Kevin Murphy aka Tom Servo

John D’Amico interviews Kevin Murphy aka Tom Servo of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) fame

 

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Tom ServoThe Twilight Zone came from the great morality plays of old. Star Trek was the logical extension of the classic adventurer — Horatio Hornblower in space. The Prisoner found its beginning in Kafka. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the heir to college dorm parties and a Woody Allen movie. From these auspicious beginnings came one of the funniest, most original shows in television history. MST3K, much like the films it mocked, began life as a low-budget throwaway show — an assured failure. Faced with a sci-fi show with a budget less than that of a soap opera, the crew cobbled together the Satellite of Love and its denizens out of model kits and assorted junk. For ten seasons it built its reputation. Today, MST3K is one of the biggest hits of sci-fi TV due to its scathing humor and scrappy nature. Recently, we had a chance to interview one of the show’s creators, Kevin Murphy. Best known as Tom Servo (also Professor Bobo near the show’s end), his dry wit was one of the show’s most important assets. We hope you enjoy this glimpse into the inner workings of MST3K.

 

Kevin MurphyHow did you end up getting hired? Was there an audition?
No. Nothing like that. I was working at — the show started at the bottom-rated UHF station in Minneapolis. I was working on the staff, and, uh, I was there in one of the first meetings when we decided to put the show together. So I kind of got lucky in that respect. I started off doing the camera and the editing and the sound and, uh building the sets and stuff like that. After the first season with Josh Weinstein who played Servo, after he left I asked for the job and they didn?t laugh at me for it. They actually let me take the puppet and go out on the set, and so, uh, great charmed life, I guess.
What inspired you when you were creating the characters?

Well, it was, it was sort of spontaneously created. What happened was Joel Hodgson actually built these puppets the night before our first show, asked Tracy to pick one up and Josh to pick one up. Tracy picked one up and his name become Crow right about there, and Tracy began channeling Crow from god-knows-where into the puppet. And Crow took on his personality very early in the mix, and Josh took a little while and found Tom Servo in there. It wasn?t anything that was intentionally developed; it just sort of came from having the puppets in hand and trying to be funny on the set. An odd way for characters to evolve but you can do that on a local TV station.

What episodes do you especially like or dislike?

Oh, you know the one I have in my mind was Space Mutiny. That was so much fun. It was such a stupid movie. It was a delightfully stupid movie. You know, they?d borrowed sets from the original Battlestar Galactica and they had Cameron Mitchell, who I think had borrowed his costumes from Lorne Green. He had thick, long robes and a Santa Claus beard. And it had the most lovable discontinuity. A character was killed in a party scene, and the next day, the very next shot after the character was murdered, there?s the same character sitting at her computer console after she was murdered. It was delightful, and we cheered for that.
The movies that were the hardest for me were the Coleman Francis. These cheesy low-budget black-and-white films that were shot in the California desert. Oh man, they were just horrid and they were depraved. And we cut out a lot of the depravity, because they wouldn?t let us put it on the air and we didn?t want to. In Red Zone Cuba, he tried to make Lake Mead look like the straits of Florida and the Cuban coast ? which is really hard to do. Lake Mead, if you?ve ever been there looks nothing like Florida or Cuba. They were badly shot, badly acted, and badly edited, and the sound was worse. And they were boring. Those were just really, really boring to do.

How did you find the movies you did?
Oh, there was a lot of dragging the dregs of cinema. Particularly Comedy Central, and Sci-Fi as well, they had relationships with distributors who would send us boxes of films to screen. We watched probably 20 films for every 1 we screened on the show. So over the course of the entire run of the show, I?d say about 3,000 bad movies came to our door, and somebody watched each and every one of those. And believe me, we got some pretty bad films on our show. And you can?t imagine how bad the 19 films we turned down were. They were pretty hideous. Even Rugsuckers from Mars was pretty bad. I don?t know if you?ve ever seen this film, but it had a scene were this fat, bearded, ugly white man makes very graphic love to a vacuum cleaner. I?ve tried to block it from my mind, but it comes back in my nightmares.

What movies not featured on the show would you like to spoof?

Oh, geez. Any of the later Star Trek films would?ve been a delight to do. Um, I recently saw Sky Captain, and I thought: ?Boy, would this be a perfect opportunity for Mystery Science Theater.? Would?ve been delightful. I think we wished we would?ve gotten ? we almost had at one time this movie Moment By Moment, with Lily Tomlin and John Travolta. This dreadful romance film, and it would?ve really been a new direction for Mystery Science Theater. Then the distributors realized just exactly what it was we were gonna do with the film, and pulled back and wouldn?t allow us to. We were very sad then.

Did you ever worry about hurting any of the director or the cast?s feelings, or did you just not think about it?

Well, we tried not to worry about it. We tried not to get too personal, though some times it was really hard. We did one film called Time Chasers that was done in West Rutland, Vermont. It was really sort of a community effort to do this film, and it was very ambitious. They had a lot of just exceptional locations they used, and they had guys traveling back to Civil War times. It was all local people and, like I said, it was very ambitious. They actually contacted us and asked if we wanted to do the film on our program, and we made a deal and we did the film. And apparently a lot of the citizens of West Rutland got together in order to watch the movie, and at the very end during the credits we started trashing the town of West Rutland, Vermont. And I believe Tom Servo got the line: ?Go to hell, the people of West Rutland, Vermont.? And, I don?t think they were very happy with that. Apparently people didn?t think we?d take them apart as much as we did. So their feelings were hurt. And there was the whole story how Joe Don Baker heard we?d made fun of his movies and wanted to kick our asses. You know, we already said ?C?mon and get us, Tape-Boy (?), ?cause you?d never be able to catch us for one. See if we can avoid your rights and your lefts and your gut?s too big to try and get to us.?

Why did the show end when it did?

Um, as these things usually go it?s a matter of the bottom-line for a network. We were usually a good attention-getter for the Sci-Fi Channel and for Comedy Central, but, uh, they both had, they came under new management, and the new president would say: ?OK, what can we lose? And what can we do new?? and when we left Comedy Central they were starting to change their direction. And we never got huge rating. We were the darling of the critics and we got huge press, but we never got great ratings and that was always the excuse for someone to let us go. And, at the Sci-Fi Channel it really came down to the fact that they were changing the direction to do more, I guess you could call it, real honest-to-goodness science fiction, and we just weren?t fitting in to their future like they wanted us to. It ended up being time to go.

Crew of MST3KDo you still keep in touch with the cast mates?

I keep in touch with a lot of the cast mates. In fact, I?ve been doing some work lately with Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett. We?re working under the name The Film Crew and we?ve got a lot of different projects in the works. I think some time later in the year you?re gonna hear us on National Public Radio Weekend Edition Monday, doing some film commentary in our own decidedly off-hand way. And we?ve got a couple other things in the work, including, uh, we?re trying to finish a deal here with Rhino Home Video to appear on the commentary tracks for some of their select, goofy-looking films that we?ll do. So we want to make, since everybody has DVD now, and commentary tracks are usually kind of dull and uninteresting we decided we want to make commentary tracks that are entertaining. So that?s what we?re hoping to do.


What serious movies do you enjoy?

Oh, that?s an excellent question! I appreciate you for asking. There were a couple this year that I really like and I tend to like indies, because I think that they?re just better acted. They?re a lot more interesting to watch. I really liked Maria Full of Grace that was out this year. Um, I actually enjoyed The Motorcycle Diaries, I thought it was an interesting film. I liked Moolaad?, the African film. Fantastic. My tastes range all over the place. I loved Hero when it came out, and then The House of Flying Daggers. I don?t know if you?d call them serious films, but they certainly were interesting films. And they were beautiful to look at for me, a new direction for the martial arts cinema to go in, to actually make them a little less choppy-choppy and a little more interesting stories. More classic cinema.

Do you think the success of the show has changed you or any of the cast mates in any way?

Well, none of us turned into assholes if that?s what you mean. Which is a good thing. Nobody got terribly, terribly rich off of this thing. Luckily, it wasn?t millions of dollars or billions of dollars that we were running back and forth. I know that that sort of success can ruin people. But, we, uh, generally we?re all still pretty close. Uh, I think it opened doors for us. I think that I wouldn?t be able to write the book that I wrote if I hadn?t been involved in Mystery Science Theater. So it?s given me some opportunities that I might not have had otherwise. I?m kind of glad that I don?t get recognized, cause I?m a terribly shy person. That?s sort of the nice thing about it. My puppet get recognized all the time, but I don?t and that?s sort of all right by me.

The cheap set design ? was that a result of the budget or an homage?

It started out completely as a result of the budget. I mean, when we started at the local TV station we truly had no money. We had to scrounge. And most of the parts of the set came from either the local second-hand shop or from the dumpster. And we just painted them up and glued them to the walls and we truly just made a set out of a bunch of found stuff and then stuff that you can buy at your local Home Depot, for cordless drill guns and hot glue. That?s really — the set was held together completely by dry wall setters and hot glue. And, as we got a network contract we really still didn?t have much money but we realized the heart and soul of the show lived in sort-of this low-tech universe. It was where it belonged. The photography got better, but always kept this set looking a little cheesy, cause it was really, you know, it hit what we were doing. TV shows, cheap sets, it made sense.

Will it ever come back?
You never know. It?s always possible. I don?t think there are any immediate plans for it to come back right now, but these things, these opportunities sometimes present themselves. And if the stars lined up correctly, I?d be happy to do it again.