Reporting Eric Henderson
First John Waters, now Crow T. Robot. It’s been a pretty great few months for meeting personal heroes.
OK, I’m misrepresenting a little bit here. I didn’t actually just meet Crow. But even better, I met the man behind the puppet, along with four other once and future Minnesotans who are collectively responsible for not only perhaps the greatest cultural artifact to come from the Twin Cities, but what also gets my vote as the greatest TV show of all time.
Or at least the most beautiful concept carried out by the most consistently hilarious writing since Jonathan Swift told everyone to eat their babies.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 emerged from its humble late-1980s beginnings as a public access show for KTMA-TV (a channel which would later, as KLGT-TV, have an affiliation with WCCO-TV; not disclosing, just bragging). The backstory that evolved from these early episodes involved Joel Hodgson’s character being marooned in space thanks to a pair of nefarious, mad scientist types on Earth.
Joel’s task was to watch terrible movies for reasons that that were left basically vague. With the sense of enterprise befitting a man with a background in prop comedy, Joel fashioned a pair of robots to help him crack wise in the screening room — the aforementioned Crow T. Robot and the gumball machine-resembling Tom Servo.
The bulk of every episode was comprised entirely of Joel and the two ‘bots suffering such movie landmarks as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Monster-a-Go-Go and Manos: The Hands of Fate. (Joel left the show in the mid-’90s, and fellow Minnesotan Mike Nelson took his place.)
The show moved from exclusively Minneapolis-St. Paul living rooms to the national spotlight after it was picked up by Comedy Central. From there, it blossomed into one of the biggest cult sensations of our era. (And, yes, I’m among the MSTies who are 100 percent in the tank for MST3K. I’ve written more about the show here.)
MST3K didn’t survive Y2K, but the concept has lived on in surprising new ways.
In one corner, Nelson along with Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy (the voices of Crow and Tom during the later years) have reteamed to present RiffTrax, an .mp3-era concept which allows users to download new soundtracks filled with riffs accompanying new movies and cult classics.
In another corner, Joel has reteamed with Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein (the original voices of Crow and Tom) as well as Frank (sorry, make that TV’s Frank) Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl to bring Cinematic Titanic to life on the stage. I had the chance to talk a bit with the cast on the eve of their 2011 live tour kickoff — three shows at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.
Sort of like MST3K: Live at Carnegie Hall, Cinematic Titanic sees the quintet riffing in recital mode, complete with music stands, tasteful lights and a rarified atmosphere so pervasive, you have to have a PhD just to get in the door. OK, maybe not the last bit — it’s actually more of a return to the players’ roots in stand-up comedy — but still, the overall experience is a fascinating blend of both high and low culture, just as the original MST3K was everything at once, a total pop cultural ground zero.
Anyway, I was able to sit down with the five members of Cinematic Titanic for a few minutes to chat about the joys of bad movies. Here is the entire interview:
A few extra notes:
- Though MST3K has arguable emerged as an influential force of its own, Trace said one of his biggest influences was none other than WCCO-TV anchor Dave Moore’s Bedtime Nooz.
- The process of writing scripts for Cinematic Titanic is a little different than it was for MST3K. Because they all live in different cities now, scripts are e-mailed back and forth until their collective thousands of pitched jokes for any given movie are whittled down to about 500.
- Though some critics have disagreed, these guys truly love the movies they skewer. “You don’t watch them as many times as we do without some affection,” is the general rule of thumb. I’m almost sorry I brought up the fact that the original show has its critics in the first place, because they are clearly humorless, pedantic jerkwads.
- Frank made a convincing argument that Ed Wood, widely considered the worst filmmaker ever, is actually a more genuine talent than someone like the craven Michael Bay.
- On the same note, they also point out it’s interesting that the sort of movies that were considered B movies back in the day (i.e. sci-fi, action) are now the biggest, A-list projects, whereas character-driven movies are the province of the indie.
- Among the movies they joked they would love to take to the mat are The Sound of Music (Mary Jo), Flower Drum Song (Frank) and The Bucket List (Trace). Joel started to muse that it would be fun to tackle the Beatles’ movies, but I wouldn’t take that at face value.