After joining the cast of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, the classic cult sci-fi show that spoofs monstrously bad movies, Emily Marsh confronted a daunting task: delivering the iconic line “We’ve got Movie Sign!” and running across a series of apple boxes.
“I definitely could have easily fallen off and killed myself as I was screaming, ‘We’ve got Movie Sign,’” says Marsh. “And in a way, having the scene to get through, the tiny little apples boxes to run off of, it made it so that I didn’t even think about how I was delivering the line. It’s better to do it, let it be and see what it ends up being.”
That kind of scrappy spirit defines Mystery Science Theatre 3000, also known as MST3K. Since premiering on Minneapolis TV in 1988, the show—which was created by Joel Hodgson—has had a zany trajectory, including a two-season revival by Netflix and an upcoming revival by an online platform called Gizmoplexs.
Despite all the disruption, MST3K remains beloved by its fans, who have funneled millions into multiple kickstarter campaigns. Its devotees include Marsh, who grew up watching the show with her dad in Virginia and is the first woman to play a human trapped on the notorious MST3K Satellite of Love, where mad scientists measure the effect of awful movies on the human brain.
On January 4, audiences in Portland will be able to enjoy MST3K’s Time Bubble Tour live at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where Marsh will be ruthlessly mocking Making Contact, a 1985 horror film directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) about a boy who uses a toy phone to talk to his dead father. It’ll also play the evening before, on January 3, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.
To prepare, Marsh had to watch Making Contact 40 times, but when I spoke to her over the phone in December, she sounded less like a weary star than a fervent MST3K fan—albeit a fan who doesn’t want to appear too eager to prove herself. She told me that she was “never just like, ‘Did I do it, Joel? Did I prove myself?’ You want to be cool about it.”
For the record: Emily Marsh, like MST3K, is cool.
ARTS WATCH: You were a passionate fan of the show growing up. What do you remember about it from those early days?
EMILY MARSH: From a young age, I definitely was raised with a hearty appreciation of sarcasm. I think that made a huge mark on my childhood, watching shows like that and Red Dwarf with the British humor and Blackadder. It’s like all of them together really gave this appreciation of delivery and that out-of-the-corner-of-your-mouth kind of thing. [Joel Hodgson] would always jokingly say, “I knew I had to cast you because you had that East Coast delivery.” Having watched the show as a kid, you just have an appreciation that a funny line becomes so much funnier if it’s delivered with that nonchalant but cutting, exact edge.
You have a rich background in puppeteering. I read that you were surprised at the prospect of playing a human character. Was there a learning curve at all?
I think there would have been more of a learning curve if the host’s role wasn’t so close to the person playing it. Thank goodness it’s not House of Cards-esque acting. It’s very true to life. It was like, “Hey, we’re going to do this dumb sketch and let’s see if we can come up with some funny bits. Oh wait, Emily, what if you smear the ice cream all over your face? Let’s try a take like that.” It just felt very natural, just getting to be myself and hang out with my friends being ridiculous.
Does it ever feel like, “This is Mystery Science Theatre 3000, but it’s my Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It’s not necessarily exactly the thing of decades ago.”
That definitely was on my mind a lot, especially since we live in an age where things get rebooted a lot. I’m thinking of the Star Wars trilogy that came out recently. At some point you’re like, “No, this is just the same thing!” “No, it’s too new and I hate it!” So those things are definitely all floating around in my mind, being part of Mystery Science Theatre.
Part of me thinks that if a bad movie gives you pleasure, in some ways, it’s not really bad. But then the other part of me is thinking that when you look at something like Mystery Science Theatre, it seems like as a performer, you genuinely have to detest the film.
I can officially say that [Making Contact] is a bad movie. And there are definitely moments watching this movie [when], I will be honest, most of the joy is gone and there is just hate. There is just hateful making fun of it.
That’s so amazing to me that you could watch a movie like that 40 times. It’s that classic thing—that doing something that’s fun for people is the hardest work of all.
That’s the conundrum of live theater in general, which is interesting. There’s this high art part of it, but there’s also the other practicality, which is, “Oh, you did a great job doing that show. Now your reward is you must do it 200 more times as good. Go.” And it’s like, “Oh boy, how do you mentally do that?”
We actually had, at the beginning of the tour, a technical mishap where the whole first half of the movie, somehow two files had been opened. So the result was that the first half of the show—in front of people—there was like an echo to all of the lines [in the movie]. Which, I had never known, is the worst nightmare of a riff-er for Mystery Science Theatre, because you’re like, “Oh no! All the timing is off and everything’s doubling.”
And luckily, the thing that was amazing was that my castmates, Conor [McGiffin] and Nate [Begle], they just started making fun of it. They’re like, “Oh, this is a whole new level of Deep Hurting. What are The Mads trying to do to us?” And the audience was loving it and it was the most exhilarating/terrifying 20 minutes of the tour so far— “Okay, can we make fun of this technical mishap in real time?”
Do you have a wish list of movies out there that you want to do in the future for Mystery Science Theatre?
We actually get this question a lot…‘How does MST3K pick their movies?’ And the actual answer is always way less exciting than you want it to be, because it mostly comes down to money and lawyers. But if I was to put a movie out there, we just watched Streets of Fire recently on the bus [and it’s] pretty terrible. It has a young Willem Dafoe. It’s like a rock musical, kind of, set maybe in New York. It’s so terrible, but it’s owned by Shout Factory, which is the main [film] company that MST3K [partners with]. There’s part of me that’s like, “We got to be able to get it on a discount, right?”
“MST3K Live” plays in Eugene at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 3, in the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Ticket information here.
“MST3K Live” plays in Portland at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 4, in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Ticket information here.