At last it can be told! We had shelled out the big bucks over a year earlier as a Christmas gift, and our big gamble was about to pay off. Actually, it had been paying off all along, from the exciting Kickstarter campaign to the frequent updates, the bonus videos, and the general sense that the TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was going to come back as strong as it ever had been.
We went down to the Cineramadome and got our pictures taken on the red carpet: The line was slow but we struck up a conversation with another couple and the time flew by. There’s a definite mindset among MST3K fans, people that creator Joel Hodgson says, “Just get it.” So despite rather extensive delays, spirits were high and the vibes were good all evening long.
It was nice to see J. Elvis Wenstein (the original Tom Servo) in the audience, as well as Jackey Neyman Jones, whose appearance in the long forgotten Manos: The Hands of Fate ultimately helped her reconnect with her father. The thing about MST3K is that, I think, for many of its most devoted fans, it provided us a laugh at some point in our lives when we really needed one. And the problem there, as Hodgson was well aware, is that bringing it back means going head-to-head with your own nostalgia.
This episode, however, was nearly perfect. The initial expository host sequence was a little awkward—but then there is an awkwardness to the show that is deliberate, I remember having a similar reaction on seeing my second episode of MST3K, with its low-budget rock ‘n’ roll song “Sidehackers”. Similarly, the new “mads”, portrayed by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt, have the sort of that sort of comic incompetence epitomized by Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff/J. Elvis, but without quite the same evil flair—but they’re not in the first episode much.
Apart from that, the weakest aspect is probably new host Jonah Ray, and he’s not really weak at all. He’s quite good. The fact that his first (at least in series order) big number is a song & semi-dance rapid-fire rap where he’s juggling a few dozen props while the puppetmasters crowd around him, that he barely screws up (but carries on in the tradition of the show), says nothing but good about him. I think it’s just a matter of him not having the presence of Hodgson—who is the first to admit he wasn’t the better MST3K host—or the polish (honed in four seasons of writing and guest starring practice) of Nelson. The key element is that he’s likable, which is vital for the center-stage human. His character is definitely more in the “Joel” mold: A goofy creative guy who succeeds with a mixture of kindness and oddness despite the desires of others to exploit him. (And while that’s getting deep for a puppet show that features the worst movies ever made, I think it’s probably emblematic all the same.)
So, when I say “weakest”, I’m really saying that the show is near perfect, as far as relaunches go, and also perfectly good in its own right, only suffering a little from the nostalgia parallax. Hodgson has done the nigh-impossible here by recapturing the spirit of the original without smothering the spark the new cast and crew bring. In fact, while it’s fair to note that Jonah’s voice is too easily mistaken for the new Tom Servo’s, I think one of Joel’s best choices was to let Jonah pick his Crow and Tom, played by Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn, respectively. The three of them have instant chemistry and play off each other better than they should (I mean, as far as the narrative goes, Jonah’s supposed to be new and—”it’s just a show, I should really just relax”).
The effects are wonderfully cheesy, like the original show’s, but treading that hardest-of-all-waters “charmingly cheap with a lot of love and attention to detail”. I’ve seen some people argue that Jonah’s “monster rap” (written by veteran comedy music duo Paul and Storm) was too slick to fit in with the show’s handmade, improvisational feel; I reluctantly acknowledge and promptly disregard that point. Sure, the show had a lot of improvisational-seeming silliness like “Creepy Girl” and “Kim Catrall, You’re Really Swell”, but “A Patrick Swayze Christmas” was a true, polished gem.
The sound and picture quality are ridiculously better. I’ve seen people complain about that, to which I say, “You may all go to hell, sirs.” That is the point when you’ know you’re mired in nostalgia: In order to enjoy a new version of something, you have to degrade it to the quality of the old thing.
The movie selection is peerless. Unlike the wonderful Rifftrax, Hodgson’s vision of MST3K has always been about the cheesy movies. The whole ethos is one of people of dubious talent getting together to make a product that, well, turns out quite poorly. And yet, these movies are endearing by their earnestness, and MST3K brings a lot of love and attention to otherwise forgotten efforts. A particularly spot-on bit in a later episode of the season excoriates the “deliberately bad film” made by combining two threats into a meteorological phenomenon.
The first movie, Reptilicus, is a glorious example of earnestly bad film-making which is given a boost by both its wonderfully dated and Scandinavian attitude toward women and its belief that broad comedy has a natural home in the monster movie. Its ambitions are such that, while some might consider them modest—a kaiju movie in the Toho tradition—they were well out of the reach of this Danish-American film-making team.
Good looking women in the cast, which is both a B-movie tradition and (perhaps coincidentally) a MST3K specialty. Ponderously old and goofy young dudes—another tradition, to be sure. Shockingly bad effects, though otherwise competent in a lot of basic film-making areas.
This holds throughout the eleventh season: Movies with good enough production values that you can actually follow what’s going on, with quality sound mixing so that the riffing comes to the fore, but the film’s non-riffed soundtrack is otherwise much as it would be if you were watching it on disc. This is a HUGE boon. It doesn’t help to riff off what someone in the movie says if the audience can’t hear what the person in the movie said.
In the glory of the Cineramadome on a Tuesday, we laughed so hard that our sides hurt until Thursday. It was among the most and hardest I’d ever laughed at a riffed movie, including Santa Claus, including MST3K episode 305, “Stranded In Space,” which I saw shortly after learning my father was going to live (after a 10-week nightmare of hospital-work-sleep), and I’d have put “Reptilicus” in my top 5 all time.
Obviously—obviously!—this couldn’t hold up on a second viewing on TV. Still hilarious, but without the big screen and the atmosphere and energy, merely a very, very good episode. But very, very good ain’t bad at all. And I like some of the new season episodes even more, all of which I helped make happen, which is icing on the cake.
So this stands as one of my most expensive—and best—entertainment investments ever.
As a postscript, we’ve watched all but the last episode of the season, and discovered that most of the rough edges seem a lot smoother by the end of the season. The interaction between the Satellite of Love and Moon 13 (“the moon!”) gets better, as well as the interactions between the denizens of Moon 13. Rebecca Hanson plays Gypsy, and gets in a couple of quips every show, and also Synthia, a clone of Pearl Forrester. Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl in the original), Kevin Murphy (who played Tom Servo for a decade) and Bill Corbett (who played Crow for years after Trace left the show) do a couple of nice appearances.
The girls love the songs. They both dig the monster rap in “Reptilicus”. The Flower, being a fan of the Beach Boys, adores “Come Along Baby In My UFO” which is nestled into what would otherwise be an interminably dull scene in the hilarious “Starcrash” episode.
By-and-large, the guest star spots don’t play out well, which is sort of surprising after the season opener which featured a very funny bit by Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray. One sort of boggles at the appearance of a Jerry Seinfeld or Mark Hamill, but doesn’t actually laugh. (The kids are all “Who is that?”) One sort of expects Neil Patrick Harris to show up, as he was an early booster of the original show. Season 2 (or 12, more accurately). The Mark Hamill bit comes very close to working. This may be where Mike Nelson’s contributions are most strongly missed: He played almost every “guest star” before taking over as host, including Steve Reeves, Michael Feinstein, MegaWeapon, Gamera, and so on.
The biggest bummer is that the next season must be at least a year away, and very possibly two depending on how long it takes Netflix to get off its tuckus. But still, thank you Joel Hodgson for teaching us how to laugh…and love…again.
Also, we totally got tickets to see the road show they’re doing to fill the void before season two. Truly, it is a Golden Age of Riffing.