I first heard about Mystery Science Theater 3000 from friends in ’91 and thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to track it down. Then one Friday night after closing the Video Zone my friend and coworker Mark and I were flipping through channels, as was the custom in those days. we came across a b&w monster movie with silhouetted chairs and figures along the bottom of the screen. I said: “Is this what I think it is?” The movie was Gamera, and while it was never my favorite episode of MST3K, it will always be the one closest to my heart. You never forget your first. I was immediately a fan, and I taped every episode.
The show was canceled in 1999 after a decade, and I figured that was that. It saddened me, of course, especially because I held the heretical belief that the show hit its stride when it moved to the Sci-Fi channel in 1997. I always preferred Mike Nelson to Joel Hodgson, I liked the new direction Bill Corbett took Crow, I found Pearl and Professor Bobo and Brain Guy a lot funnier than Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank, and…yeah. As I say, heretical.
Still, there’s a lot to be said for quitting while you’re ahead. Or, as the case may be, being abandoned by your network while you’re ahead. Besides, I still had several hundred hours of MST3K on tape should I ever need a fix, many of which I hadn’t watched since the waning days of Bush 41’s administration, so they wouldn’t feel stale. It’s not like I remember any of the jokes from Crash of the Moons or Tormented, though I do know Manos, The Hands of Fate and Mitchell by heart at this point, and woe to anyone dating me who thinks they won’t be subjected to Hobgoblins.
I sort of kept up with the projects of the writers and performers in the ensuing years. I thought Kevin’s book A Year at the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey was terrific, Mike’s books of essays were all right, I have a tape of Joel’s one-off TV Wheel in a box somewhere, and I magnanimously forgave him for being a screenwriter on Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves. The rent ain’t gonna pay itself.
In 2004, my girlfriend Maddy and I attended the SF Sketchfest’s MST3K Symposium, a Q&A with Mike, Kevin and Bill. Kevin said that not only were they all willing to revive MST3K given the funding, he considered it an “inevitability.” That made me very happy, though I wasn’t holding my breath just yet.
While a revival per se hasn’t happened, the assorted parts of the vivisected body have come back to life individually, spearheaded by Mike. He started by doing solo commentaries on DVDs of such well-known public domain movies as Night of the Living Dead and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. This evolved into Rifftrax, a download service offering MP3s of commentary tracks by Mike designed to be played in sync with films, especially more recent and expensive titles. MST3K could only afford movies which were in the public domain or otherwise exceedingly affordable. If Comedy Central or later the Sci-Fi Channel already owned the rights, so much the better. Many of the episodes will never be released on video, since the copyright holders have either raised the price in the meantime or are humorless bastards who are offended that the movies (or themselves) were made fun of in the first place. (I’m looking at you, Sandy Frank.) It’s unclear whether this will change with Shout! Factory’s just-announced acquisition of the series. I have my doubts.
Anyway#151;since they were offering audio tracks which did not contain any actual content from the movie and thus did not violate copyright laws, Rifftrax could do current, recent movies, the sort which deserve it the most. It started out as just Mike, then Kevin started joining, then both Kevin and bill, with Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Jones occasionally contributing. Fred Willard, Chad Vader and Neil Patrick Harris have also guested. (Remember the brief bit from Neil Patrick Harris in the This is MST3K special from ’92? Sure you do.)
Among the first Rifftrax commentaries were for Roadhouse and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and it was a source of no small amount of pride that we’d already featured those at Bad Movie Night. In fact, we did them because I knew MST3K had wanted to but couldn’t, and I respect my elders.
Getting less attention than Rifftraxbut arguably more of a direct revival of MST3Kis a DVD series called The Film Crew. Mike, Kevin and Bill do skits before and during the movies, and the movies themselves are more classically MST3K-type fare as Killers From Space (starring Peter Graves!) and Wild Women of Wongo. No silhouettes at the bottom of the screen, however.
A post-MST3K project which does involve silhouettes is original series creator Joel Hodgon’s Cinematic Titanic, featuring Josh Weinstein (the original voice of Tom Servo), Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and Trace Beaulieu. Meanwhile, over at mst3k.com, series creator Jim Mallon and writer Paul Chaplin are doing new animations featuring the ‘bots, as well as flash clips of host segments from the series. It’s…yeah. I like Paul Chaplin, and I’m glad he’s working. He’s been to Istanbul.
So it’s not a bad time at all to be a MSTie, especially for old-schoolers such a myself. (How old-school am I? My MST3K Information Club number is in the lower five digits. Bite me, it’s fun!) And Rifftrax Live feels like the best part, the reward for loyalty.
The first Rifftrax Live was two nights in January 2007 during that year’s SF Sketchfest. I couldn’t attend the first show in San Rafael due to transportation issues, and the more accessible second show at Cobb’s in San Francisco was the same night as I was scheduled to host to Caligula at Bad Porn Night, the short-lived Bad Movie Night spinoff . So I could have seen Mike, Kevin and Bill riffing on Daredevil, but instead Mike Spiegelman and I riffed on Caligula. Never let it be said I won’t bleed for my art.
The next show was in May. It was my first date with a girl named Ennui, who’s also a fan of MST3K from way back. The movie was the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic Over the Top, and it was kept a secret until the night of the show for legal reasions: movie rights are even more expensive now than when MST3K was on the air, but the studio can’t sue if they don’t know it’s going to happen beforehand. A happy side effect is that it’s more fun for the audience not to know ahead of time.
Keeping the audience in suspense is all fine and good when a show is at a comedy club and you can count on the fanbase to sell tickets. When this year’s SF Sketchfest booked Rifftrax Live at the Castro Theater, it was obvious that more specific marketing was required. You gotta go with a movie that’s both affordable and which people have heard of. If the movie is reputed to be the worst movie ever made, then you’re golden.
Enter Plan 9 From Outer Space.
It ain’t the worst movie ever made, not by a long shot. Christ, have you seen Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights? I rest my case. I’ve always found Plan 9 to be charming in its incompetence, as I do with Ed Wood’s other movies, especially Glen or Glenda? I’d argue that they’re auteur works right up there with Hitchcock or Truffaut. I’m not suggesting that they’re as well-constructed or intelligent as Vertigo or Jules and Jim, but they’re clearly the work of an individual with a very distinct style, and I admire that. Plus they’re just plain fun and eager to please. As bad as they are, Ed Wood’s movies like you, and they want you to like them. For an example of a bad movie which hates you, I again refer you to Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights. That movie wants to kick your dog.
I was always glad that MST3K didn’t do Plan 9, since it felt like a gimme, like way too obvious a choice. Fish in a barrel. In fact, Maddy said she was going to give Rifftrax Live a miss for that very reason. I understood her point, but this was still Mike and Kevin and Bill riffing live (scripted, but live) on a movie, a live version of the strongest infulence on my sense of humor. For me, this was church. Besides, what mattered was the quality of the jokes, not the challenge presented in making them.
There were already a couple dozen people in line when Ennui and I arrived at a quarter past seven, an hour before the doors opened for the nine o’clock show. We were soon joined by our pal KrOB, whom I frequently run into at these sorts of shows. He’s a DJ and audio-collage artist who does the sound for Ask Dr. Hal and other such shows, and runs his own film series called KrOB’s Film Farm. The week before, Ennui and I had gone to the first of the latest run of the Film Farm, a six-week series KrOB calls Drive-Out Theater.
It went like this. On screens on the far ends of the inside of showman and mayoral candidate Chicken John’s bus KrOB showed various short films and intermission clips (aka Eyenoise), followed by a truncated version of the early Farrelly Bros. movie Kingpin, as Chicken John drove us to the AMF Boulevard Lanes in Petaluma.
After bowling a couple games, we got back on the bus and Chicken drove to the In-N-Out Burger in Rohnert Park. (Revelation 3:20!) En route to San Francisco, we watched the movie which really tied the whole trip together, The Big Lebowski. I liked the movie more this time around, but I still found it overrated. I got off the Coen bus with Fargo and never really got back on, but watching Lebowski on this particular bus on a mattress with Ennui under my Great-Uncle Ces’s itchy but warm wool blanket felt like the best way to watch anything.
Presently, KrOB and I made plans to combine Drive-Out Theater and Bad Movie Night: myself, Jim Fourniadis and Bad Movie Night regular Mikl-Em riffing on Speed. (Get it? While we’re on a bus, we’ll be riffing on a movie set on a bus. See what we did there?) We’d talked about it before, but it seemed appropriate to finalize the plans while waiting in line for Rifftrax Live.
I was rather surprised by the hipness of the crowd, especially the high percentage of multicolored hairdos. (My own hair is a squid of pink and blonde synthetic dreads, and Ennui’s is brown with blonde streaks.) That’s San Francisco, I suppose, but it also shows how much can change in a decade. Most of the attendees of the 1996 convention were exactly what you’d expect for a gathering of fans of what was still a somewhat obscure basic cable sci-fi slash comedy slash puppet show: lots of overweight virginal nerds venturing out of their parents’ basements for the first time. I was especially creeped out by the room set aside for the MSTies from Compuserve, since they seldom ventured out to interact with the rest of the attendees. The best they could do in meatspace was talking with other people they knew online. Whew. There but for the grace of God and all.
Mike, Kevin and Bill sat in chairs off to the side of the screen, facing the audience their scripts on music stands in front of them and presumably monitors to actually see the movie. The movie itself was a colorized version from DVD, rather than a projected 35mm b&w film print. Though I’m glad colorization never really caught on, I’m here to tell you that no movie has ever benefited from it more. Ed Wood ain’t exactly Fritz Lang when it comes to subtle interplays of light and shadow, and Plan 9 From Outer Space always felt like watching a color movie on a b&w teevee. So the colorization was improvement, and the process itself is much more effective than the half-assed look in the eighties. Colorized or not, I was happy to see it on the Castro’s ginormous screen, where details as such as the folds in the fabric backdrop of the graveyard set or the cardboard of the tombstones really leapt out. (Kevin, whose aforementioned A Year at the Movies is about traveling the world while watching at least one movie a day, seemed awed by the sheer gorgeousness of the Castro Theater. Thanks, Kev! We like it, too.)
Barrelfish-shooting notwithstanding, the quality of the jokes was fantastic, as I knew it would be. I was especially happy to hear the old MST3K chestnut “Nobody will be admitted during the thrilling ______ scene!” from Kevin, as it’s one that I work into every Bad Movie Night, including the evening before when we did Spider-Man 3.
Something I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for years: while Ed Wood’s dialog is beautifully horrendous, he can’t take credit for all of it. The logical yet absurd line “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!” is almost verbatim from a film about the 1939 World’s Fair entitled To New Horizons. Whether that qualifies as stealing from the best, I can’t say.
I also can’t say this is all going to lead to a genuine Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival, and it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s MST3K proper or Rifftrax or any of the other offspring, it’s my church, and I’ll be there.