In honor of return of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix this week, the Deadshirt peanut gallery presents our favorite episodes from across the show’s original run.
Season 8, Episode 21
Hosted by Mike Nelson
I might be crazy, but I’ve occasionally maintained that Mike Nelson might be able to carve out a career as a solid character actor if he ever decided to take a shot at it. Obviously he’s no William H. Macy, but he had a knack for taking the natural corn-fed midwestern appeal that helped him as a straight-man and tweaking it in funny and occasionally exciting ways. Time Chasers is one of the best examples of this: after Crow takes an ill-advised trip to the past to convince Mike to leave behind the temping career that led to his imprisonment on the Satellite of Love, he returns to find that Mike Nelson had been replaced with Eddie Nelson, Mike’s abusive, beer-swilling brother. Mike kind of kills it in the role; Eddie’s an absurdly over-the-top character—par for the course with MST3K—but Mike imbues him with a sense of menace that adds an interesting tension to the theater riffs, elevating a fun, film-appropriate gag into something a little more epic.
Time Chasers also has one of my favorite host segments: a sweet little sketch involving Mike hanging out in The Widowmaker with Pearl Forrester, talking to each other like kindly neighbors on a cool summer night. As for the movie itself, that’s not bad either; there’s a reason Edgewood Studios has a great relationship with Rifftrax these days. This just happens to be one of the rare episodes that are pushed over the top by some wonderfully creative host segments instead of some amazing riffs.
Favorite Joke: (Nick ditches the plane—and Lisa—after she has been shot and killed) “Bye, Lisa, hope everything works out!”
– Chuck Winters
Season 4, Episode 3
Hosted by Joel Hodgson
While I grew up with Mike Nelson during MST3K’s SciFi Channel years and generally prefer his time as host, Joel Hodgson’s laid-back, nerdy sensibility is something I’ve always enjoyed. While Mike and the ‘bots usually had an adversarial relationship, Joel played a more fatherly role, appropriate since he is their creator. There’s something simultaneously sweet and strange about him staging art chautauquas for Crow and Tom, or singing a closing number/lullaby as he takes down the set and disassembles the ‘bot for the night. Furthermore, TV’s Frank and Dr. Clayton Forrester’s codependent relationship offered a greater variety of gags than Pearl ever got out of her underlings.
Pod People is a great showcase of the upsides of the Joel years. Not only does the movie itself (a Spanish horror movie/E.T. knock-off!) fall in that sweet spot of bad but not boring, but the riffing is great and all the host segments work. My favorite segment is a cheap recreation of a scene from the movie in which a pre-fab pop group rehearses an almost inaudible song. In Joel & company’s hands, the white-bread back-up singers become Crow, Tom and Gypsy in shimmery fabric, Joel whines increasingly insane lyrics, and the Mads exult in Joel’s talent with a random hipster with dark bangs bobbing her head in the background. It’s a lo-fi recreation of an already cheap movie, which moves beyond parody to something surreal and strange. Those moments of bizarre humor are the ones that made me feel a kinship with the goofballs behind this self-described “cow-town puppet show”, and Pod People is full of those moments.
Favorite Joke: (As a poacher is aiming his hunting rifle at two deer) “Bambi, humans are basically good.”
– Robby Karol
Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
Season 8, Episode 22
Hosted by Mike Nelson
This episode is one of the more modern films riffed by Mike and his robot friends and, in my opinion, is an underrated series best. Overdrawn at the Memory Bank is a made-for-television film starring a pre-Street Fighter Raul Julia that is a baffling vision of the future where office workers are able to be sent into virtual computer worlds as animals. The film’s cheap effects and colorful cast of characters ignite a series of riffs from the Satellite of Love crew that has me in absolute stitches every time. For starters, there’s an insane amount of riffs on Julia’s character named Fingal (“Ooh Fingal, you make me tingle!”). Much of the film takes place in a cheapened version of the classic film Casablanca, prompting Tom Servo to point out that you should never show a good movie in your crappy movie. However, my favorite riffs arise from Fingal’s nemesis, The Fat Man, who is a large antagonistic figure which Mike and the bots absolutely ruin by making a series of fart and belching noises every time he appears on screen.
The Mads’ segments are fun as well, with Pearl conducting a telethon to raise money to buy more bad movies to torture Mike with. She manages to sell more than a few bad products to Mike, to his bemusement. Pearl and Brain Guy also sing a duet. It’s a classic episode of a great season and follows two other great episodes: Space Mutiny and Time Chasers.
Favorite Joke: There’s a running gag throughout where the movie threatens to interface Fingal in the body of an anteater and the bots keep defending the anteaters
– Andrew Niemann
Manos: The Hands Of Fate
Season 5, Episode 24
Hosted by Joel Hodgson
There’s a strong case to be made that the Manos episode of MST3K is the most consequential episode of show—it increased the mythology of the film and the show itself.
Manos is an especially painful film. Both of the Mads actually apologize to Joel and the bots for making them watch it. It’s the only epiosde I can think of in which Joel and the bots boo the ending of the film out of sheer disgust. Try watching it out of the context of the show—it’s intolerable, and helps emphasize what a great job the MST3K team did making it even remotely palatable. I’d run out after the obvious Frank Zappa gags.
I’ve always been more of a Joel guy—I like the cerebral edge he brought to the show, especially in his host segments—but him jumping out in his own knockoff Manos cloak with feet imprints is still one of the host segments that makes me laugh out loud every single time I see it.
Even beyond Joel’s tenure as host, Torgo and his haunting theme show up a few more times throughout the series. You hear it in your head now, don’t you?
Manos also represented some of the best of MST3K had to offer outside of riffing—more than maybe any other movie they’ve ever shown, Manos has gone on to have a cult following of its own right. Manos had been missing for decades before the team at MST3K dug it up, and while the show reintroduced many films, none have resonated. There’s been documentaries, puppet shows, video games, and dozens of other adaptations. We’re even getting a semi-official sequel from Jackey Jones—Debbie herself. There’s currently a legal battle over who owns the rights to the film. Imagine that: a low budget film made by a fertilizer salesman, shown exactly once in a rented El Paso theater that the cast and crew abandoned before the credits even rolled, is now internationally recognized for its awfulness because a bunch of goofs from the midwest decided to mock it.
Favorite Joke: Joel getting so frustrated about the slow pace of the film that he straight up yells “DO SOMETHING” at Torgo. He didn’t even have time for a joke, he just needed to get that off his chest.
– David Lebovitz
I Accuse My Parents
Season 5, Episode 7
Hosted by Joel Hodgson
In late March, I fulfilled a lifelong dream by watching original MST3K cast members Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu riff a movie live as part of their “The Mads Are Back!” tour. Meeting two Actual Childhood Heroes at the book signing after the show was also a delight—Frank and Trace were kind, gracious, and devastatingly funny—and I couldn’t help mentioning my favorite Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank invention exchange. In I Accuse My Parents, the Mads unwittingly bake an exotic dancer named Rodney into a giant cake. (“Oh, it’s beefcake!”) “That episode is one of my favorites,” Frank told me as he signed my book. “[Technical Supervisor] Brad Keely played Rodney,” said Trace, adding that he and Brad still keep in touch, the “Cake ‘n Shake” incident seemingly behind them.
One of the MST3K episodes released on VHS by Rhino in the late ‘90s, I Accuse My Parents was quickly memorized by my very weird pre-teen brain. A 68-minute pseudo-noir about the dangers of juvenile delinquency, Accuse would have been cast into the ashcan of film obscurity (and deservedly so) if not for the show. The film begins with high school student Jimmy on trial for murdering a mob boss; Jimmy tries to shift the blame for his life of crime on his drunk, philandering parents (the Republic Serial Nick and Nora Charles), but his habitual lying and utter gullibility are the real culprits here. Three musical numbers later (seriously), the judge has mercy, putting Jimmy back in the custody of his parents. But wait, weren’t they the cause of all his trouble to begin with? Maybe this is how Dillinger got his start, I don’t fucking know. In a way, I Accuse My Parents is weirder than all the crappy sci-fi films on MST3K (Sorry, Attack of The The (sic) Eye Creatures), because it purports to be in the real world and teach a real moral lesson.
I Accuse My Parents ends with a title card explaining that it’s being sent to entertain the troops fighting World War II. Wasn’t Normandy enough?
Favorite Joke: Joel and the bots chanting “LIAR! LIAR! LIAR!” like a demented Greek chorus whenever Jimmy spews some alternate facts.
– Kayleigh Hearn
The Final Sacrifice
Season 9, Episode 10
Hosted by Mike Nelson
Accurately described by Bill Corbett’s Observer as “the worst thing to ever come out of Canada”, The Final Sacrifice is such a bad movie it’s practically mesmerizing. The concept—a whiny teen and a faux-Wolverine are hunted by evil ski mask-wearing cultists in the woods of Alberta—is weird even by MST3K standards. The Final Sacrifice is a great Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode not just because the riffs are so good (and they are, the Larry Csonka gags alone remain insanely funny), but because this kind of shitty low budget passion project is so perfect a target for Mssrs Nelson, Corbett and Murphy. As Mike and the bots dunk on a Canadian scrawny nerd over and over, you appreciate how incredibly specific and measured the gang’s brand of cornfed humor is. When Zap Rowsdower—handily the best MST3K movie character—fake ponders if there’s beer on the sun, you’re incredibly engrossed in this shitty trumped-up student film. Bonus points for some of the show’s finest segments, which include the bots looting their own rooms during power outage and Tom Servo’s terrifying love and hate for our neighbors to the North.
Favorite Joke: Mike Nelson’s extended riff as a network executive retooling the movie into a weekly procedural that has nothing to do with Canada is one of the show’s best longform jokes.
– Max Robinson