No Longer a Cowtown Puppet Show

The New Seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000 Have Lost Their Midwestern Charm

For a couple of years, I belonged to a Facebook fan group for Mystery Science Theater 3000 and its descendant, Rifftrax. This was a specific focus, as there are groups that leave out Rifftrax or include the other children of MST3K (Cinematic Titanic and the short-lived Film Crew). In it, we fans, or MiSTies, gathered to share jokes, talk about news in the fandom, and ask each other questions. We even kept circulating the tapes.

When the 11thseason of MST3K, helmed by Jonah Ray, released, the group divided bitterly between those who liked the new season and those who didn’t. Some of the ugliest encounters I’ve ever seen on social media took place between these factions. There was no consensus among the dislikers on what bothered them about the new season. Some disliked Felicia Day for no reason except that she is female, while others found it off-putting that the bots, Tom Servo and Crow, had new voices and personalities.

those were the days

It wasn’t the first time the group had been a house divided. Every few months, a new member waltzed in, dropped the “Joel or Mike?” bomb, and waltzed out. The comments would explode. Joel, the show’s creator and the first five seasons’ host, gave off a stoned, fatherly vibe on camera. His roots as a prop comic found fertile ground in the show’s interstitials. Mike, the head writer and the host for the second half of the original run, played a weird, funny dude from Wisconsin with a dubious youth and a taste for musical theater. Both hosts have rabid fans. Rarely do the twain meet.

These divided fans demonstrate distinct senses of humor. Joel’s version of the show is more repetitive, less performative, and generally cheaper and looser. Mike runs a tight ship. He almost never flubs lines, his sketches rely less on props and duration, and the puppeteering of the robots is more limber. For a certain group of fans, this isn’t as appealing. It reads less like “a cowtown puppet show”—Kevin Murphy’s longtime description of Mystery Science—and more like a real television show.

Maybe this same effect is why I was so turned off by season 11 of MST3K, and also by season 12, which released on Netflix last week. I wish I had liked the new seasons more. They come from the heart, from sheer fandom on the part of stars Ray and Patton Oswalt. The new talent on the show is significant and it works smoothly in both seasons. But there’s something missing: Midwesternness.

Not much broadly popular entertainment comes out of the Midwest. Most of what does has its edges sanded off.  Football is the main cultural export of the Midwest I can think of that hasn’t been diluted or altered by coastal intentions, but most television shows set in the Heartland are still largely conceived and/or filmed in Los Angeles. While definitely not filmed in L.A., Fargo, according to Minnesotans, presents an incorrect rendering of the region. But for all ten years of its original run—with varying degrees of creative control, depending on which network aired it—MST3K was produced in Minnesota by Midwesterners. It was a cowtown puppet show.

The new seasons of MST3K are…not that. They feel as if you described the original show to someone, all the structural and formal details, and that person built the new show without having spent the hundreds of hours it takes to absorb the old one. The person you described the show to got his creative training in New York and L.A., and he wrote and budgeted the show as if it was a New York or L.A. show rather than a Midwestern one. He has a New York broadcaster’s horror of dead air and a Los Angeles comic’s competitiveness.

Now the jokes hit incredibly fast, one after the other, as if the audience is being hustled rather than entertained. I timed it (unscientifically), and the new crew makes a joke every three to four seconds, rather than every eight to twelve, as the old crew did. That feels like a coastal pace rather than a Midwestern pace. Most of the interstitials are based around props, a la the Joel era, and they’re just as wearying.

Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways

But the show features much fancier props than the Best Brains budget ever allowed for in the 1990s. The show’s introduction, though made with some low-fi techniques like models and stop-motion, is nevertheless detailed and high-quality. There’s a full band, in uniform, with brass instruments, instead of the host singing lead and the bots singing harmony. Guest stars from the first season included Neil Patrick Harris and Mark Freaking Hamill. The damn thing is in widescreen.

But this feeling of hustle and gleam isn’t the only sensation that divides me and my MiSTie instincts from the new show. It’s also a nagging disrespect that swims through the infrastructure of the new seasons. The jokes are varied, colorful, and enormously fun, but they’re superficial and sometimes unkind. They rarely comment on the film’s plot, on its narrative moves or its characterization, in favor of commenting on the visuals and the most recent lines of dialogue. This quality is more prevalent in season 11 than in season 12, but the latter includes an episode, Killer Fish, in which the crew repeatedly imitates the late Margaux Hemingway’s lisp, like a middle-schooler would. Mocking the costumes or poor training of film actors is fair game, but mocking flaws they can’t help is cruel.

Riffing textually is pretty easy. Anyone can make fun of a bad haircut. The best riffs in Mystery Science come from an understanding of what works well in a film, and thus, what a particular bad film is failing to do well. In The Touch of Satan, from the 9thseason of the original run, much is made of how slowly the characters talk. “Maybe this was once fast-paced, and someone spilled a Grape Nehi on it and it got all gummy,” Tom Servo suggests. “TALK QUICKER,” is Crow’s contribution. For multiple jokes, they milk the characters’ tendencies to pause for long seconds in between lines, because it’s a quality endemic to the film—an error strong enough to bear a running joke.

I’m not going to argue for every film’s inherent dignity, or clutch my pearls and call it heartless for MST3K to interrupt winners like Teenagers from Outer Space with demeaning jokes. But the jokes from seasons 11 and 12, skimming along the surface of the movie, feel ruder to the movie than they need to be. They leave on the table a lot of the humor inherent in accumulation. But the new season’s writing also betrays a failure to meet the movies where they are, to perceive them as complete artifacts made through the labor of human beings. The new seasons give me the impression that the crew isn’t really paying attention to the movie at all—only to the next joke opportunity.

I don’t think Mystery Science would be a particularly good show if it didn’t understand movies so well—if it weren’t fascinated by, rather than disdainful of, all the ways a movie can go wrong. The new seasons don’t read that way to me. They value the quick laugh over the slow-burning joke. That’s a sorrow.

And I assign this tendency to the show’s differing provenances, rather than to the differing crews or networks, or even the passage of time in between. The passive-aggression of the Midwestern mindset, the belief that everyone is doing their best until given evidence that they’re not, the experience with farming that allows for a flawless bullshit detector on movies written and directed by people who’ve never been inside a barn—all these elements are present in the original seasons of MST3K, and absent from the new ones. There’s a humility to the first ten seasons, an urge to do well but not too well, lest Tall Poppy Syndrome behead the ambitious. That simply doesn’t exist in the quick, flashy Netflix era.

I hope for a solid future for Mystery Science, whether the new crew continues making episodes or not. At present, the show is obscure enough that when people ask about my Tom Servo tattoo, I have to launch into an explanation that makes most listeners think I am nuts. The 12th season has engendered pieces in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Newsweek, which is encouraging. But though I don’t wish the new crew ill, a small part of me hopes that people who find the new seasons good, but not great, will delve into the old library of MST3K rather than losing interest entirely.

Or that they’ll check out Rifftrax. Composed of the crew from the latter half of the original run (Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett), Rifftrax is doing the same patient, Midwestern work Mystery Science Theater 3000 did in the 1990s. If nothing else, the Rifftrax crew proves, where the new seasons of MST3K don’t, that there’s a lot more to riffing than squeezing jokes out of a bad movie.


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Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere.

2 thoughts on “No Longer a Cowtown Puppet Show

  • November 28, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    I don’t care for the new seasons either. It seems like the jokes make less sense and are about jamming as many pop culture references in as possible.

  • November 29, 2018 at 6:40 am

    Good piece! Well thought-out. Having enjoyed the original show since around 1991, I’ve had similar feelings but didn’t express them as well.

    I’m not giving up on the new version of MST3K, but I hope–if they get another season–the current crew have a come-to-Jesus meeting about what made people not just laugh at, but feel real warmth for, the original show.


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