In 1988, when he first conceived Mystery Science Theater 3000, show creator Joel Hodgson wanted it to serve as a nighttime gathering place. His local Minnesota television station, KTMA, had a storefront of cheap genre films that would toss them late into the night, and Hodgson wanted to emulate the phenomenon of staying up late with friends, watching those worthless, cheesy films and having a good time. As naturally happens when large groups of friends stay up late to watch bad movies on TV, jokes are made at the expense of the movie. Hodgson met two friends, robots Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, at a theater and they improvised during Gamera movies or Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation movies. The early KTMA episodes of “MST3K” were relaxed, and there were many pauses in silence as Joel and the bots watched the films.
There was little pressure because KTMA was such a small station. Trace Beaulieu, who plays both Crow T. Robot and the evil mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester was playing, saying, “I think you had to have a round antenna on the back of your set to get Lark.”
As Hodgson and the rest of the showrunners began buying the series on other, bigger channels — hoping to get paid for it — they put together a sizzling roll of all their best riffs and jokes. When Hodgson first saw the finished role and was finally able to see jokes at a much higher volume, he realized the show needed to be a lot funnier. They couldn’t just improvise anymore. They needed something more streamlined and scripted.
In a 2008 interview with the Seattle Times, Hodgson and Beaulieu described what it was like to open a proper writers’ room for “MST3K” and how intense it was to up the joke factor.
Finally getting paid
When “MST3K” was eventually picked up by The Comedy Channel (which later merged with Ha! to become Comedy Central, where the show would remain for years), Hodgson and his crew had to cave. Luckily, getting paid finally allowed everyone to spend more time writing jokes:
“We improvised. When we started getting paid I decided we had to write them. I wanted it to be a lot tighter and we could afford it because we could now spend eight hours a day (on the scripts). Before that, we did (a whole episode) in one day.”
Fortunately, everyone in the writers’ room had an encyclopedic knowledge of film and pop culture. No matter what genre the writers were looking at, they were able to write contextual riffs with a researcher’s aplomb, using references to “Blanskey’s Beauties,” the NBC weekly mystery film, Ingmar Bergman, William Shakespeare, “THE Cat brought in. and early REM texts. Unknown movie stars drifted into their field of vision and they redraw their pop culture maps to match. Beaulieu says:
“We covered a lot of genres. Western, youth films. We made a biker film. In the late ’50s there was a flood of wannabe Elvis singers. We did a couple of them, including ‘Daddy-O’ with Dick Contino.”
Everyone shouldn’t get stoned
With its late-night airtime, homemade look, and easy-going goofy tone, “MST3K” was a drinker’s and stoner’s staple. In fact, the practice of using marijuana and watching a bad movie has long been an accepted practice; The “midnight movie” phenomenon began in earnest in the 1970s, when a New York theater owner, unsure how to show the sour western “El Topo,” decided to show it after hours…and smoking in the theater to allow. The association between weed and trash cinema has been strong ever since.
One might assume that the “MST3K” crew were similarly minded during production. Certainly the study was well stocked with bongs and other marijuana paraphernalia. The truth is a lot less intoxicated and a lot more professional. Hodgson was then asked:
“People would say, ‘Sure you write them when you’re high.’ No, we never have.”
He recalled a time when there was tequila in the writers’ room, along with a supply of Mickey’s Big Mouth malt liqueur (5.6% ABV). Hodgson pointed out that it didn’t work when writing it and it gave everyone a headache.
This author recalls attending a live show hosted by The Rocky Horror Picture Show creator Richard O’Brien, who told a story about how you can’t make a movie — no matter how wild — when you’re constantly high or drunk. At some point, he said, you have to actually do the work. And it helps when you’re sober. The crew of “MST3K” followed a similar philosophy and had to remain absolutely professional in order to make the show appear as relaxed as it was. Substances were not taken. It wasn’t a party. It was more of an informational trip.
Write drunk, edit sober? no Write sober, film sober, edit sober, and you could just create a cult phenomenon that will last nearly 35 years. Then, as soon as you get home (and you’re over 21), have a martini.