It’s Thanksgiving time again, and Shout! Factory has resurrected an awesome little holiday event: THE MST3K TURKEY DAY MARATHON! The yearly tradition of showing episodes all day long on “turkey day” began in 1991, when the show was still on Comedy Central. The event continued onward until 1995 during the show’s sixth season, and was sort of resurrected by The Sci-Fi Channel in 1997.
But then last year, Shout! Factory got Joel Hodgson to host a MST3K Turkey Day revival online, resulting in a fantastic, award-winning show! Because it was so well received, Shout! Factory’s MST3K TURKEY DAY MARATHON is back again this year!
To celebrate this momentous occasion, allow me to share with you my top twenty MST3K episodes! They are divided into Joel and Mike “eras” and are listed in no particular order (for the most part).
Having met Joel Hodgson (a.k.a. stranded Gizmonic Institute employee and inventor, Joel Robinson) several times, I’ve learned a great deal about the man behind one of television’s greatest shows! His input and creativity is in every aspect of the show; it truly is his baby.
He built the robots, he dreamed up the characters, and put his skill sets as a puppeteer, entertainer, and comedian all together to create a show that both dared to poke fun at cinema, and revel in some of the worst dreck that humanity has ever put on celluloid. It taught us viewers to embrace bad films, because even the worst movies ever made still have some entertainment value.
TOP TEN EPISODES FROM THE JOEL ERA
#1. POD PEOPLE (Season 3, Episode 3)
This actually earns the number one spot on my list, as the POD PEOPLE episode was my first experience with MST3K! Cut up into two hour-long shows for the “Mystery Science Theater Hour,” I witnessed the first half on PBS late one Friday night when I was bored and channel-surfing. I was pretty young (around nine or ten) and I loved it!
I was so excited about my new discovery, and the following weekend I stayed up late to catch the second half. Sadly I never witnessed the remainder of THE POD PEOPLE – For some reason part two never aired. It would be several more years before I’d finally get to see the full episode (thanks to Rhino Home Video), which has cemented itself as my all-time favorite Joel-Era episode.
Highlights of this episode include Joel and the bots doing a hilarious mockery of the musical number from the film, entitled “Idiot Control Now.” They also do a great spoof of the “Trumpy Can Do Magic Things” sequence in the film, and to top it all off, their riffing is top notch! If you’ve never seen an episode of MST3K, this is a great one to start off with!
#2. CAVE DWELLERS (Season 3, Episode I)
Joel, Servo, and Crow sit through a ridiculous low-budget sword and sorcery adventure featuring (“How much Keeffe is in this movie?”) Miles O’ Keeffe! When an evil warlord captures a wiseman and demands that he give up a special magical artifact, a young woman ventures to find the mighty Ator and his Asian sidekick to save the day.
I die every time Joel and the bots recreate the bizarre opening credits of the film, and chuckle uncontrollably when Ator takes to the skies in a hang-glider before the film’s climactic battle between the muscled barbarian, and the pale mustachioed warlord donning a goofy swan helm.
#3. GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (Season 2, Episode 12)
Mixing Godzilla and MST3K together surprisingly didn’t result in sensory overload for yours truly! This episode (which came out in Rhino’s Volume 10 set, before it was pulled from shelves due to rights issues) is great! In my favorite host segment, Joel gives Tom Servo and Crow new appendages inspired by the limbs of the film’s villainous monsters.
This is hilarious because Tom’s useless slinky arms are replaced with a Swiss Army Knife and flamethrower (“I am the god of Hellfire!”), while Crow is given a crab claw and a bent coat hanger.
The riffing in this episode is superb! The main running gag is the stunt-driving hero constantly being referred to as “Rex Dart, Eskimo Spy,” plus the trio of riffers do a very funny sports commentary during Godzilla and Jet Jaguar’s tag-team match with Gigan and Megalon.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention their hilarious translation of the “Jet Jaguar Fight Song.”
#4. GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (Season 2, Episode 13)
More Godzilla and MST3K goodness, with some good riffing. (“For the seafood killer in you!”) This one had a lot of fun host segments, such as one where Joel and company sing the “Godzilla Geneology Bop.” There’s also a really great segment where Mothra appears via the hexfield because Crow and Tom are mocking the tiny twins that worship Mothra in the film. Crow’s first reaction is to “Throw it a sweater!”
#5. TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE (Season 4, Episode 4)
I’ve watched this episode many times, because the riffing is so damned good. The ridiculous plot involves alien visitors who are attempting to turn the Earth into grazing land for their hordes of giant killer lobsters, called Gargans. I burst out laughing every time Crow or Servo mimics the hilariously goofy “roar” of the vicious space lobsters!
#6. THE KILLER SHREWS (Season 4, Episode 7)
A public domain classic featuring a group of stranded people on an island that are cut off from escape by an army of vicious dogs covered in carpet remnants! Joel and the bots have an absolute blast with this flick! During the host segments they come up with a fun musical ode to “Killer Shrews” while making a new mixed drink recipe in honor of the movie. Great stuff from the masters of movie riffing!
#7. ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES (Season 4, Episode 6)
Giant leeches attack rednecks in a swampy backwoods Florida town in this early Roger Corman effort. It’s up to a game warden and scientist to blow them up and save the locals! There are some hilarious jokes in this episode, particularly in regards to the chubby shopkeeper and his trophy wife. And I really love the song “A Danger to Myself and Others” during one of the final host segments.
#8. EEGAH! (Season 5, Episode 6)
Richard Kiel stars as a caveman that’s yearning for love after centuries of loneliness. This is yet another classic episode that I discovered during the early VHS days of Rhino Home Video. Trace Beaulieu’s Crow T. Robot does a great Crypt Keeper impression during the film’s opening credits, and many jokes are made at the expense of Arch Hall Jr. (a.k.a. “Cabbage Patch Elvis”)
Most importantly, this is the episode where the infamous line “Watch out for snakes!” hails from.
#9. HERCULES UNCHAINED (Season 4, Episode 8)
I’ve seen most of the Hercules episodes of MST3K but this one has remained as my all-time favorite. Herc tries to settle a war between feuding brothers, but along the way is magically turned into an amnesiac by the evil Queen Lydia. This episode has some great jokes (“The broom people! Bristling with anger!”) and introduced fans to “DEEEEEP HURTING!” The host segments are all fun as well, making this a very well-rounded episode of the show!
#10. MITCHELL (Season 5, Episode 12)
This was the final Joel episode of MST3K, and saw the god of the MST3K universe escaping back to Earth after sitting through a detective flick starring Joe Don Baker. The riffing in this episode is some of the best in the Joel-era, and I think he and Mike found a rather fun way of passing the torch.
What was unusual (to me) is that this wasn’t the final episode of the fifth season. The second half and onward was strictly the adventures of Mike Nelson aboard the S.O.L. with his newfound robotic roommates. It was a sad day for many fans when Joel left the Satellite of Love, but I think he chose a worthy successor in Michael J. Nelson.
Once Mike took over as host, things began to change rapidly. Though “the mads” stuck around for a few seasons (mainly Dr. Clayton Forrester), the invention exchanges eventually got phased out, and more song and dance numbers began to creep in during host segments.
Also, during the final seasons on Sci-Fi (not SyFy) Channel, the host segments were required to have some sort of linear storyline that was science-fiction oriented. This proved to be pointless however, because the episodes were never aired sequentially.
Trace Bealieu eventually left the show during this period (as did Frank Conniff, whose character, “TV’s Frank,” went to “Second Banana Heaven” at the end of Season 6), leaving Bill Corbett to take over as Crow T. Robot. Mary Jo Pehl’s “Pearl Forrester” became Dr. Forrester’s “cohost” in the extremely short seventh season, and would take over once the show was revived on Sci-Fi Channel.
Aside from the big casting changes, another noticeable feature was that the movie riffing became much more stinging and mean-spirited. While some have embraced this harsher riffing (which has rocketed the holy trinity of Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy into stardom with Rifftrax), not everyone was a fan of it.
Still, Mike kept the torch lit for five-and-a-half seasons, so he must have been doing something right!
TOP TEN EPISODES FROM THE MIKE ERA
#1. WEREWOLF (Season 9, Episode 4)
POD PEOPLE was my first foray into the world of MST3K, but WEREWOLF was the episode where I rediscovered my love for the show. It was the Spring of 1998, and I was at a friend’s house, just shooting the breeze and channel surfing. As he passed the Sci-Fi Channel, I saw something familiar, and had him go back.
I was amazed to see a certain trio of silouhettes lobbing insults at some goofy werewolf flick, and my joy could not be contained! My buddy was at first perplexed, but moments later he was laughing as hard as I was, and soon my new obsession with MST3K began.
WEREWOLF is a low-budget lycanthrope film featuring terrible effects, actors, music, and sound effects. It was perfect fodder for Mike Nelson and his robot roomates on the S.O.L.
The jokes come fast and furious in this episode, and I’ve seen it so many times that I can quote it almost verbatim. As a bonus, the host segments aren’t too shabby: Mike makes a ridiculous escape attempt from the Satellite of Love, does a fun musical number (“Where O’ Werewolf”), and slowly morphs into a “wereCrow” as the show continues.
This is also the episode that first introduced me to Joe Estevez, who would come back with a vengeance in the final season.
#2. SOULTAKER (Season 10, Episode 1)
Oh. My. God. The crew of the S.O.L. verbally beat this film to death and I never could get enough of it! A group of “teens” die in a car accident, and their souls are knocked clear of their bodies. As they try and figure out what happened to them, a “soultaker” (Joe Estevez clad in black from head to toe) pursues and captures them.
Poor Robert Z’Dar (who plays a higher-ranking Soultaker) becomes the butt of numerous “he has a huge face” jokes, the movie’s plotholes are dragged screaming into the open, and former castmembers Joel Hodgson and Frank Conniff show up for a mini-reunion!
#3. PUMAMAN (Season 9, Episode 3)
“Pu-ma-man. He flies like a mo-ron!” So sings Crow as this film’s goofy superhero flies over rear-projected cities in PUMAMAN. Donald Pleasance stars as a maniac who tries to control humanity with a golden mask. However his evil plans are thwarted by a hero with alien origins, and his Aztec sidekick!
This movie is ridiculous to the extreme, but it works in favor of Mike and the bots’ jokes. The host segments are kind of weak, but the constant volley of laugh-out-loud jokes more than makes up for it!
#4. DEVIL FISH (Season 9, Episode 11)
This episode is funny as all hell (“I Knoooooow!”) and boasts some of the best riffing of the Mike Era! A giant sharktopus eats Italian Floridians in this goofy JAWS rip-off from director Mario Bava.
There are so many running gags in this episode (e.g. constant jokes about a certain ugly character’s face, skinny jokes about the lead actress, and jokes about Bob, the film’s oceanic expert and resident alcoholic), and the host segments are actually kind of funny. In particular, I love it when Pearl tries to make Mike and the bots look more Italian via a special video filter.
#5. THE FINAL SACRIFICE (Season 9, Episode 10)
THE FINAL SACRIFICE is one of the handful of episodes that I’ve watched more times than I care to admit. This movie is some bizarre student film about a kid, and an oddly named drunk with a mullet, who search for a hidden civilization while being pursued by a cult.
Any joke involving lead hero Zap Rowsdower is solid gold, and the majority of the host segments are great, with the best one being Tom Servo’s musical tribute to Canada!
#6. BOGGY CREEK II: AND THE LEGEND CONTINUES (Season 10, Episode 6)
“And the Legend Continues… to not be heard by anyone!” Charles B. Pierce (director of THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK and THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN) stars and directs in this weird quasi-mockumentary/adventure tale about a group of college researchers seeking out Bigfoot.
This episode features some of my favorite jokes (“We will march, into the Forbidden Zone!”), and offers up a character named Old Man Crenshaw (“Wow, Thor’s really hit the skids.”), that must be seen to be believed! This episode suffers from weak host segments, but again, the riffing makes up for it!
#7. PRINCE OF SPACE (Season 8, Episode 16)
Mike and the bots sit through a thoroughly bizarre Japanese sci-fi adventure, featuring THE PRINCE OF SPACE (“Please, call me the Artist.”) and his arch-nemesis, the idiotic Phantom of Krankor (“Crank whore?”)
The trio of riffing experts mock the Japanese cast, pick on a ludicrous giant (“Ahhh! Cecil Fielder!”), and turn an already unintentionally hilarious film into a comedy masterpiece!
During the host segments, the crew of the S.O.L. gets sucked into a wormhole, resulting in various alternate realities where the bridge of the ship becomes a sylvan glen, or where Mike is a tiny robot in charge of the crew. When things finally get back to normal, it is discovered that they’ve traveled back to Roman times!
#8. TIME CHASERS (Season 8, Episode 21)
This episode of MST3K is different from all the rest because the film in question was an indie film sent in by its director (David Giancola) to be riffed on. What resulted is one of the most biting riffing marathons I’ve ever had the joy of experiencing.
When a nerdy guy turns a single-engine airplane into a “time transport,” it is stolen by an evil corporate slimeball who puts it to nefarious use! Can “piton-chin” defeat the evil J.K. Robertson and set things right?!
This episode features some top-notch riffing, and the host segments are all quite fun. Inspired by the film, Crow goes back in a time machine that he and Tom constructed, and attempts to change Mike’s past, resulting in an even worse future for the temp worker we all love and know!
#9. THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (Season 8, Episode 10)
Bill Rebane’s film about cheating rednecks and the worth of meteor-gems, doesn’t have much in the way of giant spiders or invasions. However it is the perfect fodder for Mike and the bots as they verbally tear this film a new one! There’s a lot of great jokes in this episode, and the host segments feature a pod-people invasion that keeps things lively in between riffing sessions!
In regards to the riffing, poor Alan Hale takes the brunt of everyone’s ire in this episode. There are so many fat jokes about the Skipper from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND! And when they aren’t picking on Alan, they are lobbing insults at the state of Wisconsin! (“Go Packers.”)
#10. SPACE MUTINY (Season 8, Episode 20)
Originally occupied by THE SCREAMING SKULL from the show’s ninth season, after some soul-searching, I felt that I had to correct a major error: SPACE MUTINY should have been added to this list from the beginning! This low-budget sci-fi actioner was shot inside a warehouse, and features effects footage cribbed from Battlestar Galactica, dozens of “railing kills,” and Reb Brown as a beefy hero with a high-pitched scream!
The evil Kalgan (“Blow me away!”) starts a mutiny upon a massive spaceship called the “Southern Son,” against “Sting, Debbie Reynolds, and God.” Kalgon plans on handing the ship over to space pirates, so that he and his followers can finally touch down on a planet, instead of living their entire lives drifting through various galaxies. But Kalgan’s plans are soon derailed by the heroic David Ryder (Reb Brown), who rallies the good people on the ship against the murderous coup-leader.
The host segments are pretty decent in this episode, and the riffing during SPACE MUTINY is fantastic! It is easily one of the strongest episodes in the Mike Nelson era, and boasts one of (if not) the best running gags in MST3K history. As the film plays out, Mike and the ‘bots lob a series of hysterical “manly” names at Reb Brown, such as “Punch RockGroin,” “Flint IronStag,” “Fridge Largemeat,” “Big McLargeHuge,” and dozens more! It’s gut-bustingly hilarious – watch the video below to see for yourself!
Wait what’s that? You want to know who my favorite MST3K host is? Well… here’s the most political way I could possibly answer that: I can’t choose a favorite. Both men were integral in making the show popular and, for the most part, timeless.
While I’ll admit that Mike Nelson is my movie riffer of choice, I think Joel was way better at constructing the host segments. His invention exchanges were always a blast, and his sketches usually paired up well with the film they were riffing on in each episode.
It’s an even draw for the most part, but if I had to choose who was the most important of the two, it would have to be Joel. Although Mike’s influence was felt throughout (he was brought on as a writer during the first season), Joel was the heart of the show, and created the concept, the original robots, and sets from scratch!
So allow me to salute you, Joel Hodgson, for developing my all-time favorite television program. You’ve made me laugh so much over the years, and taught me the value of bad cinema. And allow me to also salute you, Michael J. Nelson, for carrying the torch for so long. You men are truly demigods, and without you, people would still be quietly suffering through awful films for all eternity.