The MST3K planet logo.

"Repeat to yourself, 'It's just a show... I should really just relax'."
―lyric from the MST3K theme song

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K) was an American comedy series that aired from 1988 to 1999. It was created by Joel Hodgson and produced by Best Brains, Inc. The cast of Cinematic Titanic all played major characters on MST3K at various stages in the show's development.

The series features a man and his robot sidekicks who are trapped on a satellite in space and forced to watch a selection of terrible movies, especially (but not initially limited to) science fiction films. The premise of the show is that the man and his robots make a running commentary on the film, making fun of its flaws and wisecracking their way through the film in the style of a movie theater peanut gallery. Series creator Hodgson originally played the stranded man, Joel Robinson. When he left in 1993, series head writer Michael J. Nelson replaced him as new B-movie victim Mike Nelson, and continued in the role for the rest of the show's run.

The format proved to be popular. During its eleven years and 198 episodes (including one feature film), MST3K attained a loyal fan base and critical acclaim. The series won a Peabody Award in 1993, and was nominated for writing Emmys in 1994 and 1995.


The loosely-defined plot of the show serves chiefly as a pretext for the movie commentary and the comic sketches known as "host segments" which appear throughout each episode.


TV's Frank (Conniff, left) and Dr. Forrester (Beaulieu, right).

Two mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester (named after the main character in The War of the Worlds), played by Trace Beaulieu, and his sidekick Dr. Laurence Erhardt, played by Josh Weinstein, launch Joel Robinson (Hodgson), a janitor working for the Gizmonic Institute, into space and force him to watch truly horrible B-movies. They do this in order to measure how much bad-movie-watching it takes to drive a person crazy, and to pinpoint the perfect B-movie to use as a weapon in Dr. Forrester's scheme of world domination. Forrester's scheme was that when he found a movie so bad that it broke Joel's spirit, he would unleash it on an unsuspecting populace and turn everyone into mindless zombie slaves. TV's Frank, played by Frank Conniff, replaced Dr. Erhardt in the second season premiere following Weinstein's departure from the series.

Trapped on board the Satellite of Love (S.O.L.) — a reference to the Lou Reed song — Joel builds four sentient robots that populate the ship (ostensibly because he is lonely, and as a homage to the 1970s film Silent Running). The robots are Tom Servo (voiced first by Weinstein, then by Kevin Murphy beginning in Season 2), and Crow T. Robot (voiced first by Beaulieu, then by Bill Corbett beginning in Season 8), who accompany Joel in the screening room; Gypsy (voiced first by Weinstein, inhaling as he spoke, then by Jim Mallon and later by Patrick Brantseg, both using a falsetto voice), who does not appear in every episode but handles the "higher functions" of the S.O.L. (such as steering the ship); and Cambot, the recorder of the experiments who is visible only in a mirror during the opening credits and occasionally interacts with the others. Also making intermittent "appearances" in the show's early years is Magic Voice, a disembodied female voice whose primary role is to announce the start of the first commercial break in each episode.

Joel has no control over when the movies start, for, as the theme song states, ". . . he used those special parts to make his robot friends." He must enter the theater when "Movie Sign" flashes, because Dr. Forrester has numerous ways to punish Joel for non-compliance, including shutting off all oxygen to the rest of the ship and electric shocks. As the movies play, the silhouettes of Joel, Tom, and Crow are visible at the bottom of the screen, wisecracking and mocking the movie (a practice they often referred to as "riffing") to prevent themselves from being driven mad.

Just before or after most commercial breaks, Joel (and later Mike) and the bots perform skits, songs, or other short sketch pieces (called "host segments") that are sometimes related to the movie they are watching. These segments sometimes even feature "visits" by prominent characters from a shown movie, such as Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate and "Jan in the Pan" from The Brain That Wouldn't Die. But before too much frivolity can transpire, the movie sign lights flash, signaling the resumption of the movie.

Many episodes without movies long enough to fill the show's runtime also include screenings of unintentionally hilarious short films or "shorts," including propaganda-style films from the 1950s, a training film for Chevrolet sales managers, and films intended to teach children about posture or personal hygiene. On one occasion a Gumby cartoon was used as a short. These are less frequent in later episodes. They are nonexistent in season 8 (the first Sci-Fi Channel season), because during that season the Sci-Fi Channel's executives required that every film be a science-fiction, fantasy, or horror movie. The restriction was lifted for the last two seasons, with season 9 featuring two shorts (including the aforementioned Gumby film) and season 10, one short (in the penultimate episode).

Background and historyEdit

Inspirations and influences Edit

Hodgson credits Silent Running, a 1972 sci-fi film directed by Douglas Trumbull, as being perhaps the biggest direct influence on the show's concept. The film is set in the future and centers on a human, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), who is the last crew member of a spaceship containing Earth's last surviving forests. His remaining companions consist only of three robot drones, though they are not able to converse with him. MST3K and the Joel Robinson character also occasionally reflected Lowell's "hippie"-like nature.[1]

Hodgson cites Beany and Cecil as having likely been a subconscious childhood influence. The 1960s Bob Clampett cartoon series centered on a boy and his sea serpent friend. In an interview, Hodgson made loose retrospective comparisons to elements between the two shows, such as the ship (the Leakin' Lena, to the S.O.L.), and the characters of Beany (to Joel), Cecil (to Gypsy), Huffenpuff (to Tom Servo), Crowy (to Crow), and Dishonest John (to Dr. Forrester).[1]

Another childhood influence was the CBS Children's Film Festival, a 1970s live-action program which starred Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Burr Tillstrom's puppet troupe made famous during television's early days in the '40s and '50s. The characters consisted of a human (played by Fran Allison) and her two puppet friends (both performed by Tillstrom). Each episode of Film Festival featured an international children's film, with Kukla, Fran and Ollie serving as hosts. Fran would lead discussions of the film as the episode went on, in similar fashion to MST3K's host segments.[1]

The signature sillhouetted movie seats (called "Shadowramma") were partially inspired by various Looney Tunes shorts, in which an on-screen character would interact with a "theater audience member" who could only be seen in silhouette.

The name of the Joel Robinson character is a reference to the 1960s television series, Lost in Space, which followed the adventures of the shipwrecked Robinsons, a family of astronauts. In the pilot and first season on KTMA-TV, Joel used his real name, Joel Hodgson.

KTMA era Edit

Hodgson initially came up with the concept for the "Mystery Science Theatre"[2] (the "3000" suffix was added later to sound like a version number, though Hodgson orginially wanted it to be "2000." Unfortunately, a partner of his mistook this as being a year number and claimed that 2000 was "too close.")[1]. Drawing partly on his own comedy act (which he was performing in the area at the time), the show's format was to showcase Hodgson.

In September 1988, Hodgson enlisted Twin City-area comedians Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein, and producer Jim Mallon, to help him shoot a pilot for the show. The robots and the set, in their crudest format, were built overnight by Hodgson. The next morning, shooting commenced, and a 30-minute pilot, in which selections from the 1969 science-fiction film, The Green Slime, were the test subject film. Joel watched the movie by himself, and was aided during the host segments by his robots, Crow (Beaulieu), Beeper, and Gypsy (Weinstein). Camera work was by Kevin Murphy, who worked at the station and also created the first "doorway sequence" (see "Characteristic elements") and theater seat design. These initial episodes were filmed at the now defunct Paragon Cable studios/customer service center in Hopkins, MN.

Mallon met with station manager Donald O'Conner the next month and managed to get signed up for thirteen consecutive episodes. The show had some slight alterations — the set was lit differently, the robots (now Crow, Servo and Gypsy) joined Joel in the theater, and a new doorway countdown sequence between the host segments and the theater segments was shot. The backstory was also altered from the pilot; in the pilot episode, it is explained that Joel Hodgson (not yet using his character name of Robinson) had built the Satellite of Love and launched himself into space (according to an interview with Hodgson on, it was set in a post-apocalyptic future[3] ) Once the series was picked up this was retconned, with Joel now having been a janitor at a "satellite loading bay," who was launched into space against his will by his evil "mad scientist" bosses. Joel's captors (played by Beaulieu and Weinstein) did not actually appear outside of the opening theme until several episodes later.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered at 6:00 PM on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988 with its first episode, "Invaders from the Deep", followed by a second episode, "Revenge of the Mysterians" [sic], at 8:00 PM. Initially, the show's response was unknown, until Mallon set up a phone line for viewers to call in. Response was so great that aside from the first 13 episodes, the station extended the season to 21, with the show running to May 1989. During this time a fan club was set up and the show held its first live show at Scott Hansen's Comedy Gallery in Minneapolis to a crowd of over 600. Despite the success, the station's overall declining fortunes forced it to cancel MST3K.

Comedy Channel/Comedy Central era Edit

Just as its run at KTMA was ending, the creators used a short "best-of" reel to pitch the concept to executives at the Comedy Channel, a national cable channel that was being created. It became one of the first two shows picked up. New sets were built, the robots were retooled, and a new doorway sequence was shot. Another major change was the show's writing format: instead of ad-libbed riffs in the theater, each show was carefully scripted ahead of time. Writer/performer Weinstein did not care for this new format, and subsequently left after the first season. Murphy replaced him as the voice of Tom Servo and Jim Mallon took over as Gypsy. Frank Conniff was Weinstein's replacement in Deep 13. At the same time, Mike Nelson was promoted to head writer.

After the second season, The Comedy Channel and rival comedy cable network HA! merged to become Comedy Central. During this change, MST3K became the cable channel's "signature series," expanding from 13 to 24 episodes a year, which would continue until its seventh national season, as the show gradually fell out of favor with the network's new management at the time.

Comedy Central ran a 30-hour marathon of previous MST3K episodes during Thanksgiving, 1991, including special promos and a "making of" show that featured a behind the scenes look at episode scripting, filming, voicing, and puppet construction.

The show's run coincided with the growth of the Internet, and numerous fans (MSTies) devoted websites to the series.

Conventions Edit

There were two official fan conventions in Minneapolis, run by the series' production company itself (zanily called "ConventioCon ExpoFest-A-Rama" (1994) and "ConventioCon ExpoFest-A-Rama 2: Electric Bugaloo" (1996), the second being a dual reference to the movie Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo and the children's TV series The Bugaloos).


Joel and Mike together on the S.O.L.'s bridge.

Change of hosts Edit

When Joel Hodgson decided to leave the series, halfway through season five, an episode was written in which his character escaped from the S.O.L. (after being forced to sit through the Joe Don Baker movie Mitchell). Joel escaped with the help of Gypsy and Mike Nelson (a temp worker hired by Doctor Forrester to help to prepare for an audit from the Fraternal Order of Mad Science), after they discovered an escape pod (named the Deus ex Machina) in a box marked "Hamdingers." To replace Joel, Dr. Forrester sent Mike up in his place. The series head writer Michael J. Nelson played Mike from 1993 until the end of the series. Debates (sometimes heated) raged in fan forums about who was the better host for quite some time, but in more recent years a consensus has developed among the fan base that acknowledges that each performer had his merits.

The Mystery Science Theater Hour Edit

Among the many troubles the Best Brains staff had with Comedy Central was the latter's desire to cut the show down to a 60-minute time slot. As part of this effort, in the summer of 1993, the MST3K staff selected 30 episodes to split into 60 one-hour segments, hosted by Mike Nelson in his "Jack Perkins" persona. The resulting repackaged series was titled The Mystery Science Theater Hour, and its first-run airings of these half-shows ran from November 1993 to July 1994. Reruns continued through December 1994, and it was syndicated to local stations from September 1995 to September 1996.[4][5][6]

Feature film Edit

A feature film, in which Mike and the bots worked over This Island Earth, was released in 1996 during the gap in the show's run between seasons 6 and 7. Unfortunately, Universal Studios invested few resources into the resultant Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. Distributor Gramercy Pictures had a limited advertising budget and devoted its funds instead to the marketing of the Pamela Anderson film Barb Wire.[7]

The film was never given wide release, instead playing for a limited time in different cities and then moving to another city. The result was that many fans did not even know it had been released. The movie was released on DVD by Image Entertainment, but has since gone out of print in the United States. In Germany, the movie is still available on DVD as of October 2007.

The film ran for 74 minutes, making it shorter than any episode of the actual series, and shorter than This Island Earth itself.

Sci Fi Channel era Edit

When Comedy Central dropped the show after a seventh season of only six episodes, MST3K's Internet fanbase staged a precedent-setting write-in campaign to keep the show alive. This included taking contributions from MST3K fans worldwide for a full-page ad in the television trade publication Daily Variety magazine. One notable contributor to the campaign was TV personality and Biography host Jack Perkins, whom Nelson had impersonated on the series several times. This effort led the Sci Fi Channel to pick up the series, where it resumed with some cast changes and ran for three more seasons.

By this time, Trace Beaulieu, who had played Dr. Forrester and Crow, had already departed the series. Mary Jo Pehl took over the lead "Mad" role as Dr. Forrester's mother, Pearl, who had been featured as a regular in season 7. Her sidekicks were the idiotic, Planet of the Apes-inspired Professor Bobo (played by Murphy) and the highly evolved, supposedly omniscient, yet equally idiotic Observer (a.k.a. "Brain Guy"), played by writer Corbett. Corbett also took over Crow's voice and puppetry; with this replacement, the series' entire central cast had changed from the original KTMA / Comedy Central cast. In the middle of the first season on the Sci Fi Channel (the eighth national season overall), Mallon handed over the voice and puppetry work for Gypsy to BBI staffer Patrick Brantseg.

At first, Sci-Fi Channel officials mandated that every movie featured on the revived series had to fit within the channel's broad definition of science-fiction (which included horror and fantasy), instead of the varied genres present in past shows. By the final season, this restriction appears to have been loosened, allowing movies such as Girl in Gold Boots and the Joe Don Baker film Final Justice.

Cancellation Edit

The series finale, "Danger: Diabolik", premiered on August 8, 1999, although a "lost" episode produced earlier in the season, "Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders", was the last new episode of MST3K broadcast on September 12, 1999. Reruns continued on the Sci Fi Channel until January 31, 2004. Including the feature film, the MST3K cast and crew produced 198 full episodes of the show.

As with the run on the Comedy Channel, the Sci Fi Channel run ended due to a change in management. As a two-hour show involving long negotiations for the use of third-party films, MST3K was a tough sell for networks, despite the fan base and ratings. However, many former members of Best Brains insist to this day that they would have loved to continue the show indefinitely, as evidenced by similar new projects such as Cinematic Titanic, Rifftrax and The Film Crew.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3

    "20 Questions Only Joel Hodgson Can Answer about MST3K". Special Feature. Satellite News (January, 1999). Retrieved on 2007-03-12.

  3. "A Guy Named Joel: Launching Cinematic Titanic". Retrieved on 2007-11-12.
  4. "The Mystery Science Theater Hour: Summary". Retrieved on 2006-08-17.
  5. "The Mystery Science Theater Hour: Episode List". Retrieved on 2006-08-17.
  6. Beaulieu, Trace; et al (1996). ""The Mystery Science Theater Hour"", The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. New York: Bantam Books, p. 111. ISBN 0-553-37783-3. 
  7. Walker, Albert (March 14, 2004). Barb Wire recap. The Agony Booth. Retrieved on 2006-08-17.

External linksEdit

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