I bought a ticket to the MST3K Live! Watch Out for Snakes Tour the second they went on sell. I didn’t even give it a second thought, which is weird because I cannot claim to be a longtime fan. I didn’t really, for lack of a better description, “get” Mystery Science Theater 3000 until maybe 8 years ago, i.e., a decade or so after it had left the air. I always knew what MST3K was, and had happened upon it a time or two in-between Quantum Leap re-runs on the Sci-Fi Channel. But it took a friend putting some of the best episodes in front of me and laughing at them together to really understand the joy of watching a dude and his robot pals mock bad movies.
Regrettably, I didn’t donate to the record-breaking Kickstarter campaign to revive the show. At the time, I liked to say I’d simply reached Kickstarter fatigue and wasn’t sure I wanted a new MST3K that wouldn’t feature Mike Nelson (that’s right, I’m a Mike guy). The larger truth is I simply didn’t completely see what Joel Hodgson saw, namely that the time was absolutely ripe for a MST3K revival. Many others just like me had found the show post-fact through official DVD box sets and bootleg VHS tapes (remember those?), and even though both Joel and Mike’s crews waged on with their follow-up MST3K-like projects (Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax respectively) it still felt like there was a giant void in pop culture, one not even the best let’s-make-fun-of-bad-movies podcasts (like We Hate Movies and How Did This Get Made?) could fill.
Then came those 14 glorious new episodes on Netflix in April, with a new host (Jonah Ray), new evil scientists (Felicia Day, Patton Oswalt), new robot voices (Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn and Rebecca Hanson as Crow, Tom Servo and Gypsy), largely new writing staff, yet the same heart and soul just with updated pop culture references. The revival earned a 100% on RottenTomatoes, and while Netflix is still dragging its feet on whether or not there’ll be another season Joel and the new crew are taking the show on the road for a bit of a victory tour, starting in Boston early last month and coming into my neck of the woods (i.e., Kansas City) last night. This is the first MST3K Live! Tour in history, and I was glad to be there.
Yet going into the show, I didn’t quite know what to expect. How, really, do you make a live version of MST3K? Won’t it get kind of boring after a while if it’s just one dude and two robots riffing on bad movies while sitting with their backs to us? How exactly will they hide the puppeteers operating the robots? More importantly, will the jokes be funny? It’s always been true of MST3K that not every episode is a winner. Some movies are so bad they defy consistent mockery and instead beat down all who have the misfortune of watching them.
For the tour, Jonah and the bots (with the assistance of the new show’s writing staff) are riffing on Eegah, a hokey 60s teen romance/monster movie starring Richard Kiel as a giant caveman moving in on some blonde wannabe rockstar’s best girl. The movie was previously featured on MST3K back in 1993 during Joel’s final season as host. In certain cities, they’re doing a double show where they riff on Eegah before riffing on a secret surprise film never before featured on MST3K, but Kansas City wasn’t so lucky. It was Eegah or nothing for us, and I’m not someone who particularly loves what the original crew did with the film in ‘93 (the episode is on Netflix right now if you’re curious). They wrote entirely new jokes for the film this time around, but, maybe a little been there, done that, right?
Any concerns I had were laid to waste several minutes into the show. We’d already enjoyed a deeply entertaining Q&A with Joel, seen a hilarious pre-taped video from Felicia Day (as Kinga Forrester) and Patton Oswalt (as Max) where they bickered and set up jokes which Jonah and the bots could finish with Kansas City-specific punchlines (the phrase “meat sweats” was used in brilliant reference to the city’s love for barbeque), and engaged in a joyous group sing-a-long of the legendarily catchy theme song. As per that theme song’s lyrics, given the state of the world it really was a relief to just relax and give in to the fun of the show.
Even from the front row of the balcony you barely ever saw the puppeteers:
If you looked closely you could sometimes see them climbing the stairs behind the curtain to get to their seats to fill out that silhouette:
What unfolded in front of us really was just a live episode of the show, following the same exact format – gift exchange presentations, roll the movie, riff, occasionally break up the riffing with bits inspired by the plot, end the episode with a back-and-forth between Joel, the bots and Kinga and Max. There were some audience participation elements, such as occasionally inviting people on stage, and a running gag related to the phrase “Watch Out for the Snakes” which left the longtime fans whispering explanations to the newbies (“watch out for the snakes” is a catchphrase from the ‘93 episode of Eegah).
All of this might not sound substantially different from simply watching one of the episodes on Netflix, and it some ways it’s not. However, transporting it to the live stage makes a huge difference. Until last night, I’d never heard 3,000 people react with overwhelmingly laughter to a particularly inspired riff. It’s beyond infectious.
Anyone at Netflix still waffling on to renew or not to renew needs to attend one of these shows. They will not only see MST3K’s still-swelling fanbase in action in all of its age-spanning glory (little kids and grandpas and everywhere in-between); they’ll also witness what might be the crowning achievement of this crew and writing staff, as they have collaborated on the best riffing in their young history (save maybe Cry Wilderness).
My only regret is that the jokes were so funny and so consistent that the non-stop laughter around me sometimes drowned out some of the riffs. For example, the first time we encounter Richard Kiel in the film one of the bots throws out a hilarious Geico riff. I have no idea what was said by any of them in the 30 seconds that followed though.
So, Netflix. I know you are literally billions of dollars in debt right now, and suddenly have a itchy cancellation finger. But if you can’t bring MST3K back at least film one of these live shows to let everyone see what is one of the best episodes Jonah and the bots have ever done.
As for everyone else, don’t sit around waiting for Netflix to make a move. If you have a chance to see MST3K Live! Don’t hesitate to do so. Here are the tour dates. Just plan for long lines at the merch table, and a 15-minute intermission offering funny little adverts for the various items at the merch table.
BONUS: Last night was apparently Jonah’s birthday. They gave him a cake. A food fight, sadly, did not break out. But the evening did end on a sing-a-long, sending us out on a positive night after an evening of good vibes and even better riffs.