I was watching a bit of Mystery Science Theater 3000 over the weekend. I used to be kind of an addict for the show. It does combine a lot of my loves: puppets, low budget films, silliness. It does suffer from one big problem — especially in the later years under Mike: it tends to put down the films as “bad.” But the films are not, in general, bad. As Mike has shown with his Riff Tracks, a great film can be mocked as easily as any other. It’s just that on MST3K, they were limited to low budget films because they had to buy the rights to them. Anyway, it is a minor complaint, but I’m very tired after all these years of hearing people claiming that a film is bad when it simply didn’t have a lot of resources. A lot of low budget “bad” films have far more creativity and wit than big budget films.
But in recent years, I’ve found another problem with the show: it’s hosted segments. These are the bits they do outside the theater during every other commercial break. They are often inspired and funny. One of my favorite examples is this bit, “Earth vs Soup”:
But more often than not, they miss. And even more important, they are never well crafted. They are clearly thrown together. For example, as much as I like “Earth vs Soup,” it’s an idea waiting for a writer. It is one of the longer hosted segments, but it barely mines the comic gold that is the idea of Crow trying to write one of those atomic age monster movies — except with soup. When they did the same thing with Crow’s idea of blaxploitation film, “Chocolate Jones and the Temple of Funk,” they didn’t even try:
Afros and a pimp hat? That’s it. Other than the title, which is brilliant, there is nothing there. The situation is even worse with the evil overlords. Dr Forrester and TV’s Frank work well enough, but the writing is always weak. It got even worse when Pearl took over. But I will admit, all the actors work really hard to get through the writing.
By far, the biggest problem with the hosted segments is that there is absolutely no effort to maintain the characters of Crow and Tom. The same problem exists with Gypsy, but she is gratefully not around enough to be much of a problem. And it is also true of Mike, but given he is always around the constantly changing Crow and Tom, it doesn’t stand out greatly.
The problem wasn’t that bad under Joel. But the longer the series went on, the more they reached for absolutely anything that they could fill up a minute or two of air time. So really, from segment to segment, Tom can change from an intellectual snob to a five year old. Crow tended to oscillate between good and bad id. But he became much less nice over time. In the first seasons, he’s kind of sweet. By the third season, when Joel asks him what he wants for Christmas, Crow says, “I want to decide who lives and dies!”
All this may seem petty, but actually, I like the characters. If you are going to have a television show, a big part of it is learning who the characters are. The hosted segments really should have used for that. And given that the hosted segments so often failed, they might as well have tried to create characters with some consistency. Not it stops me from loving the show. Here’s perhaps my favorite hosted segment:
One other thing. With one exception, the puppetry on the show is annoyingly bad. For some reason that isn’t clear to me, Trace Beaulieu is actually quite a good puppeteer. I think he was a stand-up comic before the show. I assume he had no previous puppet experience. I don’t know what is wrong with everyone else. I assume that they just didn’t especially care. The soul of the show belonged to Joel Hodgson, but I’ve always thought a lot of it was Beaulieu as well (based on the credits).