clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mystery Science Theater 3000: our 15 favorite moments

Prepare for the show’s annual Thanksgiving marathon with highlights from 10 seasons of bad movies.

Episode 903, Puma Man
Shout Factory / YouTube
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

It’s that time of year again — time for us to be thankful for the return of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and its yearly Thanksgiving marathons.

If you were one of the ‘90s cult show’s many fans, you’ve likely spent many past turkey days with a litany of terrible B-movies (or “turkeys,” get it?) playing in the background, lovingly mocked as only Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, and the bots on the Satellite of Love could mock them. With a skit-based frame narrative (and a literal frame image) around a weekly rotation of very bad sci-fi movies, the show’s 10 seasons were a master class in comedy built atop esoteric pop culture and healthy doses of sarcasm.

Since leaving the air in 1999, MST3K has steadily increased its online presence, culminating in one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns in history in 2015.

But even before the Kickstarter to revive the show, MST3K creator Joel Hodgson brought back the show’s Thanksgiving marathons, beginning with an online all-day stream in 2013 to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary. Since then, Hodgson has repeated the tradition, with an annual build-up that has eager fans tuning in to see which classic MST3K movies will make the cut.

This year’s offerings will be hosted by Hodgson and Jonah Ray, host of the upcoming season 11, with the film selections decided by popular vote. But as any MST3K fan knows, many of the best parts of the series weren’t just the terrible movies themselves, but the skits, the songs, and the individual riffs that made us love the MST3K crew.

This Thanksgiving, we thought we’d round up a few of our favorite MST3K moments, the ones that have made the show worth returning to year after year.

Season 4, Episode 3, “Pod People”

Coily, the spring sprite from hell

One of the greatest things MST3K ever gave the world was an introduction to this demented, animated spring and his sadistic love of removing small energy-storing devices — that is, springs — from everyday home appliances. This short appeared alongside the movie Squirm in Season 10, episode 12 (or episode 1012) — a definite case of the opening act outdoing the main event. Where does Coily fit into God’s plan for us?

Krankor, prince of villainous laughs

Some of the best MST3K moments offer perfection in just a few seconds, like the iconic dubbed laugh of the evil villain Krankor in Episode 816, Prince of Space. Truly, no commentary is needed.

Sampo, Soviets, and the first of much singing to come

This running joke from Episode 422, The Day the Earth Froze, involves a staged goof.

Joel and the bots talk over the explanation of what exactly the “Sampo” is in the opening of this bizarre Soviet-Finnish adaptation of Finnish folklore. Since that explanation is never explained again, the trio spend the rest of the movie with no idea what Sampo is, what it does, or what it means, which culminates in a jaunty song. (The fun starts at 11 minutes into the video below, but you should definitely watch the entire film for a dollop of bizarre holiday fun.)

(Bonus: They really have no idea what Sampo is.)

Puma Man — and did we mention there’s a lot of singing?

Perhaps the zaniest of all MST3K films, Puma Man (a.k.a. L’uomo puma!) is an English-Italian ‘80s fantasy starring Bond villain Donald Pleasence, a docker-wearing whiny white guy, and an Aztec named Vadinho (played by the wonderful Miguel Ángel Fuentes, who bounced between serious roles in films like Fitzcarraldo to bit parts in other deeply terrible films like Deathstalker and The Bermuda Triangle.) Perhaps the zaniest thing in the movie was its soundtrack, which wedded a corny synthesized flying theme to an equally corny love ballad for true MST3K greatness. Yay, happy music!

The Satellite of Love faces off against dolphins... in space

In Episode 911, Devil Fish, Mike, Tom Servo, and Crow make the mistake of insulting all of dolphin-kind. Dolphins, however, are not forces to be trifled with, as Mike and the bots soon learn. This is one evolutionary cul-de-sac you don’t want to cross.

The Existential Dread of a Salesman: The Musical!

This two-part short about a Chevy salesman who’s terrible at his job was so epic it required two episodes and a musical spoof before MST3K had wrung out every laugh it could.

Love in the time of disembodiment

Sometimes MST3K enters a surreal world, one which defies explanation but still remains delightful. In episode 807, Brain Guy and friends (with lead singing dubbed by Tom Servo’s voice actor Kevin Murphy) treats us to the ‘60s crooner ballad from his home planet, “When I Held Your Brain In My Arms.” Featuring a row of gentle song stylists cupping their own brains in their hands, this one contains the classic tender line, “I used to love a-lotta your Medulla Oblongata.”

Once Upon a Product Placement

This short, produced by Bell Telephone company in 1956, was actually directed by famed Broadway and MGM musical director Gower Champion. Once Upon a Honeymoon features an inexplicable fairy angel and a lot of proselytizing about appliances. There’s also singing, dancing, and a pitch about ‘50s utopia: a domestic paradise with a color-coordinated kitchen and a telephone in every room.

He Tried to Kill Me With A Forklift — Olé!

This riff from Episode 310, Fugitive Alien, is one of the most famous moments in MST3K history. The “forklift song” is a longstanding internet meme that combines the show’s essential trademarks: bizarro bad movie fun; the hosts’ tendency to lean into that bizarro randomness, rather than away from it; and a bunch of singing.

What’s in a Big Mclargehuge Name?

Okay, his real name is Dave Ryder, but no one remembers that one. This joke from episode 810, Space Mutiny, is maybe the greatest running gag in the show’s long and storied history. We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese!

There may not be beer on the sun, but there’s beer in Canada

For sheer laughs per capita, episode 910, Final Sacrifice, might just be the funniest MST3K episode of them all. The many Canadian redneck jokes in this inexplicable action-adventure fantasy starring a pickup-driving, beer-guzzling hick named Rowsdower all culminate in one wonderful song about this nation’s ongoing beef with our neighbor to the north:

And if that weren’t enough, Rowsdower ends up with his own theme song in the closing credits, here edited into a fittingly Rowsdower-filled fanvid:

... Tusk!

Say what you will about Werewolf (episode 904), but the music’s actually not terrible — and it’s instantly made 3000 times better by the tour de force musical accompaniment Mike and the bots give it in the closing credits.

Down, down, down....

What’s sort of amazing about the hilarious, pseudo-academic monologue full of non-science that opens episode 803, Mole People, is that it reads like a template for any number of hollow earth theories populating the globe today. All of those theories are just this silly, but alas, not all of them get the benefit of being riffed to shreds by Mike and company.

“Idiot Control Now!”

This perfect gag is a perfect spoof of the equally dumb rock song that appears in episode 303 Pod People. In fact, some of the lyrics, like “All I want to feel is the wind in my eyes,” haven’t been changed, because why mess with brilliance? The song is the highlight of a rightfully beloved episode, centered on movie that includes a bizarre alien elephant named Trumpy, a sci-fi plot ripped off from E.T., and a bunch of teens who’ve escaped from a bag of incongruous horror movie clichés. Sack o’ monkeys in my pocket, indeed!

Gypsy goes full Hal

In addition to featuring one of the most famous MST3K movies, Mitchell, episode 512, is a bittersweet one for Joel Hodgson fans: It’s the last episode on which he appears before being replaced by Mike Nelson (who had been head writer for the show for a few seasons up until then).

But there’s a bright side, and that’s Gypsy, the oft-overlooked but marvelous engineering bot. In a sequence parodying the rogue computer Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gypsy lip-reads the mad scientists’ plan to sacrifice Joel and hatches a renegade plan to get him off the Satellite of Love, just in the nick of time. If you gotta go, there’s no better way than with a team of sentient robots helping you escape.

Tune into the Shout Factory Live website on Thanksgiving Day to livestream the marathon.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.