Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the first TV show to do what all of us do all the time; make fun of really bad movies. Except when they did it, it was actually funny.
Basically ten seasons of this.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 began in 1988 as an experiment concocted by budding prop comic Joel Hodgson (known as Joel Robinson on the show) and a small gaggle of Minnesotans working at a UHF television station. It was designed to fill the hours following a popular wrestling program on weekends using the station's licensed library of old package films. Becoming the definition of a cult hit (in that about forty people were really excited about the project, if we include the crew's family), the show was pitched to the budding Comedy Channel, later CTV, later Comedy Central. The show became Comedy Central's biggest hit and remained so until they shitcanned it halfway through its seventh season to make room for more Absolutely Fabulous reruns.
The Sci-Fi Channel then picked up the show for three years before canceling it yet again to make room for more reruns of Sliders. Best Brains, the company that produced the show, wisely decided to close out the series' subplots (more running gags than anything else) lest they be snatched up by Bravo and immediately canceled for Queer Eye reruns.
The show also received a film treatment that was exactly like every other episode of the series, only much shorter and nobody even saw it until it started airing back on cable.
The show featured a human host (either creator Joel Hodgson or head writer Michael J. Nelson) as well as gumball-headed robot (read: crude puppet) "Tom" Servo and Crow T. Robot. The T. stood for "The", naturally. Ancillary characters included the magenta colored Gypsy, little-seen Cambot (a robot who ostensibly shot the footage for the show), and a disembodied computer intelligence named Magic Voice.
This was how I pictured Minnesota until 1994.
The premise of the show was that, to cover for their lollygagging and incompetence, scientists Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Larry Erhardt of Gizmonics Institute rocketed the gadget-wielding janitor Joel into space and called it an experiment so they wouldn't be fired. (This is dangerously close to how this website got started). They gave their experiment an official sounding name and proceeded to show Joel a series of the worst movies a basic cable station could afford the rights to, under pretense of learning the limits of human sanity so they could rule the world. Joel helped to preserve his sanity by using essential components of the ship to create little A.I. buddies who thankfully did not look like Jude Law. Thus, Joel's sanity is preserved over the course of the show through the companionship of his automatons and their mutual disrespect, mocking, and riffing of the films shown.
The show would typically feature a heavily cut feature film along with an occasional short and was punctuated with a half dozen bumper skits performed by the cast. In between these skits the main cast would be shown watching the film in silhouette, becoming one of nerd-dom's most iconic images. Though only the three principal characters were shown during film segments and most host segments, the writing staff for each episode often numbered some dozen people, and writing for each episode involved watching the movies themselves about nine times. Keep that in mind when watching The Happening.
The series breathed new life into forgotten flops like The Mole People and Gamera, spent time in the Ator, Gor, and Deathstalker franchises, and did the rounds through terrible directors from Ed Wood to Roger Corman, heavily mining the oeuvres of these cinematic criminals. The show will be forever remembered for bringing five words to the minds of cineastes everywhere- Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Yes, it says Hands: The Hands of Fate.
For some films that MST3K probably could have covered, check out Cracked's 11 Bad-Good Horror Movies You Need To See.
Fun Fact: MST3K actually made fun of an Oscar-winning film, Marooned, which due to an oversight in copyright renewal was quickly re-cut by a small studio as The Space Travelers.
MST3K alum have an impressive batting average, with many contributors enjoying a good deal of success elsewhere in tinseltown. Trace Beaulieu went on to America's Funniest Videos; Frank Conniff enjoyed extended runs with Sabrina the Teenaged Witch and Invader Zim; Joel Hodgson worked briefly on Freaks and Geeks and the film Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves; Bill Corbett went on to write Eddie Murphy's Meet Dave; Mary Jo Phel can occasionally be heard on NPR; Josh Weinstein went on to write for Gary Shandling and Dennis Miller.
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett began the aborted Film Crew project for Shout! Video and currently work together on RiffTrax, a web based business selling .mp3's of the group giving the merciless mocking treatment to recent Hollywood blockbusters, like The Dark Knight.
Joel Hodgson and other original cast members are currently engaged in Cinematic Titanic, where they all umâ�¦make fun of old movies in silhouette. Hm.
Much of the cast and crew have been published, with output ranging from novels to collections of movie reviews to stage plays. There's no puppets in the books but they're all really good anyhow. Mike Nelson also contributed to Cracked for a while, writing articles such as Cracked Insider's Guide to Comedies Film Snobs Love.
Today many episodes exist on VHS and DVD, with those as-yet unavailable (or unable to be released due to rights issues) available on YouTube; the show always encouraged fans to keep circulating tapes from the show and, with YouTube, that tradition has been carried on.
Just pretend we linked about a hundred more examples of these,
because we could have.
Joel Hodgson - Joel Robinson
Mike Nelson - Mike Nelson, Torgo
Josh Weinstein - Dr. Erhardt, Tom Servo (KTMA and season 1), Gypsy (KTMA)
Trace Beaulieu - Dr. Forrester, Crow (KTMA through season 7, plus MST3K: The Movie)
Kevin Murphy - Tom Servo (season 2-10, MST3: The Movie), Professor Bobo
Frank Conniff - TV's Frank
Bill Corbett - Observer (known as Brain Guy), Crow (seasons 8-10)
Mary Jo Phel - Pearl Forrester, Magic Voice
Patrick Brantseg - Gypsy (seasons 1-8)
Jim Mallon - Gypsy (seasons 9-10)