In the not too distant future, next Sunday AD,
There lived a guy named Joel, not too different from you or me.
He worked at Gizmonic Institute, just another face in a red jump suit,
He did a good job cleaning up the place,
But his bosses didn't like him, so they shot him into space!
We'll send him cheesy movies, the worst we can find (la la la),
He'll have to sit and watch them all, and we'll monitor his mind (la la la).
Now, keep in mind Joel can't control where the movies begin or end (la la la),
Because he used those special parts to make his robot friends.
Robot roll call: Cambot, Gypsy, Tom Servo, Crooooooow!
You're wondering how he eats or breathes,
And other science facts. (la la la)
Just repeat to yourself, “It's just a show,
“I should really just relax,
“For Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
I swear, listening to that theme song gives me chills! Anyway, Joel Robinson was played by stand-up comedian Joel Hodgson, who was one of those stand-ups with a rather deadpan delivery, but I always found hilarious. The bosses were Dr. Clayton Forrester (named after the main character in War of the Worlds), played by Trace Beaulieu, and his sidekick Dr. Laurence Erhardt, played by Josh Weinstein. Erhardt was later replaced by “TV's Frank,” played by Frank Conniff. Aside from the opening credits, Cambot is never seen – because Cambot is, literally, the camera on the Satellite of Love (which is where Joel and the robots live). Tom Servo is the robot that resembles a gumball vending machine, and was originally voiced by Josh Weinstein, while Crow T. Robot (the gold one) was voiced first by Trace Baulieu. Gypsy (originally voiced by Weinstein) isn't often seen, and supposedly handles the “higher functions” of the Satellite of Love. Weinstein left after the KTMA season (see below – this is often referred to as “Season 0”), and Kevin Murphy took over voicing Tom, and Jim Mallon took over voicing Gypsy.
Episodes pretty much began with introducing Joel and the robots, who usually had something going on to keep themselves occupied, and then the Mad Scientists (collectively called “The Mads”) would contact Joel for the weekly invention exchange. After some bits there, “Movie Sign” flashes, and Joel and the 'bots enter the theater to watch the movie. They're seen at the bottom of the screen in silhouette, and make jokes throughout the entire movie. At breaks in the film, they come out of the theater to perform short skits based on what they've seen, and at the very end of the episode, they usually read fan mail.
The show's first season aired on station KTMA in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, comprising of 21 episodes. As its run there was ending, the creators of the show pitched it to Comedy Central, who picked it up, built new sets, and retooled the robots. In 1993, Joel left the show, being replaced by Mike Nelson (head writer of the show), who stuck with it for the final seasons.
The KTMA episodes are available out there on the internet to watch, but honestly, the video quality is terrible, and they're mostly interesting as curiosities. The comments made during the movies were actual ad-libs, and not scripted, so there's a few times when you're sitting and watching waiting for someone to make a joke, but there's nothing.
Anyway, the purpose of this new feature is for me to watch the shows again (and in some cases, for the first time), and kind of live blog about them as I watch them! So without further ado, here's Season 1, Episode 1, “The Crawling Eye”!
The episode begins in a cave, Deep 13, with Dr. Forrester already there, and Dr. Erhardt arriving, saying he may have been spotted despite his disguise. Since the Mads are doing this experiment to see what movie is awful enough to unleash upon the world population and take over the entire planet, it's understandable that security is important!
They call Joel for the invention exchange. Joel's invented an Electric Bagpipe by attaching a leaf blower to a bagpipe, which sounds as bad as you can imagine. Joe and the Bots perform “Whole Lotta Love” with the electric bagpipe. The Mads' invention is based on the idea that dogs don't sweat, so they've taken a pineal gland from a dog, extracted serum from it, and inject it into Dr. Erhardt to close up his pores. Dr. Erhardt starts panting like a dog as a result, so Dr. Forrester gives him the antidote.
The Bots make fun of the Mads' invention, but Joel is more complimentary. Dr. Forrester then sends the week's movie. On the Satellite of Love, Movie Sign flashes, and Joel and the Bots go crazy then head to the theater. We see the door sequence and are then in the theater!
Since the first shot is of a mountain, one of the Bots says, “This must be a Paramount Picture!” There's a bunch of jokes based on the mountain climbers seen in the opening scene, and when a climber is killed and drops down in front of his fellow climbers, Joel says, “Going down!” Joel also interacts with the screen for the first time, trying to help them pull up a rope. A Mike Nesmith joke is made based on the wool stocking cap one of them is wearing! Then we cut to a train entering a tunnel before the opening credits. The gang make fun of the opening credits with lines and arrows pointing to each credit. Then the train comes out of the tunnel. That should give you an idea of how the gags fly!
As the film progresses, the robots and Joel start some running gags... the appearance of Forrest Tucker (the star of the movie) usually prompts an F-Troop comment; when two women (sisters) are introduced, Crow adds, “They'll drink anything!” based on an early scene where one of the sisters accepts a drink from Forrest Tucker's flask. Also, when German or Swedish is spoken, they usually provide an amusing translation. When a character is on the phone, they'll provide the voice on the other end of the line if it's not in the film. When two men wearing hats meet Tucker, the Bots refer to the men as “The Hat Brothers.” There's a mountain climber appearing in the movie who is, frankly, overweight, and every time he appears, one of the Bots makes a comment about him being too fat to climb a mountain.
Most of the jokes end up adding to the end of a sentence someone's said. For example, after one character says they've got a schedule to keep, one of the bots says, “And a death scene to have!” Amusingly, in the movie, there's a scientist who vaguely resembles Dr. Forrester, but nobody comments on this at all. However, since the scientist also resembles Groucho Marx (especially “You Bet Your Life” era Groucho), there are a number of Marx Brothers gags made. When the scientist tells Tucker about recent mountain climbing accidents, and that the search parties never find anything, and why is that, Tom Servo chimes in, “They're not very good search parties?”
At the first break from the film, the gang talk about the movie so far. Crow complains he thought there'd be more music. The robots can't understand why people in the movie are concerned about their heads being removed, because of course robots are able to recover from that. There's a whole discussion about figures of speech involving heads. This then leads to gags about figures of speech, head cheese, and so forth before going to commercial.
The movie returns after the commercial, and Tom notices the third or fourth reappearance of a matte painting of a mountain (the same one seen when the “Paramount” gag was mentioned). Of course, the gang all notice when the movie purports to show some evidence of something weird happening, but nothing shows anything that seems to indicate a thing! Another F-Troop gag is made when a character turns on a television set.
Some of the more literate gags made in the episode include a “Rosebud” reference, as well as to the old Walter Winchell radio program. But as Joel had been known to say (the real Joel), they didn't worry about whether or not everyone gets every gag... the right people will get them! Another gag riffs off of the Wizard of Oz, although it also adds some gags based on famous people some of the actors resemble vaguely. A little less than halfway through the movie, Crow asks, “Are we ever going to see the monster, Joel?” because, naturally, we haven't seen the monster yet. There are a number of other jokes made about the lack of a monster on-screen as the show goes on.
There's a nice run of gags based on the sisters with the psychic act, where one of the robots starts spouting off a series of famous prophecies that were supposedly made and turned out to be accurate. It's not much after this before the gang leaves the theater again for another skit! Tom and Crow hope that Joel won't notice that Gypsy has completely uncoiled (there's flexible pipe all over the stage). When Joel offers some RAM chips to snack on, Gypsy comes out of hiding. Apparently, she exists at the end of a very long flexible pipe, and she's been wandering around the Satellite of Love without paying attention to when she's crossed her own path. When they can't make any more jokes about this, a Fibber McGee gag leads them back to Movie Sign again!
A plane flying through a scene prompts a Fantasy Island gag – kind of surprising, because they waited through several other scenes with the plane first! A Señor Wences gag follows shortly afterwards! Other pop culture references include some lengthy Popeye gags, a Leave it to Beaver gag (when a cleaver is spotted), the standard The Shining gag (“Here's Johnny!”), and a Psycho reference... all within a few minutes.
The next break, the gang talk about the horrifying... Forrest Tucker! At least, the robots feel that Forrest Tucker is more horrifying than the film's monster. The monsters also point out some of the various ways that the Crawling Eye could be easily defeated (such as throwing salt or lemon juice on it).
Another running gag involves shots where a cable car appears – although all of the jokes based on cable TV (like saying, “Oh, look, they have cable!” “Oh, now they'll have to wait all day for the cable guy!”). Also, once the Crawling Eyes actually appear, there are a few jokes based on the word “eye” as well as homonyms (Joel sings “Ay, yi yi yi...” at one scene). In fact, at some point even Joel gets tired of the eye jokes and tells the robots to stop – but then he makes another joke himself! A break from the eye jokes comes with the appearance of a fighter jet, giving the opportunity for a joke based on “Top Gun” to be made.
One interesting aspect of this episode is that a clip of the Crawling Eye itself ended up being used for the opening credits for most, if not all, of the series.
After the movie is over, Joel and the robots enjoy some RAM chips and dip. Each robot has to say a good thing and a bad thing about the movie (Crow says a good thing is it wasn't longer, the bad thing it was this long). The Mads are happy about this experiment and press the button to end the show quickly. No viewer mail this time around.
I almost have to feel sorry for the writers of the show, given how often they had to have watched the movie in order to script out all the gags for Joel and the Bots! But I suppose their sacrifice is our gain, eh? It really is an awful movie!