EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Very few television shows can boast of remaining
on the air for a decade or more, especially comedies. The two longevity
champions in that category remain "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet"
and "My Three Sons," at 14 and 12 asons, respectively.
In fact, in the modern era, only "Happy Days" (1973-83) even comes close. That was until April 11, 1998, at least. That's the date when cult favorite "Mystery Science Theater 3000" entered the stratosphere of TV history by beginning its 10th year, and third on the Sci-Fi Channel. They eventually broke the Fonz's record, but declining ratings (as the network claimed) caused the shows cancellation last summer. The final first-run episode, "Merlin's Shop Of Wonders." aired in September of 1999. Ironically, it was also one of the funniest episodes, as well.
After saving the show in 1997, fans were infuriated with Sci-Fi for the callous ad campaign that summer which promoted the show's demise like it was GOOD thing. Commercials running would say, "Everything has to come to an end, even 'Mystery Science Theater 3000,'."
Created in 1988 by Minneapolis comedian Joel Hodgson and two friends at local VFW station KTMA, Jim Mallon and Trace Bealieau (who formed a company called Best Brains), the show's concept is simple. A regular guy (Joel) is shot into space and marooned on the Satellite of Love (named after a Frank Zappa song) and forced to watch bad movies with two robotic puppets.
He is Joel Robinson (some say it flows off the tongue better than Hodgson), while Bealleau and Josh Weinstein played mad doctors Clayton Forrester and Larry Earhardt (names taken from the 1954 science fiction classic, "The War of the Worlds"), respectively.
During the film, Joel (and later, the show's head writer, Mike Nelson), the bubble-gum machine-like Tom Servo (voiced in the first two seasons by Weinstein, then by Kevin Murphy) and the golden-hued Crow T. (The) Robot (voice of Bealieau, then Bill Corbett), through wisecracks, impersonation, inside jokes, pop cultural references, and just plain put-downs, do a thorough job of deflating any pompous director's "vision."
In other words, they make fun of the movie. And, with some of the stinkburgers they've had to deal with over the years, their input makes viewing a thousands times more pleasurable, and interesting. Losers like "I Was A Teenage Werewolf (starring a young Michael landon)," "Bride of the Monster" and "The Violent Years" (both directed by infamous cross-dresser and cult fave, Edward D. Wood, Jr.), "Return of the Creature (the sequel to "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and one of Clint Eastwood's earliest films), "Robot Monsters (directed by Phil Tucker and reputed to be one of the worst movies of all-time), "The Incredibly Strange Creatres Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies (the Ray Dennis Steckler bomb that gives Tucker a run for his money), and "Manos, The Hands Of Fate (truly the most bizarre thing ever put on celuloid since "An Andulthian Dog"), among others.
The Brains also target a great deal of short features that sometimes accompany the main feature. My particular favorites include the "Group Discussion In Everyday Living" series, which perported to advise teenagers of the early 1950s the proper way to date, deal with their families, handle juvenile delinquency, and not to cheat. Other popular shorts among many MiSTies (the loving term applied to ardent fans of the show) are "Out Of This World," "Last Clear Chance," "Mr. B Natural," "Junior Rodeo Daredevils, "A Young Man's Fancy, "Day's Of Our Years," "Appreciating Your Parents," and "Posture Pals." The children's claymation character, "Gumby," was even recently lampooned on the program.
Interspersed among the movies, various host segments also gained a following, and much of the group's genius was able to shine in these two-to-five minute snippets used to open and close the show, as well as to buffer the films and commercials.
The idea of the enterprise, which Hodgson said was based on the Warner Brothers cartoons in which a character on the screen calls out to a member of the audience, who, in silhoutte form, answers him (although it seems to have its genesis in two past TV shows, "Fractured Flickers," from 1961 and "Mad Movies," from the mid-1980s, both of which actually dubbed in dialogue to existing films), was sound enough to persuade Mallon, Bealieau, Murphy and Weinstein to put together a pilot (the yet-unseen "Green Slime"), along with a few other shows, which they were able to sell to KTMA.
Settling into a Sunday night time slot on the independent station that featured old movies, syndicated TV programs and really bad
infomercials, MST3K soon began gathering a following, despite some really bad episodes. But these early years gave the group a chance to hone their writing skills, and when Nelson, Paul Chapin, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl joined the staff, the show really took off.
The new HA! and Comedy Channel merged in 1990 to form Comedy Central, which picked up the program for cable viewers. Soon the show became the cornerstone of the new network, becoming a phenomenon, earning a Peabody Award, and earning several Cable Ace and Emmy nominations. Comedy Central even ran a docu-lovefest called "This Is MST3K (narrated by Penn Jillette) in 1992, offering viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the entire enterprise.
It was so widly popular, at one point, that whole Thanksgivings (dubbed Turkey Day marathons) were devoted to ten old episodes and two new ones. At its zenith, the Brains were cranking out 24 shows a season at about $100,000 per. Especially beloved by the college and intellectual crowd, who prefered their humor on the dark, cerebreal side instead of boring outputs like "The Cosby Show," "Rosanne," "Grace Under Fire" or "Home Improvement," the cast visited several universities during the 1993-94 season, calling them "Fresh Cheese Tours."
Their conventions, held in Minneapolis, also drew hundreds of devotees from all over the country, many dressing like their favorite show characters, while a feature film was made and released in 1996, doing very well in its limited, art house release. This was a soothing balm, considering that creator Hodgson had left at the beginning of the 1993 season, and was replaced by Nelson in the jumpsuit.
Then, suddenly, it all came to an end late in 1996. Comedy Central and the Brains could not come to a working agreement for the seventh season, so the show was dropped unceremoniously from the schedule after just seven episodes.
Fans were in an uproar, and computer chat rooms and entertainment editorials blast CC for letting another quality concept slip through their fingers, as had recently happened to "Politically Incorrect."
A few months later, however, in February, 1997, the news was much better as MST3K was picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel, a USA NETWORK (with a condition that they gear their spoofs more to science fiction and horror films). This wasn't a problem, and after being wined and dined in New York, as well as treated to trips to the US Open Tennis Championships and other New York events, the lads from the Land Of 10,000 Lakes were never happier, and neither were their employees.
"We are proud to make this show part of our regular schedule," said head of Sci-Fi programming, Bonnie Hammer. "We love their work and consider them a mainstay on our network." The group produced 24 episodes during the past three years, over 130 shows over the last decade. At about 200 quips per, means close to 4800 witticisms are flying around each year, some rising higher than others.
Of course, by this time, two more of the main talents had departed. Conniff's last show was #624, "Samson Versus The Vampire Women," while Bealleau waited until the film and episode #706 (Laserblast") were complete. Mary Jo Pehl came aboard as Clayton's mother, Pearl to replace Conniff, and then Bill Corbett, an out-of-work actor from New York and huge fan of the show, took on the role of Crow during the Sci-Fi years.
"I knew a friend of a friend who worked on the show," said Corbett in explaining how he was chosen for the role, in 1998. "I had always watched it and was honored to join the writing staff during the seventh season. When I was picked to do Crow, I was even more shocked."
A bit tenative at first, he soon grew into the role and after a while, rightly or wrongly, actually made people forget Bealleau's
"This is the greatest job in the world, watching movies," he added (even though he had just finished screening "Space Mutiny"). "Who cares if they're bad? We look at each one as an opportunity to be funny. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes not, but we try to have a good time, no matter what."
Murphy, who began his association with Brains in 1988 as a studio cameraman and is now an associate producer, concurred, saying, "I'm not that smart (to come up with all of these jokes), but I was blessed with a lot of brothers and sisters. Plus, I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid. Let's face it, having a job that requires you to look at television can't be all bad. Some films are really awful, but the worse they are, the more of a challenge to be clever. To me, that's what I like about the show."
Nelson, who took over as head writer (in a "bloodless coup," he maintains), in the second season (one marked by a vast improvement in the program's quality), credits the other scribblers who've combined their talents, knowledge and experience to form a a potent and hilarious force.
Some may be profiecient in sports, another in music, others in movies, television, literature, art, science, or politics," he said.
"Others are just plain FUNNY. When we view a film with that combined brainpower behind it, there is bound to be SOMETHING worthwhile coming out of it, no matter HOW terrible the film."
He does admit, however, that there are some movies that try thier patience almost to the breaking point, but they always seem to make it through.
One such example was the 1962 modern caveman flick, "Eegah!," starring Richard "Jaws" Keil, which the Brains had put off again and again until the fourth season after making several failed attempts earlier.
But it wasn't just about making jokes at a film's expense. To the last, each member of BB sought not to pick on terrible motion pictures just to show how clever they were, but to burst the bubble of pretension and pomposity associated with many of their targets.
"That's the one thing you try to puncture," Murphy said. "Those filmmakers who are attempting to get across a message or preach to people. I'd rather shoot one of those down than any with a rubber-suited monster or a cheap spaceship scene."
Some of these "message" pictures pierced by the slings and arrows of MST3K have included "Teenage Cave Man" and "The Cave Dwellers" (anti-nuclear); "City Limits, "The Last Chase," "Robot Holocaust," "Escape From The Bronx" and "Warrior of the Lost World" (post-apocalyptical); "I Accuse My Parents" and "The Violent Years" (child-rearing); "Star Fighers" (the military); "Samson vs. the Vampire Women" and "The Final Sacrifice" (Devil worship); "Village of the Giants" and "Teenage Crimewave" (rebellious youth); and "Gamera vs. Zigra" (environmental), among others.
Now all of that is moot. The show that Washington Post critic once hailed as "the best thing on television" is gone, a victim of supposedly low ratings on a network that barely gets anyone to view their most popular original productions. Now, the humor-starved have no where to turn to slake their thirst, except maybe "South Park," "Drew Carey" and "Third Rock from the Sun." But that really isn't good enough, is it?