One of the best things about being a book editor is that you get to help bring beautiful literary babies into the world, and quite a few of ‘em last a long time. Just the other day, on a five-hour flight, I sat on my hands while I watched my seatmate chuckle at a worn paperback copy of Christopher Moore’s LAMB. I wanted to say, “You know, I edited that book,” but then I would have had to interrupt Chris’s beautiful prose, point to the acknowledgment at the end, and produce some ID to truly non-impress him. There is a downside, though. One of the worst things about the job is that you have to do most of this off the clock, at home, on nights and weekends, because when you’re at the office, phones are ringing and meetings are calling constantly. You can’t actually edit a manuscript there. Some fine companies allow a “reading day” during the week. I was at home on one of those occasions, deep into another Bantam book, when my assistant called to tell me I had won the auction to publish the official book by the writers of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, which also happened to be my favorite television program. It was one of the happiest moments of my publishing life. I did a brief “victory dance,” then I had to go back to work.
I’d been after these guys for quite a while. The first time I saw MST3K (that’s the aficionado’s abbreviation), years earlier, I thought I had caught a local broadcaster’s error – in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was visiting my mom, that was entirely plausible. An ancient, awful movie was running on the air. It sounded like someone had left a mike open in the control room, and a couple of station employees were making fun of their own flick while it was rolling! My first indication of monkey business was aural. Once I started paying attention, the local heckling was perfectly timed and really funny: it was deliberate, they’d actually rehearsed it! Then I noticed three bizarre silhouettes at lower screen right: that’s where the rat-a-tat stream of wisecracks was coming from. At the next commercial break, I discovered I was watching something called MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, and I was forever hooked; I never missed another episode. Once I became an editor, I began writing letters to MST3K’s production company, begging them to let me do their official book and telling them how much I “got” their concept. Like Andy Dufresne, I heard nothing back, until they got a movie deal and decided to hold that auction for publishing rights. But when I finally stuck out my hand in person to Jim Mallon, the chief executive of their company, he said, “We meet at last!” He had read my letters – he just wanted to find out how much an MST3K book was worth.
MST3K existed in the world of show business, but outside it as well. It began in 1988 as a simple do-it-yourself program at KTMA, a Minneapolis cable channel, where Jim and Kevin Murphy, a gifted and creative production chief, spat out banal stuff like commercials for local retailers and a weekly wrestling program on next to nothing. At that time, Minneapolis’s comedy scene had one genuine star: Joel Hodgson, a magician and prop comic (think Gallagher, only with brains: Joel didn’t smash stuff, he “invented” wacky stuff). He’d moved to LA, done LETTERMAN and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and returned to the Midwest disillusioned at the dough which clueless tv execs were throwing at him for what he considered inferior potential sitcoms.
It was Joel who had the idea. Jim Mallon asked, what could we do great and cheap? Joel’s notion was simple: when we watch bad movies at home, particularly with friends, we tend to talk back to the tv. What if you codified that behavior by featuring the heckling? Joel being Joel, he created a backstory about a man and two robots marooned on a space station while mad scientists torture them with awful movies (don’t ask; as the silly surf-music theme song goes, “Just repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show / I should really just relax’”). The first few shows, only seen locally, stated the template: the movie rolls while Joel and two puppets are seen in silhouette. But el cheapo: the movies came from KTMA’s pathetic film library, and the heckling was by and large improvised. A DIY “space” set was the location for “host segments,” needed to give the audience periodic breaks from the mind-numbing banality of the movies. They had complete freedom — just as long as they were finished in time to dress the studio for wrestling.
And now it began.
Jim says they knew they’d struck a chord when they ran a telephone number on-air one week and filled the answering machine to overflowing (it was 1988, people!). At the same time, cable channels were desperately looking for programming. So it was that MST3K went national, though you still needed to (1) find it on an obscure cable channel, (2) grok it, as Heinlein put it, and (3) start telling your friends about it. The show’s new production company, Best Brains, Inc., did some creative housecleaning with its brand new production budget(!) from Comedy Central, formed by the merger of all-comedy competitors The Comedy Channel and HA! First came its own studio space in Eden Prairie, just outside Minneapolis. No more KTMA, no more wrestling. Next, the company hired professional comedy writers from the local stand-up scene. No more on-air improv. And finally, they could afford network-quality equipment, sets and props – though MST3K always maintained its handmade look and feel.
The other serendipitous event was the simultaneous rise of fan communication via computer. In the era of bulletin boards and listserv, MST3K’s core devotees began talking to each other, sharing their favorite wisecracks and arcane information about the show. Best Brains even encouraged viewers to share VCR tapes with each other: a super during the end credits every week read, KEEP CIRCULATING THE TAPES. This close connection to its fans turned them into fanatics, and by 1991 or so, when I discovered the show, they were an honest-to-God cult. A few years go by, even more fans come in, and now I get to do their book! After we signed, they even acknowledged our new partnership on the air: during the overly lengthy end-credit roll on a particularly amateurish movie, we heard, “Read the Bantam book!”
Salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners that they are (“we’re like any other TV folks, except we have to get up to milk the cows”), the hard-working book team (Jim, Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Paul Chaplin, Mary Jo Pehl, and Kevin, who organized it all from their end) had already completed most of the first draft by the time I came on board. It would be an “episode guide” that would lead fans through the 120-odd (and I mean very odd, muchachos!) movies they’d already eviscerated. To give myself credit, that was my suggestion during my phone interview — required of all prospective editors — but a toddler would have had the same notion. (“Do episode guide, Unca Tom!”) The writing was very funny. I made some notes and suggested some additional material – after all, I was a fan too. Now came the matter of illustrations, so in September 1995 they invited me over to Eden Prairie to look through their scrapbooks for photos and memorabilia.
Best Brains was located in one of those pre-fab industrial parks you find everywhere. From the outside, it could have been an ad agency, or an MRI facility. Inside the doors was not the controlled chaos of cliché, but a business whose business was funny business. Their Peabody Award (the highest honor for achievement in electronic media) was on the wall, all right, but bizarrely decorated in the MST manner. Their offices looked like anybody’s offices. What would have been the main conference room anywhere else, however, was a huge open space with a kitchenette, a massive table on which were spread all sorts of heavily-thumbed newspapers and magazines, and, at last, a big television monitor ringed by comfy couches. This was the nerve center, the kundalini power spot where lousy movies came to take pies in the face, more than 700 times per episode.
The beauty of the MST concept was that, as Joel intuited, it seemed like something anybody could do. Au contraire, gentle reader. I’m a pretty quick guy and pride myself on blasting out the bon mots, OK? But no sooner had I sat down at the big table with the whole writing team during their lunch break – sandwiches served from the kitchenette – than I met an incredibly fast hive mind that could shut you and me down in milliseconds. These words came from different mouths:
“Hey, Tom, you didn’t see today’s Washington Post, right? They published the Unabomer manifesto.” “The New York Times too.” “Guccione offered to print it too.” “Why not an advice column?” “Dear Unabomer: I hate my boss.” “Dear Unabomer: I have trouble meeting people.” “How scraggly is too scraggly for the winter?” “Thank you for calling the Unabomer. Press 1 for explosives, 2 for chemicals, 3 for postage.” “To speak to the Unabomer, get off the grid!”
All this came out while I was opening my mouth to take the first bite of my baloney sandwich, and it’s a good thing, too, because an instant later I would have either spit food out or aspirated it up my nose. I thought, these are trained professionals on a closed course, folks; don’t try this at home. Years later, one MST writer told me I probably could have sat on that couch with them, but I think this individual was just being nice. Every writer seemed to have a specialty that complemented the others’ deficiencies, and there was a system that allowed them to fight for references even more obscure than the one I made way back in the second paragraph. As Kevin once put it, maybe five people might get a particular joke, but those five would say, jeez, they’re INSIDE MY HEAD!
They showed me around and let me stand in the host’s spot on the “Satellite of Love” set. Joel Hodgson had already left the show, as had writer/performer Frank Conniff (who we still coaxed into the book), so I never got to meet either of them. Joel was replaced as host by Mike Nelson, to tremendous fan agita, which I always thought misplaced, because as much time and effort as the gang spent on its increasingly elaborate and gorgeous “host segments,” it was the movie riffing which made MST “sticky,” and the quality of the writing rarely waned. I never found out exactly why Joel left his baby, but I sensed some measure of bad blood when I asked Kevin if we could get Joel to at least do an introduction for our book. The return email read, “Joel won’t be participating.” However, not once in all the time I worked with the MST group, including three more books with Mike (MIKE NELSON’S MOVIE MEGACHEESE, MIKE NELSON’S MIND OVER MATTERS, and MIKE NELSON’S DEATH RAT!) and one with Kevin (A YEAR AT THE MOVIES), did I ever hear a single critical syllable spoken about Joel.
See, these were, and are, ladies and gentlemen, not showbiz putzes, even if they are in tune with their inner Bart Simpsons. For years, they had resisted pleas to move either east or west so that the gnarled fingers of the suits could be a little closer; wisely, Best Brains stayed at home with the cows, just under the radar. Their word is their bond, and they respect that quality in others. While I was doing what became THE MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 AMAZING COLOSSAL EPISODE GUIDE (take that, cable execs who thought their show’s title was too long!), they completed a movie which subsequently got a halfhearted indie release because the distributor was concentrating its marketing money on Pam Anderson’s BARB WIRE; how’d that work out for you, dickweeds? I know they were working on a MST3K CD-ROM and a comics series, both of which encountered huge problems and to my knowledge never appeared at all. (I heard one nifty idea for the CD-ROM, a “Flight Simulator”: the kid behind you keeps kicking your seat, etc. Funny!) Of all the stuff they had going on in 1995, the sole and single MST project that turned out exactly as promised was my book. I think that’s why I got Mike and Kevin’s solo projects later: they knew they could trust me to actually do whatever I said I would do. Not that I didn’t make a mistake. I should have included an index, so you could turn directly to the particular episode you’ve just watched. But at least it was an honest mistake.
I still keep up from afar; these are funny, talented people who are genuinely nice to be around. They remain busy on this and that, and most of them are still riffing on movies through two main channels: RiffTrax, and Cinematic Titanic. I may even be assisting one MST writer with a brand new project, but you’ll have to wait till it gets closer for more details. (Okay, ya got me: it’s Mary Jo Pehl.) If you meet a lot of musicians, as I have, or authors, or actors, or anyone whose work you’ve really admired, you occasionally arrive at the inevitable feet of clay; sometimes you wish you hadn’t met them at all. Not so with the posse from Eden Prairie. I count them all as friends — and they can sure count me as one too
P.S. I did finally get to meet Joel and Frank, as well as J. Elvis Weinstein, the original Tom Servo, backstage at a Cinematic Titanic show when I was working on M.J.’s book. They’re all very nice folks, just as I expected.
11/30/13: On the occasion of MST’s 25th anniversary, its DVD publisher has issued a wonderful box set. Great episodes, and as much backstage stuff as you can stand. Recommended to all aficionados.
4/15/17: And last night, I watched the first of 14 new MST3K eps now streaming on Netflix. Lots of things are different in the new iteration, including the backstory, cast and writers, but they still made me laugh out loud about a dozen times during REPTILICUS, and that’s what counts.