Riffing, heckling, interrupting: whatever you want to call it, making fun of bad movies and TV shows is a time honored tradition shared by basement dwelling teens and obnoxious teens in movie theaters alike. This week, the godfather of riffs, Joel Hodgson, launched a Kickstarter to attempt to bring back Mystery Science Theater 3000, the very first TV show devoted to talking over bad movies. In the 16 years since MST3k has left the airwaves there have been a number of different shows that have attempted to fill the void including Cinematic Titanic, The Film Crew, Rifftrax (each of which feature MST3k alumnus), Beavis and Butthead, The Benson Interruption, and the subject of today’s installment of From the Archives: The Sklar Brothers’ Cheap Seats Without Ron Parker.
Cheap Seats (as I’m going to shorten the title to for the purposes of this article) was a truly rare gem. Beginning in 2004 and running until 2006, Cheap Seats was an original comedy show airing on ESPN Classic, which is not usually a common destination for humor programming. Like MST3k before it, the show had a premise behind it, justifying why the show’s hosts were taking to the airwaves to make fun of old shows. Randy and Jason Sklar are tape librarians who enjoy watching old weird sports shows and making fun of them on the couch. When the host of the show, Ron Parker (played by Michael Showalter) is suddenly trapped beneath an enormous shelf of videotapes, Randy and Jason are next in line on the hosting depth chart and are put in charge of Cheap Seats. (In other words, repeat to yourself “It’s just a show. I should really just relax.”)
Over the course of the show’s 77 episodes, the show went through a surprising number of format changes, initially starting out with an hour run time, then half an hour, then a studio audience was brought in for six episodes, then a couple of episodes were done on the road, then it stopped being a show. Today we look at the premiere episode from the show’s second season, which is distinctive for two reasons. The first is that the show at this point is firing on all cylinders with a huge backlog of episodes, the format fully engrained, and Randy and Jason are comfortable in their hosting role. The second is that the show decided to give a nod to their riffing forefathers and invited MST3k’s Mike Nelson and his two robot pals Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot to join in and make fun of their host segments from the theater seats in the front row.
The March 14, 2005 episode of Cheap Seats began like any other previous one: Randy and Jason introduced us to the subjects of that day’s episode: a Japanese K-1 fighting match and a creative breaking competition in which contestants must find unusual ways and items to martial arts in half. These of course are relics from the earlier days of ESPN when they had to fill an awful lot of time with weirdo sports.
However I’m suddenly struck by the fatal flaw in trying to convey the humor of Cheap Seats to you in this medium. I am now tasked with not only describing to you the joke that is being made, but the setup to the joke in the form of the strange sport that is being watched, requiring an awful lot of description before you get the funny part. That said; indulge me as I attempt to demonstrate some examples of typical Cheap Seats humor.
Oh, and also, when Randy and Jason aren’t on screen I have no idea which twin is speaking, so I’m going to assign a Sklar to each line for ease of reading.
The first creative breaking contestant chops and kicks his way through a flurry of cement blocks, bricks, and boards that his team of assistants aid him in setting up. When one heretofore unseen assistant approaches, the only female one, he gives her a quick smooch before taking the license plate she’s holding and ripping it in half (which is not breaking, as one of the Sklar’s points out). After the kiss, Randy asks, “Was that kiss part of his routine?” To which Jason responds, “Yes! He’s creatively breaking her heart!” Or when contestant Chip Townsend receives his final score of 49.5, the boys posit “he’s so tough he broke a point in half!”
As with Mystery Science Theater, in between sections of the riffed-upon-material, some in-house sketches are performed. In this episode we get to see Randy and Jason do some creative breaking of their own (of a few different varieties), and an award ceremony to some of the stranger things that stood out about this episode. However, as I mentioned earlier, this episode has a few other voices chiming in. In the video below, enjoy the three different moments when Mike, Crow, and Servo appear to turn their riffs against riffers. (My favorite part about this is how the MiSTies slide into view, accompanied by a musical sting from their show, in a way that is reminiscent of how a score update might appear during SportsCenter.)
With such a timeless concept, there’s room enough at the table for whoever shows up to riff. Unfortunately, the words of Tom Servo, Mike Nelson, and Crow T. Robot turned out to be a little prophetic.
Crow: This is just a great idea. A cable show where you make fun of other people’s videos.
Mike: It’ll never last.
Cheap Seats (along with the rest of ESPN Classic’s original programming) would be gone a year later, but for the sports commentary of the Sklars one can still turn to their podcast Sklarbro Country, and for further riffing, please see any of the sources listed in the first paragraph.