Remembrances of the early days, part 1


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Remembrances of the early days, part 1

KTMA TV 23 logo

As I've been doing episode guide entries for the KTMA episodes, some questions have come to mind. So I thought I would ask the guys who were there -- Joel, Josh and Trace -- if they remember the answers to any of them.

Here's what they said:

There was the beginning of the two-week stretch when Trace, as I understand it, was out of town. Trace: Do you remember what it was that called you away for two weeks? Visiting family at Christmas time or something? (It was the middle of December.)

Trace: I believe I was visiting family for the holiday. Nothing more sinister than that.

In K05- Gamera, Joel riffs the movie alone. Anybody remember why?

Josh: I don't recall. We shot the host segments in the morning, and the movies after lunch, so it's possible I had to leave. My guess would be I had a stand-up gig somewhere within a few hour radius of Mpls. that I had to drive to.

Joel: I’m sure that Josh must have had travel plans too: remember, he was just 17 and his parents may have had a family ski vacation planned. I can all most see them pulling up at KTMA in that station wagon to pick Josh up after the host segment. I’m sort of kidding here, as Josh was a very autonomous 17 year old. But it’s entirely possible he had a road gig or something, and he had to leave before we taped the movie segments. I know for a fact that I didn’t want to ever riff alone, so it was never decided, it was a necessity if there was going to be a show that week. I’m pretty positive, on the day I had to be in the theater by myself, I was taking one for the team.

What was the deal with you calling Gamera "Gameron"? I assume this is some sort of in-joke? Do you recall why you did that?

Joel: Not in the least. I really was unsure about Gamera’s name and I think there is a sort of “drift” as to what I should call him. I do this with people’s names all the time ... Christon.

Josh: No, I think it was just a mistake that got perpetuated by the uncertainty of "Wait, is it Gameron or Gamera? I guess we're saying Gameron". It's not like we went back and fixed things in those days.

About the phone calls: Were some of them faked by you guys? Specifically in K06- Gamera, you do a segment in which you play what sounds like a real call from a guy claiming to be “a member of the coalition for giant mutant turtles." Then you play another call, supposedly from a different person, claiming to be one of the “friends of the coalition for giant slimy lizards with long nasty tongues.” Did the same guy call twice? Did you ever fake any of those calls you played?

Joel: It doesn’t “feel” like a joke anyone of us would generate: it sounds a bit too “Pythony” (you know the part in “Holy Grail” when Tim the Enchanter says “For Death awaits you all…with great, big nasty teeth”, sound like that) I suspect they were an actual caller (or callers), just like local radio talk shows, MST3k at KTMA was prone to get the occasional avid fan who calls in and tries to be funny, I mean, that’s what I would do, and we would get lots of voice mails like that: people sort of treated them like submissions for the show: they liked what we were doing and were sort of demonstrating that they were kindred spirits and “got” the joke. As far as fabricating any other of the phone calls I don’t think so.

Josh: I don't remember but I have no reason to believe we wouldn't have faked a call for a joke. There were never any discussions about maintaining journalistic integrity.

Joel, in that episode, you kind of off-handedly talk about "raiding the movie library," which sort of contradicts the theme song, implying that you DO have control of the movies. Was that just kind of a slip of the tongue?

Joel: Yeah, I think I was probably being sloppy with the concept. Prior to the theme song being written, the concept was a bit mushy: I was in space trying to communicate with earth and showing movies to try to draw people to my message that I was trapped in space – not so strong. Writing the theme song with Josh really helped clarify the entire product, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Also, it’s interesting that the theme song remained pretty much intact from the KTMA days through the entire length of the show, including the iterations to make the changes for the Mike years of course. Almost everyday I’m so glad we wrote line, “Just repeat to yourself it’s just a show I should really just relax.

In the sixth KTMA episode, Tom Servo gets his new "mighty voice." What was the thinking behind that? Was Josh just sick of the voice he was using? Did it have anything to do with preparing the way for the arrival of Dr. Erhardt in the next episode?

Josh: I just didn't like the first voice I was doing. It was too hard to be expressive with and it kinda hurt to do. I had asked if I could change it and was pitching alternatives to Joel. One was: "How about the FM MIGHTY VOICE, THIS IS TOM SERVO, COMING TO YOU ON THE BIG Q105" Joel laughed and especially liked him giving himself the first name Tom. Servo's voice change didn't have anything to do with Erhardt, but I chose Ehrhardt's voice to sound different from Tom Servo.

Joel: It’s true, Josh wasn’t exactly satisfied with Servo’s voice, if you remember it sort of shifted from originally being a sort of an excited PeeWee Herman voice, to a Martin the Martian voice, and I think one day Josh just nailed it. Actually the character of Tom Servo is completely a fabrication of Josh’s, except for of course the way the robot looks, and the original name “Servo”. The mighty voice and the verbose know-it-all character of Tom Servo sort of crystallized that day. Josh also came up with the first name of “Tom”, he said he visualized it as a the way a top forty dj would give himself a nickname with “Tom” in quotation marks. Fortunately it worked because if fit Josh’s range so well (and later Kevin’s) and would become a great counterpoint to what Trace was getting going with Crow as a sort of naive character.

In that episode you also mention the Mads for the first time, including mentioning their names. I know where the names come from, but do you remember who actually thought them up? I'm just curious who it was that had "War of the Worlds" on the brain.

Joel: I came up with the names: I just loved the name “Dr. Clayton Forrester” and liked giving a nod to the George Pals movie, also, Laurence Erhardt was derived from the name of Werner Erhard, the creator of EST, and a bit you may not know: EST (acronym for Erhard Seminar Training) was a popular self empowerment cult in the late eighties that was running rampant through the Minneapolis creative community at the time we started MST3k – All three of us had experiences with friends who had been involved with the group and who tried to get us each to join to no avail, and we basically all agreed it was all a bit “spooky”. So, I was thinking with the Mads names I wanted to evoke the image of 50’s monster movies and cult leaders.

Also in that episode,  it seems like Josh got a little rambunctious in the theater. Maybe he was just a little excited about his new voice but, several times, you were in mid-riff and something occurred to Josh and he would just start talking right over you. This happens about four times, and then I could swear I see you put your hand over your mic and say something to Josh. Maybe I'm imagining things. But he does seem to stop interrupting you after that. Did you say something to him about being interrupted?

Joel: Yes, I do remembering that happening, Trace called it “runover” and at KTMA there was a bunch of it. But to answer your question, it could be frustrating, But really, even at seventeen, Josh was always quicker to the joke than I was, and I was all right with it as long as it made the show better. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t shushing Josh or anything because even if I covered my mic, the same noises would be picked up on Josh’s mic. To be fair, I need to mention, as an adult, Josh has much more finesse and doesn’t need to interrupt as often, except maybe when discussing seventies music trivia. I also want to say he’s since become probably one of the best joke writers walking the planet. So, in hindsight it was totally worth it to let him “roll over me” every now and then on camera – and then again after the show (wink).

Josh: I have no problem believing things happened just as you perceive them. When improvising the riffing, you have to think and fire all at once and if someone else fires first, you lose that spot. I'm guessing I was being selfish about that on that day. I'm glad Joel called me on it and glad to hear I stopped once he did and it wasn't a totally pathological thing.

I'm curious if Trace remembers his impressions upon returning from two weeks away, to find that Josh was using a new voice, that he was now going to play a mad scientist, and generally that things had changed a bit while he was gone.

Joel: I’m not sure on that, but your question illustrates how casual the whole thing was. Trace has to visit his Grandma, Josh has got a dentist appointment or what ever, so Joel has to riff by himself. I think the general mood at that time was: MST was like a fort you made with several friends, (except instead of being in a back yard, it was on a tiny UHF channel) and if one of you had to go to camp for a week or two, you may have to expect a few changes when you came back. Now I’ve known Trace for a good 22 years, I’m sure if we did frustrate Trace without getting his approval for the Servo voice change, he’s kept that inside all this time , and it’s all still in there just brewing, getting bigger, and waiting to be unleashed on me the next time I piss him off.

Trace: I remember being around when we taped the segment when Joel was tinkering with Servo’s voice controller. Maybe I just saw it on tape. I think I was aware of all the changes. I really wasn’t gone that long.

I got the impression watching this one that you guys may have looked at the movie a bit before sitting down to riff it this time. Several times you guys make riffs about things that are about to happen. I know there wasn't real solid scripting, but were you peeking at the movie at all?

Joel: Yes, for sure, we didn’t have any hard fast rules about not looking at the movie prior to performing: we weren’t deliberately doing improv. As you can see, it was all very nonchalant and I think also, we were busy doing other things, and making MST was at the time, one of several irons in the fire. As Trace say’s about the roughness of the KTMA shows, “It was just one day out of the week”. But each week, we’d get a little more feedback and enthusiasm about the show, there was a noticeable buzz happening in Minneapolis, so each week we’d go a little bit deeper, like you mentioned, scanning the movie for possible joke ideas. As an example we never even thought of asking for a dub on VHS so we could go home and review the movie. We really sat down at KTMA with a big ass video machine and scanned through the movie looking for highlights. Seriously, that was it, 10 or 20 minutes tops. Also I have to say, the Gamera series, in my mind really solidified what mst3k was supposed to be. Once I saw that goofy flying turtle, it was all so perfect, I bet you could see the smoke coming MY pantlegs. So, these shows you’re focusing on are pretty apt, they really are, as far as the movie content goes “the shape of things to come”.

Josh: My recollection is the first time we actually went through a movie in advance to scout for jokes was "Gamera Vs Zigra." Steve Higgins (of "Higgins Boys and Gruber", now producer of SNL) was in town and we went back to Joel's house thursday afternoon and took a quick pass through the movie and actually went in with some notes the next day when we shot it.

Along the same vein, were you also peeking a little at the upcoming movies?

Joel: Yes – for sure. Later in the first official season, we created a rule during “Black Scorpion” that we didn’t want to tip our hand that we had watched the movie prior. So, no “foreshadowing” riffs, the idea was to create the illusion that we were watching this for the first time – Once at Comedy Central, The illusion worked on a certain level with some people believing that we each instantly created all the jokes that came out of our mouths and they weren’t written.

What are you thoughts on the things people need to keep in mind as they watch these shows?

Joel: Really, as far as I’m concerned, looking back, the biggest breakthrough at KTMA was making the “best of” reel to sell the show to Comedy Channel (Comedy Central). Once I watched the finished tape all the way through, it was then that I understood that the entire show needed more and better riffs, or simply: A wall of riffs. And that meant we would have to start writing the riffs for the entire show: a bit of a weird idea for the time, as it just wasn’t a part of the creative culture to try to script the whole movie.

Also, there wasn’t a clear method of annotating all that material: the script that emerged in season one of MST didn’t resemble any traditional script anyone had ever seen before, it looked sort of like early computer language, with time codes and little riffs attached that made no sense unless you saw it side by side with a piece of videotape with time code. So, I suppose the lesson is: all those laborious KTMA shows had to happen so MST could make the jump to what we know today. Most shows don’t get 22 shows to incubate, and without all that experience it’s very unlikely we could have taken the show from concept to execution in just a single pilot as most shows have to. Luckily, we were able to afford to take the time to write the riffs once we got the order from The Comedy Channel.

The other outstanding thing for me in thinking back to the KTMA days was something that seemed very unknowable: Just how much “riffing” could people handle during the movie? It was very unclear as my original thesis was for Joel and bots to be companions for the people watching the show, and I imagined us going in and eating popcorn and riffing at a very casual pace, like it is when you’re with your friends. Then as we started to “feel” it all, it started to take on a life of it’s own, but it grew very slowly, and that’s why KTMA was so critical. Each step forward, I’d be wondering to myself, “just how much can the people at home multi-task between a movie and a bunch of people saying totally unrelated remarks”? At what point would we “cross the line” and drive them to turn the channel? Luckily the answer was --never! I know it’s obvious now, but this was years before even the first DVD commentary.

So in a nutshell, I need to mention that I don’t ever recommend people watch the KTMA episodes, unless you feel you must see the “warts and all” beginning of MST as a sort of “live through this” right of passage, Also, I should mention, I find it a bit troubling that people are demanding that these shows be released on DVD: those people remind me of my Dad sitting alone at the kitchen table with a knife and a block of really stinky cheese muttering “it’s an acquired taste”. But I won’t protest people watching them either, because it could edify someone by demystifying the process and maybe show them the creative path we took. With more and more people getting into movie riffing, I could see how that could be useful. But also, on the third hand, I gotta tell ya, I would dread watching one of these old “war horses” from beginning to end: the quality just isn’t there. Remember we made these to be viewed, one time only, within a fifty-mile radius of KTMA in 1988, and that’s about it. For me, knowing that people are watching them again with a critical eye, It feels a bit like someone’s posted something I made one afternoon, on youtube, and now I won’t ever be able to take it down again.

Trace: A couple of things people need to remember as they look back at these shows.

One of which is, you are looking back at them having seen the entire run and development of the show. We were really just figuring out the show on the fly in those days. (And for that matter all the way through the series.) There was no map or plan. Riffing wasn’t even part of it in the very beginning.

To question things we were doing and compare it to later shows I guess is inevitable but it’s a little like looking at Baron von Drais’s walking machine and saying, “Dude. Why didn’t you invent pedals and a chain? Or a seat?”

The show grew very organically and everyone, everyone, who worked on it, helped shape and form it into what it became.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we didn’t think we were building an empire. We were working on a ratty little puppet/movie hosted show in a dank UHF station in North Minneapolis. We all had other things going at the time such as MAKING A LIVING. It is well reported that we each got $25 a week to work on the show. Joel got more because he had to make the props and stuff. $25 is not any money at all, but I did it because it was fun to do.

Josh: If you watch MST eps for the kick-ass movie riffing, there's no re    ason to watch the KTMA shows. If you're interested in seeing how the concept of movie riffing, and MST3K, evolved, then they may be worth a look. We certainly never had posterity in mind when we were making them and for most of the UHF run, we treated it as little more than a hobby, spending a day a week on each show (writing and shooting combined) almost nothing was carefully considered, rewritten, or honed in any way. It was knee-jerk TV and it was very fun and lucky to have the venue for such a masturbatory endeavor. While those shows were crucial in the history, development, and sale of the show, I don't believe it's crucial that they be viewed by anyone but the most history-minded fans to fully enjoy later eps.