We Want Movie Sign: Why Bringing Back MST3K Is A Good Thing

Published on November 25th, 2015 in: Comedy, Kickstarter Campaign, TV |

By Matt Keeley and Less Lee Moore

Matt Keeley is a Popshifter alum who currently contributes to the excellent pop culture and LGBTQ blog Unicorn Booty.

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To paraphrase Bono (and Chris Murphy from Sloan), lately there’s been a lot of talk, maybe too much talk, about the recent Kickstarter for a new version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that was launched by Joel Hodgson. And when we say “talk” we mean “smack talk.”

Nothing can ever be perfect (except NBC’s Hannibal—Ed.), but we accept that. We welcome that! Still, from some of the commentary we’ve seen online about the new MST3K, you’d think a fresh iteration of one of the greatest—not to mention funniest—TV shows of all time was a bad thing.

Take, for example, this article from Inverse, in which writer Sean Hutchinson remarks that his trepidation may stem from the fact that he prefers Mike Nelson as a host to Joel Hodgson: “We still have a version of MST3K out there already,” he states, admitting that his “beef” might be “a matter of taste.”

Yeesh. We didn’t like the Great Joel Vs. Mike Wars when they began, and we definitely don’t like them now. However, as for that “version” of MST3K that we still have, we agree: It’s called Mystery Science Theater 3000. Oh wait, he was talking about RiffTrax.

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As fond as we are of RiffTrax, it’s not the same thing. It doesn’t have a fictional world or mad scientists or a spaceship or robots or a guy stuck in a spaceship with robots that is forced to watch bad movies by mad scientists. We’d argue that the closest thing to MST3K is the now-sadly-defunct Cinematic Titanic, since it had both Shadowrama and (in the first few episodes) sketches; The Film Crew also had sketches, but RiffTrax is just commentary.

There’s also the new Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff project, The Mads Are Back. They have yet to release anything in an episode type format, but it looks like from their live shows they’ll also go the just-commentary route, like RiffTrax.

As for RiffTrax, we have observed that some of the earlier episodes of the show did include a few bro-y jokes that veered towards gay panic or transphobia, both of which weren’t really found on MST3K itself. Since then, they have mostly stopped doing that, especially after Bill Corbett apologized for a transphobic slur on Twitter.

This isn’t to say that all of the early RiffTrax were that way, just that there were times when it seemed to be punching down instead of up. If this shows our bias towards Joel as a host, so be it. He’s not going to be hosting the new version of this show, anyway, so it’s of little consequence in the grand scheme of things.

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At any rate, if you do prefer Mike on MST3K and/or RiffTrax that’s fine; no one is making you choose. It is OK! There are many different ways and different preferences; there’s something for everyone, and these are all different experiences! RiffTrax features an unobstructed view and films with bigger budgets. Cinematic Titanic features multiple riffers, giving it more of a party atmosphere. And all three of these—RiffTrax, CT, and The Mads Are Back—feature a live element as well, which is something MST3K has never had, aside from those rare convention appearances.

Hutchinson goes on to hint at the Wars and uses the loaded word “schism”: “It’s not even like we get the best of both hosts with Nelson doing his thing and Hodgson keeping the MST3K flame. Instead, Hodgson is bringing in a new host named Jonah Ray… the RiffTrax/MST3K schism looks to be less than ideal…”

Of which “schism” do you speak? Regarding this Kickstarter, Joel Hodgson has clearly stated many times he invited EVERYONE involved with the show to participate. No one has announced that they are in fact, definitively involved, but to attribute that to some kind of “schism” is just clickbait.

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We now know that there was a bit of a rift between Hodgson and producer Jim Mallon back in the day. They owned the MST3K name and recently sold it to Shout! Factory, who has been releasing MST3K episodes on video for a while and hosts the livestream of the Turkey Day Marathon. That said: No one gets royalties on MST3K except Joel and Jim, thus, it makes sense that the old crew would want to work on their own projects that THEY own. No harm no foul—after all, would you rather work for yourself or someone else?

Regardless of the above details, why can’t there be a new host? No doubt that if all of the original cast members were involved in exactly the same capacity as before there would be grumbling that they should step aside and let new folks have a turn in the spotlight. Jonah Ray seems like a promising choice: he’s had hosting experience on The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail, plus he’s got a nerdy sense of humor which is somewhat key to MST3K—that willingness to reference obscure things as well as known things—and he’s been funny on @midnight with Chris Hardwick.

Joel recently announced his pick for new evil henchperson/host, Felicia Day, who has been delightful and funny on many different things (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Guild, Supernatural) as well as his picks for the new voices of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo—Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn—who also have much potential.

Besides, in one of the Kickstarter bulletins Joel Hodgson talks about how he intended MST3K to be flexible—and it is. For most people, Kevin Murphy is the “canonical” Tom Servo, but remember when he first took over the role, he was mailed a printed “I HATE TOM SERVO’S NEW VOICE!!!!” banner. There are Joel and Mike partisans, as well as Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy partisans versus Dr. F and TV’s Frank/Dr. Erhardt. And the reason why? The show, despite personnel changes, remained AMAZINGLY GOOD. Why is “Joel’s getting a new host and new Mads for the new episodes!!” any different or more worrying than when Mike took over? Or Bill Corbett?

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But the idea of speculations and drama won’t die because The Internet. Or clickbait. Or something. On Flavorwire, there’s even more speculation about ill will between the cast members regarding money and intimations that the new MST3K is just an ego project for Joel Hodgson.

Celebrity kickstarters can be problematic, it’s true. This is something we both tend to object to, but that’s not on Joel’s shoulders; that’s on major production companies who are no longer willing to foot the bill for their own damn projects, which is its own sort of scam. Get the fans to pay for it—without profit sharing—and then sell it to those self-same fans.

But in this case, hate the game, not the prop comic.

The Film School Rejects article from Matthew Monagle, who is normally very positive and level-headed, is the most sadface-making of all of these pieces.

“It also seems to me,” Monagle argues, “that a modern version of MST3K would take advantage of the glut of undistributed feature films to keep their costs low.”

It seems to us this argument is pulled out of thin air because there is no mention of anything like this on the Kickstarter page. “I don’t know how media companies and rights issues work but listen to me about media companies and rights issues!” A) You’re right, no one’s floated this because B) it’s a stupid idea and C) just because movies aren’t distributed doesn’t mean that they’ll be cheap as free.

The biggest flaw in this theory, though, is probably how—and Frank Conniff will confirm as he did in the Amazing Colossal Episode Guide—not every bad movie is good for MST. For every Manos, there’s a Hamlet. Kittysneezes ran a piece about five years back that goes into what makes or breaks a good MST3K episode.

The gist of that article? The best MST3K movies are generally entertaining on their own. Manos the Hands of Fate or Birdemic type movies are the rare utterly incompetent film to still make a good source for riffs. Most films, however, are the BORING sort of incompetent. Poor recordings, bad story, poor acting—but uninterestingly so. Manos is successful because Hal Warren had no business even owning a camera. Most bad films, though, are made by people who know JUST ENOUGH to not make something INTERESTINGLY bad.

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Monagle also notes that:

“If it turns out that we are paying millions of dollars for the right to watch skits intercut into the movie itself, then I’d ask that we all take a long, hard look back at some of the MST3K skits we may have forgotten. The strength of the show was always in the riffs rather than the live-action skits; the line between low-budget charm and Kickstarter remorse becomes awfully thin when we’re watching someone wiggle a puppet at the camera using our collective $5.5 million.”

The first few paragraphs of this article were touching because they indicated a deep love of the show, but this part just feels mean-spirited. Yes, it’s just our opinion, but we’ve always loved the skits. Not every single one worked (they had to do a LOT of ‘em, in between everything else), but they provided a nice breather.

And, hell, you could say the same thing about the Muppets. Isn’t Jim Henson just “wiggling a puppet at the camera”? If you look at the actual shows, Trace, Kevin, J. Elvis, and Bill are really strong puppeteers; that’s WHY Crow and Servo feel so real. To call this “wiggling a puppet” is the same as saying Amy Winehouse just flapped some meat in a small amount of wind.

Finally, the biggie, and this is one that has been repeated a lot on social media, even before this Kickstarter: “What seemed revolutionary and liberating twenty years ago—a group of people making fun of a movie for a large audience—is now every waking minute of every day across every social media platform.”

We would argue that most of the idiots who do this have never even seen MST3K so to “blame” the show for the rise in this kind of behavior is unfair. Just because everyone does it doesn’t mean everyone’s GOOD at it. Yeah, everyone makes fun of movies now, but everyone always DID. But there’s a difference between, you know, “that dude is dumb and fat and dumb!” and, I don’t know, “Chili Peppers Burn My Gut.”

So there you have it. At the end of the day, if you don’t want to contribute to the Bring Back MST3K Kickstarter, you don’t have to. You can continue to watch and/or listen to and enjoy whatever iteration of the show you prefer. But please remember that for so many of us, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is not only a huge part of our formative years, but also something that brought joy to us many times over. Don’t you want to share that joy with future generations of people and see the show grow and evolve in exciting new ways?

We certainly do!

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