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‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ and the Fine Art of Heckling

Before we made fun of TV shows on Twitter, we watched robots do it on ‘MST3K’

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The cry-laughing fit begins, innocuously enough, with a close-up of a sign reading, “LEAVE THE BRONX: SIGN UP FOR A NEW HOUSE IN ENCHANTING NEW MEXICO.” The year the film takes place is not specified, except for the fact that the film is called Escape 2000, so. “Wow, the new draconian HUD policies!” remarks a robot with a gumball machine for a head, heckling in the lower-right corner of the screen, alongside another robot (this one with an upturned lacrosse mask for a head) and, between them, a random jumpsuited man named Mike.

Escape 2000 — a.k.a Escape From the Bronx, a.k.a. Bronx Warriors 2 — opens with an army of extra-governmental henchmen in silver hazmat suits (“We gratefully acknowledge the Reynolds Wrap corporation for donating the costumes!” Mike quips) forcibly evacuating a Bronx apartment building. This despite the fact that the 1983 film was shot in Italy and directed by Enzo G. Castellari. You know this is supposed to be the Bronx only because the command “Leave the Bronx!” is repeated several dozen times in the first few minutes, often by an unseen extra-governmental henchman with a bullhorn, but more often by the heckling silhouettes.

Immediately, you start to feel a little loopy.

“Even though this is Italy, leave the Bronx!” intones the gumball-machine robot; “Dammit, he should’ve left the Bronx!” he adds, as the bad guys barbecue a homeless man with a flamethrower. “I’m a pretty good judge of people who aren’t going to leave the Bronx,” says the lacrosse-mask robot in reference to the film’s hero, who is named Trash and looks like it. “And this guy is one of them.” After a dramatic helicopter explosion, there is a long, meditative silence, freeing you to notice, for example, that the ersatz-Manhattan skyline is looking a little sparse. “It looks like most of the buildings have left the Bronx,” Mike notes.

Meanwhile, as aforementioned, you, the viewer, are crying laughing, and have been for the last five minutes. If you are, in fact, me, you have also literally spit-taked strawberry protein drink onto your laptop computer screen. The experience is absurd, undignified, and delightful, each repetition of “Leave the Bronx!” a fresh jolt of enriched uranium, a weaponized silliness, elegant and juvenile. It’s so perfect, and so, so, so dumb.

Such is the puerile joy of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the terrific cult TV show that feeds off terrible cult sci-fi and horror flicks. Born in the late ’80s as a homegrown sensation on local Minneapolis TV station KTMA, it ran for 10 seasons and just shy of 200 episodes, bouncing first to a nascent Comedy Central, then to a nascent Sci-Fi Channel. And now, after a nearly 20-year layoff, it has resurfaced on Netflix, which is streaming a greatest-hits package of classic episodes now and unveils a new season Friday.

The show’s plot, such as it is, gets a fairly thorough explanation in the constantly evolving Devo-rip-off theme song, but to summarize: In a dystopian future, a hapless worker is shot into space by his evil boss and forced to watch terrible B-movies, so he builds a few robots — Tom Servo (the gumball machine) and Crow (the lacrosse mask) among them — to keep him company. At first, the worker in question was played by Joel Hodgson, series creator and mastermind; Michael J. Nelson took over midway through Season 5. Jonah Ray is set to headline the Netflix era, now exiled by the likes of Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt.

But the format doesn’t change: Aside from a few skits, it’s just a guy and his two robots watching the terrible (and very real) B-movie you are watching, facing the same direction you’re facing, sounding every bit as sedentary and bemused and regretful as you are. It feels like this is happening very late at night even if it isn’t actually very late at night. For the length of the unpleasantries, the trio will contribute cheerful jokes, insults, nonsensical asides, and improvised songs to the action, an ecstatic running commentary that can turn the worst possible film into the best one ever made.

Think of it as an early version of the disquieting modern phenomenon where everyone watches TV with Twitter at the ready, eager to prove they’re funnier and cooler than whatever crap they’re watching. (Hodgson based the show’s theater-silhouette look on the album-sleeve art for Elton John’s “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.) Movies like Sharknado now make this covenant between lousy flick and horrified onlooker explicit: Say whatever you want about us! Just use the hashtag! The difference on Mystery Science Theater 3000 is that the first screen is embedded in the second one, and the heckling is handled by professionals. Also notable: In this show’s universe, anyway, nefarious villains have forced the dude and his robots to watch whatever sucky movie they’re watching. You, the sedentary viewer, are doing this by choice. And the frequent cry-laughing fit, however unsightly it might look to anybody else in the room, is your reward.

What you needed, as a mid-to-late-’90s teenager, were Curfew Shows. A nightcap, a comedown, a tasteless grace note. Ideally, you got home a few minutes early or a few hours late, flipped on the TV, and partook of a distinctly American tradition: unwinding deep into the night with a wildly untoward piece of cinematic trash. (Better yet, if you were an uncool teenager destined to become an incredibly cool adult, maybe you never left the house at all.)

The ’50s first gave rise to the notion of a “horror host,” a deeply strange and charismatic human who introduced risible B-movies and less-sophisticated-word-for-“contextualized” them and congratulated you for wasting your time watching them. A few horror hosts — Elvira in L.A., critic-turned-ringmaster Joe Bob Briggs from Dallas — found national fame, but the regional giants were usually even stranger and more charismatic. In the mid-’60s, for example, Cleveland had Ghoulardi, a blatantly satanic-looking gentleman who hosted the blatantly uncouth Shock Theater. My father likes to tell the story about the hardest he ever saw my grandfather laugh, which was when they were sitting together watching a lousy horror movie about bloodthirsty sentient trees, and at one point Ghoulardi suddenly appeared onscreen and yelled, I’ll tear em limb-from-limb!

Mystery Science Theater 3000 served this function throughout the ’90s, and part of its global appeal was that it never stopped looking or acting like a local-TV oddity. You can still somehow sense the presence, the bone-deep chill of the upper Midwest. (Early episodes include a chyron with the official fan-club address, a P.O. box in Hopkins, Minnesota.) The sets have a distinctly “duct-tape a cardboard box to look like a spaceship” feel; the mid-film skits, with Mike or Joel comically terrorized by a rotating crew of “Mads,” were always not so much ha-ha funny as soothingly silly. You can find superfans who’ll argue at disquieting length about the show’s two hosts with a David Lee Roth vs. Sammy Hagar sort of fervor, but for casual enthusiasts, it’s a much subtler distinction, down to whether you like your humor dry (Mike) or drier (Joel).

As a basic-cable staple on a pre–Daily Show Comedy Central, the show sat at the more parents-friendly end of a trash-TV spectrum that stretched from the USA Network’s wanly titillating Up All Night to, uh, the after-dark offerings of Cinemax. The innovation: Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies were much worse, and the hosts were much funnier and never left the screen.

What’s impressive about the show’s full list of films in retrospect is how genuinely obscure the vast majority are even now, when seemingly every piece of pop culture detritus has been reappraised as a lost classic. From Gamera vs. Guiron to Time of the Apes, from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die to Teen-Age Crime Wave, from Samson vs. the Vampire Women to Zombie Nightmare to Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, most MST3K movies are famous primarily for being on MST3K. A few (most notably, the hilariously turgid killer-cult thriller Manos: The Hands of Fate) have lives of their own now, but most remain modest in their noble suckitude. This is a workmanlike pantheon disguised as a dunk tank, a Hall of Shame that somehow shames neither the creator nor the viewer. This is America (or Italy, or Japan, or wherever). Make whatever garbage you want. And, crucially, watch whatever garbage you want, too.

From the early-’80s on, teenagers had another ubiquitous and perpetual trash-TV outlet: MTV. Which brings up another major ’90s low-culture phenomenon with screen-within-a-screen antics: Beavis and Butt-Head. The actual cartoon part of that infamous Mike Judge show, from The Great Cornholio to “Kick me in the jimmy!”, holds up just fine, but true heads know that the best parts were always the Mocking Actual Music Videos segments, another phenomenally crude precursor to the modern social media era. It turns out that “great fake characters mock awful real pieces of attempted art” was a fertile source of comedy, and Beavis and Butt-head were the musical (and much meaner) version. They hated most of what they saw, of course, but not everything, and it was almost funnier when they loved something. “These guys are cool because they jump around real slow” remains the most insightful thing anyone has ever said about the Beastie Boys.

Those band-heckling segments can be hard to find now, possibly because many furious hair-metal dudes got stingy with the usage rights. But as the feature-filmic equivalent, MST3K’s archives aren’t nearly as hard to access as you’d imagine, possibly due to the show’s lighter touch. (Our attempt at a beginner’s guide can be found here.) You’d think a couple of hundred entries or so would be enough, but Hodgson raised more than $6 million for the new season, using a Kickstarter drive with a few outside sources added, making it the biggest crowdfunded video project of all time, beating even the Veronica Mars movie.

The challenge, in 2017, will be the aforementioned Cult-Classic Fatigue, the fear that there are no terrible old movies left to mock and/or valorize. Trash-cinephiles have been scraping this particular barrel for decades, both repulsed and thrilled by the sludge therein. At some point they’re bound to run out of bad forgotten flicks, but even if the well of source material dries up eventually, the show’s fount of enthusiasm never will. Making fun of old, inept shit is a tired device in 2017 that this show still somehow transforms into a transcendent one. Whatever’s onscreen, the robots’ reactions — and yours — remain unchanged, a cheerful shrug designed to be low-impact and nonlinear, inviting you to mentally check out for long stretches or nod off entirely.

Which makes it ideal, oddly enough, for the binge-watch era, in that you can start bingeing anywhere, and move in any direction, and stop whenever the process grows tiresome without the guilt of not seeing it through. Superfans will gladly reel off their full-series, top-to-bottom episode rankings, but a stronger indication of the appeal is that the specific episode doesn’t matter, nor the point at which you start watching, nor your level of emotional investment. The next cry-laughing fit might come from anywhere, at any time. My personal favorite episode, for example, is The Horror of Party Beach, based on a lightning-quick thing where a burly sailor dude appears onscreen and one of the robots yells, “SAIL AWAY!” exactly like they did in a Beck’s beer ad ubiquitous at the time. Which sounds stupid and minor, but it might still be the hardest I have ever laughed at anything, ever. I remember nothing else about this movie, and will remember it forever. The point is that you had to be there. The point is that I was.

An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the new MST3K star. He is Jonah Ray, not Jonah Ryan.