The flood of Netflix’s original programming has been glorious for comedy fans, especially its constant stream of stand-up specials (Dave Chappelle, Jim Gaffigan, Norm Macdonald, Mike Birbiglia, Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman and many others).
The recent reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a different brand of comedy, but one that was seriously missed. MST3K had a slew of dedicated fans, yet it wasn’t exactly a mainstream hit.
For the uninitiated, a brief flashback. Joel Hodgson created the original series in 1988 in Minneapolis. The concept: A man (Hodgson) is held captive on a spaceship and forced to watch bad sci-fi movies, which he mocks with robot-puppet friends Crow and Tom Servo. The viewer gets to see the awful movie and the funny commentary by the trio.
I remember the first time I saw it, at a friend’s house on VHS. I couldn’t believe how clever and funny it was, and I was instantly hooked.
Some of my favorite examples:
Movie goofs galore: The Girl With the Gold Boots.
Terrible hero characters -- Zap Rowsdower forever!: The Final Sacrifice
Superior dialogue to maximize the laughs: Laserblast
Bizarre educational shorts: A Case of Spring Fever
Hodgson left the show in 1993 and Mike Nelson stepped into the lead role. The robots changed voices over the years as well, with Kevin Murphy taking over for J. Elvis Weinstein as Tom Servo, and Bill Corbett replacing Trace Beaulieu as Crow.
The show took off with the Comedy Channel (now known as Comedy Central), then the Sci-Fi Network (now Syfy). It even won a prestigious Peabody Award in 1993.
After cancellation in 1999, MST3K lived on through DVD releases. The two hosts started similar ventures: Hodgson with Cinematic Titanic, and Nelson with Rifftrax, joined by Murphy and Corbett. (Rifftrax’s broadcasts of new and old film-mocking come to our Cinemark theater through Fathom Events a few times a year.) And the old MST3K villains, Frank Conniff and Beaulieu, tour theaters in a similar format called The Mads Are Back.
Fans were giddy at the news of a reboot, even willing to cough up some cash for it through Kickstarter. Hodgson is behind the scenes on Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, and the three primary characters have changed. Jonah Ray is the main man, with Baron Vaughn serving as Servo and Hampton Yount as Crow. The captors are played by Felicia Day and the great Patton Oswalt.
As was the case with the old show, the movie riffing is the main attraction. But fans may have an adjustment to make with the new version.
Don’t get me wrong, the creators have a winner here. It just takes a little time to get used to the changes. There’s an urgency to the movie jokes now, and it sometimes feels unnecessarily fast, like the trio is trying to fill every available empty space with wisecracks. The old show felt more pleasantly paced, and able to let scenes happen without blurting out punchlines at every turn.
That was my knee-jerk reaction after watching the first episode (Reptilicus) and fearing the reboot would sour my MST3K appreciation. By the time I got to Avalanche, a ridiculous snow-resort disaster flick starring Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow, I was all in. The new voices and tweaks don’t quite live up to the original in my mind, but the overall product is fun and often laugh-out-loud funny.
I found myself missing one voice in particular: Murphy as Tom Servo. He was the glue that held it all together in my opinion, and his flair for incorporating songs with the commentary added so much to the old episodes. Thankfully we still get to hear him through Rifftrax, and he does cameo on The Return, albeit under the mask of Professor Bobo.
So all in all, it’s a welcomed return, and I hope it has a long life on Netflix. As for all of my initial concerns and worries, I finally took a bit of advice from the theme song: “Just repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show. I should really just relax.’”