The series features a man and his robot sidekicks who are trapped on a satellite in space by an evil scientist and forced to watch a selection of terrible movies, especially (but not initially limited to) science fiction B-movies. To keep sane, the man and his robots make a running commentary on the film, making fun of its flaws and wisecracking (or "riffing") their way through the film in the style of a movie theater peanut gallery. Series creator Hodgson originally played the stranded man, Joel Robinson, for four-and-a-half seasons. When he left in 1993, series head writer Michael J. Nelson replaced him as new B-movie victim Mike Nelson, and continued in the role for the rest of the show's run.
The format proved to be popular. During its eleven years, 198 episodes and one feature film, MST3K attained a loyal fan base and critical acclaim. The series won a Peabody Award in 1993, and was nominated for writing Emmys in 1994 and 1995.
The loosely-defined plot of the show serves chiefly as a pretext for the movie commentary and the comic sketches known as "host segments" which appear throughout each episode.
Two mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester (named after the main character in The War of the Worlds), played by Trace Beaulieu, and his sidekick Dr. Laurence Erhardt, played by Josh Weinstein, launch Joel Robinson (Hodgson), a janitor working for the Gizmonic Institute, into space and force him to watch truly horrible B-movies. They do this in order to measure how much bad-movie-watching it takes to drive a person crazy, and to pinpoint the perfect B-movie to use as a weapon in Dr. Forrester's scheme of world domination. Forrester's scheme was that when he found a movie so bad that it broke Joel's spirit, he would unleash it on an unsuspecting populace and turn everyone into mindless zombie slaves. The sycophant TV's Frank, played by Frank Conniff, replaced Dr. Erhardt in the second season premiere following Weinstein's departure from the series.
Trapped on board the Satellite of Love (S.O.L.) — a reference to the Lou Reed song — Joel builds four sentient robots that populate the ship (ostensibly because he is lonely, and as a homage to the 1972 film Silent Running). The robots are Tom Servo (voiced first by Weinstein, then by Kevin Murphy beginning in Season 2), and Crow T. Robot (voiced first by Beaulieu, then by Bill Corbett beginning in Season 8), who accompany Joel in the screening room; Gypsy (voiced first by Weinstein, inhaling as he spoke, then by Jim Mallon and later by Patrick Brantseg, both using a falsetto voice), who does not appear in every episode but handles the "higher functions" of the S.O.L. (such as steering the ship); and Cambot, the recorder of the experiments who is visible only in a mirror during the opening credits and occasionally interacts with the others (for example, when Cambot is asked a yes-or-no question, the onscreen image will shift up and down or left and right, as if Cambot were nodding or shaking itself in a "yes" or "no" gesture). Also making intermittent "appearances" in the show's early years is Magic Voice, a disembodied female voice whose primary role is to announce the start of the first commercial break in each episode.
Joel has no control over when the movies start, for, as the theme song states, "he used those special parts to make his robot friends". He must enter the theater when "Movie Sign" flashes, because Dr. Forrester has numerous ways to punish Joel for non-compliance, including shutting off all oxygen to the rest of the ship and electric shocks. As the movies play, the silhouettes of Joel, Tom, and Crow are visible at the bottom of the screen, wisecracking and mocking the movie (a practice they often referred to as "riffing") to prevent themselves from being driven mad.
Several times during the movie (about every half-hour when shown with commercials), Joel (and later Mike) and the bots perform skits, songs, or other short sketch pieces (called "host segments") that are usually related to the movie they are watching. These segments sometimes even feature "visits" by prominent characters from a shown movie, such as Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate, "Jan in the Pan" from The Brain That Wouldn't Die, and Mothra from Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. However, before too much frivolity can transpire, the movie sign lights flash, signaling the resumption of the movie.
Many episodes without movies long enough to fill the show's run time also include screenings of unintentionally hilarious short films or "shorts", including educational films from the 1940s through the 1960s, a training film for Chevrolet sales managers, and films intended to teach children about posture or personal hygiene. On one occasion a Gumby cartoon was used as a short. These are less frequent in later episodes. They are nonexistent in season 8 (the first Sci-Fi Channel season), because during that season the Sci-Fi Channel's executives required that every film be a science-fiction, fantasy, or horror movie. The restriction was lifted for the last two seasons, with season 9 featuring two shorts (including the aforementioned Gumby film) and season 10, one short (in the penultimate episode).
Hodgson credits Silent Running, a 1972 sci-fi film directed by Douglas Trumbull, as being perhaps the biggest direct influence on the show's concept. The film is set in the future and centers on a human, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), who is the last crew member of a spaceship containing Earth's last surviving forests. His remaining companions consist only of three robot drones (the third robot was destroyed in the beginning of the movie), though they are not able to converse with him. MST3K and the Joel Robinson character also occasionally reflected Lowell's "hippie"-like nature.
Although MST3K was arguably the most successful television series to satirize the B movie genre, it was not the first. Prior to MST3K's 1988 debut, the nationally syndicated TV series, Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection and The Canned Film Festival, featured many of the same movies but each lasted for only a single season in 1985 and 1986 respectively.
Hodgson cites Beany and Cecil as having likely been a subconscious childhood influence. The 1960s Bob Clampett cartoon series centered on a boy and his sea serpent friend. In an interview, Hodgson made loose retrospective comparisons to elements between the two shows, such as the ship (the Leakin' Lena, to the S.O.L.), and the characters of Beany (to Joel), Cecil (to Gypsy), Huffenpuff (to Tom Servo), Crowy (to Crow), and Dishonest John (to Dr. Forrester).
Another childhood influence was the CBS Children's Film Festival, a 1970s live-action program which starred Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Burr Tillstrom's puppet troupe which was made famous during television's early days in the '40s and '50s. The characters consisted of a human (played by Fran Allison) and her two puppet friends (both performed by Tillstrom). Each episode of Film Festival featured an international children's film, with Kukla, Fran and Ollie serving as hosts. Fran would lead discussions of the film as the episode went on, in similar fashion to MST3K's host segments.
The signature silhouetted movie seats were partially inspired by several Looney Tunes shorts in which an on-screen character would interact with a "theater audience member" who could only be seen in silhouette.
The name of the Joel Robinson character is a reference to the 1960s television series Lost in Space, which followed the adventures of the shipwrecked Robinsons, a family of astronauts (which itself traces the theme of castaway Robinsons through The Swiss Family Robinson  back to Robinson Crusoe ). In the pilot and first season on KTMA-TV, Hodgson used his real last name.
Hodgson initially came up with the concept for the "Mystery Science Theater". The "3000" suffix was added later to sound like a version number (as in "HAL 9000"). Drawing partly on his own comedy act (which he was performing in the area at the time), the show's format was to showcase Hodgson. These initial episodes were filmed at the now defunct Paragon Cable studios/customer service center in Hopkins, Minnesota.
In September 1988, Hodgson enlisted Twin Cities-area comedians Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein, and producer Jim Mallon, to help him shoot a pilot for the show. The robots and the set, in their crudest format, were built overnight by Hodgson. The next morning, shooting commenced, and a 30-minute pilot, in which selections from the 1969 science-fiction film, The Green Slime, were the test subject film. Joel watched the movie by himself, and was aided during the host segments by his robots, Crow (Beaulieu), Beeper, and Gypsy (Weinstein). Camera work was by Kevin Murphy, who worked at the station and also created the first "doorway sequence" (see "Characteristic elements") and theater seat design.
Mallon met with station manager Donald O'Conner the next month and managed to get signed up for thirteen consecutive episodes. The show had some slight alterations — the set was lit differently, the robots (now Crow, Servo and Gypsy) joined Joel in the theater, and a new doorway countdown sequence between the host segments and the theater segments was shot. The back story was also altered from the pilot; In the pilot episode it is explained that Joel Hodgson (not yet using his character name of Robinson) had built the Satellite of Love and launched himself into space (according to an interview with Hodgson on StarWars.com, it was set in a post-apocalyptic future). Once the series was picked up this was changed, with Joel now having been a janitor at a "satellite loading bay", who was launched into space against his will by his evil "mad scientist" bosses. Joel's captors (played by Beaulieu and Weinstein) did not actually appear outside of the opening theme until several episodes later.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered at 6:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988 with its first episode, "Invaders from the Deep", followed by a second episode, "Revenge of the Mysterians" [sic], at 8:00 p.m. Initially, the show's response was unknown, until Mallon set up a phone line for viewers to call in. Response was so great that the initial run of 13 episodes was extended to 21, with the show running to May 1989. During this time a fan club was set up and the show held its first live show at Scott Hansen's Comedy Gallery in Minneapolis, to a crowd of over 600. Despite the success, the station's overall declining fortunes forced it to cancel MST3K.
Just as its run at KTMA was ending, the creators used a short "best-of" reel to pitch the concept to executives at the Comedy Channel, a national cable channel that was being created at the time. It became one of the first two shows picked up. New sets were built, the robots were retooled, and a new doorway sequence was shot. Another major change was the show's writing format: instead of ad-lib riffs in the theater, each show was carefully scripted ahead of time, with Nelson serving as head writer. Writer/performer Weinstein did not care for this new format, and subsequently left during the transition period. Murphy replaced Weinstein as the voice of Tom Servo and Mallon took over as Gypsy. The Dr. Erhardt character was replaced by Conniff's "TV's Frank" (who showed Joel and the bots a milk carton with Erhardt on it to explain he was "missing"). Despite being a lackey and not a "mad scientist", Forrester and Frank would still be collectively referred to as "The Mads".
After the second season, The Comedy Channel and rival comedy cable network HA! merged to become Comedy Central. During this change, MST3K became the cable channel's "signature series", expanding from 13 to 24 episodes a year, which would continue until its seventh national season, as the show gradually fell out of favor with the network's new management at the time.
Comedy Central ran a 30-hour marathon of previous MST3K episodes during Thanksgiving, 1991, including special promos and a "making of" show (This Is MST3K, hosted by Penn Jillette) that featured a behind the scenes look at episode scripting, filming, voicing, and puppet construction.
Hodgson decided to leave the series in 1993, halfway through season five. After being forced to sit through the Joe Don Baker movie Mitchell), Joel escaped the S.O.L. and returned to Earth with the help of Gypsy and Mike Nelson (a temp, played by head writer Nelson, hired by Forrester to help prepare for an audit from the Fraternal Order of Mad Science), after the two discovered an escape pod (named the Deus ex Machina) in a box marked "Hamdingers". To replace Joel, Dr. Forrester sent Mike up in his place, where he remained as the show's host until the end of its run.
Conniff left the show after season six, with Frank being taken to "Second Banana Heaven". Season seven saw the addition of Forrester's mother, Pearl (played by writer Mary Jo Pehl).
There were two official fan conventions in Minneapolis, run by the series' production company itself (called "ConventioCon ExpoFest-A-Rama" (1994) and "ConventioCon ExpoFest-A-Rama 2: Electric Bugaloo" (1996), the second being a dual reference to the movie Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo and the children's TV series The Bugaloos).
When Comedy Central dropped the show after a seventh season of only six episodes, MST3K's Internet fan-base staged a precedent-setting write-in campaign to keep the show alive. This included taking contributions from MST3K fans worldwide for a full-page ad in the television trade publication Daily Variety magazine. One notable contributor to the campaign was TV personality and Biography host Jack Perkins, whom Nelson had impersonated on the series several times. This effort led the Sci Fi Channel to pick up the series, where it resumed with some cast changes and ran for three more seasons.
Trace Beaulieu, who had played Dr. Forrester and Crow, had already departed the series at the end of its Comedy Central run (with Forrester ultimately becoming a star child in a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey). Mary Jo Pehl thus took over the lead "Mad" role as Forrester's mother, Pearl, who had been featured as a regular in season 7. Her sidekicks were the idiotic, Planet of the Apes-inspired Professor Bobo (played by Murphy) and the highly evolved, supposedly omniscient, yet equally idiotic Observer (AKA "Brain Guy"), played by writer Bill Corbett. In addition, Corbett took over Crow's voice and puppetry; with this replacement, the series' entire central cast had changed from the original KTMA / Comedy Central cast. In the middle of the first season on the Sci Fi Channel (the eighth national season overall), Mallon handed over the voice and puppetry work for Gypsy to BBI staffer Patrick Brantseg.
At first, Sci-Fi Channel officials mandated that every movie featured on the revived series had to fit within the channel's broad definition of science-fiction (which included horror and fantasy), instead of the varied genres present in past shows. By the final season, this restriction appears to have been loosened, allowing movies such as Girl in Gold Boots and the Joe Don Baker film Final Justice.
The series finale, "Danger: Diabolik", premiered on August 8, 1999, although a "lost" episode produced earlier in the season, "Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders", was the last new episode of MST3K broadcast on September 12, 1999. Reruns continued on the Sci Fi Channel until January 31, 2004. Including the feature film, the MST3K cast and crew produced 198 full episodes of the show.
As with the run on the Comedy Channel, the Sci Fi Channel run ended due to a change in management. As a two-hour show involving long negotiations for the use of third-party films, MST3K was a tough sell for networks, despite the fan base and ratings. However, many former members of Best Brains insist to this day that they would have loved to continue the show indefinitely, as evidenced by similar new projects such as Cinematic Titanic, RiffTrax, and The Film Crew.
In early 2008, some of the original MST3K cast reunited to shoot a brief sketch to be included on the web-exclusive DVD release of The Giant Gila Monster. The new disc is meant to be added to Volume 10 of the "MST3K Collection" DVD boxed set series, replacing the Godzilla vs. Megalon disc which can no longer be sold due to copyright conflicts. The new package will now be sold under the name "Volume 10.2." The three-and-a-half-minute video is presented as a seminar to instruct consumers on how to "upgrade" their DVD set, which merely consists of "disposing" the old disc and inserting the new one. Hodgson (as Joel), Beaulieu (as Crow and Dr. Forrester), and Conniff (as Frank) all reprise their roles, with Conniff also providing the voice of Servo.
|Cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000|
|Character|| KTMA "Season 0" |
|Comedy Channel / Comedy Central seasons (1989-1995)||SCI FI seasons (1996-99)|| The Movie|
| Flash series|
| Giant Gila Monster |
|Joel Robinson3||Joel Hodgson||Joel Hodgson1||Joel Hodgson|
|Mike Nelson||Michael J. Nelson||Michael J. Nelson|
|Crow T. Robot||Trace Beaulieu||Bill Corbett||Trace Beaulieu||Paul Chaplin||Trace Beaulieu|
|Tom Servo||Josh Weinstein||Kevin Murphy (actor)||Kevin Murphy (actor)||James Moore||Frank Conniff|
|Gypsy||Josh Weinstein||Jim Mallon||Patrick Brantseg||Jim Mallon||Jim Mallon|
|Cambot||Kevin Murphy (actor)2|
|Magic Voice||various, usually Jann Johnson or Alexandra Carr||Mary Jo Pehl||Beth "Beez" McKeever|
|Dr. Clayton Forrester||Trace Beaulieu||Trace Beaulieu||Trace Beaulieu|
|Dr. Laurence Erhardt4||Josh Weinstein|
|TV's Frank5||Frank Conniff||Frank Conniff1||Frank Conniff|
|Pearl Forrester||Mary Jo Pehl1||Mary Jo Pehl|
|Professor Bobo||Kevin Murphy (actor)|
|Observer ("Brain Guy")||Bill Corbett|
|Notes||1 Guest/cameo appearance only. 2 One episode only. 3 Known as "Joel Hodgson" during the KTMA season. 4 Often simply called "Larry". 5 Known as simply "Frank" until the fourth season.|
The first three KTMA episodes are considered to be the "missing MST3K episodes". No fan copy is known to exist. (Jim Mallon had once mentioned that Best Brains' master copies are stored in a vault.) The long lost episodes are K01 ("Invaders from the Deep"), K02 ("Revenge of the Mysterians"), and K03 ("Star Force: Fugitive Alien II"), with K03 being redone in season 3. "Episode" K00, "The Green Slime", is often counted among those missing shows, but is actually only a never-broadcast, half-hour sample from the film used to sell the MST3K concept to KTMA.
Several of the movies used in the MST3K series have consistently made the Internet Movie Database list of the Bottom 100 movies over time, including Hobgoblins (1987) (episode 907), Monster A Go-Go (1965) (episode 421), Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) (episode 424), Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders (1995) (episode 1003), The Incredible Melting Man (1977) (episode 704), and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) (episode 321).
The film was never given wide release, instead playing for a limited time in different cities and then moving to another city. The result was that many fans did not even know it had been released. The movie was released on DVD in the United States by Image Entertainment, but that release has since gone out of print. Universal Pictures re-released the film on DVD on May 6, 2008. The re-release features a new anamorphic widescreen transfer, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, and the film's original trailer. The movie is also available on DVD in Germany as of October 2007.
The film ran for 74 minutes, making it shorter than any episode of the actual series, and shorter than the original film, This Island Earth, itself.
On October 29, 2007, Jim Mallon announced through the Official MST3K Web Site that Best Brains, Inc. was being reborn. To spearhead the production company's return to activity, a new online animated web series referred to as "The Bots Are Back!" is being produced. The idea is to release a weekly adventure based solely around Crow, Tom Servo and Gypsy, with Mallon reprising his role as Gypsy and Paul Chaplin as Crow.
All new actors and staff round out the cast and writing crew. Never before seen behind the scenes footage was also released through the MST3K.com site from the original series, in addition to an online store with all new merchandise. The website was launched on November 5, 2007.
The only appearance to date of the cast in character since the final episode was an episode of ESPN Classic's Cheap Seats, where they briefly appeared in a cameo to make fun of the hosts' own skits. The show, which featured two brothers "riffing" in an MST3k-like manner at clips of old sporting events, aired from 2004 to 2006. Mike Nelson and Tom Servo were interviewed in character for the show Space Ghost: Coast To Coast, but the segment was never completed.
In the book The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide (written by the season 6 MST3K cast members), Kevin Murphy related two tales about celebrity reactions he encountered. In one, the cast went to a taping of Dennis Miller's eponymous show; when they were brought backstage to meet Miller, the comedian proceeded to criticize the MST3K cast for their choice of movie to mock in the then-recent episode "Space Travelers" (a re-branded version of the Oscar-winning film Marooned). In the other, Murphy discussed how he met Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., one of his literary heroes. When he had mentioned the show and its premise to Vonnegut, the author suggested that even people who work hard on bad films deserve some respect. Murphy then invited Vonnegut to dine with his group, which Vonnegut declined, claiming that he had other plans. When Murphy and friends ate later that night, he saw Vonnegut dining alone in the same restaurant, and remarked that he had been "faced... but nicely faced" by one of his literary heroes.
The reactions of those parodied by MST3K has been mixed. Sandy Frank, who held the rights to several Gamera films parodied on the show, was "intensely displeased" by the mockery directed at him. (The crew once sang the "Sandy Frank Song", which said that Frank was "the source of all our pain" and implied that he was too lazy to make his own films.) Because of this, Frank reportedly refused to allow the shows to be rebroadcast once MST3K's rights ran out.However, this may in fact be a rumor, as other rumors indicate that the Gamera films distribution rights prices were increased beyond what BBI could afford as a result of the show's success.
Kevin Murphy had said that Joe Don Baker wanted to beat up the writers of the show for attacking him during "Mitchell". Murphy later said Baker likely meant it in a joking manner, although Nelson said he deliberately avoided Baker while the two were staying at the same hotel.
Rick Sloane was shocked at his treatment at the conclusion of Hobgoblins. In a recent interview, however, Sloane clarified his comments, saying that "I laughed through the entire MST3K episode, until the very end. I wasn't expecting the humor to suddenly be at my own expense. I was mortified when they dragged out the cardboard cutout and pretended to do an interview with me. I was caught off guard. I had never seen them rip apart any other director before on the show." He also credits the success of the MST3K episode with inspiring him to make a sequel to Hobgoblins, due to be released in 2008. Jeff Lieberman, director of Squirm, was also quite angry at the MST3K treatment of his film.
Others have been more positive: Robert Fiveson and Myrl Schriebman, producers of Parts: The Clonus Horror, said they were "flattered" to see the film appear on MST3K.
Miles O'Keeffe, the star of the film Cave Dwellers, called Best Brains and personally requested a copy of the MST3K treatment of the film, saying he enjoyed their skewing of what he had considered to be a surreal experience (the film was shot in Italy). In the form of an essay and E.E. Cummings-esque poem, Mike Nelson paid tribute to Miles with a humorous mix of adulation and fear.
Adam West, star of the 1960s Batman TV series, co-starred in Zombie Nightmare, another film MST3K mocked. West apparently held no grudges, as he hosted several MST3K marathons on Comedy Central, including the "Turkey Day" marathon in which the episode featuring Zombie Nightmare had its broadcast premiere. Mamie van Doren (who had appeared in films like "Untamed Youth"), Robert Vaughn (who called Teenage Caveman the worst movie ever made) and Beverly Garland (who'd appeared in many MST3K-featured Roger Corman films) also hosted. Rex Reason, star of This Island Earth, has also appeared at several MST3K events and credits MST3K with introducing the film to a new generation.
The crew of Time Chasers held a party the night the MST3K treatment of their film aired. Reactions were mixed, but director David Giancola said, "Most of us were fans and knew what to expect and we roared with laughter and drank way too much. I had a blast, never laughed so hard in my life."
MST3K won a Peabody Award in 1993, for "producing an ingenious eclectic series": "With references to everything from Proust to 'Gilligan's Island,' 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' fuses superb, clever writing with wonderfully terrible B-grade movies".
In 1994 and 1995, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing for a Variety or Music Program, but lost both times to Dennis Miller Live.
Several unusual elements of Mystery Science Theater 3000 provide a unique feel to the show, and were featured in many (if not all) episodes.
The theater silhouette, trademarked as "Shadowrama" (sometimes "Shadowramma") — a row of chair tops with Tom Servo, Joel or Mike, and Crow sitting at the right side — is a simple row of rounded shapes cut from black painted foamcore board. Joel/Mike and the robot operators sit down in front of these, facing a white wall. When shot from the back it gives the illusion of sitting in a theater. A photograph of this appears in the book The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, depicting Mike Nelson with a script on his lap and puppeteers Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy working their respective robot puppets in front of the theater seat cutout.
Its characteristic appearance has been used in several works, often as an homage to the show.
In the initial DVD releases, a polyvinyl silhouette was included, which could be affixed to a TV screen via static electricity to allow viewers to create their own MST3K experience with any feature at home.
Featured in most transitions between the theater segments and "host" segments is a camera tracking through a tunnel leading from the bridge of the Satellite of Love into the theater, or vice versa. Access to the tunnel from the bridge is through a hexagonal doorway, originally decorated with a large, gear-like "G" (for Gizmonic Institute, the original lair of the Mads) In mid season 5, upon Joel's departure, the main bridge door's Gizmonic "G" logo was altered to a full pinion gear wheel/hub design for the Mike Nelson episodes (season 5-7). This change was made per Joel Hodgson's request that all references and logos to Gizmonic be removed upon his leaving the show. For the Sci-fi Channel era, the main bridge door was redecorated again with a Satellite Of Love profile shape locking hinge and planet design. This replaced the "gear wheel" design. As the camera (implicitly Cambot) moved through the opening doorway, a countdown of hatches, decorated with unusual artifacts and numbered "6" through "2" (in the style of a film leader countdown), moves out of its way, finally opening on the theater and the film. The doorway sequence was changed three times during the series duration. The first one was used for the KTMA season, and a more colorful and elaborate one was built and filmed for season 1 on Comedy Central which would remain in place until Joel left in episode 512. Beginning with episode 513, a newer more sophisticated doorway sequence was built and filmed in keeping up with the show's art direction at the time with more dark grey colors, more props and a more proportionally shaped hexagonal tunnel. This doorway sequence would remain for the duration of the series. The season 1-5.5 door sequence is known amongst fans as the "Joel Doors" and the season 5.5-10 sequence is known as the "Mike Doors". In Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, Best Brains acquired props to use an actual door sequence instead of recording one. The film's renditions of the doors also featured a plaster casting of the face of TV's Frank from the Joel-era seasons on Door #2, as an homage to the former cast member.
The HVS was, as its name implies, a hexagonally shaped opening on the SOL's bridge that served as a kind of monitor, through which the inhabitants of the SOL could interact with a wide and diverse range of visitors, often characters taken directly from whatever movie they were watching at the moment (Gamera, Jan-in-the-Pan, etc), and sometimes not (Yakov Smirnoff, rowdy redneck neighbors, etc). While an ostensible viewscreen, it was actually a small stage area, covered with a dark fabric screen with an "iris" mechanical door in front of it; and was often "deactivated" by simply turning off its lighting at the end of a transmission, as the door moves rather slowly. The HVS was used more frequently during the Comedy Central years. During the SciFi Channel era, it was used on a few occasions, such as during the season 8 send up of "The Mole People" and during season 10 in episodes "Soultaker", "Final Justice", & "Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders". The Hexfield Viewscreen premiered in episode 201 ("Rocketship X-M") and was originally manually operated with a hardware store bought window shade before episode 205 when the more familiar iris mechanism and frame backlight were installed. The HVS frame had different backlight colors through the years. It had a blue light from mid season 2-early season 3, white lighting in mid season 3, then yellow lighting in late season 3 and finally blue again from season 4 through 10.
Sometimes Joel/Mike and the Bots would become aware of something happening outside the ship, and would instruct Cambot to "give [them] Rocket Number Nine". Once they did this, they were provided with an external view of the ship and whatever was nearby. This is an oblique reference to the Sun Ra composition Rocket Number Nine, featured on the 1973 album Space is the Place. This became a running gag; every external shot of the ship, no matter what angle or element of the ship was shown, was of "Rocket Number Nine."
During the host segments, a set of three colored light-up buttons was located on the table's left side (mid season 1 through 10) (to the viewer) and above the door to the theater (Season 2-10).
The lights were absent from the early episodes of the series, and did not appear until halfway through the first season of the Comedy Central era. Before the lights appeared Joel would simply slap the table due to the lack of buttons. During Season 1, the color order of the light buttons were different than from later seasons. The green and red buttons were reversed. Green was used for commercial sign and yellow was for the Mads. Red was only used with the others during "movie sign". The rotating strobe lights above the doors did not appear until the set was revamped for season 2. Beginning with season 4, the center green light and green desk button was now a purple-esque/blue colored light and button. This was due to the blue chroma key used for the door sequence having been replaced with a green chroma key and the green lights did not show up well on camera with green chroma key and vice versa. When the S.O.L set was again revamped for the Sci-Fi channel era in season 8, the rotating strobe lights were replaced with solid square block lights (similar to the lights used in the feature film) and the color order above the doors was changed. The blue light was on the left, yellow in the middle and red on the right. However, the desk lights retained the same color order from the Comedy Central era.
The Hodgson era of the show (as well as the first five episodes of the Nelson era) featured the "invention exchange". This was always in the host segment which followed the first commercial break. Joel and the bots would present their latest idea for a new invention to the Mads (often ending with the line "Whaddaya think, sirs?") and vice versa. Hodgson's premise behind the segment was that as fellow Gizmonic Institute employees, the invention exchange served as a sort of company greeting. In reality, the segment was essentially a carryover from Hodgson's earlier prop comedy performances. The inventions ranged from a karaoke machine that only played public domain music (to avoid royalties) to a machine that converted fun gifts into mundane, practical gifts. The final invention exchange occurred in episode 519, "Outlaw" (the seventh show featuring Nelson as the host), wherein the Mads presented "the first really real time machine" opposite Mike and the bots' "instant Fabio kit". The invention exchanges were ultimately discontinued because, according to Murphy in The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, "Joel was the gizmocrat, the one who brought that invention exchange spirit on board," adding that "Mike is many things, but he is not a tinkerer". Despite this, Dr. Forrester and Frank continued to present new inventions and experiments throughout Seasons 5 and 6, usually sending them to Mike and the bots to test them out.
A brief (generally, three to five seconds) clip from that episode's movie (or occasionally the accompanying short) which played following the end credits of the show. The clip generally highlighted a moment or line of dialogue that the show's writers found to be particularly amusing. The tradition started with the second-season episode featuring Rocket Attack U.S.A., with a shot of a blind man walking down the street, then suddenly stopping to exclaim "Help me!" The stinger was replaced for three episodes of season eight with images of the Observers, and for a fourth with a shot of Bobo after a disastrous fall.
At the end of each episode during the "Frank" years (seasons 2-6), Dr. Forrester would instruct Frank to push "the button", which was located on a computer keyboard. When this was done, the image would shrink and leave a black screen to make way for the end credit roll. "Push the button, Frank" has since become one of the show's more recognizable lines among fans. (Some believe that the line is a reference to a running gag of "Push the button, Max!" in the film The Great Race.) Occasionally there were variations of this custom, as in Daddy-O where "the button" malfunctioned and would repeatedly interrupt the credit roll to switch the show back to the Mads in Deep 13.
Just like the films that they riff on, part of MST3K's charm is its economical use of its low budget. Everything, right down to the sets, props and robots are made from household items found at thrift shops. Part of this started during the KTMA years, as there was little to no budget supplied to the crew for the set, so such items had to be made out of various "found junk". Despite an increasing budget, Best Brains never forgot their roots as a "cowtown puppet show" and subsequently kept the bric-a-brac motif of the show.
Many of the riffs and cultural references made by the humans and bots in the show are specific to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, reflecting the origin of the show (filmed throughout its eleven seasons in this area) and the Best Brains staff's Midwestern roots. For example, in episode 422 (featuring The Day the Earth Froze), Crow T. Robot remarks how Scandinavia resembles southern Wisconsin with the crack: "It's the Swedish Dells!" He then says in a heavy Swedish accent: "The Dooks! Ride the dooks!" (that is, the 'Ducks', an amphibious tour vehicle). There is also an episode where they reference former U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis. The character of Mike Nelson is also from Wisconsin and in episode 810, "The Giant Spider Invasion", which is set in Wisconsin, the crew accordingly mocks riotous mobs by shouting variations of "Packers won the Super Bowl!!" (The show's cast and crew are ardent fans of the arch-rival Minnesota Vikings, even having Vikings running back Robert Smith in a dialogue-less cameo in one episode.) References to the Twin Cities suburbs such as Maplewood and Edina are also common i.e. "Featuring Music normally heard at the Days Inn lounge in Columbia Heights". Mary Jo Pehl's home town of Circle Pines, Minnesota is also mentioned in a number of episodes. Actual directions off of the Beltline in Madison, WI, have also been given on the show.
Once the Best Brains staff gained some experience from the earlier KTMA shows, they gradually increased the amount of riffing until they estimated they were doing about 700 jokes per 90-minute episode. Many of those riffs are "callbacks", or references to earlier episodes and running jokes.
A common feature on the show was the reading of fan mail during the closing segment of the show. Usually, only one letter was read per episode, although up to four letters have been read in some episodes. During the beginning of each letter, Cambot has the note up on "still store" so that the audience can see the text (or fan art, if any). This began during the KTMA season of the show, though early episodes had Joel only playing phone messages from fans — the tradition didn't evolve to letter-reading until about halfway through the inaugural season.
MST3K also boasted an "Info Club", a system where you could write in to the specified address (the same one used to collect fan mail) and receive newsletters about events and information related to the show. The address would appear in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen twice during the theater segments, and again in conjunction with the letter readings.
The letter reading ended mid-season 7, with the last episode to feature letter readings being episode 705, "Escape 2000".
The host segments of many episodes (almost every episode in the Joel era, less often in the Mike era) feature a musical number written by Michael J. Nelson. The songs usually mock the movie that's being watched (the "Sidehacking" song from "Sidehackers") or one of the people involved with production ("The Sandy Frank Song" from "Time of the Apes"). Several of these songs make up the majority of the archive material on MST3K.com
Interestingly, the number of musical numbers featured on the show went into decline once Nelson's tenure as host began, despite the fact that he wrote almost all of the musical numbers.
The MST3K cast was occasionally augmented by "guest stars" from the films — characters so memorable that they made interesting visitors to the Mads' lairs or the Satellite of Love. (See Recurring guest characters.) These film characters were always portrayed by Best Brains staffers, giving some screen time to behind-the-camera workers. Other "guests" were real-life people portrayed by MST3K cast and crew. MST3K has only had two non-staffers make guest appearances on the show: the aforementioned Smith cameo appeared in a season 8 episode, with Smith as "Howard", a "gift" to Pearl from her ape worshipers, and film critic Leonard Maltin, who had been mercilessly mocked for some of his ratings of MSTied films, appeared as himself in episode 909, "Gorgo".