Cable show exults in trashing misguided movies Good for the bad and the ugly

January 08, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

The concept would be laughable if it weren't so, well, laughable:

Plunk a humble lab technician in a satellite in the middle of outer space, forced there by evil scientists bent on testing how humans react to watching bad movies -- not just any bad movies, mind you, but "the worst we can find." Then, have the audience watch over the shoulders of the lab technician and two of his robot pals as they provide running commentary on the films they're watching.

That's the premise of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," appearing weekends on the cable network Comedy Central, and if it sounds cheesy, that's entirely by design.

The show is the result of "good home cooking and a strong faith in our mighty God," quipped Jim Mallon, producer of "MST 3K," as it's affectionately known by its growing cult of fans.

"MST" has appeared on the Top 10 lists of television critics

across the country fortunate enough to have Comedy Central on their cable system, and has earned praise as one of television's most imaginative and creative new concepts.

What's interesting about the acclaim is that it celebrates what most folks do in the privacy of their homes anyway, namely talk back to their televisions.

"We've had quite a few letters in our mailbag that say, 'You stole my shtick. You owe me big time,' " said Mr. Mallon, who also is the voice of the robot Gypsy.

But for all the attention the show has received, the "MST" crew has taken the praise with the same skepticism it heaps upon the movies it shows.

"If we were in an area where we were surrounded by people making television shows that are struggling for the kind of press we're getting, we'd be getting the nicer tables. Generally speaking, when I go to restaurants here, I don't get the nicer tables," said Trace Beaulieu, an "MST" writer who also plays robot Crow and Dr. Clayton Forrester, one of the evil scientists.

"MST" is produced out of a studio near Minneapolis, where it originated on an independent station in 1988.

The show, which has been on Comedy Central since 1989, is the brainchild of Joel Hodgson, who plays Joel Robinson, the lab technician at the Gizmonic Institute who has run afoul of the two evil scientists who beam him onto the "Satellite of Love."

There, Joel Robinson created his four robot pals, two of which, Tom Servo and Crow, share in the collection of bad movies forced upon him.

The movies run the gamut from bad to putrid, from 1960s biker films, such as "Daddy-O," to misbegotten science-fiction flicks, such as "Viking Women and the Sea Serpent," to beach movies, like "Catalina Caper," or just simply awful features, like "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians," with Pia Zadora in one of her first screen roles.

All the movies have in common is that they are bad and they can easily be made fun of.

"It really is fun. We have a really good time doing it," said Mr. Hodgson, who has done stand-up comedy on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With David Letterman." "It's something you don't want to miss, especially when it's movie writing day."

Although the show gives the impression of being improvised, "MST" -- from the film commentaries to the skits that appear before, during and after the movie -- is scripted by a team of nine writers, who watch the batch of films sent out from Comedy Central.

From the 10 or 20 movies, the "MST" writers select one that they then watch about eight or nine times before it hits the air.

"It's like having root canal," said Mr. Mallon.

During the initial viewings, the writing crew sits around a television set with a tape recorder and a very fast typist who catches their witticisms, which are turned into a script usually loaded with 750 or more quips.

And placed somewhere in those quips and retorts are a wealth of references to people and concepts as varied as Lillian Hellman, Norman Cousins, Calvinism, Machiavellianism, Akira Kurosawa, the Flintstones, the Beastie Boys and the Bangles.

Although many of these references may be lost on some of the audience, the "MST" crew claims not to worry about getting too esoteric, as there will eventually be something for everyone.

"We're really careful where we place those things," said Mr. Hodgson. "There's so much room for those little things. If we hung the whole show on Sylvia Plath references, I don't think we'd go very far."

"For the few people who get our most obscure references, it's like this profound epiphany that they get that we are inside their spirit someplace working inside there," said Kevin Murphy, MST's associate producer, who also writes for the show and provides the voice of robot Tom Servo.

The "MST" gang has taken the concept outside the television studio to a live performance in a Minneapolis theater last summer that was encouraging and has prompted thoughts about making a movie.

"There were some people expecting the fans to be out of control and yelling at us and taking over from us," said Mr. Murphy. "They loved us, but at the same time they were very respectful and let us do our job."

"Mistees," as the members of the "MST" fan club are known, number in the thousands and share as much passion for the show as its crew.

They circulate tapes to friends and families in areas that don't have Comedy Central. And, according to Mr. Murphy, one pregnant woman went into premature labor last year, while watching a 30-hour Thanksgiving Day marathon because she laughed so hard.

"It's not a bad life," said Mr. Murphy. "We get to make TV that's distributed nationally out of our hometown. We don't have to put up with the downside of Hollywood or New York to work in this industry. It's a pretty good gig."

And a pretty good show.

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