Ex ‘MST3K’ stars, writers fill hole left by show

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/ Source: msnbc.com contributor
By Mary Beth Ellis

Some of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" star and writer Michael J. Nelson's former co-stars and co-workers are now competing against him on "MST3K"-like projects, and he has an idea.

"I've tried to encourage a rivalry like the World Wrestling Federation," Nelson said, "where we taunt each other in public and then behind the scenes, we make giant piles of money.

"The only thing missing is the giant piles of money."

For more than a year, Nelson, the former host of cult TV hit "MST3K," has stood alone in the ring with RiffTrax, a catalog of downloadable full-length movie commentaries. (The show is about a man and his robots marooned in space who are forced to watch horrible movies, but make fun of the flicks with wisecracking commentaries.) Though the program ended in 1999, Nelson has fine-tuned his forte through a variety of projects since then.

In that sense, he's tended the flame of bad-movie commentary more faithfully than the show's creator and original host, Joel Hodgson. "It's a lot of fun for us, so I've never repudiated it," Nelson said in an interview with msnbc.com.

By "us," he means ex-castmates Bill Corbett, who puppeted Crow T. Robot, and Kevin Murphy, the man behind Tom Servo. The two joined Nelson first in a quartet of DVDs as "The Film Crew," and now on RiffTrax, which boasts almost 50 commentaries. "We're like a band that just can't stop playing the music," Nelson said.

Joel Hodgson has apparently heard the music, and has just created his own "MST" spin-off with a tag team.

Crashing back to the WebAfter five years on the show, Hodgson, fearing a cult star's future doomed to "signing pictures at an RV show," as he said in a press release, climbed into an escape pod called the Deus Ex Machina and left "MST." Following him were Trace Beaulieu, who played the evil, movie-inflicting scientist as well as the original voice of Crow, and Frank Conniff, the portrayer of Beaulieu's sidekick. All three cited a desire to explore life beyond movie ridicule.

In late October, the Deus Ex Machina came crashing down on the Internet in the form of Cinematic Titanic, a project described as a new movie riffing delivery system.

Although Hodgson has no qualms about touting Cinematic Titanic as "powered by the original cast of "MST3K," he has edged away from limiting himself to "fans, who, since the show's demise, have had to comfort themselves with sporadically re-released episodes and rapidly disintegrating VHS tapes. Hodgson is quick to announce that his new product is "gentle and easy to swallow for those that are new to movie riffing."

Beyond the understandable desire for a broader customer base, details are sparse — even for Nelson, who served as "MST's" head writer before stepping in for Hodgson. Still, he maintains that the movie-derision water is plenty warm: "The more people doing the RiffTrax thing, the better," he said.

Hodgson seems to have returned to his revolutionary concept of literally contrasting his main characters against cinematic dreck. His new venture's logo involves scaffolding that supports five silhouetted cast members who apparently represent Hodgson, Conniff, Beaulieu, former "MST" villainess Mary Jo Pehl and — this was the true shocker — J. Elvis Weinstein, who first served as Tom Servo when "MST" was but a fetus on a local Minnesota television station.

More competitionWhy not dust off the iconic theater seats? Hodgson doesn't own the rights to the "MST" silhouette he helped fashion. That gold mine is in the hands of Jim Mallon, former executive producer. Mallon also owns the original theme song to "MST3K," along with the rights to the characters, the logo, the merchandise — and now a re-launched mst3k.com.

Mallon, not to be deterred by the spin-offs of his two former hosts, barreled through the ropes on the same day Hodgson released his new offering. Recruiting former "MST" writer Paul Chaplin, Mallon reclaimed the URL from a fan site, put together two Flash cartoons featuring Crow and Servo, and introduced a retreaded Web store. And although they're seen in vintage video clips, conspicuously missing from the relaunch were Nelson, Corbett, Murphy and every single person on Hodgson's scaffolding.

Nelson pronounced Mallon's site "cute." "It seems to be an after-the-fact use of the [robot] characters," he said. "It's kind of hard to see them again after all this time, and think of them in that context, so it looks completely different to me."

Less forgiving are the fans. Unimpressed by Mallon's offerings, at least one fan trotted the first cartoon over to Cuts.com, a RiffTrax site that allows users to drop pre-recorded ridicule from Nelson and company into any video clip. So viewers are now treated to the sound of Murphy heaping scorn upon the character he played for nine years.

As Americans weather a Hollywood writers' strike, the timing of the virtual "MST" explosion online highlights the industry's tension. "The necessity of having some pesky man who has to actually create the thing that you do is really a thorn in the side, and [producers] loathe paying writers," Nelson says.

The supreme irony is that "MST" and the Internet shared a social nursery. The program was just taking off when the Web began its slow flow into homes and dorm rooms. Both are marked by intellectual intensity and a snug sense of community, and it was little surprise that when Nelson took Hodgson's seat in the theater, the virtual villages that had sprung up in support of the strange, cheerful show burned with Joel-versus-Mike flame wars.

Now that a series created in 1988 has gone kaboom all over again in 2007, the matchup is fully riff-to-riff in the virtual marketplace. Courted by both hosts as well as the holder of the brand, the online realm may have become the fans' playground, but with films like Mariah Carey’s debacle "Glitter," there's plenty of work — and giant piles of money — for all.

Mary Beth Ellis runs and is the author of