The Good and Bad of Mystery Science Theater 3000

Mystery Science Theater 3000 - Crow T RobotI’ve been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 since its Joel Hodgson days. But there has always been a love-hate aspect to it. On the one hand, it introduced people to a lot of great psychotronic films. In fact, Trace Beaulieu (Crow, Dr Clayton Forrester) has even admitted that Michael Weldon’s classic The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film was the group’s bible. Just the same, I don’t think they quite understood what people were supposed to take away from the book: the films were weird, not bad — or at least not necessarily bad.

Not a Lot of Jokes

But in that same inverview, Beaulieu goes on to say that Josh Weinstein really wants to do a riff of Life Is Beautiful. Beaulieu then says, “I’d never seen it before so I decided to watch it, and you know what? He was right! I was stunned! It’s terrible, and there’s so much to make fun of.” Is that what the riffing was all about? Making fun the bad in the movies? I don’t think so. In fact, the show was kind of pretentious in making “jokes” that were nothing more than obscure references.

(A good example of this is in the Werewolf episode. A one point this old man shows up with a really long beard and one of them says, “Leland Sklar, survivalist.” The entire joke was that the guy looked vague like Sklar, who is a bass player, known especially for playing with James Taylor. But as a session player, he’s played with an amazing list of people. But it’s only music freaks who know who he is. When I heard the line, I felt impressed with myself that I got it. But I hardly laughed.)

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Riffs on Bad Films?

Anyway, as we’ve seen with RiffTrax, The Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment can be applied to any movie at all. But I don’t even know what Beaulieu means when he says “bad” anyway. Here’s an extended quote:

I do like bad movies. I have a fondness for them, and right now I’m finding that I love Netflix because they’ve got so many bad movies for streaming. Netflix right now is sort of like that bad VHS store every neighborhood used to have. You’ve watched all the good stuff so you find yourself going through the back catalog of a lot of people’s so-called careers. In fact I just watched Solar Crises. It’s an early ’90s forgotten sci-fi movie. And it’s kind of epic. It stars Charlton Heston, Tim Matheson, Jack Palance… and it’s stunningly bad. The special effects are awesome, but the movie… it’s got a great pedigree. But my poodle has a great pedigree and it still craps everywhere…

The Show Itself Wasn’t Well Made

But I do think that there was a lot of confusion about the films by the crew. If any group should appreciate movies done quickly on a shoestring, it should be the people making Mystery Science Theater 3000. For one thing, they are stealing most of what they do. Their own set design was not all that good. And the fact that they had an excuse for it doesn’t matter. They weren’t capable of doing any better. (Note how much better their film looks — with lots of professional studio help — even though it’s some of their weakest work.)

What’s more, their hosted segments were generally terrible. They made no effort at character consistency. And despite that, they were only rarely able to create comedy of a high level. What’s more, Michael Nelson’s extreme right-wing politics found their way into the show, like when Crow’s newspaper column gives Antonin Scalia a grade of B+. Could they have picked a more polarizing figure? It passes by because most people watching the show don’t pay attention to politics. But really!

It all works because it’s charming. But in purely technical terms — if you take into account resources — there was almost no film they featured that wasn’t better than they were. And their first season (KTMA) are far more enjoyable than the later episodes on The Sci-Fi Channel.

Kurt Vonnegut

And then there is The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. I ordered the book with great anticipation. The book is terrible. There’s almost no inside information. There are season introductions which have nothing interesting to say. And even though the book was produced just after Joel left the show, he isn’t in the book. He should have at least been brought in to write a substantial introduction. It’s possible that couldn’t be done. I suspect that the break-up of the show was far more acrimonious than anyone wants to admit in public.

The one good thing about the book is that Kevin Murphy tells the story of meeting Kurt Vonnegut. On their first encounter, it takes a while for Vonnegut to place the show. Finally he gets it:

Why, yeah, he’d seen the silhouette while channel-surfing. Yeah, we were the guys with the old bad sci-fi films and such. Then he said that we should try to appreciate the fact that many of those writers were struggling and turned out scripts for those movies virtually overnight.

When I read that, I thought, “He gets it!” I already had a high opinion of Vonnegut, but that was really nice to hear.

The Second Conversation

Later, Murphy tries to get Vonnegut to go out to dinner with the group. Here is Murphy’s memory of the conversation they had:

“I’m Kevin Murphy. I met you yesterday.”
“Oh, sure, with the shadows. You were up for an Ace Award…”
“Yeah. My partners and I were wondering if you’d like to have dinner tonight…”
“It’s really difficult to get good fiction on television, isn’t it?”
“Boy, yeah. Now, if you’re not busy tonight…”
“…Those old movies, some were mighty laughable…”
“Exactly. If you and your wife…”
“…I’m here with the Showtime people, you know…”
“…We could eat right here…”
“…They have this thing I’m supposed to do…”
“…We’d be flattered if you could…”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t have the time.”
“Well, thank you all the same, it’s been a pleasure meeting…”
“Mm-hmm. Say, did you win an award last night?”
“Um, no, we lost.”
“We won.”

It turned out that Vonnegut didn’t have anything to do. He just didn’t want to have dinner with them. But in the second encounter, you can tell that he’s still processing. He clearly thinks that what Mystery Science Theater 3000 is doing is wrong.

But notice where he ends: he points out that he won and they lost. I don’t think Murphy got the significance of that. Vonnegut wasn’t saying that he was better and they were worse. He was making a broader statement about taste and what is considered good and what is considered bad.

My Experience

Over the years, what I found was that I liked any given episode more or less based on how good the film was. I often found myself getting annoyed that these guys were talking while I was trying to watch a film. I remember that specifically with Devil Doll, which is a damned good movie. Another was the excellent Phase IV, although in those early local television days, they all talked a good deal less. But I’ve always found it necessary to assume the best from the crew in order to enjoy the show.

Regardless, I have to give Mystery Science Theater 3000 credit for introducing a lot of people to a lot of great old psychotronic films. Whether or not their intent was to mock the films, they did them a great favor. And I think a lot of people who enjoy laughing at these films are just covering. They actually like them. It just isn’t hip to like them as enjoyable works of art. So they laugh. And that’s fine.

5 replies on “The Good and Bad of Mystery Science Theater 3000

  1. I can’t speak for everyone, but it drives me crazy when I’m watching a movie at the theatre and some wiseacre chatters all the way through it. That’s one of the two main reasons (along with the costs involved in a Night at the Opera) I end up watching movies from the relative silence of my living room sofa. There are wiseacres enough in my pantheon.

    • I like going out to the movies. Of course, I only see matinees, so I pretty much have the place to myself. Unfortunately, I never get out anymore.

      But what I’m getting at — and will be getting at a lot as time goes on — is appreciating these films as something beyond something to laugh at. It’s rare to find a film that doesn’t have something to appreciate. I was just watching one of the films they pieced together from Space: 1999. MST3K did a first season episode on Cosmic Princess. And it’s actually rather good. But the crew made several comments about the bad acting. I literally have no idea what they’re talking about. And I rather think they wouldn’t say the same things today with the reputations of Martin Landau and Brian Blessed.

  2. My favorites were the horrid instructional shorts. That’s where the less right-wing sensibilities of the other writers came through, poking fun at the sexism / racism / corporate mind control inherent in those shorts.

    Or anytime I watched the show with friends. Even the most snootily obscure reference was fun when several people got it at the same time.

    • Oh yeah, some of those were great. I remember one that was made for Buick sales managers. But again: I think the shows were at their best when the films were good. It’s like “Manos”: The Hands of Fate. Even with the riffing, that one’s hard to get through. The big problem there was padding. It would have made a fine 45 minute cheapy. But there just wasn’t enough content. Still Torgo was amazing. He alone makes the film worth watching. But some day I’ll write about the film and go over in some depth the things that really don’t work. I think the guy who wrote and directed it was from local theater, and the film looks like what people from the theater produce by default.

      Ah, so many films, so little time to write about them.

  3. Good news! The new MST on Netflix is perfectly fine. Joel’s heavily involved (behind the camera, it’s an all-new cast), so it’s back to the more kid-friendly humor of voicing what rubber monsters are interior monologuing, fewer snarky references. (But just enough of those. One Kissinger joke had me howling.) The mad scientist host segments are still bad, and there’s a fun song in a Satellite Of Love host segment. There’s even viewer mail again!

    Plus several Minnesota references, which is only right & just. That damn show was the reason I moved here. Not to meet the performers, just to try out a place with such an odd sense of humor.

    I have to admit — when the old end credit music came up, I got a little sentimental. Way to not fuck up a reboot, folks; nice job.

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