When the history of modern media is written the authors had better include Mystery Science Theater 3000. In the decade that the show was on the air it paved the way for the kind of post-modern mash-up of the pomposity of big media and the ironic deconstruction that fueled the rise of YouTube.
But cheap media manipulation tools were hard to come buy in the early 90s, so it took the resources of a local television station to launch the show, and a staff of talented and committed people to make it work. After it jumped to national status on Comedy Central it used viral marketing to grow its audience, telling the viewers to “Keep circulating the tapes” at the end of the credits. And we did.
For those of us who “got it” the format of silhouettes placed over the movie was pure genius in every way. A taste of the future that fed off the past. And when they got rolling, the crew of the Satellite of Love (itself a post-modern reference) were able to carve apart a film in a way that skewered the techniques, the influences, and the sheer hackery of film all at the same time. All while reminding us the more things change, the more they stay the same.
As the internet grew so did the fan base, and even this long after the death of the series, it doesn’t take much work to find to find a way to view and/or download the old shows.
The one thing that MST3K could never do was mock the big budget movies that needed it most. While the cast and crew created a few specials where they used big budget trailers as source material, the issues with licensing a major studio picture meant that they were only able to make fun of movies that were either so old or “indie” that no one cared or could stop them.
But the world’s changed since then, and with the invasion of technology new methods of mockery have become available. Mike Nelson, who hosted the latter half of the series original run, figured out a way that lets him (and a few friends) make everything a target for their withering deconstruction. It’s called RifffTrax. For a few bucks you download an .mp3 file that you sync up and play while you watch your copy of the movie. It relies on the proliferation of cheap digital music players, and the ability to have a second set of speakers in your living room. It’s something that would have never been possible on video tape, since timing on stretchy pieces of metal coated tape was never a sure thing outside of editing rooms. Now it’s just a matter of being able to hit the pause and play buttons on two devices at the same time. They also have an ingeniously “old school” method of making sure things stay tracked while you watch the movie. While anyone with a microphone could do what they do, there’s something to be said for the professional touchand the ability to actually be funny.
There’s a lot to love about Rifftrax for any fan of MST3K. While Mike does a few trax by himself, I think the format works best when he has other people to bounce the jokes off of. It has a much looser fell than the old show as well. There’s no fiction around robots in outer space, so (almost) everybody uses their real names, and they’re a lot more willing to laugh at each other’s jokes. My jury is still out whether that makes it better or worse than the original, but it gives it some metaphorical distance that it probably needs. He’s also had a celebrity guest star or two, although I have yet to listen to those.
For the uninitiated looking to get started I’ll recommend Star Wars Episode One as the single best thing they’ve got on there. I don’t know any fan of the MST3K that didn’t imagine what Mike and the bots would have done with that one, and now you can make your dreams come true. No movie ever deserved it more, and now it’s going to get it.