Television

Mystery Science Reincarnation

A TV cult classic is reborn and multiplied online

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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.