20 Things You Didn’t Know About Mystery Science Theater 3000
Everyone’s favorite no-budget comedy puppet show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, is back. With the help of Netflix and a record-breaking Kickstarter, we’re being graced with the first new episodes in almost 20 years. Hi-keeba!
Created by Joel Hodgson, MST3K is the ages-old story of a lowly janitor kidnapped by mad scientists and shot into space, forced to watch awful movies onboard the dog bone-shaped Satellite of Love, with only his robot pals and their snarky repartee to keep him company. Joel himself was the first host, followed by Mike Nelson, and, as of this weekend, Jonah Ray is slipping into the jumpsuit. He’ll be tormented by new Mads Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt.
For a show with less-than-humble beginnings, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has grown from cult favorite into a nerd powerhouse, tapping the likes of Mark Hamill and Dan Harmon for this latest go-round, to the delight of its loyal legion of fans. But much like Tom Servo’s head after it’s been deep-fried into an onion blossom, there’s more to this show than there at first appears.
So, join us, won’t you? For 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Mystery Science Theater 3000.
20. THERE’S A SCRIPT
While it’s tempting to assume that everyone involved with Mystery Science Theater 3000 is an improv genius, making up withering one-liners on the spot, there’s actually a script for each episode, and it’s meticulously timed — to the second.
During the first season on Minneapolis’ KTMA public access channel — or as they later referred to it, the “pilot” season — when the budget was essentially non-existent, Joel Hodsgon, Trace Beaulieu, and J. Elvis Weinstein tried riffing cold. Producer Jim Mallon would bring them the worst film he could find in the station’s library, they’d watch five minutes, decide it was good enough, and go on the air.
There’s a reason they don’t want you to see those episodes.
Joel quickly realized the show would be much funnier if they watched the movie a couple of times, got a sense of what was going on, and then wrote a script that synced to the film perfectly. Going scripted also allowed them to bring on more writers, and eventual cast members, including future host Mike Nelson, who was originally hired as the head writer.
19. THEY’VE WATCHED A LOT OF BAD MOVIES
Finding a Hobgoblins or Manos: The Hands of Fate on the first try isn’t easy. For every film screened on the Satellite of Love, 10 to 20 were considered and rejected by the writers. As any connoisseur of dollar-bin DVDs knows, bad and so-bad-it’s-good are very, very different things. For a film to work on MST3K, they needed a very particular set of terrible — nothing R-rated, not too much dialogue. And the movie needed to at least be watchable.
Frank Conniff took the brunt of it, as he was in charge of picking the movies for the first five seasons. And he couldn’t skim — he had to watch every bad movie that came his way from start to finish. He learned that the hard way. Based on only his partial viewing, the show ended up licensing the movie Sidehackers, only to realize too late there was a violent rape scene at the end of the film. They went ahead with the movie anyway — they couldn’t afford not too — but they had to cut the scene and have Joel and the ‘bots talk their way around it. Not exactly side-splitting stuff there.
18. THE SATELLITE OF LOVE IS NAMED AFTER A LOU REED SONG
Very little is known about the the dog bone-shaped Satellite of Love, the orbiting spaceship that Joel, then Mike, and now Jonah Ray, are trapped on. There’s a movie theater, yes. There’s at least one window. There might be a basement. The ship’s filled with enough junk to build several robots. And the satellite borrows its name from a Lou Reed song.
“Satellite of Love” is the second single from Reed’s Transformer album, composed while he was still part of the Velvet Underground. None other than David Bowie produced the album; he also provides background vocals on the song.
Lyrically, the song’s about a guy watching a satellite launch on TV that leads him to think about his girlfriend cheating on him. Not exactly the most direct connection to a show about making fun of bad movies, but that hasn’t stopped the cast from singing the song at the end of live shows, replacing the lyrics “Harry, Mark, and John,” with “Gypsy, Tom, and Crow.”
17. NOT EVERYONE WAS A FAN
Renowned writer Kurt Vonnegut, author of Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five, did not care for Mystery Science Theater 3000, telling Kevin Murphy (writer/Tom Servo) that even terrible art deserved respect. Unperturbed, Kevin then invited his hero to dinner, only for Vonnegut to politely decline, saying he was busy. That night, when Kevin went out to eat, he found Vonnegut sitting at the same restaurant, alone.
Still, that was nothing compared to Joe Don Baker. After riffing on Mitchell in the fifth season, Baker, the movie’s “star,” was reported to have threatened to “kick their asses.” Undeterred, the Satellite of Love crew later took on Final Justice, another Baker vehicle, in the final season, mocking the film — and Baker — relentlessly.
Other critics, meanwhile, were a little more mixed. Rick Sloane, director of Hobgoblins was a huge fan of the show, even submitting several of his films to MST3K directly, but, understandably, took some issue with their saying he had “rat droppings for brains.” Still, he didn’t seem to take it too personally, even holding screenings of the Mystery Science Theater-ed version of his movie. Kurt Vonnegut could learn something from him.
16. MST3K HAS BEEN CANCELLED FOUR TIMES
Originally a no-budget production on low-budget KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 soon found some success, only for the station to declare bankruptcy.
Joel and company then sent a highlight reel to HBO, who, conveniently, were looking for shows for their upcoming venture, the 24-hour Comedy Channel. The Comedy Channel welcomed them with open arms — MST3K was the second show picked up by the network and, after the network became Comedy Central, it became their signature series. Despite this outpouring of love, though, the show wasn’t actually renewed for a second season there — at least until fans launched a mail-in campaign.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 ran for six more years there, until new Comedy Central leadership cancelled the show after an abbreviated seventh season.
After another intensive letter-writing campaign, MST3K was snatched up by the Sci-Fi Channel, where it ran for three more seasons, before the Satellite of Love was grounded for good.
But, much like that lady in Space Mutiny, some things don’t stay dead for long. After a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, Netflix picked up the newest incarnation of the show, featuring Jonah Ray, Felicia Day, Patton Oswalt, and more money than MST3K has ever seen.
15. THE LAST EPISODE WASN’T REALLY THE LAST EPISODE
Even before the new Netflix reboot reared its head, the last episode of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 still wasn’t, technically, the last episode to air. Due to a complication in rights issues, Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders premiered after the series finale, Diabolik.
Sold by the Sci-Fi Channel as a “lost” episode of Mystery Science Theater, Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders, a kid-friendly horror movie starring Ernest Borgnine, was shown for the first time over a month after Diabolik, a terrible, Italian crime flick, had aired.
This was more than a little confusing in those dark, pre-internet days. After the emotional roller coaster of watching Mike and the ‘bots crash-land the Satellite of Love and settle into life in Minnesota, viewers were forced to open their hearts once more and watch Ernest Borgnine terrify his grandson, in the darkest Princess Bride rip-off ever. Still, in the spirit of MST3K never truly going away, this last snafu actually seemed like the more appropriate goodbye.
14. THE CAST KEPT ON RIFFING
Much like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, you just can’t keep a good comedian down. Also, sometimes there’s singing for no reason. Once Mystery Science Theater 3000 had wrapped for good, the cast continued doing what they do best: taking swings at terrible movies.
RiffTrax, the first of these post-MST3K ventures, is the brain child of Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, with the three producing audio tracks to be listened to side-by-side with movies, thereby freeing them from rights issues and the possiblity of being “sued out of existence.” This ingenious turn has allowed them to roast noted turkeys Sharknado and Matthew Broderick’s infamous Godzilla reboot, among others.
Cinematic Titanic, meanwhile, included basically everyone else — Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein. While there were a few familiar-looking, silhouette-heavy DVDs made, Cinematic Titanic was more MST3K Live than anything else. The nationally touring show proved incredibly popular, and allowed the Mystery Science vets to revisit movies like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, as well as new ones, like Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks.
13. JOEL ROBINSON DOESN’T SLEEP MUCH
Joel Hodgson’s beloved character, Gizmonic Institute’s perpetually put-upon Joel Robinson, was notable for his laconic and half-dazed approach to being stranded in space by a pair of wannabe supervillains. While some viewers assumed he was high, and most others didn’t think too much about it at all, it turns out Joel just needed a nap.
When the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 pilot was recorded for KTMA, Joel Hodgson had been awake for four days straight getting things ready — building props and sets, writing skits, basically creating the entire show from scratch. By the time the cameras rolled, Joel the actor was running on nothing but caffeine and determination. In the end, though, everyone like the result, and Joel the character maintained the groggy-eyed look throughout his run on the series. Whether Joel the actor was still pulling all-nighters is anyone’s guess — although, given his relentless involvement with the reboot, it certainly seems like a possibility.
12. MST3K IS A PARODY OF SILENT RUNNING
Silent Running is a 1972 eco-minded science fiction film about the world’s last botanist, trapped on a spaceship with only the company of three helper robots to keep him sane. Sound familiar?
Joel himself admits that Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a conscious — if very, very loose — parody of that movie, right down to Joel’s original patch-covered blue jumpsuit. Over time — well, OK, after the first episode — the connections became more and more dubious, with the Satellite of Love’s robots quickly establishing their own characteristics: the suave, overly-intellectual Tom Servo, loudmouthed Crow T. Robot (the T stands for “The”), and the kind-hearted but spacey Gypsy.
In some super depressing alternate reality, The Omega Man, a 1971 post-apocalyptic flick about Chartlon Heston being the last man on Earth, would have been the film chosen as the framework for the show. Thankfully, in our world, Joel thought better of it.
11. THE MOVIES AREN’T THE ONLY THINGS MADE FOR CHEAP
The original Satellite of Love set was built for $200, from toys salvaged from Goodwill and the Salvation Army. That same set was used throughout the run on Comedy Central, and much of the Sci-Fi Channel set reused those same materials. Meanwhile, most of the original movies were public domain (read: free), and, even after they were picked up by the HBO-owned Comedy Channel/Central, they only used already-licensed movies from HBO’s library. It wasn’t until later seasons that they began licensing movies on their own.
The beloved ‘bots were not exempt from the budget crunch either. All four robots were built from spare parts, including (obviously) a gumball machine for Servo, while Crow T. Robot is comprised of Tupperware, a bowling pin, and a lacrosse mask, and Gypsy has a flashlight for an eye.
While the Netflix Mystery Science staff is undoubtedly being paid well, during the KTMA years, the show had a flat budget of $250 a show, with Joel getting $50 himself for creating, starring, writing, and building all the props. Everyone else split the remaining $200. Joel’s main source of income at the time was his stand-up — he even wrote himself out of a show so he could perform elsewhere. Speaking of his stand-up …
10. THE INVENTION EXCHANGE WAS BORROWED FROM JOEL’S STAND-UP
In a previous life, Joel Hodgson was a successful prop comic, appearing on both Late Night with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live several times. He was even offered a role on a Michael J. Fox pilot called High School U.S.A, which he declined because it was terrible. The producers thought Joel’s refusal was a negotiating tactic, though, and offered him more money. Joel was so offended that he quit Hollywood and started down the path that would lead to Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Anyway, the invention exchange at the beginning of his episodes was borrowed from those stand-up routines, with many of the props being items he’d previously used.
When Joel performed on Saturday Night Live, he opened by stating that he only had three minutes to perform, before revealing a prop time bomb and telling the audience, “We ALL have three minutes.” SNL liked the bit, but thought his bomb could be better. So they gave him a new one. Joel wasn’t a fan, and left the bomb in his hotel room when he checked out. A cleaning lady found the bomb, called it in, and three floors were evacuated. Joel was then greeted by the FBI when he landed in Minneapolis.
9. JOEL HODGSON OWNS THE WORD “GIZMONIC”
“In the not-too-distant future — next Sunday A.D. — there was a guy named Joel, not too different from you or me. He worked at Gizmonic Institute …” You know the rest. Or do you?
The theme song changed lyrics a few times over the years, but the most jarring rewrite was when Mike Nelson took over as host/space captive from Joel. All mentions of Gizmonics were erased — both from the theme song and from Mike’s jumpsuit. Well, that’s because Joel Hodgson, having created it during his stand-up days, owns the trademark on the word “Gizmonic” and took the word with him when he left the show, hoping to use it in his future work. Admittedly, the show didn’t really mention Gizmonics outside of theme song and jumpsuit by that point, but still.
Anyway, Joel didn’t end up using the word after all, at least, not until he became involved with the Netflix reboot. After a long absence, Gizmonic Institute is once again back in the theme song and “Gizmonics” is back on Jonah Ray’s jumpsuit, where it belongs.
8. THE REBOOT WAS ONE OF THE LARGEST KICKSTARTERS TO DATE
Remember earlier when we mentioned the record-breaking Kickstarter campaign? We weren’t kidding: The “Bring Back MST3K” Kickstarter is the biggest film and video project to date. Earning 5.76 million dollars from almost 50,000 donors in a single month, the campaign squeaked by Veronica Mars’ $5.7 million to become the most-funded video project in Kickstarter history. And if you factor in the over half a million more in add-ons, the total for the campaign is actually closer to 6.3 million.
This record-breaking haul not only filled the coffers enough to make the requested 12 episodes, but allowed for 14 episodes, one of which will be a holiday special. More money than the previous MST3K cast and crew could have imagined, this windfall allows the reboot to bring in some A-list talent, including Patton Oswalt, Felicia Day, as well as writers Dan Harmon and Joel McHale.
7. FELICIA DAY GOT THE JOB BY BEING A JERK
For the record, we firmly believe that Felicia Day is wonderfulness incarnate and we are all lucky to be alive and breathing the same air as her. We would never, never disparage such an amazing woman. That said, Felicia got the gig as new Mad Kinga Forrester by totally being a jerk to her brother.
As she recently revealed to i09, Felicia and her brother were both huge fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 growing up, and it was one of the few things they had in common in an otherwise less-than-stellar relationship. One day, Felicia and Joel Hodgson ended up being at the same convention together, so Felicia went over to him to take a selfie — specifically to “rub it in [her] brother’s face.” They got to talking, exchanged info, and, after Joel became better acquainted with her oeuvre, he offered her the role of Kinga.
Her brother, meanwhile, couldn’t get too upset with her about the encounter: Felicia got him an appearance on the show, fulfilling a childhood dream.
6. JONAH RAY PICKED HIS OWN CROW AND SERVO
Prior to his involvment with Mystery Science Theater 3000, Jonah Ray was a co-host of the Nerdist podcast, along with Chris Hardwick and Matt Mira. Back in 2012, they had MST3K creator Joel Hodgson on and they all geeked out pretty hard. Joel seemed especially taken with Jonah, though, inviting him to see Dan Harmon’s Harmontown recording that night, then later asking for his helping writing jokes for an awards show. Once Joel started toying with the idea of bringing back MST3K, he asked Jonah, who promptly pounced on the offer.
Jonah was then tasked with picking his own Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo. As Joel explained, because a connection between the host and the ‘bots was incredibly important, it was easier to blindly trust Jonah to pick his own team, rather than hire his own performers and hope for the best. Per an interview with the AV Club, Jonah “almost immediately” thought of Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn as the “delightful nihilist” Crow and the “pompous, Shakespearean” Servo. The rest is history. Or, it will be, on Friday.
5. THERE WERE ONLY TWO GUEST STARS
Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been a cult favorite, basically from day one. That doesn’t mean the show didn’t have its celebrity fans, though. But while many viewers fondly remember Adam West and others guest-starring on the show, they didn’t actually. West was one of many guests MST3K brought on during the bumpers for the Turkey Day marathons. The show proper only had two guest stars: Leonard Maltin and Minnesota Viking Robert Smith.
The new version of the show looks ready to change all that, with Mark Hamill, Jerry Seinfeld, Jack Black, Bill Hader, and Neil Patrick Harris all rumored to appear. Robert Lopez, of The Book of Mormon and Frozen fame, as well as Paul & Storm are going to help out with a few songs, and guest writers include Dana Gould and Ready Player One author Ernie Cline. And that’s just the people they’ve told us about — surprise guests are almost certainly guaranteed.
4. THE SHOW WAS PRO-PIRACY (BUT NOT ANYMORE)
During the “pilot season” on KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 struggled to find an audience. The very nature of public access made finding a large viewership almost imposssible. Once they made the jump to cable, though, they were helped enormously by fans videotaping the show and sharing it with their friends, who would then watch the program at its regularly scheduled time. MSTies were also some of the first folks to flock to the internet, creating newsgroups and online tape exchanges. In short, pirating MST3K episodes helped the show’s ratings.
For the first three seasons on Comedy Central, in fact, each episode ended with a call to “keep circulating the tapes.” Eventually, though, the Best Brains’ lawyers asked them to stop and the call to action was removed.
Currently, Joel Hodgson himself is requesting that fans not share the newest episode, which was released a week early for some Kickstarter backers. An email was sent out specifically asking people not to circulate the links. Space pirates are no longer permitted to come aboard.
3. MST3K WON A PEABODY AWARD
Low-budget comedy puppet show Mystery Science Theater 3000 won itself a Peabody Award in 1993, as recognition for the show’s incredibly wide span of references, its ability to fuse clever writing with terrible movies, as well as more generally “producing an ingenious eclectic series.” For comparison, other notable Peabody winners include Dick Clark, Julia Child, and Bob Hope.
But that’s not all! The show was also nominated for two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing for a Variety or Music Program (losing to Dennis Miller Live both times) and, for every year from 1992 and 1997, for the CableACE Award. MST3K’s DVD sets have also been nominated for Saturn Awards.
2. THE SHOW WAS SYNDICATED AS MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER HOUR
The Mystery Science Theater Hour was an hour-long version of MST3K produced for syndication, for stations unwilling to broadcast full-length, two-hour episodes. The MST Hour split previously-produced episodes from seasons three through five in half, with skits involving Mike Nelson done up in make-up and a wig, pretending to be Jack Perkins — the host of A&E’s Biography — at the beginning and end of each episode.
Mike-Jack would introduce the film, usually in front of a set of portraits of characters from the film. For the second-half episodes, he would summarize the first half for anyone who had missed it. The whole thing lent an air of class to otherwise laughably terrible productions.
No episodes have been released, however, a compilation of the host segments are available as a special feature on editions of Tormented, The Beatniks, and Secret Agent Super Dragon. Or, you know, YouTube, but you didn’t hear that from us.
1. WITHOUT ELTON JOHN, THERE MIGHT NOT BE A SHOW
The earliest incarnation of the idea that would become Mystery Science Theater 3000 originated in an unlikely place — even for a public access show about bad D-list movies and robots cobbled together from garbage. When it comes right down to it, Joel Hodgson got the idea from an Elton John album.
Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road record included illustrations for each song in the liner notes of the album. The image that accompanied “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” featured a man and woman in silhouette, watching Gone With the Wind on a giant movie screen. Joel Hodsgon, in high school at the time, saw the picture and immediately thought that would be a great idea for a show — people in silhouette talking back to a movie. The idea stuck with him for years, evolving into something only slightly more nuanced, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 was born.
Push the button, Frank.