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Mystery Guests


The men behind the low-budget MSTery talk about 'bots and bad films

By Richard von Busack

With baleful green eyeballs, like twin Ping-Pong balls with rectangles of electrical tape for irises, TV's Crow "T." Robot sits on the couch across from me staring into space: pugnaciously mute, immobile. I had heard tales of Robot's gloomy Lutheran silences, his quiet hostility in the face of interviewers, but to be faced down with those unforgiving peepers is a belittling experience.

It's been a rough six years for the puppet: a rise to national fame with Mystery Science Theater 3000 followed by the publication of The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide (Bantam, $16.95) and the release of the full-length Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. All of this, only to have Comedy Central pull the plug on his popular TV show.

The show, affectionately known as MST3K, began humbly, in the suburbs of Minneapolis, as a local UHF broadcast in 1988. Two low-fi puppets (Crow and Tom Servo) and a human host sit in silhouette making wise-ass comments through the duration of such atrocious films as SST-Death Flight and The Green Slime. Yes, your friends can do this, too, but can you count on them to show up every Saturday night?


MST3K has chronicled scores of experiments on behalf of the Gizmotronics Corporation. The backstory is as follows: lower-echelon employee Joel Robinson was shot into outer space in a satellite (named the "Satellite of Love," in honor of an old Lou Reed tune) to be subject to the effects of viewing low-budget movies. Doubtlessly inspired by Bruce Dern in the immortal Silent Running (1971), Joel befriended his robot chums.

Various personnel came and went over the years. Robinson left the show, as did Josh Weinstein and Frank Conniff; currently the host is Mike Nelson, an affable Wisconsonite who is of such pleasant folksiness as to make Garrison Keillor seem as edgy as Jean Genet.

Hit the Button, Frank

Matt's Mystery Science Theater 3000 Page: Frequently asked questions about the TV show, the fan newsgroups, and even the campaign to fight the show's cancellation. Plus a complete episode guide.

Deus Ex Machina: An index to everything in the Mystery Science Internet World 3000.

MST3k on Comdey Central: This month's schedule of the TV show.

Luckily, Crow's traveling companions are ready to make up for his wooden silence. Trace Beaulieu, his face clear of the fake badger mustache he wears as would-be world dominator Dr. Clayton Forrester, was only too happy to talk. He was accompanied by Jim Mallon, director of the MST3K movie. Both of them really nice guys, free of the demons--big scary ones, I bet--that plague an artist like Crow.

METRO: I've always wanted to meet Peabody Award winners. Is Sherman depicted on the award, too?

Beaulieu: Yes. We took the Wayback to the ceremony.

METRO: My next question is a leading one. How much time did you have to spend explaining the MST3K: The Movie concept to mentally challenged entertainment executives?

Beaulieu: [Grumbling] We're still explaining it.

Mallon: We started at least four years ago. Brandon Tartikoff, who was the head of Paramount at the time. He seemed to appreciate the idea. He'd started at a small TV station in Maine or some place, so there was sort of a kindred spirit there. He said, 'Yeah, let's do it." But he never wanted to acknowledge that we'd really done much of anything, and so the contract was really tough. After about six months and $15,000 worth of legal expenses, we had to bail.

And then, about six months after that ,we did the studio dance. As we pitched the second time around, we were real clear: we're going to make it in Minnesota, it's gonna star our guys and it's more or less the way we want to do it. We pitched it to almost everyone in town, and it finally wound up at Universal.

Mallon: The faith they had in us was proved out at the screening we just did in LA, where 500 people showed up. The more people watching an episode makes it exponentially more fun than watching it by yourself. We were taking the chance borrowing the theater for a different sort of entertainment, but if you can get a crowd of people in there, it'll be as funny as anything that's ever seen in that room. For basically the cost of Costner's cologne on Waterworld, [the studio] gets a fully realized film.

METRO: It's still quite a expensive film; the budget is more than $10 million, but you have something that looks like an episode of the TV show.

Mallon: Film in general is just more expensive. We're doing something we did well on TV and taking it to the screen. We did work on a script, and it was coming together, but we thought about it and [realized] that we really do well is comment on bad movies. Yeah, it's been done before, but Comedy Central's in only one-third of TV homes. The film experience is going to be fundamentally different, with 100, 200 people in a room watching the show.

Beaulieu: And it's an event, not just a movie--something you need to see in a theater with a lot of people. It's inevitable that when people watch MST3K, they watch it with a group of friends.

Mallon: We have a huge task now. We know we have loyal fans; we have 65, 000 fans who have registered with the fan club.

Beaulieu: We got 3,000 letters sent urging Universal to make this movie. If we can survive past the first weekend., the film's going to open wider.


This Island Disaster

METRO: Dr Forrester calls This Island Earth [the bad movie in MST3K: The Movie] "a stinky celluloid suppository." That's not fair, is it, compared to some of the stuff that's turned up on MST3K?

Beaulieu: You must realize that Dr. Forrester may not really be hitting on all cylinders if his plan to take over the world is by showing bad films. There are other ways. Irradiating the world's gold supply may be a better route.

Mallon: To make this movie appeal beyond the core group, it's got to be in focus, for a change.

Beaulieu: With the cameras pointed at the action.

Mallon: Most of our movies don't have that. This Island Earth has that really strong monster and good production values.

Beaulieu: Except that you can see the wires and the gantries.

METRO: This Island Earth was a very good-looking film, but the casting's real unfortunate, what with Faith Domergue, one of the legendary bad actresses of all time in the lead.

Beaulieu: She had a boyfriend who may have been influential.

Mallon: Do you know anything about that? They call her a paramour of Howard Hughes.

[Domergue, who followed the B-movie trail to horror films in the 1970s, was discovered by Howard Hughes; her first film, Vendetta (1950), was a harbinger of things to come. Producer Hughes publicized the hell out of the film while simultaneously hiring and firing directors--Preston Sturges and Max Ophuls among them.]

Mallon: I could even forgive the casting, but the story is a mess. The hero [Rex Reason] does absolutely nothing heroic throughout the film; he's just passive.

Beaulieu: He breaks stuff, he breaks everything in his lab.

Mallon: He nearly crashes his airplane, and then he's restrained in dramatic moments: all he can say when the monster goes after the girl is "Run, Ruth, run." We're supposed to be proud of this man, and be inspired by his greatness? Universal was just coming off of Creature From the Black Lagoon and was big on monsters. They forced the writer to put in a monster, that Scrotor thing, a complete studio demand. How can a story survive the introduction of a six-foot-tall scrotal-sack-headed alien with claws for hands? Wearing slacks?

Beaulieu: [Imitating canny old producer] "He's not scary enough! Let's put him in some slacks!"


Planning Ahead

METRO: Which movies have you longed to sink your claws into?

Mallon: Man, that list is long. What's fun in doing this job, is that you go home and see a movie, and you see the hand-holds [MST3K slang for "spots just made for the jokes"].

Beaulieu: We'd all like to do disaster films of the '70s, the ones they did for television, like The Night the Bridge Fell Down, with the stars who are out driving separately, and there's a terrorist, and a barge hitting the other end. Every star you've got there has a past.

METRO: There was an all-star cast of victims on one of your shows: SST Death Flight, in which the 727 with a big 15-foot paper nose gave a heart-warming performance as a Concorde. You also did Congessman Robert "B-1 Bob" Dornan's movie.

Mallon: Starfighter. That was weird I think it was a commercial for the planes.

Beaulieu: There were 20 minutes of refueling in it.

Mallon: I like refueling as much as the next guy, but 20 minutes was too much.

METRO: Now that you guys have made a name for yourself at this, do your friends hope that you 'll make comments when you're over visiting, watching TV at their houses?

Mallon: They hope that we don't.

Beaulieu: It's hard to resist, though, talking back at television in general. The local news is always a great source of comedy.

Mallon: I was in Florida recently, my wife and I traveling with the kids. We went down to this really fancy hotel, to have some nice moments together, and Jerry Lewis was staying there. I was going, "Oh God, it's Jerry Lewis," and all of a sudden I heard that high-pitched "nice lady" voice. Even off the stage with his family, he can't turn it off!. Whereas the kind of the nice thing with our gig is that we can do it and still live our lives. Sometimes we get together socially, a field trip to go see Waterworld or something, but we'll talk quietly, to be respectful of other people.

METRO: So what does the future look like now that MST3K has been cancelled?

Beaulieu: It's unclear.

Mallon: Comedy Central decided to pull the plug, because they're going in a "new direction."

METRO: Maybe they should try, say, really bad stand-up comedians outlined against brick walls. That would be a "new direction."

Mallon: We've been talking to the Sci-Fi channel; they'd be perfect. We've pitched to them; we've been received very well. We just have to wait to hear from them. We're supposed to hear something from TNT and Nick at Night

Beaulieu: It's an odd time for Comedy Central to pull the plug, but if the film is successful and we're in a position to make a string of movies, we probably won't go back to TV, because making movies is fun.

Mallon: But if the film isn't successful, we may go direct to tape. With 56,000 fans, we only need to sell 510,000 tapes. We can cut out the middle man and pass the savings on to the viewer.

Beaulieu: We'll go door to door.

Mallon: Mike Nelson said he'll even go sit on people's couches.and talk over movies if he has to.


Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (PG-13; 74 min.), directed by Jim Mallon, written by Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy and Mallon, photographed by Jeff Stonehouse and starring Nelson, Beaulieu, Murphy and Mallon.

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From the April 18-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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