Act II – The Discovery
In 1988, comedian Joel Hodgson was brainstorming with his friend Jim Mallon, the production manager of St. Paul UHF television station KTMA, about ideas for a comedy program to fill a Sunday night slot for the station. Hodgson outlined an idea that would cater to his talent for building comedy props and puppets. Joel would play a human who is sentenced to orbit the earth with two robot companions and watch bad movies. KTMA had a library of “bad movies” that it would play late weekend nights to fill airtime, so that part was easy. The hard part was building the sets and finding the right people to get the project off the ground.
Hodgson and Mallon quickly called in some of their friends in the Twin Cities area. Trace Beaulieu had worked with Hodgson in a local improv comedy workshop, so he was ready to ham it up as the villian of the show – Dr. Forrester, but he was skeptical that the show would actually be a long term gig. Kevin Muphy was a KTMA employee who had produced a few comedy shows with Mallon in the past and he was hired to help as well. The show was dubbed “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (abbreviated MST3K).
The show premiered on KTMA in November of 1988 and met with mixed reviews. Some viewers called the station and complained that the show looked like it was produced by junior high kids. However, a number of people loved the concept and pleaded with the station to keep the show going. 21 episodes were produced for KTMA and were deemed a modest success for the station.
Following the production of those 21 episodes, Hodgson and Mallon went to New York to shop the show to a few cable comedy channels to see if they could get some bigger funding to keep the show going. Comedy Central (then called The Comedy Channel) liked the idea and had heard good things about Hodgson’s earlier stand-up career, so they picked up the show and sent the men back to Minneapolis to produce more episodes.
|Michael Nelson and the ‘bots.|
From there, things moved quickly. Mallon quit KTMA and, with Hodgson, incorporated Best Brains to produce the show. The team built bigger and better sets in a warehouse in Eden Prairie, hired more production staff and retooled their puppets and premise. They also hired more writers and asked them to fill in some guest roles here and there. One of those writers was Michael J. Nelson, who would go on to host the show after Hodgson departed. Nelson soon pushed for his friend Frank Coniff to also be hired and Coniff was added to the writing staff. When Josh Weinstein left the show after the 1st Comedy Channel season, Frank Coniff was added as the onscreen sidekick to Bealieu’s villain – TV’s Frank. This cast configuration lasted for 5 years.
The Discovery and The Cult
As you can imagine, the production crew was always looking for more bad movies to use for their show. Some film distributors realized that their “bad” films could actually bring in some money if they were licensed to MST3K, so they would send copies of films to the production offices for consideration. In 1992, one such supplier sent a box of films to The Comedy Channel that then made its way to Frank Coniff at the offices of Best Brains. As Coniff perused those tapes, he came across one called Manos: The Hands of Fate. The film was in rough shape as a result of being repeatedly copied, but it was usable enough for the purposes of Coniff and the crew. They selected the film for use in the 4th season in 1993.
|Frank Conniff as “TV’s Frank”.|
This campaign became a cult following and Manos was soon almost universally referenced as one of the worst films of all time in the same category as Ed Wood’s infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space. Ed Wood was the master of low-budget drive-in fodder in the 1950’s and had an uncanny ability to crank out movies almost monthly for very little money. His legacy was so unique and charming that a biographical film was produced about his life directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp. To compare Plan 9 to Manos is fascinating. On the one hand you have a film that was hastily produced to capitalize on existing sets and equipment by a Hollywood misfit and on the other you have a film hastily produced to win a bet by a struggling local theater actor in El Paso. Both films faced major production problems and continuity problems. And both films had to contend with the death of an actor – Bela Lugosi died early on in the filming of Plan 9 and stock footage was used to fill out his scenes.
However, Plan 9 managed to remain an drive-in staple throughout the 60’s and 70’s, never fading into the ether or threatening to disappear for good perhaps due to the fact that Ed Wood had become an unlikely Hollywood legend. What makes Manos so unique is the fact that it probably should have been completely forgotten and all copies lost or discarded. It was sheer luck that a dull copy of the film found its way into a box bound for a television show that featured bad and forgotten films and was selected for inclusion. Or was it fate? In any case, Manos was now a part of the collective consciousness and a new generation was discovering it for the first time. But the film’s resurrection as a punchline was only the second act of its incredible story.