Mystery Science Reincarnation

A TV cult classic is reborn and multiplied online

When the Sci Fi Channel canceled Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1999, a strange yet wonderful era came to a close. The long-running series had built a cult audience by applying a fresh twist on a time-honored TV convention: Instead of having a quirky host merely introduce various B movies, Mystery Science Theater had its host —along with two puppet robots— mock the movies while they ran.

The trio worked best with solidly bad material, from the Godzilla and Gamera pictures to films, such as Monster A-Go Go, that could only aspire to the production values of cheesy 1950s Japanese science fiction. Besides riffing on the inept writing, directing, and acting, the host and his puppet friends liberally sprinkled non sequiturs and cultural references ranging from the high (Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”) to the notso- high (the Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight”).

The series was born on a Minneapolis UHF channel in 1988, then enjoyed a seven-year run on Comedy Central (or, as it was initially known, the Comedy Channel) before moving to Sci Fi. A dedicated fan base soon spread the word, first by forwarding VHS tapes of the episodes—a practice encouraged in the closing credits— and then through the nascent World Wide Web.

After the program was canceled, its fans had to content themselves with reruns and DVDs. But that has all changed, thanks to the Internet. No, no one’s making new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 itself. But Joel Hodgson, the creator and original host of the show, hooked up with four other writer/performers from the old series in December 2007 to launch Cinematic Titanic. For fans of the original program, Cinematic Titanic has a familiar look and feel: silhouetted figures making wisecracks while watching bad movies. The movies are occasionally interrupted by a brief comedic skit, which is also performed in silhouette.

But no TV network carries Cinematic Titanic. The episodes—seven so far—are available in DVD form at cinematictitanic.com and as digital downloads from eztakes.com. Instead of the usual FBI warning at the beginning of a commercially released DVD, each episode begins with this message: “CINEMATIC TITANIC is an artist-owned and operated venture. While we want you to share the experience with your friends and family, we sincerely ask that you don’t engage in unauthorized copying or uploading of this content. With your help, we can continue to make CINEMATIC TITANIC an ongoing adventure for us all.”

The episodes released so far fit perfectly into the Mystery Science Theater template, mocking poorly made genre movies from the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s. The debut feature film, Oozing Skull, has an absurd premise involving a brain transplant, a mad scientist with a pint-sized assistant, a hideously deformed freak, and vicious hillbillies. All it lacks is competent craftsmanship.

This isn’t the only new iteration of Mystery Science Theater. When Hodgson left the show in 1993, the head writer, Michael J. Nelson, replaced him as host. In 2006 Nelson created Rifftrax, his own variation on the old program’s premise. Rifftrax takes advantage of new audio distribution technologies—the iPod and similar digital media players—that weren’t available when the original series aired.

There’s a reason why so many TV series have been built around the concept of a host introducing lowbudget B movies: Those were the only pictures the producers could afford to acquire the rights to. Mystery Science Theater—like other camp classics, such as Elvira: Mistress of the Dark— recognized that there was great comedy to be had in poor production values and cheesy tales of bikers, aliens, and juvenile delinquents.

But the underlying issue of movie rights isn’t a problem for Rifftrax, because the operation doesn’t technically broadcast movies. Instead Rifftrax creates stand-alone audio commentaries that are synchronized perfectly to the running time of a given film. That approach has allowed Nelson and his colleagues to cut into such big-budget pictures as The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and the first three installments of the Harry Potter franchise. Nelson is usually joined by Mystery Science veterans Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, but his commentary tracks have featured prominent guests as well, including comedian Fred Willard, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist James Lileks.

Rifftrax also encourages audience participation through a feature called iRiff, which allows people to post their own film commentaries, then split revenues 50/50 with the house. The iRiffers aren’t limited to comedic commentary, as the FAQ makes clear: “iRiffs is a place where you can share your critique or scholarly commentary on any video content as well. But it should be something other people will actually want to pay to hear.” The website includes YouTube clips of more than a dozen iRiffs. For the most part they demonstrate, via contrast, just how comedically talented Nelson and his professional riffers are.

Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett also briefly riffed as the Film Crew, mocking bad movies in four directto- DVD releases from Shout! Factory. The Film Crew was fictionally tasked with providing commentary tracks for obscure movies by a mysterious millionaire known as Bob Honcho. They respond with mockery of such non-classics as Hollywood After Dark, featuring Rue “Golden Girls” McClanahan as a stripper. The Film Crew releases are still available, but Kevin Murphy indicated last year on the Rifftrax blog that new releases are unlikely.

Speaking at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con, the actor Patton Oswalt aptly compared the early fan efforts on behalf of Mystery Science Theater—sending videotapes to friends in areas where the show was not available—to the ways people use YouTube and MySpace today. Now many of the show’s writers and performers are using the Web to directly reach fans old and new without the middleman of cable TV. Neither Cinematic Titanic nor Rifftrax is a rehash of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but both are recognizable descendants. And both continue to transmute cinematic dross into comedy gold.

Clark Stooksbury (clarkstooksbury@yahoo.com) writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.

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  • Jeff P||

    The RiffTrax of the Star Wars Holiday Special is possibly the funniest two hours you will spend, unfortunately you have to sit through the special in it's original form first to truly appreciate it.

    Also contains original commercials.

  • ||

    The Hodgson episodes were teh awesome. But I never could warm up to it after he left.

  • ||

    MST3K gives Morbo gas. In lighter news, the state of California is doomed to bankruptcy. Blame rests with puny human voters and their tiny, inferior brain.

  • Old Bull Lee||

    I can appreciate each style on its own. I think it largely depends on what movie they're doing. Mike is better with the truly awful hack jobs and trend cash-ins (particularly the more modern ones), whereas I prefer Joel on the well-intentioned failures.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    Yeah, I believe it was Mike that did such a great job with Space Mutiny.

  • Old Bull Lee||

    I'll have to check that one out. Werewolf, which is on the anniversary boxed set, is probably the supreme triumph of the Mike era.

  • Aram Fingal||

    Come on, give Uncle Scrotor a hug!

    Werewolf was pretty good, but to my mind "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" starring Raul Julia is the best of the Mike era.

  • ev||

    i actually like mike better than joel. people give me shit for it, it's weird.

    werewolf is absolutely hysterical. "hey everybody...free samples of me!"

    i have to say---i think timechasers is my favorite, although hobgoblins is real fucking good too. timechasers is just....i dont know. if you haven't seen it please do. its spectacular.

  • ev||

    this is going to turn into an awesome thread, i know it. mst3k is one of those magical things that brought people of my generation together, along with the simpsons and encino man.

  • Old Bull Lee||

    "They must have learned English from the Wild and Crazy guys."

  • Mister DNA||

    this is going to turn into an awesome thread, i know it. mst3k is one of those magical things that brought people of my generation together, along with the simpsons and encino man.



    The Hippies had Woodstock, we had Horror of Party Beach AND Giant Spider Invasion.

  • threeq||

    From the article:

    [Rifftrax] commentary tracks have featured prominent guests as well, including comedian Fred Willard, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Minneapolis.

    What does that mean? The state of Minneapolis? Is there a band named Minneapolis? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • nebby||

    "Mitchell" gets my vote for best episode of all time.

    "It's Johnny Mathis. Quick, get my gun!"
    "I'm the chubby blue line."
    "Why would anyone do that with Mitchell?"
    "Joe Don Baker is Martha Mitchell."
    "Wasn't John Saxon in this movie?"
    "wheeze...cough..sputter"
    "Sorry, I am really unappealing right now."

    It is the most thorough take down of a performance I have ever seen.

  • Mister DNA||

    Don't forget the Mitchell theme song, sung by Hoyt Axton.

  • ||

    Watch out for snakes!

  • clark||

    "Rifftrax] commentary tracks have featured prominent guests as well, including comedian Fred Willard, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Minneapolis.

    What does that mean? The state of Minneapolis? Is there a band named Minneapolis? Inquiring minds want to know."
    It should continue "Star-Tribune columnist James Lileks," but it seems to have been cut off.

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  • tassawwuf||

    "All rights are reserved, Callahan!"

    "What about the rights of that little girl?"

  • Avatar300||

    The state of Minneapolis?

    At long last, Minneapolis has ascended to the ranks of Chicago and New York(City)!

  • wingnutx||

    "Teenage Strangler" is my favorite Mike episode, hands down.

  • Troy||

  • robc||

  • Jesse Walker||

    The Lileks reference is fixed. Sorry about that.

    And Mitchell is the best MST ever.

  • robc||

    Wow, Master Ninja Theme Song is all over youtube. And not with a clip from the movie.

  • Gypsy||

    Cheating is Bad. Richard Basehart is Good.

  • Crow T Robot||

    Cheating is Bad. Richard Basehart is Good.

  • ||

    I'm with those who like Mike more. Joel wasn't bad, but Mike was just much more consistently funny. I thought his humor was a bit more cerebral as well.

    The one's I find the most amusing are the movies with strange morality plays in them.

    Joel's best:

    Pod People: Like ET, if ET's mother had come along too and killed everyone in sight.

    Best Line:

    Movie: "Trumpy, you can do Magic!"
    MST: "It's called evil, kid."

    Time of the Apes: Horrible Japanese Planet of the Apes knockoff.

    Best Line:

    MST: "Oh no! They've hit the plot contrivance lever."

    Mike's best:

    Hobgoblins: Horrible, horrible gremlins rip off. So bad the MST crew actually sets up cardboard versions of themselves so they don't have to watch it at one point.

    Best Line:

    MST: "Choose your garden weasel!"

    Future War: Starring a Jean-Claude Van Damme look-a-like (who they dub Jean-Claude Gosh Darn). Apparently the makers wanted to merge Terminator and Jurrasic Park. Unfortunately they only had $50, a lot of cardboard boxes, a few dinosaur toys, and no talent.

    Best Line:

    MST: "It's not really a movie so much as a movie-loaf. It has all the parts of a movie..."

  • ||

    i just recently saw woody allen's "what's up tiger liley?" which was pretty funny and thought it was kinda a precurser to Mst3...anyone else agree?

  • ||

    Future War: Starring a Jean-Claude Van Damme look-a-like (who they dub Jean-Claude Gosh Darn). Apparently the makers wanted to merge Terminator and Jurrasic Park. Unfortunately they only had $50, a lot of cardboard boxes, a few dinosaur toys, and no talent.

    Sadly, "Future War" is the best Catholic vocations film I've ever seen. Or at a minimum, the least bad. So it gets a pass.

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  • Seward||

    Mike broke the Hubble! Mike broke the Hubble!

  • BakedPenguin||

    "Mitchell" gets my vote for best episode of all time.



    What I remember from the episode is every time Joe Don Baker hit someone, they'd shout "Mitchell!"

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    Werewolf was pretty good, but to my mind "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" starring Raul Julia is the best of the Mike era.

    Oh, yeah, that one was great.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Manos: The Hands of Fate. Has to be THE best worst movie ever, apologies to fans of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It's horrible, too. Kind of in the vein of the old SNL skits with Dan Aykroyd as Leonard Pinth-Garnell, hosting "Bad Cinema", where the tagline was "There now, that wasn't so good, now, was it?"...

    For a glimpse of truly horrific home-movie ripoffs, point towards http://voicesfromthetimegod.blogspot.com/ or hit the link directly at http://www.veoh.com/browse/videos/category/comedy/watch/v15592533MYnhT62g to watch five minutes of cinematic badness. There should almost oughta be a law.

  • ev||

    oh i forgot about rowsdower!!! and mitchell!

    future war really is one of the best.

    best line: well. it's not the future and there isn't a war. but im not going to complain.

  • kw6||

    The true master was Seymour (Larry Vincent), the Eppytome of Evil, who lived behind the slimy-est of walls!

  • Mister DNA||

    The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies is one of my personal favorites.

  • ||

    Manos: The Hands of Fate.

    I watched on MST3K with my brothers and dad. It's one of those movies that's so dull and unpleasant that I would seriously discourage anyone from watching it without company.

  • ||

    Mister DNA: that movie has one of the greatest titles ever.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Sandstorm! SANDSTORM!!!

  • robc||

    It took me 3-4 tries to make it thru Manos, even with wise-cracking robots easing the way. I cant even fathom attempting to watch it in the original form.

    Mike made a great Torgo.

  • quba||

    Hi,

    We have just added your latest post "Hit & Run > New at Reason: Clark Stooksbury on Mystery Science Theater 3000 - Reason Magazine" to our Directory of Science . You can check the inclusion of the post here . We are delighted to invite you to submit all your future posts to the directory and get a huge base of visitors to your website.


    Warm Regards

    Scienz.info Team

    http://www.scienz.info

  • ||

    feh...Mst3k is the humor of statist-liberal midwestern cheeseheads; PRARIE HOME COMPANION for nerds. I'll takea classic horror show host like SVENGOULIE any day.

  • Brian Sorgatz||

    My favorite is probably Village of the Giants.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Gosh, Barry, that's harsh. Garrison Keillor's brand of "humor" is nothing like Best Brains. Granted, some of them - like TV's Frank - wound up being AirAmerica twits, but overall MST3K was/is a treasure trove of Deep Hurting at its finest/worst.

    Besides, the statist/liberal mentality you speak of is why I gave up on Comedy Central's two "news" shows. Craig Kilborn, Jon Stewart ain't.

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