In honor of Joel Hodgson launching a second Kickstarter to make more Mystery Science Theater 3000, I’d like to dedicate this Medium article to my favorite show. I’m a life-long fan who’s seen it all, and these are the 6 most obscure facts I’ve ever learned about MST3K. This is advanced material beyond what you’ll find in a Google search, and even includes a little original research, so please enjoy.
1. They actually gave a film its world premiere
Most films on MST3K were flops from decades ago, either unsuccessful movies or repackaged TV episodes. But there is one exception in the case of The Dead Talk Back.
This film was made in 1957, but the studio considered it too bad to release, so they shelved it. It remained so for 36 years until another studio found this unpublished work and released it on home video, whereupon it found its way to the MST3K producers. They copyrighted it and used it for the show, giving the movie its cable premiere (which is why the film is listed as a 1994 film and not a 1957 one on IMDB). For many of the movie’s actors, this was their only film credit, and, unless it had been shown on MST3K, no one would have ever seen it.
I cite this as evidence to counter critics who are offended by MST3K and think that it’s all about making fun of movies. While that is a part of the medium, the show is more about celebrating these movies and giving them a second life. This approach is explained by Season 11’s head writer, Elliott Kalan, who highlighted that the goal isn’t to be as mean as possible to each film, but to find a way to make it into a more enjoyable experience:
“We want to take a movie that is not good — to put it mildly — and it’s almost though this alchemy — like the riffing is the philosopher’s stone — that turns it into gold. And you have to find the right riffs and the right tone and the right style to almost lead the movie through a transformation process until it becomes enjoyable to watch.” – Elliot Kalan, Head Writer, Season 11
And ultimately the work MST3K put into these films made them better known. At the end of the show’s initial run in 1999, IMDB’s bottom 100 list had a few dozen MST3K films on it (cf. this snapshot from 2004). This wasn’t because MST3K had picked films off this list; in fact, most of the films were unknown before being on the show, so they didn’t even have the minimum number of ratings to make it. But appearing on the show boosted their popularity and got them the clout to appear. Granted, as lists go, you’d rather be on the top 250 than the bottom 100, but it’s still better than being on no list at all.
Corollary: They also engendered a sequel to one of their films
Another related example is the film Hobgoblins, shown in episode 907. This film was actually submitted by its director, Rick Sloane, to MST3K’s production company. He had a mixed reaction to the treatment, but it boosted the film’s popularity enough that he went on to make Hobgoblins 2, stating, “Hobgoblins 2 was only possible because of the success of MST3K’s revival of the original.” So there were directors who appreciated what MST3K did for their films, and even used it to their advantage to make more movies.
2. They adjusted the show’s format in response to fan feedback
In the show’s first season on Minnesota TV station KTMA, the show featured two Gamera movies back-to-back: K04 Gamera vs. Barugon and K05 Gamera. In the opening segment for the next episode, K06, they played a phone message from a fan who called in to complain about having two Gamera movies in a row:
Joel then breathlessly trolled the caller:
“We agree with you. … Two Gamuron [sic] movies is ridiculous, but three Gamuron movies is a Gamuron film festival.”
They then proceeded to show a third Gamera movie — and even followed it up with two more for a total streak of five.
But, trolling this one caller aside, they rarely did this again after that season. In season 3, they showed nine Japanese films dubbed by Sandy Frank productions, but they spaced them out to debut every other week. They also showed three sets of sequels that never appeared sequentially. This way, if a fan didn’t like a particular style of film — be it a dubbed film, a series, or a certain director — , then they could at least count on next week giving them something different.
They continued this pattern in later seasons, too. Season 2 features three biker films that never appeared back-to-back, and season 4 did three Hercules films that always had an off week between them. Season 8 also had two dubbed Japanese films, Prince of Space and Invasion of the Neptune Men, which are basically the same film, so they were spaced out, too. (By the way, were you always wondering which of those two films was a rip-off of the other? It turns out the answer is secret option number 3: they are both rip-offs of an earlier Japanese serial called Starman, which was riffed on RiffTrax).
There were still exceptions, however. MST3K showed two Godzilla films back-to-back in season 2, but maybe because those were the only two slots left in the schedule (episodes 212 and 213). They also did nine black-and-white Universal films in a row for their first season on the Sci-Fi Channel, apparently at the request of the network, whose parent company already held the films’ rights. But this homogeneous run led to a small revolt, and the writers mixed up the film selection from then on once again.
3. The show took 9 years to pass the Bechdel test
When a show has just one woman among only six regular characters, it may take a while for it to pass the Bechdel test. And also consider that the one female character, the robot Gypsy, was slow, bovine, obsessed with actor Richard Basehart — and played by a man. The writers recognized this as problematic, and in season 2 they added backstory to establish that Gypsy was actually the smartest robot but that her brain was mostly occupied running the ship and keeping everyone alive. As head writer Michael J. Nelson noted in the episode guide, “Weighing on our minds was the fact that we had one female character and she was a dim-witted cow-like creature played by a man.”
Eventually the show began to feature Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Nelson appearing in guest roles from season 3. Pehl also took over the main villain role of Pearl Forrester starting in season 8, thus giving the show a female regular.
Yet even when Pehl and Nelson were on screen at the same time, they never actually spoke to each other. Thus the show didn’t pass the Bechdel test for its first nine years, until 1997 with episode 811 parts: the clonus horror. This was where Pearl Forrester (Pehl) and Darlene (Nelson) shared the first female–female dialogue on the show.
But the story gets more complicated. If you can bend the rules a bit, there’s an earlier scene that’s also eligible. In episode 804 The Deadly Mantis, Pearl Forrester (Pehl) and Gypsy briefly talk to each other. At the time Gypsy is still being played by a man (Jim Mallon), but technically it should count.
And, if you can bend the rules a bit in the other direction, there’s an even earlier scene to consider. In episode 701T The Night of the Blood Beast, Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Nelson also speak — but when Nelson is playing “Mr. B Natural,” a character from a music short the show riffed back in 1991. Mr. B is an androgynous pants role played by a woman, but we don’t know what gender they’re really supposed to be. Tom and Crow even had a hilarious debate on this topic that went nowhere.
But the show itself decided to have Mr. B Natural identify as a man, since it allowed them to set up a joke where a drunk Jack Perkins (played by Michael J. Nelson) hits on Mr. B Natural in this hilarious exchange:
Jack Perkins: “‘Mister’ B Natural? God, I can’t believe you’re a guy!”
Mr. B Natural: “Yep! Every bit of me, all man!”
Jack Perkins: “Well, then, so be it! I guess I’m just gonna have to trust my instincts.”
Mr. B Natural: “Oh, right, ‘be natural,’ that’s — ”
Jack Perkins: “Sir, allow me to kiss you.”
4. The show got picked up for cable for a bizarre reason
From my reading, there were three main reasons the show got picked up by Comedy Central after its first season on KTMA. The first reason —a simple one — was that the executives at HBO knew Joel, had worked with him on previous comedy specials, and trusted he could deliver.
The second reason—an obvious one — was that the show was two hours long and produced out of Minnesota. For a fledgling cable network that desperately needed original content, that is—to quote Joel—“one of the best deals in show business.” Typical sketch comedy shows ran for thirty minutes and would have to be produced out of LA or New York, which meant four complete productions. And, unless all those shows were hits, the network would have to cancel some and start from scratch with new talent next year. On top of that, MST3K already had an established fan base from its “trial run” on KTMA.
And the third reason — the bizarre one — was that, while MST3K is now known as a cult show and an acquired taste, at the time it was just like what Comedy Central was looking for. MTV had just risen to fame in the 1980’s with the formula of “disc jockeys” who introduced and played music videos, so Comedy Central was looking for shows that could create an analogous experience for comedy, e.g., “comedy jocks” who introduced and played funny videos. Hodgson even created another one of these such shows for the network, The Higgins Boys and Gruber. MST3K — when viewed from a bizarre-enough angle — also fit this bill. Of course we now know that that’s not what MST3K is, but, however it got its start, it went on to have a seven-year run at the network.
5. The show has one semi-lost episode
Up until a few years ago, the show had three lost episodes. All the episodes from season 1 and beyond were released on VHS or DVD, but the show’s initial season on KTMA only survived thanks to fans who recorded the episodes back in 1988–89. Copies had survived for episodes K04 and up, but not for episodes K01, K02, and K03.
Then in 2016, during the MST3K revival, show creator Joel Hodgson announced he had found copies of the first two episodes, and he released them to fans. This left just episode K03 undiscovered. But show producers had also previously released a set of clips from the first three episodes back in 2009, which included two of the five host segments from K03. Also, the film they watched is known to be Star Force: Fugitive Alien II, which was re-riffed as episode 318. Judging from the eight other KTMA films that were re-riffed in season 3, the riffing quality is much better later, so we probably aren’t missing too much from K03’s riffing.
So although no complete copy of K03 has been discovered, we have seen two of its five host segments, we have seen the movie, and we have seen it riffed already. For those reasons, K03 is really only “semi-lost.”
6. Every MSTie remembers their first show
This last fact is not about the show itself but about its fans — because the Kickstarter is also about them. And one thing I’ve found is that almost every MSTie remembers the first episode they saw.
For me, I was watching TV when my sister came in and said to turn on channel 63 —for Comedy Central — and check out what she’d found. We tuned into the middle of episode 211, First Spaceship on Venus, and the first joke I can remember was the line:
Tchen Yu: “My space suit! It’s punctured!”
Tom Servo: “And it’s rented!”
Wherever you find MSTies congregating — whether on Satellite News, Reddit, or elsewhere — , you’ll also find people looking for help identifying an episode, finding a quote, and trying to reconnect with that first memory of seeing their favorite show. MST3K is a special show, and MSTies are a special fan base.