Thursday, March 24, 2011

In the Not Too Distant Future...

MST3K is, for the uninitiated (and I can't imagine there are that many of those left in the world), the acronym used for the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000. Said show consisting of one comedian (Joel Hodgson in the early seasons and Michael Nelson in the later ones) two robot puppets and a lot of bad science fiction movies which said comedian and robot puppets proceed to "riff" on.

The series lasted for a surprising 10 seasons and gained a cult following (although, with 10 season one might argue that the show wasn't all that "cult").

Despite the long run of the show I came to it very late in the game. Mostly this is due to the fact that my family didn't have cable for a long time and I was nearly off to college before they broke down and got cable. This is also due to the fact that when my family *did* finally get cable Comedy Central, which was producing the series then, was still a "premium" channel from our cable provider and one had to go up to the next price level to get Comedy Central, which was bundled with the likes of HBO and Showtime. And my parents weren't interested in springing for the extras.

So I was actually in graduate school before I got access to Comedy Central and MST3K. My roomates introduced me to the show but unlike the other shows they introduced me to (Red Dwarf, The X-Files, and Are You Being Served) MST3K didn't really "take" with me. I didn't understand the 'call backs' and it seemed as though I was also always coming in mid-episode and really not having any idea what was going on... Well, more so than usual. So, I wrote it off.

In the intervening years I've seen bits and pieces but, again, didn't really have time to sit down and devote myself to "getting" it.

Recently, however, the show was again brought to my attention. This time I was determined to sit down and really spend some time on things. So I watched a couple of episodes with Mike Nelson as the host and a couple of episodes with Joel Hodgson as the host and I "got it" more but I also still felt like I was missing something with the obvious call-backs. So, with the help of Google Video I set out on a safari... a hunt to watch the show from the very beginning in chronological order.

And when I say the beginning I mean the *beginning* -- starting with the episodes the crew first did on KTMA, a local UHF station in Minnesota.

And here's where we get to the part where rabid MST3K fans start howling for my blood.... In a way, I like the early KTMA stuff best.

Yeah, I said it.

"But," the fans will cry, "the later stuff was so much better! The voices were better, the writing was tighter, the jokes were funnier!" And you know what? They are. It's true. The writing is more on-target, the voice actors providing the voices of the robots are more polished and more certain in their craft, and the jokes... well, I won't say that *all* of them are funnier but they tend to keep on-topic a bit more and are often more pointed.

So, all that being true, why do I like the early stuff so much? Because of the rawness of it. The show was largely unscripted and it shows which means sometimes the actor/comedians fall a little flat and fumble for words or get stuck with pauses that go on a shade too long and the unscriptedness shows through but in contrast there was an... immediacy... for lack of a better word, there which lent things an unpredictable nature. You didn't know what was going to happen next because the very people doing the show didn't know what they were doing next!

There were also the reactions. At several points one actor or another would completely crack up at a joke someone else made. This actually ends up making things even more funny as you watch the cast struggle to get their own giggles under control. Laughter is contagious. This is especially true in some of the skits when viewers can clearly see Hodgson trying not to crack up.

There is also a kind of improv which can be seen when someone misspeaks or gets a common phrase slightly wrong which leads to another actor correcting them which almost invariably starts leading them on a bizarre (but funny) tangent.

There is also the lower production values. The fact that the Satellite of Love set is pretty much the main set with the mad scientists of Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Bealieu) and Dr. Laurence Erhardt (Josh "J Elvis" Weinstein) looking like they're being filmed in one of the broadcasting rooms of KTMA and the costumes are almost non-existent. And I like this as well. There's a kind of 'guerrilla filmmaking' to it and it reminds me of people currently on YouTube making their own little films with cheap computer effects and utilizing their friends and family members as cast and crew. These are people who make stuff out of the love of making stuff. These are people who believe in an idea enough to just fly by the seat of their pants in order to make it. And I really like people like that. Their product may not be the best in the world but I love them for their creative drive and the fact that they want to put something out there and see if anyone responds and if they do... great! If they don't well, then it's back to the drawing board. That kind of raw drive is there in the MST3K early episodes.

I also love the early stuff for the evolution. Viewers get to watch the show evolve over time. You can see the gears meshing and you can see how ideas and concepts change. For example, in the earliest episodes the Mad Scientists (or "Mads" as they later became known) don't appear at all outside of the theme song. Later they make brief appearances then finally they start making more frequent appearances with regular banter among each other as well as Joel. This is also the start of Beaulieu's character of Clayton Forrester calling Joel various pet names. You can practically see the actors throwing this out there, then deciding they like it and working on expanding it.

In short, if you've never seen the early stuff go and take a look. I love it. I love it for what it is and I love it for what it isn't. And if that makes me bananas well, then, dress me up in yellow and stick a Chiquita sticker on me.

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