The main thing that led me to make this series of blog posts was something Mothra said over on Brontoforumus:

Haven't had time to mention how unbelievably delighted I am that MST3K is coming back under Joel. I adore Mike, but if Rifftrax has shown me anything, it's that a good amount of his MST3K-era comedy was touched up by the writers.

There's certain Rifftrax that are wonderful return-to-form gems, like Jack the Giant Killer or Mike/Fred Willard's Missile to the Moon, but nothing's quite captured the magic for me like the Cinematic Titanic ep Joel, Pearl, Frank and Trace did on The Alien Factor. So, I've got a lot more faith in Joel as a showrunner than Mike.

The Writers

Mothra's got something here: yes, Rifftrax (usually) features Mike, Kevin, and Bill, but that doesn't mean it's the same writing team as the Sci-Fi Channel years. The Sci-Fi era wasn't just Mike, Kevin, and Bill; it was also Mary Jo and Bridget (who have some Rifftrax shorts of their own), and Paul Chaplin too. Before the Sci-Fi era, Trace and Frank were in the writers' room too, and in the early days so were Josh and Jim.

There was always continuity. When Joel left the show, the rest of the writing team stayed constant, with head writer Mike Nelson taking over as host. (It does bear noting that, while Mike usually got the Head Writer credit, there was little that set the Head Writer apart from the rest of the writers; the show was collaborative to the core.) When Frank left the show, the rest of the writing team remained constant. And when Trace left, Bill joined, and the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, the rest of the writing team remained constant. As much as the show changed onscreen, very little changed in the writers' room.

I think that's a big part of why, even with all the casting changes over the years, MST3K still felt like it was the same show at heart.

And, as I've said, that's a big challenge the new show faces: not just that it's got a new team onscreen, but that it doesn't have any of the old writers onboard except for Joel. Joel has said he'd like to invite the old writers back to contribute, but that doesn't look very likely; I plan on getting into that in the next post.

The Movies

But aside from the writing team, I think there's something else that makes Rifftrax fundamentally different from MST3K. And it's precisely the thing that makes Rifftrax popular and profitable.

And that's that Rifftrax makes fun of Hollywood blockbusters.

As of this writing, here's what the top 10 most popular Rifftrax commentary tracks are, as listed on the homepage:

  1. Twilight
  2. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
  3. Twilight: New Moon
  4. Jurassic Park
  5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone
  6. The Matrix
  7. 300
  8. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  9. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
  10. The Dark Knight

And here's the thing: I've seen those movies. Well, more precisely, I've seen seven out of the ten, and I've heard of the other three.

And hey, that's okay! Hollywood blockbusters can be just as cheesy and bad as the B-movies MST3K used to do. Or at least as much fun to make fun of. (I mean, I don't think anybody's actually saying Lord of the Rings is equivalent to Manos: Hands of Fate.)

There's a definite draw to that. I can say, with some confidence, that if I ever watch Twilight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), I'll watch the Rifftrax version. It's added a whole new category to my viewing habits: "I'll see it in the theater," "I'll wait until I can watch it at home," and now "I'll wait for the Rifftrax."

But I think a big part of the joy of MST3K was the sheer obscurity of its selection. While it had a few relatively well-known titles over its run (Godzilla vs. Megalon, Gorgo, Gumby, Hamlet), tuning in to the show usually meant seeing something I'd never seen before.

The Info Club recently had a discussion thread titled What Movies Should the Reboot Riff? From my perspective, that's an unanswerable question. The reboot should riff movies I have never heard of.

Rifftrax taps into the delight of making fun of movies we've already seen. MST3K was, usually, more about the delight of discovery. I know what Twilight is, but if not for MST3K I would never have heard of The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.

Joel gets that, too; he noted in his recent Reddit AMA:

We love The Room, but I think MST3K does best when we steer away from movies that are famous for being bad. That's why we never did "Plan 9 From Outer Space" during our original run.

To me, watching Mystery Science Theater is kind of like going to a haunted house on the edge of town with your funny friends. It works best if you don't know what's in there.

And I've spent a lot of time talking about Rifftrax's emphasis on familiar blockbusters -- but that's not entirely fair, because Rifftrax actually does a lot of those more obscure films. Especially the shorts. Many of which are available on Hulu (inconveniently and counterintuitively split up into Rifftrax Shorts and Rifftrax Features, even though some of the "features" are just collections of shorts).

Magical Disappearing Money does a perfect job of evoking that old "Where did they find this?" vibe of MST3K. So do the Christmas shorts and the baffling Norman Krasner series.

As far as feature films, I think Kingdom of the Spiders is indistinguishable from vintage MST3K. And, while House on Haunted Hill is not exactly an obscure film, it's the kind of movie the old MST3K would have done too.

I suppose there is a downside to MST3K's grab bag approach: and that's that sometimes, those old movies are just boring and drab. I must admit that, over the past couple of years, there have been several times I've pulled up an old episode and fallen asleep in the middle of it. (Lost Continent, looking in your direction.) Some of those movies are just excruciating.

Then again, you can say the same for the blockbusters Rifftrax does. I watched Attack of the Clones and, even with the riffs, it was just a long, boring, painful slog. By the end I realized something I hadn't really thought about before: MST3K really did us a favor by trimming every movie down to under 90 minutes.

Cinematic Titanic

If you accept the premise that MST3K wasn't about the puppets and the satellite and the host and the Mads and the plot, that it was really about the writers and the movies they picked, then I think that leads to a clear conclusion: the closest thing we'll ever get to a revival of MST3K as it was has already been and gone, and it was Cinematic Titanic.

(Leastways, unless Rifftrax starts doing riffs of old B-movies with Mike, Kevin, Bill, Bridget, and Mary Jo. In fact, Rifftrax should totally do that; somebody should start a Twitter campaign.)

CT reunited five of the original writers and stars of MST3K to make fun of similar obscure, cheesy movies. It ran for six years, released a dozen movie riffs, and, most excitingly, went on tour.

(A personal aside: my first date-as-a-couple with the woman who would become my wife was the Mesa showing of East Meets Watts. It was a great show, a delight to meet the cast, and I treasure my autographed copy of Doomsday Machine.)

But CT was unsustainable, simply for logistical reasons. As they noted in the E-Mail announcing that it was winding down:

We feel that with any project there is a time to move on and as 5 people living in 5 different cities with different lives and projects, it has become increasingly difficult to coordinate our schedules and give Cinematic Titanic the attention it requires to keep growing as a creative enterprise and a business.

That, in and of itself, is a reason you can't go home again: because all those writers who made the show what it was just plain don't live in the same place anymore. And I think that's a big reason why fans who are holding out hope that the old team will get back together are just setting themselves up for disappointment -- but I'll get into that in my next post.

By the way, CT is still available on Hulu for the time being. You should watch those episodes while you still can.