The “Bring Back MST3K” Kicktstarter – launched last November to revive the beloved bad-movie-watching show Mystery Science Theater 3000 – was, by just about any metric, a resounding success. Fans not only smashed creator Joel Hodgson’s original goal of $2 million for three starter episodes, but surpassed his $5.5 million price tag for a full season, ending up with a Kickstarter record-breaking $6.3 million haul. But something about the revival didn’t sit right with a few sourpuss superfans, like yours truly – that it seemed the only participant in this new MST3K who hailed from any iteration of the original show was Mr. Hodgson. In an early Kickstarter post about the show, Hodgon made it clear that he was looking to “bring in new talent to keep the show fresh,” stating (and even bold-facing), “As much as I love the old seasons, we’re not just trying to make an “MST3K reunion episode.” Trouble is, that’s what a lot of fans wanted. And last night, thankfully, that’s what they got.
It came via Rifftrax, the online MST3K spinoff fronted by alums Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, who’ve spent the last decade “riffing” not only the kind of B-movies (and worse) and educational shorts that were MST’s bread and butter, but providing mp3-only riffs that fans could sync up themselves to deserving blockbusters the crew couldn’t license, like the Twilight and Transformers series. A few years back, they began doing a few “Rifftrax Live” shows every year, beamed via satellite into movie theaters around the country via Fathom Events – and apparently some smart soul somewhere along that food chain looked at all the bucks Hodgson had raised, and decided maybe that “MST3K reunion episode” was a hole they could fill.
It seemed easier said than done, however. The firm Twitter declarations by these alums that they weren’t participating in Hodgson’s new MST3K revealed not only some hurt feelings over the show’s new direction, but a fair amount of leftover resentment about the underwhelming nature of the show’s financial benefits. And even if all the disgruntled alums could be swayed, an MST3K reunion wouldn’t be an MST3K reunion without Joel – and how tricky would that be? “The number of performers involved in the original series, and the well-reported (and much speculated-upon) personality clashes between them probably made the idea of an all-hands reunion/super-MST a practical impossibility,” I predicted back in November. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.
Early on in “Rifftrax Live: MST3K Reunion Show,” co-host Bill Corbett noted of the show’s performance at the State Theater in Minneapolis, “Since it’s coming from Minnesota, you’ll notice notes of passive aggression throughout.” But aside from a bit of jokey resentment over the comparative haul of their Kickstarters (Murphy noted that while their campaign was a success, “it was no six and a half million dollars!”), there was good cheer and “sweaty hugs” and handshakes all around; everyone seemed happy to be there, to see each other, and to put on a show.
The format was a selection of educational and industrial short films – a wise choice, as a) those have always been fan favorites (“they’re the perfect straight men,” Murphy told me a few years ago), and b) it turned the night into a kind of variety show, where everyone got to take the spotlight and do their specialty. The Rifftrax crew of Corbett, Murphy, and Nelson opened the show with “The Talking Car,” a vehicle-safety-for-kids short, part of the rich tradition of inanimate objects telling dumb humans how to live their lives, a la the MST3K fave “A Case of Spring Fever.” Here, a little boy nearly gets hit by a car, and subsequently has a terrifying fever dream where cars with animated faces teach him the rules of the road (“Yes, kid, you’re in abomination-against-God territory,” noted Corbett).
The first transition was the easiest, as the hosts handed over the mics to former writer (and Nelson’s wife) Bridget and former Pearl Forrester, Mary Jo Pehl – already de facto members of the Rifftrax family, with several riffs of their own available via the site. They’ve made a specialty of skewering the outdated gender roles inescapable of the ‘50s and ‘60s “social engineering” shorts, so their housewives/hapless husbands short “A Word to the Wives” (featuring A Christmas Story’s Darren McGavin, trying out his raging father persona) was a real treat. Best line: when the narrator intoned that a character’s oven had “won an award from the Women’s Home Kitchen,” Nelson chimed in, “The Sylvia Plath Award!”
Next up were Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Clatyon Forrester, and Corbett’s predecessor as Crow T. Robot) and “TV’s Frank” Conniff, who spent a few years as writer/performers in Hodgson’s own MST3K spin-off, “Cinematic Titanic”; they’re all on Hulu, and they’re all great. Now Beaulieu and Conniff touring as a movie-riffing pair, billed as “The Mads” (I’m telling you, these webs get complicated). Their short, “More Dates for Kay,” is chock full of dating advice for lonely young ladies, and as Frank promised in their introduction, “I don’t wanna oversell it, but it will fill you with sadness.” The Rifftrax trio returned to the stage to do another short, this time their popular “Shake Hands with Danger,” a stern warning against industrial accidents, filled with goofy stunts and preachy warnings, and then it was time to bring out Joel.
He wisely brought along a pal: MST3K revival host Jonah Ray, who paired up with him for the short “Barbers and Beauticians.” This was fans’ first look at the new kid, and for the most part, he ingratiated himself well; his timing was a little off (understandably, when you combine the pressure of his debut with the thrill of sharing the stage with his heroes), but he’s got a sharp voice and promising sense of silliness.
And then we had the main event, a “Riff-a-Palooza” with all of the evening’s guests on stage, nine riffers taking on two shorts: the treasury department commercial “Stamp Day for Superman” (featuring TV Man of Steel George Reeves) and “At Your Fingertips: Grasses,” a (swear to God) grass craft film for, as Corbett joked, “the patients nurses won’t give scissors to.” It was the evening’s oddest and most inexplicable short, so, as is often the case, it got the biggest laughs, with Conniff insisting, “Somebody has to tell these kids about video games,” and Pehl taking on the voice of the instructive narrator (“Put grass in straws. JUST DO IT!”).
By that short’s end, I’ll own up to the lamest clichés of buoyant laughter – my sides quite literally hurt, and my eyes were even watering a bit. Or maybe that was from the sheer joy of the image (wisely projected onto the movie screen with the square image of the short up top and the rectangular frame of all nine riffers below) of this crew of people, who’ve given me so much joy for so many years, on the same stage at the same time, joking, dancing, laughing, and having a great time. Mystery Science Theater was the kind of show that, by its nature and appeal, was often viewed solo, by awkward types alone at home, so there’s always been something of a charge to watching it and its offshoots with a big, laughing audience; it’s what made the 1996 movie such a blast (if you were lucky enough to see it, in its very limited release), or the Cinematic Titanic shows, or these Rifftrax Live theatrical events. Laughter is always infectious, but particularly when you’re laughing at something you’re used to enjoying on your own.
So this “MST3K Reunion” ended up serving a couple of important purposes. Hodgson duet with Ray was a masterstroke – a perhaps intentional gesture towards further bridging the old MST with the new, introducing reticent old fans to the fresh blood, no matter how successful (I heard a couple of boos for him in my theater after their performance, but that’s part of the job when taking over a slot on this show; ask Mike or Mary Jo).
More importantly, we got a hint of the new voice Ray will presumably provide; Ray’s riffs included jabs at xenophobia, racism, cat-calling, and Internet trolls, while the older riffers’ frames of reference were the fairly familiar shout-outs to older movies and mainstream pop culture. Don’t panic, MRAs, there was plenty of that in Ray’s work too; the point is, he has his own voice and his own style, just as the Rifftrax guys have theirs, and Mary Jo and Bridget have theirs, and the Mads have theirs, and so on. This is what was initially troubling about Hodgson’s MST 2.0: that he seemed to think the appeal of that show was the mere concept, and not the personality and voice its performers cultivated and conveyed. Rifftrax’s reunion show was a sharp reminder of the value of those qualities – in the initial versions, and in its future iteration.
Fathom Events will present an encore screening of the Rifftrax Live: MST3K Reunion Show on July 12th; tickets are available here.