Imagine this: a person stuck inside, all alone with nothing to do but watch movies (while occasionally receiving confusing and misleading reports from the people who are ostensibly in charge). That might seem to describe the past two years, but it’s actually about the future. The not-too-distant future, in fact…
It is, of course, the premise of the cult TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show in which robots Cambot, Gypsy, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot join a human host to make fun of terrible movies. Inspired by the 1972 Douglass Trumbull film Silent Running, series creator and original host Joel Hodgson created a joyful, scrappy celebration of humor and comedy in the face of loneliness and powerlessness. Even as the series changed channels, casts, and hosts over the years, that basic hopeful message remained consistent: Even in the direst situations, you can try to keep your sanity with the help of your (synthetic, if necessary) friends.
For that reason, MST3K is the ideal comfort watch for times such as these, when we’re all alone, together.
With 217 episodes released over twelve seasons, it can be daunting to decide where to start. Every MSTie certainly has their personal favorites (The Giant Spider Invasion, for me) and personal least favorites (Hamlet, but I don’t love Manos: The Hands of Fate, either). But the six episodes listed here are generally considered to rank among the best from each era of the series and each one offers a great place to jump in, if you need some immediate comfort viewing!
The Joel Years (1988-1993)
Playing original host Joel Robinson, Hodgson established the basic structure of the show. Mad scientists Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and Dr. Laurence Erhardt (J. Elvis Weinstein) send Joel horrible movies, which he riffs on with the goofily pompous Tom Servo (Weinstein) and the sarcastic Crow (Beaulieu). After the first season, Weinstein stepped down and Kevin Murphy took over as Servo, while Frank Conniff became Dr. Forrester’s new assistant, TV’s Frank.
Even as Joel and the bots made fun of the movies, his laconic presence and delivery revealed a genuine affection for the films he skewered. His gently paternal nature balanced Crow’s snark and Servo’s bloviating, none more than in these two classics:
Episode 303: Pod People
Indisputably one of the first great MST3K episodes, Pod People tries to be a monster movie and a family film simultaneously, and fails at both. The A-plot involves the titular creatures attacking teenagers who travel to a remote cabin to record an album. In the B-plot, a young boy finds a kindly pod person he dubs “Trumpy” and goofy hijinks ensue. While Trumpy’s odd feats of telekinesis astonish the boy, Joel speaks for all of us when he quips, “Trumpy, you can do stupid things!”
The episode boasts some of the best host segments of Joel’s run, including the Mads creating a public domain karaoke machine that offers such hits as “Gregorian Chant #5” instead of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” But the real musical highlight of the episode is “Idiot Control Now,” Joel and the bots’ parody of the cheesy rock song performed in the movie.
Episode 512: Mitchell
Joel’s run tended to focus on 1950s sci-fi movies featuring giant monsters, such as the aptly titled The Giant Gila Monster or the Godzilla knock-off Gamera, but Joel and the gang had just as much fun with more mundane flicks like Mitchell. Described by Dr. Forrester as a “super-secret spy…who has a motorcycle…Marooned in Space… meets Hercules…or not” movie, Mitchell is a ’70s thriller that seems too tired to thrill.
The plot of Mitchell doesn’t matter, because the movie’s real draw is star Joe Don Baker, a two-time target of the MST3K crew who reportedly didn’t care for the show’s attention. And while Crow and Servo do take more than a few shots at Baker’s seeming disinterest in the material, the best joke is the gentle riff Joel makes as a car on-screen pulls up to an estate: “Mitchell, honey, put on your shoes, we’re at Grandma’s.” That silly, kind-hearted ribbing perfectly encapsulates Joel’s approach.
The Mike Years (1993-1999)
After Hodgson retired from the show in 1994, head writer Michael J. Nelson took over as new host Mike Nelson. Mike shared Joel’s Midwestern ease, albeit with a more sarcastic edge; the jokes became more pointed and the satire a bit sharper. During Mike’s run, the host segments featured fewer props and more skits and songs lampooning the movies they watched.
Mike wasn’t the only new face on the show, as Beaulieu and Conniff left soon after Joel. Mary Jo Pehl took the role of primary antagonist Pearl Forrester, with Murphy becoming her Planet of the Apes-inspired lackey Professor Bobo. They were joined by new cast member Bill Corbett in the role of Pearl’s other henchman the Brain Guy and as the new voice of Crow. Despite these changes, Mike, Murphy’s Servo, and Corbett’s Crow had immediate chemistry, giving us arguably the series’ two best episodes.
Episode 820: Space Mutiny
On paper, Space Mutiny doesn’t sound that different from a Star Trek episode, in which a young soldier must stop duplicitous officials from overtaking a mammoth starship. Also, space ladies with Stevie Nicks’ hair show up, for some reason. But the filmmakers execute that premise with utter ineptitude, to the glee of Mike and the bots.
Space Mutiny provides plenty of fodder for jokes, from the performances by B-movie greats Reb Brown and Cameron Mitchell to its setting in an empty warehouse insufficiently passing for a star cruiser. But the best riff could not have been anticipated by the filmmakers: a running gag in which Mike and the bots give Brown increasingly ridiculous Action Hero names, including Blast Hardcheese, Punch Sideiron, and, uh, Bob Johnson.
Episode 910: The Final Sacrifice
The Final Sacrifice features a young boy being chased through the Canadian wilderness by a mysterious cult. His one hope is a grizzled, hard-drinking Canuck with a mysterious past. No, not Wolverine. I’m talking about Zap Rowsdower, the man who asks deep questions like, “I wonder if there’s beer on the sun,”
The Final Sacrifice might be the perfect episode of MST3K. Not only is the movie properly silly, featuring a decidedly unheroic hero in Zap Rowsdower and a dopey villain with an incongruously booming voice, but Mike and the bots are also on the top of their game every step of the way. Jokes about Larry Csonka and the 1972 Miami Dolphins may not land with modern audiences, but everyone can enjoy Servo’s increasingly hostile Canada song. (Well, maybe not Canadians.)
The Jonah Years (2017-2018)
After a hiatus of nearly 20 years, Mystery Science Theater 3000 returned in 2017. Bolstered by an immensely successful Kickstarter campaign and a distribution deal with Netflix, Hodgson and a new team put together twenty new episodes of the series.
In addition to higher production values and special guest stars like Wil Wheaton and Mark Hamill, seasons 11 and 12 of MST3K featured an all-new cast. Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn came on to voice Crow and Servo, while Rebecca Hanson voiced Gypsy. Jonah Ray took over hosting duties as Jonah Heston, and Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt became the new Mads, Kinga Forrester and Max (aka TV’s Son of TV’s Frank).
MST3K 3.0 featured a more rapid-fire riffing style that overwhelmed some longtime viewers, while also bringing in a new generation of fans. But no matter how long they’ve been watching, MSTies of every type agree that Jonah’s run featured at least two top-tier episodes.
Episode 1102: Cry Wilderness
Because they tend to be variations on ’50s creature features or knock-offs of more popular films, MST3K movies usually have relatively simple plots. That cannot be said of Cry Wilderness, which involves Bigfoot’s ghost, native American stereotypes, a young boy in a boarding school, and a guy who looks like a bargain basement Frank Stallone. Also raccoons. Lots of rampaging raccoons.
Those raccoons inspire my favorite Jonah host segment, in which he chuckles boisterously as Crow and Servo, dressed as raccoons, ravage cereal boxes for 30 seconds. It’s latter-day MST3K absurdity at its finest.
Episode 1201: Mac and Me
No movie is suited for modern MST3K quite like Mac and Me. A glorified commercial for Coke and McDonald’s masquerading as an ET-style family film, the 1988 movie has been an internet punching bag for years (thanks in part to Paul Rudd bringing the same clip from the film to his every Conan O’Brien appearance). But no one has celebrated the movie’s absurdity like Jonah and the bots.
Whether they’re turning a corny line into an unlikely catch-phrase (“pretty nice!”) or reacting with genuine horror to the gratuitously violent climax, Jonah, Crow, and Servo make Mac & Me’s familiar ridiculousness feel fresh again. The episode serves to remind everyone why, even after the advent of YouTube and Twitch, Mystery Science Theater remains the premier movie riffing show, connecting generations of fans.
Bonus: The RiffTrax MST3K Reunion
Perhaps the most comforting bit of MST3K viewing isn’t an MST3K episode at all. Rather, it’s a special hosted by RiffTrax, the spin-off company created by Michael Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. For their 2016 live spectacular, they brought together every key player from the show, save Weinstein and original producer Jim Mallon, for a night of bad movie greatness. It’s the only place you’ll see Joel, Mike, and Jonah all sharing the stage.
Those are my picks, but please share your own favorite episodes and moments in the comments—we’re all in this together, so let us know what makes you laugh and brings you joy, whether it’s the amazing MST shorts, Manos, Miles O’Keeffe, or Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie…
Originally published in April 2020.