“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome back for another installment of “The Ten Percent”, the bi-weekly column here at Biff Bam Pop! where K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law (quoted above) and examine the cultural productions that fall in that elusive 10% of things that are not crud. The Ten Percent is the place where all of the films, TV shows, comics, novels, visual arts, etc. that stand the test of time live. These are the things that are not forgotten, and continue to inspire us generation after generation and decade after decade.
Yet the 90% is comprised of a hell of a lot of (generally forgettable) stuff, and in the modern era, more and more of it has been and is being preserved for some theoretical posterity. In a way, the crud becomes grist for the larger cultural mill, and that means that – in theory at least – it should be possible to take some of the 90% and transform it into a part of the Ten Percent. This is exactly what Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) did from 1988 – 1999, and threatens to do once again when it returns in 2017 with a new season and a cast featuring geek royalty Patton Oswalt and Felicia Day.
The show premiered on KTMA in Minneapolis back in the days when local stations actually had a slate of their own programming. The idea behind MST3K was simple: as an affiliate TV station, KTMA had access to a catalogue of public domain (or cheaply licensed) movies, the best of which were B-movies, while more than a few hovered around the X, Y, or Z level. Creator Joel Hodgson and his friends and co-writers Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein decided to make use of all of these old films as fodder for a show that was all about riffing on bad movies. Constructing a paper-thin plot wherein Joel was sent into orbit by a pair of mad scientists (Beaulieu and Weinstein) as part of an experiment where he was subjected to really terrible movies while the “Mads” monitored his reactions, the goal being to see how long it took Joel to break. To help him survive this cruelty, Joel created several robot friends, including Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Gypsy. As for the show itself, it consisted of one of the bad movies shown in its entirety, while Joel and the ‘bots were seen in as silhouettes in a row of theater seats at the bottom of the screen, wisecracking about the movie.
The series became a cult classic, and began to spread nationwide largely due to VCRs and video tapes becoming affordable and widespread. Fans in the KTMA broadcast area would record the shows and send tapes to others outside of the station’s radius. A year after its debut, MST3K became one of the first two shows picked up by the new Comedy Central cable network, and its fame grew rapidly. Running for a total of 11 seasons (one on KTMA [1988-89], seven on Comedy Central [1989 – 1996], and three on the Sci-Fi Channel [1997 – 1999]) plus one feature film release, and despite (or perhaps because of) a changing cast, the series garnered an intensely loyal fan-base. After the series was cancelled in 1999, MST3K entered a second-life of thriving DVD sales in which relatively inexpensive box sets of episodes from various seasons attracted new fans. As of this writing, 38 four-disc DVD sets have been released since 2002, with number 39 scheduled for 2017.
While often described as quirky, and always self-deprecatingly silly, MST3K’s humor was also quick-witted, sometimes obscure, and often incisively intelligent. Indeed, this is a very smart show with references pulled from an astonishing range of pop-culture, literature, film, music, and – of course – Minnesotan sources. It is also an incredible resource for learning about filmmaking, as many of the movies MST3K mocks are using special effects, lighting, and camerawork that are integral to movie production – they’re just doing it really, really badly. After all, what’s a 1950s giant, radioactive creature-feature without the use of forced perspective? Or stop-motion photography? The MST3K Gang, in all its iterations, knew the medium backwards and forwards, and kept a skeptical and rather walleyed view on the politics and culture of the world around them, while rooting their riffs firmly in material that withstands the passage of time, and ages very well.
Part satire, part stand up, part scripted comedy, Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains astonishingly fresh, and even relevant today, and is still some of the sharpest comedy to ever grace the small screen, giving it a firm place in The Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5 (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.