On the last day of this year's Cannes Film Festival, I was standing in line for Jean-Luc Godard's "Éloge de l'amour" when a familiar voice called out, "Richard?"
Familiar? I'll say. Every week for years on my tied-for-all-time-favorite TV show, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (tied with, yes, "The Simpsons"), the clear, friendly tones of Kevin Murphy contributed to the comic intelligence of that cable-channel thing with the robots and the bad movies. He was Professor Bobo, sweltering to play an ape who evolved from men. His handsome Irish tenor, overdubbed about a dozen times, made "The United Servo Academy Men's Chorus Hymn," led by United Servo Academy Men's Choral Director Vice Brigadier Sir Thomas "Bullhead" Servo, one of the series' sonic highlights. And for all but the first 13 of the show's 176 nationally-aired episodes, Murphy was the voice of that lovable, slightly pretentious, gumball-machine-headed Tom Servo, one of the two robots who kept a human company on the Satellite of Love as they all watched cheesy movies and, in the deflating wit of their gibes, exalted TV comedy.
Murphy and I had met at the "MST3K" Conventio-Con-Expo-Fest-a-Rama, a meeting of 2,000 or so of the show's faithful in September 1994. I said hi a couple years later when the Best Brains (as the "MST3K" writer-performers had incorporated themselves) came to New York's Museum of Television & Radio to celebrate their move from Comedy Central, where the show reigned for seven years, to the Sci-Fi Channel, where it aired until August '99. The period thereafter is known as The Dark Age to MSTies, the fans who preserved every episode on highest-quality SP videotape, devoted scholarly Websites to the show's history, achievements and obscure jokes, and would re-watch old shows with a knowing veneration that rivaled a medieval monk's defiant devotion to the Gnostic Bible. Murphy and his erstwhile cohorts went into hibernation or, worse, to L.A.
And now one of my comedy Colossi was paging me at the Cannes Film Festival.
We chatted for a half-hour before the film, I peppering him with questions that began "Please, Mr. Murphy, Sir," he responding with amiable, animal grace. He told me of his current project: a book called "A Year at the Movies," in which he would be seeing a different movie in a different place each day. He'd penciled in Cannes for May 20, so here he was. Then we all filed into the theater, and I want to phrase this as modestly as possible KEVIN MURPHY SAT NEXT TO ME THROUGH A WHOLE GODARD MOVIE! You are perhaps hoping that he behaved as Servo might during a Coleman Francis melodrama, uttering witty put-downs of the modernist master, in French with English subtitles. But no: he remained respectfully, or at least considerately, quiet throughout. When the film ended, we waved and parted. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of my Brush With Greatness.
...Until two weeks later, when I got an e-mail from the Kevinator. Since I have no shame (and no life), I will share it with you: "It was swell running into you at Cannes. It was even sweller to screen the Godard film with you; like a boyhood dream come true but remember, I was a sick boy." He then invited me to a "reunion panel" of the "MST3K" gang creator and first star Joel Hodgson, original Servo-puppeteer Josh Weinstein, Mad Scientists Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl as Pearl Forrester that was to be held, at Columbia University's Alfred Lerner Hall, as part of the Toyota Comedy Festival. What MSTie could miss it? So last week more than a thousand votaries sat on Lerner Hall's folding chairs, strained to hear the panelists' remarks through a ramshackle sound system and had a wuuunnnderful time. What follows are some of the Brains' comments, as best I could transcribe them while laughing in the dark.
Are six of you still wondering, What the heck is "Mystery Science Theater"? Well, for once in this column's brief life, I am not going to provide an exhaustive exegesis of something I loved when I was a kid. For those who don't know "MST3K," and want to experience a higher form of laughter, I suggest you rent or purchase some of the 32 shows or packages available from Rhino Video; or peruse the 21-part Website history of the show; or consult some of the many appreciations written about "MST3K," including a few I did in TIME and Film Comment (July-August 1995). If none of these prescriptions convince you that the show is worth cherishing, seek therapy.
Just two brief points. (1) Each two-hour show, most of it devoted to the screening of and "riffing" on a B movie, contained hundreds of crackling-smart observations many of which can be synopsized in Servo's weary comment on the film "Laserblast": "There's a point where it stops being a movie." And (2) the humor was both outsider and heartland. The show was, after all, produced by Midwesterners guys from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois in a mall in Eden Prairie, just outside Minneapolis. Except for Weinstein, these guys were former stand-up comics, so far out of the power-comedy loop that they weren't even Jewish. Imagine: for most of its time this was an all-Gentile comedy show. And imagine this: it was something for them all to be proud of. As Conniff said of the experience: "It's great to make a really good show that only a few people watch instead of a really crappy show that a lot of people watch."