Cable cult hit lands in Canada

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a cheaply-made, funny, critically-acclaimed series in the U.S. Now it’s seeking new frontiers.

The Globe and Mail, October 12, 1996   

Held hostage on a spaceship, the small crew — one human, two robots — are being forced to watch yet another terrible movie. Today it’s a beach-blanket flick called Catalina Caper, but as the no-name actors dance around a campfire to the lame surfer soundtrack, the space prisoners in the front row of the ship’s theatre do not suffer in silence. “Say, these Klan meetings have really lightened up!” says Tom Servo, the robot with the glass bubble brain. “Now that’s what I call art — scantily clad women and Huey Lewis & The News sounds on the radio. This is the kind of padding I like to see in a film,” says Crow, the robot with a football helmet brain.


“Throw another Beach Boy on the fire.”


“This is really good sound, and it was before Dolby,” says Joel, the human.


“Dolby Gillis?” answers Servo. Which is a fair sample of the seemingly ad-libbed, totally sophomoric, critically acclaimed U.S. cable TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000. It became a cult hit over seven seasons on Comedy Central, with a small Canadian contingent of fans who saw it on holiday in the United States or via satellite. After a movie release in the spring and growing demand this fall for video releases of both the movie and repackaged TV shows, “MST3K” (as devoted fans or “Mysties” call it) is now gaining an audience in Canada.


Each 90-minute episode features the same three characters watching a bad movie and making wisecracks throughout. They’re silhouetted at the bottom of the TV screen, with the target movie filling the rest of the space. The show’s creators estimate that each episode contains about 700 jokes — the quality, consistency and range of which is impressive. The Simpsons is the only other TV program as reliably hilarious.


Joel Hodgson created the show after doing stand-up comedy in Los Angeles, then moving back to his native Minneapolis in the late 1980s. “I was building these robots out of found objects,” he remembers, when another guy in the same warehouse space approached him about doing a show. “I had this idea that used public-domain movies — people sitting in theater seats watching a movie and making fun of it. I thought, ‘This could work because it’s so cheap to produce.’” (The budget remains about $32,000 for each 90-minute episode, compared to about $1million for a prime-time drama such as ER.)


Hodgson hooked up with Jim Mallon, MST3K’s producer and cofounder (with Hodgson) of Best Brains Productions, which makes the program. They created a character (named Joel Robinson in homage to Lost In Space, and played by Hodgson) who is trapped on the Satellite of Love by a mad scientist who forces him to watch cheesy movies as part of an experiment designed to drive him crazy. Besides playing the lead, Hodgson designed and built the sets, his robot co-stars and most of the props. He wrote and performed the theme song and co-wrote scripts. “We did 22 shows on the local station and a best-of show,” Mallon says. “We sent that to the Comedy Channel just as it was forming. The rest, as they say, is broadcast history.”


While on Comedy Central, MST3K collected critical plaudits, a Peabody award, two Emmy nominations and the attention of Universal Pictures, which produced Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.


Since its release in April, Cineplex Odeon has had Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie playing in repertory houses and what vice-president Bryan Gliserman calls “specialty circuits.”


“There’s a small but dedicated audience” for the feature, he says. “It’s probably still playing in most markets across the country.” There was little advertising but the word-of-mouth was impressive. When it first appeared at Festival Cinemas rep houses in Toronto, for example, it immediately sold out.


Best Brains is currently releasing the original TV episodes through Rhino Video (distributed in Canada by SMA Distribution of Don Mills, Ont.). So far, they’ve put out The Amazing Colossal Man (a 1950s nuclear terror picture), Mitchell (an early 1970s detective movie starring Walking Tall’s Joe Don Baker) and a faux medieval epic made on a nickel-and-dime budget called Cave Dwellers. Rhino is following those with Pod People and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die this month.


“We’ve had advance orders for about a thousand copies” of those two titles in Canada, says SMA marketing agent Amanda Diamond, “and they’re still coming in.” (Brain and Pod People are slated for release in Canada at the end of this month.)


And on U.S. cable television, MST3K continues. When Comedy Central decided to drop the series at the end of last season, Mysties bought a full-page ad in Variety, pleading that the series not be allowed to expire. The Sci-Fi Channel came to the rescue, ordering an initial season of nine episodes.


Hodgson has left the series to return to Los Angeles, where he’s co-written the screenplay for the direct-to-video third installment of the Honey I Shrunk The Kids series, due out in January of 1997. He’s also developing television pilots, consulting on magic and effects for the ABC series Sabrina: The Teenage Witch and proceeding with his own film, “kind of an art-house space movie.”


“I did a hundred shows,” Hodgson says. “You start to fear for your sanity watching that many bad movies.”


With Hodgson gone, there’s a new lead, Michael J. Nelson, who has been MST3K’s head writer since 1989. He stars in the movie and in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. But little else has changed, he explains. “We sit in a group and make fun of these movies,” he said. “We end up with about 1,600 jokes, which we have to whittle down to 700.” As long as there are lousy movies, it seems, there will be MST3K.