Old fogey time. When I first encountered Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K, don’t you know), it was an authentically viral phenomenon. This would have been circa 1993. It was still on the Comedy Network, a station that very few of us in the Great White North had access to. But the closing credits ordered, “Keep Circulating Those Tapes,” and people did. Often, this meant viewing the episodes in multi-duped EP versions so muzzy the dialogue was barely audible, but enough was discernible to know that we were w…tching sheer genius.
A few years later, things become easier. Rhino started releasing episodes on VHS. Renting became a possibility, as did outright purchase, as the prices were eminently reasonable. Flash forward to today. More and more episodes are being released to DVD. At first, there was a mere trickle (two episodes per case), but now multi-volume box sets are the order of the day. So too, unfortunately, is a concomitant increase in price. MST3K is a wonderful show, but not all the episodes are equally funny. Joel, Mike and the ‘bots had some pretty grim movies to work with, and not all of them turned out to be gold mines of humour. But the best episodes have a tendency to reduce one to lethal paroxysms of laughter, and these are well worth the effort to track down.
Humour is a very subjective thing, of course, and everyone is going to have their favourite MST3K episode. I want to mention a couple of mine. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) is one of the most godawful movies ever made. The plot is some incomprehensible rubbish involving a family who stop at an out-of-the-way motel and fall prey to cultists. The manager of the hotel appears to have elephantiasis of the knees, but it seems the explanation for his strange look is that he’s a satyr. Don’t expect the movie to provide this explanation, though. Then there’s the opening of the film: some twenty minutes (or so it seems) of endless driving around. The camera gazes bovinely through the windshield of the car as the landscape passes drearily by. This goes on so long (and the agonized reaction of our commentators is so extreme), that the only way to stay sane is to laugh oneself into a coma.
Mitchell (1975), on the other hand, has plenty of incident, but all of it is silly. Joe Don Baker is the eponymous cop, and a singularly unappealing leading man he is here, especially in his love scenes with Linda Evans (eeeewwwwww!). This is the transitional episode of MST3K, where Joel leaves the Satellite of Love, and Mike is tapped to be the replacement. Joel goes out with a bang. The stroke of genius here is to have Joel or one of the ‘bots (or all of them) yell “Mitchell!” and random intervals. I don’t know why the joke works, but it does, and it’s still fresh when it turns up again when our heroes take on The Brain that Wouldn’t Die.
I could go on, of course. There are innumerable fine episodes out there. But the point is the shows one most wants to see are very unlikely to be collected in one (again, expensive) box set. For the hardcore fans, this isn’t really that much of a problem (you are getting several feature length films in one set, after all), but otherwise, renting is definitely the way to go here.
Meanwhile, head writer and second host Mike Nelson continues to mine this vein of comedy. His commentary tracks for the likes of House on Haunted Hill and Reefer Madness aren’t quite as funny as when he has Tom Servo and Crow to bounce off, but are still worth more than a chuckle or two. I see that he now has a thing over at www.rifftrax.com, where one can download his commentaries for the likes of The Matrix and The Phantom Menace. Cue up these .mp3’s with the appropriate DVD and away you go. I’ll report back on these when I’ve had a chance to check them out.