most of the early episodes also include screenings of unintentionally hilarious short films or "shorts" — propaganda-style films from the 1950s — such as a training film for Chevrolet sales managers, and films intended to teach children about posture or personal hygiene.

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Satellite of Love

The show's run coincided with the growth of the Internet, and numerous fans (MSTies) devoted websites to the series. The Internet also facilitated tape-trading of previous episodes among fans, a practice the show's creators encouraged by flashing the title "Keep circulating the tapes!" during the closing credits of episodes during the first four seasons. (Later, when concerns about copyright infringement arose, the exhortation in the credits ceased.) There were two official fan conventions in Minneapolis, run by the series' production company itself (zanily called "Conventio-Con Expo-Fest-A-Rama" (1994) and "Conventio-Con Expo-Fest-A-Rama II: Electric Boogaloo," (1996) respectively, a reference to the movies Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo). Some noted celebrity fans of MST3K are film director and producer Steven Spielberg, former Vice President Al Gore, Time film critic Richard Corliss and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann.

When Joel Hodgson decided to leave the series, halfway through season five, an episode was written in which his character escaped from the S.O.L. (after being forced to sit through the Joe Don Baker movie Mitchell. With the help of Gypsy after finding an escape pod (named the Deus ex Machina), Joel escaped in a box marked "Hamdingers". To replace Joel, Dr. Forrester sent Mike Nelson, a temp worker he hired to help to prepare for an audit from the Fraternal Order of Mad Science. The series head writer Michael J. Nelson played Mike from 1993 until the end of the series. Debates (sometimes heated) raged in fan forums about who was the better host for quite some time, but in more recent years a consensus has developed among the fanbase that acknowledges that each performer had his merits.

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Cambot as he appeared during Joel's time on the series.

The series first aired on local TV in the Twin Cities on KTMA-TV, a UHF station (not a cable access channel, as is sometimes reported). The station's declining fortunes forced it to cancel MST3K, but the creators used a short "best-of" reel from the KTMA shows to sell the concept to The Comedy Channel, a national cable channel that was then being created. After one season there, The Comedy Channel and rival comedy cable network "HA!" merged to become Comedy Central. It would run there for six more seasons, reigning as its "signature series" for several years, before falling out of favor with the network's management. When Comedy Central dropped the show after a shorter-than-normal seventh season, MST3K's Internet fan-base staged a precedent-setting write-in campaign to keep the show alive. This included taking contributions from MST3K fans worldwide for a full page ad in the television trade publication Daily Variety magazine. One notable contributor to the campaign was TV Personality and Biography host Jack Perkins, who had been parodied on the series several times. Eventually this effort led the Sci Fi Channel to pick up the series, where it resumed with most of the original cast. Trace Beaulieu, who played Dr. Forrester and Crow, left; Dr. Forrester's mother, Pearl, played by Mary Jo Pehl, menaced Mike and the bots; and her sidekicks were the idiotic, Planet of the Apes-inspired Professor Bobo (Murphy) and the highly evolved, omniscient, yet equally idiotic Observer (AKA "Brain Guy"), played by writer Bill Corbett. Corbett also competently took over Crow's voice and puppetry.

Due to contractual obligation, every episode on the Sci Fi Channel had to be of a science-fiction movie (instead of the varied genres present in past shows), although by the final season this restriction seemed to be loosened, allowing movies such as Girl in Gold Boots. In any event, the network's vast library of science-fiction films provided an abundance of bad movies to "riff".

A feature film, in which Mike and the 'bots worked over This Island Earth, was released in 1996 during the gap in the show's run between its days on Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel. Unfortunately, Universal Studios invested few resources into the resultant Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. About two dozen of the original Comedy Central episodes have been released on VHS and DVD.

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Mystery Science Theater 3000's Mike Nelson (left) and Kevin Murphy, at "Exoticon 1" convention panel in Metairie, Louisiana, November, 1998.

The series finale premiered on August 8, 1999, although an episode produced earlier in the season was the last new episode of MST3K broadcast on September 12, 1999. MST3K continued on the Sci Fi Channel as reruns until January 31, 2004.

In the May 30th-June 5th, 2004 issue of TV Guide, a feature article listed Mystery Science Theater 3000 among the 25 Top Cult Shows Ever!:

" 11 - Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1999)
A space traveler and his smart-ass robots watch and crack-wise about bombs like The Brain That Wouldn't Die and The Killer Shrews.
Cult-ability: Mike Nelson, writer and star (replacing creator Joel Hodgson), recently addressed a college audience: "There was nobody over the age of 25. I had to ask, 'Where are you seeing this show?' I guess we have some sort of timeless quality." (Source: TV Guide May 30th-June 5th, 2004 issue, "25 Top Cult Shows Ever!" feature article, page 32)

Among the movies dismembered on the series are Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Manos: The Hands of Fate, five Japanese Gamera monster movies, Marooned starring Gregory Peck and Gene Hackman, and the Ed Wood film Bride of the Monster. Most of the movies were edited to make room for commercials and the sketches surrounding them, a practice which some people suspect allowed the Best Brains writers to introduce discontinuities that would render the movies all-the-more ripe for ridicule (although many such discontinuities are clearly shown in the original films or in their commercially available prints). In total there are 198 full episodes of MST3K (including the motion picture).

Eras of MST3K:

  1. KTMA era
  2. Joel era (Comedy Central seasons 1-4, 5 through episode 512 Mitchell)
  3. Mike era (Comedy Central season 5 episode 513 The Brain that Wouldn't Die to end, seasons 6-7)
  4. Sci Fi era (seasons 8-10)

The cast

"The guys"

  • Joel Robinson — Joel Hodgson (1988 - 1993)
  • Mike Nelson — Michael J. Nelson (1993 - 1999)
  • Crow T. Robot — voice and puppetry by Trace Beaulieu (1988 - 1996), Bill Corbett (1997 - 1999)
  • Tom Servo — voice and puppetry by Josh Weinstein (1988 - 1989), Kevin Murphy (1990 - 1999)
  • Gypsy — voice and puppetry by Jim Mallon (1989 - 1997), Patrick Brantseg (1997 - 1999)
  • Cambot — (not a cast role)
  • Magic Voice — variously voiced; but as of Season 4 was consistently (more or less) voiced by Mary Jo Pehl. Prop Mistress Beth "Beez" McKeever provided the voice for its two Sci Fi era "appearances".

"The Mads"

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From left to right, Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV's Frank.

Recurring guest characters

  • Jack Perkins (Michael J. Nelson) — in real life the host of the A&E Network's Biography program, Perkins first appeared in MST3K simply to annoy the Mads by describing the movie as far better than it actually was. When MST3K appeared in syndication as The Mystery Science Hour, Nelson's fake "Jack Perkins" hosted the show.
  • "Krankor" (Bill Corbett) — a pudgy, vain, would-be conqueror with an unfortunately chicken-like appearance and a drawn-out, braying laugh, "Krankor" (technically, "The Phantom", dictator of the planet "Krankor" in the movie Prince of Space) appeared in a host segment when MST3K riffed Prince of Space, and returned three episodes later in a host segment for Invasion of the Neptune Men, a movie with a similar plot but far, far fewer redeeming qualities.
  • Pitch (Paul Chaplin) — a devil from the Mexican movie Santa Claus, Pitch was one of the only characters from the Comedy Central seasons to return in the Sci Fi Channel seasons.
  • Torgo (Michael J. Nelson) — a rebellious monster henchman in Manos: The Hands Of Fate, Torgo was among the most frequently returning "guest characters" of MST3K. He got his knees fixed and accompanied TV's Frank to sidekick heaven and was never seen again (episode 624 Samson vs. The Vampire Women).
  • Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl) — Dr. Forrester's horrible mother appeared once in season six (episode 607 Bloodlust). The character returned in season seven as a replacement for TV's Frank (Frank Conniff), and then became the main villain in the Sci Fi era. This is the only time a guest star was made into a regular character (not counting Professor Bobo and Observer).
  • MST3K has only had two non-staffers make guest appearances on the show: Minnesota Viking Robert Smith (as "Howard" in episode 803 The Mole People) and film critic Leonard Maltin (as himself in episode 909 Gorgo). All other guest appearances were filled by a Best Brains crew member or a regular cast member in disguise.


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Joel and the 'bots watching Hired! Part I in the ship's movie theater.

Most of the humor in MST3K episodes comes from quotable quips that the S.O.L. crew insert into the dialog and scenes of the movies they mock, as well as clever riffing during the "host segments". A much larger sample of notable MST3K quotes is available on Wikiquote.

106: The Crawling Hand

[Holding a fake hand to his throat.]
Joel: Mrs. Burke! I thought you were Dale! AAAAHHH!

111: Moon Zero Two

[The Mads invent toothpaste tubes with little human heads on them. The toothpaste comes out the mouth.]
Dr. Erhardt: Here's Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick!
Dr. Forrester: Mr. Creosote from Monty Python and the Meaning of Life! "Fetch me a bucket, I'm gonna throw up!"
Dr. Erhardt: Linda Blair with real head-cranking action! "Your mother flosses in Hell!"
Dr. Forrester: What do think, Joel-a-rini?
Joel: I think four out of five dentists are going to recommend psychiatric help for you.

201: Rocketship X-M

Crow: Boy! Nothing more depressing than being locked in a capsule watching a movie about people dying in a capsule.

424: Manos: The Hands of Fate

Crow: Joel, this is gonna turn into a snuff film.
[Seeing Torgo's unusual gait for the first time.]
Joel: Ah, that's not how you wear your Depends, Torgo.
Crow: Been hitting the Thighmaster, Torgo?
[During a scene that involves several women clad in white, diaphanous robes fighting each other.]
Servo: I'm guessing this is the whole reason this movie was made.

The episodes

A complete list of the 198 episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, including details and brief synopses of the movies and notes on the episodes, can be found at List of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes.

See also

External links



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