Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Earth vs. Soup!

with 6 comments

[Editor’s note: This is more stream-of-consciousness than intended, but I had to put something up!]

While in high school and university I was an absolute nut for Mystery Science Theater 3000How absolute of a nut, you ask? Refer to Items 20 and 21, I drifted away from it during the fifth season, after Michael J. Nelson (the head writer) took over the human role vacated by Joel Hodgson (the show’s creator). It was nothing against Mike, he was a great replacement for Joel. It was just that, given various goings-on in my personal life, viewing each episode was no longer mandatory in my mind. Then viewing any episode became optional.

I never lost complete track of the show even after it transitioned over to the Skiffy Channel, though its backstory got much too complicated for me to keep tabs on. Still, the premise was essentially the same — intelligent mockery of atrocious movies — and the writing remained brilliant from everything that I saw.

But, until recently, I hadn’t even seen the final episode. I still haven’t clued in to the “Mike Nelson: Destroyer of Worlds” thread.

Yes, I’m revisiting one of my formative influences. And, in some of my spare time, I’m reading up on the behind-the-scenes stories I either never knew, or had only a passing acquaintance with.

Whenever I list what I think are the Best TV Shows Ever, it never occurs to me to even consider MST3K. Not because the show wasn’t good, but because it’s simply incomparable to anything else. It is and was one of the unlikeliest TV shows ever made, it was never wildly successful in the ratings, it had cancellation hovering over its head for at least half of its ten years (and was, in fact, cancelled on one channel, only to be reborn on another between seasons seven and eightI find it hard to think of Season Seven as a full season, since it’s only six episodes. On the other hand, they are pretty strong ones.). It was long and unwieldy, running two hours. It demanded concentration on multiple levels from its viewers.

Ultimately it came down to this: you either Got It, or you really, really didn’t.

Joel Hodgson was a Wisconsin native who went to New York and achieved some notoriety as a prop comic. He wasn’t even 25 when he got regular gigs on Saturday Night Live and David Letterman’s show. His use of props was ingenious and, at times, bizarre, but always got a response from the audience. After a time, though, he felt that he’d peaked, and that his options were not only limited, but not to his taste.

He had gotten to a point, he once said, where he “could have been the ‘wacky’ neighbor on some sitcom”, but that didn’t appeal to him, and there didn’t seem to be any other traditional paths that were much better.

So he went back to the midwest, performing stand-up regularly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in Minnesota and becoming well-known and respected in the creative community there. In 1988, a guy named Jim Mallon approached him. Mallon was working at a new UHF station, KTMA, and asked Hodgson if he had any ideas for new shows. Hodgson thought Mallon wanted a stand-up type of show, and passed.

But then he thought back on it, and called Mallon up with an idea.

Two different moments clashed in his head. First, he’d been making “robot” puppets for about a year, which were sold through a local novelty gift shop. In the course of a year, he’d made perhaps fifty of them. Second, at Christmas, he noticed that a gift, a Godzilla movie, was actually in the public domain (I can find no reference as to whether it was a gift to, or from, him, or somebody else’s entirely).

So he proposed an idea to Mallon, and Mallon thought it was good. Hodgson approached two other members of a writers’ group he was in, Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein (because he thought they were the two best writers), and asked if they wanted to participate. They both bit, and on arriving at the studio, each was handed (or went to, accounts differ) a different robot to handle. They shot a 30 minute pilot that nobody outside of KTMA management and Best Brains, Inc. has ever seen, and were given the go-ahead for a full season.

It seems that that year, 1988-1989, was one hell of a ride.

They produced over twenty episodes, each of them essentially done in one day! The group would meet in the morning, write up the “host segments”, shoot those, then pop in a movie — sight unseen — and improvise for the theater segments. The concept of the show evolved over the early episodes, from just “a guy in space watching bad movies” to “a guy trapped in space…”, and the mad scientist characters were introduced within the first ten episodes.

***

There are, of course, no MST3K DVDs to be had in Shanghai, and I get that. How in the world could it possibly carry over? The subtitling alone would be a nightmare, to say nothing of the obscure or dated references that fly past, usually at excessive velocity.

Yeah, dated.

Watching eps that I have clear memories of is an exercise in feeling old. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan — more than a decade past. Oksana Baiul? Same. Joey Buttafuoco? I watched an episode from “Season Zero” (the KTMA season), and there’s a scene where a woman falls down a hole, and somebody makes a Land of the Lost reference.

Land of the Lost had been off the air for 12 years when that reference was made.

The reference was made 17 years ago.

Ye gods.

***

I don’t want to get into a flame-war about whether Joel or Mike was a better lead, because they were both great. However, I’ve got to say that Joel is closer to my heart. Not only was he the host most of the time I actively watched the show, but his quirkiness and obscurity are (obviously) much closer to my own style than Mike’s somewhat doofy ordinariness. Nothing wrong with either one, I’m just a lot closer to the one than the other.

That said, let me reiterate that they were both great, and both were central to possibly the best running gag any show has ever had. In a show where the central characters are two robots and a man, nobody ever commented on the weird fact that the ‘bots had all the personality.

***

One of my favorite aspects of the show was the occasional after-movie complaining about just how bad the movies were.

Coming out of the post-apocalyptic City Limits, Joel revealed to the Bots that there was a lot of tie-in merchandise released in conjunction with the movie, including a Trivial Pursuit-type game with all its questions relating to the movie. Joel asks two or three of the questions, including “In the movie City Limits, what was the name of the movie?” The Bots can’t remember anything about the movie. Including that.

After surviving Monster A-Go-Go, the Bots are in shock, crying and whining and complaining about how boring and nonsensical the film was, while Joel comforts them. (Monster A-Go-Go is my vote for worst movie ever shown on MST. No monster. Twenty seconds of pseudo-Go-Go. Ninety [CENSORED!] minutes of disconnected shots of feet walking down halls, washed out stock footage, and ponderous narration that fails to make any of it make sense.)

Or, pre-Monster A-Go-Go, Tom Servo maintains that Being From Another Planet was the worst movie they had ever seen:

Tom: This is the worst movie we’ve ever seen here.
Joel: Oh really, what about Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy?
Tom: Oh, worse, worse.
Crow: What about Side Hackers?
Tom: Worse.
Joel: Cave Dwellers?
Tom: Worse.
Crow: Catalina Caper?
Tom: Worse.
Joel: Pod People?
Tom: Worse.
Crow: Hell Cats?
Tom: Oh, worse.
Joel: Daddy-O?
Tom: Oh, worse!
Crow: Rocket Attack USA?
Tom: Worse.
Joel: Earth vs. the Spider?
Tom: Oh, definitely worse!
Crow: Ring of Terror?
Tom: Worse!
Joel: It Conquered the World?
Tom: Uhh… yeah, worse!
Crow: Lost Continent?
Tom: Oh, worse.
Joel: Moon Zero Two?
Tom: Oh, worse!
Crow: Women of the Prehistoric Planet?
Tom: Worse.
Joel: Time of the Apes?
Tom: Worse, worse.
Crow: Wild Rebels?
Tom: Worse.
Joel: Stranded in Space?
Tom: Worse.
Crow: King Dinosaur?
Tom: Worse.
Joel: Mighty Jack?
Tom: Worse.
Crow: Rocketship X-M?
Tom: Worse.
Joel: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians?
Tom: Worse!
Crow: The Unearthly?
Tom: Worse!
Joel: Teenage Caveman?
Tom: Oh, worse!
Crow: First Spaceship on Venus?
Tom: Oh, worse, worse!
Joel: Space Travelers?
Tom: Much worse!
Crow: Giant Gila Monster?
Tom: Oh, a lot worse!
Joel: The Manchingo Coniglium?
Tom: Oh, huh?
Crow: Hey, Teenagers from Outer Space was much, much better!
Tom: It’s a ton worse.
Joel: City Limits?
Tom: Worse.
Crow: War of the Colossal Beast?
Tom: Worse.
Joel: Amazing Colossal Man?
Tom: Worse.
Crow: Fugitive Alien?
Tom: Worse.
Joel: Hmmmm… Fugitive Alien 2?
Tom: Worse.
Crow: Uh… Master Ninja?
Tom: Worse.
Joel: Oh, really? Gamera?
Tom: Worse, worse, worse, worse.
Crow: Mmm… Godzilla vs. Sea Monster?
Tom: Worse, worse, worse, worse, worse.
Joel: Gamera vs. Zigra?
Tom: Worse, worse.
Crow: … vs. Baragon?
Tom: Worse, worse, worse, worse, worse.
Crow: Gamera vs. Guiron?
Tom: Worse, worse, worse.
Crow: How about The Castle of Fu Manchu!
Tom: OK, I’ll grant you Castle of Fu Manchu was just as bad, but we’ve never done a worse film!
Joel: (rising as the credits end): OK, we gotta go. Come on.
Crow: Sorry to leave.

Hah! Little did the tubby little candy dispenser know that, lurking at the end of season four, the Unholy Trinity of Bride of the Monster, Monster A-Go-Go and Manos: The Hands of Fate lay in wait.

Another classic post-game comment: “You know, aside from the fact that I’ll never experience joy in my life I don’t think Red Zone Cuba had any kind of negative effect on me.”

How hardcore a MiSTie geek am I? I came up with at least a dozen titles for this piece as I was putting it together. Most were so obscure (if you haven’t seen a particular episode) that I decided against, but, as a few examples:

  • Rock Climbing
  • Deeep Hurting!
  • How about a little love for the Herc-meister?
  • End! END! EEEEENNNNNNNNNND!
  • Gadzookie went to Hollywood, an agent to the stars
  • I do love the Weather Channel, it’s good
  • Why don’t dey look?
  • Did I mention that I cried?
  • It sort of sneaks up on you — “boo”, it says!
  • Hello! Thank you! Thank you! Hello! Thank you! Hello! Hello!
  • Maybe I should not have dressed as the Angel of Death
  • AKA “The Pantsless Salesman”? Or “The Piddling Peddler”!?
  • You know, a fella could put his knee up on such a thing.

A few of the less obscure possibilities:

  • Dickweeeeeeeeeed!
  • Push the Button, Frank. Better yet, you kill him, I’ll push the button.
  • Give me Rocket Number 9!
  • Repeat to yourself “it’s just a show, I should really just relax”
  • Keep Circulating The Tapes

***

Here are, in my not very humble opinion, the best episodes to begin with if you’ve never gotten into the show:

  • 104 — Planet of the Prehistoric Women, a misleading title, a somewhat interesting movie (in that a significant number of the characters are portrayed by Asian-American actors, at a time when ethnicity in SF films was quite rare), and the episode that gave birth to “Hi-KEEBA!”
  • 213 — Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster. A season two ep that feels like (and is) a transition between the laid-back early days, and the hellzapoppin’ seasons that followed.
  • 320 — The Unearthly. Not the best third season ep, but in many ways indicitave of the entire Joel era. Preceded by two spectacular shorts, the movie itself is lame, the riffing just about average, but the episode as a whole… well, this is why MSTies tuned in week after week, even for repeats.
  • 424 — “Manos” The Hands of Fate. Tom: So, what are we, about an hour into the movie now? Joel: More like thirty seconds. Tom: …No!
  • 519 — Outlaw. “Oh, it’s breasticaboobical, chestica-mammical, globular, pendular fun!” The episode that won Best Brains the Peabody Award.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. A great introduction for non-MSTies, despite the fact that the studio more or less tortured all the creative folk involved and insisted on an altered (and inferior) ending. Crow’s brilliant plan for escaping from the satellite and back to Earth still leaves me in stitches. (He’s going to tunnel his way back.)
  • 816 — Prince of Space. One of the goofiest movies ever, some of the funniest riffing ever, with the bonus that the host segments are utterly brilliant (the Satellite of Love has fallen through a wormhole, which warps reality in seriously entertaining ways). “I like it very much!”
  • 312 — Gamera vs. Guiron. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve seen a guy in a turtle suit doing gymnastics in order to defeat a guy in a knife-headed lizard suit. The end segment also has Mike Nelson doing a brilliant Michael Feinstein impression. “It sort of sneaks up on you, ‘boo!’, it says!”
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Written by [IMH]

20 January 2006 at 10:42 am

Posted in Culture

6 Responses

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  1. Mmmm, I’d disagree with you about the “dated”-ness. I recently bought and watched 3 of the DVD collections. Yeah, there are a lot of jokes that were topical 10 years ago, but I think they still work. Many of my favorite MST3K jokes were the really obscure ones, like Servo humming the “ice cream truck” tune from “Comfort and Joy” during “Teenagers from Outer Space.” Topical jokes eventually become obscure, and … well, I think that makes them funny, just in a different way.

    Otherwise, I’m totally with you on the genius of MST3K.

    General Secretary

    20 January 2006 at 12:08 pm

  2. Mmmm, I’d disagree with you about the “dated”-ness. I recently bought and watched 3 of the DVD collections. Yeah, there are a lot of jokes that were topical 10 years ago, but I think they still work. Many of my favorite MST3K jokes were the really obscure ones, like Servo humming the “ice cream truck” tune from “Comfort and Joy” during “Teenagers from Outer Space.” Topical jokes eventually become obscure, and … well, I think that makes them funny, just in a different way.

    Otherwise, I’m totally with you on the genius of MST3K.

    General Secretary

    20 January 2006 at 12:08 pm

  3. While at the University of Wisconsin, Jim Mallon was the President (?) of a student government party, Pail and Shovel, dedicated to mocking student government. They built the famed “Statue of Liberty” on the frozen lake, among many otehr practical joke-type gags. When I was in high school, a classmate got a hold of a book called “If at All Possible Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks” that included an entire chapter on Pail and Shovel. It was of intense interest to us, since Mallon’s partner in crime and co-leader of the party, a man named Leon Varjian, was our calculus teacher, and he was named all over the chapter. Whenever I hear someone talk about Mystery Sciece Theater I remember my high school math teacher.

    Tosy and Cosh

    21 January 2006 at 12:39 am

  4. My problem with MTS3K (if problem it be) is that if I see a movie with the ‘bots, I cannot ever NOT have seen it with the ‘bots, which means I can never review it without using all their (far superior to my own) jokes.

    Nathan

    21 January 2006 at 4:33 am

  5. GS — I’ll never stop loving the show, but some of the jokes are dated, and show just what generation you and I both are. Still funny, but stuff we’ll end up having to explain at length to our kids.

    T&C — You have been in the second-hand presence of greatness. You dirty git! 😛

    Nathan — That’s not a problem, it’s high praise.

    Just one question to all: Who’s Merritt Stone!?!?!?!???

    Ian

    21 January 2006 at 5:08 pm

  6. In the far-too-distant past

    Ian Hamet remembers Mystery Science Theater 3000: Whenever I list what I think are the Best TV Shows Ever, it never occurs to me to even consider MST3K. Not because…

    dustbury.com

    22 January 2006 at 7:31 am


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