In November 2015, Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson announced a Kickstarter campaign to help bring the show back. After the initial wave of excitement subsided, fans and skeptics started asking questions. Would this be a reunion of the original cast and crew? If so, what would “original” mean, given that during its 11-year run, MST3K cycled through different casts and hosts, with Hodgson giving way to Mike Nelson in the lead role? Most importantly: Since Hodgson and his old collaborators were still making good money by mocking cheesy old movies with the Cinematic Titanic live show and DVDs, and the RiffTrax audio commentaries, did the world really need another Mystery Science Theater?
Through interviews and Kickstarter updates, Hodgson clarified. The revival would keep the same basic format that worked so well from 1988 to 1999, with mad scientists forcing a jumpsuited goofball and his robot friends to endure the worst of B-cinema. But while previous cast and crew members were welcome to drop by and pitch in, Hodgson would hire a fresh host, comedian Jonah Ray — and Ray would tap two of his pals, Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn, to be the new voices of familiar protagonist ’bots Crow and Tom Servo.
Skeptics remained skeptical. But fans were intrigued enough to break a Kickstarter record, pledging more than $6 million to finance 14 new episodes. Netflix struck a deal to release the new season, which debuts Friday, April 14. And judging by the first of the new batch — a righteous, hilarious skewering of the 1961 Danish monster movie Reptilicus—there won’t be a lot of buyers’ remorse.
After the Netflix logo fades, the latest iteration of MST3K serves up an immediate nostalgic callback to the show’s old opening recommendation: “Turn down your lights (where applicable).” Then, after a lengthy bit of backstory introducing Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the new “mads,” Kinga Forrester and “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank,” Reptilicus begins, and Ray, Yount, and Vaughn start tossing out rapid-fire references to everything from Finding Nemo to The Wicker Man to Jacques Tati to Prince. They even trot out old Mystery Science Theater in-jokes, shouting “Rat Patrol! In color!” when an army vehicle rolls onto the screen, and “Diarrhea is like a storm raging inside of you” over a shot of a roiling ocean.
Though Hodgson and company could’ve taken advantage of Netflix’s commercial-free open-endedness, they’ve made a version of the show that could’ve aired 25 years ago: 90 minutes long, with regular breaks, and with host segments that feature songs, sketches, letters from fans, and even an “invention exchange.” It feels like 1992 all over again. Should it feel like 1992, here in 2017? Answering that means understanding what made MST3K matter in the first place.
Netflix’s new MST3K feels like 1992 all over again
Conventional wisdom has the debut of The Sopranos on HBO in 1999 as the beginning of TV’s new golden age, but the decade leading up to that moment was filled with exciting, entertaining experiments with the medium, spurred by a boom in cable channels. In the 1980s, cable had emerged as a home for sports, public-affairs programming, and repeats of old TV shows or movies. In the 1990s, increased competition prompted a demand for material that could make channels stand out from the pack. Soon, between Beavis & Butt-head on MTV, Iron Chef on Food Network, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast on Cartoon Network, The Kids in the Hall on HBO, and a hearty assortment of other clever cartoons, sketch shows, game shows, and offbeat genre hybrids, telephiles had good reason to jump around the dial.
Hodgson concocted Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1988 while living in Minnesota, on a break from his thriving career as a prop comic. In its nascent form on the Minneapolis UHF station KTMA, the show was a hodgepodge of goofy, geeky ideas. It was a little bit old-fashioned monster-movie matinee, a little bit DIY puppetry, a little bit local-TV kids’ show, and a little bit retro science-fiction saga. By the time the then-fledgling Comedy Central picked up the series, Hodgson and his creative team had a keener sense of how to balance original material with the weekly grind of watching a crummy old film, and they’d discovered that if they wedged in as many jokes as possible, they could throw in some that only a select few would get.
That’s one big reason for the affection and outright devotion so many people feel for this show. It was a rinky-dink series, produced in the middle of the country, by smart, funny people who hadn’t been ground through the mill of either New York or Los Angeles showbiz. It connected with the sprawling subcultures of geeks and pop obsessives, many of whom had the same media diets, nerdy backgrounds, and schlubby Midwestern fashion sense as the performers on the screen. MST3K’s barrage of references to everything from old cartoons to rock music to art-cinema allowed anyone who’d just stumbled across the show to take ownership, because the show felt like it was made by people just like them. As internet bulletin boards became more popular, viewers connected with each other, sharing favorite jokes, swapping tapes, and spreading the word to potential fans. Mystery Science Theater became one of the first original cable programs that critics latched onto, hailing it as equal to or even better than network TV programming.
MST3K was one of the first original cable programs greeted as equal to network TV shows
Hodgson stepped down from the show in 1993, in the middle of its fifth Comedy Central season, after it became an established cult hit. He left behind a well-oiled machine that kept churning out hilarious episodes without him, even as other cast members left and ratings declined. The series shifted to the SCI FI Channel until 1999, when it was cancelled. But Mystery Science Theater 3000 never really went away. It disappeared from television until recently, when a healthy handful of the first decade-plus of episodes returned to syndication (and occasionally to Netflix). But first Rhino and then Shout! Factory kept the home-video market steadily supplied with VHS tapes and DVDs, which the cast and crew promoted at conventions and special events, between their new movie-riffing endeavors.
Meanwhile, the success of the basic MST3K formula — adding jokes to cheaply acquired pre-existing footage — inspired other comedians to follow suit. MST3K disciples produced overt homages like ESPN Classic’s Cheap Seats, which had twin stand-up comics Jason and Randy Sklar riffing on some of the goofiest clips in the archives of sports broadcasting. The 1990s and 2000s spawned Talk Soup and its successor The Soup, where the worst of reality TV became fodder for snarky commentary. YouTube has spawned its own industry of post-MST3K smart-alecks, gleefully trashing everything from video games to movie trailers. What is a “Cinema Sins” or “Everything Wrong With [Movie]” YouTube video but a MST-like skewering, minus the silhouettes?
But Netflix’s revival version grasps something that most of the copycats miss: Mystery Science Theater was never just about sneering. The new Jonah Ray version of the series recaptures the original version’s handmade, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” charm. The sets and effects look fussed-over and intricately detailed, but also inexpensive enough that any diligent, gifted community-theater tech could’ve pulled them off. During the first break in Reptilicus, Ray and the ’bots launch into a Hamilton-esque rap (penned by nerdcore songwriting duo Paul Sabourin and Storm DiCostanzo) about giant monsters around the world. In that song, Ray, Yount, and Vaughn hit every tricky, rapid-fire aural cue, but also knock over props and sing like spirited amateurs. The presentation throughout the first new episode is smart and energetic, but not always slick.
The main thing the Netflix MST3K gets right is the original’s giddy media deconstruction. During Reptilicus, there are jokes about the movie’s slow pace (“Feel free to begin the scene any time, guys”), and about the stock characters and casual sexism (“Brigadier General Military Industrial Complex, this is Miss Doctor Woman”). Ray and the ’bots have some fun with the poor quality of the source material itself (“Either this print is in really bad shape, or it’s raining tar”), and the movie’s distinctly Danish setting (“Protect the parfumerie!”).
MST3K taught viewers to watch the screen closely for details
This is what the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 did at its best: It taught viewers to look closely at the small details of what they were seeing on-screen, not just to make fun, but so they wouldn’t be lulled into shutting their brains off whenever a film turned tedious. By making jokes about establishing shots, transitions, set design, and the like, the show has always encouraged its audience to grapple with the totality of a piece of entertainment, and to question even the basic visual tools it uses to impart information. In this age, when we’ve all become more anxious about whether we’re being misled by the mainstream media, that kind of fine attention is crucial. Watching MST3K is a fun way to sharpen our eyes.
“Fun” would be reason enough for this revival to exist. But what’s so heartening about the new MST3K is that Hodgson and his latest crew know being silly doesn’t excuse being lazy. So they’re attentive, attuned, and always on the lookout for a topper to every gag. About halfway through Reptilicus, Tom Servo remarks that a character playing chess looks a little like Andrew Lloyd Webber. That’s pretty funny. Ray then starts idly singing one of Webber’s songs, as though the character actually is Webber. That’s even funnier. And because the chess-player keeps putting his hand over his lips while contemplating his next move, Ray muffles the song whenever the character’s mouth is covered, and sings out when it’s not.
That, friends, is a Mystery Science Theater 3000 joke. It draws an observant pop-culture reference from an unrelated project, then reintegrates it into the original material, so that for a few seconds, a throwaway moment in a throwaway movie becomes something surprising, amusing, and wonderfully weird. It’s what the show has always done best, from 1988 to now.