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The return of Mystery Science Theater 3000

Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, Bridget Jones Nelson, and Bill Corbett

Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, Bridget Jones Nelson, and Bill Corbett

In the not-too-distant past — April 15 of last year, specifically, a pleasantly muggy spring night — hundreds of fans form a buzzing, chattering line that stretches the length of the damp sidewalk in front of Minneapolis' Parkway Theater. They're all waiting to watch a TV show that originally aired over two decades ago.

This is the night's second sold-out screening of a classic episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Creator and original host Joel Hodgson is on hand for an intro and fan Q&A.

The throngs pack into the Parkway, sitting in seats worn to ideal comfort by untold thousands of asses before. Focus on the pre-show babble and you can hear any number of the program's countless inside jokes bouncing around the room.

"Watch out for snakes!" someone warns a friend.

"Cabot!" someone else shouts.

The then-55-year-old Hodgson takes the stage to hoots and roaring applause. He's popular like a beloved ex-president: his reign vetted by history, his productive post-administration admired. Hodgson's hair has lightened a bit and crept farther back from his wryly furrowed brow, but the former standup comic has lost none of the deadpan charm he first brought to the airwaves in 1988 when Mystery Science Theater debuted on Minneapolis KTMA Channel 23. The stoner-ish faux-indifference of his youth has ripened into a comedy zen calm.

Creator Joel Hodgson with Crowe T. Robot

Creator Joel Hodgson with Crowe T. Robot

Hodgson shows off his old standup chops as he works the crowd, happily fielding questions he's probably answered dozens of times.

Then the main event: the notorious season-five finale, Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a high-concept, low-budget show celebrating cinema's worst. Each installment is framed by the exploits of the host — first Hodgson, later head writer Mike Nelson, and soon to be Jonah Ray in the forthcoming revival of the series — who has been imprisoned on a drifting spaceship, a.k.a. the Satellite of Love, and forced to watch atrocious movies as part of ongoing psychological testing/torture. The core of the show is the movies themselves, screened in their excruciating near-entirety, which the host and his robot pals relentlessly mock in an effort to keep themselves sane.

For instance, Manos: The Hands of Fate (literal translation: Hands: The Hands of Fate) is an infamous obscurity unearthed by the MST3K crew. It's the story of a family road trip through Texas that ends in poorly choreographed disaster when the group runs across a PG-rated black-magic sex cult.

Manos is quite possibly among the five or 10 worst movies ever made. Seeing it on the Parkway's big screen is hideous glory. The audience is in hysterics. People shout in unison with their favorite zingers.

Watching live people heckle televised people heckling a screen within a screen is some low-rent postmodern weirdness. It's all part of the delightful madness that made Mystery Science Theater 3000 a nerd-comedy phenomenon that spawned a pair of post-show spinoffs featuring various configurations of the cast, touring live shows, and a streaming internet channel.

Now, thanks to the most successful video campaign in Kickstarter history, the little Minneapolis show made of home-glued props and arcana dredged from the cultural junk heap is making a multimillion-dollar comeback. To celebrate, a rocketshipload of original cast members, along with both original hosts plus successor Jonah Ray, will reunite for their first-ever live show together, and they'll do it all back where it started: Minneapolis.

There's something inherently un-Minnesotan about talking back at movies. The interrupting. The cry for attention. Criticizing all those people who probably worked real hard, y'know?

But Mystery Science Theater was born here when Stevens Point, Wisconsin, native Hodgson moved back to his adopted home of Minneapolis after a stint acting and doing standup in Los Angeles. He cooked up an idea at once kookily elaborate and brilliantly simple, assembled a cast of local comedic talent, rigged up the sets and robot characters from junk-store finds — a skill honed in his early days as a prop comic — and debuted the show on a local Twin Cities station.

Mike Nelson agrees that the MST3K "house style," now known as movie riffing, goes against something in the humble Northern spirit. Nelson was the show's head writer before taking over as host in season six following Hodgson's departure.

"I think that's why we built in the fiction of being forced [to interrupt]. We wouldn't do it otherwise, unless someone told us to," he tells City Pages. "Once you get over that premise, I think there's something self-effacing about the comedy. It's a lot of class-clown comedy from the back."

After the end of Mystery Science Theater's 11-year run, cast members from various eras of the show teamed up to form offshoot movie-riffing groups. Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Conniff, and J. Elvis Weinstein collaborated on a show called Cinematic Titanic, where the group would sometimes take on the daunting task of riffing in real time while the object of scorn and affection played out before them on the big screen.

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Meanwhile, Mike Nelson and cohorts Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy came up with RiffTrax, whose format had an ingenious workaround to a problem that had hounded the original show for years.

MST3K could only tackle movies they had to rights to air, and budgetary constraints meant that was a limited pool. RiffTrax would capture audio recordings of Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy cracking wise about a slew of popular movies, such as Titanic, and Twilight and Harry Potter installments. But there was no need for the rights. Just like a kid in the '70s syncing up Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz, the RiffTrax listener only had to queue up the film in question, then simultaneously start the audio episode.

Host Mike Nelson sings with his robot pals.

Host Mike Nelson sings with his robot pals.

Licensing problem solved.

"We hacked it, man!" says Corbett, also the former voice of Crow on MST3K and self-identified as the group's resident pushy East Coast representative. Corbett joined fellow MST3K alums and the show's new host, Jonah Ray, on a panel conference call.

"We tried doing Daredevil, the Ben Affleck Daredevil, which is great for riffing," cracks Murphy, the former Tom Servo, "but there are no copies of it available."

The core of the MST3K crew has successfully collaborated in several iterations. Perhaps what's most notable is what hasn't happened in all the years since: No other group has managed to successfully launch a similar venture in the open-source, seemingly accessible business of movie riffing.

Why is that?

"I've wondered about that too," Nelson says. "The writing itself is really specialized and really hard. To get up to speed on it takes a while. We find even very accomplished writers will bail. The time commitment is so big and the mistakes are so hard to avoid in the early going. It's a weird craft. It's like we've invented our own hand-hammered comedy where you have to be an apprentice for 10 years to produce this thing. At the beginning it's very time-intensive and low-reward.

"I think people go in saying, 'Hey I saw this bad movie, there's a funny scene I made fun of and everyone laughed. I'll sit down and write it.' Well, there was 45 minutes of buildup before that scene, and now you have to fill that blank slate in with a laugh every 10 or 20 seconds."

Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Jones Nelson

Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Jones Nelson

Yet, Murphy notes, riffing arguably dates back a few hundred years at least.

"Well, gee, I think the first time I saw this happen was in the play A Midsummer Night's Dream, when they're doing the show and the king's court are all mocking it, and they're making comments right back to the stage. So what we do is certainly not anything new."

"I would just say Kevin's right," Corbett chimes in. "Shakespeare started it, but we're better than Shakespeare."

Another theater, another atrocity.

This time it's the James K. Polk Theater in Nashville, Tennessee, where the RiffTrax crew of Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy have gathered for a live vivisection of Time Chasers.

Time Chasers was a Mystery Science Theater favorite, notable for being one of the relatively few movies skewered that was contemporaneous with the show. Three years after the release of Terminator 2, 1994's Time Chasers represents time travel with what appears to be an old Windows screensaver. All of said trips wind up in a future that looks suspiciously like suburban Vermont circa 1994 (except that one time they go back to the Revolutionary War).

The RiffTrax guys are clearly having a great time tearing through Time Chasers, cracking each other up onstage while the film plays on a screen behind them. Even though they riffed the movie together back in 1997, they've come up with a whole new batch of jokes. Corbett even works in a reference to modernity's greatest terrible movie, The Room.

The RiffTrax crew: Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, and Bill Corbett

The RiffTrax crew: Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, and Bill Corbett

"Lisa!" he growls in his best Tommy Wiseau, "You and the space-time continuum are tearing me apart!"

Later on, Nelson reflects on the energy of the live shows. "I have a basement office. It's a nice office, but it's a basement office, so I feel like a comedy troll and every now and then they let me out for some light and I get to do these live shows. [In recorded episodes] you don't get a right-on-the-spot reaction, so it's great to do it in front of audiences and hear the laughter multiply and feed on itself."

The audience in Nashville is certainly receptive. They're whooping it up too at the AMC Rosedale 14 in Minnesota, one of hundreds of movie houses participating in a live simulcast of the show. Fathom Events has simulcast 19 of these RiffTrax stage productions, and they'll give the same treatment to the big reunion event at the State Theatre, which also celebrates RiffTrax's 10-year anniversary.

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The very mention of the Minneapolis reunion show provokes a thunderous ovation in the mostly full theater in Rosedale. They go bonkers like the guys onstage at the Polk Theater can hear them.

The resurgence of Mystery Science Theater 3000 has provoked a wave of enthusiasm that seems to surprise even the creators. And the fans are putting their money where their mouth is.

Hodgson launched a 2015 Kickstarter campaign with the hopes of rebooting the show for several more episodes, perhaps inciting a new run on a network yet to be determined. On December 11, he hosted a five-hour online live telethon to raise money for the venture. A few technical glitches in the broadcast be damned, the campaign wound up generating $5.7million, almost a million more than the original goal, including an additional $600,000 outside Kickstarter.

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It's enough to produce 14 more MST3K episodes with an all-new cast that features host Jonah Ray of Comedy Central's The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail alongside new bot voices Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn for Tom Servo and Crow, pitted against villains played by geek icons Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt. The writers' room will be stacked with the diverse talents, including The Simpsons' Dana Gould and bestselling authors Ernest Cline (Ready Player One) and Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind). Already slated for guest spots on the revamped series: Mark Hamill, Joel McHale, Jerry Seinfeld.

"The way I joke around my friends and the way I like to write jokes and the comedic stuff I do, it's really based off of the rhythm that I learned from watching Mystery Science Theater," says Ray.

Ray, a lifelong comedy nerd, has rapidly ascended the ranks of geekdom. He's the co-host of a standup showcase launched from a comic-book store, has appeared on Maron and Drunk History, and is a key player in Chris Hardwick's Nerdist empire.

But to Ray, nothing compares to being named the newest host of MST3K.

"My most watched movie is the Mystery Science Theater for This Island Earth. I had it on VHS and I watched it all the time. And then it became one of those things where I could turn it on and then fall asleep to it because I knew it so well."

The voices of Hodgson and the bots, he says, have tucked him into bed "more times than my mom."

When he first heard of the Kickstarter, back before he had any inkling he would actually be a part of the revival, Ray says he immediately sent in "more money than I told my wife I donated, just because I wanted to see it happen." Now that he is involved, "I will go until I overstay my welcome, and then I'll stay for as long as I can after that.... It's literally the job I wanted when I was a kid."

For devotees — MSTies as they dubbed themselves back in the primordial days of the internet, when the show became one of the first to develop a fan community online — the reunion show at the State Theatre has been a long time coming. So the question looms, what finally changed to bring everybody back together?

The consensus answer: Nothing in particular.

Nelson says there's no lingering acrimony or dramatic rift, just the natural progression of careers in different trajectories and lives in different cities.

"I think there's a thing on the internet where people want to fill that vacuum," he says, chuckling.

"The timing seemed right," Murphy says. "It never seemed right before, as busy as we've all been, or focused on other things, and it was just sort of an alignment of the stars."

"But I still demanded to be flown in to Minneapolis from Minneapolis," Trace Beaulieu, a.k.a. Dr. Forrester, chimes in. "Well, the FAA had something to say about that. It's not a safe maneuver."

The crew says they have some surprises in store for the big reunion show, which Nelson expects to be "a donnybrook, just a bunch of people swinging up there." The fodder for the evening won't be a deliriously bad movie. To accommodate such a sprawling group from all eras of MST3K, they'll riff on a series of educational video shorts, a favorite pastime from the original show.

The shorts consist mostly of corporate- or government-produced public-service announcements, presumably intended to help viewers of the '50s and '60s lead an upstanding life. In the harsh light of retrospect, helpful tutorials like "What About Juvenile Delinquency?" or "Is This Love?," a guide to marriage and romance by Professor Paul H. Landis at the State College of Washington, aren't so helpful.

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"I think I love them because they seem, at this point in time, to have come from another planet," Murphy says. "And they're so serious that they're like the perfect straight man for us."

"I like that they're short," Beaulieu adds.

Corbett says half the fun is curating them. "They're like little archaeological digs into mid-20th-century America, and they are pretty tight-assed."

The gang promises a new batch of shorts to be sacrificed upon the altar of snark, like wayward victims wandering into Manos' lair. The hands (hands) of fate have at last conspired to realign all the players for the RiffTrax show. It is, after all, its own little cult, inspiring the smirking, eye-rolling ecstasy in its fervent following nicely summed up by Ray, the newest leader.

"It's a comedy-nerd Woodstock. It's going to be really insane."

IF YOU GO:
RiffTrax Live: MST3K Reunion Show
State Theatre
6:45 p.m. Tuesday, June 28