MST3K II: Attack of the clones?

Is MST3K coming back? Or is it already here?

This is going to be geeky. You know I love Explaining Things, and this is a topic on which I’m passionate.

One of my all-time favorite TV shows was “Mystery Science Theater 3000” – MST3K to its fans — in which three characters were silhouetted against a really bad movie, which they made from bad to good by seasoning it with a constant stream of wise cracks and pop culture references.

MST3K started as a local show on Minneapolis television, then moved to something called The Comedy Channel, which a year or so later merged with HA! to form Comedy Central.

The show ran for seven seasons on Comedy Channel / Comedy Central, was cancelled and then ran for three more years on the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy).

The show was created, and originally hosted, by prop comic Joel Hodgson (whose character on the show was named Joel Robinson). He left midway through the fifth season on cable; the last 2 1/2 seasons on Comedy Central, and the entire run on Sci-Fi, was hosted by Michael Nelson (who used his own name). I like both, but I’ve always liked Mike better. Granted, in some circles this is tantamount to preferring Roger Moore to Sean Connery. (Kids, ask your parents.)

Making fun of movies was the meat and potatoes of the show, but the premise was that mad scientists (played, in various eras of the show, by Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl) had trapped the host (Joel or Mike) in an orbiting spaceship and was forcing him to watch bad movies as a cruel experiment. Joel/Mike shared the spaceship with wisecracking robots, two of whom – Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo – would join him in the theater when it was time to watch a movie.

After MST3K left the air, two different groups of alumni continued making fun of bad movies through their own self-distributed projects. Neither group used or had access to the MST3K characters or puppets.

Joel and some of the MST3K alumni who had moved to California had a group called Cinematic Titanic, which released DVDs and did live appearances.

Mike and the two riffers who were with him in the theater for the Sci-Fi years – Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett – had a brief run as “The Movie Crew” before forming RiffTrax. RiffTrax started by releasing audio commentary tracks which the purchaser plays in synch with a store-bought DVD or on-demand movie, and that’s still a big part of what they do. That allows them to make fun of big-budget movies which would have been out of MST3K’s reach, since they don’t have to purchase the rights to the movie.

But RiffTrax eventually started releasing its own DVDs as well, allowing them to cover the type of low-budget movies and shorts which were MST3K’s meat and potatoes. And RiffTrax does two or three live shows each year which are simulcast to theaters across the country. They’ve even done nights of programming on the National Geographic channel, making fun of bad nature shows.

Although the two groups were competitors in one sense, they were still collegial friends and former co-workers. A few people from either camp even made guest appearances on the competing product.

Cinematic Titanic ran out of steam a few months ago and announced that it was shutting down, leaving RiffTrax the sole survivor.

Now, however, Joel Hodgson has a Kickstarter campaign to bring back MST3K under the original name and with the original robot puppet characters. But Joel would be involved only as a producer. A new, young host and a new, young mad scientist would be hired, and new puppeteers would be hired to voice Crow and Tom Servo.

Mike Nelson took to Facebook to explain that he wasn’t involved in the new MST3K – and  he’s not interested in it, although he says he wishes them well. He explained that he was a “hired hand” at the old MST3K, while now with RiffTrax he, Corbett and Murphy are running their own show.

Joel has set a $2 million goal for the Kickstarter campaign, which is ambitious – but not unthinkable, given the dedication of some MST3K fans.

I wish Joel all of the best, and there’s room for both MST3K and RiffTrax, but on any given day I’d rather watch something by RiffTrax than a new MST3K hosted and performed by unknown quantities. Mike, Kevin and Bill are the MST3K reboot I want to see. If I give to any Kickstarter campaign in the near future, it will be the one by my Facebook friend Jerry Chamberlain of Daniel Amos and the Swirling Eddies:

Other Space

I didn’t binge-watch “Other Space” all in one sitting, but it only took me a few days to get through the eight-episode season of this quirky science-fiction comedy. I thought it was terrific, and I’m hoping against hope for another season. I don’t know if that’s likely, since creator Paul Feig (who originally pitched this show to NBC, years ago) is now better known for movies like “Bridesmaids.”

This isn’t for everyone. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of “Red Dwarf” or even “Futurama” — a playful comedy which has some fun with science fiction tropes.

The thing that caught my eye in advance was the participation of not one but two veterans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Joel Hodgson plays a live-action role, while Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Clayton Forrester and one of the voices of Crow T. Robot) is the voice of another robot, named ART. The show also, strangely enough, has actors from two different AT&T advertising campaigns. Karan Soni plays the closest thing the show has to a central character, and he played one of those two technicians who appeared in several different ads about AT&T upgrading its network. (“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”)

Milana Vayntrub, meanwhile, is nearly ubiquitous (unless you watch everything by DVR and skip through the commercials) as Lily, the perky AT&T wireless salesperson.

Anyway, the show is set in an future where space travel has become sort of routine. There’s a space agency called the Universal Mapping Project, or UMP, but most of Earth has lost interest. There are still those with the itch to explore, however, including the cheery, eternally optimistic Stewart Lipinksi (Soni) and his hard-driven, ultra-competitive sister Karen (Bess Rous). Stewart, somewhat improbably, gets command of his own ship, with his furious sister as one of his crew members. But Stewart, Karen and their largely-incompetent, misfit crew have just begun their journey when they get bumped into an unknown alternate universe. They must find a way to stay alive — and keep from killing one another — until they can figure out how to get back home.

The whole ensemble cast is excellent, including the names already mentioned plus Neil Casey, Eugene Cordero and Conor Leslie. Hodgson seems to be having a ball as the ship’s somewhat-addled engineer.

It really is fun, if you’re any sort of science fiction geek, and I really do hope they get to make another season.

Here’s the first episode. You can watch others at the Yahoo! Screen web site or by installing the Yahoo! Screen channel on Roku and similar devices. (“Community” is also available there.)

best worst movie

Since re-activating Netflix, I’ve enjoyed several episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and as a result of that Netflix recommended the documentary “Best Worst Movie,” which I’d read about before but never seen.

I highly recommend it.

It’s about a movie called “Troll 2,” regarded by some as the worst movie ever, which has – like, say, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” – become a cult hit, with people watching it because of its perfectly funny awfulness. Unlike “Plan 9,” however, “Troll 2” is recent enough that the actors and filmmakers are still around to be delighted and/or horrified by this turn of events.

The documentary tells their stories, particularly George Hardy – a dentist who tried out for the film as a lark while living in Utah and then later settled in Alabama, in a small town where no one had any idea of his cinematic past. The documentary begins by introducing Hardy and having his ex-wife, of all people, pronounce how universally-liked he is (including by her). He does enjoy attention, in a harmless way, and dresses as a roller-blading tooth fairy in each year’s Christmas parade. So he has the time of his life when “Troll 2” becomes a cult hit and he’s suddenly on the road appearing at screenings and signing autographs.

Less than enchanted — but still willing to cash in — is Claudio Fragrasso, director of “Troll 2.” He and his all-Italian crew shot in Utah with a script badly translated into English, and yet refused cast members’ suggestions for changes in the dialogue. Fragrasso continues to insist that this was a serious movie with serious themes and that he has a keen understanding of American culture, and he eventually becomes annoyed at his cast members appearing at screenings and playing along with the “worst movie” hype.

The documentary was directed by Michael Stephenson, now an adult but the child star of “Troll 2.”

While MST3K never got around to “Troll 2,” former MST3K host Mike Nelson has, through his current project “RiffTrax.” Instead of his usual partners Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, he riffs the movie in the company of Rich Kyanka from Here’s the teaser trailer.

Now it looks like I’ll have to see “Troll 2,” with and/or without Mike Nelson’s commentary.

The first one is free

Turner Classic Movies aired “Reefer Madness” the other day, and I’d never seen it, so I DVRed it. I went to watch it today, and I had gotten as far as the opening credits when, looking something up online, I discovered that the RiffTrax live version of it is available for free on Hulu. That sounded like much more fun than just watching the movie.

To backtrack: You may remember one of the funniest TV shows of all time, “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which aired for seven seasons on Comedy Central and then three on Sci-Fi (now SyFy). It made fun of really bad movies; three characters silhouetted in the lower-right corner of the screen would deliver a non-stop stream of jokes and commentary over the top of the movie.

MST3K, as the fans called it, was eventually cancelled, but two different groups of its alumni produce MST3K-like projects, online, for DVD and for live shows. Series creator and original host Joel Hodgson (his character name was Joel Robinson) and several MST3K creators who moved away from the show’s home base of Minneapolis have Cinematic Titanic, while second host Mike Nelson and his co-stars from the last few years of the show have RiffTrax.

Cinematic Titanic produces its mocked movies direct to DVD. RiffTrax also puts out some DVDs, but they primarily produce audio tracks of commentary which you can download from their web site and synch up with the target movie as you play it from your own DVD (or a rental, or Netflix). This means that Mike, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy don’t have to get the rights to the movies, since the movie itself isn’t part of what they’re selling. They can make fun of even recent, big-budget movies which wouldn’t have been accessible to MST3K (and which aren’t accessible to Cinematic Titanic). They even make fun of a few *good* movies, just for the heck of it.

Both groups do live shows, where a movie is screened for a theater audience while the cast members deliver their commentary live and in person. The live shows are simulcast to other theaters across the country and then turned into DVDs as well. RiffTrax actually does some of its live shows from the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, although I’ve not had the chance to go to one yet.

“Reefer Madness” was one of those RiffTrax live shows. It starts, as did some of the best episodes of MST3K, with short subjects before they get to the actual movie.

Now that I know some of the RiffTrax stuff is on free Hulu (as opposed to the paid Hulu Plus), I’ll be checking some more of it out. Meanwhile, if you want to check it out … here you go!

Time to face the music

I got to thinking about TV theme music today. Most networks dramatically reduced the length of opening credits years ago, because of studies that showed they gave the audience more of a chance to change channels. But I miss the longer, more generous openings from years past. I decided I’d give you a countdown of my favorite instrumental TV theme songs, followed by some vocal TV theme songs. I’m doing this by the seat of my pants, so it’s certainly possible that I’m missing something. Of course, it’s also impossible to separate your feelings towards the theme from your feelings towards the show. There may be some quickly-cancelled show with a great theme song, but it just wouldn’t come to mind when one sits down to make a list like this. Feel free to disagree and put your own choices or rankings in the comments.

5) “Wiseguy”

Mike Post theme songs always have a bridge to them. Sometimes it works; sometimes it just seems arbitrary. Here, the bridge works perfectly. The main theme speaks of danger, while the bridge – during which our protagonist and the two men who often save his life are introduced – is a nicely heroic counterpoint.


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An evil gal who wants to to rule the world

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the late and lamented “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” a Minneapolis-based cable TV comedy show built around really bad movies, with characters silhouetted on the screen making a constant stream of wisecracks.

Mary Jo Pehl started out as a writer for MST3K, and popped up in some of the skits as, most memorably, “Jan In The Pan,” an impression of the decapitated but artificially-preserved head featured in one memorable MST3K-mocked movie. Then, after Frank “TV’s Frank” Conniff left the show, she joined the regular cast in the role of Pearl Forrester, a role she played during the last part of the show’s run on Comedy Central and its entire run on the SciFi channel (now SyFy).

Since that time, two separate groups of alumni from different points in the show’s run have developed MST3K-inspired projects. Creator Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Josh Weinstein and Mary Jo Pehl, among others, riff on old movies as “Cinematic Titanic,” on direct-to-DVD releases and at live shows. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett produce “RiffTrax,” audio commentaries you can download onto your computer or MP3 player and then play in sync with a movie as you watch it on DVD. They also do live shows, simulcast to theaters across the country.

Anyway, I stumbled across this interview with Mary Jo Pehl the other day in which she mentioned having a self-published book available on Kindle. I couldn’t resist that, and the price was right, so I sprang for it.

I suppose I was expecting the kind of pop culture references that make MST3K / Cinematic Titanic / RiffTrax successful, but Employee of The Month And Other Big Deals is something different. However, it’s quite enjoyable, and I’d certainly recommend it. It’s a series of  autobiographical comic essays, most of them telling the story of Pehl’s life after MST3K – moving back in with her parents for a while, conquering the Big Apple, then falling in love in her 40s and moving to Texas with her new husband. The stories are warm, funny and relatable, self-deprecating and sometimes touching.

The one false note in the book is the chapter that most closely relates to MST3K – the last chapter, when she talks about her encounters with a certain breed of obsessive fan at public appearances. (The MST3K theme song actually urges fans to “repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show – I should really just relax,’” but apparently not all of its fans heed the advice.) I didn’t care for the chapter, because I thought it was sort of low-hanging fruit (remember Shatner on SNL, telling “Star Trek” fans to “Get a life!”?) and because sometimes, even if something is true, it sounds a little ungrateful to say it out loud. You were part of a Peabody-award-winning show that is still loved and warmly-remembered, and the support of those fans is what allows you to sell your book, your “Cinematic Titanic” DVDs and tickets to your live “Cinematic Titanic” performances. Yes, we all know some genre fans can act like idiots. I don’t think that’s new information. But they’re expressing their love for something you were a part of which meant something to them. If you find some of them annoying, that may be understandable, but keep it to yourself. By the end of the chapter, Pehl acknowledges her debt to the fans, and tries to end on a conciliatory and self-deprecating note, playfully imagining dressing as her favorite “L.A. Law” character while asking for an autograph, but I think the chapter might have been better skipped altogether.

Also, and I have no idea whose fault this is, there are some major formatting errors in the Kindle version. On my Kindle, Pehl’s name and/or a chapter title sometimes turned up unannounced in the middle of a paragraph, and what I assume are supposed to be oversized “drop cap” letters at the beginning of a story appear normal-sized but on their own line, above the rest of the paragraph.

UPDATE: Pehl now says on her Facebook page that a reformatted version will be available for download later this month.

Still, there’s a lot to recommend the book, whether or not you’ve ever heard of MST3K. Well worth $3.99 if you’ve got a Kindle, and probably worth 11 bucks for the paperback.

In the not too distant future….

Our local Hollywood Video is closing, and at the going-out-of-business sale yesterday I picked up three episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), and two episodes of The Film Crew; each of the pre-viewed DVDs was $3.99.

I think most of my regular readers are familiar with MST3K, but in case you aren’t, the quick explanation is that it was a comedy series which started on local Minneapolis TV before running for seven seasons on Comedy Central (beginning when it was The Comedy Channel) and then three seasons on SciFi (now SyFy). The meat and potatoes of the show is that each episode is built around a really, really bad movie. Three characters (a human being and two robots) are silhouetted against the bottom corner of the movie and make a constant stream of wisecracks about it, ranging from pop culture references to complaints about plot holes, slow pacing and what have you.

Since MST3K went off the air, two different groups of alumni have done MST3K-like projects. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo) and Bill Corbett (Crow T. Robot, during last three years at SciFi), have stayed in Minneapolis. They produced a few MST3K-like episodes as “The Film Crew” for the DVD label Shout! Factory. Now, they have a similar project called RiffTrax, which allows you to download their snarky commentary online and synch it up at home while watching the movie on a DVD which you have rented or purchased on your own. The genius of RiffTrax is that they no longer have to acquire the rights to the bad movies, which was always a problem for MST3K. They can make fun of recent, big-budget movies as well as older ones. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t actually watched a RiffTrax movie, however.

My North Carolina brother and sister-in-law are also fans and actually went to see a live simulcast of RiffTrax for their anniversary last year.

The other MST3K alumni project is the L.A.-based “Cinematic Titanic,” with MST3K’s creator and original host, Joel Hodgson, along with Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Clayton Forrester, and the voice of Crow during the Comedy Central years), “TV’s Frank” Conniff, Josh Elvis Weinstein (Dr. Larry Erhardt and the original voice of Tom Servo, before Murphy) and Mary Jo Pehl (Mrs. Forrester). They release direct-to-DVD movies given the MST3K treatment; all five of them are silhouetted against the screen in a multi-tiered arrangement meant to suggest the ballroom of the Titanic.

Neither group uses MST3K’s puppets or other characters. Technically, of course, Mike Nelson is using his MST3K character name, but that’s because it’s also his real name. (Joel Hodgson used the character name Joel Robinson when he was on MST3K.)

The two Film Crew episodes I purchased, neither of which I’d seen before, will therefore be the first new pseudo-MST3K I’ve seen in years. I watched one of them, based on the movie “Killers From Space” with Peter Graves, last night and tonight. My brother tells me that the other, “Hollywood After Dark,” is kind of depressing. (I assume he means that the source movie is kind of depressing; hopefully, the Film Crew treatment will leaven that, or what would be the point?)

Thanks to Centron

MST3K Shorts

While looking for another video tape today, I found my old VHS copy of “Mystery Science Theater 3000: Shorts,” the first volume of short subjects from MST3K. Although the show’s meat and potatoes was making fun of full-length movies, sometimes they’d have time to work in a short subject, usually an educational film from the 1940s or 1950s — and the humor that Joel (or Mike) and the ‘bots use during these shorts was often darker than the full-length features. I love a scene in “The Home Economics Story” when the young female protagonist is wondering what college will be like. Joel or one of the ‘bots interjects, “….will I smoke thin black cigarettes and reject the triune God?” For some reason, that line always makes me laugh.

In addition to “The Home Economics Story,” the collection includes “A Date With Your Family,” “Junior Rodeo Daredevils,” “Chicken Of Tomorrow” and “Why Study Industrial Arts?”

“A Date With Your Family” is about how children should be polite to their parents at dinner. (“Emotions are for ethnic people,” interjects Crow T. Robot.)

Keep circulating the tapes

Newscoma found this … a promo clip for one of a couple of similar projects from alumni of the late and lamented MST3K:

This project, Cinematic Titanic, features Joel Hodgson, the creator and original host, along with Trace Beaulieu, who played Dr. Forrester and was the original voice of Crow, and “TV’s Frank” Conniff. The second host of MST3K, Mike Nelson; the voice of Tom Servo, Kevin Murphy; and the second voice of Crow, Bill Corbett, have a similar project called The Film Crew.

What we all really want is new MST3K, but all of the participants say that various rights issues make that unlikely to ever happen.