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'Mystery Science Theater 3000,' RiffTrax & the MST3K reunion

The cult comedy
The cult comedy "Mystery Science Theater 3000" will have a reunion much like the live shows its offspring RiffTrax has been doing.
Tommy Lau

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“Mystery Science Theater 3000” went off the air 17 years ago, but the cult TV show never lost its cult appeal. On June 28, most of the show’s alumni will take part in a reunion in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the series was born, and on movie screens around the country.

The show sprang from the brain of Joel Hodgson, a standup prop comic working in Minneapolis in the late ’80s, who was given an unglamorous time slot at the local independent TV station. Trace Beaulieu, who knew Hodgson through the local comedy scene, got a call in 1988 to come down and help put on a show.

“He had a little set put up, and a couple of robots laying on the floor,” says Beaulieu, “and he said, ‘Why don’t you go pick up those puppets and we’ll start doing a show?’”

The very thin premise was that Hodgson was a custodian, sent into space with his robot buddies by two mad scientists, and forced to watch godawful movies. This provided the comedians an excuse to savage some of mankind’s greatest cinematic sins.

“It was very much like being trapped in a spaceship,” Beaulieu says. “We were trapped in a studio watching bad movies.”

The show caught on and found a rabid following. It was picked up by Comedy Central and later moved to the Sci-Fi Channel — lasting a total of 11 seasons and even yielding a feature film in 1996. But in 1993, Hodgson left the show under a cloud of conflict with its producer. Michael J. Nelson — a longtime writer on the show — took over as host.

After the show was canceled in 1999, everyone went their separate ways, but the call of mocking bad movies was like a siren song. In 2007, Hodgson formed a new group called Cinematic Titanic, a video-on-demand format modeled on “Mystery Science Theater.”

Meanwhile, in 2006, Mike Nelson and his robot pals from “MST3K” — Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett — formed RiffTrax.

“We’re about to celebrate — I guess? — ten years,” Corbett says.

“I’m gonna celebrate,” Murphy counters.

“... or mourn ten years,” says Corbett, laughing.

RiffTrax sidesteps copyright issues by offering mp3 commentary tracks, which fans can play alongside DVDs of everything from “Harry Potter” to “The Avengers.”

“We’d been looking for, and had been frustrated by the idea of being able to do more current, first-run films,” says Murphy, who voiced the robot Tom Servo on “MST3K” for nine seasons. “But then, here comes the age of podcasting, and suddenly realized we just have to do our commentary in the form of a podcast, and teach people how to sync it up with the latest Hollywood films, and boom — we’re off and running.”

Murphy says lampooning movies — new and old — just became a way of life for everyone who graduated from “Mystery Science Theater.” He blanches at the question: What would you be doing if you couldn’t do this?

“Boy, that gives me nightmares when I think about that,” Murphy says.

The “MST3K” reunion show — which will be simulcast in movie theaters around the country — offers a rebuttal to fan speculation that there were two warring factions created in the wake of Hodgson’s departure from the original series.

“Actually, nothing like that ever really existed,” Murphy says. “All of us worked together in different iterations, and some of us liked some of us more than others. But, generally, I think that we all ended up being reasonably good friends.”

But as Hodgson admitted(in a 2014 interview for the podcast “Pod People,” there was certainly pain to be healed.

“My journey with it has been really weird, because I left the show and I didn’t really want to,” Hodgson says. “I felt kind of like I was getting pushed out. The funny thing is, and the kind of the strange blessing of it all is, that it’s just kept going. And so it’s really been great just to be able, in my own time, to come back to it.”

Last November, Hodgson announced he was resurrecting “Mystery Science Theater 3000” with a brand new cast, including Patton Oswalt as a mad scientist and Jonah Ray, from “The Nerdist Podcast,” as the new host. At $5.7 million, Hodgson’s Kickstarter campaign became the highest-funded film and video project in the site’s history. It’s a reflection of how beloved the show was and is, and how — even though “MST3K” didn’t invent the idea — it’s basically the gold standard of movie riffing.

Beaulieu, who’s been doing his own live riffing around the country with another alumnus — Frank Conniff — says the show seems to be more popular than ever.

“We keep meeting little kids who’ve been introduced to the show by their parents, and they absolutely love it,” Beaulieu says. “So the humor is kind of timeless. Funny is funny.”

And bad movies are bad movies.

“Yeah,” he says. “They don’t get any better.”

The "Mystery Science Theater 3000" reunion will be seen in several Southern California movie theaters. Click here for locations

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