A Mel Brooks Short Film Was the Original ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’

Mel Brooks won an Oscar for mocking a fake movie
A Mel Brooks Short Film Was the Original ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’

Mel Brooks is obviously one of the most highly-influential comic minds of all-time — from his seminal 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner, to the boundary-pushing satire The Producers, to Spaceballs, the science-fiction epic that inspired Star Wars (or some parts of Star Wars, at least). But one Brooks-helmed project doesn’t get quite enough credit for its comedic significance: the 1963 Oscar-winning animated short film The Critic (not to be confused with the Jon Lovitz series of the same name).

The inspiration for The Critic first came to Brooks when the young comedy writer went to the movies, attending a screening that included an experimental animated short by Canadian artist Norman McLaren. 

In the same theater, a disgruntled patron became audibly annoyed at the abstract squiggle movies lack of plot. As Brooks later recounted, “Three rows behind me there was an old immigrant man mumbling to himself. He was very unhappy, because he was waiting for a story line and he wasn’t getting one.” 

Brooks relayed the experience to his friend, animator Ernie Pintoff, and the two decided to recreate the experience by producing a McLaren-esque animation and pairing it with a soundtrack containing the angry murmurings of a confused old man, to be played by Brooks. Pintoff took care of the animation, and Brooks insisted that he not look at a frame of it until his recording session. “Don’t let me see the images in advance,” he told his collaborator. “Just give me a mike and let them assault me.” Brooks fully ad-libbed his part, improvising what he thought the old man “would have mumbled, trying to find a plot in this maze of abstractions.”

The film was lauded by critics, probably because it so hilariously illustrated the cultural gulf between older and younger generations, which would only become more pronounced as the decade progressed. It pokes fun at the old man for his obstinate criticisms, while simultaneously satirizing the pretentiousness of arthouse filmmaking. Impressively, The Critic went on to win the 1964 Academy Award for Short Subjects (Cartoons).

In retrospect, The Critic was way ahead of its time, anticipating the movie riffing format popularized by Mystery Science Theater 3000 decades later. Of course, Brooks and Pintoff actually made the movie they were riffing on, whereas MST3K presumably would have gone bankrupt if they had to produce a feature-length crappy movie every single week for their cast of humans and puppets to make fun of.  

Still, the path was clearly forged by Brooks. Mystery Science Theater writer, and the voice of Tom ServoKevin Murphy once namechecked The Critic as “the first real, honest-to-god riff I ever saw,” pointing out that Brooks’ unseen spectator is merely “saying what everybody’s thinking.” No offense to the MST3K folks, but we’re glad that Brooks just used The Critic as a springboard for his directorial career, and didn’t give it all up to become a full-time riffer. Although we would like to hear that same old man character suffering through Manos: the Hands of Fate.  

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