MST3K Live! Performance Reminds San Antonio Crowd of the Cheesy Movie Show's Timeless Charm

click to enlarge Host Joel Hodgson points out a movie's awfulness to his robot pals. - BRANDI MORRIS
Brandi Morris
Host Joel Hodgson points out a movie's awfulness to his robot pals.
MST3K Live! The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour brought down the house Monday night at the Tobin Center, reminding everyone that, even in times of strife, there’s still plenty in the world to laugh about.

That’s particularly true of cheesy, old movies, the idea that launched a thousand episodes of the cult TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, or MST3K.

This tour will be the last to feature creator and original cast member Joel Hodgson. Befitting his status, the show opened with the sleepy-eyed host leading the crowd through a singalong of the show’s theme song and a brief monologue, featuring a silly joke about San Antonio (“Is this named for Saint Anthony, the patron saint of cheap Italian food?”) and a few bars, by request, of “Freebird.”

Just like the show, the live presentation revolved around mocking an old movie. In this case, it was No Retreat, No Surrender, a 1986 martial arts film that features a young Jean-Claude Van Damme in a much smaller role (“The Russian”) than the film’s poster suggests. The movie is a thinly veiled Karate Kid rip-off that features a sequence with Bruce Lee’s ghost and Michael Jackson elements that have aged about as well as Captain Eo. Nuff said.

But the live show, of course, revolved around Hodgson and his friends mercilessly raking the movie over the coals, which they did. Hodgson and Co. were visible in a dimly lit box on stage left, flinging barbs at the screen and — judging by their animated appearance — having as much fun as the crowd.

The TV show, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of its premiere last November, originally featured Hodgson as the human lead and also introduced his robot co-stars Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. Both sidekicks were onstage Monday night, though the roles were played by Nate Begle and Conor McGiffin for the live show. They pair perform via bunraku-style puppetry, meaning they’re dressed in all black but visible onstage behind the characters. The approach made a good fit for MST3K, adding to the “you can see the puppet’s strings” vibe while not detracting from the performers’ talents.

The characters took part in skits that periodically interrupted the movie with silly asides such as Crow's discussion of workplace safety. The segments were also a feature of the TV show, though back then, they were used to pad out the running time of the movies.

It was hard not to be drawn into the feeling of nostalgia Monday night’s performance evoked. As Hodgson noted in an interview with the Current, part of the reason that the show's aged so well is that it avoided politics. Indeed, it was hard to recall a comedic performance from the past few years that didn’t allude to He Who Shall Not Be Named at least in passing — good, bad or otherwise.

But the live presentation also offered an opportunity to reflect on how ironically futuristic Mystery Science Theater 3000 ended up being. At the time of its premiere, there was no one else making a show about people watching something else. Now this format is a huge part of YouTube. Those crazy kids love their unboxing videos and video game playthroughs. While the creative value of such formats is dubious, there’s no doubt about their cultural impact and popularity.

With a Netflix revival and Hodgson’s promise of more MST3K action soon, things are looking promising for the Satellite of Love. Luckily, there is an endless supply of bad movies. And if the current state of the cineplex is any indication, there should be plenty of MST3K well beyond our lifetimes.

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