Mystery Science Theater 3000's legacy of hilarity
Welcome to a new column called Geek Speak, in which we take on an aspect of geek culture each week.
We geeks watch a lot of bad movies.
It's not like we have a choice, really. We like the kind of movies that we like, and the sad truth is a lot of genre stuff is pretty shitty. Take space operas, for example. Once you get past the Star Wars, the even-numbered Star Treks, and maybe half the Alien series, the quality of space-opera films takes a pretty steep dive. The next tier isn't too bad, but before long you're watching dreck like Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars -- because, hey, spaceships!
To survive the punishment these movies dish out, you develop defenses. You learn to talk back, to call them on their bullshit and to mock them for their stupidity. In 1988, standup comedian Joel Hodgson turned this natural defense mechanism into television gold with the creation of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
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The concept was simple: Three wise-asses sit in front of terrible movies -- usually in the prime geek genres of science fiction, horror and fantasy -- and just riff on the incredible stupidity on screen. The execution was brilliant, incorporating rapid-fire pop cultural references, biting satire and pure silliness in equal measures. The result was one of the strangest and most original shows ever to grace the small screen.
I'll never forget the first time I saw the show. It was 1990 and I was staying with my cousins, who had satellite TV. Flipping through the enormous number of channels -- it was probably like fifty, but that seemed like a lot in that ancient era -- I came across this weird looking sci-fi film, and being the geek that I was, had to stop (I'd already seen Battle Beyond the Stars like six times, so my standards were pretty low). I don't think I even noticed the little silhouettes at the bottom of the screen at first, but before long they made their presence known with a line about making a terrarium out of a dead woman, and then I was hooked. Here was this show that took two of my favorite things -- shitty sci-fi movies and making fun of shitty sci-fi movies -- and put them together on TV.
As luck would have it, I'd caught the tail end of the episode, so within half an hour it was over and I was left with so many questions. What the hell was this weird show? How did it ever get made? And where could I find more?
Got ninety minutes? Here's the full episode that introduced me to the show.
Due to the vagaries of various cable TV packages, it would actually be years before I got a steady hook-up for the show (due to the lack of the Internet it would be even more years before I had answers to the other questions) -- but once I did, I watched as many as I could. Together with Joel or Mike and the 'bots, I have endured and enjoyed some of the worst movies ever made. In the process, my appreciation for film, and film history, has grown immensely, because once you've seen the absolute worst the cinema has to offer, you really appreciate the best a lot more.
Looking back on the show now, twenty-five years after its genesis, it's impressive how much of an impact it has had. Not only did they produce ten seasons of the show, a movie, a successful touring show and two spin-offs -- Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax -- that continue to this day, they also inspired others to pick up the movie-riffing torch. Right here in Denver, Mile High Sci-Fi has continued the legacy of movie riffing, producing dozens of hilarious live performances skewering B-movies and building their own empire of bad film and great comedy. Back in 1988, convincing someone to pay them real money to make fun of movies must have been quite a feat for Hodgson and his early MST3K collaborators. Now, in light of all they've done since, it's hard to imagine a world without them.
See Mile High Sci-Fi, Denver's own MST3K inspired troupe, tackle the space turd Spacehunter: Adventures In the Forbidden Zone at 9:30 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at the Sie FilmCenter. For more information, visit the Mile High Sci-Fi website.