One of the things that made Mystery Science Theater 3000 so funny was the esoteric quality of many of the jokes. It was obvious that Joel, Mike, and their fellow writer-performers were primarily interested in amusing themselves, and that made it fun to watch even when you had no idea what the fuck Tom Servo was talking about when he likened a character in that week’s movie to Jimmy Carl Black from The Mothers of Invention. Since the show originated from the midwestern United States, there are lots of digs at Wisconsin and Minnesota. That same sarcasm-tinged midwestern geniality is what kept the show from coming off as snobby with all the out-there references. Unlike, oh let’s see here . . . Dennis Miller, Joel, Mike, and the bots weren’t trying to show off by dropping arcane allusions into their comedy. They were bringing their particular senses of humor to bear on whatever awful film they were watching, and, implicitly, by allowing us to watch along with them, inviting us to do the same.
Below are two of my favorite MST3K references, along with videos explaining where they come from. The first — “Centerville: A real great place to raise your kids up” — is a Frank Zappa reference. And it’s not the only one. But of all the Zappa references that found their way into dozens of MST3K episodes (including that one to The Mothers in the first paragraph), it’s Centerville that gets mentioned most often. For an example, see this segment from The Indestructible Man, which includes the Centerville reference that, for some reason, has stuck foremost in my head. It’s toward the end of this YouTube clip, right after the dissolve from Lon Chaney Jr. to the shot overlooking Los Angeles:
But where is Centerville, and what does it mean? It comes from this segment of Zappa’s film 200 Motels. Joel’s got their stoner cadence down pretty good, don’t he?
Now for this next one. First, take a look at this opening couple of minutes from Cave Dwellers, taking special note of Joel’s part in the invention exchange, and Tom Servo’s sober entreaty that follows:
That “Like father, like son? Think about it, won’t you?” pops up in various iterations in quite a few MST3K episodes, usually spoken by Tom Servo in that gravely earnest tone. It comes from (I learned just recently, following a Google search) an anti-smoking PSA produced in the late 1960s that ran on TV until the early ‘80s. And thanks to the miracle that is YouTube (and the miracle that was people from thirty years ago recording and saving the weirdest random shit they saw on TV for reasons even they themselves couldn’t possibly comprehend), here is that PSA: