Well, by now you've probably already heard the big news regarding Mystery Science Theatre 3000--that's right, RiffTrax.com is now offering classic episodes of the series every Monday, beginning with Puma Man and The Final Sacrifice ("Rowsdower!"). What? You say that's not the big MST3k news you heard? Maybe you mean the two million dollar Kickstarter creator and original host Joel Hodgson launched to-day.
"Two million?" the uninformed portion of you might be saying. "Are they actually going to broadcast from space now?" Well, it's not perfectly clear what the high price tag is about. Mystery Science Theatre 3000, for the smallest portion of you, who never heard of it, was a television series that ran for over ten years, from 1988 to 1999. It began on cable access before moving during its first season to The Comedy Channel which later became Comedy Central and was later moved to the Sci-Fi Channel where it was finally killed by Sci-Fi's notoriously bad decision makers. Hodgson was a prop comic and he created puppet robots Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, the three of them every week "riffing" on a full length "cheesy movie", real lousy movies mostly from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. The three of them would appear in silhouette in the foreground and comment on the film.
As you might expect from a show that began on cable access, it looked really low budget. But eventually it occasionally would draw considerable expense as, with increased popularity, rights holders for the films chosen for riffing tended to not let their gems fall into comedic hands so easily. So that's an explanation offered for the two million dollar price tag though similar projects by former MST3k writers and performers, Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax, have not been so costly. In the case of Cinematic Titanic, it's because the crew selected mainly public domain movies, and for Rifftrax, many of their riffs do not include the original film, requiring the viewer to sync up sound from an audio file with a normal copy of the film.
Still, two million seems a bit high to me, especially since this relaunch looks like it's going to have an entirely new cast with Hodgson only confirmed returning as a writer. He and unspecified other past stars and writers are said to be up for participating, and one could argue that in its original run the cast did change--Joel left the show in its fifth season and was replaced as host by Mike Nelson; Trace Beaulieu, the original voice of Crow T. Robot, left in the seventh season and was replaced by Bill Corbett for the rest of the series' run; and many people don't know that Kevin Murphy replaced J. Elvis Weinstein as the voice of Tom Servo in Season Two. Of all of them, Murphy held his role for the longest, from the second season to the final season, and yet I suspect it's sensitivity to conflicted ownership of roles that is preventing old cast members from returning to those roles.
As the two competing post-MST3k projects imply, there was a factioning of the creative staff, mainly divided between people who left the show during its run (Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, and Frank Conniff on Cinematic Titanic) and those who were on the show right up to its final cancellation (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett on Rifftrax). Only Mary Jo Pehl, a writer and castmember towards the end of the run of MST3k, has appeared on both. Jim Mallon, director and voice of the robot Gypsy, has appeared on neither and the impression I get is that everyone is in agreement in hating or at least disliking him--he was the principle reason Hodgson left the show, as Hodgson has said in interviews. Mallon somehow obtained primary ownership of MST3k which I thought was the reason the show hasn't been able to come back except in lame animations on Sci Fi Channel websites sporadically over the past fifteen years. Mallon's name isn't mentioned on the Kickstarter page, so I wonder what changed. Hodgson offers only this explanation:
Even though we've always wanted to bring MST3K back, it wasn't that easy. Thanks to the Last Will and Testament of one eccentric old heiress, the rights were tied up for years. It took time to work those issues out, but with the help of my friends at Shout Factory, a special chokehold I perfected in WuDang that I like to call “The Persuader,” and a night I had to spend in a haunted house as a term of the the old lady’s will, we succeeded.
This summer, we finally got all of the rights cleared up… and now, like Orpheus, we can now descend into hell to hang out with a couple of wisecracking robots.
Despite the factioning, relations seemed to have been mostly amicable. I saw all of them together (minus Mallon) at the MST3k anniversary panel at Comic Con a few years ago. Rifftrax is offering both Joel and Mike episodes of MST3k as of to-day, Bill Corbett and Trace Beaulieu, the two Crows, have even performed two man shows together. Obviously, Beaulieu, Hodgson, and Weinstein no longer wish to distance themselves from the show as they did in the 90s, so who should be the stars of a relaunch? Weinstein represents himself as the original voice of Tom Servo despite having the role for just one season. Personally, it's hard for me to accept the idea of anyone other than Kevin Murphy in that role, not only because he occupied it for so long but because he's just so damned good. Beaulieu had a better range of impressions than Corbett but both worked fine as Crow. Murphy, though, with a voice like an old fashioned trained broadcaster could sing, scream, and commit to his lines better than anyone else on the show. But how do you say that to J. Elvis Weinstein? How do you say that to any of them? "You're good but we're going with this other guy." Could you put it to an audience vote? That would probably be even more awkward.
The Kickstarter is already at $756,993 of the two million goal and seems to go up a grand every--oh, it went up another grand before I could finish typing this sentence. So if it keeps it up, it should easily meet its goal within the next thirty days. But will it really be the show people are keen to fork over money for? Mike Nelson, who replaced Joel as host in season five, had been head writer on the show from season two, certainly his involvement would be crucial for a proper relaunch but his name isn't mentioned on the Kickstarter page. More than anything, it's strange that the Kickstarter campaign is presenting three complete newcomers in the main roles. I can only hope this will change once the funding goal is met but I can't help thinking what the project really needs is a Stanley Kubrick to ruthlessly choose between Joel and Mike, Bill and Trace, and Kevin and Elvis.