I have said many times before that Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-99) was the greatest TV series ever, certainly the greatest comedy, and it ran concurrently with Seinfeld (1989-98). This was two hours of weekly programming which launched the Comedy Channel (CC), and in the early years, MST3K was certainly their signature show.
MST3K was a Best Brains, Inc (BBI) creation of comedian Joel Hodgson with producer Jim Mallon as Gypsy, and it first aired on KTMA in Minneapolis. It was picked by Comedy Central for $35K per episode in 1989, and their deal allowed BBI to retain the show’s rights.
Trace Beaulieu was established as Crow T. Robot & Dr. Clayton Forrester, and a young Josh Weinstein was Tom Servo & Dr. Laurence Erhardt– the other mad scientist. This show really got its act together in Season 2, when Kevin Murphy replaced Josh Weinstein as Tom Servo, and Frank Conniff became Dr. Forrester’s new assistant. This is also when Mike Nelson was brought on as a writer, and the show went to a new level.
This lasted until Joel Hodgson was forced off the show by Jim Mallon at Mitchell (1975), which was Experiment 512. Mike Nelson takes over admirably, but the show lost its soul, and lot of wit. Frank Conniff exited after Season 6, and wasn’t part of the cast for MST3K: The Movie (1996). Season 7 had only six episodes (experiments), due to filming the movie. Crow’s ‘Earth vs Soup’ sketches during the host segments of this era capture what working with Hollywood was like for BBI. Basically they got screwed.
Soon after this it was announced that MST3K was moving to the Sci-Fi Channel for Season 8. Then weeks later it was announced that Trace Beaulieu was leaving the show to work as a writer for America’s Funniest Home Videos, which has been running on ABC since 1989. Bill Corbett was brought in to replace him as Crow, and Mary Jo Pehl was promoted to head evil/mad scientist. I watched one or two episodes of S8 and gave up. With Joel, Trace & Frank gone, the writing gets much thinner, and the laughs a lot fewer.
Therefore, I don’t rate any of the Sci-Fi Channel episodes (S8-S10) among their best. All the best MST3K episodes are within Seasons 2-7. I don’t count the re-booted series, hosted by Jonah Ray. It sucks, and makes the Sci-Fi era stuff look first-rate by comparison. The fact is, you couldn’t get a show like the original MST3K on-the-air today, with all the virtue signalers, social justice warriors & snowflakes screaming into the network’s ear the first time somebody cracks a funny joke.
Here’s a truth about comedy. Jokes are supposed to offend people. It’s called being the butt of a joke. If you can’t handle the truth, then the problem is you. If you don’t understand this, then you are enabling & supporting censorship. The Office (2005-13) is another comedy series that couldn’t be made today for the same reasons. Married with Children & early seasons of The Simpsons too. It would really suck if we didn’t have these timeless comedy classics to enjoy and make us laugh. The reason they hold up so well is because they are so true to life.
Basically MST3K is a puppet show which wisecracks bad movies. It’s called riffing, and what this show teaches you is that there is a point where the ‘riff button’ needs to get pressed. We shouldn’t tolerate bad stories, lame acting, and blatant propaganda. Get to know MST3K, which helps you distinguish good movies from bad ones. After awhile, you’ll learn to riff as needed.
I’ve seen all the episodes from KTMA through Season 7, and The Movie. For me, these are their best experiments and why. They are listed in chronological order. They are all available on YouTube, so I won’t link them.
202 Sidehackers: This one was available through Rhino on VHS, and I bought it. This is their best effort of Season 2 which was 13 episodes. Classic MST3K numbering is read here as Season 2, Episode 02. I love Ross Hagan movies because of Sidehackers, also known as Five the Hard Way (1969). Little known movie fact: screen writer & director Gus Trikonis later married (and was divorced by) Goldie Hawn. Great songs here, including “Sidehacking is a thing to do” & “Love pads the film.” Essential MST3K.
322 & 324 Master Ninja I & II: I put these two together, because you have to see them both. This is riffing The Master (1984), a failed action series starring Lee Van Cleef (below), and his pupil Timothy Van Patten– the famous Dutch ninja. Killer riffing, with a great song to finish the first episode, “Master Ninja Theme Song.” I read somewhere that there is a Master Ninja III, which they produced but never aired. If that’s true, I’d love to see it. Master Ninja I has one of my favorite stingers, which is a quick movie clip BBI inserts after the final credits run. They started this in Season 2, and it keeps you watching until the end, like you are supposed to. There are so many ways MST3K was brilliant and ahead of its time.
401 Space Travelers: This has Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, & Gregory Peck, in a stale sci-fi action drama, with enough plot holes to launch a rescue rocket through. Trace does a killer Gregory Peck voice. Great host segments, and this is what ties all the best episodes together, the time between the movies where they’re talking about what they’ve just seen. If you’ve ever tried to watch a bad movie and make it funny by writing your own riffs, you know it’s a lot of work. That’s why they’ll sometimes say “This one hurts,” or something to that effect.
405 Being from Another Planet: This is one of my all-time MST3K favorites that I never see listed anywhere else. Also known as Time Walker (1982), it stars a crummy dummy mummy in search of magic crystals, so it can phone home using a diamond encrusted, V-shaped, mummy communicator thing. Frank wants one, and so do I. Watch this experiment, and you will too.
407 The Killer Shrews: The Killer Shrews stars James Best, who was Roscoe in The Dukes of Hazzard, so I (like TV’s Frank) get excited about this one. I had this one recorded on a VHS cassette for a long time, as it wasn’t available through Rhino. Once CC took episodes off-the air, they were gone– until DVD pirating & YouTube came along. Licensing issues were the story of MST3K when it came to making it to VHS, and then to DVD.
BBI doesn’t hold the rights to re-distribute many of their classic episodes, because some movie makers won’t sell to them anymore. Sandy Frank is notoriously one of the biggest haters of MST3K, and won’t re-license his bad movies to BBI. So everyone watches them for free on YouTube. Joe Don Baker (Mitchell-512) was another infamous MST3K hater. Kevin Murphy had a reply for him in their Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, and that’s what Misties always loved about the show, they believed in what they were doing & always stood by it.
424 Manos: The Hands of Fate: You have to include this classic in any top-MST3K episode list. This is the worst movie ever made, by someone who tried to make a movie and got it distributed– Hal P. Warren, fertilizer salesman from El Paso, TX. It’s awful, offensive, bizarre and hilarious. The first time you experience Manos, it stuns you. Mike Nelson has stated that BBI didn’t think they could do Manos when they were test screening it, and they’ve seen the worst movies ever.
As far as MST3K episodes go, I say the Sandy Frank productions are the worst. These include all the Godzilla & Gamera movies, along with Mighty Jack, Time of the Apes, and Star Force: Fugitive Alien I & II. The most unwatchable thing BBI ever tried to riff was experiment 612, The Starfighters. Coleman Francis is the worst filmmaker who was allowed to make multiple movies. That’s what you learn (painfully), when you watch enough classic MST3K.
501 Warrior of the Lost World: The guy who played TJ in Baa Baa Black Sheep (Paper Chase guy) is our lone wolf hero, in this 1983 Italian post-apocalyptic schlock. Mega-weapon is the best character. This experiment is comparable in genre to City Limits (403), Alien from LA (516), and Escape 2000 (705).
502 Hercules: Steve Reeves toasted a few brain cells making this mythical B-movie classic in 1958. Arnold Schwarzenegger always cited Steve Reeves as the Hercster being an influence on him wanting to become a body builder. Steve Reeves is also in Hercules Unchained (408), but it’s a different Herc in Hercules Against the Moon Men (410).
507 I Accuse my Parents: This was also a Rhino release I enjoyed over & over. Truck Farming is one of their best shorts, and the riffing is non-stop funny through the host segments to the end. I love teenage delinquent B-movies, bad biker films, and 1970/80’s cheese. To me those are the easiest ones to riff. There were a lot of totally clueless filmmakers in the 1940’s & 1950’s, largely due to the anti-communist blacklist. Many true artists were run out of the movie industry, and that’s why this type of garbage got made– again & again.
509 Operation Double 007: This one stars Neil Connery, brother of Sean, and was originally released in 1967. So many great James Bond riffs, in this really bad Italian spy movie that has Montepenny, and Largo from Thunderball (1965). Great host segment where the acting careers of Neil & Sean Connery are compared. I love the brutality.
511 The Gunslinger: Beverly Garland is a big favorite of all Misties, and this is one of her two movies Joel & the bots riffed. The other is Swamp Diamonds (503). Roger Corman knew how to make bad movies, and John Ireland is in top form as the drunken hired gun, who exchanges loving thoughts with Beverley Garland as they shoot at each other until he is fatally wounded. Call it a love me tender western, with a bang-up climax. Everyone but Beverly Garland dies, as the new sheriff trots into town on his horse. Roll ’em.
604 Zombie Nightmare: MST3K Season 6 is underrated. This lame 1986 horror flick stars Adam West as a bad cop. This experiment originally aired on Thanksgiving 1994, with Adam West hosting, and we get dry humor as he introduces experiment after experiment leading up to the debut of MST3K’s Zombie Nightmare, about which he has a few words of his own. Find the ‘Turkey Day’ host clips to this one.
608 Codename Diamondhead: One of my favorites. I don’t watch the short, A Day at the Fair, because it reminds me a little too much of the crap they used to show us on film day at school. But I do love 1977 cheese, and nothing personifies that more than Roy Thinnes (or Clu Gulager). As Crow quips, “This is Quinn Martin’s most personal film.” This experiment has so much polyester, with long sequences of non-action from Roy Thinnes, and Mike & the bots kill it. Note that Roy Thinnes (below, with France Nuyen) also appears in the serial shorts, General Hospital, which were featured during Season 4– experiments 413, 415 & 417.
614 San Francisco International: This is another made-for-TV movie, starring Clu Gulager & Pernell Roberts in 1970. David Hartman has a career defining role as a pilot with a mushy nose wheel. This turkey was actually picked-up by NBC, and defined TV movies for the better part of a decade, whether it meant to or not.
622 Angels Revenge: This was a 1979 Charlie’s Angels rip-off film that flopped. It starred Peter Lawford, Jack Palance & Jim Backus among others, in a shameful attempt to titillate. Like I said, Season 6 is overlooked. No Joel Hodgson hurts for sure, but it was maybe their most consistent season, with 24 episodes, most of them MST3K classics.
703 Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell: This is my favorite experiment from Season 7, which is when the series was falling apart behind-the-scenes. Also known as Deathstalker III: The Warriors from Hell, this is a 1988 sword & sorcery fantasy film, the third in the Deathstalker tetralogy. Even as you’re reading this, it’s not too early to hate the lead character. There’s also Thom Christopher as Troxartas (below), who played Hawk in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81) on NBC. While I’m in the neighborhood, Cave Dwellers (301) was another popular MST3K Rhino release in this genre, with spoofing of mythical badness, and miles of Miles O’Keeffe as Ator.
I like what I like, based on when & where I grew up. So do you. It’s natural to get nostalgic for stuff that takes you back to childhood, which is why this list weights the way it does. That’s why I think it’s impossible to come up with a ‘Best of MST3K’ list, because peoples’ tastes & backgrounds are so different. A great strength of the original series is that it covered so many genres, styles, and tastes. Horror, action, teenage delinquency, giant bugs & monsters, made-for-TV fare, etc. If you ask 20 different Misties, you will get 20 different lists of favorite experiments. That’s a sign of depth & greatness. Classic MST3K can’t be pigeon-holed or put in a box.
In closing, the KTMA episodes are largely unwatchable, and many were re-done during the early Comedy Channel seasons, especially the Sandy Frank productions. All the CC remakes are better, as the KTMA episodes are only interesting as a study of a great idea in its infancy. The lesson is that great art doesn’t just happen, it takes genius, and years of hard work & refinement. It’s lack of money to go around, which tears apart many great collaborations.
Today Joel Hodgson makes more money at MST3K than he ever did in its 1990’s heyday. But the reboot isn’t nearly as biting or funny. That’s the price an artist pays for fame & money. I don’t blame Joel Hodgson for doing what he’s done. He and his colleagues at BBI were ripped-off, when they were the best at what they did. Artists should get paid for making us laugh, cry & think when they are relevant, and at the height of their power. It’s an industry practice to dismiss & marginalize such artists until they can be brought under the corporate thumb.