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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return

In the not-too-distant past, there was a show on the TV set that made everyone who watched it happy, and that was Mystery Science Theater 3000, or MST3K for short. It was the brainchild of Joel Hodgson, who, for a UHF station in Minnesota, put on bad movies and he and a couple of puppet robots made fun of them.

This simple idea went to 197 episodes over several years and a variety of networks, including Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi channel (or however it's spelled now). The cast changed, but the premise was the same--a lug had been kidnapped, shot into space, and forced to watch bad movies as an experiment run by a mad scientist. To keep his sanity, he made the robots as friends.

The show ran its course, and has been off the air for eighteen years, and Hodgson and half of the cast toured as Cinematic Titanic, doing bad movie "riffs" live, while the rest of the cast, including Hodgson's replacement, Mike Nelson, started RiffTrax, which enabled you to synchronize their riffs with legitimate movies that they didn't need to by the rights to. They've taken lately to have live events broadcast in movie theaters.

Hodgson, now a man in his late '50s who is beloved by comedians and connoisseurs, wasn't done with the idea. In the most successful Kickstarter fundraising ever, they raised enough money to bring the show back, and Netflix, fast becoming the best content producer on television (or whatever you watch your stuff on) picked it up. The first new 14 shows are available for viewing, and I've seen two. It was like reuniting with an old friend.

The cast is completely changed--Hodgson pointed out he's too old. so baby-faced Jonah Ray, certainly living out a childhood dream, is the new "mug in a yellow jumpsuit," playing Jonah Heston (certainly a tribute to Charlton). He still has the robots Crow and Tom Servo, who are voiced by new actors who sound strangely like the old ones (especially Crow, who sounds more like Trace Beaulieu then Billy Corbett did). The "mads" are Felicia Day, as Kinga Forrester, Clayton Forrester's daughter, and Patton Oswalt, as Max, TV's Son of TV's Frank.

The format is the same. There are host segments, including an invention exchange (which was done away with in the Nelson years) and then Day tells captives what their film is. The hapless Ray and his puppets then watch a horrible movie, while they, in silhouette, make fun of it. So far the movies have been very, very bad. First was Reptilicus, a Danish (?) monster movie, and then Cry Wilderness, a hideously bad film about Bigfoot.

The new cast didn't miss a beat. The spectacular pop culture references are still there, and sometimes they go way back, indicating there must be some old-timers on the writing staff. I mean, a reference to Rat Patrol? To the actor Frank Baker, whose catch-phrase was "EEE-Yyyyyessss?" They go by so fast it's tough to remember them all. I particularly liked one that was the closeup of an actor and one of them said, "Slugworth," a reference to a small character in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The host segments were never my favorite--they seem kind of unnecessary now that there are no commercials, but Ray did a very funny rap about how every country has a monster. The best thing about it is the way Crow's head moves when he makes a riff. He reminds me of an old friend of mine.

That MST3K is back indicates we're not really in dystopian times.

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