Before I get into this…I want to preface that I do generally like the reboot, and I feel it’s headed in the right direction. But there are a few things that bother me, and I wanted to disclose them here.
What is MST3k?
If you don’t know what Mystery Science Theater: 3000 is, then I’d kindly ask you to put your hands above your head until you see daylight, and crawl out from the rock you’ve been living under. 😀
MST3k is a show about a guy trapped in space being forced to watch bad movies. In order to lighten the situation, he and his robot friends – Crow and Tom Servo – “riff” the movies. In other words, 3 dudes narrate over bad movies some of the most clever and creative jokes you’ve ever heard within the context or within reference to the film.
The show had multiple seasons, and, despite its popularity, was cancelled in the late 90’s. However, despite no longer being aired on TV, its cult following has grown over time. And as a result, decades later, we have MST3k: The Return.
What’s different about MST3k: The Return?
Numerous things have changed since the original show. First and foremost, we have a new host: Jonah Ray.
Now, if you’re familiar with the original show, having a new host is really…nothing new. Throughout the original show’s lifespans there have been two hosts: creator Joel Hodgeson, and head writer Mike Nelson. We’ve also seen two Tom Servos and two Crows. We’ve seen villains come and go, changes in sets, and theme song changes.
The same is entirely true of the new show; on top of the new host, we have two new voices for Tom Servo, Crow, and Gypsy. We have new villains played by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt. We get an updated, modernized theme song, a brand new set, higher quality cameras, new inventions, and of course – more bad movies.
Sometimes, different is good
I admit, I was scared about all the change happening with the show, but I was pleasantly surprised how natural everything felt. Jonah’s performance fits the bill, the voices of Crow and Tom Servo take some getting used to if you’re used to Trace or Bill (the original Crows) and Kevin Murphy (the longest standing voice of Tom Servo), but work overall.
Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt nail their parts as Kinga Forrester – daughter of Dr. Forrester – and Tv’s Son of Tv’s Frank, Max. Both fill the shoes of their parents by torturing Jonah and the robots with terrible movies, and forcing them to invent random things.
Patton Oswalt really steals the show in their sketches. His delivery of every line is nothing short of perfect.
The new theme song is as catchy as the originals. Most of the noticeable changes met, if not exceeded my expectations.
Sometimes, keeping things the same is good, too
Despite all the differences, there are a lot of things that have stayed just the same, less some minor “upgrades”. The set layout is generally the same, but now in high definition. The countdown doors are very similar, but seem more detailed. The silhouetted riffers are in the same spot as they were, and the movies are all just as bad.
The charm and cheesiness and light-heartedness remains the same in MST3k: The Return. Unfortunately…this is about where my praise ends. Because, you see, there’s something missing. Something is different about the new show that just doesn’t set well with me…and that is….
…it’s not that funny.
Don’t get me wrong, I did laugh pretty hard at a few good jokes, and I have generally enjoyed the show, but less in the way I’m laughing every 20 seconds, but in more of a…”That was kinda funny… I’d like to see more of that…wait there’s no more…oh well, let’s see what’s going on with Facebook”…kind of way. As each episode progresses, I grow more and more bored.
To hold the MST3k title, you must uphold the one thing that made it truly great: it was hilarious. And it’s not that the new show isn’t funny, it’s just…not that funny. So…why?
Well, to answer that, I have a few key points I’d like to bring up…
1. The essence of a good joke
There are a few things that really make a joke impactful. First, it’s timing/delivery. Mel Brooks, one of the greatest comedy film writers and directors in history credits his comedic abilities to his sense of timing.
Timing in joke telling and story telling is crucial; listeners should be able to be engaged in the joke as if in conversation, and have time to react once they hear the punchline. A mistimed line could throw the entire rhythm off, alienating the listener, taking them out of the experience, and feel like they’re being told a joke printed on a piece of paper, being read by a performer. And you don’t want that. Which bring’s me to my next point.
Expectancy. It’s hard to laugh at a joke when you know the punchline, isn’t it? It’s also very difficult to laugh when you know precisely when a joke is about to occur. Instead, a good joke should take you to a place in your mind you wouldn’t have considered going, and once there, there’s the big “Aha!” moment, where the joke hits you right in the face. And you laugh. One of the greatest comedians of our time, Louis CK, spoke about his own comedy when asked about the adult oriented and controversial things he says in his stand-up. To paraphrase, he said he likes to take people to that place that’s really uncomfortable, so that once they’re there, they can look around and see it wasn’t all that bad, and ultimately feel good and happy in that place. Because the thing that makes horrible things less horrible is to make them funny.
Now obviously, MST3k is generally a clean show, but the principal of delivering the unexpected reigned true in the original show, but doesn’t seem to exist in the new one. More on that later.
2. The essence of a good riff
One of my favorite things about MST3k are what makes it so good – the riffing. Mike Nelson, Joel, and the original gang are all stellar riffers. What I feel made it truly great is how natural it felt. When you watch them riff, you really feel like they’re reacting to the screen, not performing in front of it. Whether it’s Kevin easing in what almost sounds like an improvised song over the film’s score about the Touch of Satan in your heart, or a sarcastic remark about how dance rehearsals are the Horrors of Spider Island. Or perhaps it’s something as simple as finishing an actor’s sentence, transforming the entire meaning of the scene into something even more ridiculously hilarious.
No matter the type of joke, the almost always felt incredibly natural, snarky, sarcastic, and did a really good job of being in context with the movie.
3. The story does matter
I know, the show’s theme song says I “..should really just relax” when questioning the nature and context of the show…but it kind of matters! I’m not talking about the minor details – again, I couldn’t care less how he eats and breathes or other science facts.
What matters to me is how actors respond to the premise of a story. The premise? I guy gets kept against his will and is forced to watch bad movies. Both Mike and Joel responded to this premise exceedingly well. Joel had a very “put out” look on his face no matter what he was doing; granted, his standup was quite similar, but it fit. He really seemed like he didn’t want to be there and was trying to make light of his situation by making fun of it.
Mike did equally as well, but with a bit more of a passive aggressive tone. He puts some “stank” on it, and always had a great way of telling how much he hated being there. In one episode, he sits down and sighs with a relaxed tone of voice and says something to the effect of “Man..don’t you just wish you could…reach up and…wipe this movie away with a tissue and throw it in the trash?” His delivery and blatant sarcasm layered with this blissful tone made for one of the best opening lines I’ve heard in an episode.
In other words, Joel and Mike did an excellent job of fulfilling the demands of the premise.
4. The writing
Good writing plays an important part in any type of visual media. Early on in the original MST3k series, Mike Nelson took the part of head writer while Joel remained the host. I can’t speak to the specifics of the writing process they took, or credit specific jokes to specific people, but I can say that Mike Nelson is a great head writer.
In an interview, Mike and Kevin talk about the riffing process, and note how they discard jokes, and sometimes entire films, simply because the potential for something to be funny just isn’t there.
They also put a ton of effort into making sure there were jokes for everyone. Jokes that weren’t just for that day and time, but could hold up over time. They would mix obscure pop culture references in with jokes just about anyone could get.
Mike Nelson, to me, has proven to continue to be a comedy genius even today with his project, Rifftrax. Since starting, he’s hired multiple writers to work on riffs, but the spirit of his snarky, passive aggressive joke telling can be sensed in every Rifftrax. These cleverly written jokes were what I felt was missing when I watched other post MST3k projects, like the Cinematic Titanic. Don’t get me wrong, it was quite funny, but it was lacking something. And I think it was a good head writer.
MST3k: The Return lacks in all these areas
Remember when I said timing is important, and that jokes should feel spontaneous, natural, and unexpected? Well the new MST3k doesn’t really seem to follow that principle…
Instead we get rapid fire jokes. According to Joel in an interview, they were intentionally trying to not talk over dialog. In his facebook post where he shares this article, he claims it’s the reason the jokes are told so quickly.
And honestly, I get the explanation. But it’s not a reason to tell jokes at such a poor pace.
I found myself more often that not trying to keep up with the jokes, where it was more a chore than entertainment. Jokes were told so fast with such similar tone and delivery, it was hard to tell what was conversation/dialog, and what was just a one liner. I wish that instead of telling more riffs faster, they would have just cut jokes. I’d rather hear one great, well timed joke, than 5 riffs in 10 seconds.
To top it off, the jokes just aren’t that funny. I’d get it if the jokes were maybe a “different style” or something like that, but…they’re just not all that great. Don’t get me wrong – there are GREAT jokes throughout the series – but they feel sprinkled in. They don’t make up the majority of the show.
Instead, we get a lot of corny, poorly timed visual gags that just feel awkward. Remember when I said expectation was important? Well, seeing Tom Servo fly in the middle of the screen, or seeing Gypsy randomly drop down and stare at the screen is not only distracting, but literally tells me when a joke is going to happen. It’s not that I dislike visual jokes or prop comedy, but it should be something that adds to the film on screen, not distracting.
Joel had some visual gags in the past, as did Mike – though his were more subtle. In fact, in one episode from Season 1 (I think, at least prior to Kevin Murphy taking the role of Tom Servo), a fight scene took place within the movie. Joel stood up and said “Oh hey, I’ve been wondering when I’d get to use these!” and proceeded to hold up “Pow!” “Bang!” and “Boom!” signs – making reference to the old 1960’s Batman show.
Here’s the thing – when Joel did it, he set up a premise that these things have been just laying there which does two things: makes you wonder what they are, and provides a reason for the joke to even be taking place.
However, in the new MST3k, Gypsy brings some sort of case down from the ceiling, taking away from anything going on the screen.. and on her way up, there will be silence…like 10-12 seconds of silence…followed by Gypsy telling a mediocre joke about what’s happening on the screen, and flying back up into the ceiling. I know this seems nit-picky, but if you’re going to comment or riff on something going on in the film, don’t you think you should avoid diverting the audiences eyes away from the film?
Some of the joke writing feels lazy, too. One joke in the first episode was the three characters simply yelling for 30 seconds what the camera was focusing on. One joke in the 6th episode was a (seemingly) 2 minute long song about getting on a stranger’s UFO. It’s almost like that really long “orange you glad I didn’t say banana” knock knock joke, but the person telling the joke says “banana” 20 times. It simply goes on way too long to the point of being uncomfortable.
Speaking of writing, why does Jonah seem so excited to be watching bad movies? I mean, if I were in his shoes – playing the role of an iconic character I grew up watching – I’m sure I’d have trouble containing my excitement. But Jonah being incredibly chipper and happy to be there doesn’t fit the premise of being kidnapped and forced to watch bad movies.
That’s a lot of negative stuff, David!
I know, I’m spouting a lot of negativity. I really want to emphasize that there is a lot of good to this show and that it has so much potential! And I think that’s what makes its incredibly obvious shortcomings that much more painful. If the show just sucked, I would’ve just shut the tv off and moved on.
But it doesn’t, it’s still as charming as ever, and has the potential to be great. They’ve got an excellent cast, great robot voice actors, and hilariously bad movies…
Joel and the new MST3k gang really need to take a look back and understand what made the show great, and deliver on that.
MST3k isn’t great because of the theme song, or the robots, or the storyline, or the campy sets…those things do well at tugging at our nostalgic heart strings…but MST3k was great because it had great performers telling great jokes over bad movies. They took something bad, and made it great.
Let’s hope they do the same with MST3k: The Return.
What do you think?
What are your thoughts? Does it hold up to the original series? Is this the ONLY MST3k you’ve ever watched? Do you agree or disagree?
I’d love to know your thoughts. Leave a comment below!