Friday, August 24, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK #31: Mystery Science Theater 3000: "Manos, The Hands of Fate"

According to a Time Magazine review of the MST3K film in 1996, one of the best things about living in 1990s America was this unique genre comedy series. That's a conclusion I don't disagree with. I'll never forget watching the series for the first time in 1994. It was midnight, and I knew to expect the show (on Comedy Central) and although I understood the premise in theory (a blond guy and two robot puppets mock bad movies...), I had no real idea what awaited.

What was I in for? Brilliance. Utter brilliance. As the snappy theme song reminds us, MST3K is the story of a regular guy named Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) who works at Gizmonic Institute. Just another guy in a red jumpsuit. His bosses, Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and TV's Frank (Frank Conniff) bonk him on the head and launch him into space on the Satellite of Love to conduct a frightening experiment. They force Joel to endlessly watch bad movies. Joel's only company in this endeavor is the robots he built; foremost among them: wiseacre Crow and neurotic intellectual Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy).

In some fashion, the theme song itself points to the very qualities that make the series so relentlessly smart and so enjoyable. On one level, the theme tells the story of Joel's entrapment and sets up his "sci fi" universe (including the Satellite, the robots, and the experiments), but on another level, it deliberately reminds viewers that this universe is itself a construct, a funny vehicle for jokes. "If you're wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts," goeth the lyrics, "just repeat to yourself it's just a show. You should really just relax..."

The two-level approach to Mystery Science Theater -- make no mistake -- is what makes this series both smart and funny. The central theme - watching a bad movie with a cadre of funny hecklers as company - requires this two-track approach in the audience's mind. On one hand, the viewer is registering the movie and what's happening on Joel's screen; and on the other, is also reacting to Joel and the Bots as they react to the same movie. The episodes synthesize two distinct experiences: a catalyst (film); and a response to the catalyst (on-screen snark by funny silhouettes); which then causes a reaction in the viewer; generally guffaws. Got it? I hasten to add, there are some folks - mostly of older generations - who never are able to process this essential gimmick; this central core of MST-3K. These are the people who complain, "I can't hear the movie because they're talking through it."

Where so much of what passes for humor in film and television today is dumb, or "extruded in an industrial process," as Harry Shearer once said to me. Mystery Science Theater 3000 by its very design is unwaveringly intelligent; intellectual even. Audiences are expected to keep up; viewers are asked to register an action or scene in a "bad" movie and then process Joel (or later, Mike's) response to the film in real time. That response could come in the form of an allusion to another film or television series; in a reference to politics or culture, or simply in an absurd, surreal connection that Joel or the robots happen to make. It all flies by at warp speed, and the viewer's brain literally dances; synapses sparking as we make connections and laugh along with the show.

By example, there's the series' most infamous episode, "Manos, The Hands of Fate." This is the episode that truly put the series on the map. Why it resonated so deeply with so many is difficult to determine precisely. It's possible that Manos is just such a staggeringly, unbelievably bad film that it generates in audiences a sense of sympathy and camaraderie with Joel and his crew. We bond with the 'bots and Joel here because we simply can't believe our eyes; that we're watching something as truly hideous and awful as this 1966 film (written and directed by an El Paso fertilizer salesman). Even more shocking, I think, is the recognition in Manos that The Mystery Science Theater 3000 format really succeeds beyond the most wild imaginings; in this case, it actually makes a torturous movie not only bearable, but hysterically funny. This is the glorious alchemy of MST3K when it works on all thrusters (which is most of the time).

The episode begins with a short called "Hired," a black-and-white effort from the 1940s about a heavy-set cars salesman who is having bad results with his young recruits. He gets set straight by his Dad, a strange old man who sits on the front porch rambling and occasionally going into a fugue state, and swatting at "invisible flies." Joel and his 'bots deliver a rollicking, real-time masters thesis on comedy, as they mock the Jam Handy short. But what's so fascinating about the humor if one stands back and pays attention to the nature of the jokes, is that the material is not merely scattershot ramblings or outbursts of snark. On the contrary, the jokes tend to arise from the same historical context that the film did. You'll hear references to The Untouchables (1959-1963), a popular early TV series that featured many of the same type of rear-projection "moving automobile" shots as "Hired." You'll listen as the crew quips about a potential customer looking like Adlai Stevenson (democratic Presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956), and so on. Before the short is through, there have been jokes about "naming names" and more explicitly, the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, as well as the preferred business lunch beverage of the era, "martinis." The point, I suppose, is that the jokes relate brilliantly to the events on screen. Even though the episode was produced in the 1990s, the MST-3K team crack jokes that are pertinent to the film's historical time period some forty to fifty years earlier.

The riffs in Manos: The Hands of Fate are not so intimately connected to the film's historical context, but rather a post-modern, tour-de-force 90 minute comedy routine that meditates mostly on the effort's failings in terms of film grammar. It's an extended comment on bad filmmaking. For instance, early in Manos, the director - for some baffling reason - cuts to scene after endless scene of pleasant-looking rural scenery going by the camera. The footage was shot from a fast-moving car, and the moving scenery dissolves into scenes of more moving scenery. Ad infinitum. Here, Joel offers the thought, "let's just pretend we're watching The Trip to Bountiful." He's referring to a 1985 film (adapted from a Horton Foote play), that was set in Texas (like Manos), but which explicitly involved a woman (in the film played by Geraldine Page) returning "home" to a rural setting she remembered from her youth. Without putting too fine a point on it, the joke is simultaneously a.) about Texas, b.) about the long shots of scenery, a staple of both Manos and A Trip to Bountiful, and c.) a joke about the clear quality gulf surrounding the two aforementioned productions. It's a reference, it's a comparison, it's funny.

Before Manos: The Hands of Fate is done, the quipsters on the Satellite of Love have commented on the film's low-budget, particularly the cheap film grain ("Every frame of this movie looks like someone's last known photograph..."), and also the terrible editing, which leaves gaping, lengthy and awkward spells of silence in all the dialogue sequences ("Could someone please break the ice?" Joel demands during one extended moment of nothingness; "Ambiguity is scary," a character voices during another slow point).

The jokes also reference the hideously bad special effects, in particular the botched make-up, which finds an evil character named Torgo saddled with oversized, inflated knee-caps. (Note: they were supposed to be satyr legs, but the actor accidentally wore them backwards). In reference to these comically thick knees, Crow asks: "been hitting the thigh master, Torgo?" And don't even get me started on the "haunting" Torgo theme, an hilariously catchy tune that lurches into action every time Torgo moves.

But the MST3K folks have gone further too, coming to understand even the film's terrible dialogue pitter-patter. For instance, notice in the script how many of the characters (but particularly Torgo) speak in the same annoying pattern. It goes like this: "First thought. Second Thought. Repeat First Thought." An example: "There is no way out of here. It will be dark soon. There is no way out of here." Joel insightfully picks up on this strangely-hypnotic, odd language quirk, and comments on it at points, revealing that these guys aren't just comics bent on spitting out one-liners, but careful observers who have actually paid attention to the dross on screen.

When Manos really, really goes off the rails during a ridiculous and debauched climax, Joel and his bots are our surrogates, registering the distasteful nature of the coda (which involves a little girl dressed up to be the bride of a villain called 'The Master.") In doing so, this triumvirate really represents us: the disappointed/offended movie goer. They always represent us, but are the best version of us: smart, quick on their feet and endlessly funny.

I guess there are a lot of old-school science fiction movie fans who are really angry with MST3K. I've seen the hatred and anger against the show spill out many times by "old schoolers" who grew up with the films being mocked, whether it be This Island Earth (1955) or I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). It's hard to see one's sacred cows pointed out as such, I suppose, but I'm reminded of the opening lyrics again: "just repeat to yourself it's just a show; you should really just relax." I mean hell, I love Mystery Science Theater 3000 and they even did a Space:1999 compilation film, "Cosmic Princess," so I think the naysayers should probably just lighten up. The humor on this series isn't really mean-spirited. It's snarky, Gen-X humor, but I never feel the jokes come out of hatred. But guilty pleasures are often razed on the show. I guess some folks can't deal with it. They want to like what they like, and can't take a joke.

I don't want to step into the endless Joel/Mike debate, though I picked a Joel episode for today's flashback. Whether you prefer Joel or Mike as host depends greatly, I believe, on which one you encountered first. In terms of style, Joel is sleepy-eyed, a little slow, and more gentle than Mike. Joel is like a daddy to the Bots too. By contrast, Mike's style is harsher and more acerbic, and on many occasions funnier. I don't feel the emotional connection to the bots as much with Mike, but I still love him. I wouldn't want to choose between...I'm just noting the different approaches.

The first MST3K I ever saw was the ludicrous Pod People, a terrible Italian horror film from the 1980s. Since then, MST3K has been a staple. What got me, in particular, was a skit involving a bad rock group, and a gag involving a studio tech who wears an "I'm a Virgin" T-shirt. The show has had me laughing ever since.


  1. Anonymous9:17 AM

    Count me in as someone who cannot stand this show. I primarily don't think it is funny. It may be clever, and yes, I "get" it. I just don't enjoy listening to people make smart-alec comments during movies. It's premise is omething that gets old with me really, really fast. But to me the worst thing that came out of MST3K is it's encouraging people to do this stuff on their own. Good, bad, or indifferent, I enjoy watching movies. I don't want to hear "riffs" during movies. It's aggrivating. After this show came out, it became very fashionable in geek culture to "riff" during movies. It is for this fact alone that if I ever get a time machine, I am going back and stopping this show from being made! Hahahaha!

    Chris Johnson

  2. Chris:

    I respect your opinion, but no one on MST3K ever said to fans "go out and do we what we do." That so many people attempted to emulate the series is not something you can blame the show for; it merely speaks to the popularity of the series I think.

    The creation of Star Trek spurred a whole slew of terrible fan fiction. I hate much of that fan fiction, but the answer isn't to erase Star Trek from history.

    Star Wars spurred a whole slew of terrible fan films. Should Star Wars be erased from history?

    Don't blame a show for the behavior of the fans, you know?

    Just repeat to yourself it's just a show, you should really just relax.

  3. Anonymous10:52 AM

    I repeat to myself that it's just an overrated, unfunny show and I should just relax. This show is just another one of those aspects of geek culture that I just don't care for. This show just ain't for me. But, Roger Ebert once said comedy was one of the two genres you really can't review. Something is either funny or it isn't to you. It's very subjective.

    Chris Johnson

  4. Chris:

    I totally agree, funny is subjective. As far as personal taste goes; to each his own.

    However, by definition then, the descriptor "unfunny" is also totally subjective.

    I'd go so far as to say the same is true of the term "overrated."

  5. Anonymous1:16 PM

    I'va always sid that why this show worked so well is that a lot of fans (especially genre fans) had been doing this for years on their own before the show aired, and we all had to tip our hats to the guys who were smart enoguh to market it. Perhaps it did cause some people to try it after watching, but I think maybe we just became more aware of it.

    John, your assessment of why the comedy works is spot on. Joel/Mike and the bots didn't usually resort to toilet humor. They made very insightful jokes. That is another reason the show worked so well. I know people who didn't laugh at many of the jokes for how they were written, but in appreciation of the thought and depth in which they were written...

    God, I miss this show.

  6. Anonymous1:45 PM


    There is a DVD series called The Film Crew featuring Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett(Crow version 2.0 and Brain Guy from SciFi's run of the show) and their first film out of the gate, Hollywood After Dark.

    Sidenote...picked up J-Men Forever, a Firesign Theater film from 1978 where they took old Republic cliffhanger serials and re-dubbed the dialogue into a funny film about the war against Rock and Roll. One of the most requested reruns on USA's Night Flight.

    And JOHNSON!!...I'll riff whenever I want to. I did it before MST3K and I'm doing it long after it was gone. :P

  7. Anonymous1:57 PM

    Thanks Hansen. Scosm!

  8. Anonymous10:34 PM

    When I first discovered this show on late night Comedy Channel back in college, I took them at their word - CHEESY movies (the worst we can find, la la la). I found much to love, even whilst simultaneously cringing, in these films. Though they were often train wrecks, I never once thought the guys were being mean or hateful; they kid because they love. I actually learned a lot through the historical and pop references they made that I might never have picked anywhere outside of school; it's a fact, if you laugh while you learn, you retain more.

    Though I admit to falling asleep during Sidehackers. Some things are just hopeless. :-)

    At any rate, MST gave me the stomach to appreciate cheesy cinema, and god bless 'em for it!

  9. Again with me being relatively "young" (though I cringed when I got a new license today and was reminded that I am almost 24) -

    I could not watch the show either on its original run or during its heyday of re-runs as I didn't really understand "irony," parody, satire, and the like until I was a bit older. But boy, once I became "smart" and dove into geeky deconstruction, I never looked back. In fact, I'm starting to embark on a career that uses this kind of dynamic viewing as one of its methodologies.

    Any episode of MST3K furthers the "cult value" of a bad film. The films in question was bad, rare, and desirable (if you crave poorly made things) to begin with, but the added value of MST3K selection, commentary, and the instant, built-in audience make for an implosion in fame. The irony is that MST3K at once starkly reveals the very worst in filmmaking but at the same time tacitly endorses and congratulates the whole thing. It is, to abuse a very abused word, "postmodern" to the core.

    If you dig the worst of the worst, look at my friend's work-in-progress website "CAMP ACADEMY," or "CAMPADEMICS," where "THE ACADEMY GOES TO CAMP." Adam uses literary theory to probe our guttural responses to bad films, combined with humorous platitudes to keep us reading.

  10. is what I meant

  11. Anonymous8:18 AM

    Wow. Chris Johnson.....a man born without a sense of humor. Sad.


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