…the Kickstarter to bring back Mystery Science Theater 3000 comes to a close. At this writing, it has picked up about $4,800,000 in pledges on a $2 million base goal, and has about $700,000 to go to reach its final stretch goal, unlocking all 12 episodes at $5,500,000. It just has 12 hours to do it, as the Kickstarter closes at 1 a.m. Eastern tonight. If it doesn’t, we’ll still get 9 episodes, so at least that’s something. (Update: It turns out they’ve also raised over $400,000 outside of the Kickstarter, and they’re counting that toward their goal, so they’re actually only about $300,000 away from making 12 episodes. Plus, if they make a total of $5.9 million, they’ll add a thirteenth episode, an MST3K holiday special.)
The show has been such a huge part of my life, and the lives of many of the friends I hang out with, that it seems almost silly to start by explaining what Mystery Science Theater is. Phrases like “If you’ve been living in a cave for the last twenty-five years” come to mind—but to be fair, there are probably whole generations relatively unaware of the show and its significance. I’m pretty sure my parents have only vaguely heard of it.
So in case you haven’t either, it was a show originally from local television in Minnesota in the late 1980s, carrying on in the tradition of hosted late night low-budget horror movies from previous decades. A young up-and-coming comedian, Joel Hodgson, hit on the conceit of superimposing silhouettes and dialogue over terrible movies for the purpose of making fun of them. It didn’t stay local for long, moving to Comedy Central and eventually the SciFi Channel (now known as “SyFy”), and ending up with 11 seasons, 197 episodes, and one feature film. Each episode was primarily a feature film, with optionally a short film if the feature was too short to fill the timeslot, but also included skits featuring the characters who made fun of the show.
The show’s cast involved one stranded human test subject and two robots who hung out with him and helped him riff the movies, and a mad scientist and his or her henchpeople back on earth who sent the movies. The cast changed several times over the course of the show—Joel Hodgson was replaced as host by Mike Nelson, the robots’ voice actors changed, and new mad scientist and henchperson characters came in, too. But the formula remained constant all the way up until the end.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 had the good fortune to come on the scene right as the first big batches of college students (including me!) were getting access to the Internet, and the ability to communicate with each other and even write and post fiction online—the original form of electronic self-publishing, before anyone even knew what an “e-book” was. The show’s brand of irreverent humor played well to college students, and spoofing movies by talking back to them was a bold new idea that caught on really well.
Unsurprisingly, it spawned its own form of fanfic—but in the spirit of the show, MST fanfic (or “MSTing” (pronounced “misting”) as they called it) was written by taking some other bad fiction or fanfiction and interspersing commentary between lines or paragraphs as one might quote and reply to an e-mail. (E-mail and quoting replies were also new to college students at the time.) For example, here’s a MSTing of “The Eye of Argon,” one of the most infamously, splendidly bad pieces of writing to come out of science fiction fandom.
Internet fiction and fanfiction was probably a much more fertile ground for MSTing than movies. After all, there were only a finite number of movies available, but practically an infinite number of awful fanfics, all of which could provide ample material for cutting remarks. Even just the MSTing of bad Star Trek fanfic could go on for volumes. It also provided a great way for the show’s fandom to grow even among people who didn’t watch it on TV. Almost everybody read the Internet.
The show ended in 1997, and members of its core writing and acting crew moved on to other projects. But the siren call of heckling movies was apparently hard to resist, as they mostly ended up doing their own MST-style projects—The Film Crew, Rifftrax, and Cinematic Titanic. The one thing they couldn’t do was revive the original Mystery Science Theater 3000, because the rights to the IP surrounding the show remained with another member of the original MST crew, Jim Mallon, with whom the others had fallen out.
But the show’s influence didn’t end there. As the ability to distribute audiovisual media grew over the Internet in the wake of bandwidth improvements, MST3K and its sequels also circulated via video sharing services. They also inspired a generation of video-bloggers such as The Nostalgia Critic to start making fun of bad movies in their own way. And they helped inspire countless commentators on the Internet to record their own MP3 commentary tracks to be played with movies—including myself. Some of those were informative, but others were MST-style riff-fests.
Recently, Shout Factory managed to obtain the MST3K rights from Mallon, paving the way for Rifftrax to sell episodes of MST3K through its web site. That also opened the way for a revival of the show, under the directorship of Hodgson. And as the Kickstarter has progressed, Hodgson has revealed some extremely intriguing plans for the show. There will be a new host and new voices for the robots, Tom and Crow.
There will be new mad scientists, played by geek icons Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt. There will be many writers, old and new, including some fairly well-known guests—for example, Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One and Armada, will guest-write for an episode or two, as will The Name of the Wind author Patrick Rothfuss. And songwriter Robert Lopez of Avenue Q, Book of Mormon, and Disney’s Frozen will be writing some original songs.
And there will be well-known guest stars. Apart from possible cameo appearances by the original MST3K casts, CNet reports that actors and comedians Jack Black, Joel McHale, Bill Hader, and Neil Patrick Harris (who worked with Felicia Day in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) are interested, and even bigger names like Jerry Seinfeld and Mark Hamill might take part. About the only thing that hasn’t been announced yet is exactly what movies the new show will riff—because they won’t know that until they can negotiate for licenses, which they won’t be able to do until they know exactly how much money will be available. Still, we can at least be sure that they’ll probably all be pretty terrible.
Over the last few nights, Joel Hodgson has been hosting nightly streams of some of his favorite episodes, and he’ll be hosting a telethon of several more today, starting at 2 p.m. Pacific/5 p.m. Eastern, going right up until the close of the Kickstarter. My fingers are crossed that the last-day bump gets them all the way up to the 12-episode goal!
As I said, the series has been a big part of my life, though in some ways it’s through being part of my friends’ lives that it was more important to me. Some of my friends who wrote for the Superguy mailing list based characters on the MST3K crew, for example. One of my friends from those days was invited to take part in the MSTing of a fanfic by Stephen Ratliff, the “Ed Wood” of Star Trek fanfic. A friend I went to visit in Portland, Oregon, who introduced me to Sailor Moon, was also a big MST3K fan and showed me some episodes while I was out there. And more recently, my FreeRIDErs co-author also turns out to be a huge fan.
My dirty little secret is, I’m not sure I enjoy the show for itself quite as much as they do. When it’s a really good (bad) episode, it’s hilarious, but when it’s only mediocre I find it kind of boring. And the same holds true for the Rifftrax films and other movie-heckling projects. But its real importance to me is that it’s an important piece of shared culture. My friends and I—friends from across all contexts, not just some particular group of friends from one writing circle or another—all know who Joel, Mike, Crow, Tom, and the others are. We all understand the significance of what it is they do. Even if we haven’t all seen all of the same episodes, we can at least understand what each other is talking about when we talk about one.
So I’ve kicked in some money for the Kickstarter, and fervently hope they make it all the way to 12 episodes. Since the original MST3K, Internet culture has gotten a lot more audiovisual. While we were mostly communicating with text back when the original show was on the air, now memes, social media, YouTube videos, and other multimedia communication is the order of the day. The Internet has a culture now, and it’s a culture the original MST3K helped to inspire. I’m looking forward to seeing what a new MST3K that partakes of that culture will be like.