WASHINGTON — Most older fans of the movie-riffing comedy series “Mystery Science Theater 3000” probably don’t recall the first time they saw their first episode. Like the iconic “Satellite of Love,” the dog bone-shaped ship, foam planet logo and familiar “MST3K” stage set, it kind of floated into public consciousness somewhere in the ’90s, docked and never left.
With a generous circulation of the show’s 10 seasons on YouTube, streaming and boxed sets, the S.O.L. never has to leave. Furthermore, fans insist the humor transcends “time and space” — and it does. Save for random references to moldy headlines — a Nancy Kerrigan here, a Trent Lott there — the cast has taken what turns out to be a centuries-old entertainment form into a universal sphere.
Simply put, “MST3K” never grows old.
For those unfamiliar with the format: three regular characters — one human (Joel in the early years, Mike the later seasons) and two robots (Tom Servo and Crow) are trapped in space. Villains (“The Mads” in the early years, “Pearl Forrester” & Co. in the Mike years) force them to “watch cheesy movies, the worst I can find,” to which the main characters add their arch, irreverent and silly goofball commentary. In between, live-action comedy segments and one-off skits feature a rotating mix of bots, aliens, apes and other characters, burnishing a continuing story thread.
With its progenitors in the “horror host” genre dating back to the 1950s, “MST” started riffing in the movies with the ironic humor that has since taken over the cultural zeitgeist. Fans geek out on the sophisticated references (and if they don’t get a few, so what, they still sound funny), while blissfully indulging in charmingly puerile humor at the same time. The segments are an homage to sci-fi galore — everything from “Star Trek” and “Planet of the Apes” to modern sitcoms, history and pop-culture absurdities. The writing is super clever, without glamour or pretension. Just a group of Midwestern guys whose droll, mom’s basement sensibility jibed with the age and brought us all along for the ride.
But “MST3K” — with creator Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy (robot Servo), Bill Corbett (robot Crow) and the assorted cast — has never slipped so far into nostalgia that it’s become mere sci-fi memorabilia. After the “MSTK3” era, which began on local KMTA in Minneapolis in 1988, moved to Comedy Central in 1989, and ended on Syfy in 1999, its various components pushed further into burgeoning online frontiers.
Most successfully, RiffTrax was launched in 2006, with Nelson, Murphy and Corbett riffing old and new movies with a new concept that avoided the expensive task of securing the rights to films by merely recording “riffing tracks.” Users rent their own copies of the films and sync the downloaded track (for a tiny fee) with the movie while it plays on screen. This allows for the “MST” experience, but with new bad (and not so bad) movies — from “Roadhouse” to “Lord of the Rings” — and more recently big-budget favorites like “Thor” and “Game of Thrones.”
The new concept not only won over a new generation of fans, it also enabled its creators to try new things, producing new online B-movies and shorts, riffing specials with NatGeo, and Live Shows — something the “Sharknado” franchise has more than benefited from.
Meanwhile, RiffTrax has brought in some of the old regulars from the “MST” era, like Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl), Bridget J. Nelson and assorted comedians for riffing on various projects. Hodgson, who went his own way after leaving the S.O.L., has embarked on various ventures like the live Cinematic Titanic events. More recently, he crowdsourced more than $5 million for a “MST3K” reprise that’s already begun filming and will include Hodgson with comedians Jonah Ray, Patton Oswalt and Felicia Day.
Which brings us to Tuesday’s reunion. The full cast will come together for the first time since Mike and Joel’s overlap episode 23 years ago. The much-anticipated RiffTrax Live event (also marking RiffTrax’s 10th anniversary) will be broadcast from a sold-out State Theater in Minneapolis, where it all started, to venues all over the country (click here for tickets in your area). The show will include Hodgson, Nelson, Murphy, Corbett, Pehl, Nelson, Trace Beaulieu (“Dr. Forrester”), Frank Conniff (“TV’s Frank”) and Jonah Ray for an evening of shorts and a “riffapalooza” finale.
Yes, this is partly a nostalgia event. The rows of seats in theaters across the country will certainly be filled with Boomers and Gen-Exers who grew up with “MST3K” and continued watching long after it was lamentably dropped by Syfy 17 years ago. From its time as an old-fashioned fan club (the P.O. Box always appeared in the last few minutes of every episode), the “MSTie” community has slowly metastasized into a bona fide fandom of geeks, B-film buffs and AV club refugees, soaking up the shrewd blend of humor with a side of cornball slacker bliss.
They’ve been waiting for this for a long time, and the experience will, no doubt, be out of this world.
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