Monday, July 04, 2011

Why I Hate MST3K

Okay, let me get this out of the way right at the top: the writers for Mystery Science Theater 3000 can be very funny. They can make me laugh, I won’t deny it. They have found a clever way to deliver jokes that are just obscure enough to make their audience think they are hip, but not so esoteric as to lose them. It is a fine balancing act and they perform it sensationally well. Yes, I know that most TV critics love this show; that the series won a Peabody Award; was nominated for two Emmys; and that James Poniewozik at Time Magazine called it one of the “100 Best TV Shows of All Time” (a worthless list, since it did not include That Was the Week That Was, Slattery’s People, or Naked City). Yes, I know that I am in a serious minority on this, and that many of you have probably already stopped reading lest I say anything bad about your favorite show.

All of this said, I implore you: Don’t watch this show. For goodness sake, just get the original movie and watch that instead. I don’t say this lightly, nor am I in any way intending to be troll about this. If MST3K is on, just change the channel. Someday you’ll thank me.

I first encountered MST3K back in its early days. A friend of mine was raving about it and wanted me to come over and watch an episode. This was back when there was no Tivo and many of my friends still didn’t have VCRs (and the ones that did were divided between VHS and Beta). This woman was one of the wittiest and most perspicacious writers I knew, so I assumed any show she would endorse had to be a winner. I went to her house and...I was horrified! I made polite conversation and got the hell out of there. I spent the rest of that afternoon brooding on what I had just seen. Nothing since then has caused me to change my mind about this show. Further attempts to “get” this show have made me dislike it all the more.

For those of you who have never seen the show, allow me to set up the scenario. MST3K is about a likable janitor who is imprisoned on a space station and forced to watch cheesy movies by two evil scientists (or one evil scientist and his sidekick, or two evil sidekicks and a woman in a minibus—I never got all this straight). His only companions are robots that he built from parts he could spare. During the films, the janitor and the robots made clever quips about what they see on the screen. Sometimes the jokes are obvious references to pop culture, but sometimes they are remarkably obscure. Most of the films they watch are low-budget exploitation films from the fifties, sixties, and seventies—the so-called “Golden Turkeys” as the concept was christened by the Medved brothers.

I don't dislike the show because they make fun of these movies. I’ve been known to do the same thing while watching them myself. My problem with the show is that it only goes in one direction: toward ridicule. If you are watching a low-budget movie on your sofa, with your friends, you may make similar comments to those made by the characters on the show, but you are also more likely to give credit where credit is due. A cheesy line, or absurd situation might elicit a sarcastic remark, but the next moment, you can acknowledge an effective shot or scene. MST3K cannot do this. Nothing is ever impressive. All observations have to have a punchline. If a scene works, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot are not going to say so. They will either try to make a joke (which usually falls flat in these situations) or wait until they can say something arch.

Worse still is that, by interjecting their comments, they remove the viewer from the experience of the movie. You are watching Joel (or Mike) and his puppets make fun of a movie, you are not really watching the movie at all. If you have any clever things to say, they are held in check in favor of the comments on screen. Your own wit is put on hold while someone else does the movie-watching for you. No good can possibly come from this.

But the worst thing about this show is that, like an invasive species, it has overtaken Netflix and forced out the distribution of many classic low-budget films in favor of the MST3K versions. You cannot, for instance rent Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Beast of Yucca Flats, The Giant Gila Monster, The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, The Wild Rebels, and half a dozen other interesting oddities that deserve to be seen in their original forms. Only the MST3K versions are available.

Right now, for instance, Netflix does not offer Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies except in the MST3K version. That’s really a shame, because if the only way you ever see this movie is with their comments, you are missing a world of delights. The songs are solidly entertaining, the camerawork—some of the first work in Holllywood by Vilmos Zsigmond and László Kovács—is spectacular, and, if you bother to pay closer attention to the film, you might learn a few clever low-budget tricks on the use of MOS (shooting without sound) to save money. All of this is lost on the MST3K viewer, who walks away from the film feeling oh so clever without learning a thing.

With this in mind, I would like to make the following suggestion to the makers of the MST3K DVDs: Give the viewer the option of turning off the peanut gallery and simply watching the movie. This is not too much to ask. It would solve the lack of access that presently exists with these films, and still allow people without any native wit to experience the comments of people cleverer than themselves.

The writer I mentioned at the start of this article stopped publishing her zine shortly after my visit to her house. Mostly this was due to the insertion of a new attention-sucking device into her life (i.e., a baby), yet I can’t help but think it is partly because of MST3K. Did the effect of being placed as a spectator where she used to actively participate cause her imagination to atrophy? I hope not, but I suspect the worst. I don’t care how funny you think this show is, it is stealing from you one of the great joys of watching these films: the opportunity to become one with the movie, giving you the ability to see them both as unintentionally hilarious and as stunningly imaginative. When watching MST3K, all that is left is you, sitting on a couch, watching the lives of others without a thing to say.

Follow up: After finishing this post, I tweeted it with the hashtag #mst3k, which, naturally, put the fans of this show on my tail. I decided to publish their remarks to allow the opposite viewpoint some breathing room. The most interesting post to me was the one that claimed that MST3K discs contain bother the original and the riffed versions of the film. Had this been true, I still would not have cared for MST3K, but they would have risen in my estimation somewhat. Alas, it turns out not to be true. Although some contain other material (usually mini-docs about the films and filmmakers that are as snarky as the show), they do not offer you the ability to watch the movies as they were intended.

I was amused at how many of the irate posters felt compelled to point out that the reason the show does not offer anything other than sarcastic comments is because it's a comedy show. Um, yeah, that was kinda my point. Although many of the posters tried to explain why they objected to my rant, none made a very convincing argument. One person surmised that I was a film snob based on my statements about the quality of the camerawork in some low budget films. If by "film snob," sir, you mean I care about movies as an art and pay attention to all the aspects of the work that goes into making them, then I plead guilty. The saddest comment is the last one (I've closed new posts on the topic for now): "If you want to see the movie untouched by the hands of the MST3K crew, rent or buy it in it's [sic] original form." Yes, exactly, but therein lies the problem. Many of these are currently only available in the bastardized versions, and MST3K has never done anything to help alleviate this.

Most of the emails and Facebook responses I received that supported my rant came—not coincidentally, I think—from people who either make films or write about them. One fellow film historian summed things up nicely: "It's worth remembering that those films were created by people who cared about them.... [MST3K] is piggybacking on someone else's work and should be seen as such."


robin.g said...

Dude, seriously! Why would you want to laugh at amazingly-written and hilarious material when you could be watching Roger Corman films uninterrupted?? You owe it to yourself to see Swamp Diamonds unfettered!

CJ said...

I disagree with just about everything in this article.

Cheesehead1976 said...

You're most certainly entitled to your opinion on the show. However, making a blanket statement saying if one should come across an episode-immediately change the channel (or whatever.)

This show may not be to your liking. In fact, you seem to loathe it. But, let the people decide for themselves.

If you ask anyone of the main players; Joel Hodgson, Trace Bielieu, Frank Conniff, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, etc. I think you'll find they are some of the most appreciative filmgoers of all time. One of the listed is even a self-proclaimed 'movie snob.'

Sure, their commentary doesn't point out the great lighting, or the proper use of negative space in a shot, etc. But, that doesn't mean it goes unappreciated by them or the viewer. We may not recognize it right away, but then again, it's a lot easier to recognize the negatives in life and on film than the positives.

Plus, the writers of the show watched the film anywhere from 5 to 10 times each. After doing that in one or two weeks (however long the process was/is,) it's got to be maddening NOT to rip it apart.

Anyway, I'm going on and on.
You don't like the show, that's fine. But instead of pleading with the masses to avoid it at all costs, why not let them choose? Truthfully, like most people, if I'm told sternly to not do something, my curiosity is piqued moreso than if it's not mentioned.

Brenden Jones said...

Most of those movies I would never want to watch on their own. And the fact that you're watching those three guys at the bottom of the screen and not the movie is the point. They're are the reason I watched the show when it was on TV and they're the reason I watch it on Netflix. I never tuned it out of curiosity for the film itself. But you are entitled to your opinion sir and I respect it. I, however, am one of those that enjoys ridicule, that enjoys the tearing down.

Brenden Jones said...

Most of the movies on the show I would never want to watch by themselves. Those three guys at the bottom of the screen are the reason I would tune in and the reason I still watch it on Netflix. Yes, they ridicule, they tear down, and I like that. It's a comedy show, not a place for constructive criticism. I'm not watching it for movie reviews and I've never watched it solely with curiosity for the movie.

Now don't get me wrong. I happen to very much enjoy cult films, but come one, the ones on MST3K are the worst of the worst. The godawful. You are entitled to your opinion sir and I respect that, but tell me do you really want to sit down and watch something like Red Zone Cuba all by itself?

Anonymous said...

You know, it's not impossible to enjoy both the original film and the MST3K riffed versions. A vast majority of the MSTies out there are just as passionate about the films they are riffing just as much as the jokes themselves. Fans who love the show have seen the episodes dozens of times and can appreciate the films for what they are well enough. As for the viewer's wit being 'put on hold', if the viewer wasn't witty then they wouldn't understand a majority of the jokes being told. You say there is no experience with the film, but the show in itself is a wonderful experience to enjoy these films, which frankly most cinephiles would have never come across had it not been for this show. Maybe it's not for everyone, but don't tell people to avoid it. Let them decide that for themselves.

thestray said...

Haha, I wanted to keep an open mind, because I'm indeed a big fan of the show, but I found this to be kind of ridiculous. When your gripe boiled down to "They never say anything good about the movie" and "You're not really experiencing the movie at all" it was clear that this was just a standard case of something going way over someone's head and them being petulant about it.

The reason you hate the show seems to be a combination of your love for the original movies and you not understanding at all that MST3K is solely a comedy show. It's not about watching a movie. Laughing at other people's humor is the whole reason to watch the show, just like watching any other comedy. They're there to make jokes, period. Is there anything funny about admiring something out loud? "Interesting choice of lighting don't you think Tom Servo?" "Oh definitely, Crow, despite this movies flaws the camerawork was ahead of it's time. What do you say Mike?" "Shhh, I'm trying to enjoy the movie, let's give the jokes a rest for a few minutes." That is not funny.

You've missed the point entirely, the first rule of criticism is to judge things by what they intend to be. This show is not intended to be a serious and honest discussion and appreciation of cheesy movies. It's about jokes.

What you want to do is just watch b-movies, and that's fine. But you can't really cite MST3K's inability to let you do that as a flaw. That's like watching porn and complaining about all the sex because it's interrupting the story. You watch MST3K for the jokes, just like you watch porn for the jokes, or kung-fu movies for fighting, or musicals for the singing and dancing, etc.

I'm very sorry you can't find the original versions of the movies MST3K lampoons, but the truth is that there's just not much demand for them outside of MST3K. Many people would find the movies unbearable to watch by themselves. I can't imagine sitting through Manos alone.

The end of your review though where you theorize that the show may have killed your friend's creativity is silly and shows a lot of arrogance, as does telling people not to watch the show. To not enjoy something is one thing, but to want to deprive others of it is a whole different thing entirely. Let people make up their own minds instead of trying to make it up for them.

I don't know what kind of person you are, but your review of the show paints you as a humorless old man

Anonymous said...

Your tip to the creator of the DVD was a waste of time typing. If in fact you looked it up or bought a copy, you would know that all the DVDs are 2 sided. One with the "peanut gallery" and the other side just the movie alone. You clearly put a lot of time and effort into researching facts about the character names, which I admire and respect. But clearly you did not dig deep enough or else your "tip" would not have made the light of day.

thestray said...

I saw that you mentioned my comment as an ad hominem attack, but I don't think it was any less so than your comment that you suspect your friend's imagination atrophied as a result of watching MST3K. Which I found to be extremely insulting to fans of the show. I'm a person who makes a living with my imagination, so I found that comment to be ludicrous and borderline malicious.

Everybody's different, not everybody is going to like the same thing, but I like how Tina Fey puts it "It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that because you don't like something, that it is empirically not good." And that's what you've done here, you've gone past "I don't like this" and instead went for "this shouldn't be liked, and people who do like it may be deficient."

Also, you're Hitler, obviously.

Jon said...

You kind of lost me when you said that Manos was a classic.

Ajolin said...

I doubt you're still reading the comments for this, but oh well. I would like to talk about every point you make here, starting from the fifth paragraph, as that seems to be where you start you review. I would like to hear a response as well if you would like to provide one.

1:"My problem with the show is that it only goes in one direction: toward ridicule. If you are watching a low-budget movie on your sofa, with your friends, you may make similar comments to those made by the characters on the show, but you are also more likely to give credit where credit is due."

I will start off by stating something to which I think we can all agree. MST3K is a comedy. As such I don't think it is fair to expect them to talk about the lighting in a scene, or the smoothness of a cut, in praise. I honestly don't think there's anything funny about the line "Wow that sequence was shot very fluidly" or what have you. I wouldn't expect them to stop in the middle of their jokes and point out how well the movie was made. It might be a nice thing for a critic, but not as much for a comedian. People don't watch this show for the movie critique, they watch it for the jokes.

2:"Worse still is that, by interjecting their comments, they remove the viewer from the experience of the movie. You are watching Joel (or Mike) and his puppets make fun of a movie, you are not really watching the movie at all."

While robbing the viewer of the experience of watching a film is terrible, this also assumes that they were looking for that experience in the first place. I think that the point of MST3K isn't the actual film, but the jokes being made about it. Even if it is a good movie that they riff, the viewers are viewing because the want to laugh, not because they want to watch a movie.This kind of comes back to my first point. It's about the comedy.

3:"If you have any clever things to say, they are held in check in favor of the comments on screen. Your own wit is put on hold while someone else does the movie-watching for you. No good can possibly come from this."

Speak for yourself. I watch MST3K all the time with my brother, and we will interject jokes when we think of something funny, whether or not it's a riffed version of a movie.

4:"But the worst thing about this show is that, like an invasive species, it has overtaken Netflix and forced out the distribution of many classic low-budget films in favor of the MST3K versions. You cannot, for instance rent Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Beast of Yucca Flats, The Giant Gila Monster, The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, The Wild Rebels, and half a dozen other interesting oddities that deserve to be seen in their original forms. Only the MST3K versions are available.[gap]Right now, for instance, Netflix does not offer Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies except in the MST3K version."

But a lot of these movies would not be nearly as well known if not for their riffings. Sure it sucks that you can't get that movie on netflix, but you wouldn't have it on netflix without MST3K either. Not only that, but MST3K actually inspires people to go watch these movies un-riffed where they wouldn't otherwise have heard of them. Just the fact that these movies are riffed makes them ten times more accessible than otherwise.

(I think this is a little rude of me, but I'm going to make an assumption about you. From the way that article was written, the things said, I'm going to assume you enjoy watching movies for not only the movie, but also the cinematography. A bit of a film snob if you will. Not everybody notices these things, nor do they necessarily want to. Everybody watches movies differently, and that means that not everyone actually pays attention to the cinematography. This is part of why I think that this review doesn't really apply to everyone.) (Please excuse my writing. I've been up all night.) Thank you for your time.

Deputywinston said...

Making it an option to turn off the shadowrama and the riffs would be pointless on a MST3K DVD, if you want to see the movie untouched by the hands of the MST3K crew, rent or buy it in it's original form.

Anonymous said...

I have to confess, I just don't get this show. I always assmued that maybe I was missing the joke, but your description pretty much sums up my feelings. I prefer just to watch the original films and try and be witty myself.

Anonymous said...

There was indeed a time when Rhino (the company who intiailly handled MST3K DVDs) put the uncut version of the film out along with the MSTed version, but it didn't last too long and these releases are all unfortunately out of print now. Here's all the ones they ever did with the uncut film included (all released from 2000-2002):

The Brain that Wouldn't Die
The Wild World of Batwoman
Beginning of the End
The Crawling Hand
The Hellcats
Every episode on boxset Vol. 1 (Catalina Caper, The Creeping Terror, Bloodlust!, and The Skydivers)

Shout! Factory, who currently put out MST3K DVDs, recently released "MANOS" The Hands of Fate, a 2-disc special edition version that features the uncut film as a bonus feature. Unfortunately, the copy of it looks much worse than the one featured on MST3K and appears to be missing a bit of footage at the beginning (I haven't watched the whole thing yet, and I'm not sure if I will).

By the way, there's somebody out there who uncovered a 16 mm print of the film and is trying to get it remastered. It looks pretty incredible, although I imagine there's a decent amount of MST fans who probably can't wrap their heads around why somebody would want to save it.

I am a fan of MST3K. I have no problem with these people taking the works of others and making fun of them. They are terrific comedians for the most part and I just enjoy the concept of the show. But it isn't my favorite, not by a long shot. Not every single one of the films featured on the show is horrible, and I hate it when the shows super fans have this opinion. MSTies, as they call themselves, claim to be an intelligent bunch but the many that I have come across are anything but. One look at the comments on the "Satellite News" fansite or the "MST3K Discussion Board" will prove this.

With that said, a handful of the movies featured on the show truly are horrible and I can't imagine how anybody could stomach sitting through them uncut. I mean, would you stick up for "Monster-A-Go-Go"?!

erin said...

Honestly, I couldn't even sit through the MST3K version of The Incredibly Strange Creatures the first time I tried... the friend watching with me and I thought the movie itself was just so, so bad that we gave up, even with the funny comments which are the reason for watching!

As a woman who has had babies, I can assure you that the baby was the reason your friend stopped publishing and not her MST3K viewing. Truly. Babies dull the imagination for a few years after each birth, ha.

Anonymous said...

The issue I have with MST3K is that it isn't funny at all.

Anonymous said...

i really never got why so many people love mst3k. i just watched an episode on netflix where they watched the phantom planet, and never in the episode did i feel it was "amazingly written" or "hilarious. it gave me a chuckle here and there but in the end, i was just watching a crappy movie. i find doug walker's nostalgia critic reviews and johhny shitcase on youtube much funnier.

i get it that its supposed to be the guy and the robots making witty comments about the movie like as if you were the one sitting on the couch with your friends doing it but the thing is, how can a home viewer ever match the wits with these guys, they aren't ad-libbing their lines, its all scripted. and most of the comments are not really that funny. the little skits in between the movie can be funny sometimes.

p.s. phantom planet is not the only mst3k movie i ever saw, i also tried to watch the crawling eye and only got 20 minutes in and had to turn it off, and years ago a friend of mine that just absolutely loved the show talked me into watching and they watched some hercules movie and i laughed back then mainly because he laughed so much, i got infected. maybe that's my mistake, i tried to watch this alone. maybe you need to watch mst3k with your friends over some beers before you can find it "amazingly-written" and "hilarious"

Yitzchak said...

1.) in the old days, Rhino sold copies of the films without MST3K (but they are difficult to come by).

2.) I have seen Giant Gila Monster etc without MST3K plenty of places.

3.) They do sometimes express their enjoyment of a film. At the end of the first Gamera they said "this one was pretty good". Whenever Kelton appears in an Ed Wood movie, they are always happy to see him back again. There are other examples where they praise the films on occasion.

Chuck said...

I'm with ya, man. It's hard to even go to a classic film screening now without some MST3K wannabe gibbering through the movie.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree with the author more. Videos of MST3K have so polluted youtube and the internet that it's hard to find the original films and because of that I hate the show. I like old Sci-Fi, but what MST3K does makes it unwatchable.

Anonymous said...

As a kid I used to hate this show and me and my friend would make fun of his brother for watching it. They actually make fun of Turkey Shoot which is one of my favorite Aussie-sploitation films I can not believe it has an 8 on imdb? Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick have got to be rolling over in their graves seeing a couple nerds sitting in a cheap theater making third rate jokes get as many stars as some of the most artful and amazingly written directed acted films made? Seriously it has not one bad review it's time to change that!

Bill said...

I agree that the MST3K versions seem to be taking over and the originals are getting harder to find but Netflix and Amazon are not the only way of finding these things. YouTube often has the films uncut. eBay often has the DVDs.

I have the Beginning of the End DVD which I got purely for the uncut film. The other side doesn't interest me at all.

The reason the films aren't always released with and without the puppets is because of money. It costs cash to license the rights of the uncut film, probably as much if not more than the TV show.

I agree that the riffing isn't very funny. It's why I don't bother watching it. If it was, it might be acceptable but I'm afraid I find it irritating. My interest is for the bad film itself, not the puppets making snarky comments. If a film is truely that bad, it's more rewarding to watch it uncut (that means no commercials every 15 minutes either) and judge for yourself if it's bad, good or funny. If people actually started talking back to the screen like that in a cinema, they'd get a cold drink down their back of their neck. I don't think I'd want to spend much time in the company of someone who had to make so many snarky comments during a film. I think their riffing would irritate me as much as my movie snobbery would annoy them.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your dissident opinion on this topic.

One is hard pressed to find any people who dare voice a negative opinion about MST3K, which I truly can't understand except that the fans are so rabid, to disagree with their opinion seems to stir mob mentality and bullying - which is unfortunate.

Nevertheless, this needed to be said, and you did it well. Thank you for having the balls to do it! It's also refreshing to see comments by other people who are thinking critically and creatively, instead of going along with the herd.


Ray Dennis Heckler said...

MST3K is total shite. Don't confuse cringey puppet snark with Clever and Witty Humour (tm).

Anonymous said...

i don't have a problem with riffing on b-movies, it's just that they cannot shut up for more than 5 seconds. most of the time it feels like they speak just to make noise, and not actually because they have anything witty to say.

maybe the humor is more suited to loud-mouthed americans with inflated egos and a penchant for elitism.

icecreamman said...

I will echo the few comments above which consider the problem with MST3K to be that it's not funny.

I don't mind people talking over movies per se, there are many bonus dvd commentary tracks on b-movies I own which I enjoy... it's more that every 'hilarious' quip and observation which comes out of those MST3K guys' mouths is so catastrophically unfunny I just want to slap them.

Tpro said...

I love scifi and have since watching everything I could from the age of about five in 1960/61. I watched all of Lost in Space and Star Trek when it aired, yes every episode! I fully agree with your article. I get what mst3k is and is not. I cannot stand the show myself although it is well done for what it is. I am not alone in this as most of my scfi and literal family agree. I have never watched a whole episode of MST3K the way through, I have tried but just dislike it that much. I even tried the new Netflix one but no. I like some comedy but just don't find this show funny and then the interruptions are just annoying cause they are mostly dumb not funny. IMHO

Anonymous said...

Your argument is valid however the show is really not very funny or maybe the humor is just too predictable at least that's the way the experience is for me. It's obviously working for many viewers and that's great but for me it's just not funny. The bad scifi Corman movies are just much funnier on their own even though they weren't meant to be at the time.