Satellite News - The Almost But Not Quite Complete History of MST3K - Part 3


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Part 3: On the Air...sort of. (1988-89)

The series premiered on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988. It was watched by only a few thousand people, even fewer of whom, apparently, "got" it. The station received some complaints from people who did not catch on to the concept and were irritated by the "immature junior high kids" (as one caller dubbed them) talking over the movie. But they also got supportive calls, including a call from one guy, perhaps the first MSTie ever, who simply panted "MORE!! MORE!! MORE!!" into the phone. We can relate.

Still, it's no wonder some found the concept hard to understand. The KTMA episodes are barely recognizable as the forerunner of what was to be. Little or no writing was done ahead of time, and most of the riffs in the theater were ad-libbed. This meant that sometimes the comments were brilliant, sometimes not. It also meant long stretches of silence. Of the three performers in the studio, many fans now credit the young Weinstein as the one who was most adept at popping off one witty ad-libbed comment after another. While the others did their best, it was often Servo who stole the show in the theater.

Visually, however, there were problems. The station paid the group about $250 per show, and it looked it. The bots were very crudely made, the sets were minimal. In the theater, the "theater seat" silhouettes were quite small and were placed on the far right hand side of the screen. This was done at the behest of worried KTMA bosses, who feared viewer complaints that the movie was being obscured.

Over time, the premise evolved further. The team decided that audiences needed to be able to put faces on Joel's anonymous tormentors at Gizmonic Institute so, in the show's sixth episode, viewers were introduced to two Gizmonic scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester (a name swiped from George Pal's War of the Worlds) and Dr. Laurence Erhardt. Beaulieu, already earning $25 a show to play Crow, took on the role of Dr. Forrester, and Weinstein, already on staff as the voice of Servo, played Erhardt.

The original Forrester and ErhardtThe move was a stroke of genius. Beaulieu and Weinstein dove delightedly into their roles, and Beaulieu, in particular, began to hone and refine the subtleties of a character that would charm millions of viewers for years to come. But nobody knew that at the time. Indeed, Beaulieu seemed to view this $25 gig as a casual affair. On three occasions during that season, Beaulieu was elsewhere when a show was presented, meaning that Crow was absent from the theater and was casually written out of that week's plot. Indeed, one week neither Weinstein nor Beaulieu were present and Joel watched the movie alone.

Early in 1989, four episodes in, two or three Minneapolis-area TV viewers had the presence of mind, all those years ago, to lunge for the VCR and pop in a tape. Those people, and others, are still doing a land-office business selling copies of those tapes to collectors.

The show also was different in another way: Instead of waiting for fans to create a fan club for the show, the group created one themselves. In every episode, they encouraged fans to write in with letters of support. When they did, their addresses were saved and placed in a database. To cultivate that audience, the group created Satellite News, a free newsletter sent to all those addresses, containing bits of comedy and promotional material.

But, just as the show began to find its feet, a new problem arose. KTMA executives, in an effort to save money -- and ominously foreshadowing events that would occur years later -- decided to cancel MST3K in favor of showing the movies unriffed. Not taking the cancellation lying down, the fledgling MST3K Fan Club wrote an article in the second issue of Satellite News, asking fans to contact KTMA and voice their displeasure. The ploy worked. Fans sent cards and letters to the station, and in short order KTMA announced that MST3K would continue.

Joel and company did a total of 21 complete shows for KTMA, and copies of 18 of those are available through MSTies on the internet. The original masters of all the shows (rumored at one point to have been destroyed by KTMA) are in Mallon's private collection -- and snippets from the never-seen pilot and not-available-on-tape first episode were made part of a "scrapbook" tape later sold by the fan club.

Unless new fan copies of the first three episodes turn up (and that now seems unlikely), that's the only way they'll ever be seen. The KTMA episodes cannot be shown on TV for legal reasons: KTMA never secured the proper rights for the movies they were showing. It would not be the last time the MST3K crew would struggle with rights issues.

In the spring of 1989, buoyed by the growing fan base in the Twin Cities, Jim Mallon and Joel Hodgson set out for New York City and buttonholed every cable channel executive they could find, focusing on two newly created comedy cable channels, one called "Ha!" and another, The Comedy Channel, which were just beginning to set up shop. Mallon and Hodgson were armed with a nine-minute "Best Of" tape featuring snippets culled from the 21 shows they'd done. That tape, in its entirety, was also included on the aforementioned "scrapbook" tape. It's not much to look at. In fact, compared with their later work, it's dreadful.

Ha! executives took a pass. But the Comedy Channel executives, who agreed to talk to the team because of Joel's reputation (HBO was one of the owners of the Comedy Channel, and Joel had worked previously on successful HBO comedy specials), were interested. One might hope that they saw some potential in the rough mess they'd been shown. A romantic might even suggest they were programming geniuses, foreseeing a classic TV show in the making. But a more likely guess is they were desperate to fill air time and were thrilled that the show ran two hours. They signed MST3K to a 13-show deal.

Within weeks of their triumphant return to Minneapolis, Mallon and Murphy quit their jobs at KTMA, and with Hodgson, Beaulieu and Weinstein founded a company called Best Brains Inc. (hereafter called BBI). They carved studio space out of an empty warehouse they found tucked into a non-descript one-story office complex in the dizzying maze of industrial parks that comprise the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, and set about building new sets, retooling the bots, reshooting the door sequence and rethinking the premise.

| Welcome! | 1984-87 | 1988 | 1988-89 | 1989-90 | 1990-91 |
1991-92 | 1992-93 | 1993, part 1 | 1993, part 2 | 1994, part 1 |
1994, part 2 | 1995, part 1 | 1995, part 2 | 1996, part 1 |
1996, part 2 | 1996-97 | 1997 | 1997-98 | 1999 | 2000 | Epilogue |