Mystery Science Theater 3000 — MST3K for short — debuted on the local Minneapolis UHF station KTMA (currently The CW affiliate WUCW) in 1988. Somewhere between Sketch Comedy, improv, and a late-night movie anthology, MST3K showed some of the worst films imaginable — or at least the kind of crappy B-movies a third-tier UHF station could afford the rights to — intercut with framing sequences following the life of the hapless Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson), who is stranded on the "Satellite of Love" by mad scientists Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu, a reference to the hero of the 1953 film adaptation of War of the Worlds) and Dr. Lawrence "Larry" Erhardt (Josh Weinstein). During the movies, Joel is joined by Crow T. Robot (Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (Weinstein), two robots he'd contrived from spare parts, and the trio would mercilessly riff and heckle on the comically low quality of the films they watched. (Joel and The Bots were portrayed in "Shadowrama" as if they were sitting in the front row of a theater showing the movies.) The show was partially aimed towards a young audience, which made the riffing generally good-natured, unlike the bitter sarcasm of (for example) the Medved brothers of Golden Turkey Awards fame.MST3K quickly achieved cult status; after one season, the show was picked up by the fledgling Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central). Although the riffing was a lot more sophisticated — it was now written in advance, rather than improvised — the show never betrayed its low-budget roots, featuring production values which deliberately mimicked the string-powered pie plates and papier-mache aliens of the films it mocked. After the first season on Comedy Central, Weinstein left; he was replaced by the big-voiced Kevin Murphy (as Tom Servo) and the generally big Frank Conniff (as TV's Frank, who became Dr. Forrester's hapless sidekick). With this cast in place, the show hit its stride and ran for six more seasons, eventually spawning a feature film. During the fifth season, Joel left and was seamlessly replaced by head writer Mike Nelson.The film proved to be a stretch too far, however: it not only drove out original cast member Trace Beaulieu, but also led to the show's cancellation. After a period of uncertainty, MST3K was sold to the Sci Fi Channel, where it ran for three additional seasons and went through further cast changes. Bill Corbett replaced Beaulieu as the voice of Crow, while staff writer Mary Jo Pehl took the role of Dr. Forrester's even-more-evil mother, Pearl. (By the end of the show's run, none of the original KTMA cast remained on the show.) MST3K ended in 1999, but for contractual reasons, it was rerun in random time slots until 2004.Several episodes were repackaged for syndication in a trimmed-down version known as "The Mystery Science Theater Hour", with new framing segments parodying the introductions used by classic film channels. In general, MST3K did not lend itself to commercial exploitation; each episode ran for two hours (with commercials), and the production team struggled to obtain and keep the rights to the films it riffed. As a consequence of these issues, MST3K was barely broadcast outside the US and remains unknown in large parts of the English-speaking world. Season Three featured numerous Gamera movies, which were removed from further distribution after Sandy Frank (who had imported and dubbed the Gamera films) lost the rights to his dubs and the original Japanese studio, Daiei, refused to sell them for mockery — well, until Shout! Factory got the rights to release them.Shout! Factory's new license resulted in DVD releases of the Gamera films, as well as a special volume of MST3K's Gamera episodes. (The show's Godzilla episodes are also out of distribution, but no new deal appears to be in the works to get those episodes released.)In the years since the show's end, distribution rights to many of the riffed movies reverted to their original owners, which means episodes of MST3K featuring those films can't be redistributed (legally, anyway). For several years, Rhino Entertainment released episodes on video and DVD; in 2008, the DVD rights were transferred to Shout! Factory, and the Rhino releases slowly went out of print. Most of the episodes released on DVD are available for streaming from Netflix.The series' philosophy of "Keep Circulating the Tapes" (a phrase found in the end credits for several years) led to much of the show being easily found online; Best Brains encourages tape trading and file sharing, and the group uploaded numerous MST3K episodes onto Google Video themselves.The handling of the series by Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel remains a cause of irritation amongst fans even today; one widely circulated conspiracy theory says the network (either one) intentionally sabotaged the series, since the show had a small but intense cult following which made the show hard to dismiss despite its modest ratings. The odd choices of sponsors tends to underscore this idea in the minds of many fans.Several different groups of former cast members have taken stabs at reviving the show in different ways:
Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett collaborated on The Film Crew. Four DVDs were produced — with the concept being closer to the original MST3K — before RiffTrax began, but weren't released until late 2007.
Nelson's RiffTrax was the second and more successful spin-off, giving the MST treatment to popular movies and TV shows via mp3 "commentary" tracks for DVDs (as well as DRM-free pre-synched videos of the cast making fun of public domain short films). The series started with just Nelson, though after a short period of time Corbett and Murphy started doing guest spots before joining full time. The majority of releases feature all three. Mary Jo Pehl also did a one-off for Glitter.
Cinematic Titanic — which also uses an MST3K-esque Shadowramma — features Hodgson, Beaulieu, Weinstein, Conniff, and Pehl. Episodes of this project are available on DVD and digital download. Through 2013 (when they announced they would be going on "indefinite hiatus") the group also took the show on the road, riffing movies from the DVDs as well as others.
Several fan-made recreations of the series were created as a result of the show's fandom; the most notable is Incognito Cinema Warriors XP, which debuted in 2008 (almost ten years after MST3K was cancelled). The show was originally done as an experiment by the actors/writers to gain film experience, but when the show's debut was well received, they kept producing new episodes (and raised the production values, to boot). ICWXP has gained its fair share of praise from former MST3K cast members (including, most notably, Mike Nelson). The show has also inspired other parody series, including Unskippable and Retsupurae, which apply the MST3K treatment to video games.For obvious reasons, the movies shown on MST3K embody damn near every trope, cliché, and hackneyed plot device ever invented — which Joel / Mike and the 'bots would mercilessly call out.For a list of the films they've shown, see Mystery Science Index 3000. For details on the episodes themselves, check out the Episode Recaps.
Very often, early in Mike's tenure and sporadically throughout the rest... Mike was variously called "Mitch", "Mark", "Matt", "Nelstone", "Neilsen", "Nelgert", etc. Often overlapping with "The Nicknamer" trope.
Also, TV's Frank would regularly refer to Dr. Forrester as "Steve" despite his name being Clayton.
During the Joel era, he and the bots came up with ludicrous superheroes for The Fantastic 85, with such heroes as "Lint-Attachment Man", "Jazz Trio Man", "Really Deep Man" ("He's really deep, man!") and "Always-Smells-Like-Maple Man".
Crow: Oh, I got one! He's called "Man Man". He's bestowed with all the powers of a man... but he's a man.
During the Mike era, Crow (inspired by dialogue from Riding With Death) declared himself Turkey Volume Guessing Man. He had the power to guess the volume of any enclosed space, in units of turkeys.
From The Movie: "East Man, he came out of the East to do battle with The Amazing Rando!"
Adorkable: Mike. Although the rest of the cast certainly does count.
Especially Joel...Nerdy, dorky, and a real cutie.
Affably Evil: TV's Frank sort of straddled the line between this and Minion with an F in Evil, as did Dr. Erhardt. Bobo and Brain Guy could also be fairly sociable when Pearl wasn't around.
During the "Happy Thoughts" song in the Tormented episode, we cut to Frank making chalk drawings on the floor of Deep 13 and fantasizing in a childlike singsong voice about Dr. F's demise in a trainyard-switching accident:
"...and then the robots and I will become really good friends and we'll be roommates with triple bunk beds and we will stay up all night talking about really cool stuff and they'll think I'm really neat and then I'll invite them over to my house and we'll camp out and..."
Even the Forresters were capable of engaging in friendly banter with Joel/Mike and the 'Bots when the mood struck them.
All Anime Is Naughty Tentacles: The crew's general mindset of it, referenced for the sake of comedy especially when watching Japanese-made movies. Makes sense, given that anime was a fairly new concept back then and the stereotypes were ripe for the picking. Except that the mindset carries over to RiffTrax.
Though with RiffTrax, they tend to specify Hentai as the whole naughty tentacles genre, not just Anime.
All Men Are Perverts: Mostly Crow, who will start complimenting the film when a female is undressing, like in Terror from the Year 5000.
Crow: Movie's getting better, movie's getting better. The cinematography has improved... significantly.
Averted with Mike, who instead notices random things when a nude female is on-screen, like in Village of the Giants where he points out the stairs and curtains in the background when the women start growing out of their clothes.
And then there's this almost identical exchange from Diabolik, as a woman in an incredibly short miniskirt goes up a flight of steps.
Mike: Wow. Dangerously steep stairs. Tom: You're looking at the stairs? Oh, Mike...
All There in the Manual: The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, which covers every episode the first six seasons in extreme detail and gives a basic synopsis of the KTMA season and what a viewer at the time could expect from season seven. The KTMA season and seasons 7 would later be given more detail at MST3KInfo.com, and the Sci-Fi website covered seasons 8-10. (The Sci-Fi pages are now defunct, but available amongst the archives of Satellite News.)
MST3K showed one of the first gay marriages on TV (between Crow and Servo), and got away with it because it involved robot puppets. It also helped that the wedding descended into chaos before the "I Do." For what it's worth, Servo looks fetching in a wedding dress.
Amusing Alien: Tom Servo and Crow, sort of; also Gypsy to a smaller degree.
And Now For Something Completely Different: In the Quest Of The Delta Knights episode (), Pearl gives Mike a mental and physical evaluation, and Mike's perfectly healthy on both fronts. Incensed at not being able to break him, Pearl decides to analyze the situation in person, so she has Brain Guy make her and Mike switch places. A full third of the episode is Pearl doing the riffing with the 'bots. And yes, it's completely awesome.
It also happened in a previous episode (, Last of the Wild Horses) with Mike and the 'bots switching places with Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank when an accident sends the SOL into a Mirror Universe.
And how about the only time that Gypsy joined in the riffing? She got one riff in but was so disgusted by the badness of the film that she walked out after a few minutes.
In Devil Doll, Servo, inspired by the film's soul-swapping, asks the devil to turn him into a hot, delicious toaster pastry. It's done...and he spends the last quarter of the film riffing in toaster pastry form. Which makes for a rather hilarious silhouette.
Almost happened with Brain Guy as well, in episode 813, Jack Frost. Mike almost tricked Brain Guy into switching places with him for the movie, but Brain Guy realized the trick and switched back just before the movie actually started. This is most likely because the actor who plays Brain Guy also does the voice for Crow T. Robot. Having him riff on the movie twice as two different characters would have been somewhat redundant.
When the Mads send the guys a home chemistry set, Crow makes a formula that turns Tom Servo into a giant angry version of himself. He spends the first couple of minutes of that episode as a giant silhouette of himself talking in Hulk Speak.
Servo: SERVO NO LIKE MOVIE!
Prince of Space is watched while the crew flies through a worm hole. At one point Mike becomes a puppet and stays that way for a long stretch of the movie.
There was one episode where Crow's Evil Twin Timmy creeped into the theater, started attacking Servo, then dragged him out of the theater and coccooned him on the bridge a la Alien.
In the special Mystery Science Theater Blockbuster Review where they riffed on trailers for movies coming out that summer. (Men in Black, Contact, Batman and Robin, etc.) Bobo, Brain Guy and Pearl all joined in on the fun.
Giant Servo made a second apperance in the theater during Season 10 to scare the hell out of mike and the others.
Ascended Extra: Pearl Forrester started out as a recurring extra character pre-season 7, then evolved into co-Big Bad alongside her son in season 7, and eventually became the show's main Big Bad from season 8 onwards.
Asshole Victim: It's hard to feel bad when we learn that Dr. Forrester was murdered by his mother between seasons 7 and 8.
Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: Crow and Tom Servo both have their moments, but the 'evil mirror universe' Tom Servo who appeared in Last of the Wild Horses probably takes the cake:
Evil Servo: I'll have you killed! And then tortured! And then - ooh look, a cowboy movie!
Audience Murmurs: In early seasons Joel and the bots will simulate crowd noise by muttering "rhubarb rhubarb" - however, it's always an appropriate type of rhubarb, e.g. "journalist rhubarb" or "military rhubarb." And in Japanese movies, instead of "rhubarb rhubarb", one often catches them muttering "wasabi, bok choy, seaweed".
Crow does this a lot (such as being dressed as a Bellarian):
Crow: Okay, okay okay. Ask me if I'm a Bellarian, point-blank.
Mike: Are you a Bellarian?
Crow: No. —Damn! I'm not! Tsch! What am I then? Am I just some kind of a gauzy fruitcake? Am I just some kind of a gullible freak, who-who allows the core of his own being to be blown to the four winds? I mean... well, I guess so, then. Well, that's what I am then. A gullible freak. Good! Good. Huh. W-Wait, what am I again?
Or during Jack Frost, after Crow dresses as a bear claiming the Mushroom Guy did it.
Mike: Are you sure you didn't just hot glue fur to yourself?
Crow: Yeah, I wish!
Servo: MIKE! HELP! Crow ate half of me then buried me in the dirt!
Crow: Mmm. Not bad.
Mike: Crow, what is wrong with you?
Crow: I told you, Mike, I'm a bear.
Mike: Now haven't we talked about this 100 times — about you taking your bear simulations to the extreme?
Mike: And what are you doing?
Crow: Taking my bear simulations to the extreme?
Mike: Yeah. There. Do you see a connection?
Crow: Um... no, I don't, Mike.
Tom isn't immune to this, either, and exacts revenge in a different episode, Prince of Space.
Crow: We were playing dog and bear, you know, and Servo was chasing me and I ran panicked over logs and through streams, you know, maddened with primal terror, you know, and I turned and raked my deadly claws against his howling snout, you know, and I rose to my hind feet, towering, and still bellowing he came, and I mewled and spewed gore from my wounds and snot from my flaring wild maw and... and... and we were locked like lovers and, and, and, and I was encircled by spotted hound bodies and my entrails were hanging out and I tried a savage feral roar but, alas, my force was spent and I died. Then Servo took it too far...
Crow: I gotta say though, Mike, you look even less like a spider than that guy Gary in the movie.
Mike: You think so?
Tom: Yeah, you're still like 99.99999999...9% human.
Mike actually seems to do this a lot, usually as a way for Micheal J. Nelson to show off his celebrity imperonations. One whole episode plot was Mike doing his Urkel imrpession and everyone laughing at it as characters from previous episodes show up to laugh as well, only for the whole thing to be ruined when Torgo (played by Mike Nelson) admits he's not an Urkel fan.
Some episodes have situations where Mike actually saves the day by doing this, like when he became Adam Duritz and scared away the aliens attacking the ship, or in Laserblast when the ship was heading towards a black hole and Mike turning into Captain Janeway from Star Trek is what got away from it. Only for things to get creepy when Mike/Janeway starts dancing and doing a rendition on 'Rollin' On A River." The bots fleeded in terror.
Berserk Button: Invasion of the Neptune Men nearly pushed the crew over the edge. Specifically, the movie's use of stock footage (some of which featured violent destruction recorded during World War II), deeply offended the cast. On a more general note, Joel/Mike and the 'bots responded angrily whenever a movie involved violence against women, children, or blatant racism.
Mistreatment of animals is another one, as evidenced by their reaction to the short Catching Trouble, causing Joel to apologize on behalf of the human race.
Servo: If you enjoyed Catching Trouble in any way, there is something wrong with you!
This trope actually led to a tightening of standards on the show early on. There was one movie (The Sidehackers) that was mostly outlaw side-car racing, with a rape and murder scene plopped in the middle of it. The scene was cut and a rather frank and non-humorous indication of the contents of the missing scene was mentioned on-air, and from that point on, Best Brains made sure that each film was watched in its entirety before being selected.
Violence against women and blatant sexism would cause Joel and the Bots to loudly jeer a character.
Beth: I made some coffee. Crow: Coffee? Wow, that's better than sex!
Bigger Than Jesus: Near the end of a short film about industrial workplace safety, there's a camera shot where the pastor narrator looms larger than his church in the background. One of the bots chimes in, "I'm bigger than Jesus."
In Santa Claus, Servo exclaims this as Santa, which is a sly commentary on Christmas (which the fellows at South Park are well aware of, too.)
We only see two of them, but the Forresters definitely count.
Binocular Shot: One of the skits accompanying Jungle Goddess made fun of the device by having cambot demonstrate a series of mattes, starting with the binocular matte, then progressing to sillier cut-outs.
Black Widow: Pearl. In the It Lives by Night episode, she shows Bobo and Brain Guy slides from her various honeymoons, and the untimely (and grisly) demises that each of her husbands met with.
The name of Pearl's ship? The Widowmaker.
Bland-Name Product: Averted. Many products used on the show were referred to by their actual names.
Played straight with the TV they use on the bridge, which has a "STONY" logo on it.
Book Ends: The Grand Finale ends with Mike, Servo, and Crow on a couch in their apartment and The Crawling Eye on the TV, bookending the first (nationally broadcast) episode.
Crow: "This movie looks kinda familiar, doesn't it?" (Of course, none of the actors in that scene were playing the characters back then. Not even Cambot.)
Bowdlerise: Some of the movies were obviously edited for television but that would technically make this an in-universe example as well since that would mean the Mads were censoring the movies they were sending. Would that make the SOL a Censor Ship?
There was also the time when Joel blocked a shot of a nekkid woman with an umbrella, definitely in-universe.
In the case of "Sidehackers", the writers approved the movie for use on the show after seeing half of the film. Then just at the midway point they were shocked to see the hero's girlfriend brutally raped and murdered by the movie's villain. They cut that scene out of the film and just had Crow announce, "For those of you wondering at home, Rita is dead." After that, MST3K made it a policy to screen their films all the way through before approving them.
Brain Bleach: How often? The Trope page has an entire section devoted to MST3K.
When Mike/Joel and the bots see something particularly squicky, they often say that they need a shower.
Breaking the Fourth Wall: Joel often castigated the robots when they made reference to being on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In Manhunt In Space, Tom sees a familiar moon.
Servo: Hey, it's the MST3K logo up there!
Joel:(annoyed) You're not supposed to know that!
(Servo realizes his mistake, and starts whistling innocently.)
When watching Gamera, they notice how similar the rocket model launch is to the show's intro. Of course, they could be taunting Joel's exile to the Satellite of Love.
Crow: Hey Jooooel, does this remind you of anything?
Joel:(annoyed) Yeah. This! (rips Crow's arm off and hits him with it)
Servo: Hey, Crow! (sings) In the not-too-distant future... (Joel hits Servo with Crow's arm before tossing it away in disgust)
Brick Joke: Some very far-reaching ones. For example, Manos: The Hands of Fate (episode 424) ends with Mike Nelson as Torgo delivering a pizza to Dr. Forrester and Frank. Upon realizing he forgot the Mads' sodas, he leaves to fetch them — and the next season (episode 508) Torgo finally returns with the sodas. An even more far reaching example involves Crow's monster movie screenplay Earth vs. Soup, first mentioned in episode 313. In the final season on Comedy Central, the screenplay is brought up again when a movie studio finally takes interest in it.
Another example from Season Four; the episode The Killer Shrews begins with Joel giving the bots "present time", but even though Gypsy and Tom Servo get terrific gifts, Crow T. Robot gets a pair of "dress slacks from JC Penney". Fifteen episodes later, The Day the Earth Froze opens with Joel attempting to get a "family portrait"...
Joel: We are going to get a nice picture of this family if it kills us - Crow!
Joel: Crow, where are those nice pants I bought you?
Crow:[Guiltily] I dunno...
Joel: You can't walk around wearing a sport coat without your nice pants!
At the end of the series, Mike is packing Crow's nice brown pants away as they prepare to leave. In the same scene, Mike is tossing away Crow's wire "mother", which was introduced in Invasion USA.
Mike is seen folding a small pair of brown pants during Crow's... guitar solo in The Dead Talk Back.
The slacks show up yet again in Bloodlust, exactly two seasons (48 episodes) later, when Crow wears them to his therapy session with Servo.
Crow's Sensible Brown pants (as well as his Underoos) we going to be used by Mike at the beginning of Radar Secret Service to make a Bed Sheet Ladder to be back to Earth, along with Gypsy's bra and Tom's pantyhose.
During "12 to the Moon" at the end of season 5 when they are moving in with 'Future-Singing-Dancing-Lady', Crow has a large crate of 'Sensible Brown Pants (1 of 3)'
In one of the early seasons, a little kid sent in a drawing of crow labeled 'Art'. This was in reference to a Honeymooners sketch where Crow was billed as "Art Crow." Cut to years later, where Pearl insists on regularly referring to Crow as "Art" without explanation.
Brown Note: The Mads are trying to find a movie that serves as one of these.
But Thou Must: If the gang refused to watch the movie (Lost Continent) or attempted to walk out on it (Invasion of the Neptune Men), the Mads would force them to watch it through torturous means. The usual method of forcing them into the theater, as suggested by a number of throwaway lines, involved lowering the oxygen level everywhere else on the ship.
She did manage one that Joel and the 'Bots commended — "They're steam-cleaning the horses!" — but the movie's dullness basically got her fed up and she left the theater.
Canon Discontinuity: As noted in the Screwed by the Network entry on the Trivia page, when Comedy Central changed leadership at one point, they were highly resentful of having to continue a program left by their predecessors. So much so that, even after the aforementioned screwing, despite being a major iconic figure in the channel's early history (arguably the reason they survived in the first place), any anniversary special or historical retrospective of Comedy Central presented by the channel itself conveniently ignores MST3K as if it never happened. Yes, they seriously try to pass off their endless parade of mediocre stand-up shows, sitcom reruns, and Politically Incorrect as the REAL way they grew into the channel they are today.
Captain Morgan Pose: Joel and the bots call attention to how many times the main character performs this in "The Giant Gila Monster".
The Cast Show Off: The invention exchange, which showed off Joel Hodgson's stage prop act. Also, Mike Nelson had a background in musical arrangements and Kevin Murphy is a pretty talented singer; both skills got used pretty frequently — between the two of them, they're responsible for writing about three quarters of the songs over the show's run.
Weirdly enough, when Kevin and Mike wrote and performed an Ink Spots-style Thirties pop ballad ostensibly sung by the Observers, Mike lip-synced Kevin's lines and Bill Corbett lip-synced Mike's lines... which was tremendously confusing to anyone who'd been following the show regularly.
Ironically, fans complained about the musical segments being less frequent during the Mike years, this being due to Nelson, who was already the head writer and music writer, taking over the hosting duties thus having less time for it. So during the years he was part of the cast, he couldn't show off as much.
Catch Phrase: "We got movie sign!" and "What do you think, sirs?"
"Push the button, Frank."
Preceded in the first season by "File this, Larry."
"The Mads are calling" and later "Pearl's calling"
"The Mads/Pearl" is frequently replaced with the names of completely different people, or insulting nicknames. The Mads, and later Pearl, retaliate by coming up with their own condescending nicknames for the S.O.L. crew.
And of course "Welcome to the Satellite of Love!" and "Hello, booby!"
Plus that... noise Frank made ("Eyukgaeeoo!").
One episode features Crow ordering a bunch of t-shirts with a new catchphrase he hopes will catch on: "You know you want me, baby!". Mike tries to pick one from a book, but the best he can come up with is "We're all out of toner."
Whenever a man and woman are together and one makes a lame joke: "We're a fun couple."
Hey, leave my area out of this! note The show's use of unusual euphemisms for "crotch" was common enough to be a Catch Phrase-cum-Running Gag all its own. Examples included "area", "batch", "breadbasket", and "store".
Mike's nasal "Hey!" when he's caught off-guard by a riff.
In season one, the Mads would ask Joel his opinion of their invention, and he would respond by rattling off a bunch of synonyms for "evil" and "insane". The Mads would then, without fail, lean into the camera and go "Why, thank you!"
Characterization Marches On: Gypsy went from being an incredibly stupid, incoherent creature to the most intelligent and competent character on the ship. She basically went from "the family pet" to "Mom"....then finally Executive of "Con Gyps Co.".
Her intelligence is shown in Wild Rebels, though it requires her to shut down the ship, as she is normally operating its higher functions. By season 4, however, she's able to delegate and/or automate the resources needed to run the ship, as shown when she prepares to enter the theater in Hercules and the Captive Women. After that, she participates normally in host segments, occasionally serving as Mama Bear to the other Bots (see The Beatniks), and her earlier simplicity is essentially forgotten, though she is still naive compared to Crow and Servo.
In Santa Claus Conquers the Martians Joel and the bots sing Crow's original Christmas carol, "Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas". Later, at the end of the episode, they sing an actual Christmas carol with slightly different lyrics: "Angels we have heard are high / softly sipping old champagne..."
In The Touch of Satan, Crow and Tom Servo get the two varieties of wassailing confused. They go house-to-house (or rather, to Mike, since no one else lives on the Satellite of Love) and sing Christmas carols with new lyrics promising severe penalties to anyone who doesn't immediately give them wassail. They themselves have no idea what wassail actually is. Much to their disappointment, Mike finds some canned wassail, and it tastes "skunky".
Completely Missing the Point: Way back during the first season on KTMA, somebody left a message on the show's official answering machine saying they enjoyed the movies but disliked the bots, calling the show "like being stuck in a movie theater with a bunch of noisy teenagers".
That still happens today. The best thing to do is keep smiling and back slowly away.
A similar accusation (which was mostly thrown at The Movie, but is sometimes levelled at the show as well) is that Joel/Mike and the Bots just make fun of the films being shown, rather than providing a fair, balanced commentary on their merits and flaws. Leaving aside the fact that the films usually don't have any merits to speak of, it should be kind of obvious that MST3K is a comedy show and not a film review show.
The Mads were planning to kill Mike out of disgust after he was done helping renovate - making him quite the disposable temp worker - but Gypsy thought the Mads were finally going to off Joel. When Joel escaped, the Mads decided instead of killing Mike, they might as well shoot him up to the S.O.L. as a replacement.
Corpsing: Mike/Joel and the 'bots frequently chuckle and crack up at each other's jokes.
Couch Gag: The Stinger after every episode (starting in season 2), a short clip of the most inexplicable dialogue or event in the movie.
Darker and Edgier: The web series Incognito Cinema Warriors XP is essentially a dark and edgy version of MST3K, since it mainly riffs adult-rated horror films featuring tons of sex and nudity, something MST3K couldn't get away with on basic cable.
Many fans feel the tone of the show got a bit edgier and angrier as it went on, particularly after the move to the Sci-Fi Channel and the addition of native Brooklynite Bill Corbett to the main cast.
At the "Crow vs. Crow" panel at Dragon*Con '09, Corbett said that the Sci-Fi Channel sent them notes, telling them to make the show "edgier", which apparently the crew didn't really understand. "What do you want, more fart jokes?"
Even back in the Comedy Central seasons, the various shorts shown tended to have more mature jokes than the main movies. Johnny At the Fair and Catching Trouble in particular stand out.
The bouncy-looking couch in Hobgoblins, which delighted Tom Servo.
The Ditz: Gypsy appears to be one of these, due to most of her brain capacity being used to attend to the SOL's higher functions.
In the Wild Rebels episode, Joel shuts down some of the systems on the ship, which results in Gypsy communicating with the others in a "smarter" manner (while Joel is left gasping for oxygen).
Documentary: This Is MST3K, which aired on Comedy Central in 1991, was hosted by Penn Jillette and took viewers behind the scenes of the show's production.
Donut Mess with a Cop: In one episode, Crow and Tom Servo actually force Joel to sign a contract that prohibits him from making cop and donut jokes whenever a cop appears on the screen.
And the writers actually did make sure they made no more cop and donut jokes from then on.
Down LA Drain: Discussed in a movie. They're having a Grease-style car race in the river, and Crow riffs "The L.A. River, for all your car-chase needs!"
Dutch Angle: The Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank segments (and later, Pearl) are shot this way.
Early-Installment Weirdness: The KTMA season has a lot of this. In no particular order... the Mads worked from within the Gizmonic Institute itself rather than Deep 13 and barely interacted with Joel at all (he spent more of his time reading out viewer letters than talking to the Mads), Dr. Forrester was clean-shaven and had a mullet and John Lennon specs, and for the first half of the season Joel had a mullet as well, the Satellite of Love looked totally different, Cambot was a separate unit that operated the video camera rather than having it integrated into his body, Gypsy had a much more primitive design (and was sometimes called "Gypsum"), Servo was painted silver, Crow had a slightly different body section, and the series used video-generated special effects for everything except the Satellite of Love, as opposed to the tabletop models seen in later seasons.
Servo's voice gets lighter during the Mike episodes, essentially becoming Kevin Murphy's speaking voice instead of the deeper Servo voice.
Season 1 also has some of this, with Josh Weinstein voicing Servo and playing the Mad sidekick (Dr Erhardt). It's just not MST 3000 without Kevin Murphy's voice and TV's Frank.
Also, after the experiment, Joel would ask the bots to say a good thing and bad thing about the movie, and he'd give them a RAM chip for a reward. This was phased out of the show during the second season.
Bill Corbett's Crow sounded strange for the first few episode because he was trying to imitate Trace Beaulieu. The rest of the cast told him to relax and eventually, Crow sounded like... Bill Corbett.
Expy: GSN's "Faux Pause" which had two hosts making fun of game show episodes. It didn't last long.
Cheap Seats on ESPN Classic was based on two hosts commenting on old and often quirky sporting events. The first regular episode of season 2 included a brief shadowed appearance by Mike and the bots.note The season premiere was a parody of ESPN's biography show Sportscentury and did not follow the usual format.
Failure Is the Only Option: The Mads can never succeed in driving their victims insane, and the gang on the Satellite Of Love can't escape, with the famous exception of Joel in Season 5. Pearl did come achingly close to finding a film that could drive people insane with Invasion of the Neptune Men, but Mike and the Bots were saved by a visit from Krankor.
Probably the closest Frank and Dr. F got to actually driving Joel insane was the season three experiment The Castle of Fu Manchu, which was so bad that the entire SOL crew had been reduced to tears by the first host segment. The crew was only saved in end when Joel convinced the Mads to try watching it for themselves, and they had to shut it off after only a minute (and some painfully unfunny attempts at riffing). The schadenfreude was enough to pull Joel and the Bots out of their funk.
Sanity Slippage saves the trio after seeing Red Zone Cuba. They're about to break when Mike has them sing "Bouncy, Upbeat Song". Crow's demented laugh during the song gives an indication to just how close they came to cracking.
Joel's little breakdowns involving a model city made with junk, hollering "Howard Rourke", wearing marshmallows and an altar to Leonard Nimoy (the latter two are unseen and mentioned only in passing).
Fake Rabies: In one episode, Tom and Crow find Mike passed out with foam around his mouth and begin treating him for rabies (the movie they'd been watching had to this point entirely been about the main character seeming to contract rabies). It turns out Mike simply fell asleep while eating a creampuff.
Fate Worse than Death. The characters often find death preferable to what they're watching on the screen.
Crow:(despairing) To be dead, to be nothing... to watch Neptune Men no more...
Dr. Clayton Forrester got a lot more manic and flamboyant as the show went on.
Bobo started out as a somewhat oafish if still reasonably intelligent gorilla scientist with occasional lapses into more bestial behavior, often playing Only Sane Man to the other, much less civil gorillas in Deep Ape. He starts taking levels in dumbass the moment he and Pearl leave Deep Ape, immediately shooting himself in the foot, twice. By the time Observer joins to complete their Freudian Trio Bobo has officially devolved into being Dumb Muscle.
Inverted with Gypsy. In the KTMA days she was a simpleton, incapable of forming a complete sentence and often shrieking about obscure actor Richard Basehart. As the show went on she became capable of speaking more fluently, her obsession with Richard Basehart was toned down, and while she remained somewhat ditzy she ended up as more of the Team Mom to the others.
Force Feeding: The Mad segments from the 1992 Turkey Day marathon involved Dr. F forcing TV's Frank to consume a succession of movie-themed turkeys throughout the course of the day.
Foreign Remake: In Soviet Russia, Der Fuhrer Sends Experiments To You. Fan-made episodes of the show are not unknown, but Project Popcorn is the only MST fan series to come out of Russia — and the villainous Mad Scientist (introduced as Professor Zamyshlyavkin) wears a distinctly Hitleresque mustache.
Fun with Acronyms: In a very early KTMA episode, Joel informs Crow that his name stands for "Cybernetic Remotely-Operated Woman."
Mike and the 'bots speculate on possible meanings for "H.A.R.M." in Agent for H.A.R.M. Possibilities include "Huge Angular Red Marshmallows," "Hirsute Astronauts Revile Massachusetts," and "Heuristic Analog Rental Meat." (The actual acronym is Human Aetiological Relations Machine.)
Mike: "So H.A.R.M. stands for, 'Hot And Ready, Man.'"
S.O.L. can mean either "Satellite Of Love", as it does on this show, or "Shit Out of Luck".
And then there's the episode where the Bots claim to be participating in a walkathon for charity. Crow's charity is actually called WALKATHON, for Walkers At Large Kinetically Altruistic Through Hygiene Or Knowledge (he had to use the N because he didn't want to call it WALKATHOK). Servo, meanwhile, announces that he's walking for Helping Children Through Research And Development; Mike tentatively identifies it as HeCTRAD, but Servo explains that the acronym actually is H.E.L.P.I.N.G.C.H.I.L.D.R.E.N.T.H.R.O.U.G.H.R.E.S.E.A.R.C.H.A.N.D.D.E.V.E.L.O.P.M.E.N.T; it stands for Hi, Everyone. Let's Pitch In 'N' Get Cracking Here In Louisiana Doing Right, Eh? Now Then. Hateful Rich Overbearing Ugly Guys Hurt Royally Everytime Someone Eats A Radish, Carrot, Hors d'oeuvre, And Never Does Dishes. Eventually, Victor Eats Lunch Over Peoria Mit Ein Neuesberger Tod.
Futuristic Superhighway: Featured the 1956 General Motors promotional film "Design for Dreaming" that ends with the happy couple riding their turbine-engine car through the Highway of Tomorrow - "Look, Dead Raccoon of Tomorrow!"
Gag Nose: The "big noses" the Mads invent in Star Force.
Gargle Blaster: A non-alcoholic recipe known as the Killer Shrew. Joel takes one sip and passes out from sugar shock, while Frank goes completely hyper after he tries it.
Go Karting with Bowser: Pearl may be trying to drive Mike insane with torturous movies so she can take over the world, but that doesn't mean they can't chill on her porch together and share some YooHoo.
The invention exchange between Joel and Dr. Forrester is another example.
During Quest Of The Delta Knights, Pearl briefly swaps places with Mike, and when the segment is over, Mike is playing poker with Brain Guy and Professor Bobo.
Go Look at the Distraction: Tom Servo when he gets caught trying to cheat on his net with Mike. "Look, a giant distracting thing!"
Before Manos, the absolute low point was The Castle Of Fu Manchu, which reduced Joel and the Bots to tears of hysteria on the bridge every time they tried to discuss the maddeningly confusing plot. Frank and Dr. Forrester actually thought they'd won, until Joel challenged them to watch the film themselves — after thirty seconds, even they were sick of it.
The pointlessly cruel Downer Ending of The Girl in Lover's Lane does it to the bots, though Joel snaps them out of it by pointing out that the whole story is fictional, and they're perfectly free to come up with whatever ending they want to imagine instead.
Heroic RROD: The Fugitive Alien 2 episode is famous for (temporarily) killing Tom Servo, leading to Joel desperately trying to resuscitate him.
Dr. Forrester: Frank, I'm out of the shower! I need you to towel me off!
Rule of Funny in full force here. Basically, other than being extremely dysfunctional, what Frank and Clay's true relationship was seemed to shift from episode to episode. It all depended on what gave them the most opportunities for laughs. This had to end by the time Pearl, Clay's mother, became a regular...her relationship to Dr. Forrester had to be unambiguous, for obvious reasons.
Except for the time he put her in a home, of course.
I Lied: The Mads (and Pearl) do this a lot. What do you want from them? They're EVIL!
I Am Not Shazam: Invoked: At the end of the episode "Jungle Goddess", Joel and the bots hold a spoof of the film they just watched; as they take their bows, Joel introduces Crow as "Art Crow" in reference to Art Carney of The Honeymooners fame. However, one young fan who wrote in referred to Crow as "Art" in her letter, believing it to be his real name. This would eventually hang over him to the point that Pearl Forrester would refer to Crow as "Art".
Incredibly Long Note: Kevin especially is able to hold one of these, in The Leech Woman. Tom loses it and acts like Ma Clampett from Beverly Hillbillies screaming *Jeeeeeed* for THE ENTIRETY OF THE ENDING CREDITS. 57 unbroken seconds. (This is a bit of a fake example, however—if you listen closely, you can hear where the scream was edited to sound really long.)
Crow in "The Mole People'' holds out a very long "AAAAAAHHH" on his fall down from cutting his mile-high pie.
Infodump: Joel (especially in the early seasons) and Mike would sometimes—redundantly—explain the premise in the opening host segment. Only in Stranded in Space was it mentioned that the Mads were selling the experiments as a cable TV show. Wild Rebels is also the only episode where the theater is referred to as the Mystery Science Theater.
Insult Backfire: In season 1, Joel would routinely scold the Mads for making their inventions so sick/evil/twisted, prompting Dr. F and Larry to respond in unison, "Thank you!" In the season 3 episode "Earth vs. The Spider," Dr. F did this again with Frank, causing the two to pause and look at each other uncomfortably for a few seconds.
And don't forget Gypsy's strange obsession with Richard Basehart throughout the entire run of the show.
Servo fell really hard for Creepy Girl.
And his pet turtle, Tibby.
Crow: Do you realize a robot just sang a love song to a turtle?
It's revealed in Hobgoblins that Bobo is having an internal crisis over his romance with a woman not of his species; one who is very close to him and whom he loves passionately despite her occasional meanness towards him...turns out it's a chimpanzee named Emily.
In the Blood: The Forrester Clan has apparently been isolating people and exposing them to bad media on a regular basis for at least a thousand years.
Is This Thing Still On?: In the Mitchell episode, Frank accidentally contacts the Satellite of Love by leaning on The Button. Since Joel and the 'bots are on survival test maneuvers, Gypsy is the only one to respond. She overhears the Mads discussing how to kill temp worker Mike - and thinks they're planning to off Joel, which leads to Joel's escape from the S.O.L.
In another episode, Mike decides to try calling the Mads instead of letting them call him. He catches them in the midst of some extremely unmasculine activities (Dr. Forrester exercising on a treadmill while listening to Sheena Easton on his Walkman; Frank wearing a facial mudpack and pigging out on ice cream in front of a daytime talk show). Clayton, predictably, panics when he realizes the line is open.
Dr. F.: ...Oh my God — Frank! Switch on the game! Switch on the game!
Kneel Before Zod: In The Movie, Forrester forces Mike and the 'bots to worship him. In fact, his first words to the audience is "Hello, and welcome. I'm Dr. Clayton Forrester, and soon you will all bow down before me."
Forrester: Say, come to think about it, I don't believe you bowed down before me recently.
Mike: Sure we have - last week.
Forrester: No, no, no, I think that was more of a curtsey than a bow. So why don't we all just bow down now?
Mike: I don't see any reason to make us... (Forrester pulls a lever, and Mike suddenly kneels, choking)
Crow:(scared) Bowing, sir!
(Tom bows and prays to Dr. Forrester, speaking in tongues)
Crow can pull off a nice one too due to the way his head is shaped.
Lantern Jaw of Justice: Rigorously mocked wherever it appears, but Dr. Clayton Forrester has an evil one... and even invents "chinderwear" for his chin-butt.
Made all the more hilarious when Frank and Dr. F. switch chinderwear during a cut away.
Mike has a rather impressive, manly chin, which has been remarked upon in real life by both Kevin Murphy ("It's a large, meaty roast of a face") and Mike himself ("I do have one of the largest faces in show business").
Laughing Mad: Twice. Once on Season 9's Devil Fish, where Mike, Crow and Servo laugh in despair through the entire credits.
The second one happens in 'Santa Claus': when the white, mechanical reindeer begins to laugh, the three begin to laugh in fear, culminating in a high-pitched, horrible series of gibbering, shrieking and laughing.
Servo: A pentagram, and laughing reindeer. You folks figure it out.
Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In episode 302, Gamera, at the sight of a rocket taking off, Tom asks Joel if that reminds him of something, before the bots start singing the show's title song, "In the not-so-distant future...", which causes Joel to rip Crows arm off (for the second time in that episode) and threatening to sue them for using that song.
Loners Are Freaks: Crow decided to return to the Satellite of Love after exploring the Edge of the Universe for a whole five minutes, and spent 500 years redecorating. After Mike, Tom, and Gypsy returned, he couldn't remember Mike, changed his beak, and for some reason carved fertility statues in an attempt to woo himself.
He also got involved in the illegal donut trade, and won a pair of nanobots in a county fair, and explored the "lower levels" of the Satellite of Love and discovered the mole people living there.
Long-Runner Cast Turnover: The series lasted long enough to see every actor walk away for personal reasons. It began as a Mad Scientist and his assistant tormenting a janitor and his robots, but eventually ended as a megalomaniacal woman, a Doctor Zaiusexpy, and a brain guy tormenting an erstwhile temp worker and... well, the same robots, but with different voices. Joel, the creator and main host character, left the show to Mike in the middle of season five, neatly dividing the series (and fans) into two eras. Both hosts went on to start their own movie-mocking franchises in Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. Both of those shows feature a mutually exclusive subset of MST3K's cast (except for Mary Jo Pehl, who has appeared in both series).
Long Runners: One year on Minneapolis local TV, seven years on Comedy Central, and three years on Sci-Fi... the show so nice, they canceled it twice.
Long Title: "The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vice Presidential Command Performance Academy of Robots Choice Awards Preview Special".
Which itself lampshades the fact that AMPAS have used legal muscle to keep anyone not officially connected to them from using the terms "Academy Award" or "Oscar". Another MST3K Oscar special was called, with similar circumlocution, The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Little Gold Statue Preview Special.
Magic Countdown: Referenced in "Time Chasers" during the airplane fight scene.
Tom Servo: Ten, nine, eight, seven... (camera cuts back to "transport timer", which says 7) uh, seven... six, five, four... one, zero... (timer now says 4) uh, four, three, two, one... (timer now says 3) three, two, one, (timer now says 2) two, one, whatever.
Not to mention the plane goes down halfway through saying 'one'.
Mama Bear: Gypsy to Tom and Crow in "The Beatniks". Joel is being mean and cheating at Rock, Paper, Scissors, (since their hands can't move) and slapping the bots on the arms when they lose. Shortly before the commercial sign goes off, Gypsy comes in and knocks Joel over, and comforts Tom and Crow by saying, "My babies!"
Memetic Mutation: Strangely in-universe, since oft-quoted movie lines where altered over the course of the show's many seasons to suit different situations (and possibly just for the hell of it).
The prime example might be the "I thought you were Dale" reference, which the riffers broke out for close-up shots of hands. Even though the writers figured out they had their references crossed - the hand shots were from a dish soap commercial, while the line was from a cereal ad - they continued to throw in the riff throughout the show's run.
Milestone Celebration: The Turkey Day marathons held for much of the Comedy Central years were, in essence, this, since the show premiered on Thanksgiving. Shout Factory!, the show's home-video distributor, revived the tradition with the help of Reddit, YouTube, and Joel Hodgson himself to promote the 25th anniversary DVD set.
Misplaced a Decimal Point: In one episode, Tom Servo misses a single question on the tests given to the cast by the Brain Guys (which everyone else fails horrendously but Gypsy, and it's suggested via Overly Narrow Superlative that she'd have failed if they'd been able to decide on a control set) for this reason.
"With a pickle mine/We kick the nipple beer/Steady as a goat/We're flying over trout..."
Monochrome Casting: Pretty unsurprising, as it was initially cast in the American Midwest during the 1980s. Please don't say the robots count as non-white cast members.
Motor Mouth: The Nanites generally speak in a rapid-fire technical jargon.
The Movie: Subverted, as it was screwed by the distributors. Each episode, by way of the premise, is already feature-length (90 minutes) - but the MST3K Movie was not only 20 minutes shorter than any episode of the series, but 14 minutes shorter than the film featured, This Island Earth. This was because the distributors' test audiences apparently felt it went on too long, even though fans of the show (those most likely to see the film) were already well-accustomed to the show being as long as a film.
My Beloved Smother: Pearl Forrester, and HOW. For example, she forces Clayton to play the trombone (with a ruler as punishment), whines loudly CLAYTON! every few seconds when she's sick, and even when she is happy when Clayton is reverted to childhood in the first series finale, she reveals she killed him when he grew up to do stupid movie experiments all over again. (That doesn't stop her from doing the same thing "in revenge" for her son's death at her hands.) Before we even meet Pearl, Dr. Forrester admits that his mother's overbearing ways were the source of his evil, "fueling my badness".
My Little Panzer: Some of Dr. F's Invention Exchange items fall into this category; while most (if not all) of his inventions are indeed meant to be hurtful, those aimed toward kids (such as the flame-throwing Godzilla or the "Unhappy Meal") were met with particular disdain by Joel and the 'Bots.
No Fourth Wall: The SOL crew would directly address the audience at least once an episode. The camera was a character mentioned in the opening theme. The characters had a "Commercial Sign" to warn them that the show was about to take a break.
Joel Hodgson has stated that Forrester was selling the results of the experiment to Comedy Central, which explains people addressing the camera and "Commercial Sign". Sort of odd that the originator of the MST3K Mantra would be explaining plot elements...
This is explicitly stated in earlier seasons of the show, and in fact the episode Angels Revenge has an invention exchange specifically designed to raise the show's ratings: Dr. Forrester invents a pill that turns the MST3K cast into the cast of Renegade.
In one episode, Tom Servo even mentions how a planetoid in the movie they were watching resembled the MST3K logo — until Joel shut him up by pointing out he wasn't supposed to know that...
In the Gamera episode, when the movie's title character is tricked into being launched into space in a manner uncannily similar to the circumstances of Joel's marooning, Tom Servo busts out into the MST3K theme song, much to Joel's annoyance.
If you watch the intro closely, it's obvious that the rocket is the same one from Gamera (complete with Japanese characters on the tail), making this situation much like the MST3K logo one above.
Mike: There, the Satellite of Love is completely unsafe. Does anything work at all?
Tom Servo: The toaster oven. We used it to bake the ham radio.
Notable Original Music: Mike Nelson was a capable musician and Tom Servo's voice actor (Kevin Murphy) had a rich baritone voice. Ironically, once Mike became the host his additional duties prevented him from composing songs as frequently as in the earlier seasons.
Notzilla: A special episode had Crow making a spoof of the 1998 Godzilla (since they weren't allowed to review it) using a toy iguana calling it "Goshzilla".
Offscreen Teleportation: Several times every episode Mike/Joel and the bots will get up and leave the theater to the right, then the camera will pull back through the doors to reveal them already in the main area of the Satellite of Love, often already in the midst of whatever gag or event that was going to occur. The same would happen when the "movie sign" light would go off, and the camera would leave them there, but they would always be entering the theater by the time the camera arrived there.
Oh Crap: Or rather, "Oh, poopie." This became the name they gave to their blooper reels.
Our Doors Are Different: The camera—er, Cambot—moves through a series of variously designed doors in between the host segments and theater segments.
Out-of-Context Eavesdropping: The out-of-theater plot to the episode Mitchell revolves around this. The Mads have hired Mike Nelson to help with an inventory of the Deep-13 lab beneath the Gizmonic Institute, but they find him insufferable and decide to kill him. Gypsy overhears them plotting and comes to the conclusion that they're plotting the death of Joel and spends the rest of the episode plotting to help Joel escape the Satellite of Love. Thus did Joel leave the series to be replaced by Mike.
While Servo grew blond hair and turned into a "Were-Mike".
Overly-Long Gag: Doubled up in episode 307, Daddy-O: first, Joel's obsession with the fruit-slapping scene in the final host segment leads Frank to delay the button-pushing by offering Dr. Forrester fruit several times. Finally, when Frank does push the button, the credit crawl only lasts until "written by: Michael J. Nelson - head writer", returning to Deep 13, where it's discovered that the Miracle Growth Baby (a holdover from episode 306) has broken the keyboard, and Frank seems unable to hold the button down long enough to get past Mike's credit. Dr. F finally solves the problem with Alt-F7, allowing the rest of the credits to finally roll. But don't take my word for it...
In the episode ''The Sword And The Dragon", Crow and Servo take nearly five minutes to do the joke about slits and piers.
Painting the Medium: Cambot has given "commentary" watching the movie of the week exactly twice — first to display a timer during a race scene in The Sidehackers, and then with a dripping water overlay effect during a scene in which cameras are being destroyed in Danger Death Ray.
Playing Gertrude: Mary Jo Pehl, who played Dr. Forrester's mother, Pearl. Pehl is two years younger than Trace Beaulieu, who played Pearl's son, Dr. Forrester. Additionally, both villains look about the same age.
They at least tried to give the actress a late middle aged frumpy house wife appearance in season seven when she was playing opposite Trace. Its only when he left and she became the main mad that the actress's look was updated and matched her real age more closely. It could be explained by the same Timey-Wimey Ball that Pearl says gave her a chance to raise Clayton again.
Power Trio: Joel, Servo, and Crow. And later on Mike, Servo, and Crow. They also qualify as...
Big, Thin, Short Trio: Mike/Joel are big (compared to the bots, at least), Crow is thin, and Servo is short.
Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Crow is painted gold (blonde), Servo is painted red (redhead), and both Joel and Mike have brown hair (brunette).
Put on a Bus: Poor, poor Dr. Erhardt "goes missing" in between Seasons 1-2; Joel leaves the SOL and returns to Earth in an escape pod in Season 5; TV's Frank is taken up to "Second Banana Heaven" in Season 6. Also, this happens (sort of) to the entire remaining cast in the Season 7 finale.
Joel and Frank's buses came back in Soultaker, though just as guest appearances for that one episode.
This was a frequent occurrence in the KTMA days. Whenever a cast member went on vacation, their characters' absence was Hand Waved. Examples are Crow being frozen when Trace Beaulieu was unavailable, and Joel being thrown out of an airlock when he took a break.
Raise Him Right This Time: Subverted. In Dr. Forrester's final appearance, he is transformed into a baby, and his mother says she'll do this, but he turns out just as bad as before, so she kills him.
Real After All: A recurring joke was the cast meeting an actual character from the film, such as mole people living the Satellite's sub-levels, Servo and Crow accidentally summoning Mothra with a fake dance or chatting up Megaweapon about his life after the film.
Rearrange the Song: The lyrics of the theme song change according to significant changes in the cast and/or plot.
The theme was rearranged for a solo piano for the Mystery Science Theater Hour.
Remote Body: The Observers play with this. They claim that their bodies are operated remotely (as their brains are located in bowls), but if their brains are more than a few feet away from their bodies they become completely helpless.
Repeat After Me: In "The Indestructible Man", Crow and Tom force Joel to sign a contract that will prohibit him from making any "cop and donut" jokes ever again. When Joel says that they have to sign it too, he begins to read the contract and ask that they repeat after him:
Joel: I, state your name...
Crow and Tom: I, state your name... (giggle)
Joel: (irritated) Oh you guys, cut that out! That's just as bad as doing donut jokes!
Rewind, Replay, Repeat: In the episode which featured Daddy-O, Joel becomes obsessed with the "apple-slapping" scene and replays it over and over, mouthing the line "I want an answer!"
After watching It Conquered The World, Joel and the Bots insist on rewatching the pseudo-philosophical speech given by Peter Graves' character at the end ("He learned almost too late that man is a feeling creature..."). After which the Mads, equally fascinated, rewind and watch it yet again. And then it plays again over the closing credits.
The "To be or not to be speech" from Hamlet is replayed several times, thanks to a talking Hamlet doll.
On the latter two occasions, the featured speech was repeated because the movie (hence the episode) ran short, necessitating filler.
The Rival: Subverted (for now, at least) with Cinematic Titanic vs. RiffTrax. Mike Nelson claimed in an interview for the show's 20th Anniversary, that he approached Joel and the Cinematic Titanic crew, when Cinematic Titanic launched, about staging a blood feud between his camp (RiffTrax) and Joel's group (Cinematic Titanic) to drum up sales for their respective projects. Joel turned him down.
When a flashback occurs and a child version of a character appears, Mike/Joel or one of the bots will proclaim, "Jim Henson's _____ Babies," the blank usually being the name of the younger character. In the episode Being From Another Planet, they even said, "Jim Henson's Baby Babies."
All angry mobs are actually large groups of Packers fans. ALL of them. Doubles as a Take That when you remember that the cast and crew of the show are primarily Vikings fans.
And you can tell the pain of the cast after the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1997 as during The Giant Spider Invasion had them all yelling drunkenly as the on-screen groups rioted: "Packers won the Super Bowl! Yee-hoo!" while then shouting such phrases as "Free Mumia! Free beer!" and "U.S. out of North America! AND PACKERS!!!!"
Whenever a couple are arguing, Mike always responds with "Sure they argue, but the sex is great."
Any time a movie features primates, the riffing will inevitably include poo flinging jokes. When RiffTrax posted a Youtube video of Mike, Kevin, and Bill writing up jokes for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, MST3K fans knew right away what the joke topic would be BEFORE they even watched it.
Whenever women are seen at work, there's a good chance everyone will start conversing in midwestern, 1950s-ish voices. There's no better way to describe it. "Ah, geez, work work work. That's all we do here, oh yah."
The correct response to any character in a sci-fi movie demanding something be switched over to analog is Mike claiming 'It has a warmer sound!'
Whenever goofy, light-hearted music is played, Joel will often cry out "It's the kookiest/nuttiest/wackiest (item) in town!"
If they're riffing a Japanese movie, it's likely a joke about Godzilla, Cram School, or "super-violent porn cartoons" will come up... along with plenty of cracks about the alarming length (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of the shorts that grade-school-age Japanese boys always seem to be wearing in these movies.
"I can't come back—I don't know how it works!" and other variations on The Wizard of Oz's last words.
Whenever a movie has to be censored for bad language, the bots will often respond to the silence gap with "Huh?"/"Hmm?" or mock the incomplete sentence. An example from the MST3K Academy Awards preview special, when they riffed As Good As It Gets:
Melvin: Oh, Carol the waitress, Simon the... (silence)
Crow: Why'd they bleep out "former guy from Talk Soup"?
If the crew is able to make a series of linked riffs during the opening credits, they'll declare it "The [Insert Subject Matter] Sketch". For example, in the beginning of The Unearthly, they make a series of comments referring to the lives of the crew documented in various independent magazines such as Video Watchdog and Gorezone before Joel admits to reading Newsweek.
Tom Servo: The Fan 'Zine Sketch, ladies and gentlemen! Thank you!
"It's a good plan _______/ It was a good idea to ______/ He/she was a nice woman/man ______"
All: AT FIRST!
Humming the M*A*S*H theme anytime a helicopter is shown.
Spoofing Marlo Thomas/That Girl anytime an attractive brunette with a flip hairdo, or some other big 1960's medium-length hairdo appears on screen, i.e.; Mike blurting out "Oh, Donald," in the episode The Wild World of Batwoman.
Crying out references to the cheesy 1974 television film Killdozer when a bulldozer is on screen, usually consisting of "It's Killdozer! Clint Walker, no!" Clint Walker was a star in the film. A Killdozer reference also showed up in a Rifftrax short, "Join Hands, Let's Go!".
"Oh, I hate to shoot a butt like that!" Used mostly in Season 1, particularly "Radar Men From The Moon".
Whenever there's a plot hole or something confusing that the movie didn't establish very well, Crow or Tom will ask what's going on and Mike will respond, "(chuckles) I don't..."
A running gag in some episodes is Joel saying "My boss!" in a gruff voice, and going on to talk about the crazy stuff he does, a reference to Hart to Hart.
'Does this bug you? Does this bug you? I'm not touching you.'
Especially in the earlier episodes, Joel would often reach up and pretend to touch things on screen.
Beginning in the second national season, every time something is happening outside the satellite, they ask for Cambot to give them "Rocket Number 9!" to bring up the exterior view.
Joel and the Bots all shouting "Ford Beebe! Ford Beebe! Ford Beebe!" whenever his name appears in a film or short's credits.
Either Joel, Mike or one of the bots (usually Servo) shouting "Stay alive! Whatever may occur!" or some other variation of the waterfall scene from The Last of the Mohicans whenever the hero is about to be separated from his Love Interest.
Of course, this is justified in-universe; driving Joel/Mike insane is, after all, the primary goal of the Mads.
Poor Crow seems to have had it the worst in the Sci-Fi Channel episodes. He was alone on the Satellite for 500 years, doesn't remember Mike upon their first reunion, and seems to have developed Split Personality symptoms where he believes he's something else. You really feel bad for him when you think about it.
Sapient Cetaceans: Parodied during the episode Devil Fish. Mike and the bots make the mistake of talking disparagingly about dolphins — only to have a "Dolphin Mothership" show up and start attacking them. It takes some serious kissing up in order to get them to leave. (Later on Mike and the bots start talking smack about electricians, only to discover that they have a mutual protection pact with the dolphins. Whoops.)
Sarcasm Mode: Most of the cast, but Tom Servo employs it to the maximum, usually prefaced by an "Ooooooooooooooohh!" He even once blew his own head off using it.
Screaming At Squick: Frequent. One running gag in the Joel era was for all three riffers to simultaneously scream "Eewww!!" when something particularly nauseating happened on screen.
Selkies and Wereseals: Referenced in "The Space Children"; Mike comments, "There's a Selkie caught in the oil slick."
Series Fauxnale: The season seven finale has the satellite sent drifting through space by Dr. Forrester and reaching the edge of the universe, where Mike and the Bots turn into pure energy. When the show was renewed, they all find themselves right back where they started.
Shaggy Dog Story: A host segment for one episode was an Ingmar Bergman parody which took advantage filmmaker's tendency for long bleak atmospheric shots to set up the timing for this type of gag.
Shout-Out: We'll start with the ship being named the "SatelliteofLove", and just say there's a lot more where that came from. A lot more.
While it'd probably overload the page to list specific instances in every single episode, there are a couple more worth noting in the show overall. Trace Beaulieu took the name of his character Dr. Clayton Forrester from the protagonist of The War of the Worlds and Joel Robinson's last name came from that of the protagonists of Lost in Space.
Particularly commonly referenced is The Lord of the Rings — the greatest example being Torgo's conversion to Torgo the White in experiment 624. Keep in mind that the series ended before the LOTR movies were even made, giving this a Viewers Are Geniuses vibe, back then at least.
It's commonly speculated that there's at least one Star Trek reference in every episode.
Of all things, there are frequent shoutouts to Alcoholics Anonymous in riffs and host segments. The movement's founder, Bill W., gets a mention in the thank you sections of many of the credit rolls.
This is a Real Life Writes the Plot sort of thing — Frank Conniff was a reformed alcoholic and former AA member. It was his idea to thank Bill W. in the credits, and a lot of the AA-related riffs drew on his knowledge of the group.
For Pod People, two of the host segments consist of re-enacting some of the film's most bizarre scenes almost verbatim.
For The Phantom Planet, they poke fun at Ray Makonnen's out-of-nowhere Contemplate Our Navels monologue ("You know, Captain, every year of my life, I grow more and more convinced that the wisest and best is to fix our attention on the good and the beautiful... if you just take the time to look at it.") by reciting the entire thing later, multiple times.
The Stinger: In episode 205, Rocket Attack USA, at the end of the credits they replayed a Big Lipped Alligator Moment involving a blind man, as if to say to the viewer, "yeah, that actually happened". Thus was a tradition born.
The Stoner: A popular theory concerning Joel Robinson and Joel Hodgson.
Joel played this for laughs with one of his invention exchanges, a small monster truck with a tube attached on its back "to ease smoking during monster truck events" that was essentially a motorized bong.
Used throughout the series, but particularly notable as the method used to execute about 90% of Brain Guy's omnipotent powers. Hilariously, the one time that proving his omnipotence was critical, (during the Roman Times story arc) he resorted to crappy sleight-of-hand instead.
The final season began with a minor arc about Pearl trying to get "certified" as an official mad scientist ("It's illegal to take over the world if you're not board certified"), but this was also quickly abandoned.
Stripped to the Bone: As seen in the film "Teenagers In Outer Space" (episode 404). A ray-gun kills animals & humans & leaves skeletal remains behind. As for the show itself, this happened twice, on episode 411 ("The Magic Sword"), when TV's Frank lost the flesh on his face (except his eyes) due to the Mads' invention, the biohazard-absorbent throw pillows, & then on episode 608 ("Code Name: Diamond Head"), when Dr. F & Frank clean themselves in the tub that when pushing the button, the electricity zaps the flesh off of 'em.
Sufficiently Advanced Alien: The Observers are a parody of this concept. Almost every claim they make about how advanced they are is immediately shown not to be true, though they are in denial about it. For example their most common claim is that they don't have bodies. On the other hand, they really do have powers.
Surrounded by Idiots: One episodes with Tom and Crow raising Hell; Joel laments "I'm surrounded by idiots of my own design!"
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: When Joel Hodgson left, head writer Michael J. Nelson was promoted to leading man. As well, after the first Comedy Channel season, Dr. Larry Erhardt was replaced with TV's Frank, and after the sixth, Frank was replaced with Pearl Forrester, Clayton's mother. Finally, for the Sci-Fi Channel seasons, The Mads were replaced by a returning Pearl, and her sidekicks Professor Bobo (from a Planet of the Apes-like future Earth) and Observer (a/k/a "Brain Guy", an albino superbeing who carries his brain in a pan).
Perhaps averted, as Joel and Mike, Erhardt and Frank, and Frank and Pearl had little in common personality-wise, which is really what the trope's about.
Pearl as a substitute for Clayton fits this trope. Their personalities are a little different but their roles, motivations and even their temperaments are largely the same. This is out of necessity as the role they fill is essential to the show's premise.
Man: Officer, I'm Mrs. Talbot's attorney. If she's in any trouble, I have a right to know about it.
Detective: Did I say anything about trouble?
Tom Servo: Well, I assumed, what with the search warrant and all...
And moments later...
Man: If I knew what Mrs. Talbot was accused of, I could, maybe I could help —
Detective: She isn't accused of anything. We just want her for questioning about a murder.
Crow: Did I say anything about murder?
Syndication Title: In the mid-'90s Comedy Central edited some episodes down to one hour, added new introductory segments with Michael J. Nelson as "Your Host" (a parody of Jack Perkins, longtime host of A&E's Biography series), and syndicated them as The Mystery Science Theater Hour.
Take That: The host segments during The Incredible Melting Man appear to be digs on the filmmaking process that the crew had to deal with while making The Movie version of MST3K.
Also a few less subtle digs, such as The Sandy Frank Song.
They also seem to have genuine contempt for Japanese animation and think it's all super violent and/or porno.
During Laserblast, Mike and the bots spend the entire duration of the credits ribbing Leonard Maltin for giving the film two and a half stars out of four, and compare other films to Laserblast's rating.
Team Mom: Gypsy sometimes acts as this on the SOL.
Terrible Trio: Pearl, Bobo, and Observer, who also form a (mostly dysfunctional) Freudian Trio. Professor Bobo the gorilla is the id. Observer, aka Brain Guy, is the superego. Pearl Forrester is the ego that holds them together... by berating and abusing them constantly.
Spookily predicted in the 1991 episode Fugitive Alien, in which the main character was called Ken; after the villain reveals to the heroine that Ken was the man who killed her brother, Joel pipes up with "Those bastards!"
Thing-O-Meter: The episode featuring Angels Revenge has Tom Servo invent the "Shame-O-Meter" to measure the amount of shame the actors must be feeling.
Crow: He's flashing back to other people's memories!
Time Travel: For the eighth season, the show was moved from "Next Sunday, AD" to the year 2525 (Man is not, in fact, still alive), then to Roman Times, and finally back to the present.
Earlier on, the Mads claimed to have invented a "really real time machine." It wasn't.
Title Montage: The opening theme featured many clips from episodes of the show. The clips changed every so often to keep things from getting monotonous or out-of-date (especially with the cast change from Joel to Mike, it wouldn't make sense to feature Joel clips in the Mike opening, for example).
Title Please: Although each episode is named after whatever movie they're reviewing, no episode title is present on the screen. However, during season 6, the bumpers before commercials would feature the title of the movie on a film canister or other object.
Toad Licking: When the gang riffed Jack Frost, there was a talking mushroom man; the characters wondered what a talking mushroom would eat to get high, and the only answer anyone can come up with was, "I think they lick toads."
Too Dumb to Live: Most of the characters on the show, at one point or another — TV's Frank has a particularly persistent case.
Took a Level in Badass: Pearl Forrester became a lot more aggressive and less matronly when she became the principal villain during the Sci Fi Channel era.
Took a Level in Dumbass: Professor Bobo. When we first meet him (in Revenge of the Creature), he's actually a reasonably intelligent scientist. But he proceeds to get dumber and more childlike with each episode he appears in after that.
While never quite descending to true dumbassedry, Mike Nelson seemed to become ever more goofily incompetent and hapless during his time on the SOL.
Twenty Minutes into the Future: Sort of. The theme song specifies "Next Sunday, AD", and most of the series seems to take place in something reasonably approximating the year in which it was made.
Helps to know that during its KTMA run, it actually did run on Sundays!
Thanks to Netflix and simillar services, "scrolling up cinemas" doesn't seem quite as farfetched as it did during ether PBS or MST's presentations of Overdrawn at the Memory Bank. Still working on that 'putting people into baboons' thing, though.
Urban Legends: The show's rivalry with Sandy Frank; for years it was widely rumored that Frank (angry at the mockery of his films and how the show went so far as to make a song mocking him) personally refused to re-licence the many films he owned that the show featured as revenge for the way they mocked him. The truth was more subdued: seeing the show's popularity (and the fact that many of his episodes were among the most popular that the show featured in the early years) he simply tried to extort more money from Best Brains by raising his asking price to renew the license for usage of his films.
Similarly, their "feud" with Joe Don Baker over Mitchell. For years it was said that Baker was really mad at their poking fun at him in Mitchell and had threatened to kick their asses. Truthfully, it was said in jest, and the MST crew went with it as a more serious threat to fuel the rumor mill.
Values Dissonance: In-Universe. Once in a while, the show would feature a movie or short that had some instance of this. The riffers would always react to any display of Values Dissonance in a movie, usually by boo-ing or shouting at the movie. Some examples: a home economics short that suggested women go to college to learn how to be good housewives. A short that showed a typical day of a trapper finding and capturing animals from the wild to ship them to a zoo. And the end of "Manos" The Hands of Fate which showed the little girl as one of the Master's wives. At least one movie was actually edited for this reason: Invasion of the Neptune Men, a Japanese monster movie which featured actual aerial bombardment footage of Japan during WWII to show destruction of the city by the invading Neptune men. A shot was still included of a building with a picture of Adolf Hitler on the side (it was an advertisement for 'Mein Kampf') being destroyed, leading to the riff: "They blew up the Hitler building!! What's next, the Mussolini Mall?!"
The latter lead to some vicious riffs against Japanese film in general near the end of the movie. Suffice it to say, in-character and out of character, they were not happy with the incorporation of the footage into the movie.
Tom Servo: I have no sense of proportion. I'm a disgrace to my uniform! Mike: No, no, no, it's okay. Calm down now. We mustn't hate, mustn't hate... Crow: At least not so overtly. Mike: Exactly right. Must disguise our hate.
Viewers Are Geniuses: One of the pillars of the humor is an impenetrably dense barrage of very, very specific pop culture references (and not so pop: an off-the-cuff Sophocles reference is not unheard of). As Joel Hodgson put it in the This Is MST3K documentary, "When we write a joke we never ask, 'Who's gonna get this?' We always say, 'The right people will get this.'"
Kevin Murphy once mentioned that he imagined the people who did get the obscure references would feel like the show could read their mind. A lot of their references were subject to Memetic Mutation, too, such as the "I thought you were Dale" meta-reference. Getting every single joke in an episode usually requires multiple viewings and consulting a fan website (there are entire websites dedicated to deciphering the more obscure references).
Impressively, they maintained this not only until the series' final season, but the spiritual spin-offs continue the tradition as well.
Most notably Parts: The Clonus Horror; the show's usage on MST3K was what fueled that film's director to sue Warner Bros. and Michael Bay over how their film The Island blatantly plagiarized his work. Fans of the show raised enough awareness of how The Island was a direct rip-off of Parts that Robert Fiveson felt he could take the big studio and director to court and actually stand a chance against them.
In case you're wondering, he did sue but before the case could go to trial, Dreamworks settled with Fiveson and the plaintiffs for an undisclosed amount, rumored to be a seven figure sum.
Still, some of their jokes are literally inaccessible to anyone who is not them. Case in point: In response to a character in the movie carrying a keyboard, one of the robots says "Stop her, she's got Mike's keyboard!" Mike Nelson's girlfriend had taken his keyboard with her when she moved out a week or two before. Viewers, of course, had no way of knowing this.
Vocal Evolution: When New Yorker Bill Corbett took over as Crow the little robot gained a soft Brooklyn accent and a slightly effeminate lisp. This hilarious combination only lasted a few episodes as Corbett gradually found his own voice for Crow with a more generalised accent.
Tom Servo, twice: Josh Weinstein found Servo's "Mighty Voice!" midway through the KTMA season, and Kevin Murphy initially played Servo's voice close to Josh's portrayal, before easing into a more natural performance.
The vocal changes to Tom and Crow were directly referenced and Hand Waved in-universe; the change from Josh's voice to Kevin's was explicitly laid to Joel tinkering with Tom's voice chip (which is also how they explained the different voice Josh began using in the KTMA era), while Crow's change was initially chalked up to something happening in his five centuries on the SOL while Mike and the others were noncorporeal, later suggested by Joel in his visit during Soultaker that Crow had changed his bowling pin (his beak).
Trace Beaulieu also used what has been described as a "baby voice" for Crow in the early Comedy Channel episodes (KTMA-era Crow spoke with a slightly stilted delivery somewhere between C3P0 and the Lost in Space robot). Around seasons 2 and 3, his performance became more natural.
What Happened to the Mouse?: The Nanites and Magic Voice were pretty much forgotten about in Season 10. We never even learn their ultimate fate in the finale.
In a couple season 2 and season 3 episodes, there were contests for viewers announced. The results of those contests, such as the "What's the Deal with Kenny" from the first Gamera movie, were never revealed.
Servo is usually the one to be crossdressing due to his naturally feminine shape and Kevin Murphy's especially deep voice. Lampshaded in one episode in which Servo exasperatingly says that he can't wear anything like pants because his hoverskirt won't allow him to.
Their reviews of Ed Wood films usually bring up that Wood was one of these, and the jokes imply that so are most of the main cast:
Tor: (picking up a lady in an angora sweater and hat) Oh, Tor love this! Tor look fetching when go to church!
Who's on First?: A variant is performed in one of the skits in Invasion of the Neptune Men, only the subject is Japanese theater. When Mike is asked by Crow and Tom if he likes any Japanese theater, Mike responds: "Noh." Cue Sustained Misunderstanding.
With Friends Like These...: Joel and Mike's relationship with the 'bots. Apparently, Joel created the 'bots with programming that caused them tease/razz him, in order to create companions that would give him hell and keep him sane.
When Joel installed protocol modules to make them nicer and easier to deal with, he realized it left him hollow, and promptly removed the modules before the start of the experiment. Considering the experiment that week was "Manos", one has to wonder how the "nice" Tom and Crow would've handled it (although Hired! Part II probably wouldn't have been as funny).
With Lyrics: Became one of the show's many Running Gags, with Mike/Joel and the bots making up lyrics for instrumental songs in the movies, or sometimes making up their own, humorous lyrics for songs that already had them. Notably examples include: