24 May 2007

MST3K (closing thoughts)

One year ago, I asked in my opening thoughts: "Does MST3K have legs? Will it be funny in the future? Or, when I try to show episodes to my future kids in 2018, will they force me to turn it off?" The answer: yes and no. What I suspected before beginning this project turned out to be true: MST3K was an uneven show. As I watched the episodes in production order, I noticed that it wasn't uncommon for one of the best to be followed by one of the worst. Before watching any of the episodes I hadn't seen before -- which was most of them -- I never knew if I was going to be laughing loudly or fighting sleepiness. A graph of my ratings for each episode shows the seismic-like peaks and valleys of my opinion of the show's run. The x-axis is the episode number (1-195, AKA K04-1013) and the y-axis is my rating.

Ratings for each MST3K episode

As a general rule, the show improved over time. The black, angled line is the trend in my ratings. Starting around a rating of 6, the show ended somewhere north of 7. Still, later seasons were in no way immune to bad episodes, even if the later shows were less of a comedy crap-shoot.

But, will the show be funny in the future? It already is the future, as far as a show canceled nearly eight years ago that began life nearly two decades ago is concerned. As I found it funny more often than not, the short answer would be: yes, it's funny in the future.

The long answer: likely less humorous as more years go by. The show's reliance on pop cultural references will slowly make a portion of the jokes incomprehensible to future viewers. Any references lost to the viewer are essentially holes in the riffing. This can have a serious impact on how funny an entire episode seems to you. I found that the best MST3K episodes would get some comedy momentum going. The episode would build from belly laugh to belly laugh, never letting too much time pass before another good zinger arrived. If enough of those zingers were references to decades-old pop culture that merely whizzed over your head, you're going to lose that momentum of laughter. You'll end up spending as much time scratching your head in puzzlement as you will laughing. That's not generally what people crave when viewing comedy.

I'm not saying that the show should've been created reference-free. It would've never had gained its cult following without its references. Obscure references that fans caught made them feel special. "Wow, they know about that? They're like me!" This was an important part of the show's early popularity, as seen in the interviews with fans in the This is MST3K special.

At any rate, my sense is that the show became less dependent on references as it went on. Many of Joel's episodes would upset me by harping on unrelated-to-the-movie famous people, or toys from the 1960s I can't possibly have fond memories of, or riffs about seldom-rerun TV shows canceled long before I was born. Mike's episodes didn't have this problem as often. In the interview with Mike and Kevin found on the 1003 disc in Rhino's Volume 5 set, Mike states that they really tried to keep the comedy as timeless as possible. I'm guessing his influence in this matter increased significantly after Joel's departure. My feeling is that the Sci-Fi era episodes will be more watchable to the crazy kids of 2018 than the Comedy Central ones.

Then again, I could just be sensitive to things "not of my time." This graph shows my average rating for each season in yellow, and the average year for the movies used in each season in purple. Outside of the KTMA shows, there's a disturbing correspondence between the average newness of a season's movies and the average highness of my ratings.

Average rating vs average year per MST3K season

In my defense, before discovering MST3K, the bad movies of the 1970s and 1980s were always my favorite. I watched countless Troma and Full Moon movies in my youth and would often rent (or buy) movies purely because they had a stupid title. Perhaps like Boomers, who revel in the rubber-suited, visible-zipper monsters movies of their '50s youths, bad movies from the '70s and '80s are nostalgic comfort food for me.

Below is a graph showing how many episodes I watched per week. My schedule was relatively simple: I needed to watch 4 episodes per week for three weeks and then watch 3 episodes in the fourth week. Repeat that thirteen times and add one last episode to complete the series. In reality, I only managed to do this for first four weeks and the last five. Other than that, I was either trying to get ahead in time for a specific event, or slacking off.

Number of MST3K episodes watched per week

Keeping at this thing until the very end wasn't as easy as it may sound. Watching 3.75 episodes per week doesn't sound like much, but, added up, the entire process ate into my free time quite a bit. Each episode was a little more than 1.5 hours long. After the episode, I would read its entry in the ACEG and then start writing my blog post. As pathetic as it sounds, it would often take me close to an hour to get one of these bits of fluff written and formatted. On a typical day in which I would watch an episode after getting home from work, I'd find it to be 8pm (and dark out, in the winter) by the time I was done... if I was lucky enough not to run into a dead DVD-R. Towards the end, I began watching episodes during lunch "hour" at work. This was probably the only way I was able to finish; I was plain sick of donating 2.5 hours of my free time to this thing every other day.

Undoubtedly, the slow but inevitable slide this project made from "play" to "work" affected my enjoyment of certain episodes. Some that I gave low ratings to I'll certainly give another shot; I haven't closed the book on too many of them, despite what I may have said here. But not for a while.

I was going to follow this project up with a more relaxed "MST4K Chronocinethon." In that, I was going to watch Mike's Legend Films commentaries, Star Wait, Cheap Seats, and all of the RiffTrax and Film Crew releases. That ain't gonna happen anymore. I'm all riffed out at the moment. As well, Mike's RiffTrax releases are coming out way too damned often. I just don't have the energy to buy the track, buy/rent the DVD, rip the DVD, convert the track and the audio from the DVD to WAV, carefully merge the track with the audio from the DVD, render the resulting audio file, convert it to AC3, throw it all in DVD Studio and burn a DVD-R -- all once a week. I can't be dedicating that much time to such a thing at this point in my life.

Also, I hate to admit, I don't think I'm really behind the idea of "more riffing from the MST3K guys!" anymore. Even before I read this interview with Trace Beaulieu by Quick Stop Entertainment, I'd come to a similar conclusion about the idea:
QS: How do you view things like Mike’s RiffTrax project, or The Film Crew? Have you ever felt the urge to do something like that again?

BEAULIEU: Not riffing. Not movie mocking or anything like that. Joel and Josh and I did a little thing… what was it… Star Wait… And we were riffing on footage that a guy had shot of these Star Wars fans waiting for the movie to open. At first it was kind of weird being back with Joel and Josh and mocking something. That had its own strangeness to it. But I realized that without that character, I really didn’t have a reason to mock anything. I actually kinda like stuff. People have talked about, “Oh, you know you should do that again.” It’s like, “Well we did it.” I mean, that’s kind of why I left, was like, “I got it. I did that thing already.” And I haven’t seen what Mike and those guys have done.
Again, I hate to say it, but a part of me kind of feels bad for Mike. I feel like this talented comedian has gotten himself stuck on the SOL all over again. He's already done that. He's already been there. The ending of 1013 was supposed to be funny, not a curse. I feel like Mike's been typecast as "that movie riffer guy" and this is the only creative avenue open to him. I dunno. Maybe I'm way off and riffing movies again is like going home for him. I guess I'd just rather see the guy working on new and different projects with that creative noggin' of his, is all.

And, finally, what of my answer to the eternally controversial question: which host was better? Easy. It's Joel.

This may seem like an odd choice, given all the praise I've heaped on the Sci-Fi era and Mr. Nelson above. Before starting this project, I was much more familiar with the Sci-Fi episodes. Those, I had been taping from the reruns and watching randomly. That's the era I was most comfortable with going into this thing. Looking back, my ratings for the Mike seasons were generally higher than those for Joel years. Of the 7 episodes I rated a nine (my highest MST3K rating), I gave 5 of those Mike shows. Mike's clearly a better actor, too, with a confident screen presence and impeccable comedic timing.

But, none of that really matters when picking a favorite. I just liked Joel's personality better. His credo says it all: "I'm weird and that results in creativity." Joel was bursting at the seams with ideas. He was the invention exchange man from the Gizmonic Institute. He gave us rainy day ipecacs and mixed drink recipes. He showed us what the bridge would look like underwater. He brought props into the theater and interacted with the screen. Who can ever forget "Joey the Lemur"?

I also like the less-than-polished aspect of Joel's show. In Joel's MST3K, Crow's net would randomly fall off and they'd roll with it. People could sneeze and balloons could pop and it wouldn't matter. The camera was simply pointed straight at the SOL's brightly lit bridge. No neon colors or fancy Dutch angles. It was what it was: a low-budget puppet show with bad movies and goofy sketches.

It was Joel, I'm sure, who was responsible for early MST3K's down-home feel. The KTMA episodes had the entertaining and intimate voicemails from fans. No host segment in the cable era could ever beat the one from K06 when a kid called to invite Joel and the bots to his birthday party and Joel responded by putting up a happy birthday banner on the SOL. The voicemail was eventually converted into fanmail, but those had their own charm. Joel would show drawings and photos people would send in, read their letters, answer their questions and hold contests to name a character from a movie or think of other ways to kill a giant monster. The show wasn't just this thing created in a vacuum by ascetic monks; it was just a couple of states away in Minnesota and you could write 'em a letter if you wanted.

Plainly put, Joel was MST3K's spirit. In the years that followed his departure, the show became more polished and the writing of the riffing improved, but it also lost some of its warmth.

My favorite episode for each season:

KTMA: The Legend of the Dinosaurs
The guys were at the top of their unscripted game by the time this episode aired, their final show for TV-23. It's funnier and easier to watch than nearly every season one episode to follow it.

One: Robot Holocaust
Having one fewer episodes of a crappy serial to bog it down, this ep just edges out 107 as my pick for the first cable season. A mush-mouthed villainess and a robot lobster were great grist for Joel and the bots' riff mill.

Two: Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster
The only giant monster movie I really liked, perhaps due to its lack of annoying children. Joel's "Space Madness" host segment is one of the best of the series.

Three: Pod People
The near-perfect marriage of a ridiculous movie with spot-on riffing and a bucket full of hilarious host segments. Joel's best.

Four: Manos: The Hands of Fate
Not a terribly original pick, but this episode is an example of MST3K at its best: it has the power to make an unwatchable movie watchable (something they tried and failed with during the Coleman Francis flicks). Also, Torgo is Mike's all-time best character (even counting Mike Nelson).

Five: Outlaw
An award-winning episode for a reason. I think the "Tubular Boobular" song may be my favorite from the show.

Six: The Creeping Terror
MST3K was made for this movie: an alien piece of carpet stalks and eats teenagers while occasionally having carnal relations with an auto. One of those great-bad movies that MST3K brought to my attention.

Seven: Laserblast
My kind of movie: a low-budget, '80s sci-fi/horror flick involving Charles Band. It also made for a great (almost) final episode for the show.

Eight: Space Mutiny
Hijinks aboard a spaceship/boiler room involving a multi-named, muscle-bound fraidy cat and a guy trying to push his face out of its skin. Mike's best.

Nine: Werewolf
It's real hard to go wrong with a Joe Estevez vehicle. Count the different werewolf makes for added fun.

Ten: Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders
Ernest Borgnine scaring his grandson with tales of murdered pets, abusive husbands and an old man in dire need of a shave and a haircut.

The Final Numbers
Total Length
13 days, 1 hour, 33 minutes, 30 seconds
(94 min average for 195 episodes)
(29 min average for 18 specials)
(3.6% of a year)

Years Spanned
(1966 average)

Shorts Years Spanned
(1951 average)

Time to Watch
365 days
Time to Broadcast Originally
3941 days

Total Episodes with Joel's Goatee
207, 208, 209, 307, 410, 1001 (3.1%)
Crow and Tom's Dead Brothers
XT-5000, Minsky, Destroyer
Name the Vegetable Guy
Name that Cool Thing We Never Showed Flying Outside of the SOL
Other Ways to Snuff Gaos
Kenny, What Gives?

Other Kinds of Nunchucks
What's a Sampo?
Black and White to Color Ratio

Joel vs. Mike
1795 days (4 years, 11 months) vs. 2109 days (5 years, 9 months, 10 days)
107 movies (98 unique), 36 shorts vs. 91 movies, 23 shorts

KTMA vs. The Comedy Channel / Comedy Central vs. Sci-Fi Channel
1 season vs. 7 seasons vs. 3 seasons
21 movies, 0 shorts vs. 128 movies, 56 shorts vs. 48 movies, 3 shorts
21 movies/year vs. 18 movies/year vs. 16 movies/year
1973 average vs. 1963 average vs. 1971 average
none vs. 5 Turkey Days vs. 1 pseudo-Turkey Day
none vs. 1 awards special vs. 3 awards specials

S'long, MST3K! Thanks for the year of laughs.