Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Frankensteining Together An Ideal Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episode

 WARNING: I'll try my darndest to make this make sense to non-fans, but that might be a losing battle. You may have to be a die-hard MSTy to get this.

Been thinkin' about SciFi lately. The reason would most likely be this here post right here by Self-Styled Siren, a post I recommended, thank you very much.  A recommendation she pulled randomly out of a hat. Hee, power.

If you read the comments you'll find one of the reasons I love Village of the Damned so much is my always abiding love of George Sanders, and his noble, furrow-browed character's...nobility. So I have to say it's more star power than anything else attracting me to the movie, rather than an innate love of the SciFi genre. Characters are pretty much everything with me. That's also why I fancy original Star Trek, without being able to explain any of the technical plotlines, beyond, "Uh, Leonard Nimoy's eyes are brown. And wise like a wolf's."

Digging SciFi as a good backdrop for awesome characters is what Mystery Science Theater 3000 is all about. Well, what it's really about to those who don't know, is that a guy named Joel Robinson is shot into space by mad scientists Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and his assistant Larry Echhart (J. Elvis Weinstein), who very quickly disappears and is replaced by TV's Frank (Frank Conniff). 

Joel lives on The Satellite of Love, and he's forced to watch terrible B-Movies, the majority of which are clunky SciFi messes. The Mads (so we dub Forrester and Frank) are obsessed with monitoring him, and  finding out which movie is stupefying enough to drive Joel mad. Their plan is to send that film down to Earth and then take over once the world goes wacky. Later on, Joel Hodgson (who plays Joel and who also created the show) left, and he was replaced by Michael J. Nelson playing Michael J. Nelson, a temp the Mads send up in Joel's place. 

Oh, and did I mention there are robots? There are robots. Joel created them to keep him sane, and the ones he watches movies with are Crow (voiced first by Trace Beaulieu, then Bill Corbett) and Tom Servo (voiced first and very briefly by J. Elvis Weinstein, and from then on by Kevin Murphy). (Psst, the robots are actually puppets.) Joel, Mike, and the 'bots combat madness by making fun of the movies as they watch them. And that's the gimmick.

Some people have comfort foods, but me, I have comfort shows. (And comfort food.) MST3K–which us MSTies call the show for short –is definitely my visual/audio security blanket. The plot I just described is flimsy at best, and their budget throughout their eleven-year run remained absolutely pitiful. Yet both those elements add to the brilliant B-Movie atmosphere, and the characters and writing are so memorable that you actually find yourself caring about these ramshackle misfits. For a show that's allegedly meant to be taken as mere parody, that's impressive. The only program I can think of that comes closest these days to drawing in their audiences in the same inexplicable manner is The Venture Bros, which started out as a satire of Jonny Quest, but has evolved into its own complex universe.

Because of the quaking budget and shuffling of networks–the show started out on a local Minnesota station before being picked up by Comedy Central, then shoved headfirst onto the SciFi channel--the cast shifted around a lot. A lot. The main issue is the actors leaving. With the robots, there was leeway for other actors to simply step in and lend their voices and hands to whichever puppet was without its string-puller. However, you enter into difficult territory when a human role is vacated. That's why Joel became Mike, and Pearl Forrester, Clayton's Mama, took over as chief villainness during the SciFi years.

When you're like me and you get a little too involved with the characters and actors in a piece, this game of MST3K Musical Chairs will get to you. That's why I got the clever idea of playing around with some Mad Scientist mojo myself. What would happen if I could get the entire cast--original and otherwise--together and pick and choose who and what would go into my Ideal MST3K Episode? It might go a little something like this....

Ideal Riffers: Michael J. Nelson (Michael J. Nelson), Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), Crow T. Robot (Trace Bealieau)

Now let's face it, no matter who riffs, I'm probably gonna dig the thing. But when it comes to the low-down, nitty-gritty task of actually ripping a movie apart? I'm going to hand the reigns over to Mike, Servo, and Trace's Crow. I'll go on and on about my ridiculous love of Trace's Crow later on. For now, I'll say I love him ridiculously. In the theater especially, he brings a cartoonish and childlike patter to the crew, which I appreciate just a scosh more than Bill Corbett's drier, more sarcastic comments (which are perfectly lovely in their own right). And while Joel is always awesome in his spaced-out lovable way, I feel Mike's delivery in the movie segments is generally snappier and livelier. His sort of energy is especially refreshing when they're going at a real sluggish flick, like The Creeping Terror or Red Zone Cuba. True, that energy didn't keep him from cracking and temporarily retreating into Carol Channing's persona during the latter film, but still.

One of my favorite Mike movie lines–

In the sappy yet disturbing train safety short, "The Days of Our Years," our narrator, the glum angel of death minister, enters a diner and says, "I like stopping here for a cup of coffee."

Mike: "That's really interesting."

Let me reiterate, I say I generally prefer Mike's riffing to Joel's, but Joel of course is nothin' to sniff at. Hell, my favorite episode when it comes to riffing is probably I Accuse My Parents, and that was a Joel'un. But if I have to arrange my ideal episode, which my fevered brain is telling me I must, I'll go with Mike. 

However–

Ideal Host Segments: Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson), Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), and Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu)

Here's what's great about Joel: Mystery Science Theater is his baby, and he treats it as such. Except if you're an eccentric prop comedian with a taste for bad B-Movies, odds are you're going to be an eccentric prop father who passes that taste for bad B-Movies on to your progeny–or in Joel's case, to his robot-puppet pals.

Therefore, in his host segments, Joel sort of affects that paternal vibe you get from kids puppet show hosts, only gone terribly, terribly wrong. Imagine Mister Rogers in all his sleepy, benign glory, discussing with Lady Elaine Godzilla's genealogy or how seemingly minor consumer fads translate into subtle forms of Hell. Or if Shari Lewis and her  barnyard companions sang jaunty tunes like, "He Tried to Kill Me with a Forklift!" or "Idiot Control Now!" Not to mention the touching Waffle Saga and The Ode to Pants. Plus, he was the brain behind the invention exchanges that appeared in the first segment of each episode. And who doesn't love the invention exchanges, like  The Rat Pack Chess set, or the hot new action figure Johnny Long Torso?

Joel, with his preternaturally heavy-eyed, slow line readings (oftentimes obviously taken from cue cards), takes playing with puppets to a surreal new level that a creep like me enjoys more and more the older I get, and the more I wax nostalgic for the very shows from my youth he subtly satirizes. 

But just as Joel had his triumphant moments in the theater, I feel compelled to note that Mike did himself proud on the bridge himself many times. Let us not forget, "Did you people bring matches for Mikey?" in the aforementioned Amazing Transparent Man (sorry, I really did try for awhile not to limit the understandability of this post to fans alone). Plus, my favorite series of host segments would probably be in The Incredible Melting Man, where Crow ropes Mike and Servo into acting out his screenplay Earth Vs. Soup. Of course, again, that might have more to do with Trace's Crow than anything else.

God, I love Trace's–anyone's–Crow. But Trace's especially.

Ideal Villains: Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and TV's Frank (Frank Conniff)

Now might be the time to properly praise Trace Beaulieu. Oh, Trace Beaulieu. In my mind, one of the truly underrated masters of comedy around today. I already mentioned the childlike panache I love so much in his Crow, the addle-pated, daffy, "I sometimes panic while making sandwiches" brattiness that makes Crow my favorite character on the show and one of my favorite all-time characters in anything ever. I mean, listen to his girlish shrieks right here, and tell me you're not listening to shades of Mel Blanc (vid by creamedgeezer):



If Beaulieu's Crow is Daffy Duck as a robot puppet, Beaulieu's Dr. Forrester is Groucho Marx as a self-deluded mad scientist. Beaulieu has a perfect knack for comic timing, turning Forrester into a wickedly delightful parody of all those famous mad scientists throughout fiction, from Superman's foes in the old Max Fleischer serials to all the hammy villains in '50s SciFi flicks (the name Clayton Forrester is an homage to the baddie in Forbidden Planet).

For my money, Beaulieu brought the most charisma to the cast.

But let's not neglect the lovely Frank. TV's Frank is probably one of the weirdest and most inspired creations in television history. Whereas you can probably detect the different characters Beaulieu compiles for interpreting Dr. Forrester, where the hell is Frank coming from? Who on Earth is even vaguely like him? He's certainly lackadaisical and out-there, but without the droopy stoner vibe you get from Joel. He's subservient to Forrester, but never in a way that echoes the sniveling henchmen of horror movies past. He's a total anomaly. Maybe, just maybe, you could argue there's some early stand-up Steve Martin or Bill Murray in Conniff's off-beat delivery, but the rest is totally on him. Together, Frank and Forrester create a team that, you get the feeling, would much rather torture the captives on the SOL and each other rather than extend the effort needed to actually taking over the world.

Forrester and Pearl, in the underrated seventh season, had some divine moments together, such as Pearl bemoaning that her son will never be the daughter she really wanted, then reprimanding "Clayton Deborah Susan Forrester" for messing up his impromptu trumpet recital, thus "ruining it" for her. And while I can't say I'm as excited by the SciFi channel villains Pearl, Brain Guy, and Bobo as I am the others previously mentioned (I'm especially not partial to Bobo), I'll admit they quite often had side-splitting moments. Forrester and Eckhart? Eh, never felt it. 

But nothing, I think, on this show or any other, captures the perversely lovable elements of villainy than the dynamic duo that is Frank and Forrester.

Ideal Movies

Last but oh my certainly not least, what's the ideal movie for my ideal MST3K episode? I'm going to go out on a limb and say not a totally bad movie. Let's face it, Coleman Franisesque movies are not only so dark, dank, and hopeless that you feel all joy has been sucked from you, but you get the feeling the filmmakers just hate the shit out of their audience. When the acting is wooden, the cinematography dark and clumsy, and the plot totally incoherent, sometimes not even the sharpest riffing can get you through the day. Such films in my mind include the aforementioned Francis oeuvre (Red Zone Cuba, Skydivers, The Beast of Yucca Flats), along with Robot Holocaust, Warrior of the Lost World, Creeping Terror, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Monster A-Go-Go, Neptune Men, and others. True, most of those are considered classic episodes, with wonderful recurring jokes ("I'm Cherokee Jack!" "ThE MaAAster woOUldn't aPpRovE"). But let's face it, it's almost a practice in masochism to watch those pieces of slop just once, even with the hilarious commentary. Watching movies that bad can literally be emotionally exhausting.

But there is a category of B-Movie that is actively fun to watch, sometimes even more exhilarating than watching a technically good movie. A lot of these are the sort of '50s science fiction pieces celebrated in Rocky Horror Picture Show's opening number, like The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Day of the Triffids. They may have cheap special effects, lousy monster outfits, and cheesy scripts, but if they're competently made with sincere performances, along with good pacing, they can be a blast to watch. Good pacing is especially key. What makes movies like Creeping Terror so cringe-inducing to watch is that the movie's timing creeps right along with the terror, and That. Is. Boring. And monster movies should be anything but boring. 

If you have solid production values and the movie, well, moves right along, despite ludicrous plot developments and cheese galore, you have perfect fodder for MST3K. The riffing is more engaging if the action on screen is more engaging. Mike/Joel and the 'bots have more to work with if the people involved in the film give the impression they're actually trying, might actually care. The jokes become snappier, more involved. Good MST3K examples include I Accuse My Parents, The Brute Man, Leech Woman, Phantom Planet, Space Mutiny, This Island Earth, Soultaker, Time Chaser, Teenagers from Outerspace, Riding With Death, Night of the Blood Beast, and too many others to mention here without one's eyes exploding (which would be a cool premise for a science fiction movie, say what). Some like I Accuse My Parents are straight dramas without any monsters (EXCEPT BAD PARENTING AND FORGETTING JIMMY'S BIRTHDAY), and others like Soultaker, Space Mutiny, Time Chaser, and Riding With Death were made not in the '50s but in the '80s or '70s (you turkeys).  However, no matter what time frame or genre, when the movie's just lame enough to make you groan, but with enough effort put into it to make it watchable, not only is the viewer relieved but you can tell MST's writers are, too. The happier the writers, the better the writing, and the better the show's execution of the episode.

 I'll leave you now with a video someone posted on The Community That Wouldn't Die, the livejournal community I belong to that celebrates everything MST3K related. This delightfully mad little clip is the title song from "Project Popcorn," apparently the Russian knock-off of MST3K. Starring Fidel the Penguin, Ketchup the Dog, and Adolf Hitler's younger brother Chip Hitler as Professor Zamishlavkin, the non-union, Austrian equivalent of Dr. Forrester.

Vid by Ninjew1:



Shameless rip-off, or heartwarming tribute? I'll leave that to your own deliberation.

Until next time, stay soft, pink, and oily!
 

1 comment:

  1. I love it! MST3k was one of my all time favorite shows. I still have dozens of VHS tapes of it and some of the DVDs.

    Each and everyone is just as funny now as it was then.

    And growing up in the mid-west I love all the Chicago-Wisconsin humor.

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