Friend. For all his fame, Stuart was buds with everybody in Bristol, be they production assistants or co-hosts or executives. "He was Stu to everybody in the halls," says Anderson, "but Stuart on the air. I found him to be one of the few people in this business who is actually much nicer off TV than he is on. He was just one of the first guys to say, 'Hey, I'm going to play golf, wanna come with me?'"
His offer of friendship took on a deeper meaning for ESPN vice president Tim Scanlan: "When he found out that my wife had the same type of cancer he had, he was one of the first people to reach out to me and offer help. He started giving me advice ... and I in turn would talk to my wife. And every time she saw him on the air, you could see a noticeable pick-up in her spirit and energy and in her ambition to fight another day."
"NBA Countdown" anchor Sage Steele remembers the day last year when her family moved from Connecticut to Arizona to be closer to her show in Los Angeles: "The moving trucks were at my house, and Stuart was there with his girlfriend Kristin to say goodbye to us, and my 10-year-old son Nicholas had to say goodbye to his best friend across the street, and he came back sobbing, sobbing, leaving his best friend in the world. ... Stuart said, 'I got it.' And he took Nicholas aside and just sat down with him and described his moving away as a kid, losing his best friend as a 10-year-old boy and how he handled it. He spent 20 minutes sitting there with Nicholas, helping him feel better.
"Stuart spent three hours at our house that day, in pain and hardly able to stand, but he did it. And he sat there for my kid."
Celebrity. At a certain point, Stuart became as famous as the athletes he covered. That's partly why he starred in so many "This is 'SportsCenter'" commercials, alongside Tiger, Kobe, Keyshawn, LeBron, Mr. Met ... and Chad Johnson, who rejected Stuart's idea for a touchdown celebration with "Boo-No!"
Eisen was there at the birth of his fame. "The Saturday night before the NBA All-Star Game in New York City. Stuart and I had to do the 11 o'clock 'SportsCenter,' so with a lead foot, we got to Times Square at around 2 in the morning, and the party at the All-Star Cafe with Gretzky and Shaq and Tiger is letting out. A cop gives us the coordinates for the afterparty, and now we're walking to 33rd and 10th Avenue ... Stuart walking down the street was like Elvis entering the building. People were stopping us every two feet. I'll never forget when one person went up to Stuart and me and said, 'Hey, wow, Stuart Scott!' Then the guy looks at me and goes, 'And the white guy. I love you, the white guy!' And Stuart laughed so hard because it sort of confirmed his belief that he provided me with street cred."
African-American. ESPN knew enough to have sportscasters who represented 45 million Americans, not to mention 80 percent of the players in the NBA and 70 percent of those in the NFL. What we didn't know, until Stuart got here, was how important it was to have someone who could relate to them.
"He was a trailblazer," says ESPN anchor Stan Verrett, "not only because he was black -- obviously black -- but because of his style, his demeanor, his presentation. He did not shy away from the fact that he was a black man, and that allowed the rest of us who came along to just be ourselves."
"Yes, he brought hip-hop into the conversation," says Harris, "but I would go further than that. He brought in the barber shop, the church, R&B, soul music. Soul, period."
Some of his best moments on the air came when he adopted the persona of a preacher: "Can I get a witness from the congregation?!" And one of his best moments off the air came when a producer suggested he change a reference on his NBA show from Omega Psi Phi, the fraternity of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, to something more universal, like Animal House.
"I have friends who have no idea what that movie is about," Stuart told him. "That movie was made two decades ago, and black fraternities have been around since 1906."
Worker. "I never found him without a statistic to back up what he was saying," says Patrick. "He wanted you to know that he knew what he was talking about, and he never failed."
There were times in the last few years when his friends worried that he was working too hard. "He'd be tired," says anchor John Buccigross. "But once he sat down in the chair ... he would just start to click in and get that zero focus ... 'Where's this guy from?' ... 'Who has the most triples of all time?' Once he got into the show, you just forgot about everything, and it was just Stuart Scott doin' 'SportsCenter,' havin' fun."
Poet. "Listen to his lead-ins," says Buccigross. "They're thoughtful and precise, really well-constructed lead-ins to a news story or big game or moment."
Yes, he would reference Tupac, but he also would quote Shakespeare: "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
And occasionally, he would bust out his own poetry, as he did for this jam on Michael Jordan's 50th birthday on Feb. 17, 2013:
the best ever ... a CLEVER phrase we OVERuse ...
when mere greatness becomes our MUSE ...
or artistic inspiration ... but the real celebration
of "best ever" is an ENDEAVOR
into MORE than GREAT! WAIT ...
didn't you see the tongue wagging ...shorts baggy ...
practically DRAGGING teammates to 1-nc2a ... 2-gold ...
brotha I was sold when he won 6-NBA rings ...
but the THING that makes "best ever" SING ...
not scoring titles and-MVPs,
the double nickel that sliced the knicks at their knees ...
the 63 he put on Bird ... Larry Legend sayin' PLEASE ...
is that GOD?
As for Stuart's most famous line, Eisen discovered one night that it was not what's up on the wall in the new studio. Recalls Eisen: "He would write down the catchphrases on the specific portion of the highlight, so I would watch him do this, and it wasn't 'Boo-Yah,' it was 'Boo-Yow.' He would spell it out B-O-O dash Y-O-W. He was a technician when it came to that sort of thing. I remember being jarred, and when I asked him about it, he thought I was making fun of him. But I wasn't."
Father. "His girls mean everything to him," says Harris. "I mean his girls mean everything to him. He would easily take Stuart Scott, dad, over Stuart Scott, 'SportsCenter' anchor."
"He's a great, great dad," says Ramsey. "He just takes so much pride in the girls, and you can't see him without him taking out his phone and showing you a video of Taelor or Sydni singing or dancing or playing soccer."
Occasionally, Stuart would give a shout-out to Sydni's soccer team, but that was easy compared to another commitment he made to his daughters. "His daughters and my daughters danced at the same studio," says Anderson. "One year we went to their performance of 'The Nutcracker.' And here comes Uncle Drosselmeyer, and I thought, 'That man looks a lot like Stuart Scott,' and it was -- he was there for his girls. I'll never forget him coming out in this big cape, swooping in with his nutcracker, and he was great. I'm not sure the dance steps were up to Baryshnikov, but certainly the intentions were."
Charmer. Stuart's role in "The Nutcracker" was not unlike one of the roles he played at ESPN. For those not up on their Tchaikovsky, Uncle Drosselmeyer is the toymaker who brings the tableau to life at midnight -- sort of what Stuart did in Bristol.
Anderson calls it "magic." Harris calls it his "Stuartness." It's this ineffable way Stuart had of welcoming you to the party, bringing you into his confidence, making sure you were having a good time. A classic talent like Vin Scully might ask you to pull up a chair. Stuart would bring you a beer and introduce you to Tiger or Michael or Peyton.
Warrior. Stuart and Steve Levy share one personal career highlight: Taking "SportsCenter" to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait in 2004. "The soldiers kept coming up to thank us, and we're like, 'No, we're here to thank you.' Stuart and I were both patriotic, but this took it to a whole new level of respect for what our men and women in uniform go through."
Ten years later, Levy watched a different kind of warrior go to work. "He was so tired. We'd be waiting for a game to end, and he'd close his eyes. ... That wasn't the Stuart Scott that I worked with for so many years. And yet, when the red light came on, when he was on camera, you had no idea. He never slipped. His ability never slipped, and the audience at home couldn't tell what Stuart was dealing with."
In a telling piece in The New York Times in March, Richard Sandomir spent the day with Stuart as he worked out at a martial arts studio in West Hartford, Conn. At one point, he lifted up his EVERYDAY I FIGHT shirt to reveal the scar from his abdominal surgeries. "I never ask what stage I'm in," Stuart told Sandomir. "I haven't wanted to know. ... I'm trying to fight it the best I can."
Champion. On June 15, 2014, Stuart flawlessly handled the trophy presentation to the Spurs -- after doing 300 push-ups that day. "We stood on the floor," says Williamson, "and there's all these things going around -- and immediately we snapped back to 20 years ago ... and I just ... told him I was proud of him, and I loved him."
A month later, as Steele watched Stuart climb the steps to the stage at the ESPYS, she worried about whether he could deliver his speech.
"But then I reminded myself, 'Hello, who are you talking about here? This is Stuart and he's not going to let this moment get away.' ... Raw and honest, powerful and indelible. ... He owned it, just like he owned every sportscast, every 'SportsCenter,' every 'Monday Night Football' show he did. He owned it."
Since that night, "You beat cancer by how you live" has become a rallying cry for millions of patients and their families.
ESPN.com senior writer Andy Katz and ESPN feature producer Miriam Greenfield contributed to this story.
Every MST3K Short, Ranked
My favorite TV show of all time is a tough sell for most people. Who wants to waste their life watching black-and-white movies that aren’t even good? For that matter, who wants to watch silhouettes of three random chuckleheads from Minnesota, poking fun at all the hard work the struggling directors and actors went through, safely ensconced in their ivory (well, ebony) tower in the bottom-right corner of the screen?
A slightly chubby young boy in the 5th grade named Brian Firenzi meekly raises his hand. And we’re off to the races.
When I introduce newcomers to the show that unequivocally changed my life, I always start with the shorts. They’re punchy, leaning harder towards the didactic cheesiness of an idiotic class assembly than the time-filling sluggishness of a B-picture. And in today’s climate, there’s a bigger charge to be had in taking down the oppressively white Judeo-Christian hierarchy that most, if not all, of these shorts shove down our throat. It’s how I tried getting my friends into MST3K (with varied success), and with any luck, I might be able to pull the same trick with a few of you newbies out there.
Or I could ruin this beautiful romance I had going by over-explaining and ranking the crap out of my childhood. Read on, won’t you?
60–52. Radar Men on the Moon, Parts 1–9
“Our astronomers have been noticing an unusual amount of atomic activity on the moon.”
“Isn’t any amount of atomic activity on the moon unusual?”
As adventure serials come, Radar Men on the Moon knows what it is — big leaps in narrative logic leave plenty of room for fistfights, car chases, fistfights, explosions, shootouts, fistfights, and also: fistfights. All this to disguise a paper-thin story about an evil colony of spandex-clad moon men who loan out their atomic weapons to Earth thugs in preparation for a full planetary takeover. The distraction works, right up until about Part 4, when Joel and the Bots start to grow weary of the same actors, the same sets, and — oh yeah — the same fistfights. As such, the energy in the riffing starts to go down the drain right as the repetition sets in. Still, it’s always worth a chuckle when they point out Commander Cody’s odd habit of tweaking his nipples before taking off in his jetpack.
For early-era MST3K, when they were still figuring out their writing style and sense of pacing, there are a surprising number of jokes that hit the mark, with a minimal amount of recounting things that are happening onscreen with low-key incredulity. But the sense of fleetness that makes an MST3K short so infectious to watch is drowned out over 9 parts’ worth of explosions and cheap cliffhangers. And fistfights.
51–50. The Undersea Kingdom, Parts 1–2
“Let’s go down the slide like this! Wheeee!”
There’s something curious about goofy, incident-packed serials that somehow defeats the Satellite of Love. Maybe it’s because the heroes and villains are so boilerplate by design, and the action so oppressively omnipresent, that there’s no room for MST3K to do what they do best: Fill in the awkward silences with their own revisionist character work. The Undersea Kingdom, in which a Naval Officer named Crash Corrigan does battle with villainous Atlanteans, is no different. Shot after shot, all Joel and the bots can offer up is quick-hit references, sound effects and small remarks.
By the end of it all, I don’t know who Crash Corrigan is, or even who MST3K’s version of Crash is. But there was a lot of crashing, I’ll say that much.
49–47. The Phantom Creeps, Parts 1–3
“Burn the file on the electric dance-belt and pick up my manhood, it’s under the chair.”
Bela Lugosi brings his Draculian accent for the role of a mad scientist, and as a result gives the SoL crew a smorgasbord of jokes tailor-made for a thick Transylvanian brogue. On top of that, his would-be world-conquering inventions — a new element that basically applies stop-motion to plants, an invisibility belt, explosive spiders, and one of the absolute worst (albeit influential) gargoyle-faced robots in cinema history — are so funny on their own that it’s almost selfish to try and stand in their way with riffs.
Yet as far as the serials are concerned, Joel and the Bots make a good go of it, particularly when the energy flags for much of Part 2— almost as if, in the absence of onscreen hijinks so insane on their own, they step in to fill the void. But by Part 3, the oxygen seems to be sapped out of the room, as there’s no rhyme or reason to the story anymore — just incomprehensible chases and loud music. It’s a gentle landing thanks to some agreeable riffs, but the steam runs out just as it does in the other serial MST3K tackled, Radar Men on the Room.
46. Young Man’s Fancy
“I’m squishy, and I need to move on it!”
Sweet shit, is this one long. But whereas 20-minute shorts like Last Clear Chance or Days of Our Years earn their runtime with varied storytelling, this one goes in circles interminably. Mostly that’s the fault of the supremely unlikeable lead character, a hep-talking good girl who wants to get set up bad with a date, just as long as his name isn’t Alexander Phipps. Not sure why that’s a problem, but it really sets her off.
The languid pace is matched by the SoL, and they can’t find a hook for this character whose internal logic can’t be deciphered. Soon, she’s lusting after the sexless, upper-lip-free Alexander Phipps, and it’s hard to really guess why. Even what the short is selling is vague and simplistic — I think it’s electric appliances, all kinds — and the whole experiment feels rough around the edges without an angle into the material. It’s a really bad sitcom episode with no laugh track (an age-old crossword joke gets clearance to land on the Hoary Punchline Runway from the crew in one of the better riffs) and Tom nails it when he says “I think they forgot to stop filming.”
45. Alphabet Antics
“O is for the Obscene treatment of animals.”
Given the setup (an innocuous rundown of the alphabet for kids, mostly using overworked farm and zoo animals), you’d think the crew could mine some really great twisted gags out of it. But perhaps it’s that innocuousness that defeats them on some level, as each letter comes and goes with a quickness that doesn’t seem to give them any purchase to build riffs on. To this day, I’m still as perplexed as they are about the filmmakers’ choice to use shots of the White House for the letter “I.”
44. Snow Thrills
“It’s the parade of shame and wasted lies!”
Speed skating, ice skating, ski joring (don’t ask), and ski jumps (“There’s Grandma!”) provide a lot of whimsical fodder that isn’t entirely capitalized on, as with Alphabet Antics. The hyperactive marching band music and upbeat narrator try to slather a happy glaze over what looks like a lot of cold ways to die. Jokes pick up when the action gets a bit faster (as with the bobsled and ski jumps), but overall these thrills could have been a touch more thrilling.
43. Catching Trouble
“Ross tries to towel away the evil, but nothing doing.”
We follow Ross and his Seminole guide as they head into nature to capture animals for the Chicago Zoo. We’re right there with Joel and the Bots as they root for the animals to get away — particularly heartbreaking is a scene where Ross rips a baby bear away from the tree branch it’s gripping hard to, screaming for its mom all the while. In fact, the short winds up being so disturbing it’s enough to kinda defeat the crew, who’s used to supplying the darkness on their own for comedic effect. There’s still some good lines, though, particularly anything that takes the mick out of the cheerful narrator, who’s clearly on Ross’ side in this battle between man and wild.
42. X Marks the Spot
“If you kill yourselves here, we can’t kill them over there.”
A traffic commissioner from New Jersey with a slight Elmer Fudd lisp lectures directly to the camera about traffic deaths (since such deaths prevent America from sending those men over to war to fight — hence the quoted riff above). Then we’re off to watch as Joe, one of the world’s worst drivers, scream and flail about in his car and eventually earn a well-deserved death. Then his ghost is ferried to heaven by his goombah spiritual guardian, and has to answer for his crimes against driving. One of the unspoken running gags throughout, of course, is that Joe’s Joisey-accented spiritual minder seems to have been totally slacking on the job of looking out for Joe himself. The whole thing is agreeably nuts, and the didactic cheesiness we’ve come to expect from educational shorts finally comes into play. But it gets a bit long in the tooth once Joe makes it to heaven, and as far as traffic safety PSAs go, this one isn’t a patch on the phenomenal Last Clear Chance.
41. Circus on Ice
“Vomit sprays out in a beautiful Technicolor dream!”
Usually it’s up to the writers to add themes of violence and depravity to whatever they’re watching, but Circus on Ice helps them out in that regard more than most. Taking something already as depressing as a circus…and then putting it on ice…it seems like half of the performances are either themed after animals getting killed or women getting objectified. Joel, Tom and Crow are suitably disgusted, and color in gory details where needed (“Unshaven, stinky and boozed-up on Rumplemintz, the hunters spray bullets into the woods!” “Venison, VENISON, VENISON”). But, by the time it’s all over, it’s hard to really remember anything spectacularly funny that happened, either onscreen or coming from the theater.
40. Aquatic Wizards
“And the incentive to stay up is: Crocodiles!”
Again, the word we’re looking for here is “agreeable,” as a bevy of waterskiing footage proves to be pretty hard to riff too. Eventually, the bots get good mileage out of the announcer’s over-confident affability (Servo’s in-character mental breakdown is especially nice), and as a bonus, fans of the late-era MST3K classic Space Mutiny get a fun shoutout when one of the ski instructors is referred to as “Chad Slab-body.”
39. The Selling Wizard
“Meanwhile, the Soviets were launching Sputnik.”
An entire short devoted to the promotional wonders of a frozen-food section endcap gets a shot in the arm once a mute hostess shows up (“She seems almost lifelike”), but otherwise the short is violently boring stuff to work with. The narrator is flat, imparting a bunch of inside-baseball copy about sales surveys and freezer cabinet specs. The set is an empty, omnipresent red, when it’s not bathed in shadow. There’s about one big laugh in this one — a 2001 reference — and the rest you can mostly do without.
38. Out of this World
“But why does the strip club need bread?”
The soul of bread salesman Bill Dudley is fought over by a devil and an angel in a primary-colored office in the sky. Mike, Tom and Crow get some decent mileage out of the hammy, community-theater theatrics favored by the actor playing the devil, but this one’s fairly dishwater-dull overall. It also doesn’t have the decency to get itself over with fast, either: It’s a punishing 20 minutes, plenty of which is devoted to dialogue-free montages of truck driving.
Probably the most noteworthy moment is seeing a giant Tom silhouette grumble “Movie bad!” for the first minute. This short isn’t terrible, it’s just disappointing. Because there’s definitely an angle into the dark inner life of a cheery, too-perfect bread salesman, and they come close to nailing it but they just miss the mark.
37-35. General Hospital, Parts 1–3
“See what you can do about making this lobby spookier.”
It’s another serial for Joel and the Bots to dubiously tackle, but rather than another smash-bang barrage of fights and explosions on unconvincing sets, this one is a dark, empty character-driven soap on an unconvincing set. Between the hushed echoes when people are speaking, the sparse organ music, the tall ceilings with little to no set decoration, and some apparently burbling emotion that’s so stifled between actors that it’s definitely 100% non-existent — this one could be a tiresome slog but for the riffing.
By this point, the writers have clearly gotten a bit better at tackling serials, which hamstring them from being able to do the character work that marks their best feature-length riffs. Perhaps it’s also because this particular serial actually makes way for some characters and relationships to be depicted, albeit thinly-sketched. It still gives the crew a way in, and joke by joke, they crawl their way to the finish having given this haunting, Russian-novella-esque chamber play of a soap opera some life. The dinner party in Part 2 is especially light on its feet, thanks to a missing prop, some deep tonguing, and a fantastic ad for booze (“B-double-O-Z-E, Booze!”)
34. Using Your Voice
“Do I please you? Do you find me pleasing?”
Bad actors, trying to act out bad speaking, is like bad squared. And pretty funny all on its own. The cherry on top is the slick-haired host/narrator Professor Bueller, whose tips for being a pleasing, competent speaker are endlessly undercut by how off-putting he is himself. The last example of poor public speaking, a granny who’s invited all her friends to come talk about flowers (“Don’t you just love flowers?”), gets a quick fix by making the actress tone down her enthusiasm (“Flowers: A subject I’m particularly fond of”), never once addressing that the meeting itself could be found lacking in content. This is the first solid short from front-to-back, and one that I personally find…wait for it…pleasing.
33. The Home Economics Story
“Look, look, look at my crotch! Look, look, look at my crotch!”
Those who decry MST3K as an anti-filmmaker enterprise, crapping all over innocent directors and actors who were just trying to hack out a living, may still find a way to enjoy the riffing of shorts like The Home Economics Story. This short attempts to put a bright face on subjugating women, by promoting Iowa State University courses that center around traditional women’s roles (“[Classes] which fitted her for that very important career of being Mrs. [Bill] Johnson”) and the Satellite of Love doesn’t let them get away with it (“Boo!”) even once.
There are several good digs at the patriarchy in this short, but MST3K would get sharper at this sort of commentary as they went along, and there are gaps in the big lines that really show themselves over the 20-minute run time (to their credit, things pick up for a bit once Kay finally gets into college). Also of note: A number of outdated school-shooting gags that clearly came from a gentler time. Maybe not as gentle as the 1950’s, but still…
32. The Truck Farmer
“I’m thinking of telling my wife I love her…ahhhh, forget it.”
This one’s slow-going — we literally watch plants grow and get picked — but the riffing saves it from oblivion. By this point, the crew’s writing was tight and incisive enough to locate the comedic engine in about anything, and here it’s all about the abusive practices of farm labor (Joel’s insane line reading of “A preteen is put to work, her beauty will soon fade” is a triumph). Once we’re away from the farms though, it’s off to the thrill-a-minute world of carrot packaging and shipping, which puts a stop to their plans as well as a stop to the fun (“wait a minute, has anyone seen a truck yet?” Joel says 9 1/2 minutes into the 10-minute short — though he’s wrong, we did see one truck, once).
Ah well. Boring though it may be, hail truck farmer, bow down before him.
31. Keeping Clean and Neat
“Who am I kidding? I’ve hit the glass ceiling in 5th grade.”
But for the amazing shoe-shaped shoeshine kit (“Here, wear this instead”), Keeping Clean and Neat runs a fairly distant second to the similar Body Care and Grooming. It doesn’t have that charge of outdated sexism, and the whole thing moves along at a fairly procedural, uneventful clip. That said, you can never go wrong with the concept of devoting way, way, way too much of your day to being germ-free, and eventually Mike and the bots latch on to a pretty decent runner about the two kids’ lives being consumed with brushing, scrubbing and picking up after themselves.
Seriously though, was this how kids were expected to conduct their hygiene back then? How did anyone make time for going to the fair?
30. Posture Pals
“The story you’re about to see is true. No names were changed because no one was innocent.”
Four white kids learn how to stand upright. There’s a bit more to it, particularly the odd creepiness of the crowning ceremony once our four kids succeed in becoming the King, Queen, Prince and Princess of Posture. But this is among the “Kids in the Classroom” subgenre of shorts that is MST3K’s bread and butter — whitebread pre-Vietnam classrooms are a wealth of deliciously easy targets for these guys, as they should be— and given the great run of shorts MST3K had in this particular vein, Posture Pals doesn’t quite stack up to the rest. Maybe it could work on standing a bit straighter.
The runner about “Daddy on Friday night” is great, though.
29. Is This Love?
“Sorry, I can’t be your daughter, I already have parents. Bye bye.”
It’s not hard to decide which marriage-counseling-for-teens short is better: This, or Are You Ready For Marriage? Sure, this one offers up a few great characters — Peggy’s befuddled old-money parents, herclearly middle-aged college roommate Liz — but unfortunately the relationship at its center (neurotic Peg and bland football dude Joe) is lifeless. I suppose that’s the point, to illustrate that these kids are still too boring to be good partners to anybody, and it handily undercuts the inherent romance of their elopement with notes of dull dread. But it’s not much fun, and though it’s undeniable that Liz is just way way too old to play a college student, the jokes get kind of mean. Those are the centerpiece riffs of this short, and one of the biggest laughs is a cheat (“Watch out for snakes,” copped from the great episode Eegah!), so in the end this one is a bit of a disappointment.
28. Appreciating Our Parents
“Magic’s easy once you know Mom!”
Tommy’s an ungrateful prick who doesn’t understand how his parents do everything for him, in the well-intentioned but ultimately reductive Appreciating Our Parents. He has no earthly idea how his room gets clean and his clothes get put away each day, until he runs downstairs one night after he’s been put to bed to demand a bigger allowance (for doing nothing). It’s here Tommy gets to overhear his parents clearly delineating their gender roles to each other while they do the dishes — mom cooks and cleans, “Dad pulls the lever at the Big House” — and so they’re part of a team. Tommy resolves to become a better member of the team by putting things away (“like his hopes and dreams”) and all is well in an insane-wallpapered dollhouse of quiet desperation.
Along with sending up the restrictive environment of the classroom, MST3K’s other major wheelhouse when it comes to shorts is the starched-and-suppressed world of the nuclear family. There are some great digs here, but they’d succeed more fully in detonating the concept later.
27. Johnny at the Fair
“Johnny’s parents decide to move on and start their lives anew.”
Johnny’s parents lose Johnny almost instantly upon entry to the fun fair, and it just doesn’t matter to them enough. The little bastard “must have everything for himself” as he wanders from exhibit to exhibit, watching livestock get punished (a running theme for these shorts), tightrope walkers, and Prime Minister…who cares who that guy is? The fair eventually defeats Johnny, as speedboat rides and trips in a plane exhaust him so badly even a terrible vaudeville duo can’t cheer him up. So he goes to a prison for kids and waits until the parents finally scoop him up again (“Mommy had a little vacation while you were lost”).
Does the short make the fair seem like fun? Not really, but I definitely felt tired by the end, just like Johnny. Does the Satellite of Love step in to pick up the slack? Certainly, although better examples of them puncturing the thin veil of innocence surrounding a fair would be found later on.
26. What About Juvenile Delinquency?
“…Permit me to sing something from Man of La Mancha?”
Beware the gang with the lightning bolt patches! These rowdy teens go on a fender-bending joyride, purposefully riling up a driver so they can kick the shit out of him. Plot twist: It’s the father of one of their friends and fellow gang members, who finds out shortly afterwards and turns in his awful, cheap Flash-cosplay badge. Soon, our anti-hero Jamie finds himself torn between two peer groups: The chipper, good kids with unsettling close-ups on their faces, who want him to speak out against teen violence, and the gang who wants him back…or else? Their internal logic isn’t well-defined.
The gang leader sneering “You wouldn’t see me moping around if it was my old man,” points at an inner life full of turmoil and self-hatred, but otherwise there’s a lot of promise in this short that winds up not being that well-realized. Chalk it up to the filmmakers clearly having no idea what gang violence is or where it stems from (see, again: the badges), but the bottom drops out of this one suddenly and it throws the rest of the riff into sharp relief. Some great gags aside (“I say put ’em through the spanking machine!”), this one sputters out too soon, with a question mark for a finisher that can only call to mind a far, far superior short about the dark side of high schoolers.
25. Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance
Early on here, Crow says Posture Pals was the definitive word on posture, but I disagree: Platform Posture and Appearance edges it out, with some great advantage taken of the awkward pauses and phrasing early on (the announcer demands we imagine we’re a pretty doll, a tree, and a flower), and an amazing “knee test” later in the short. There may even be a secret cameo from Professor Pleasing of Using Your Voice, though maybe back in the day everyone looked like that?
24. A Day at the Fair
“Did Donna do this rinse?”
Where Johnny at the Fair takes a look at a carnival of souls from the perspective of a wandering young customer, A Day at the Fair gives us a story from behind-the-scenes, as a farm family brings corn and livestock to the various competitions, then takes a break to tour the rest of the exhibits. Like pickles, “packing the stands for the pickle races,” or a cake judging contest where the judge “rubs it into her hair.”
Here, as detailed in the examples above, the tone of the riffing tends more towards the absurd than the dark (as in Johnny), and overall it’s better for it. Fairs are inherently absurd, but despite what the animals go through (animals always seem to be suffering in these shorts), they’re nowhere near as depressing as circuses, so taking a less tar-black tack suits the riffs well.
23. Once Upon a Honeymoon
“Sir, should we get onto wars or starvation or anything?”
We’re back to using Heaven as an inexplicable framing device, as in Out of This World, and a guardian angel is tasked with the all-important job of helping a songwriter rewrite a tune for a prima donna singer in 24 hours, crushing his hopes of leaving to enjoy a honeymoon with his wife. The angel eventually gets around to supplying the poor couple with some pixie dust. Oh, and the entire purpose of the short (hawking some truly heinous home furnishings and appliances) has not one single thing to do with any of this.
Things do pick up once the wife bursts into song, dreaming of a kitchen with a phone (“Aim high, sister!”) and a chaste separate-beds master bedroom that gets worse and worse each time she revises it in her mind. A few outdated gay jokes sink this one a bit though, as well as the jarring narrative inconsistency — when it’s over, you’re going to have a hard time summarizing anything that happened. It’s the equivalent of a bad-advertising cup-and-ball trick.
22–21. Hired! Parts 1 and 2
Chevrolet needed not one, but two parts to tell the story of a manager of car salesmen who’s having trouble energizing his troops to boost sales. Part 1 focuses on a new hire named Jimmy who’s a goofy schmuck that knows practically nothing about cars, and astonishingly comes up short. Then, out of nowhere, it segues to the beleaguered manager who goes home to whine to his mosquito-attacking dad for a strange porch chat about the secret to great management. You start to wonder: Who is this educational short for, the workers or the management? The answer, as it’s revealed in Part 2 (home of the first “Electric Boogaloo” joke I ever heard), is no one. Because after Dad solves his bug problem by draping a rag over his bald head, no one will be capable of paying attention to instruction of any kind.
Anyway, the manager eventually gets through to Jimmy and his other lackeys by micro-managing insanely, chewing them out for the slightest faux pas they make during a pitch, even when they manage to score a sale. The riffing here is solid, particularly during the early stretch when Jimmy keeps striking out (and the sale montage right at the end — the crew always comes with high-quality riffs whenever a dutch angle is introduced, for some reason), but overall I personally think Hired! gets a slightly unearned rep as an all-time short just because many people encounter Part 2 along with MST3K’s most legendary episode, Manos: The Hands of Fate.
20. Century 21 Calling…
“Soon you’ll have all your friends hanging up on you and dreading your calls.”
Bell System’s lily-white slice of phone propaganda is the first of only three shorts MST3K did for the Sci-Fi Channel, and it really doesn’t stack up to the other two well. Partly that’s because it’s just drenched in annoying pizzicato orchestral music, with little to no snatches of human dialogue anywhere. Nearly 5 minutes go by of two teens running through a faintly offensive world’s fair in Seattle before we finally hear an announcer pop up to start explaining new telephone features like call forwarding. That aching silence technically frees up the crew to riff wherever they like, but sometimes constraints are a good thing (and contrary to what a lot of people think, I’m of the opinion that the show stayed just as funny when they switched networks, albeit a looooot meaner).
Naturally, the jokes get tighter as structure is introduced with the advent of stiff performers acting out call waiting poorly, but it’s almost a case of too-little, too-late. Then the sun sets on it all, and it feels slightly grim — what future are these kids looking towards? Do they know the horrors that await? That, more than anything, sticks with me all these years later: Those two dopes, standing on top of the world at the Space Needle, staring into an endless roiling sea of purple. It ain’t the jokes, though.
19. Mr. B Natural
“When you want to show dignity Buzz, try a French Horn!”
“Uh, Mr. B, what would you know about ‘dignity’?”
One of Mystery Science Theater’s most legendary shorts, I’ll admit, doesn’t quite do as much for me as it does others. It gets a bit long in the tooth once we dive into how musical instruments are made and, in the face of the frighteningly cheery, writhing Mr. B (imagine your community theater teacher taking on Peter Pan and you get the picture), the crew’s response is often a variation on “this is creepy.” Which, in fairness, is kind of all I can think of too when I see a woman pretend to be a little boy, interpretive-dancing to a tuba so he’ll be swayed into joining band class. In a way, your mileage will vary depending on how ghastly you find Mr. B to be (or not to be).
That said, despite the fact that I personally find Mr. B more annoying than terrifying, it’s hard to deny the comic engine he provides thanks to young Buzz’ unbelievably shy awkwardness. Buzz is the yin to B’s cocaine-fueled yang, and their relationship makes the short work — and yeah, though it gets repetitive, riffing on Buzz screaming for his mom to save him from Mr. B never quite gets old.
18. Money Talks!
“Oh and uh, kill your parents. Bye.”
The ghost of Benjamin Franklin visits a “greasy scarecrow boy” who can’t scrounge up the two measly dollars he needs to go the dance. In the process, he educates this “Young Christopher Walken” in the ways of staying out of The Red. This is a strong short, low on fuss, with just enough touches of weirdness and darkness to keep things chugging along without overdoing it or overstaying its welcome. A lot of the riffs settle for filling in sentences, but they mostly come at a great clip — and the visual of a Founding Father’s shadow calmly lecturing a random loser never stops being funny. It helps that when he exits the picture, the kid’s dad steps right in and we’re back in MST3K’s stock and trade (annihilating the fragile relationship between fake parents and fake children). “See you next week, son.”
17. The Chicken of Tomorrow
“…I said SPEED IS ESSENTIAL!”
I wore out my tape of MST3K: Shorts Vol. 1 down to the nubs back in the VCR days, but would inevitably tap out somewhere along the way during The Chicken of Tomorrow, the closer to that volume. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t pack as many incredible lines per minute as the comparatively tighter Why Study Industrial Arts? and Cheating, and simply pales in comparison. But it’s an unfair comparison, because on rewatch, Chicken keeps the jokes mostly coming. Plus, there’s actually a kinda fascinating, kinda gross look inside an egg as a baby chick gestates and hatches.
One of MST3K’s secret weapons comes whenever they get their hands on animated characters (see: the stop-motion aliens whose scenes absolutely dominate the otherwise anemic Laserblast) or cute animals. When the chicks arrive, and even when they grow into perhaps less-cute chickens, they humanize them in hilarious ways and get a few digs in at disturbing mega-farm practices (perhaps no riff better illustrates both of these at once than the quick-pans to different cooped-up chickens, as Servo names them off like notorious imprisoned gangsters). The tables turn when the short does the anthropomorphizing for them, having a chicken tell the camera “That’s what you think, Big Boy,” leaving them mostly speechless. It’s all in good fun, and it always deserved a spot on that tape even if I didn’t think so back then.
Of course, by the end of this short, it’s just been 24 minutes of chickens and that’s more than enough, thank you.
16. Assignment: Venezuela
“I saw a nude midget circus…”
This lost short, never seen on TV, is a welcome find and a great mid-tier entry. It artfully tracks the downfall of one oilman’s sham marriage as he loses months and months of his life to a shit job placement in Venezuela, drinking cokes and giving into forbidden passions. The cheerful narrator never fails to put on a happy face about the whole thing in his letters home to the family, but the riffing digs in deeper and deeper, until the entire thing is like a drawn-out Arthur Miller play about desperation and delusion. It gets even worse when they fly out to join him in the quonset hut where they have to live before they can get an upgrade to a real house (“I found half of a dog under the floorboards”).
The only problem is, it takes a damn long time getting there. But some things are worth waiting for, and this is undoubtedly one of the better character deconstructions MST3K has ever undertaken in their shorts.
15. Body Care and Grooming
“Don’t change a tire with your face.”
This is one of the most jaw-droppingly sexist shorts MST3K has ever encountered, which is really saying something. Body Care and Grooming (“They’re cops”) makes it the woman’s fault for not dressing attractively enough to make a glum douchebag drool over her. That opening salvo then segues to slut-shaming a woman for not wearing shoes that are boring enough. Before it full-on burns someone for witchcraft, the short makes a hard left turn into microscopic cartoon close-ups of faces, where the riffing really hits its stride. Not that it’s not great to watch takedowns of sexism, I just really like the sound of liquid going up a straw accompanying the imagery of oil reaching the surface of my skin.
Between this and Keeping Clean and Neat, the great thing about body care shorts is that they make it seem like proper hygiene will ruin your life (“An entire day spent grooming”). Though eventually the woman-hating powers down into generic cleanliness tips, the riffing stays strong to the end, always pushing against the oppressiveness of being perfectly scrubbed and buffed.
14. Design For Dreaming
“Bonnie & Clyde’s death car!”
In the running for the nuttiest short the show’s ever done, Design For Dreaming is at times suffocating in its wall-to-wall terrible singing and sub-Cyd Charisse dance moves (boisterous enough to merit a Mr. B shout-out). It’s basically a 10-minute musical ad for cars — a few of which look cool, the others looking like giant, Jetsons-brand electric shavers — until our dreaming protagonist gets an apron slapped on her and faints her way into the kitchen. From there, it’s a quick tour through an impossible kitchen of the future, a quick fashion-show montage, and then a romantic drive through the Highway of Tomorrow (which couldn’t look more like a slot-car track in the long shots if it tried).
MST3K often gets knocked with the criticism that the stuff they send up is plenty funny, and maybe even funnier, on its own. I highly disagree, but there’s sometimes a bit of truth to that statement, and here’s an example of where the riffing takes a backseat (pun intended) to the material. Yet Design for Dreaming is so strong visually that it lifts the jokes as well, propelling it to the upper echelon of watchable, memorable shorts.
13. Progress Island, U.S.A.
This 12-minute paean to Puerto Rico kicks things off with a potentially seizure-inducing montage and rarely lets up thereafter. Usually it’s hard for the crew to get a foothold on the material without characters or a story, but this is probably the best example of a short that’s just a straightforward ad and still manages to work gangbusters. It probably helps that the announcer’s voice is so buttery and smug, and the music is so gloriously drenched in waka-waka guitars and trumpet sections. Both the short and the SoL are successful, in a way: the latter makes Puerto Rico sound like a dump, but the short itself still makes me want to go, just for kicks.
12. Are You Ready for Marriage?
“Never make light of Boing, son.”
God help me, I’m rooting for Sue and Larry at the end of this one. Mousy Sue runs afoul of her parents when she tries to get their blessing to marry Larry (“Mighty Boy!”) he of the Regis Philbin chin in need of a good smallering. It doesn’t go well, and they hustle off to a marriage counselor with some of the absolute dumbest diagrams and charts to back up his obvious theories about making sure you, y’know, know the person you’re marrying before you tie the knot.
But Larry and Sue are true lovers. They like movies, and popular songs! The counselor isn’t convinced, so it’s off to run through Cupid’s Checklist. Larry and Sue identify the strength of their “Boing” (as personified by a disappearing rubber band), and finally they measure their Chance For Happiness with this chart:
This one starts out with great character work, gives us a couple I give a shit about, and then takes it to 11 with a clearly unlicensed idiot who had too much access to action figures, watercolors and office supplies. Larry & Sue 4ever. Even though college is gonna change eeeeeverythiiiiiing.
(Full disclosure: I 100% admit to lifting a riff from this short, for use in Dude Bro Party Massacre 3. See if you can spot it.)
11. Uncle Jim’s Dairy Farm
“Already the children have disturbed Uncle Jim. Uncle Jim is an edgy man who should not be riled.”
George and Betty have the time of their lives at their uncle’s dairy farm, the platonic ideal of MST3K short locations. The dairy farm as seen here is a place of government influence on big farming, affixed gender roles, dietary propaganda, life-sucking chores, and adorable animals. The cheery music track briefly rips off a phrase from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This is probably one of the most front-to-back idyllic environments in all of the shorts, and the crew goes in for the kill in a mostly satisfying manner.
Watching this short again, I still get a great sense of time and place on the farm, but don’t get to know the characters too much, apart from the bra-burning girls, chugging dirty bananas. That knocks this one down just a peg — what makes Uncle Jim an edgy man who should not be riled? Tell me more.
With luck, I’ll be able to suck any remaining vestige of fun out of this TV show with my analysis!
“You’ll get what’s coming, farmer” still does me in. One of my favorite off-kilter line readings.
10. What to Do on a Date
“I-I’m kidding, hang up the phone.”
Where do these shorts find actors like the guy who plays Nick? His gentle giant demeanor, stumbling genially through a hormone fog, asking questions in a loping drawl like a sad robot powering down — he’s just great. And watching him dork his way into a date with a nice girl like Kay (he basically invites her to go help set up decorations at a scavenger sale, which very charitably stretches the definition of the word “date”) is adorable and cringeworthy in equal measure.
From there, Nick finds a corkboard full of other date ideas — each one completely terrible, from a weenie roast to attending a swim meet — and continues pressing his luck with Kay. To the surprise of the entire universe, she likes all that lame stuff too (“baseball games and taffy pulls, I think they’re swell!”) and has no problem agreeing to a second date with Nick, even though he sounds like/acts like/essentially is Curly from Of Mice and Men. It’s uplifting, in a way. If Nick can pull it off, so can anyone. The SoL’s riffing elects to constantly create an alternate reality where he fails downwards instead of upwards, and the contrast is funny without quite getting stale (“Is it okay if I bring my boyfriend?”)
The tennis racket shot is an all-timer.
9. Here Comes the Circus
“Hu-hu-hu! Let the nightmare begin!”
By this point, even Joel is taking notice of how dark he and the Bots tend to skew when confronted with these supposedly cheery shorts for kids, and chides his robots several times for it. But where else to indulge in your comments about the black heart of humanity if not the circus? Basically, it follows the same innocence-lost joke template as Johnny at the Fair and Circus on Ice, but it just happens to have a much higher hit ratio of jokes, particularly any time clowns get involved. And this is where the short revealed a contradiction within me.
99% of the time, I personally think “clowns are creepy” is a genre of jokes that is supremely hacky and lame by this point, but the SoL somehow, some way, pulls it off here. The montage of clown faces turning to camera, supplied with little more than screams from the crew, just works for me despite my personal peccadilloes. I’ll be honest: I forgot about this one, and it slayed me upon rewatch. Maybe it’s climbing the list too high as a result, but screw it. This is the most fun I’ve ever had at the circus.
8. The Gumby Show: Robot Rumpus
(Skip to 7:00 — the video containing just the short is blocked in some territories so I went with the full episode)
“That squares my breasts.”
Gumby was always creepy and I pretty much always hated him. Imagine my delight when, possibly through some kind of rights loophole, the SoL actually managed to tackle a Gumby short. A particularly cheap-looking short (“Close-ups reveal the weakness of the whole premise”), and one about robots as well (which gives Tom and Crow a position of authority to riff from before they get traumatized at the sight of beheaded robots).
The little green dork backs out of doing chores by putting a bunch of machines to work. But, as with all advanced intelligence, they quickly realize mankind (claykind?) is inefficient and their houses must be destroyed. It’s up to Gumbo, the matador-coiffed dad, to rush home from work in his fire truck and kick some robot ass. I routinely say “I’ll take the company car” on my way to my own red truck these days, and it’s all thanks to Gumbo.
There’s a lot of great material to work with in 6 short minutes, and they don’t disappoint.
7. A Date With Your Family
“I’m moving to Fire Island, dear…”
The undisputed champ of the nuclear family shorts. A Date With Your Family gets weird in a hurry, starting with the title (“Hey, I like my family as a friend!”) and then introducing each member of the family individually, as well as how they must suffocate their own personality for the sake of Being Pleasant. Mother and Daughter dress to be more pleasing for “the men of the family” (“So that they’re unsuspecting when they kill them”), Brother and Junior deign to hit Father up for more allowance when he arrives, and everyone is generally scrubbed and fussing over meaningless details. By the time Brother seats Mother at the table “as he would his best girl,” the characters are all well-sketched, the conflict is clear, and we’re off to the races.
The short makes such a point out of suppressing emotion and being unnaturally agreeable that each vulgar riff supplied by the crew scores huge. You won’t want to flee this seething cauldron of angst too soon.
6. Junior Rodeo Daredevils
“And the crowd goes wild.” “Yaaaaaaaay.”
Junior Rodeo Daredevils. Smothered in gravy. Texas-style. This short depicts the first of many small worlds which I’ve actually had dreams about walking around in, so finely-detailed are its characters and surroundings. There’s Old Timer Billy Slater, the rascally Oatmeal-gobbling Fagin to a group of would-be pranksters, whom he soon conscripts into promoting an extremely dangerous rodeo for kids. There’s Mary Lou, the hateable beauty queen who wins at everything, the Taylor Swift of this little cowtown. And there’s every little kid who hangs on for dear life as a farm animal comes screaming out of the gate, hurling them to the ground as they land neck-first in a cloud of dust. These are spartan touches, ably abetted by a buttery-smooth rancher’s narration, that are almost Hemingway-esque in their ability to build a real sense of place and time with very little (the writer even gets a shoutout in one of the crew’s riffs).
Now MST3K does some clutch atmospheric lifting to help make this short an all-timer, but what really sells it is the very real pain these kids encounter as they plummet from real horses, faceplanting into real dirt. These days you could go to jail for putting kids through a gauntlet like this, which makes Billy Slater seem like either a madman or a genius. Or both. Oatmeal’s done.
5. Last Clear Chance
“Trains are holy, blameless creatures.”
It’s a long one, but it’s dynamite. Last Clear Chance is one omniscient police officer’s story in a Mayberry train town torn apart by negligent driving. I can picture myself in a 1970’s drivers ed class, trying not to laugh at this already-outdated bullshit so I don’t get points knocked off my test, but I would have been powerless against the riffing of Mike and the Bots.
Much like Junior Rodeo Daredevils, I get a complete sense of the world and the characters, albeit here there’s a lot more runtime to develop them…and allow the crew to counter-develop them. As the officer’s tales of traffic accidents mount and mount (starring likenesses of Elmer Fudd and Henry Kissinger), ruining the afternoon lunch of the family he’s rudely dropped in on (“Anybody know this guy?”), the cop is sketched with darker and darker colors until he finishes out the short as a madman on the loose, immediately disavowed by the rest of the police force. But it’s too late for the family — not only do they get their buzz severely harshed, their eldest son (shepherding his little brother on his first day as a licensed driver) rolls the dice with an oncoming train and loses hard. “Could you identify this bucket full of your brother?”
It’s a dark short story with a twist, a textbook case of the unreliable narrator and plenty of helpful driving information. What more could you want?
4. Days of Our Years
“I’m watching you feel good.”
Union Pacific Railroad takes us to church in this phenomenal late Comedy Central-era short. Much like the similarly gruesome Last Clear Chance, here we follow around a grim authority figure (here a priest) as he spins tales of the souls torn apart by neglect for workplace safety — and trains, those holy, blameless creatures, make a welcome return appearance too.
The priest enters the dreams of diner waitress Helen, reminiscing about how happy she was before her fiance Joe rolled the company truck out of sheer impatience, consigned to a Robocop neckbrace at their wedding. He thinks back to how the elderly train conductor George suffers a heart attack and kills his next-door neighbor on the job, closing the blinds so he doesn’t have to see the dead man’s family come outside for the funeral (“Bo-ring”). And in the darkest turn any short has ever taken, new father Charlie is so excited to tell his co-workers about the baby that he forgets to use gentle pressure on the shoulder of a guy who’s busy welding — melting his eyes off in the process so he can never see his son’s face.
Usually it’s Mike, Tom and Crow’s job to supply the undercurrent of angst, regret and death, but when a short is this dark, it becomes their duty to make things fun again. And they succeed. This is a great collection of riffs, and one that stands neck-and-neck with its obvious companion piece Last Clear Chance. I gave this one the edge just because the storytelling is so tight.
3. A Case of Spring Fever
Easily the most famous short from the slim-pickings Sci-Fi Channel era (to the extent that they took a second crack at it with Rifftrax), A Case of Spring Fever pairs up a grim-faced man with a vendetta against couch springs, and Coily, a powerful, dimension-bending cartoon spring imp who puts him through hell on his way to a golf game. What would the world be like without springs? Coily torments this sweaty goofus’ life with shattered doors, loose drapes and useless cars, chiming in with an eardrum-rattling “No springs!” each time. It’s like It’s a Wonderful Life, only more depressing than suicide.
And then the goddamn bottom drops out, which is where Spring Fever really earns its stripes.
Coily gives in almost immediately, returning the man back to his normal, spring-filled world, where he becomes a proselytizing motormouth to all his annoyed golf buddies, endlessly pointing out the different uses and applications for springs in everything they’re doing, and everything they’re not doing either. “Shouldn’t this be over?” Servo inquires, and he’s absolutely right. It’s a two-act structure, like Full Metal Jacket, with Coily filling in for Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the first half. And if its intent is to make us appreciate springs and all they do for us, it fails miserably. God bless you, Jam Handy, for all your glorious works.
2. Why Study Industrial Arts?
“Because you’re bad at math?”
MST3K, particularly when faced with the goody-two-shoes propaganda of these shorts, likes to lean hard into a nightmare world of serial killers, alcoholism, gun violence, war and regret. Some may even call it a crutch. But there is no single short whose lead character better lends himself to being rebranded as a secret murderer than the Buddy Holly stand-in at the center of Why Study Industrial Arts?