Stella: Ten Representative Episodes

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Taking a cue from The A.V. Club, this feature is a list of ten episodes from a particular television show that more or less best represents that program.

Was Stella a sitcom?  Was it sketch comedy?  Apparently it was “dumb comedy in a suit.”  That’s how Comedy Central promoted it, and that did not really do the show any favors.  To be fair, Stella was not an easy show to explain in a way that could make it widely appealing.  It was a sitcom more than anything else, but it is unlike any sitcom that has aired before or after it.  That is not meant as a criticism, or a compliment – it is purely descriptive.  An extension of Stella the comedy act, Stella the TV show was Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain as id-driven man-children versions of themselves who wore suits all the time.  Stella is one of my all-time favorite shows, thanks a great deal to its frequent subversion of common television tropes in the most absurd manner imaginable.

“Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
The guys get kicked out of their apartment, deal with homelessness, search for a new place, and ultimately end up right back where they started at their original apartment.  The stretching of natural logic that defined the series was here right from the get-go: the torrid love affair that begins as soon as Wain meets the co-op broker to the strains of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (“What are we doing?”), the guys having only a single bean to eat while homeless but a full plate of condiments, the mustache disguises that fool everyone, the dance while wearing skunk tails that wins over the co-op board, and the boys performing open-heart surgery despite obviously not being doctors, along with Wain running off in the rain in the middle of it to make a Big Public Declaration of Love and then sticking his hands right back in the patient’s chest after coming back from the rain.  There is also the petty bickering, accompanied as it often is with the shaming of Michael Sho.  Finally, the bizarre lessons learned ending is also established right away, with the guys being presented gifts such as a wicker laundry hamper from Pier One to recognize their killing of Josef Mengele (because, as it turned out, their landlord was the Nazi doctor in hiding).  Also, Rashida Jones is in the pilot as one of the three girls who lives downstairs (she didn’t stay on for the series and was replaced by Samantha Buck).

“Campaign” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Michael Ian Black runs for resident board president after the current president, Bob Feldman, doesn’t allow them to have any fun around the apartment (“Fine, Mr. Zookeeper, we’ll go back to our cage”).  With Michael Sho as the campaign manager, David is relegated to menial intern work, leading him to turn to Bob (Robert LuPone in a wonderfully straight-faced guest performance), who tasks David with assassinating Michael Black.  Regarding playing around with tropes in the most absurd manner imaginable, Michael Black explains that he was going to read from prepared remarks, but then read from the heart, but then he decides to NOT read from the heart and actually read from his prepared remarks.  It is revealed that the Michael Black that David shot was actually a robot – a robot that is obviously just metal with a picture of Michael’s face taped on.  And there is a flashback to explain that Michael Sho knew what David was planning, by virtue of the hint he dropped when he told Michael Black, “You won’t be saying that after I kill you!”

“Office Party” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Amy, one of the girls downstairs (in a rare moment of the girls not appearing altogether), asks Michael, Michael, and David for some tape, and the guys use the request as a chance to beg Amy to let them join her at her office party.  They run afoul of a couple of office bullies, then get their revenge at the office picnic, at which they manage to get hired and put in charge of the “big account.”  Stella had great guest stars, in this case fellow The State alum Joe Lo Truglio and everyone’s comedy friend Paul Rudd as the office bullies and Sam Rockwell as the previously mentioned but not seen Gary Meadows.  The office presentation scene is a television classic, and it sometimes progresses from the guys getting fired to them informing the mayor (who wears a sash that says “Mayor”) that they are in charge of him as members of a democracy.  The phone call with the black teenage girls and the office picnic game montage (reminiscent of Wet Hot American Summer) are also highlights.

“Coffee Shop” (Season 1, Episode 4)
Worried that their lives are purposeless (sort of), the guys all get involved in the coffee business: Sho becomes a barista at their local coffee hang, Black starts a coffee stand on the corner across the street from the shop, and David starts a coffee joint that becomes the latest hipster hangout.  Everything is wonderfully inexplicable: Sho inexplicably wants a job despite the guys never previously showing any concern about employment, Black has exactly one explicably loyal customer (played by Alan Ruck), and Wain’s shop is inexplicably a runaway success (and the guys burn it down at the end of the episode).  This episode is also notable for its framing device, in which the guys recount the coffee story to the girls downstairs to teach them a lesson about friendship (which was sort of the theme of the entire series of Stella).

“Paper Route” (Season 1, Episode 5)
The guys accidentally run over their paper boy Kevin and then agree to take over his paper route so that Kevin can continue to earn the money he has been saving for college.  But before making that offer, the guys try to make up for hitting him by giving him a harpsichord.  The guys eventually get the hang of the paper route (on a bicycle built for three), but they then have to deal with the teenage bullies who have been tormenting Kevin.  After the bullies beat them up, they experience the tribal shaming culture of the paperboy world.  The guys eventually stand up to the bullies by performing “The Friendship Song,” whose magnificence must be observed to be believed.  Guest starring is The State alum Ken Marino, who fully commits to the role of the paperboy gangland boss.

“Meeting Girls” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Sick of spending Friday nights alone, the guys head to a bar to meet girls.  Michael and Michael both hit it off with someone (Michael Black’s girl is played by Elizabeth Banks), while David remains alone.  This episode is the best example of Stella stretching the limits of logical temporal development: Michael and Michael go through every stage of a relationship, while David gets new roommates and changes his name, and the entire episode takes place over a couple of days.  Also, in a romantic comedy parody ending, David chases after Michael and Michael as they board a plane – but finds time to stop for a bite to eat on his way there.  This episode is also notable for Michael Black introducing himself to a bar patron by saying, “Hi, I’m Michael Ian Black.  I love the ‘80s.”

“Camping” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Desperate to escape the rat race of the work week (because apparently the guys have jobs now), the guys head out on a camping trip.  Things quickly go awry, but a kindly mountain man promises to lead them back to their car, but they accidentally kill him (or so they think), and things get even worse until a group of rangers rescue them.  “Camping” deconstructs the trope of flashbacks revealing the truth in – you guessed it – the most absurd manner imaginable: they didn’t kill the mountain man, he was actually a ghost; they didn’t eat the mountain man’s remains, they ate hamburgers and French fries!  (Although they did kill someone – just some loser camper nobody cares about.)  Tim Blake Nelson pulls double guest star duty as the mountain man and the head ranger.  The montage of the rangers cleaning the guys after rescuing them was a prime example of the homoeroticism Comedy Central wanted them to refrain from.

“Novel” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Wanting to make something out of their lives, the guys are inspired by novelist Jane Burroughs (Janeane Garofalo) to write their own novel.  But Jane, who is suffering from writer’s block, steals their story, and they do not have any backup copy with which to prove their authorship.  So they must write the whole thing again in the course of one night before Jane can turn it in to her publisher.  The montage of the initial novel writing – which also took place over one night – is the best montage of the series.  The Jane Burroughs book reading scene mercilessly skewers stupid book reading questions (e.g. David’s “What is a book?”).  The chase scene of the guys running after Jane – including David pulling Michael and Michael along in a rickshaw – is epic, with a piece of bologna serving as an example of Chekhov’s gun.

“Vegetables” (Season 1, Episode 9)
The guys luck into discovering that their apartment floor is perfect for growing vegetables, which they then hawk on the street, and they start selling like hot cakes.  But their avarice results in them over-plowing the land (i.e., their apartment floor), and they are forced themselves to work on a plantation.  This episode stretches both temporal AND economic sense.  Once again, the action takes place over no more than a week, if that.  There are takes on the tropes of the wise minority/magical Negro (fellow plantation worker Maggie reminds the guys of the importance of friendship – and spends the night with Casanova David) and the newly rich tossing dollar bills out of a limo (“Maybe throwing money out of the limo wasn’t such a good idea”).

“Amusement Park” (Season 1, Episode 10)
The guys have tickets to the amusement park, but it’s raining, so they attempt to recreate the experience at their apartment.  It doesn’t work, they get to fighting, and the girls insist that they go into therapy together.  I will not spoil the twist of this episode, as it brings the whole series together, but I will mention that it is perhaps the greatest subversion ever of the “You look familiar” trope and also a suitably bizarre example of altered flashbacks filling in previously unknown information.  The guys prove to be the worst possible subjects for traditional therapy as they are so incredibly, bizarrely, and thoroughly petty (“Black has such a superiority complex,” “Sho’s a little girl,” “Wain’s a sex addict and a compulsive masturbator”).

If you liked those, well, I can’t recommend 10 more, because only 10 episodes ever aired!

Seinfeld: Ten Representative Episodes

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Taking a cue from The A.V. Club, this feature is a list of ten episodes from a particular television show that more or less best represents that program.

Seinfeld is the best sitcom of all time.  Or, wait, that might actually be Arrested Development.  Or maybe, a few decades from now, I will look back and decide that Community actually fits that bill … Seinfeld is definitely one of a select few shows that could legitimately qualify for that distinction.  Here are ten great episodes.

“The Chinese Restaurant” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Jerry, George, and Elaine wait to be seated at a Chinese restaurant.  That’s it.  That’s the entire episode.  As they wait, they have Seinfeldian conversations.  Eventually, they decide they’ve waited long enough and they leave without eating (resulting in the all-time classic punchline: “Seinfeld: 4!”).

“The Deal” (Season 2, Episode 13)
Can you remain friends with an ex?  Sure you can, Seinfeld proved that for nearly a decade.  Some people may find it difficult, but Jerry and Elaine were the perfect exes to make it work.  But can a friends with benefits arrangement ever work?  Long before J.T., Ashton, Mila, and Natalie were pondering this query, Jerry and Elaine got greedy with their deal.  In one of the series’ first great diner conversations, George displays a rare bit of wisdom, nothing that for thousands of years, people have been trying to have sex without the messiness of a relationship.  This early classic shows that Seinfeld originally had a softer heart, as Season 9 Elaine probably would have been perfectly fine with $182 cash as a birthday present from Jerry.

“The Boyfriend” (Season 3, Episodes 17-18)
About 20 years before Louis C.K. made the awkwardness of male friendship a cornerstone of his sitcom, it was an oft-overlooked theme of another stand-up-starring sitcom, epitomized in the 2-parter “The Boyfriend.”  Elaine starts dating New York Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez, but it’s Jerry, a big fan, who ends up going through the motions of a relationship with him.  “The Boyfriend” is also notable for reaching the heights of Seinfeld’s cultural references, with the “2nd spitter” sequence: Kramer and Newman hate Keith Hernandez because he spit on them after a game.  But, in a nod to JFK’s 2nd-shooter theory, Jerry demonstrates that there must have been a second spitter, or else that’s “one magic loogie.”

“The Pitch” (Season 4, Episode 3)
How many shows have the chance to explain what they are AND portray the creation of itself within the context of an episode? Seinfeld was famously “a show about nothing,” as so insistently and memorably spelled out by George Costanza to NBC executives.  But it was really a show about everything, or nothing in particular, as it were.  The contrast between all that did happen on any given episode and the extreme nothingness endorsed by George made it clear how much “a show about nothing” was a misnomer, but a useful one nonetheless.  The scene in the diner in which Jerry addresses the fallout of the meeting (“You’re not artistic, and you have no integrity!”) is an all all-time great portrayal of the struggle to bring a creative vision to life.

“The Contest” (Season 4, Episode 11)
What other show can claim that the episode often cited as the one that turned it into a massive hit revolved around masturbation?  That may not seem like a big deal to present-day viewers of 2 Broke Girls, but twenty years ago, pleasuring oneself was not a commonly discussed topic on television.  It was a good thing that it was a taboo topic actually (and that Seinfeld had such great writers), as it led to the all-time classic euphemism “Master of Your Domain.”

“The Race” (Season 6, Episode 10)
It is hard to imagine the characters of Seinfeld in their childhood iterations, but that didn’t stop the show from being in touch with their pasts.  Take “The Race,” which recalls a legendary moment from Jerry and George’s high school days, when Jerry won a foot race in gym class thanks to an inadvertent false start that has remained a secret for all these years.  “The Race” also features Lying George Costanza at his fanciful best, as he paints himself as a millionaire who lost his virginity to his homeroom teacher.

“The Fusili Jerry” (Season 6, Episode 21)
This episode might be filling the “personal favorite” spot of this list, as the main reason it is here is because it made me laugh a lot.  It also earns its place thanks to the first appearance of Patrick Warburton’s career-making turn as David Puddy and its exemplary use of Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza.  Both contribute to the Seinfeldian sexual politics of this episode, with most every character entangled in a web of “move-stealing,” which metaphorically captures the politics of comedy and joke-stealing.  Kramer has one of his best plots of the series, with his wackiness married perfectly to the Seinfeldian conversation about what sort of person would have a vanity plate that reads “ASSMAN.”  Of course a proctologist would have that sort of sense of humor.  The “one in a million” ending that confirms this theory after Frank gets Kramer’s pasta statue of Jerry stuck in his rectum is one of the most satisfying endings of anything, ever.

“The Bizarro Jerry” (Season 8, Episode 3)
Elaine dates a guy who is the opposite of Jerry.  He has two friends who are the opposite of George and Kramer: they volunteer, they buy each other groceries, the Kramer opposite always rings the doorbell and identifies himself before walking through his neighbor’s door.  The episode itself is a bizarro version of a comforts of home tale in which Elaine realizes that she belongs with the petty people she’s always been friends with instead of her new thoughtful friends.

“The Little Kicks” (Season 8, Episode 4)
Seinfeld has the reputation of plots from the same episode seeming like they must have come from different episodes.  Its fans have often been heard to say, “That was all one episode?!”  But those seemingly disparate elements often somehow come together, never better than in “The Little Kicks.”  Jerry and Kramer’s bootlegging, George playing the role of the bad boy, and Elaine’s herky-jerky dancing converge in a bravura final sequence in which everyone shows up to pick up George at the police station.  Elaine and Frank Costanza have a piece of each other, and in the tag, the streets of New York are alive with Elaine’s little kicks.

“The Betrayal” (Season 9, Episode 8)
Seinfeld faced criticism of its characters becoming overly cartoonish in later seasons, but it was still churning out bold concepts all the way to its final year.  “The Betrayal” – a.k.a the Backwards Episode – may be thought by some as overly reliant on its gimmick, but with the tight plotting of Seinfeld at its disposal, it made the most out of that gimmick (sample gag: Jerry says “God bless you” [three seconds earlier] Elaine sneezes).  Offering a new perspective proves that no matter what order you go, the people of Seinfeld are essentially always the same.

And here are ten more:
“The Parking Garage” (Season 3, Episode 6), “The Limo” (Season 3, Episode 19), “The Pilot” (Season 4, Episodes 23-24), “The Marine Biologist” (Season 5, Episode 14), “The Hamptons” (Season 5, Episode 21), “The Opposite” (Season 5, Episode 22), “The Soup Nazi” (Season 7, Episode 6), “The Cadillac” (Season 7, Episodes 14-15), “The Merv Griffin Show” (Season 9, Episode 6), “The Bookstore” (Season 9, Episode 17)

Saturday Night Live The Will Ferrell Era: Ten Representative Episodes

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Taking a cue from The A.V. Club, this feature is a list of ten episodes from a particular television show that more or less best represents that program.

If I’m the one making the decision, then Will Ferrell is the best Saturday Night Live cast member of all time.  His seven seasons on the show (1995-1996 to 2001-2002) were marked by character-driven (as opposed to concept-driven) sketches and a spirit of collaboration.  The latter is due a great deal to Ferrell, who, though he was a star during his time on the show, was also one of the best utility players and probably the best team player in SNL history.  He had memorable moments with literally every one of his castmates during his tenure.  When choosing a set of episodes that show off all that SNL has to offer, one thing to keep in mind is that every era has had its mix of good and bad.  Luckily, almost every episode also has that mix, so there’s no need to go out of my way to make sure the particular weaknesses of the era are represented.  These 10 episodes offer a variety of essential recurring and one-off sketches, many of them – though not all – featuring Will Ferrell prominently.

Season 21, Episode 20 – Jim Carrey/Soundgarden (Original Airdate: 5/18/96)
The 95-96 season was the last true transitional season of SNL.  With a young cast and not really any established stars, Carrey was able to stamp his own personal brand of humor onto the show.  While Will Ferrell was yet to be as big a star as he would become, he was already the centerpiece of the cast, and it shows in two classic sketches that could have only occurred in an episode hosted by Jim Carrey – the insanely overprotective Jacuzzi lifeguard and the insanely drug-fueled Jimmy Tango’s Fat Busters.  Also of note is Carrey’s bravura impression of Jimmy Stewart squaring off against Mark McKinney as Carrey in Jim Breuer’s showcase sketch, the Joe Pesci Show.

Season 22, Episode 10 – Kevin Spacey/Beck (Original Airdate: 1/11/97)
The Star Wars screen test audition sketches – with Spacey as Walter Matthau for Obi-Wan and Christopher Walken for Han Solo, Darrell Hammond as Richard Dreyfuss for C-3PO, Ana Gasteyer as Barbra Streisand for Leia, and, of course, Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds for Darth Vader – set the template for all future impression showcase sketches.  Also, Michael Palin and John Cleese stopped by for a recreation of the Dead Parrot sketch.

Season 22, Episode 16 – Mike Myers/Aerosmith (Original Airdate: 3/22/97)
Before a time when every other monologue was a singing monologue, Mike Myers sang about the joys of a former cast member returning to host, and it may just have been the best SNL monologue of all time (bonus points for Tim Meadows having his own verse to decry the pitfalls of 30-year contracts).  This episode serves as a prime example of a returning host bringing back some of his best recurring sketches and sticking the new current cast into them, particularly with Will Ferrell’s Helmut joining Dieter in a “Sprockets” sketch for the “Insane Academy Awards” (George Jetson wins “Best Shegro in a Musical” for My Left Foot).

Season 23, Episode 17 – Steve Buscemi/Third Eye Blind (4/4/98)
When I first started really getting into SNL in the late nineties, there were certain sketches I referred to as “What were the writers smoking?”-sketches.  Appropriately enough, just about every sketch in the 1998 episode by Steve Buscemi fits into this category, particularly the Job Interview, with Buscemi as the most overly aggressive and oversharing interviewer of all time.  He also shone as the most intense Grease fanatic of all time, a school janitor given to taking his pants off, and a hip-hop dance instructor appearing before Judge Judy.  This episode is also an example of a strange trend from the 97-98 season in which the musical guest only performed one song.

Season 22, Episode 9 – Alec Baldwin/Luciano Pavarotti and Vanessa Williams (12/12/98)
This episode features two sketches that have become more or less synonymous with Alec Baldwin on SNL: the 6-year-old who looks like a fully grown man and seduces the hospital clown, and, of course, Schweddy Balls – which interestingly enough, isn’t very representative of most “Delicious Dish” sketches, which mainly made fun of the dry enthusiasm of NPR broadcasters.  This episode was also very much of its time with the commercial parody for the long-distance phone service 10-10-1776-5-28-1830-242-3-316-68-22.  And if you’re going to talk about essential episodes from Will Ferrell’s tenure, you’ve got to have at least one with a Bill Brasky sketch.

Season 25, Episode 1 – Jerry Seinfeld/David Bowie (Original Airdate: 10/2/99)
A solid collection of recurring sketches (the daffy talk show Morning Latte, with Seinfeld as a guest pitching the new diet “The Realm,” a Mary Katherine Gallagher sketch featuring a Catholic school vs. Jewish school basketball rivalry) and highly memorable odd original bits (following the series finale of Seinfeld, Jerry is transferred to Oz, where his exploits with the other prisoners resemble classic Seinfeld episodes; after ABC changes the title of 2 Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place to just 2 Guys and a Girl, NBC picks up …and a Pizza Place; the Action 8 News Watch keeps previewing its stories without ever getting to any of them) all done with a  Seinfeldian viewpoint.  And there’s the Seinfeld vs. Seinfeld (Jimmy Fallon) debate on Weekend Update.

Season 25, Episode 3 – Norm MacDonald/Dr. Dre (Original Airdate: 10/23/99)
Considering that Norm MacDonald is one of my favorite funny people ever, this was actually a somewhat disappointing episode, but it is worth mentioning for what may be the best SNL sketch of all time: the Celebrity Jeopardy with Sean Connery, Burt Reynolds, and French Stewart.  It gave us funny oversized hats, “Moo – that’s the sound your mother made last night,” “Ah, ruff, just the way your mother likes it,” Turd Ferguson, Texas with a dollar sign, and many others.  Also memorable was Norm’s monologue, in which he pondered how he could possibly be funny enough to host the show after being fired less than two years ago.

Season 25, Episode 16 – Christopher Walken/Christina Aguilera (Original Airdate: 4/8/00)
The Behind the Music with Blue Oyster Cult, a.k.a. “More Cowbell,” is rightly remembered as a classic, for performances from a mostly affectless Walken and a no-vanity, midriff-baring Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon cracking up before it was an epidemic, and rich dialogue (“Before we’re done here, y’all be wearing gold-plated diapers”).  But “More Cowbell” is not the best SNL sketch with Walken; in fact, it is not even the best from this episode.  That distinction belongs to the census interview, with brilliant straight man Tim Meadows as the interviewer and Walken (at his glued to the cue cards best) as Mr. Leonard, a convicted criminal who lives alone with a bobcat and works 56 hours a week as a street performer.

Season 26, Episode 1 – Rob Lowe/Eminem (10/7/00)
The best SNL season ever when it comes to politics (thank you, Florida) began here, with “strategery” and “lockbox.”  This season premiere also saw the debut of Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey as co-Weekend Update anchors, whose brother/sister-style repartee brought unheard-of mainstream press buzz behind the desk.

Season 27, Episode 9 – Ellen DeGeneres/No Doubt (Original Airdate: 12/15/01)
Another great Christmas episode!  This episode features a bunch of fun (with a capital “F”) sketches.  The Culps Christmas Pageant is perhaps the best appearance of Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer’s “hip” middle-school music teachers.  Ellen falls for Chris Kattan’s exotic dancer character Mango, and it leads to an homage to A Hard Day’s Night.  There is also the family on the road to vacation worrying that they may have left doors open and appliances running at home.  Dad – played by Ferrell – is certain that he left two cans of gas in the sun under a magnifying glass.  Finally, there is the perennial holiday classic “The Narrator That Ruined Christmas,” a pitch-perfect TV Funhouse parody of Rankin-Bass specials.

Ten More: Robert Downey, Jr./Fiona Apple (11/16/96), Sylvester Stallone/Jamiroquai (9/27/97), Ray Romano/The Corrs (3/13/99), Christina Ricci/Beck (12/4/99), Freddie Prinze, Jr./Macy Gray (1/15/00), Charlize Theron/Paul Simon (11/4/00), Tom Green/David Gray (11/18/00), Conan O’Brien/Don Henley (3/10/01), Jon Stewart/India.Arie (3/9/02), Winona Ryder/Moby (5/18/02)

Mystery Science Theater 3000: 10 Representative Episodes

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Taking a cue from The A.V. Club, this feature is a list of ten episodes from a particular television show that more or less best represents that program.

When picking the ten most representative episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, it basically works to just pick the ten best episodes, since every episode fully explains its premise in the theme song – a schmuck gets sent into space and is forced to watch the worst movies ever made as an experiment by mad scientists, but luckily he has his robot pals to help him get through them as they just make fun of them the whole time.  On top of that, each episode is as long as a full-length feature film, giving plenty of time for each episode to show off MST3K’s full range of comedic styles.  MST3K started its run on KTMA, a local Minneapolis station, then moved on to the Comedy Channel, which became Comedy Central, and when Comedy Central chose not to renew it, the Sci-Fi Channel picked it up for its final three seasons.  I started watching during the first Sci-Fi season.  There are many pre-Sci-Fi episodes I have yet to see, so this list covers only the Sci-Fi era, during which the host was Mike Nelson (who had taken over for original host and creator Joel Hodgson), Tom Servo was voiced by Kevin Murphy, and Crow T. Robot was voiced by Bill Corbett.  While I more or less chose the ten best episodes as the ten most representative, I also sought to cover a variety of film genres.  (Note: for the uninitiated, “host segments” are the names for the skits in between the movies.)

810 – The Giant Spider Invasion (Original Airdate: 5/31/97)
“They’re poor only in money … and spirit, and dignity, and moral fiber, and hygiene.”
If memory serves me correctly, The Giant Spider Invasion was my first episode of MST3K.  It worked as an introduction for me, so it should probably work as an introduction for you, too.  Be forewarned, this tale of alien arachnids decimating a backwoods Wisconsin town may be the most disgusting movie the Best Brains crew has ever presented.  Mike and the bots often express just how put off they are by the movies’ most offensive moments, and The Giant Spider Invasion put them over the edge, with lines like, “I always wondered why you used to spank me so much,” and shots of crumpled underpants, which Tom Servo notes as director Bill Rebane’s “trademark.”  (Interestingly enough, it was the introduction of one character’s back brace that was the disgusting straw that broke their will and led them to cheer, “Go spiders, go spiders, go, go, spiders!”)  Luckily, this dreck is often obscured by the incompetent filmmaking skills, such as when one scene appears to have actually been “filmed inside the thumbhole of a bowling ball.”  The Giant Spider Invasion is also notable for Alan Hale’s appearance as the sheriff (the movie’s first line of dialogue is, “Hey, little buddy”).  This episode also features the memorable Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque host segments.

813 – Jack Frost (Original Airdate: 7/15/97)
“I guess there’s no Finnish word for subtle.”
One of MST3K’s so-called “Russo-Finnish troika,” Jack Frost is more surreal than bad.  Well, it is bad, but its humor is derived more from its weirdness than its ineptitude.  Perhaps there was something lost in translation, but I imagine that it was thought of as weird in its native Eastern Europe as well.  Jack Frost features an array of colorful characters: the foppishly hairstyled hero, the cherub-faced heroine (and her very old father, her evil stepmother, and her ugly stepsister – who looks like Tom Petty with clown makeup), a witch, “Grandfather Mushroom,” a group of bandits on the side of the road who look like schnauzers, and, of course, Jack Frost himself (who shows up about an hour into the movie).  Jack Frost is particularly notable for its riffing’s wide and varied references (a rooster crowing prompts Tom Servo to ponder, “Peter must be walking around denying everyone this morning”; and the bandits are likened to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, the “It’s” guy from the openings of Monty Python’s Flying Circus episodes, and the seven dwarves – “Filthy, Rotting, Lousey, Skanky, Scabby, Septic and … Doc”).

816 – Prince of Space (Original Airdate: 8/16/97)
“Allow me to repeat my earlier codicil on how your weapons are ineffective.”
Prince of Space is the pinnacle of MST3K’s forays into Japanese sci-fi B-movies.  The  Prince – whose secret identity is a mild-mannered bootblacker and guardian to two orphans/bootblacking assistants – takes up the fight against the invading alien band of chicken-nosed Krankorians, who are led by the Phantom and his “evil” cackling laugh (“Ha ha ha ha ha”).  Prince of Space is filled with those classic Japenese-style illogical quirks: children who seem to have high-level security clearance and adult characters who prove to be useless in the face of danger (the scientists practically turn into babies in the final act).  But the most memorable excesses of Prince of Space are probably due to the dubbing job.  There is Mickey’s tough New York accent.  And then there are the Krankorians’ continual efforts of firing at the Prince with their guns, only to have him remind them that their weapons have no effect on him.  But in the original Japanese version, their weapons weren’t ineffective.  Oh well, the dubbed version is funnier.  As Crow points out, “His power apparently lies in his choosing incompetent enemies.”  Prince of Space also starts off the wormhole/Ancient Rome series of host segments – a rare multi-episode attempt at serialization.

820 – Space Mutiny (Original Airdate: 11/8/97)
“We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese.”
I hold Space Mutiny up as the best introductory episode for any MST newbie.  Some MST3K movies are just so aesthetically offensive that those unused to watching bad movies for fun may not be able to handle those particular episodes.  Space Mutiny is not one of those; it is hilarious enough even without the riffing, thanks to the cheap sets, F/X shots recycled from Battlestar Galactica, a severe lack of continuity (a character dies and then appears in the next scene very much alive), scenes that feel like they are missing dialogue, the ridiculously musclebound hero David Ryder, and characters who resemble Santa Claus, Debbie Reynolds, Sting, Ed Grimley, John Waters, and (a male) Billie Jean King.  And of course, there is the infamous climactic chase scene with vehicles that appear to be floor buffer golf carts that reach speeds of about ten miles per hour.  Mike and the bots became palpably angry at a lot of the movies they had to endure; with Space Mutiny, they were having too much fun to really be upset.

821 – Time Chasers (Original Airdate: 11/22/97)
“The adventures of the average people!”
Like most heady time travel adventures, Time Chasers at least has a decent idea.  It perhaps could have been a good movie with a bigger budget or more dynamic, experienced filmmakers.  The future does not look very futuristic (“So, fifty years from it’ll be three years from now”) and the Revolutionary War-era past looks like a perfect recreation of a Revolutionary War … reenactment.  It does not help matters that the characters are rather bland (regarding the hero, Crow demands, “Hey wait a minute, this isn’t our star, is it?  I will not accept this as our star”), with the exception of the hilariously mush-mouthed Corporate Evil Man J.K. Robertson.   But there are no hard feelings over the film’s deserved decimation, as the cast and crew of Time Chasers actually took the MST3K treatment quite well and were happy to see it actually garner some attention.  This episode also features some of the best host segments in the entire show’s run, in which Crow travels back in time to convince a young Mike Nelson to persevere with his music career and thus avoid a life of exile on the Satellite of Love, leading to disastrous results.

907 – Hobgoblins (Original Airdate: 6/27/98)
“Can you catch a venereal disease from a movie?”
Director Rick Sloane actually recommended his Hobgoblins to the Best Brains crew for the MST3K treatment, but he was dismayed when he discovered just how harshly he was treated.  During the end credits, Tom Servo interviews “Rick Sloane” (as played by Crow) and gets him to admit that he had his brain replaced with rat droppings during the filming of Hobgoblins.  Basically, Hobgoblins tries too hard to be cheesy-bad and ends up being just bad-bad, and it was appropriately ripped apart for it.  This pathetic attempt at storytelling has something or other to do with alien puppets who lure people to their death by creating the illusion that their wildest fantasies are coming true.  Where The Giant Spider Invasion was the most disgusting MST3K movie ever, Hobgoblins was the scuzziest, with all the excesses of the eighties: big hair, spandex.  Also, there are a lot of shots of parking.  Then there is the epic garden tools fight, which prompts Crow to insist, “Can we have a law that in the future films have to be made by filmmakers?”

910 – The Final Sacrifice (Original Airdate: 7/25/98)
“You got mud on your face, you big disgrace, shoving those sandwiches into your face/Singing we will, we will Rowsdower!”
The films of MST3K have featured plenty of memorable characters, but they are usually memorable in an ironic way.  The Final Sacrifice, on the other hand, features the most memorable character in MST3K history, a character who is plenty awesome, no qualifiers necessary: Zap … ROWSDOWER.  Yes, Rowsdower, the beer-swilling, mullet-sporting, badass Canadian drifter, who happens to have one of screendom’s best rear ends.  The Final Sacrifice is a buddy movie with Rowsdower and Troy, the wispy man-child who Rowsdower begrudgingly helps in his quest to discover the truth of the death of Troy’s father (it has something to do with a cult – in Canada).  Honorable mention in the area of great MST3K characters goes to Mike Pipper – the old varmint who looks like Haile Selassie and talks like Tom Waits.  Besides all the cracks at Canada’s expense, there is also the extended riffing on the 1970s Miami Dolphins (thanks to Troy’s dad resembling NFL legend Larry Csonka).

1001 – Soultaker (Original Airdate: 4/11/99)
“Remember the great flashbacks we used to have?”
Soultaker stars MST3K favorites rock-jawed Robert Z’Dar and Martin Sheen’s brother, Joe Estevez.  Its premise – angels of death hunt down teenage souls that were displaced from their bodies during a fatal car crash – is not terrible.  But this particular film conveys the premise rather pretentiously – there’s something to do with reincarnation and flashbacks to past lives during American colonial days. The pretension probably had something to do with the fact that the star – Vivian Schilling – was also the screenwriter (a fact that is a frequent point of the riffing).  The riffing is also heavy on the self-referential (when the angel of death played by Estevez refers to “my world,” Tom Servo adds “where I’m more successful than Martin”).  Soultaker so wants to mean something, but it is ultimately a blob of fauxlosophical drivel.

1003 – Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders (Original Airdate: 9/18/99)
“That’s right, even your tiny soul is doomed.”
This movie in which Merlin travels to the present to set up a store on a town corner is actually two movies that were filmed separately, years apart, and then combined for this piece of MST3K fodder.  This combination is “justified” by the framing device of Grampa Ernest Borgnine telling his grandson the story of Merlin.  (This leads into Tom Servo’s routine during the end credits about trying to remember a Borgnine movie that happens to contain elements of just about every well-known Borgnine movie.)  Merlin’s Shop is oddly and disturbingly dark – particularly the mean psychic who shows up during the climax to impatiently explain how to rid one’s house of an evil spirit.  Inspired by this disturbing tone, one host segment features Mike and the bots sampling children’s books written by Borgnine with innocuous titles but graphically violent content.

1012 – Squirm (with short “A Case of Spring Fever”) (Original Airdate: 8/1/99)
“If you didn’t hate springs so much, that wouldn’t have happened.”
“Never go to the South for any reason.”
Squirm – a romantic tale of the Deep South … and worms – was apparently made as a “goof,” according to director Jeff Lieberman … in a letter that he inadvertently sent to an MST3K fan site.  Lieberman seemed to be of the idea that you can’t goof a goof and that the Best Brains crew suffered from a severe lack of creativity.  But as this episode proves, you can goof a goof (and as for the charge of lack of creativity, well, sometimes people don’t just get it).  Squirm’s memorable bits include the very skinny southern belle heroine, her nerdy romantic interest from the North who is into antiquing, her giantess sister who looks like NBA great Kevin McHale, her very southern mother who always seems to be suffering from the vapors, and the endless search for “Mr. Beardsley.”
But the real highlight of this episode is the short.  In the pre-Sci-Fi days, many episodes were padded with short films due to the limited run times of the B movies that were MST3K’s bread and butter.  But in the later years, as more and more recent – and longer – films were selected for riffing, there wasn’t as much of a need for the shorts, and there were only three riffed upon during the Sci-Fi years.  “A Case of Spring Fever” – the last short ever featured – is my choice for the best MST3K short ever (granted, there are plenty of Comedy Central-era shorts I’ve yet to see).  This supposedly “educational” film is an It’s a Wonderful Life-style tale in which “one clod says one thing and the whole world pays” – in the form of a world without springs, as granted by the wish-making demonic sprite “Coily.”  The clod learns his lesson remarkably quickly and becomes a devout convert to the Church of Coily, in the process becoming the worst golf partner ever, as he is utterly unable to shut up about the Gospel of Springs while out on the fairway.  “A Case of Spring Fever” seems to last forever as the clod drones on and on about the many uses of springs in the world.

Ten More from the Sci-Fi Era: 811 – Parts: The Clonus Horror, 817 – Horror of Party Beach, 818 – Devil Doll, 819 – Invasion of the Neptune Men, 822 – Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, 903 – Puma Man, 904 – Werewolf, 905 – The Deadly Bees, 908 – The Touch of Satan, 913 – Quest of the Delta Knights

And Even Ten More! (from the pre-Sci-Fi years): 302 – Gamera, 303 – Pod People, 321 – Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, 421 – Monster A-Go Go, 424 – Manos: The Hands of Fate, 521 – Santa Claus, 611 – Last of the Wild Horses, 621 – The Beast of Yucca Flats, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The MovieThis Island Earth, 706 – Laserblast!