I miss the 90’s. I left home for good in 1991. The economy roared. The music rocked. Dennis Miller was still funny.
But the one thing I miss most about the 1990’s is Mystery Science Theatre 3000. That’s MST3K to you. It was the logical successor to the late night and Saturday afternoon schlock horror shows those of us of a certain age used to watch as kids. For those of us who grew up in Cleveland, that was Big Chuck and Hoolihan/Li’l John and Superhost. Those shows featured skits in between segments of horror or science fiction movies. Big Chuck made famous the “Certain Ethnic” joke, host Chuck Shedowski’s bird flip to the FCC, who didn’t see the appropriateness of a Pole telling Polish jokes on television. (Um… Half of them were written by Poles?) Superhost started the day off with Three Stooges shorts, then inserted parodies of the original Battlestar Galactica, the local morning news show Morning Exchange, and even trucker anthem Convoy between segments of whatever Roger Corman or 1930’s horror masterpiece had been edited down to 90 minutes.
When I moved in with my girlfriend in 1991, I woke up my first Saturday morning in Cincinnati to this prematurely white-haired guy informing some dude who used to be on Saturday Night Live and two robots that Dr. Earhart was “Missing” (holding up a milk carton of the absent cast member for proof.) There was a bizarre invention exchange before the alarm went off, and the SNL guy and the robots were forced into a theater to watch some of the worst movies ever to contaminate celluloid. Meanwhile, the guy and the bots made hilarious fun of the doings on the screen. Sometimes, the skits had to do with the movie itself, like the 50-foot man (played by future Satellite of Love captive Mike Nelson) peeking in the window of the Satellite of Love to talk to the crew and casually eating cows like Milk Duds out of a cattle carrier he picked up.
The guy was originally Joel Hodgson, playing Joel Robinson, a janitor at the Gizmonic Institute. He’s been shot into space by his evil bosses, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaullieu) and Dr. Earhardt (Josh “Elvis” Weinstein), the missing doc at the start of season 2. (Season 1 aired on local TV in Minneapolis and was rerun by the Comedy Channel.) Their tormentor was replaced by TV’s Frank (Frank Coniff). Joel is forced to watch bad movies to see how long it will take to drive him mad. Joel fights back by taking the parts that control the movies stop and start times by building four robots: Cambot (who is how you see Joel), Gypsy (who drives the Satellite of Love, or SoL. Get it?), Tom Servo (a short, legless intellectual wannabe built from a gumball machine), and Crow (the most sarcastic puppet ever made from a hockey face mask to grace television screens.)
For the first five seasons, Hodgson was the star of the show. Uncomfortable with being on camera so much, he turned over the role to head writer Mike Nelson, who played Mike Nelson, another hapless janitor working for Deep 13. (It’s never really explained what happened to the Gizmonic Institute.)
The show was a staple for four years on Comedy Central, and part of my Saturday morning ritual (as Beavis and Butthead was also a must-see.) The rapid-fire jokes made by Joel/Mike and the bots even affected the way many of us watched movies. During a second screening of Attack of the Clones (because real nerds will suffer through the Star Wars prequels mutliple times. It is like some shamans hanging by needles through their skin as a rite of discipline), when Yoda came out to kick some Sith ass, I could not help myself. I whistled the theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as Yoda appeared. It sent a ripple of laughter through the audience. (I had the good sense to wait for the DVD’s to insert “muthaf***er” in all of Samuel Jackson’s lines.) Another case was Fight Club (a movie I could watch nightly if I had the chance). Both the former and current Mrs. Winter love another Ed Norton film, Death to Smoochie. So when Brad Pitt reveals that Tyler Durden is really a figment of Ed Norton’s Jack’s imagination, I compulsively blurted out as Smoochie, “Wait a minute. Hold the phone. You’re saying we’re the same person? Well, how do you like that?”
Of course, you have to tamp that habit down. It’s funny sitting at home, watching a movie on HBO. In the theater… Well, let’s just say there are three guys who sat in front of me during the 2009 Star Trek who came very close to leaving the theater in an ambulance.
Plus, we all think we’re funny, but these guys did this for a living. And still do. Mike Nelson later started a company called RiffTrax that offers downloadable commentary a la MST3K for DVD’s. Several former cast members, including Kevin “Servo” Murphy perform with Nelson. Meanwhile, Joel Hodgson has started Cinematic Titanic, in which several more cast members perform in a live setting, with DVD’s available.
It’s doubtful, though, that we’ll see MST3K again. One of the problems with doing the show, and even more so with issuing DVD’s or running the show in reruns, is the licensing. Many copyright holders did not appreciate the MSTing of their movies and revoked or withheld permission. So when the show ended, the licenses expired, and newer generations were denied.
Too bad. It was one of the things that made the 90’s so cool.