In the not too distant future, somewhere in time and space, a silly little comedy show developed into a influential cult hit that continues to be watched and enjoyed by audiences today, even a decade after it ended it’s run. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson (not too different from you or me), who started the series out of a public access cable station in Minnesota in the late 1980’s. As crude as some of the earliest episodes were technically, it did introduce a novel idea that quickly caught the attention of people in the comedy world, and the show developed into a genuine underground hit. The cheesy but endearing premise had Joel Robinson (Hodgson) stranded on a Space Station orbiting the planet, where he is forced by his masters at the evil Gizmonic Institute to watch horrible movies as part of their diabolical experiments. In order to keep his sanity in tact, Joel makes the best of the situation and openly mocks the films as he watches them. This has become a practice known as “riffing,” which Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) certainly popularized, if not outright invented. And though Joel is a funny enough comic to hold his own during the riffing on the show, it was made even better with the inclusion of two robotic sidekicks who also join in on the fun. Those puppeteered robots of course were the hilariously hyperactive Crow T. Robot and the hilariously suave Tom Servo. After their short run on public access, the show was picked by The Comdey Channel (now known as Comedy Central) and quickly went from an underground discovery into a bona fide national hit.
And in all it’s 10 years on the air (7 seasons on Comedy Central and 3 more on the SyFy Channel thereafter), it’s amazing to see how well the show retained it’s identity and stray very little from it’s humble origins. I think that it really has to do with the purity of it’s gimmick. The show is really just Masterpiece Theater for the B-Movie crowd, and it brilliantly captures the insanity and camp of the movies that it spoofs. Not only that, but the silhouetted image of Joel and the bots sitting in front of a movie screen has become the singular iconic image of the show and it’s legacy. The show went through many different cast members over it’s decade long run, with Joel Hodgson himself leaving in the show’s fifth season. His replacement, Mike Nelson proved equally adept and hilarious in the lead human role, and marked a welcome departure from Hodgson’s funny but dry delivery. Writer and Puppeteer Kevin Murphy remained behind the persona of Tom Servo for most of the show’s run, definitively giving the robot his boisterous personality. And Crow T. Robot went through the biggest change during the switch to another network, changing voice and persona when Bill Corbett took over for Trace Beaulieu; still remaining hilarious, but in a different way. But, during all this, the show remained true to it’s character, and audiences remained pleased. Even today, the show is still widely watched by loyal fans who continue to circulate the tapes all these years later, introducing the show to newer audiences. I for one consider MST3K to be one of my absolute favorite shows, and it still holds up 15 years after it’s end. It’s not just the riffing or the skits that make the show such a classic; it’s also the sheer joy of discovering movies so hilariously bad that they need to be seen to be believed. What follows are what I think to be 10 of the absolute best and most hilarious episodes the show had during it’s run. I included clips from YouTube for each pick, so that you can hopefully see why I loved these particular episodes so much and get some of you who haven’t seen the show interested by showing you the best bits.
THE UNDEAD (SEASON 8, EPISODE 6)
Of course a show that highlights the most notorious examples of cheap and schlocky horror would run across the likes of B-Movie king Roger Corman eventually. And you could tell that the cast knew they had something special in store. Just seeing the notorious filmmaker’s name in the opening credits makes Crow shout out “We’re Doomed,” right from the get go. Though not the only Corman film to get the “MST” treatment, this is certainly the funniest. This cheesy movie finds a modern day woman given hypnotic treatment, which sends her subconsciously back into medieval times. And by medieval times, I mean a mist shrouded soundstage decorated with a few prop trees. Yeah, the MST crew gets a lot of mileage out of the ridiculous cheapness of the movie. I especially love Mike Nelson’s riff on the cylinder shaped helmet that one of the actors playing a knight wears in the movie; “Gee, I hope I don’t look stupid in this.” But, like most of the MST3K episodes, a lot of the jokes come from making observations over how dated the movie has become. And not just for the bad production values, but also from the stilted acting and rampant misogyny of the male characters. Over the course of the episode, we get some of the best examples of 50’s B-Movie camp, which would become a popular go-to source of comedy for the show. But, it’s the moment when the evil hypnotist yells out “STAY” to the female lead that the episode hits it’s high point, because of how out of left field it is. The MST crew’s reaction is both genuine and hilarious, and makes this a classic episode as a result.
GAMERA VS. GUIRON (SEASON 3, EPISODE 12)
If there was ever a reliable source of cheesy and oddball movies just waiting to be riffed on the show, it would be the nation of Japan and their large collection of Kaiju monster movies. MST3K did take on the legendary Godzilla in two back to back episodes (Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster), but the show actually got more traction out of another legendary Kaiju; Gamera. The show’s 3rd season featured no less than five Gamera titles in it’s lineup, making the monster almost like a reoccurring guest star. And the corny yet earnest productions from Japan lent themselves perfectly to the show. MST3K‘s riffs almost had as much influence over raising Gamera’s stock in the eyes of the worldwide audiences as the films’ original American distributor Sandy Frank did; another reliable source of material for the show. Honestly, any of the Gamera episodes could’ve made my list, because they are all hilarious in their own way and they pretty much riff on the same things. If there was one to choose out of the bunch, however, it would be this one, where Gamera travels to a distant planet to save two kidnapped Japanese children from the knife headed monster Guiron. Most of the episode’s best riffs come from the reactions to the silliness on screen, particularly Guiron’s hilariously cartoonish appearance. And speaking of appearances, there’s a lot of funny comments also made about one of the children’s resemblance to actor Richard Burton; “Don’t talk about Gamera, Martha.” Any fan of classic monster movies will get a good laugh out of this episode and the MST crew does not disappoint.
TEENAGE STRANGLER (SEASON 5, EPISODE 14)
Now here’s an example where the MST crew finds something really strange in a particular movie and exploits it to it’s fullest potential. Teenage Strangler (or Terror in the Night as it has also been titled) is a mostly dull and dated B-Movie thriller from the 60’s that is hardly worth remembering. That is until we are introduced to Mikey, the little brother of the movie’s protagonist. Mikey, played by a then young actor named John Humphries (no relation, and any of my family members reading this will see it as a hilarious coincidence given my own brother’s name) is of the oddest characters that the MST crew has ever come across. Bespectacled, effeminate, socially awkward and speaking with an odd Southern twang, this character is the movie’s most memorable element, and the guys get most of their best lines just from his presence alone. Mostly they poke fun at how out of place Mikey is, but certainly his odd physical appearance gets touched upon as well. The mid show sketch even has Mike Nelson and the bots doing their best impersonations of the character, which is hilarious on it’s own. I especially cracked up at Mike Nelson switching in and out of the character in the sketch. Overall, it’s an episode that really represents how an episode can hinge around one particular element and become a classic as a result. This episode belongs entirely to this one odd little character, who becomes one of the show’s greatest little discoveries.
EEGAH (SEASON 5, EPISODE 6)
Another great element of the show was whenever they would run across a single moment in any movie that was so unexpected and bizarre that it became a running gag later on in the program. That was the case with this cheaply made “caveman” movie from the 60’s, starring the late Richard Kiel (Jaws from the James Bond franchise). The film itself is a nice campy relic, and the MST crew gets a lot of mileage out of the cheapness of the film, and also with the odd-looking male lead, Arch Hall Jr., who looks more artificial naturally than the make-upped Kiel does as the caveman. But, what ends up being the most memorable part of the episode is when the crew encounters what has to be the worst ADR in movie history. When a private investigator in the movie examines the scene of a sighting of the caveman Eegah, he instructs the male and female lead characters to follow him. At this moment, coming from out of nowhere is a voice saying, “Watch out for snakes,” which doesn’t match the action at all and is different from any of the characters on screen. It’s a seriously “what the f***” moment and the MST crew responds appropriately by asking, “Who said that?” It’s bizarre and hilarious at the same time, and still to this day is one of the funniest single moments from the show. In the years since, whenever the crew encountered a scene in any movie that involved characters walking aimlessly through a desert, one of the them would shout out, “Watch out for snakes” in reference to this movie. It’s a great example where one hilarious moment could take on a life of it’s own and become a defining element in the series.
RED ZONE CUBA (SEASON 6, EPISODE 19)
Over the course of the MST3K‘s run, the crew would often devote episodes to some of the most famous auteurs of bad movies ever to have come out of Hollywood, like the aforementioned Roger Corman, the legendary Ed Wood, and special effects loving Bert I. Gordon. But, if there was one notoriously bad director who received special recognition because of this show, it would be Coleman Francis. MST3K managed to devote episodes to the director’s entire body of work; all three of them. This included the military propaganda film, The Starfighters, as well as the Tor Johnson headlined monster movie, The Beast of Yucca Flats. But, the best of the bunch would have to be Coleman Francis’ magnum opus of crapitude, Red Zone Cuba (aka Night Train to Mundo Fine). Red Zone Cuba is a meandering mess of a movie, where three escaped convicts enlist in a top secret military mission to invade Cuba and assassinate Fidel Castro. You heard that right. Not to mention that the entirety of their military training takes place over a single weekend, which is also hilariously pointed out. The MST crew is given a lot to riff here, not least of which is Coleman’s clearly present ego all over the film, as he was also the writer and star of the production. They brutally savage Francis’ odd directing choices and his unappealing main character. Also riffed are some of the film’s geopolitical and historical context, mocked in hilarious and insightful ways, making this one of the more high brow episodes; not that they didn’t shy away from some low brow jokes either. Often throughout the series, the guys would mix up some really obscure and sophisticated references in amongst the cornball goofing, which has been one of the endearing things fans have grown to appreciate about the show, and Red Zone Cuba is one of those episodes that gives the audience the best of all worlds. In addition, a long forgotten filmmaker also gets his moment in the sun again, for better or worse.
THE FINAL SACRIFICE (SEASON 9, EPISODE 10)
Just like how the Teenage Strangler episode capitalized on one particularly weird character in the movie, this episode also found great material related to a singular character, only in a different way. This strange early 90’s film from Canada follows a young boy who discovers the existence of an ancient city hidden deep underground, and is soon hunted down by a zealous satanic cult looking to harness the city’s immense magical power. The young boy, Troy, soon receives help from a pickup driving drifter with possibly the most awesome name in movie history; Zap Rowsdower. Rowsdower of course is the subject of most of the MST crew’s jokes in the episode, particularly with regards to his distinct appearance. Think John Ratzenberger, but with a mullet. And more overweight. Sure, some of the fat jokes are cheap shots, but the many hilarious ways they use them are what makes this episode such a classic. If anything, all the jokes actually help to endear Rowsdower to both the MST crew and the audience. His unforgettable and hilariously unkempt presence has made this a particularly popular episode to many fans and has earned the film and character something of a cult following. The show also gets a lot of jokes out of the Canadian setting, sometimes even going as lowball as young Troy popping his head out of the pickup truck’s window and the boys adding the line, “Oh shoot, I’m in Canada.” But all the Great White North references are top notch and stay hilarious throughout. With them and Rowsdower, this stands as one of the show’s most consistently funny episodes.
SANTA CLAUS (SEASON 5, EPISODE 21)
Now we get to one of the stranger episodes in the show’s history. MST3K always included holiday themed episodes from time to time, including the legendarily awful cult hit, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) and the Russo-Finnish import Jack Frost (1964). But, this Mexican produced family film about jolly, old St. Nick is one of the most bizarre things that the MST crew has ever come across. Featuring trippy uses of color and sets, way out-of-date racial stereotypes, and a nonsensical story, there was plenty of material here to riff on. Not to mention, it’s also a movie where Santa battles the Devil. The jokes come fast and furious in this episode, but often times the funniest moments just come from Mike and the bots purely reacting to all the bizarre things going on. One particularly hilarious moment comes when Santa winds up his creepy toy reindeer that drive his sleigh and they begin to laugh in an almost maniacally unsettling way. This only leads to the boys laughing madly along with them and Mike Nelson pleading to the movie, “What’s happening?” A lot of humor does touch upon holiday traditions as well and they lead to some of the episode’s best jokes. When Santa receives his letters from children all over the world in one scene, the MST crew adds the line “There’s a dollar in every one. My chain letter scam worked.” I also love the line after Santa reads a letter from a child asking for a new baby brother; “Ho Ho. Can do.” This episode stands as both a great holiday special, as well as a truly trippy and unique experience in it’s own right, and stands as one of the overall best and funniest experiences on the show.
MITCHELL (SEASON 5, EPISODE 12)
This episode is a monumental one for the series. It marked creator Joel Hodgson’s departure from the show and the passing of the torch over to Mike Nelson as the series lead. The changeover is handled perfectly, with Joel getting sent home by the evil Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) by mistake and Mike, being in the wrong place at the right time as Gizmonic Institute’s new temp, is unwillingly sent up as his replacement. It’s a hilarious culmination of Joel’s arc on the show, and thankfully he’s sent off with a strong episode. The subject this time was a bad 70’s cop movie starring Joe Don Baker called Mitchell. The episode is a hilarious dissection of cop movie cliches and it finds plenty of material in the slovenly appearance of it’s main star. Joe Don Baker isn’t the most handsome leading men, and his character is unfortunately very unappealing as well, making it so easy for the MST crew to poke fun at him here. Drunk and overweight jokes are plentiful throughout, with the addition of lyrics to the Mitchell musical theme being an especially funny highlight; “Mitchell; heart pounding. Mitchell; veins clogging.” But probably the episode’s high point is the many riffs made during the film’s awkward sex scene between Mitchell and his girlfriend, played by Linda Evans. Not only are the riffs funny, but so are their reactions; “Baby Oil!?!? AHHHHHH!!!!” There are so many jokes that hit their marks throughout the episode and it has since become one of the most beloved by fans, including yours truly. It also stands as one of their best for making the show transition from one era to the next in such a classic and suitable way. In addition, it also showed the incredible evolution of a show as it went from a cheesy public access program to a fully accepted comedy standard that could live on even when some of it’s principal cast were no longer a part of it.
SPACE MUTINY (SEASON 8, EPISODE 20)
This is a prime example of the late 80’s cheese that the MST crew loved to chew into. This cheap looking, oddly cast, and just plain corny sci-fi thriller has a lot of unintentionally hilarious bits that Mike and the bots perfectly lampoon. Whether it be actor Cameron Mitchell’s resemblance to Santa Claus, or the clearly older than she’s trying to portray female lead, or the over the top villainous performance by actor John Phillip Law, this episode has plenty to laugh at. But, what puts this episode so high on my list is the inclusion of what is probably the best running gag in the show’s history. Throughout the movie, Mike and the bots throw out different nicknames for the movie’s main hero Dave Ryder (played by B-movie idol Reb Brown), as if that name wasn’t already corny enough. And boy does this running gag enhance the episode greatly. It’s almost like the three cast members are trying to outdo each other throughout the entire episode, trying to find an even sillier name for the hero than the last. Some names are hilariously absurd like Slab Bulkhead, Splint Chesthair, Bolt van der Huge, Fist Rockbone, Rip Steakface, Gristle McThornbody, Buff Hardback, and probably my personal favorite, Big McLargehuge. This gag runs throughout the entire show and never gets old, which is quite the accomplishment, even given the high standard these guys have set. Easily the best episode during the program’s final run on the SyFy Channel, this episode proved that the show wasn’t just getting more polished with age; it was also getting funnier. Overall, if there’s ever a perfect episode to introduce a novice to the experience of watching MST3K, this would be it. Space Mutiny is one of the most consistently funniest episodes in the show’s history and an episode so clearly defined by one brilliant bit of riffing.
MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (SEASON 4, EPISODE 24)
Of course the top spot has to go to the episode that officially put MST3K on the cultural map. Though many episodes have become popular with fans young and old, none have had the impact outside of the show that this one has. The MST production team had always dug deep into film vaults all over the country looking for movies that were both hilariously bad and bizarre, as well as obscure. Amazingly, they came across this almost forgotten horror movie made by and starring a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas named Hal Warren. The crew realized they had a gem right away and the episode perfectly exploits all of the weirdness and hack film-making on display. It’s a consistently hilarious episode, with Joel and the bots hitting bulls eyes all the way through. But, what I’m sure the guys didn’t expect was the life that this movie would take on beyond the original airing of the episode. Manos has since developed a cult following and has drawn the attention of both film historians and aficionados who are just flat out fascinated by this odd little enigma of a movie. Entertainment Weekly even devoted a whole article to the film, asking whether it has earned the title of “Worst Movie Ever Made.” That’s quite the legacy left by a little movie that wouldn’t have seen the light of day had it not been for the MST crew. Even separated from all this, the episode is still a classic, delivering everything that makes a MST3K episode special. The best gags especially revolve around the creepy and insane housekeeper in the movie; Torgo. The character even had a reoccurring role in the mid-show sketches, with Mike Nelson doing a hilarious imitation. Everything about this episode, from the jokes to the peculiarity of the experience, to the lasting legacy it left behind easily makes this the greatest episode in the show’s history. Now just try to get that Torgo musical theme out of your head after you’ve heard it. It’s not easy.
So, there you have it; my top ten picks for the best episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Though I only had room for 10, there are still many more that are equally worth watching out of the 189 episodes they made over ten years. Some I would recommend are the two Master Ninja movies, The Unearthly, Cave Dwellers, The Day the Earth Froze, Warrior of the Lost World, Zombie Nightmare, The Magic Sword, Deathstalker and the Warriors of Hell, Time Chasers, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, Warewolf, Hobgoblins, Quest of the Delta Knights, Merlin’s Magical Shop of Wonders, and Soultaker. You can find many of these available on DVD as well as on demand and streaming on Netflix. Some kind souls have even put up the full episodes on YouTube for anyone to enjoy, keeping the tradition alive of circulating the tapes to new audiences from back in the VHS days of the original show.
Even though the original cast has put the show behind them and crash landed the Satellite of Love for good, it doesn’t mean they’ve stopped doing what they love either. Joel Hodgson recently reunited some of his old MST3K cast mates like Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, J. Elvis Weinstein, and “TV’s Frank” Frank Conniff back together again to create Cinematic Titanic, a spinoff series which retains the same irreverent humor and silhouetted style of the show, but applies it to even more obscure and ridiculously gory films that they never were able to do before; even bringing the experience to live venues for performances. And the SyFy Channel cast of Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy created their own spin-off website called Rifftrax, which publishes downloadable commentary tracks to recently released movies featuring the famous riffers, showing that even mainstream Hollywood hits aren’t safe from their particular brand of humor. Indeed, the legacy of MST3K lives on with these spin-offs and looks to continue for many years to come. Probably the show’s greatest legacy is the fact that it helped many people gain an appreciation for B-Movie Hollywood that they normally wouldn’t have had. Sure, the guys make fun of these movies, but the sheer entertainment value of these cheesy, horrible films also comes through as well in each episode. Honestly, I would rather watch some of the movies from the show again before I watch any new Michael Bay-style garbage that Hollywood keeps putting out. And it’s that valuing of “good” bad movies that I’ll always cherish this show for. You are missed Mystery Science Theater 3000, but never forgotten, and I will continue to keep your best episodes fresh in mind. Now to end this top ten list, I would also like to share with you some of the best shorts ever featured on the show, all for your amusement. Until next time, push the button Frank.