‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Local TV Origins

Guys, there’s so much TV now. There are a million channels, with new ones launching constantly, and then tons of streaming platforms, with new ones launching constantly, and they all need content. Hundreds and hundreds of new TV shows being made, filling up an infinite number of half-hour blocks. It’s crazy to think that not that long ago, once you hit a certain hour in the evening, TV would stop. It would just be infomercials to fill the space, or sometimes just nothing. The idea of a network having giant blocks of time to fill is just insane to think of today.

That was exactly the case in 1988 on KTMA, a local TV network out of Minneapolis. They had space to fill, so when a local guy who had moved back home after doing the standup comedy thing out in LA pitched a 90-minute show using their existing library of movies, they said okay. And that’s how the original incarnation of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was born.

Today, on Netflix, after a 17-year absence, season 11 of MST3K has launched. Since it first appeared, nearly 30 years ago, it has appeared on four different networks, had three different hosts, and produced one feature-length movie, a book, an hourlong spin-off, and has lampooned more than 200 cheesy movies.

As a new chapter opens, today in From the Archives, we go all the way back to the beginning and look at one of Mystery Science Theater’s first episodes ever aired, “Invaders From the Deep.”

Even when it was on national cable networks, Mystery Science Theater never looked like a show with a huge budget. Two of the main characters were puppets cobbled together out of gumball machines and lacrosse equipment. The set walls were mishmashes of plastic reindeers, old action figures, and model kits. Everything had a DIY aesthetic that added to its charm, and really made it feel like you were watching a show that was completely untouched by network suits. When the show was on the local station KTMA, that was doubly true.

There were basically five people responsible for bringing MST3K to life: Joel Hodgson, the show’s creator and the human in the theater, Jim Mallon, the station’s production manager, Kevin Murphy, KTMA’s cameraman, and future puppeteer, and Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein, serving double duty as the show’s first puppeteers and mad scientists.

The premise of the show is consistent through all its iterations (as is the theme song explaining the premise): a regular guy is shot into space by mad scientists where he is forced to watch bad movies along with the robots he built. However, the process through which these shows were created changed dramatically over the years.

On the nationally-run episodes of the show, a writer’s room would watch and rewatch the bad movies and write down every quip that was made throughout, until the official script was pared down to just the best of the jokes. On the KTMA episodes, the luxury of taking as much time as you needed to make an episode was not available. Joel, reflecting recently on the KTMA episodes, wrote, “The first thing I notice is how few riffs there are. Also, we seem to be sort of whispering and timid, like we don’t want to piss anyone off or disturb them from the movie. …Thinking back, I’m remembering that I seriously didn’t know how many interruptions caused by riffing the audience could tolerate – what’s possible? It wasn’t obvious to me.” In the first movie used on the show, four minutes go by before Joel pipes up with a joke (a sarcastic “suuuure…”). Part of this may be because in this early version of the show, there’s only one robot, Crow, in the theater with him as the proto-Tom Servo character at this stage is known as Beeper and communicates only through R2-D2-like beeps. More than likely, though, the main reason is because it’s hard to come up with a million quips a minute when you’re watching the movie for the first time.

As it would be on the later versions of the show, occasionally the movie is interrupted by “host segments” in which we return to the bridge of the satellite where Joel and the bots engage in a conversation, sketch or song, usually inspired by the movie. In this first episode, rather than anything connected to Invaders From the Deep, a strange illness is affecting the plant life, robots, and Joel, which causes streams of foam to shoot from the affected organism. This doesn’t really have a payoff (at the end of the episode, Joel just tells us that everything’s fine now), and instead just seems like an excuse to make robots shoot foam. The highlight of this episode segment is a leftover from Joel’s standup routine, where he shows us one of his new inventions: the electric bagpipes. He produces a leaf blower attached to a set of bagpipes and turns it on creating an enormous racket (and an ingenious cover of “Whole Lotta Love”). As with the movie riffing, the host segments feel very loose, as though there was a general idea proposed that is being run through the first time in front of the cameras, as opposed to a tightly scripted affair.

With its largely improvised feel, ultimately the first episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 feels like a proof-of-concept presentation: Here’s the basic idea of the show, here’s enough to give you an idea of what it would be, but we’ll tighten everything up in post. We have all the elements; they just aren’t being utilized to the extent they will be in two years when they’re being shown to the rest of America.

In spite of all this, it is kind of surprising how much of what the show would become is intact in this early version. It’s just waiting for a little bit (but not too much) of polish to find the right level of DIY space travel. Ultimately, the KTMA episodes of MST3K serve as a reminder that no matter how ambitious or high-concept your thing is, there’s always a way to get it done. And who knows? Maybe 29 years later you’ll be working on the 200th installment of it.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his web series Ramsey Has a Time Machine featuring Chris Elliott!

‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Local TV Origins