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The creators said they knew they were getting through when critics they admired wrote about it. Murphy mentioned Tom Shales and TIME magazine (Richard Zoglin in 1990: "Not since Woody Allen's "What's Up Tiger Lily?" has anyone had so much fun with bad movies"). "Also," Conniff put in, "the fictional guy who loved 'The Animal' really liked us." The show inspired a raft of lame imitators: the series "Reel Wild Cinema" (with Sandra Bernhardt) and a DVD version of "Ghostbusters" with the actors making fun of themselves. And when "MST3K" moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, it was aired in England, where it was so popular that even subsidiary players became cult icons. Can it be coincidence that in the mid-'90s a local columnist, fishing about for a name to attach to her bright, desperately-seeking Londoner, borrowed the name of occasional "MST3K" writer- performer Bridget Jones? We think not.
Well, all good things must come to an end... Wait a minute! Why must they? In this case" because after Sci-Fi bowed out in 1999, not one of the 517 other cable channels chose to pony up the measly $2 million a year for 24 episodes of a terrific show. I mean, as the Brains constantly reminded us, "MST3K" won a Peabody Award! All right, wait another minute: Just what is a Peabody Award? Turns out it is administered by the University of Georgia's Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication hmmm and among other TV shows it has honored are "The Simpsons" and "The Sopranos." So it's probably a good thing for "MST3K" to have won.
Anyway, the gang dispersed. Hodgson, Weinstein, Beaulieu and Conniff, who had already departed, worked variously on such shows as "America's Funniest Home Videos," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and "Freaks and Geeks." (Conniff on Hollywood type-casting for writers: "They only want you to do something you've done already.") Murphy and later writer-performers Paul Chaplin and Bill Corbett contributed humor pieces to the Ironminds website. Nelson made the biggest literary splash last year with "Movie Megacheese," a paperback collection of essays on, gee, bad movies. Nelson reveals an encyclopedic, universal disdain for movies, TV, actors nay, the human experience. (He takes just two short breaths to say nice things about Jackie Chan and the Three Stooges.) Yet he does so in a voice of wry depression that could only have emerged from the bleak midwinter Midwest; really, he's up there with George Ade, Jean Shepherd and Celine, except Celine lived in Paris.
I said something like this in TIME, but I would have preferred to say it on the "Megacheese" book jacket. Instead, the publicists at HarperCollins, in soliciting a blurb for Nelson's book from a TIME movie critic, sent galleys to the wrong Richard. Through this fudge-up, my colleague Schickel got a quote on the cover, greatly increasing the esteem with which he was held at the magazine and winning him many more movie-review assignments than I've had lately. Dammit, though I could have written a book blurb the kind you see on London theater fronts, in which an otherwise respectable member of the British press reveals to what extent he was rendered helpless by some raucous comedy or other (actual blurb from the Sunday Times, on "The Pub Landlord": "I laughed so much, lager came out of my nose"). So I will confess what is true; reading the book, I nearly peed with laughter. (Note to self: get prostate exam.)
Nelson was busy the night of the Columbia panel. So Winstead addressed this question to those who were present: What film would they pick to pick on if they were doing the show now? Said Conniff, immediately: "Pay It Forward." Others mentioned "Town & Country," "Unbreakable," "Battleship Earth." Winstead also wanted to know which film had been the hardest to sit through. Hodgson: the hands-down MSTie fave, "Manos The Hand of Fate" ("Honestly, I hit the wall on that one"). Pehl: "Laserblast." Conniff: the fifth "Gamera" movie. Beaulieu: "Sidehackers" ("We're riffing merrily, then we find out the movie's about murder and rape"). Murphy: "Red Zone Cuba." Weinstein: "Honestly, after the eighth time they all hurt." The soldiers on Bataan get to complain this way; it's not appropriate for guys who had the best job in the world and did it brilliantly. As Conniff remarked, "I always liked to keep in mind that I was being paid to watch TV."
The Columbia evening reminded everyone, perhaps even the Brains, that the "MST3K" decade was something special. The show ransacked all art, trash, misery and science; its welter of allusions, especially the obscure ones ("Nurse Feratu," "the Mothra Graham Dance Troupe," Roddy McDowall as "Dr. Casabamelon"), made viewers not only laugh but feel smarter. And not smarter than other people, but smarter than they were before. The writers said, in effect, that all of pop and high culture current and classic, the stuff you forgot in high school and the stuff you thought no one else remembered was up for grabs. That's why a show of the '90s fits in a column called That Old Feeling: because it wasn't a slave to the new, it was a sassy servant to the wisdom and idiocy of the ages. Toward the end of the evening, Frank Conniff recalled his favorite fan letter: "Are you guys really old, or do you just read a lot?"
A few days ago, I got another e-mail from Kevin Murphy: "The show was great fun, and of course itís always a boost to the old ego." But he, like the other "MST3K" alumni, was loath to wallow in the past. He had new silly things to do. "I'm off to Finland for the Midnight Sun Film Fest," he wrote. "Tack!"