Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- DVD extra taping at M.I.T.
Consider this your way-too-far-in-advance sneak preview at a future DVD extra for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 set for Shout! Factory. On January 17, MST3K creator Joel Hodgson and original cast member and writer Trace Beaulieu gave a crowd at M.I.T. a peek behind the scenes of the venerable sci-fi comedy show with their lecture, "The Design and Speculative Technology of MST3K," which they filmed to use as a future DVD extra.
For the uninitiated, Joel was the original host, was shot into space by evil scientists (Dr. Forrester was played by Beaulieu) and forced to watch (sing it with me, MSTies) "cheesy movies, the worst we can find." To help him handle the torture, Joel built four robot friends, two of which, Crow (also originated by Beaulieu) and Servo, watched the movies and made fun of them with Joel. Together, Joel, Crow, and Servo cut the best silhouette in show business (at least to comedy and movie geeks like myself).
But then, if you're reading this, you probably know all of that.
Like me, many of you probably had a friend with a box full of MST3K episodes on VHS (and a personal thank you to Mike for providing that bounty and picking the best ones to show) who got together to watch the series on a regular basis, often with pizza and beer.
The M.I.T. lecture was my re-introduction to the series. It went off the air in 1999, and I had watched it sporadically even since. But seeing Joel and Trace in a lecture hall, talking about their days at KTMA-TV in Minneapolis, building the sets at Comedy Central, and running into the people whose films they mercilessly and hilariously picked apart put me right back into the fold.
Joel's original inspiration for the concept of a lone man out in space came from a Bruce Dern film, Silent Running. When Joel showed clips from the pilot (The Green Slime, if you're wondering) and Silent Running back to back, it's obvious what Joel took from it, from the geodesic construction of the Satellite of Love to Dern's hairstyle. So obvious, that Trace laughed, calling it "A frightening copy, a rip-off."
The pilot also wasn't nearly as funny, but it was funnier than what Joel originally had in mind, concentrating on the lonely man in space concept that he ultimately decided was "too bleak." He designed the robots - Crow and a Servo-like robot named "Beeper" with a candy tub for a head that housed what looked like a single eye - and ramped up the interstitial sketches. Joel was obviously a tad embarrassed by the pilot, stopping it after a few minutes and saying, "So it just goes on like that."
Joel and Trace talked about the changes, especially to Beeper, who only communicated in weird blurting beeping sounds. "We could tell right off the bat that this robot was just awful." Beeper got a major redesign, closer to the wisecracking gumball machine fans came to love on the Comedy Central and Sci-Fi Channel series. And the writing started to focus a bit more on the jokes, inching closer, said Joel, to the "600 jokes a show, which is what it became."
They didn't completely abandon their Dern-quaffed roots, though. The kind of claustrophobic feel from the pilot was still a driving creative force, which Trace said was helped along by the fact that, "We truly were trapped in this crappy little television station."
Acquiring the movies was an interesting venture in the KTMA days. Generally, the distributors would push their worst stuff on the stations, according to Joel, by packaging 13 good movies and 13 bad movies. Joel said they would tell the distributors, "We don't want your good movies. I think they were more confused than anything."
According to Joel and Trace, most of the filmmakers they met were glad to have the exposure that MST3K provided, but some complained a bit, saying, "I know it's not Citizen Kane, but come on."
Both have moved on to a new venture, Cinematic Titanic, which features Joel and the original cast once again in silhouette making fun of bad movies (it's on DVD and on tour now), and from the turnout at M.I.T., it's clear people are still interested. A fan even asked if they would revisit The Green Slime with Cinematic Titanic, and Joel and Trace seemed to think that was a good idea. And between Cinematic Titanic, RiffTrax, and the boxed set releases from Shout! Factory, fans won't have to do without.