Back in the mid or late 1990s, when Mystery Science Theater 3000 (aka, the funniest show in the world) was on Comedy Central, I wrote a rave review of MST3K in the style of movie critic Pauline Kael. I do not remember why I did this—to see whether I could, probably.
Not long ago, I found the review in a box of MST3K memorabilia. When I re-read it, I thought it was pretty good. The key elements are there—the flying semicolon half-halts, the parenthetical asides, the dashes that sent one thought banging into another, and above all, the over-the-top enthusiasm. When Kael liked a movie, she liked it A LOT.
I retyped the review in Word, sent a copy to my friend Dave Hunter, of Home Projectionist and movieLuv, and waited for his opinion. He knows a lot about both both MST3K AND movies.
He loved it.
Well, I thought, a review of MST3K in the style of Pauline Kael would not be the weirdest thing I’ve ever put up on Writer’s Rest.
So, for your entertainment, here it is.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000
Do You Want to Go Faster?
Most TV works like a belt of scotch; it anesthetizes you. The hot cable television hit Mystery Science Theater 3000 works like a shot of adrenalin; watching it, you can feel your brain cells waking up. It’s got a great, nutball premise: Joel Robinson, a too-smart-for-his-own-good janitor at something called the Gizmonic Institute, is shot into space by his evil boss and made to watch bad movies forever.
In self-defense, Joel and his robot companions heckle the movies without mercy. This isn’t a new concept (Mel Brooks’s short film The Critic comes to mind), but it is the funniest, most completely realized vision of the idea ever put on screen.
Joel Hodgson, the preternaturally gifted young comedian who created MST3K, plays Joel Robinson as a saintly smartass; he has a mild demeanor but a smile that says, “I see through you.” (That smile was probably what got him shot into space.) His bosses are a loony named Dr Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and his dim assistant, TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff). They check in every week with taunts, bad inventions, and worse movies. They want Joel’s anger. They can’t have it.
Joel Robinson is that rarest of science fiction heroes—a human who is as likable and interesting as his robots. (In science fiction films, it is usually the robots you fall in love with because they have fresh ideas, and are funny.) He has nothing to fight his fate with except a kind heart and a smart mouth, but in MST3K’s inspired mythology, those are killer weapons. Light sabers and proton phase torpedoes don’t work when the enemy is The Castle of Fu Manchu; a sharp sense of humor might deliver a death blow.
Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy are the actor-writers who do the voices of the robots Crow and Tom Servo. They are wonders—jazz artists of language. Beaulieu seems to have a limitless number of voices at his command, and more incredibly, he seems to have no speciality; he does all of them well. He plays Crow in such as way that you hear what the robot says and you hear what he doesn’t say, too: Crow has depths (even if he is assembled out of old sporting equipment).
And in the days of radio, an entire empire could have been built around Murphy’s rich voice. Tom Servo has plenty of teriffic lines, but it almost doesn’t matter. You just want Murphy to keep talking forever (or better yet, to sing).
Watching whatever lousy movie, Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo fight back with parodies, quotations, puns, scathing observations, dirty jokes, disingenuous questions, memories, metaphors, moral instructions, sarcasm, safe driving tips—anything to put some distance between them and the godawfulness of what they are seeing. These guys use one-liners the way that science fiction heroes use souped-up starships: to blast their way out of a bad place.
The miracle is that they mostly succeed; like the beat-up freighter Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, MST3K may not look like much, but it can make the jump to lightspeed. The hapless movie of the week gets left far behind—possibly in another dimension.
The bad movie may really be stuck in another dimension. It is on television; the heckling happens in a place that strongly resembles radio. That is how it seems. You’re watching the film, but you’re listening to these three voices in the dark. Hodgson, Beaulieu, and Murphy are talking fast and brilliantly, and they are taking you away from the movie.
MST3K gives you more than you are used to getting from television. It is in-your-face alive, and it treats the viewers as if they are alive, too (no wonder its fans love it). The show gets you laughing helplessly not just because it is funny, but because it makes you so happy.