Joining MST3K Fandom and a Bit About Joel and Mike

Joel and Mike

This is a follow up to my posts here, here, and here.  This one will be much shorter, and will be talking more about the show itself, and not so much about its archetypal meaning.

I’m a likely and yet improbable fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Having been born at the cusp of the Boomer Generation and Generation X, I’m in the target age group.  As a male and a science fiction fan, I’m certainly in the target demographic.  Despite this, it took me a long time to become an MST3K fan.

I remember running across it a few times in the early 90’s while looking for something to watch.  I couldn’t figure out what it even was at first.  After watching a few snatches of it, I originally thought it was something like What’s Up, Tiger Lily?  This was an early movie by Woody Allen in which he took a standard-issue Japanese spy drama, and dubbed it in English with totally new dialogue that turned it into a farcical spoof about the search for a secret egg salad recipe.  I had seen that as a kid and liked it; and when I first saw MST3K, I thought the voices of Joel and the bots were an overdub as in Tiger Lily.

Eventually, I figured out that the original dialogue was still there, and I noticed these strange silhouettes at the bottom of the screen.    I couldn’t figure out the sudden cuts to the guy on the sci-fi-looking set.  Finally, I found out the show’s name and the premise.  They weren’t overdubbing the movie, but commenting on and razzing it.  That didn’t seem too promising.  My college experience of drunken viewings of midnight movies at the local revival house theater and of (sometimes) sober viewing of movies on VCR in dorm rooms gave me few reasons to expect a level of humor or creativity beyond that of–well, drunken college students.

Later on, after I moved downstate permanently from my hometown, I became friends with a guy who was a huge MST3K fan.  He kept bugging me to see the big screen version–Mystery Science Theater 3000:  The Movie–with him when it came out.  I finally gave in and did so.  It wasn’t a super favorite, but I was intrigued.  I started watching the series with my friend.  This was in the second  half of the Mike Nelson years, after the series had moved from Comedy Central to the then-Sci-Fi Channel and brought in Mary Jo Pehl to replace the departing Trace Beulieu.  Little by little, I got hooked.  We’d also from time to time rent videos of older episodes from the Joel Hodgson era and earlier parts of the Mike area.  The friend eventually moved away, but I have continued to watch and sometimes re-watch episodes of the show with my wife and recently with my ten-year-old daughter, who loves it (though she doesn’t understand large parts of it).

The biggest draw for me, I think, was that after watching several episodes I could see that the jokes and riffing were not only far above the drunken college student level, but beyond the level of typical TV humor, too.  There was plenty of goofiness and double entendres ; but there were also very clever commentary, obscure pop culture references, and the occasional political, scientific, or philosophical aside.  I had to admit that I’d been wrong, and that MST3K was head and shoulders above what I’d expected (and above most of what’s on TV, too).

As to the question that began this whole series of posts–who’s better, Joel or Mike–my answer is a bit nuanced.  As I said above, I came in during Mike’s tenure, and didn’t see episodes with Joel until later.  Since then I’ve seen a pretty fair amount of both, though probably still more of Mike.  It’s worth pointing out that during the Joel years, Mike was head writer–thus, many of the jibes coming out of the mouths of Joel or the bots were written by Mike long before he debuted in front of the camera.  Thus, differences are to a large extent a matter of different styles of presentation, not so much of content.  It’s also worth pointing out that in 1997 the show was dropped from Comedy Central and picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel (long before it became Syfy).  As part of the deal, the movies riffed had to be science fiction.  It’s true that  a large proportion of the movies given the MST3K treatment had always been sci-fi; but not all were, and some of the best episodes were in fact not sci-fi, most notably the epic Mitchell.  The pool of riffable movies was thus reduced, and I think this is in part the explanation for the increasingly baroque skit segments.

I think there are two ways in which you could compare the two iterations of the series:  in terms of the riffing and in terms of the skits.  As to the riffing, I’d say the quality was pretty consistent throughout the series.  Some episodes were better than others, but the comments by and large were as funny, clever, and witty with Mike as with Joel.  Joel’s delivery was always more laid back, while Mike’s was a bit more acerbic; but overall, they were equal as to riffing, in my view.

The skits diverge more.  In the Joel era, the supporting cast besides Joel and the bots was Dr. Clayton Forrester and his sidekick Frank.  Aside from the occasional guest, that was it.  On other hand, in the last three seasons of the Mike era, when the show went to Sci-Fi, Dr. Forrester was replaced by his mother, Pearl Forrester, and gradually a cast of henchmen was added (the ape Dr. Bobo and Brain Guy).  In the Joel era, the skits were either Joel and the bots, the “invention exchange” segment, or Joel bantering with the “Mads” (Forrester and Frank).  In the Mike era, the invention exchange was dropped.  In the Sci-Fi years, the skits moved from just bantering to ongoing plot lines as Pearl pursued the now out-of-orbit Satellite of Love across the cosmos, encountering satirical versions of science fiction tropes along the way.

Getting legal access to movies for riffing was always the biggest challenge for the producers of MST3K.  Many holders of cinematic rights didn’t want their movies ridiculed.  With some of the older movies the status of film rights was tangled.  With others, permission was given only for original broadcast and not for later marketing.  The Sci-Fi Channel complicated this further and further reduced the pool of available movies by requiring science fiction movies only.  I think that this is a big reason for the greater focus on the skits and their more complicated story lines in the Sci-Fi years.

Anyway, when the bots and either host were doing skits, things were always hilarious and fun.  I have to say up front that I never cared for the invention exchange skits.  Joel’s background is in sculpture, so I get why he did this; but it never really seemed more than cute or marginally clever, in my mind.  On the other hand, while at first I rather liked Pearl, Bobo, Brain Guy, and their sometimes very funny takes on sci-fi cliches, it started to wear thin after a year or so, concurrent with a drop in the quality of the movies being riffed (I think the constraints had them scraping the bottom of the barrel and getting some movies that even they had trouble satirizing).

I think a lot of it comes down to persona.  Joel projected a laid-back, genial air that made him impossible to dislike.  Mike had a slightly more satirical edge.  With Joel, it was rather like the college buddy or relaxed older brother who’s always fun to have drop by and hang out with.  With Mike, it was like the impish buddy who’s always telling tales of his exploits so that you wonder what he’s going to do next.  Both fun in their own different ways.  Another way to put it, harking back to my earlier posts, is that Joel is more the Fool and Mike the Trickster.  In that regard, one could argue that Mike is a little funnier delivering his own jokes (remember, he was head writer), as he more strongly manifested the Trickster energy.  I resonate more with the Joel persona, actually; but in terms of the shows as a whole, I can’t say I have a strong preference for either iteration.  They’re both really fun and well-worth watching.  Thus, if I had to make a choice, I’d say Joel by a whisker; but both are great on the show and I wouldn’t turn down a lazy day viewing of either!

Posted on 06/02/2014, in Entertainment, movies, pop culture, television, television and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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