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Goodbye Sci-Fi

Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett reflect on MST3K's final broadcast.

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A Bit of a Blast from the Past

This piece appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine 18 years ago today. I worked for weeks on the damn thing, but reading it over today, I’m still pretty happy with it. For your amusement.

Sunday, April 14, 1996
I want my MST
Fans have been keeping this cult TV series in orbit.

Jim Mallon was fretting over froth.
As he and his set designers fine-tuned the details of the mad scientist’s underground lair, their concern turned to a seemingly minor element: Exactly how frothy should the various mysterious liquids in the dozens of beakers and test tubes be?
“I want big burbling bubbles,” Mallon declares, sounding almost like a mad scientist himself. “The frothier the better.”
Dutifully, a crew member on the movie set drops some dry ice into a beaker. “Not enough! More!” Mallon cries.
A bigger chunk is plunked in. “That’s it,” he says. “I want them all like that.”
As the director, Mallon is a stickler for detail. Most of the test tubes will never even make it into the final shot. Nonetheless, for the rest of the day a crew member is assigned to “froth duty” — before each take, his job is to drop new chunks of dry ice into every single one of the the mad lab vessels.
SO EVOLVES Mystery Science Theater 3000 — The Movie, the independent feature film from the same people who created the cult comedy TV show that, for about seven years, has been quietly gaining a reputation as the most intellectual puppet show TV has ever seen.
The series — and the movie slated to hit theaters this week — follows the plight of one Mike Nelson, a hapless temp who, sent to work for a mad scientist, finds himself marooned on a ship in outer space. Mike is the subject of a diabolical experiment: His brain is being monitored as he and his two robot helpers are forced to watch the worst movies ever made — bad sci-fi, Hercules flicks, Ed Wood creations, grade-school hygiene films. If it sounds like a nightmare Roger Ebert might have after downing a plate of spicy lasagna just before bedtime, you’re getting the idea.
But that off-the-wall premise isn’t really what the series is about. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is really about what Mike and his pals do in response to those awful movies: They talk back to the screen.
Most of each two-hour TV episode (which includes the 90-minute movie) is a remarkably static, cerebral affair: The three sit in a row of theater seats (you can see their silhouettes at the bottom of the screen) and offer some 700 wisecracks and observations (fans have counted), referencing everything from John Calvin to Calvin Klein.
As odd as it sounds, the concept has struck a resonant chord in middle America, especially with anyone who is fed up with the mediocrity of popular culture.
“For about a hundred years now, America has been receiving this endless stream of product from Hollywood,” says Mallon, who besides director is also president of Best Brains Inc., the tiny independent company in Minneapolis that produces Mystery Science Theater 3000. “This show is a chance to offer our unfettered feedback as to what we’re seeing.”
And the more the cast offers its feedback, the more the fans respond with praise, word-of-mouth promotion, and devotion — a devotion that has, several times, been put into action.
“The fans have become a significant player in the mix,” Mallon says with some satisfaction. “They’ve stepped up to the plate time for us time and time again.”
More fan fare later.
ROBOT SIDEKICKS TOM SERVO and Crow — taking a break from Alien From L.A., starring supermodel Kathy Ireland — begin to quiz human Mike Nelson in the “Kathy Ireland’s Range-of-Emotions Guessing Game.” The bots describe a scene early in the film in which Ireland’s character is informed that her father is dead.
“And her face,” Tom asks in his best game-show-host voice, “displays what emotion?”
“OK,” Mike tries, “I’ll say `soul-wrenching sadness mixed with horror in the face of the void.’ “
“And the answer is –”
“Dull surprise!” Crow calls. “Now, in this scene Kathy decides to transform her life. Her emotion?”
Mike hazards another guess: “Churchillian determination?”
No such luck.
“Dull surprise!” Crow calls. “Next, Kathy has fallen several hundred feet into a hole! Her emotion?”
Mike tries once again: “Er — shock and horror?”
“Dull surprise!”
BESIDES BEING DIRECTOR of the movie, Jim Mallon is also a performer on the series; he provides the puppetry and throaty falsetto voice for Gypsy, the female robot who minds “the higher functions” aboard the Satellite of Love spaceship. It’s a characterization that reflects the realpolitik at Best Brains. Mallon, as its president, has been the driving force behind the concept since series creator Joel Hodgson first pitched it to him over a deli lunch in the summer of 1988.
It was a classic pairing: Hodgson’s creative genius and Mallon’s disciplined savvy. After producing 21 raw episodes at the local UHF station where Mallon worked, they found a buyer in 1989 in the now-defunct Comedy Channel. Mallon quit his job at the station and, with Hodgson, founded Best Brains. He brought with him the station’s all-purpose writer and technical guy Kevin Murphy, who now provides the mellifluous voice and remarkably subtle puppetry of robot Tom Servo. Best Brains then scooped up out-of-work actor/stand-up comic Trace Beaulieu, who over the years has become the creative heart of the series, and its workhorse: He portrays mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and provides the voice and puppetry for Mike’s other robot companion, the irrepressible Crow. Finally, Michael J. Nelson, a soft-spoken Illinois native, was hired as a typist — and within months became the show’s head writer. In a few years, he would be its star.
But there’s not much point in assembling a creative team bristling with talent if you can’t pay them. When Comedy Channel executives balked at ordering a second season of the series in 1990, it began to look as if the show would fade away.
Then, the fans intervened.
THE OPENING FRAMES OF Teenagers From Outer Space have only begun unspooling, and already human Joel and the bots are at it:
“According to Erma Bombeck, all teenagers are from outer space!” Crow, the golden, birdlike bot, observes as the title card appears. Attention then turns to the first shot of the movie: a shiny silver flying saucer half-buried in sand.
“That space ship looks like a sun hat,” Joel comments.
“No,” says bubble-headed but sharp-witted Tom Servo, “I think it’s a photographer’s umbrella.”
“It’s a giant metal falsie!” cries Crow.
“No,” says Joel, “it’s a Devo hat.”
“No,” says Tom, “it’s a silo top!”
“It’s Audrey Hepburn’s hat from Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Crow says.
“Guys, guys,” Joel says, “… it can be all these things — and MORE!”
A little black dog runs into the shot, headed for the spaceship.
“Run, Toto! Run!” says Crow.
Cut to the spaceship, where the lid is opening and a white oblong shape is emerging.
“I am the egg man,” croaks Joel. “Koo-koo-ca-choo.
The egg shape turns out to be a helmeted alien that points a ray gun at the dog, instantly reducing it to a skeleton.
“Oooh!” Tom says. “Now Michael Jackson will want him!”
THE FANS TURNED OUT TO BE the best kind a small, struggling series can have: TV critics. Glowing reviews, from such respected voices as that of the Washington Post’s Tom Shales to Time magazine’s Richard Corliss, led the Comedy Channel to renew Mystery Science Theater 3000. A few months later, when the channel merged with another comedy cable channel to form Comedy Central, MST3K (as its fans call it) became one of the new network’s signature series. For four more seasons, the network routinely renewed the series, and its popularity grew, garnering a Peabody Award in 1994 and amassing a 65,000-member fan club.
The idea of the movie may please longtime fans in Philadelphia (the series has been running in much of the Philadelphia market since it first came to cable), but it’s by no means certain that this movie will be a hit.
For one thing, the show has made enemies. Some people actually claim to like bad movies and consider the often-caustic commentary mean-spirited. Others fear the show will encourage the dastardly act of talking in movie theaters. Casual viewers see only the mockery and heckling, and carelessly lump it with its squalid distant cousin, MTV’s Beavis & Butthead (which, for the record, was created several years after MST3K). Or they may buy into the frettings of culture vultures who worry about the notion of people watching a show about people watching a show.
For another thing, movie audiences, especially those who are accustomed to leaving their thinking caps at home, may find Mystery Science Theater 3000 — The Movie, well, a bit of a challenge.
But Best Brains could have made no other movie: Challenging audiences is what the company does. Hodgson once summed up the way MST3K is written by declaring: “We never say: Who’s going to get this? We always say: The right people will get this.”
Just who are “the right people”? Steven Spielberg confesses to being a fan. Al Gore says he and his kids love the series. Still, if you’re one of those people who have given up on television, it’s hard to believe that the show can live up to all that praise. As this theater-of-the-mind has attracted weary TV viewers, Mallon hopes to attract a similar audience of weary movie-goers. “The nation needs comedy like this,” Mallon says. “Have you seen what’s out there? I mean, it’s unbelievable.” He ticked off the names of the many recent movies — Dumb and Dumber, Ace Ventura. “People deserve something better.”
And they almost didn’t get it. Negotiations with Universal Pictures had been going along for several months when, in 1994, they stalled. It looked as if the deal was dead.
The fans, of course, intervened.
IN AN EPISODE FEATURING A movie from the 1960s, Joel Hodgson deconstructed the era: “It wasn’t uncommon at all for your mom to serve you a big char-broiled steak while she smoked and drank a Tab and made your dad another Manhattan for the road — and that was just breakfast!” he recalls. “There were seat belts in cars, but nobody used them … pre-sweetened cereals … subliminal messages .. people smoked openly on The Tonight Show … women were called girls … everybody believed what the President said — why shouldn’t they? .. Sexually provocative humor wasn’t on TV, it was on cocktail napkins and we liked it that way … Toys had sharp metal edges and little pieces that were breakable and could fit into your mouth …”
IN A MASS MAILING TO ITS FAN CLUB, and in notices on the Internet and all the commercial on-line computer services, Best Brains gave the addresses of Universal studio bosses and asked fans, who call themselves MSTies (pronounced MIS-teez), to let their opinions be known.
“Does the term cult classic mean anything to you?” wrote Debra Caruthers of Santa Barbara, Calif. “Perhaps this term would ring a bell: video rental and sales bonanzas.”
Ruta Larson of Racine, Wis., asked: “Whaddya think, too esoteric for the masses? Don’t forget, it’s us smart ones that have the bucks.”
Mike Mastrogiacomo of Philadelphia was more blunt: “How about setting a new precedent in Hollywood — an original concept!”
The avalanche of letters prompted Universal to dispatch a few of its minions to the first-ever MST3K convention in Minneapolis in September 1994 — a convention that included a live performance by Best Brains. The performance — where MSTies roared with laughter and standing ovations rattled the hall — convinced the Universal executives. “As funny as it is when you watch it alone,” Murphy says, “this show is much funnier when you watch it in a group. And what we learned at the convention is that it’s even funnier with a large group.”
Within a few weeks, a deal had been signed. Universal subsidiary Gramercy Films would do the marketing, and Universal would supply the movie that Mike and his pals would watch: 1954’s This Island Earth.
Where to film?
Weaker souls might have headed for the coast. Best Brains stayed in Minneapolis. “Here in the Midwest,” Mallon says, “we can have an objectivity that allows us to comment solely on what’s on the screen.” They built their sets in a cavernous building that was once an indoor tennis court.
WHICH WAS WHERE THEY were on a blustery day last spring, preparing to shoot the first scene of the movie, in which Beaulieu as Dr. Forrester explains the movie’s premise. The 90-second scene was crucial, and everybody knew it. Which is why, when Beaulieu arrived looking like death warmed over, people started to worry. His state was understandable: In addition to back-breaking, 12-hour shooting days, he’d been laboring into the wee hours on miniatures for the movie’s outerspace scenes. He was running on fumes.
As Beaulieu was led off to the makeup room, he tried to put a good spin on the situation. “The tiredness,” he sneered, the outrageous Dr. Forrester beginning to emerge, “just adds to my evil appearance.”
After several hours and 26 takes, Mallon and Beaulieu agreed they had two usable versions. But nobody seemed satisfied. “I’d like to do one more,” Mallon suggested, “and have you take it all the way out.”
As they prepared to get started, a Best Brains staffer smiled and whispered: “I bet this is the one. A lot of times, when they’re taping the show, they’ll get a couple of decent takes and then they’ll go nuts on the last take — and that’s the one that gets used.”
Sure enough, with Beaulieu feeling as if he had nothing to lose, he seemed to get an adrenaline rush: His delivery was flawless and riotously over the top.
When Mallon yelled “Cut!” the crew burst into applause.
“That’s the one!” Murphy shouted above the din. “Beautiful, Trace!’
Beaulieu smiled a sweet, genuine smile that looked utterly out of place on Dr. Forrester.
“Thanks,” he said wearily.
BEHIND THE SMILES, THOUGH, Best Brains staffers admit that making this series has not always been easy. The cast discovered the darker side of its fans’ unflagging loyalty when Hodgson bowed out of the series in 1993 and was replaced as host by head writer Nelson.
To say that MSTies were aghast at the announcement would be an understatement. The computer online services and the Internet conveyed much of the fans’ rage and sadness. “I wasn’t online at that time. And if anybody else here was,” Nelson says, chuckling, “I guess they were shielding me from it … which was probably lucky.”
Over the course of several episodes, Nelson confounded the critics — and managed to win over the vast majority of fans. He did it in an unexpected way — by slyly acknowledging that Hodgson’s character was irreplaceable. The other characters continually forgot Mike’s name. In one episode, he failed miserably in an attempt to build his own robot (something Joel had done with ease). In a wry sketch from a Christmas episode, he and the robots exchanged painfully inappropriate gifts that clearly showed how little they knew each other. “We got into the `new guy’ jokes,” Nelson says. “We admitted it was a bit like having a substitute teacher all the time.” By mid-1994, the crisis had past. At the convention, fans greeted Nelson with standing ovations every time he appeared.
But, having won the battle, it suddenly looked as if Best Brains was about to lose the war.
Comedy Central had changed management, and the new team was looking for a new image. Following weeks of rumors, the network in late 1995 confirmed that it had no interest in ordering more episodes of MST3K and that a clause in the show’s contract prevented it from moving to another network until 1997.
Guess who intervened.
Within days, the troops were mobilized, again making use of online services, the internet, and now the world wide web. Comedy Central had to hire several staffers just to handle the wave of mail that engulfed its Manhattan offices. Hundreds of fans chipped in to buy an ad in the daily Variety begging the network to reconsider. Newspapers and national magazines lambasted the network for its decision, mocking Comedy Central’s increasing dependence on low-brow sex comedies and Benny Hill reruns. “They may not have understood the kind of support the series has,” Mallon says. As spring arrived, the intense pressure succeeded in getting the network to release Best Brains from its contract, allowing the company to begin looking for a new home. The USA Network’s recently created Sci-Fi Channel is reportedly interested.
Best Brains has posted its address on the Internet.
AS THE CREW SHUT DOWN the movie set for the day, I came upon Beaulieu, still in makeup and costume, sitting at a table in an office just off the set. He looked catatonic. The day had wiped him out. The crew was giving him wide berth. I hesitantly sidled over and told him he’d done a great job. I don’t know what I expected. That he’d either ignore me, or mistake me for a crew member and demand a beverage.
Slowly coming out of his trance, he blinked, looked up, smiled faintly and said the one thing I didn’t expect. “Well, thank you,” he muttered softly. “How was your visit? Has it been helpful for you?”
I stared mutely at him for a moment, stunned he could even focus, much less give a hoot about someone else’s day. Then I remembered — this was Minneapolis, not Hollywood.
If Mystery Science Theater 3000 — The Movie is a hit, it will be for the same reason the TV show has run for so long and is so beloved: It’s made by people working hard at something they care about.
And the right people get it.

Christopher Cornell is an editor and freelance writer who lives in Merion.

21 Replies to “A Bit of a Blast from the Past”

  1. BIG61AL says:

    Wonderful article, you are right to feel proud!
    You get a star! :star:


  2. Mitchell "Rowsdower" Beardsley says:



  3. jjb3k says:

    That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. :D


  4. hellokittee says:

    Thank you for sharing! You may have created some new fans back in ’96 with this.

    Also Joel’s rant about the ’60s is one of my faveorite host segments ever, funny and intelligent, perfect illustration of “the right people will get it”.


  5. Ryan says:

    I wonder who’s idea it was to do that full scene in one take.
    I tweeted Trace a few months ago after having seen the movie again for the umpteenth time and complimented him on it. I asked him how long it took to shoot, and he replied it felt like he was still shooting it.


  6. Luther Heggs aka Number 6 says:

    Joel’s comments on the 1960s could be the teaser opening for any episode of Mad Men.


  7. Goshzilla says:

    I believe it was Jim who was determined to start the movie off with a single-take, moving camera shot to create the kind of cinematic feel that would’ve been impossible on the TV show. And say what you will about the Universal-neutered script, the film looks fantastic. Jim and Stoney did a swell job.


  8. Bifflog says:

    I have to say, the idea of internet campaign rescuing a cult TV show and helping it land a new home, would be a unique story in 2014. In 1996, it’s unfathomable. I wasn’t there (I woulda been, well, 9 years old) so it’s fascinating to think about now.


  9. some 23 year old jerk says:

    I stopped reading at the Beavis and Butt-head remark. I guess it’s a generational gap that you take it at such face value and accuse of it being purely stupid (after the first year or so when it was really rough, it became a fairly smart show that intentionally used stupid humor to mask it’s intelligence) while also having this irritating assumption that it completely aped your precious MST3K.


  10. Terry the Sensitive Knight says:

    Mallon says. “Have you seen what’s out there? I mean, it’s unbelievable.” He ticked off the names of the many recent movies — Dumb and Dumber, Ace Ventura. “People deserve something better.”

    Those movies are genius compared to most comedies today… >_>


  11. Tarlcabot says:

    Reading this kind of stuff, its not too hard to see why Trace left and what bridges were burned when he did.

    Consider: You make a film with a tiring, exhausting shooting schedule. Pour all your heart, soul and energy into it. Fight tooth and nail to get it made, fight with the studio for years on it and then, THEN when its made, (and not to your liking, but to a marginalized, studio-approved version), the studio edits it down, releases it in a the smallest amount of theaters possible, with no advertising or fanfare.
    Well, that was horrible. But its over. You can go back to making the show you want to make on your own terms.

    But…NNNNNOOOO!!!! Cruel irony! The leadership of your TV production company has his eyes set on moving your show to a network OWNED BY THE SAME PEOPLE WHO MADE THE MOVIE (Sci-Fi, owned by USA Networks, owned by…Universal)! And if you thought several months working under those people was hell, won’t it be fun to spend YEARS doing it?!?!


  12. littleaimishboy says:

    Try & find a show as subversive and off center as “Beavis & Butthead” on TV these days.

    Otherwise, not bad.


  13. Goshzilla says:

    Actually, the SciFi Channel wasn’t owned by Universal Studios until 2002, so there’s no way the knuckleheads at Gramercy were involved, but I think it’s safe to assume that the disappointing experience with thee movie was a big part of Trace’s departure from the show.


  14. Sampo says:

    Thanks for your comments. First, I have mellowed on the subject of “Beavis & Butthead” in the intervening years. It does seem a bit of an ad hominem attack when I read it now. I probably should have cut the entire sentence.

    And, yes, Jim singles out “Dumb & Dumber” and “Ace Ventura” as examples of bad cinema but both these movies have, in the intervening years, attracted devoted admirers. Go figure. I am not a huge fan of Jim Carey myself, and “Dumb & Dumber” never really appealed to me, but I can see why some find it funny. And I have to admit I think his characterization in “Ace Ventura” was strangely charming.


  15. Tarlcabot says:

    Actually, MCA/Universal was a 50% partner in Sci-Fi parent USA Networks with Paramount/Viacom until 1996/97 when Universal sued Viacom in April 1996 for launching TV Land in violation of their partnership agreement.
    They settled in ’97 with Universal buying out Viacom’s shares. Universal then turned around and sold its USA network assets to Barry Diller and HSN in an incredibly complicated deal. At that point, the Sci Fi Channel was owned by the new USA Networks, Inc. of which Universal owned a 45% share.

    The point is, when the show got picked up and Trace left, Universal was still looming over the whole thing.


  16. jaybird3rd says:

    As I recall, Trace said (in the “Crow Vs. Crow” panel at Dragon*Con 2009) that, at the time he left, he didn’t know that the show was going to be picked up by Sci-Fi. He alluded to his reasons for leaving in the interview that he and Frank and Joel gave to The Museum of Broadcast Communications, and given everyone’s negative experiences with the movie, I can certainly sympathize with his decision.

    As for “Dumb & Dumber” and “Ace Ventura” … I think Jim Mallon was right. If those movies have picked up more admirers in the years since they were made, it’s only because the more recent “comedies” have been so much worse, or simply because of rose-colored-glasses nostalgia (if you can believe that the 1990s are already far enough in the past for people to feel nostalgic about them).


  17. mst3ktemple says:

    I like it.


  18. Alex says:

    I’m looking back at the 90s and realized how much I laughed so much. Most of it was on TV: Simpsons, MSTK3K, SNL (early 90s mostly) and a whole bunch of other stuff. I loved Dumber and Dumber in addition to Ace Ventura. Beavis and Butthead I liked, but I like it even more now. I love the music video things they did back then and I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

    There was a good while in the 90s I needed to laugh and I had these shows to thank for it.

    As for the movie. I live in Spokane and as far as I know, it never came out here. I kept looking in the paper, hoping it would just show up one week so I could go see it. I had to wait for video. :(


  19. Cheapskate Crow says:

    This article makes me hate the movie all over again. It wasn’t very good and it destroyed my favorite TV show. And for those who don’t think comedies now are any good (and I generally agree with you), you should check out Better Off Ted that aired on ABC for a couple of years and is now on all streaming video places. Other than that, I got nothing, comedies do typically suck now and I cannot even watch anything with a laugh track.


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