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Mystery Science Theater 3000, “City Limits”

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

Ever fallen in love at first sight? Ever met somebody and known immediately that you’d made a friend for life? Ever watched a TV show and become an instant fan?

I was in college in Athens, Georgia during the early years of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and since my local cable system didn’t carry The Comedy Channel (or later, Comedy Central), I read about the show long before I had the chance to see it. Then one night in the summer of 1992, I was hanging out at my friend Eric’s apartment, a few days after he got back from Atlanta with some videotapes from home—including the most recent episodes of MST3K. He popped in a tape and we watched Episode 403, in which Joel Robinson and his wisecracking robots suffer through the 1985 post-apocalyptic action movie City Limits. Within 15 minutes, I was hooked.

Or more accurately, I snapped to attention the moment I saw Joel, played by wry prop comic Joel Hodgson, whom I remembered seeing and enjoying on late-night TV during his early-’80s stand-up days. Hodgson launched Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1988 on Minneapolis-St. Paul UHF station KTMA, then moved it to The Comedy Channel a year later, shortly before it became Comedy Central. The core concept was simple: Joel Robinson would sit silhouetted in front of some goofy old movie and crack jokes alongside two robot puppets: Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo. To that, Hodgson added a framing device that had Joel trapped in space and forced by mad scientists to suffer through these bad movies as an “experiment.” The details of the framing device would change over the years, as would the cast. (Hodgson himself left in 1993 and was replaced as host by head writer Mike Nelson.) But the basic idea remained unchanged: riffing on bad movies, punctuated by short sketches.

The sketches in the City Limits episode were a major part of what sold me. The episode opens with Tom and Crow tricking Joel with the old Captain Kangaroo ping-pong ball routine—a classic bit of TV shtick that I’d all but forgotten until MST3K reminded me. And then in the weekly invention-exchange, Joel shows Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank an assortment of toys made from meat, Mr. Potato Head-style…

…while the mads counter with a special container designed to keep pop stars fresh. For example: morose British alt-rock sensation Morrissey.

Later, cueing off Crow’s crush on City Limits star Kim Cattrall, the robot sings a song about her.

And in my favorite sketch of the episode, Joel and the ’bots use the City Limits world’s obsession with comic books as an excuse to come up with their own ideas for new superheroes.

Around my house, whenever superheroes come up, we still refer to Man Man (“all the powers of man, but… he’s a man”) or “Super Harry Connick’s Girlfriend” (a joke from later in the episode). I also can’t see Kim Cattrall without humming Crow’s song, or contemplate pomposity without thinking of Crow saying, “Oh, is the great Sir Beef Wellington Head going to grace us with his presence?” It’s funny… television is such a transient medium, and by all rights, Mystery Science Theater should’ve been a “watch, enjoy, forget” kind of show. When a season was in production, the MST writing/performing team cranked episodes out in roughly 10 days, with minimal time to fuss over the scripts. And they had a small staff, working in the wilds of Minnesota, so it isn’t like they had the resources that, say, Saturday Night Live has. And yet these jokes, knocked out quickly over the course of one week in 1992, have been stuck in my head for 18 years and counting.

That’s reflective of the whole Mystery Science Theater 3000 ethos. The show featured a barrage of pop-culture references, drawing on movies, music, sports, television, commercials, comics, children’s books, and more, with a good mix of old and new. When I watched Episode 403 for the first time, my eyes popped the moment Mike Nelson appeared as Morrissey, because I wasn’t expecting a Morrissey joke in a cheap, science-fiction-y basic-cable show. Nor was I expecting the show to drop references to Goodfellas, Muppet Babies, Ray J. Johnson, Mel Tillis, and perennially disappointing NFL quarterback Jay Schroeder. The writers free-associated, and if their free-associations jarred one viewer’s memory, they’d made a new fan. In some ways, MST3K is the ultimate example of what I referred to in my Simpsons “Very Special Episode” column as “laughing at the known.” Quite often, the references on MST3K were funny to me only because I “got it.” And when they referred to something I’d never heard of, I didn’t laugh.

Then again, MST3K’s comedy wasn’t exclusively about references. There was a playfulness about the show too, as Hodgson and company deconstructed the B-movie-making apparatus, or the unintentional surrealism of the inept, or even their own premise. While watching City Limits, Joel even spoofs the show’s silhouettes by opening an umbrella and obscuring some inconvenient nudity.

The gang goes on to rip the sad careers of Cattrall and Robby Benson, while noting how stupid the movie’s props and costumes look, and dropping a reference to one of Benson’s most famous roles.

Later, they continue to rip Benson, and make fun of the way characters run in and out of the frame…

…and relish the moment when Benson gets his comeuppance, between references to Raymond Carver and Smucker’s.

And, in a frequent MST3K motif, they note the similarities between the movie’s score and other songs, and riff accordingly.

When an Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode really gets rolling the way City Limits does in the scenes above, it provokes what I call “The MST Effect.” That’s what happens when some oft-unnoticed bit of ridiculousness—like the running in and out of frame above—makes everything seems ridiculous for a few minutes, from the artificiality of movie-making to the give-and-take of everyday life. That’s one of the reasons so many fans feel the show was made just for them: because it exposes the silliness of simple convention.

Even when MST3K isn’t ripping away veils, though, the show is good for a quick, unexpected joke, as in this compilation of my favorite City Limits bits:

Again, there are jokes here that have been in my quote-rotation ever since, from “This is CNN… Get off my land!” to the closing rap, which I cite whenever I see a movie that’s “really stupid” and “way too long” (whether or not it stars Robby Benson and Rae Dawn Chong). But I also enjoy the gags that are just based on familiar visual cues, like Tom saying, “Next week, on City Limits!” when the shot fades, or the reference to the opening credits of The NBC Mystery Movie, or to William Conrad’s commercials for First Alert.

And I like the real sense of surprise when a Bert and Ernie joke turns out to be more apt than Joel expected (a nicely played sense of surprise, given that Hodgson and the other writers must’ve watched the movie three or four times before writing that joke), and the way the guys repurpose a few meaningful glances between the characters onscreen into a daily lunch order. It’s an unexpected twist on a dull scene, and funny whether or not you’ve ever heard of Sizzler.

I don’t mean to keep disparaging the jokes that are little more than references, though. They are funny, and they do serve a purpose. When Crow looks at a landscape and says it reminds him of “a Windham Hill album cover,” he (or rather his puppeteer, Trace Beaulieu, or whomever else might’ve actually written the joke) empties his subconscious into ours. If you remember Windham Hill, you now have a new association in your mind. If you don’t, maybe you look it up. Either way, a piece of our shared popular culture has been preserved.

Similarly, would anyone remember City Limits if it hadn’t been an MST experiment? Hodgson and company were actively engaged in cultural recycling, at a time when that was easier to do, before media conglomerates started getting stingier with their properties, lest they turn out to be valuable. Intentionally or not, MST3K were making sure that the people who worked on City Limits—including famed rock producer Mitchell Froom, who helped with the soundtrack—didn’t toil in vain. The City Limits cast and crew left behind a movie that became fodder for something greater.

Is City Limits the greatest episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000? No, definitely not. I have my own list of must-sees, top-lined by fan-favorites Manos: The Hands Of Fate and Mitchell, and my personal favorites, Laserblast, Pod People, and any of the Coleman Francis movies. But really, it’s wrong-headed to discuss MST3K in terms of best and worst. For one thing, because of the way the show was produced, the writers didn’t always have a lot of control over how an episode turned out. Though the movies were pre-screened and selected before production, some movies just weren’t that conducive to riffing, and the MST crew sometimes didn’t realize they’d made a bum choice until it was too late to turn back. Still, even when the source material was weak, there’d always be a few minutes here or there where the gang would get on a roll.

And honestly, even the best MST3K episodes have dead spots. Part of the fun of watching the show was that it required some commitment. Fans would sit through two whole hours each week, waiting for an episode to take the inevitable turn from mildly amusing to side-splitting. Throw in the intros, sketches, and fan-mail segments, and the whole Mystery Science Theater experience became ritualistic—almost like church. And as with church, adherents never knew when an epiphany might come.

In The Church Of MST, I’m a follower of Joel. Not that I have anything against Mike Nelson; he’s funny as a utility player in the early seasons, and funny as the host later on. Some of my favorite episodes are Mike episodes. But in terms of overall sensibility, I prefer Joel’s sleepy joviality to Mike’s more acerbic wit. Joel generally seemed to maintain a modicum of affection for the movies he was mocking. Mike comes off as more of a cynic, equally annoyed by trash and pretension, and unwilling to cut anyone any slack for liking something he considers inane. That’s clear even in Nelson’s portrayal of Morrissey, which is amusing but blind to the notion that Morrissey’s persona could itself be partly a put-on. As head writer, Nelson saw his sensibility creeping into MST3K even in the Joel era. In the City Limits episode, note the way the robots call their comics “graphic novels” with an extra note of sarcasm, or the way Dr. Forrester refers to the movie as “a high point” of Kim Cattrall’s career, never considering the possibility that she’d have a resurgence. There’s a strong note of contempt underscoring some of the jokes, a way of saying, “I may understand you, but I am not one of you.”

The Joel/Mike dynamic persists today in the trashier areas of popular culture, where it’s often hard to tell whether people are deriving genuine pleasure from the “so-bad-it’s-good,” or they just have grouchier dispositions, and find it easier to respond with an attitude of superiority and contempt. There's nothing wrong with the latter, necessarily. Bile can be a valid, necessary response to the world. It’s just not my preference. When friends ask why I haven’t seen The Room yet, my answer is that while I’m sure the collective audience experience surrounding Room screenings is a lot of fun, there's something a little off-putting about manufactured “Let’s go see something awful together” moments. I’m not stoked about Birdemic. I don’t want to eat a Double Down. I’m not into Jersey Shore. I’m not immune to the joys of junk; I’ve eaten plenty of lousy fast food on purpose, and if I hear from a friend that a movie is spectacularly crummy, I’ll make a point to watch it. But when I get the sense that people are gathering en masse to smirk at something, it isn’t as charming. 

Then again, just about every aspect of fan-culture relationships tends to be love-hate. It's easy to be friends with people who share your enthusiasm for certain kinds of movies, television, comics, music, or all of the above, but only if you’re friends first, fans second. Myself, I’d be unenthusiastic about the prospect of spending an afternoon with, say, a bunch of indie-rock buffs I didn’t already know. As with political movements and religious organizations, fan-cults can help us feel connected to a larger community, yet also alienated in new ways when we realize that not everyone is there for the same reason. There are always factions within factions. Some are Mikes; some Joels.

Even in the heyday of MST3K, I’d occasionally hop onto one of the many rec.arts groups dedicated to the show, then flee in horror when I’d encounter some fan’s lengthy version of an MST script. When you get an unexpected insight into why someone likes the same thing you like, it can be a little unsettling. Sometimes it's better just to be a passive recipient of the entertainment you enjoy.

Well, semi-passive. Mystery Science Theater had such a small circle of followers even at its peak that those who became one of them felt a responsibility to the show: to preserve it, to preach it. If you were a true fan, you didn’t just watch MST3K back in the ’90s, you taped it. And you didn’t set your VCR, you watched it while you were taping it, with your finger poised over the remote’s pause button so you could zap the commercials. (If Shout! Factory really wanted to replicate the MST experience on their DVDs, they’d insert a little VHS-warp at each chapter-stop.) After that night at Eric’s, I borrowed City Limits and any other episodes he had on hand, and my roommates and I watched them over and over. After I moved back home that fall, I still didn’t have access to a Comedy Central-enabled cable, so I used to beg, borrow, and literally steal tapes from friends to keep up, then show those tapes to everyone I knew.

That’s because MST3K made people want to be fans. The creators were such inviting hosts, creating a comfortable place for like-minded people to hang out for a couple of hours. They were open enough that just about anybody who watched could feel like-minded, even if they actually weren’t. From the “Info Club” reminders to the eclectic joke-subjects, the MST team made it seem like they were your kind of guys, right off the bat. It’s a nifty trick.

So, Eric? Yes, I can confess it now. I was the one who swiped your MST3K tapes that time I came up to see you in South Carolina. Sorry, man. Had to.

Next time on A Very Special Episode: The Andy Griffith Show, “The Sermon For Today.”