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:

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!

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?)