The concept is deviously simple, and the comedy deliciously wicked: Three hapless characters--two of whom happen to be cheaply constructed robots--are forced by an evil scientist to watch the worst films ever made. The experience is supposed to break them, but they tap their quipster survival skills and fight back the way any sentient being would when confronted with horrible entertainment: They make fun of what they see.
This humble premise has made the “Mystery Science Theater 3000" television series a remarkable cult hit among fans of bad cinema and inspired wisecracks. Begun eight years ago at a UHF station in Minneapolis, the endearingly goofy cast of “MST 3000" has built a career out of turning such otherwise unwatchable works as “The Incredible Melting Man,” “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” and “Teenagers From Outer Space” into improbably giddy laugh-fests.
Though the series was recently dropped by Comedy Central after seven successful seasons, the show’s chatty robots and brainy zingers will have a chance to win over a wider audience with the release Friday of “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.”
“Cow Town Puppet Show Hits the Silver Screen,” director Jim Mallon, from the “Mystery Science” home office in Eden Prairie, Minn., says with a laugh. “This is such an oddball project as far as feature films go. It feels like we’re basically borrowing projectors and theaters around the country just so we can show audiences what it is we do.”
“The film is just one small peg in the wall as we climb toward world domination,” chuckles Trace Beaulieu, who plays the ineptly nefarious Dr. Clayton Forrester and also provides the voice of the amiable, gold-plated junk sculpture named Crow. “Actually, it’s hard to fathom how we’ve gotten this far, because the whole thing started as a way for a bunch of us just to have some fun.”
The “Mystery Science” world sprang from the imagination of stand-up comic Joel Hodgson, who developed the show with Mallon when the director was working as a production manager for the lowest-rated local TV station in Minneapolis. Human host Hodgson and his robot sidekicks were glimpsed in silhouette as if they had front row theater seats to watch the dreadful horror, sci-fi and made-for-TV disaster films that provided the fodder for their improvised snipes.
“When we were done, they’d literally turn the cameras around at the station to shoot a wrestling show,” Mallon recalls. “We had no idea if anybody was seeing us. We started running out of gas after three shows with no reaction, so for the heck of it we put our address up on the screen. We started getting 100 letters a week--approximately 10 times what the station normally got. That gave us the momentum to go on.”
Twenty-three shows later, “MST3K” was picked up by HBO and soon found a home at Comedy Central. Hodgson left the show in 1993--turning over his on-camera role to head writer Mike Nelson--and was not involved in the making of the film (but Nelson reports that he’s still on friendly terms with the “MST3K” creative team). Fans of the show will also notice the absence of Frank Conniff, who played the doctor’s hilariously dim sidekick. The other robotic member of the cast has been an irrepressible, gumball-machine-headed creature named Tom Servo, whose voice is supplied by Kevin Murphy.
“I think we’ve wanted to make a movie since our first season,” Murphy says. “At various parties and anniversaries we’d bring people together and show one of our shows, and it was amazing how infectious the laughter was. We realized that what we do is best appreciated by a large group, and, since the show is as much about movies as it is about TV, we figured that movie theaters were the perfect forum for it.”
A film deal with Paramount fell through when the studio wanted to dig into the characters’ back stories rather than have them in watcher-wisenheimer mode. But in 1994, Universal executives mingled with 2,200 fans--known as “MSTies"--at the show’s first “ConventioCon Expo-Fest-a-rama,” and happened to watch the “MST3K” crew perform a live deconstruction of “This Island Earth.” A better deal was the result, and audiences for “MST3K: The Movie” will see Nelson, Tom Servo and Crow gleefully shredding a restored print of that same sci-fi semi-classic.
“Nothing really happens in ‘This Island Earth,’ ” Nelson says. “It violates all the rules of classical drama, and I think that’s what makes it perfect for us.”
“It meets all our requirements,” Murphy says. “A hero who’s a big-chinned white-guy scientist with a deep voice. A wormy sidekick guy. Huge-foreheaded aliens who nobody can quite figure out are aliens--there’s just ‘something different about them.’ And a couple of rubber monsters who die on their own without the hero ever doing anything. We love that kind of thing.”
Turning the existing movie into “MST3K: The Movie” required an intensive writing process. The cast members--all serving as writers--made sure that every supposedly offhand remark hit its comedic target as hard as possible, while maintaining the show’s tone of bemused affection rather than mean-spirited attack. Countless improv sessions and subsequent rewrites went into whipping up their trademark mix of brilliant mockery, witty asides, painful puns and references stretching from the hip to the obscure.
“The studio was concerned that we should appeal to a broad audience,” Nelson says. “But we convinced them that the sheer number of jokes allowed us to appeal to all kinds of audiences. Before you have time to figure out what something obscure was all about, another joke is coming along, and eventually you’re bound to find one of them funny.”
The biggest change in the “MST3K” process was that the filmmakers had to get accustomed to some extra attention. “We were used to being insular,” Mallon explains. “For the TV show, we were out in Minneapolis, and Comedy Central gave us maybe 20 comments over 130 shows. Comments like, ‘Isn’t “dickweed” a swear word?’ We said, ‘No,’ and fought tooth and nail to keep it in. That was it.
“Suddenly there were studio executives in our writing room. We had to work a little harder to get our point of view across.”
Having made their point, and their movie, Mallon says he and his colleagues have ended up with a certain respect for Hollywood ways. “The great thing about the studio system is its consistency. Executives have the same reflexes no matter what the numbers are. So even though our budget was probably one day’s lunch on the ‘Waterworld’ set, when we asked, ‘Mind if we shoot an extra half day?’ they’d say, ‘Yes. We mind a lot.’ ”