Signs Of Intelligent Life On Television

Posted: November 25, 1993

Most of America thinks today is Thanksgiving Day. But MSTies - fans of the cult comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000 on cable TV's Comedy Central - know better. For them, it's Turkey Day, the annual marathon of the series.

The series, in its fifth season, has a doozy of a premise: The hero is this hapless guy who's trapped on an orbiting satellite and forced by evil scientists to watch horrible movies as part of a diabolical experiment. He sits watching the movie with a pair of the ship's robots (we can see their silhouettes sitting in theater seats at the bottom of the screen), and the three offer an offbeat combination of wisecracks and gently cerebral satire in a change of pace from some of the channel's rougher fare.

The result is not only hilarious, but also a nonstop liberal arts and pop culture quiz. Each week's two-hour episode (7 p.m. Saturdays) provides an estimated 700 wisecracks, with references to everything from modern art and classical philosophy to obscure TV shows.

Detailed numbers aren't available, but Comedy Central says the show, known as MST3K to aficionados, is one of the most popular programs on the channel, which reaches 30 million households. It's so popular that the producers have cranked up one-hour versions of old shows to run on weekdays starting Wednesday.

The marathon, which runs through 2 a.m. tomorrow, is a treat for fans, of course. But it's also a chance for neophytes to find out more about a series that has been hailed by critics and was recently nominated for a CableAce Award. It's also a chance to check out the show's new star.

It premiered on Thanksgiving 1988, on a Minneapolis UHF station, and was largely the brainchild of stand-up comedian Joel Hodgson. He and his small team did about 20 episodes on a minuscule budget before selling the concept to the old Comedy Channel where, in its one season there, 13 episodes were made. When the Comedy Channel and rival network HA! merged to form Comedy Central, the show moved with it. There were 13 episodes in the show's second season, and 24 episodes each in the show's third and fourth seasons.

Halfway through this season, a major change took place. Last month, in its most publicized episode, Hodgson, as satellite janitor Joel Robinson, finally escaped from the Satellite of Love aboard a previously unknown escape pod, dubbed the Deus Ex Machina. Mike Nelson, 29, who has been the show's head writer for several years and has done numerous cameos, became the new star. He plays a temp named Mike Nelson, who had been shot into space by the mad scientists to take Joel's place.

Why the change? According to Jim Mallon, the show's producer, Hodgson had grown weary of his on-camera role. Indeed, Mallon said in a recent telephone interview that Joel had "never really felt comfortable in front of the camera."

That, however, was not the what some fans were saying.

More than 35,000 MSTies are in the show's fan club and many of them are obsessed with learning about and discussing every detail of the show. Rumors abounded among them that one reason for Hodgson's departure was "creative differences" between him and the rest of the staff.

Mallon denied that, but confirmed that, despite previous announcements that Hodgson would continue to direct the series, he has taken an "extended sabbatical" and that "discussions as to the extent of his future involvement" were going on. (During his sabbatical, Hodgson worked as a creative consultant on ABC's short-lived Paula Poundstone Show.) Hodgson could not be reached for comment on his plans.

Many of those fan rumors circulated on electronic bulletin boards. MST3K boards are among the more active ones on most major interactive computer services, including Prodigy, America On-Line, CompuServe and Internet.

That activity recently extended beyond the computer screen. Three dozen MSTies from Prodigy and America On-Line gathered in Minneapolis from around the country for a Halloween party. When Comedy Central got wind of it, the channel sent a film crew and the partygoers became the official hosts of today's marathon.

As for the show's unofficial host, starring in a successful cable series is hardly a job Nelson expected to have a little more than four years ago, when the Illinois native was spotted performing in a Minneapolis comedy club by one of Hodgson's associates. "He suggested I should come over and do some typing," Nelson said with a chuckle.

Here are some of the other topics that have been burning up the MST3K bulletin boards recently, with comments from Mallon:

* The movie deal. After turning down a prospective deal with Paramount

because he and his team couldn't get full creative control, Mallon said that negotiations with Universal for a theatrical version of the show were nearly complete, and that filming may begin in spring for a possible fall or winter 1994 release. But don't expect a big-budget version of Mike's blasting into space. Mallon said the movie will be similar to a typical TV episode.

* One-hour episodes. New episodes will continue to be two hours long. But Mallon said Comedy Central had been grumbling about finding a way to cut the show by half, making programming easier. After initial resistance, the MST3K team has been busily splitting old episodes into two one-hour segments. The one-hour shows, which will begin at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. weekdays starting Wednesday, will be hosted by Nelson, not as his usual character, but as his wry version of the A&E Network's garrulous Jack Perkins. Mallon promises that no original material will be lost in converting the original shows.

* "Magic Voice." In the episodes since Nelson took over, one regular element on the series has been missing: the strange, disembodied female voice that counts down to "commercial sign" during each episode's brief opening. Mallon, who monitors the MST3K bulletin boards on CompuServe and Internet, noted that the fate of "Magic Voice" has been a hot topic. Mallon has assured fans that she will return, and adds, echoing the series' theme song, ''You should really just relax."

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