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Plan It Forward

August 20th, 2009

There once was a television series called Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K to its fervant fans). Born on a local Minneapolis TV station, it was the horror movie host concept taken to its logical conclusion. Instead of a would-be comedian in a Dracula cape riffing during commercial breaks, MST3K presented a running commentary throughout the film, with its hosts superimposed as shadows in the lower corner of the screen.

The premise was that a mad scientist (Dr. Clayton Forrester, named for a character in 1953’s The War of the Worlds) stranded a janitor (Joel first, later Mike) aboard an orbiting satellite, forcing him to watch terrible movies as part of an ill-defined experiment in world domination. Accompanied by two wise-cracking robot puppets (Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo), he kept his sanity by making fun of the films.

The show eventually moved to basic cable: The Comedy Channel, Comedy Central and finally the Sci-Fi Channel. During its eleven years it won a Peabody Award and spawned a barely-released feature film.

Several years after the show was cancelled in 1999, something curious happened. The various cast members–perhaps in part because of a relative lack of success in parlaying their work on a puppet show into big, Hollywood careers–resurrected the movie-riffing act. For reasons unclear, the original cast and their later counterparts launched separate, competing projects. And because neither group owned the rights to the MST3K name or characters, they were forced to create their own franchises. The old crew produces an MST3K knock-off called Cinematic Titanic, while the second generation does RiffTrax, a series of comedic commentary audio tracks intended to be played in synch with DVDs of recent blockbusters. From what I can tell, the RiffTrax folks seem to be the more successful, or at least the more prolific.

Tonight they participated in a live performance beamed to theaters nationwide from Nashville. Their target: the plutonium turkey Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Honestly, riffing on Plan 9 is like shooting flying saucers in a barrel. There’s a reason that they never took on Ed Wood’s masterpiece during eleven years of MST3K. Its tale of aliens in pie plate spaceships resurrecting zombies–including the late Bela Lugosi and his stand-in, a chiropractor holding a cape over his face–is funny enough without help.

That said, the result was hilarious. The gang had a great time poking fun at zombie Tor Johnson’s massive frame (“His mother named him Tor because that’s what he did to her when he was born.”), and police detective Duke Moore’s habit of using his gun as a pointer and neck scratcher. As with MST3K, the quips came fast and furious.

The boys also presented a vintage short about stewardesses in training. Great stuff, though again, the short would probably have been pretty amusing on its own. If nothing else, the disconnect between ’50s era air travel (fold-down beds! four-course meals!) and today’s cattle cars in the sky was a hoot.

Filling out the show was a host named Veronica Belmont, who was presented as “the Queen of the Internet.” I have no idea who she is, but Queen of the Internet is clearly an inherited title, as Ms. Belmont had the hosting chops of your average high school thespian. (Lots of hooting from our local audience.) There were a couple of parody commercials produced by “Lowtax” of SomethingAwful, and geek-themed songs by some dude named Jonathan Coulton. (Personal note to the women in the Nashville audience who were mouthing the words to Coulton’s tunes, yes, we saw you, and yes, we were laughing at you.)

A good time was had by all, and the event certainly had me interested in looking into RiffTrax‘s other output. Still, I’d prefer that they settled whatever differences they might have with theirĀ Cinematic Titanic counterparts, and that the combined groups would buy out the owner of MST3K. Clearly there’s a desire on the part of both the players and the audience for more Mystery Science Theatre.

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