Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>MST3K</i>, Turkey Day, and 30 years of taking over the world before pie is served

MST3K, Turkey Day, and 30 years of taking over the world before pie is served

“Thanksgiving’s always been a little bit bewildering to me because it’s not a religious holiday,” Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson recently told me. “When your family gets together, there are a few things that you do, but most of the time it’s about food preparation.”

“I know you’re supposed to spend time with your family, and that all works really good,” he said with a laugh, noting that he sounded more cynical than he meant to. “But at a certain point you have to go watch TV.”

And for 30 years—give or take the decade-plus it was off the air—some of those TVs have been tuned to Mystery Science Theater 3000. Through acts of happenstance, publicity, and resurrection, a human captive and his robot companions making fun of cheesy movies has become a Thanksgiving staple on par with turkey leftovers, marshmallow-topped “salads,” and cranberry sauce in the shape of a tin can. The show made its debut on Minneapolis-St. Paul UHF station KTMA on Thanksgiving Day 1988, and Comedy Central’s Turkey Day marathons of MST3K were a yearly ritual for most of the 1990s—one ushered into the digital age by Shout! Factory in 2013.

This year, Turkey Day comes early—Sunday, November 18—in order to make room for the 12th season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which arrives Thursday, November 22. Subtitled “The Gauntlet,” this seasons forms a different type of Thanksgiving marathon, as the mad scientists currently supervising the hunt for the worst movie ever made (Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt) force Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), Crow T. Robot (Hampton Yount), Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson), and the rest of the Satellite Of Love crew to “binge make” six new episodes of MST3K for Netflix.

“It’s a doable chunk,” said Day, who plays Kinga Forrester, the megalomaniacal daughter of the show’s original villain, Dr. Clayton Forrester. “I’ve played World Of Warcraft for longer than you’ll spend watching all of ‘The Gauntlet’ many a time.”

“It’s going to be better than talking about politics with your family,” she added.

Three decades ago, the show’s premiere date was a little less intentional. According to Hodgson, “It was kind of an accident the way it all worked out. We were ready to go, and it just happened that Thanksgiving would be the apt time to start.”

The two episodes broadcast that night, which take on a double feature cut together from episodes of the Supermarionation series Stingray and Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, are rough drafts of what was to come. The in-theater jokes are few and far between. Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein are still figuring out the robots’ voices. Joel’s captors, colloquially referred to as The Mads, are nowhere in sight. But the basic format that the show still uses 30 years later is in place, with the movies broken up by dispatches from the bridge of the Satellite Of Love. During the second episode, Revenge Of The Mysterons From Mars, these segments take inspiration from the holiday: Joel is frustrated that he’s missing Thanksgiving, but is grateful that he got to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; Servo dispenses an appetizer of Chex Mix from his head, and Gypsy serves a dinner of turkey and gravy (in tubes) and Soylent Green.

“We had absolutely no idea what the hell was going to happen,” said Kevin Murphy, who played Tom Servo for seasons two through 10 and served as MST3K’s jack of all trades—writer, producer, camera operator, lighting—while working at KTMA. “We put it together and put it out there, and we put the phone number for the station on the screen and said, ‘If you like it, give us a call, tell us what you think.’ When we got back after that first show, the answering machine was full.

“I think at that point, we thought we might be onto something.”

Twenty-one locally produced episodes later, so did the brass at HBO, who were about to launch basic cable’s first 24-hour source for comedy. Mystery Science Theater 3000 would be among the original series, stand-up, and classic films that the aptly named Comedy Channel began beaming across the nation in November 1989, beating Viacom’s similarly themed Ha! to air by a few short months. The rival channels slugged it out over this relatively small slice of the cable pie for a year, before calling the truce that produced Comedy Central in 1991. The critically acclaimed crown jewel of The Comedy Channel’s lineup, MST3K made the move to the newly created channel; later that year, the show became the centerpiece of a promotional effort devised by marketing exec Tony Fox.

“We were dubious about him,” Hodgson said of Fox. “We didn’t exactly like his ideas—we called him ‘10w Tony.’ But then one day he came in with this great idea called ‘Turkey Day.’”

The concept:a Thanksgiving Day marathon of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a mutually beneficial arrangement that commemorated the show’s anniversary, planted a flag for the fledgling Comedy Central, and provided 30 hours of programming in only 15 servings—a blend of excess and economy that would make any baster-wielding Midwesterner proud.

The name for the undertaking had a touch of serendipity to it. “Turkey” was a generally recognized term of cinematic ineptitude, but one specific usage had been instrumental in the show’s development: Harry and Michael Medved’s B-movie catalog The Golden Turkey Awards. “That book really sent me in the direction of MST,” Hodgson said. “I remember my roommate had it my sophomore year of college. I’m lying in my bunk reading this and going, ‘Why isn’t anyone making shows with these adorable, weird movies?’”

The show’s original production company, Best Brains, Inc., was commissioned to film wraparound segments (“bumpers” by their showbiz name) to complement the marathon. In addition to getting newcomers up to speed on the master plan of Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and giving Joel and the ’bots another opportunity to riff on Thanksgiving customs, these interstitials depict an eventful holiday in The Mads’ underground lair, Deep 13, as Dr. F goes about the business of world domination—introducing episodes, detonating the Macy’s parade’s Underdog balloon—while his sidekick, TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff), entertains a collection of guest characters who’d appeared throughout the show’s third season, which was then in production. Gerry and Sylvia, the mole people named for the producers of the first two MST3K features, drop by, as does The Plant That Reviews Music (Murphy, his lower body camouflaged by an old stage-magic mirror illusion) and head writer Michael J. Nelson’s free-associating, name-dropping impression of Jack Perkins.

“Six hours in the chair,” Nelson recalled of the makeup preparation that transformed him into the genial Biography host. “I am hot when a room is 45 degrees, and so putting on a bald cap and the woolen hair and a woolen suit and false teeth—it was just excruciating. But it was so much fun to play. That took away the sting of it.”

A television tradition was born, and for as long as there were new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 rolling out on Comedy Central, there was a Turkey Day to go along with them. The second installment found Forrester feeding Frank a turkey for every episode shown; the following year, after Best Brains turned down the offer to film new bumpers for free, the channel opted to produce them itself, and it found the ideal setting in the Edina, Minnesota home of one Debbie Tobin. Tobin, a poster on the show’s Prodigy bulletin board, had invited her fellow MSTies to Edina for a costume party that would coincide with Halloween and Michael J. Nelson’s first episode as MST3K host/test subject. But with Comedy Central’s involvement, a giant inflatable globe, and a catered Thanksgiving spread, “MSTieween” (as it came to be known) became the backdrop for Turkey Day ’93.

“I was in the ’93 bumpers, so that has a special place in my heart,” said Chris Cornell, who can be seen introducing The Day The Earth Froze—the episode that inspired his online handle, Sampo—dressed as Washington Post TV critic and early MST3K champion Tom Shales. “Kind of an in-joke because I was a freelance TV writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time,” he explained.

“Back then, the internet as we know it didn’t really exist,” said Brian Henry, who came as Bovarro from the season-four movie Crash Of The Moons and was surprised to find another attendee dressed in coincidentally corresponding garb. (Naturally, they were nominated to tee up that episode in the bumpers.) “It was the first time I had ever met all these people, and yet I knew them all very well via online services,” Cornell said. Cornell and Henry had collaborated on an AOL FAQ for MST3K, but were introduced IRL at MSTieween. Today, they’re the co-maintainers of Satellite News, the fan site that’s been keeping MSTies informed since 1997.

MSTieween may have strengthened relationships within the fandom, but it did a real number on the Tobin household. The lights brought in for the shoot were so hot that the food spoiled beneath them; one unexpected and uninvited guest lingered after everyone else left: the bug her son picked up from one of the visitors.

“If I could say one thing to Debbie,” added Cornell, “I would like to say I’m sorry your house got trashed and somebody gave the little one a terrible cold.”

Following MSTieween, Turkey Day lasted two more rounds at Comedy Central: A 1994 edition hosted by Adam West (who was lampooned in that marathon’s premiere episode, Zombie Nightmare), and a follow-up—dubbed MST3K Anthology in reference to the ubiquitous Beatles documentary that was wrapping up on ABC on Thanksgiving 1995—that returned the festivities to Deep 13. Frank Conniff had left the show that year, and his absence factors into what’s essentially a condensed reprise of the first Turkey Day. In the lead-up to a special, themed variation of the show’s seventh-season premiere, Night Of The Blood Beast, a steady stream of guests whom TV’s Frank invited to dinner before shuffling off to second-banana heaven—Jack Perkins, the androgynous musical sprite Mr. B. Natural (Bridget Jones Nelson), impish hellspawn Pitch (Paul Chaplin), the self-explanatory Kitten With A Whip (Murphy)—distract Dr. Forrester from his goal of taking over the world before the arrival of his mother, Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl).

“That’s one of the things that was the most fun about it—that it was all hands on deck,” Murphy said. “All of the writers, everyone remotely connected to the production of the show was on-camera at one point or another during that.” Nelson even got to share an onscreen kiss with his wife, one that ended with his oversized Perkins veneers smashing into Jones Nelson’s gums.

“That’s looking through a lot of weird windows: me dressed as an old man, kissing my wife dressed as a guy who’s some sort of pansexual, magical being,” Nelson said. “So yeah, there’s a lot of layers there. Our marriage survived it.”

But Mystery Science Theater almost didn’t. The MST3K Anthology promised big things on the show’s horizon—a theatrical feature, an episode guide, a second fan convention, and that crowning ’90s achievement of all cult comedy properties: a (never-released) CD-ROM—but it didn’t have a future at Comedy Central. After a pickup from Syfy (still in its infancy as The Sci-Fi Channel), the silhouettes were back on screen by early ’97; the only Thanksgiving marathon from this era of the show followed that November, minus the bumpers and Turkey Day branding.

Not that the cast and crew minded much. “Although they were fun, they were utterly exhausting,” Murphy said of the supplementary materials. “To the fan, did it add that much value?” Nelson wondered. “Was it worth that much time? I don’t know. It might not’ve.”

It depends on whether or not you were around to see them. In those Web 1.0 days, being a MSTie was a game of scarcity, and the unavailability of one-off broadcasts like Turkey Day created a powerful curiosity. As a teenage viewer whose access to the show was restricted to what I’d recorded off of Sci-Fi or bought from Suncoast Motion Picture Company, I pored over whatever information I could find about the marathons, be it the teasingly short description of Night Of The Blood Beast’s Turkey Day cut in the Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, or in the pages of Satellite News. Especially after Syfy canceled MST3K in 1999, it felt like I had missed my moment: a time when my favorite TV show aired practically around the clock, and had an entire day on the calendar set aside for it.

But the fans kept the torches burning. Henry took a DIY approach to Turkey Day: “I and a group of online friends would plan out what we would watch. There for the first one or two years, we’d all meet together online and watch the episodes in unison and provide our own Turkey Day.” As broadband internet and streaming video proliferated and evolved, so did the experience of watching MST3K. Officially licensed tapes of the show gave way to DVD box sets, which led to a select number of episodes showing up on subscription services like Netflix and Hulu. (And bootlegs and VHS rips elsewhere on the internet.) Shout! Factory had taken over the home-video releases in time for MST3K’s 20th anniversary in 2008; five years later, the company was looking for a way to mark the next milestone in the show’s life.

“We were discussing it in a meeting, and someone mentioned reviving the Turkey Day marathon as a streaming event,” Shout! VP of Marketing Michael Ribas said. With the approval of Best Brains and Hodgson, Turkey Day 2013 moved forward, with Mystery Science Theater’s creator as host and curator. It was a pretty big deal: Hodgson had reunited with his former colleagues for a 2008 Comic-Con panel and later riffed movies with them as Cinematic Titanic, but this was the closest he’d been to the show since his cameo appearance in the final Syfy season. “It’s me identifying it’s my thing,” he said of the decision. “I think that was an important moment, to go, ‘I’m going to front this. It’s okay.’”

That meant consulting the fans about which episodes they’d want to see as part of the first Turkey Day in 16 years, which also meant watching episodes that he’d missed during his time away from the Satellite Of Love; he recalls watching the ninth-season installment Werewolf—starring Joe Estevez and a whole lot of unconvincing lycanthrope prosthetics—on his laptop during a flight and rocking in his seat with laughter. “I had that opportunity to go into them and watch them and not know what was going to happen,” he said.

Shout! had planned Turkey Day as a one-off event, but the popularity of the stream and a tide of positive comments across YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit persuaded Ribas and company to make it a perennial event. That response also suggested that there might be an audience for a full-fledged Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival; when the Bring Back MST3K Kickstarter kicked off in the fall of 2015, Turkey Day was a major component of the campaign—and one of the first chances for the new face of the franchise to step into the spotlight.

“No one really knew how I would fit into the show,” said Jonah Ray. “When I look back on clips from that 2015 Turkey Day, I seem scared and nervous about what people might say. I was so hesitant, and I built it up so much in my head that it might be negative.

“Doing that Turkey Day, and doing the Mystery Science Theater Rifftrax reunion show, I could show people that I belong here.”

Growing up “a lone beatnik hipster nerd kid,” Ray also found a sense of belonging in the Comedy Central-era Turkey Days. The marathon was a refuge from cruel dinnertime gibes about his weight and his relatives’ other viewing priorities. “My family was such a sports family, I felt like I was just sitting around, trying to figure out the rules of football,” he said. “I had no idea what was going on, but it was what everybody else was doing. So to have another room to go and watch something that I liked and be by myself was very welcome.

“It’s a passive way to hang out with your friends when you’re not necessarily with your friends. Not to say you don’t have any friends, but it’s a way that feels like hanging out with friends.”

Of course, Turkey Day cuts the other way, too. Almost every time I asked the sources for this piece about what makes MST3K ideal Thanksgiving viewing, the conversation almost inevitably turned to families watching MST3K together. Henry mentioned that it was the kind of thing you could watch with kids without the fear of hearing or seeing anything too blue. (Provided Joe Don Baker’s not around, that is.) For Day, the show was rare common ground that she could find with her brother. Nelson, who’s been mocking movies with Murphy and second Crow Bill Corbett as Rifftrax since 2006, recalled hearing from fans who’d become estranged from family members, but found that they were still bonded by affection for this cowtown puppet show.

“I think it was the kind of show that everyone as a family could sit down and enjoy and each person could get something out of it,” Murphy said. “It was very easy to share as a show.”

“We were shocked that it was working so well with families—that they could all get it,” Hodgson said. “Getting it going, it was a really abstract notion—it was hard to explain to people. Still kind of is. But when you watch it, people catch on really quickly.”

Or maybe it’s another thematic tie, one calling back to all those L-tryptophan jokes in the vintage Turkey Day bumpers. As Murphy has been told, some people experience a soothing drowsy sensation from both kinds of turkeys.

“The weird thing that I’ve heard, at least a lot more recently, is that it’s a lot of people’s favorite show to fall asleep to,” he said. “‘Oh yeah, I love your show: I’ll put it on, and half an hour later, I’m sawing logs.’

“I don’t quite know what to think of that, but I guess it’s a compliment.”

[Note: In October, the author was contracted by the producers of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Alternaversal Productions, to participate in a documentary about the show. All reporting for this article was conducted independently of that project.]