“Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” —Pauline Kael, film critic
“When I’m in a movie theater, I’m relaxing and hoping for what everybody hopes for when they watch a movie: That it’ll take you into it. I compare it to a magic show. A really good magic show is amazing, but a bad magic show is even better.” —Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator
In the not-too-distant past, I was a geeky high school student flipping through channels late one night at the home of relatives who were lucky enough to have cable. Then as now, there was little worth attention, and I was about to tune out and turn in when I chanced upon a low-budget Conan the Barbarian rip-off bordered on the bottom of the screen by the silhouettes of a wisecracking man and two snarky robots.
The show, of course, was Mystery Science Theater 3000. The episode featured Cave Dwellers and ranks among MST3K’s finest mockeries; it even made a fan of muscle-bound star Miles O’Keefe (“How much Keefe is in this movie?”).
This week, WIRED marked the 25th anniversary of MST3K’s national cable debut with Brian Raftery’s excellent “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Definitive Oral History of a TV Masterpiece.” This candid, revealing piece includes interviews with the show’s primary players and traces MST3K from its humble beginnings on a small, Minneapolis TV station through its triumphant, cult-building run on Comedy Central (then called the Comedy Channel) to its corporate execution at the Sci-Fi Channel (now known sillily as Syfy).
Among the topics covered are the factors Hodgson and the writers considered when selecting films. “We didn’t want the cocaine,” Hodgson explains, “we wanted the baby laxative they put in the cocaine.”
As Art Bell, a Comedy Central executive during MST3K’s run on the network, says: “They honed bad-movie selection into a fine art.”
Mystery Science Theater 3000 gave new life to a host of Z-grade movies that may have otherwise been forgotten but instead are unforgettable thanks to the riffs of Hodgson, Mike Nelson and the various incarnations of Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot: Manos: The Hands of Fate (“Every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photo”), Pod People (“Trumpy!”), Mitchell (“Even his name says, ‘Is that a beer?’”) and hundreds more.
Although it was never quite a ratings hit, the show cultivated a devoted following, including fans as diverse as Al Gore, Frank Zappa and Keith Olbermann, who in a 1990 Los Angeles Times review wrote, “Wrapped in the guise of a kids’ show (Joel Hodgson—the human—regularly reads mail from youngsters who send him drawings of the robots), Mystery Science Theater 3000 contains some of the hippest, deepest satire of the generation.”
The show’s supporters, aka MSTies, were among the first fan bases to mobilize via the Internet, and MST3K’s traditional closing message to “keep circulating the tapes” is outdated only in its chosen format. Today, episodes are widely available on DVD, through streaming outlets and on YouTube.
Roger Ebert once described his motto as: “No good movie is depressing. All bad movies are depressing.” But Ebert seemed willing to expand his parameters when it came to MST3K and its cheesy films of choice.
“Part of the appeal of the program is in the wisecracking,” he wrote in his review of 1996’s Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. “But the movies themselves are also crucial. They are so incredibly bad (many of them are not only out of copyright but perhaps were never worth copyrighting in the first place) that they get laughs twice—once because of what they are, and again because of what is said about them.”
Besides, bad comes in varying shades, and even the worst movies a couple of mad scientists can find have the power to bring us together.
“The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen,” Pauline Kael notes in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies. “You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.”