Back around 2001 or 2002, my dad called me into his room. He’d often call me in to make me watch whatever he was watching. Sometimes it was something good, like an old cowboy movie, and sometimes it was something incredibly dull, like a droning documentary on the Norman conquest. For whatever reason, I wasn’t in the mood that night, so it was with some resentment that I trudged upstairs.
“What is it?”
“Come in and watch this movie.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about this guy and these robots who watch movies in space and make jokes. I’ve never seen it before, it’s really funny.”
The film sounded a bit strange, but if there’s one thing I wish I’d picked up from my dad, it was his sense of humour. He’s the best storyteller and joker I’ve ever known. If you catch him in a good mood, you couldn’t wish for better company. So I trusted his judgement for the time being and sat down to watch.
I didn’t know it then, but I was experiencing what I would later discover was an incredibly rare event: the broadcasting of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 on British terrestrial television. I don’t know where they got the tape, or why they decided to show it, or why they’ve apparently never shown it since, but I was lucky to catch it, because it was absolutely hilarious. Not awkward-funny cringe comedy, not surrealist quote-bait, but genuine, rolling-on-the-floor-with-laughter hilarious.
I discovered that what we’d been watching through our tears of laughter was the feature-length version of a cult American TV show from the 90s. I wanted to obtain it immediately, but it was difficult. Remember, this was a time before Youtube. Digital media still hadn’t really taken off, restricted as it was to a carefully-tended collection of 100 or so MP3s and a couple of music videos downloaded on a 56k modem from P2P filesharing services over the course of a year. When I looked it up online, I found episode guides and some pictures. That was it. No torrent links or streaming video. Eventually, David and I figured out that we could order boxed sets of a few selected episodes from America and play them on the new-fangled multi-region DVD players. We got a couple each, and the three of us would share an hour and a half of laughter.
It’s a show about Joel Robinson (later replaced by Mike Nelson), a janitor at Gizmonic Institute. According to the theme song, his mad scientist boss trapped him on the Satellite of Love orbiting Earth and forced him to watch the worst movies ever conceived while they monitor his reactions. Joel, being an enterprising sort of fellow, has managed to cobble together four robots to help him out – Cambot, Gypsy, Tom Servo and Crow. Cambot films them and Gypsy controls the ship, while Tom Servo and Crow join Joel in the movie room, where they spend their time taking the piss out of the cinematic crimes taking place on the screen in order to retain their sanity.
It’s a convoluted but fun set up for what is essentially a tv version of hanging around with your friends, watching a bad movie and making fun of it together. And holy god, are these movies bad. Who the hell thought it was a good idea to make movies like Hercules and the Moon Men or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians? I have no idea how the MST3k team found these forgotten travesties, but I’m glad they did.
It’s also incredibly cheap – when the show began in ’88, I can only assume they had a budget of approximately $5. The set seems held together with chewing gum and elastic bands, and I think the Gypsy puppet is made from a vacuum cleaner and a plastic bin. But none of that really matters, because the bulk of the show is the bad movie and the overdubbed joke track.
It’s an utterly, utterly charming show. It doesn’t always work (sometimes a film, no matter how bad, just hasn’t got a lot of meat to rag on), but when it hits its stride, it might be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.
You can find a whole mess of episodes on Youtube, no overpriced, underfilled DVD imports these days. I’ll leave you with a link to one of my favourites. The movie begins at around 5:15, and feel free to skip the interstitials – they’re mostly there to break up the show, and you won’t miss much.
Cave Dwellers, starring Miles O’ Keeffe.
“How much Keeffe is in this movie anyway?”
“MILES o’ Keeffe!”