Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Post-MST3K: The state of quips today

Included as a bonus feature on the Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition set you'll find a panel from this year's Comic Con the reunites virtually everyone ever involved with the show hosted by longtime fan Patton Oswalt. At a couple of points Oswalt makes the observation that MST3K's riffing on bad movies anticipated the rise of an Internet culture where message boards and user comments have invited the same sort of quipping on virtually everything and expanded to include virtually anyone. It's a neat observation, and while it's probably a mistake to attribute too much direct influence to MST3K it's best not to attribute too little either. The show was, of course, part of a long tradition of satire and skepticism, but I'm at a loss in trying to think anything before it that applied the satirical instinct so directly (apart from, say, hecklers.) If MST3K didn't create the Internet-fostered phenomenon of instant feedback where word is ever the final word, it at least helped pave the way for it.

And that works both for good and for ill, as anyone who's ever tried to sort signal from noise in a comments thread can attest. (Not that we know anything about that around here.*) There's something to be said for expertise, even in quipping. It's why I spent one of the Presidential Debates hitting refresh on Oswalt's Facebook status as he dispensed one pointed observation after another and not some random quipster's Twitter feed. I know Oswalt's likely to be funny. It also partly explains why, nine years after MST3K's cancellation, most of the talent has drifted back to what they did so well for so long.

In 2006,former host and head writer Mike Nelson launched Rifftrax, which provides joke-filled commentaries to be synched and played with DVDs of well-known films. It's idea that seems to have taken off nicely. Beginning with solo tracks by Nelson for films with acknowledged cheese value like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Road House, it's expanded to tracks for over 70 films and shorts. Most tracks now find Nelson joined by former MST3K cast members Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy–who previously joined Nelson on the short-lived, MST3K-like Film Crew series–as the focus has expanded to cover both poorly and well-received popular movies.

I'm not sure that today's bad movies lend themselves to ridicule in quite the same way as yesterday's. They're too slick. There's a baseline competence even to something like The Haunting Of Molly Hartley. It's terrible. But it's terrible in a professional way. Films that barely work technically–stuff like Uwe Boll's movies and Dungeons And Dragons–usually don't see the light of day. I'm also not sure I get the point of riffing on good movies like Iron Man and The Sixth Sense. (Your mileage may vary on those, but there's probably something in the Rifftrax catalog you like.) It seems a bit too cheap to me to reduce everything that comes along down to an object of ridicule. But maybe it also works as a force for good as well, keeping filmmakers honest by making them anticipate what the wisecracks might be. At any rate, from what I've sampled, Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy all still sound like they're on their game.

Still, anyone nostalgic for the total MST3K experience need look no further than Cinematic Titanic, which debuted quietly this year. Launched by MST3K creator Joel Hodgson in late 2007, it gets zero points for originality since it more or less re-creates MST3K without the robots. But the commentary, directed at films like The Wasp Woman and Doomsday Machine is as sharp as ever. Maybe even sharper. Hodgson is joined by Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein, all star veterans of MST3Ks early days who sound happy to pick up where they left off, as if they'd been storing up these jabs for years.

I knew I'd come to the right place when I hit this exchange from the Legacy Of Blood entry:

Creepy man's voice on a recorded will: This might separate the rabbits from the alley cats.

Response: Thus avoiding alley rabbits.


We may now live in a world partly shaped by MST3K, but that doesn't make the source irrelevant. Seen from within the Mobius strip of commentary upon commentary upon commentary that we've all grown used to in the last decade, in a weird, real, way, watching this bunch riff on bad b-movies feels a lot like going home.

(*Okay, cheap shot. The level of discourse here is really high compared to most anywhere else on the Internet. Reading comments on YouTube or IMDB or even Politico generally makes me depressed. Commenters: We officially love almost all of you.)

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