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What other retro revivals can learn from the MST3K reunion

(Photo: Anna Stonehouse)

The cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 had a tricky act to pull off. At a press conference preceding last week’s big reunion show at the State Theatre in Minneapolis—where the show originally aired on public-access station KTMA—series creator Joel Hodgson responded to a question about the upcoming reboot of the show by saying, “Well, we’re here as guests of RiffTrax…” Some of that may be that (in)famous Midwestern niceness, but the fact is that this is a show that, if you include its upcoming third incarnation, has had three hosts, three mad scientists named Forrester, six henchmen, and five robot sidekicks played by at least a dozen cast members—not counting the ’bots who doubled as villains. Nine of those performers showed up to the reunion, not just as performers, but as writers with their own distinct voices and opinions on the direction of the show. Over the years, as cast and crew came and went, some of those opinions got famously divisive, leading many fans to believe that a MST3K reunion could never happen. Add a passionate-to-obsessive fan base, and you’ve got a very special child with a whole bunch of doting parents. Getting them all on stage at the same time was complicated. And they pulled it off beautifully.

Fans have been waiting for years—since Comic-Con 2008, to be precise—to see the stars of MST3K on-stage again. But the group insists that it’s not showbiz rivalries or animosity from the past that’s kept them apart, but busy schedules. And they have been keeping busy: The show’s second host, Mike Nelson, performs as RiffTrax with the second incarnations of robot sidekicks Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. As of the MST3K reunion, RiffTrax has entered its 10th year of staging live events and releasing audio-only riffs on big-budget Hollywood films (to circumvent astronomical licensing fees). Arguably the most high-profile post-MST3K pairing, RiffTrax hosted the reunion, opening the show with a riff on the groovy late-’60s instructional short “The Talking Car” and bringing up their fellow alumni in small groups to riff on short films before everyone came together for a free-for-all “Riffapalooza” at the end of the show.

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The sweaty masses converge on the State Theatre. (Photo: Katie Rife)

Unlike TV shows whose scribes toil away in anonymous writers’ rooms, MST3K has always put its writing first—sometimes literally, by drafting staff writers to serve as on-camera talent. That same attitude prevailed at the reunion: At the press conference, many of the questions revolved around writing, as the veterans described the sometimes tedious process of this very specialized style of joke-crafting—“you have to realize that when you pause the video, it doesn’t freeze time,” Murphy said—and how it applies to different settings. (In short, live shows require shorter, punchier jokes.) And at the event itself, Nelson singled out the RiffTrax staffers in the audience, calling head writers Conor Lastowka and Sean Thomason to the stage for the kind of attention most writers become writers to avoid. It felt like an authentic gesture, paying tribute to the behind-the-scenes talent in a way that most revivals—hell, most TV shows—don’t bother to do.

As it’s evolved over the past couple of decades, the MST3K house style is reference-laden, unabashedly corny, and relatively family-friendly—except when it’s not, although it never goes beyond a PG-13. Split up at the reunion show, it became clear who contributed what to that style. Mad scientists Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff—who tour as “The Mads” at venues across the U.S., and who were met with huge applause when they walked out on stage—like edgier, innuendo-laden bits, while Hodgson, a former prop comic, prefers to insert silly voices and sound effects into the action on screen. Mary Jo Pehl, another writer who played evil matriarch Pearl Forrester on the show, teamed up with Bridget J. Nelson for “A Word To The Wives”; the two share a certain sarcastic sensibility, and the short, about the life-changing possibilities of a new kitchen, was ripe for parody.

RiffTrax is wacky, and it is not ashamed. (Photo: Katie Rife)
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Later in the show, everyone had a chance to shine in the nine-person riff on Stamp Day For Superman, although that new segment was halting compared to the final short, a rehash of the RiffTrax favorite At Your Fingertips: Grasses. (It doesn’t hurt that the film, about the many arts-and-crafts applications of grass, is absolutely ridiculous on its own.) Honestly, the entire reunion could have been a MST3K greatest-hits set—a bit from Manos: The Hands Of Fate here, five minutes of Mitchell there—and the audience would have been satisfied. Hardcore MST3K fans can recite entire segments of the show from memory, and just hearing those voices coming out of actual human mouths is a delightfully surreal experience for anyone who spent many a night aboard the Satellite Of Love in the ’90s. But the reunion consisted of, if not original, post-MST3K material, because the crew is looking forward as well as back.

Hodgson is behind the impending 11th season—call it a reboot if you want, but MST3K has always been malleable—of the show. Last year, he raised $5.7 million (plus $600,000 from outside donors) in a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, more than enough for a 14-episode season. There’s no word of a release date or distribution method for the new episodes—although those will most likely be revealed at Comic-Con later this month—but the show is currently in pre-production, with The Daily Show (and, more relevantly, The Flop House) alum Elliott Kalan serving as head writer alongside Ready Player One’s Ernest Cline, The Simpsons’ Dana Gould, and fantasy novelist Patrick Rothfuss. Three new comedians—Baron Vaughn, Hampton Yount, and Jonah Ray—have been brought on as the new Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and host, along with two new mad scientists played by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt.

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Ryan and Cecile VanBeek attend the reunion in their robotic finest. (Photo: Katie Rife)

The only new cast member to participate in the reunion show was Ray, who recently told Minneapolis City Pages that his entire approach to comedy is “really based off of the rhythm that I learned from watching Mystery Science Theater.” Ray was visibly nervous on stage with his adolescent idols—when he and Hodgson finished a riff on the vintage instructional short “Americans At Work: Barbers And Beauticians,” he immediately peeled off stage, until Hodgson—with whom Ray appears to have a very warm, father/son type relationship—grabbed his arm and pulled him back into the spotlight to receive their applause. Ray is still finding his riffing voice: Notably more topical than some of the other performers, some of his material came across as overwritten in the live setting, as the comedian struggled to get out long, multi-line jokes before the movie (and audience) moved on. But by the end of the show, he was joking around with the rest of the performers as if they were old friends. Everyone who’s done it says that movie riffing is more of an art than a science—on Kickstarter, Hodgson says, “it takes at least a good three to six shows to get your movie-riffing legs”—and Ray performed admirably under what must have been very intimidating circumstances.

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By building upon what came before rather than trying to erase or re-create it, MST3K acknowledges the past while looking to the future, doing something far more interesting than the umpteenth origin story for a superhero whose character is already pop-culture gospel. (Looking at you, Sony.) If a revival stays stuck in the past, it risks becoming irrelevant. (There weren’t any McCloud references this time around, but Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters was invoked, to groans and jeers from the audience.) But if it fails to acknowledge that past, it risks alienating the fans that spurred the revival in the first place. But the MST3K reunion show managed to both mend fences and be really funny, while passing the torch to the next generation at the same time. And that’s not easy to do.

The Mystery Science Theater 3000 live reunion show will be re-broadcast in theaters across the U.S. on Tuesday, July 12 at 7:30 p.m. local time. You can find a list of locations and buy tickets here.

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