The final episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) contains references to (among other things) Star Trek, Hamlet, This Island Earth, Quincy, Dr. Strangelove, Tom Jones, Mentos, Fonzie and Chachi, Voltaire, David Cassidy, Dick Butkus, George Jones, The Green Hornet, Shirley Bassey, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
It was always an intelligent show—maybe too intelligent. Despite a fiercely loyal following, MST3K's ratings were never spectacular. And in February, the Sci-Fi Channel announced that it would not be renewing the show's contract, ending its respectable 10-year run Sunday with Danger: Diabolik, the series' 176th show.
And what a show it is. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis back when he was still Italian and directed by goremeister Mario Bava (Black Sunday), Danger: Diabolik stars a willowy bachelor who has been dipped in latex and is running around stealing emeralds, blowing up trucks, making love in a pile of money (“Oh, the paper cuts are brutal,” Tom moans), and generally offing truckloads of innocent bystanders. I won't spoil the ending for those of you who didn't get an advance copy, but it's funny, bittersweet and a proper farewell for the series.
But MST3K was always more than just a string of pop references and one-liners. It was fundamentally a Midwestern show. MST3K began in 1988 on KTMA in Minneapolis, a low-budget station with an extensive library of crappy films. Jim Mallon and Kevin Murphy, who worked at the station, teamed up with local standup comedians Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein, constructed a couple of puppets using a glue gun and common household items, and began making fun of the late-night movies as they aired. It was a dazzling concept—obvious yet elegant, appealing to a basic instinct shared by all of us (i.e., the urge to mock) yet executed more brilliantly than we proles could ever hope to achieve. The show was soon picked up by Comedy Central, and after seven years, it moved to the Sci-Fi Channel.
To the end of its days, MST3K was produced in a bland industrial park in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie. From that unremarkable setting emanated an endless string of jokes (hundreds per episode) about Circle Pines, Midwestern hardware-store chains, the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin cheese, Chicago and all those other things that make up the nation's breadbasket.
Hollywood tends not to acknowledge the Midwest, unless it's making a tearful TV movie about a widow losing her farm. But for the past 10 years, there were those annoying hicks from Minnesota pointing out all of the film industry's worst blemishes, blowing dust off their most embarrassing efforts and resurrecting them for the world to see and snicker at.
And lord knows MST3K had plenty of targets to choose from, like films by Ed Wood, the cross-dressing, cashmere-coveting auteur of all that is bad. Or Roger Corman, the king of cheap, who nevertheless gave Jack Nicholson and James Cameron their starts. Or the improbably beefy Joe Don Baker, whom for some reason the studios kept trying to cast as an action star, which would have been okay if the audience hadn't constantly been worrying that his arteries would seize up right there onscreen.
The show changed considerably over the years. Hodgson left midway through the fifth season and promptly disappeared from our radar screens. Weinstein and Beaulieu now work for America's Funniest Home Videos, depressingly enough. The two robots, Tom Servo and Crow, each went through inexplicable voice changes. That ultimate schlemiel sidekick, TV's Frank Conniff, left to seek his fortune in LA. And sometimes the show suffered for it. Particularly painful was Beaulieu's decision to leave, depriving MST3K simultaneously of its main villain, the mustachioed Dr. Clayton Forrester, and the sweet, sarcastic Crow. The replacement villain, Forrester's mother, Pearl, never quite clicked for me, and the show's writers sometimes seemed to be groping for ideas to keep the host segments (the little skits interspersed with the movie) lively.
But the movies stayed bad, and the jokes stayed funny, and if some of them fell flat, you just had to wait a couple of seconds for another one. For all of its flaws, the show was some of the funniest, smartest, niftiest comedy on television, and it will be missed—except by the cinematic artistes it vivisected every week.
Hollywood's nemesis may be departing for that great Nielsen rating in the sky, but it has left behind a fanatical horde trained to spit out the worst pap the Left Coast tries to shovel down our throats. I, for one, get together with a group of friends every Thursday night to sharpen our scalpels and dissect bad movies until there's nothing left on the floor but blood and DNA—movies like Doc Savage (closeted, beefy men fight glowing Crayola snakes!), White Comanche (William Shatner plays brothers—one white, one Indian!) and Xanadu (Olivia Newton-John on disco roller skates!).
MST3K's legacy lives, and Hollywood will never be the same again. The final episode ofMystery Science Theater 3000 airs on the Sci-Fi Channel. Sun., 8 p.m.