Tuesday, December 21, marks the 30th anniversary of one of Minnesota’s greatest contributions to the television Christmas canon.
The seasonal standard for sci-fi and comedy fans alike, Mystery Science Theater 3000’s episode that riffs on the '60s cult classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has officially been a part of pop culture holiday viewing for three decades.
While most other episodes of the Eden Prairie-filmed show, in which a human and his two quick-witted robot pals in space would crack jokes over a different cheesy movie each week, would usually select the obscurest of the obscure films for skewering, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is one of the few that already had some notoriety in bad movie circles.
Being both public domain and a children’s film, the low budget flick shot in a Long Island airport hanger had several decades worth of airings on television stations and drive-ins looking to fill time in a way that only such a sci-fi children’s romp could.
Word-of-mouth (and how could you keep such a title out of it) led to it being a mainstay featured in books and television shows showcasing the worst movies of all time including The Golden Turkey Awards, The Canned Film Festival, The Texas 27 Film Vault and Horrible Horror.
The title also became known in the '80s for being the earliest credited role of 1982 Golden Globe winner Pia Zadora.
While MST3K creator and then-host Joel Hodgson mentions in the episode’s DVD intro that he remembers seeing the trailer for the movie in theaters as a kid, head-writer and future host Michael J. Nelson told us that selecting the film for a screening on the show’s Satellite of Love (the primary setting for MST3K) was his first time ever hearing about it.
"I think that we immediately latched on to ‘The Laziest Man on Mars’ as one of our favorite things to toss around the writing room. Every element of it just being so low budget was sort of delightful," Nelson told Bring Me The News.
The episode quickly became a seasonal favorite, getting replayed every holiday season on the show’s then-home Comedy Central. It would go on to become one of the most requested episodes to receive a home video release, finally hitting DVD in 2004 after multiple holidays of circulated home recordings.
But as much as this episode is treasured worldwide, the riffs therein offer a special snapshot of what Christmas was like locally for Minnesotans.
The show’s staggering jokes-per-minute ratio may make for these particular references to go over out-of- state viewers’ heads, but for those in or near the Twin Cities in 1991 - it’s a delightful time capsule.
The first time we see the snow-covered North Pole on-screen, the riff is heard “shot in Minnesota in October,” a funny line made heartwarming and historic when one realizes they’re referencing the then-just-happened Halloween Blizzard of ’91, a contemporary one-liner made possible by the show’s quick turnaround time.
"I think it was maybe two days of actual in-the-room writing. In the early days it was pretty brief...and it would happen pretty quickly," Nelson said. Also notable are references to Paisley Park and visiting Santa at what was Minnesota’s second shopping center, Apache Plaza.
"I know that I had an apartment right near the Apache Plaza back in the day. On the things that were Minnesota, we were making people in the writing room laugh. There was never some masterplan to stick in things other people can’t get. These were our references. California people and New York people are never shy about doing that, because they all know them. I think we just left them in for our own amusement."
The episode has continued to amuse, later inspiring other iconic offbeat hosts like Elvira and Svengoolie to include the film in their rotations, and it has led to references everywhere from Nickelodeon’s Rugrats to The Colbert Report. Nelson and fellow “MST3K” alumni Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett would revisit the movie themselves in 2013 for a live-riffing through their comedy collective, Rifftrax, which was simulcast in theaters nationwide.
"Enough time had passed and we were looking for movies with name-recognition to get [people] into the theater," Nelson said. "I know I felt like I remembered it as being fun, but didn’t remember enough where it felt like it would be weird to rehash it. What we tend to do with titles that are something we’ve done before is we start from scratch and then go back to make sure we aren’t duplicating jokes.”
Of course, the bonus gift in the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode is the running- obsession with another movie that winds up being turned into a seasonal classic, the 1989 Patrick Swayze film Road House. Seen in the episode’s host-segments as both a board game and in an original song (“Let’s Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas”), the obsession stems from Nelson’s real life love of the film being shared with the writers’ room.
"I had a friend who was in the first Gulf War and they had only a few movies, one of them was Road House," he said. "I had seen it, so we’d make reference to it and I sort of brought that enthusiasm into the writers’ room. I would tell people to do the experiment of having a house party, putting the movie on in a distant room and in a few minutes people will have gravitated-in and be all standing around watching Road House... We love to do music, I don’t know if the network loved us to do music, but we did, so it worked out.”
Whether this holiday season is your first time viewing Mystery Science Theater 3000’s take on Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, of if it’s been your “regular Saturday night thing” for years now, it’s never a bad time to beam up some holiday fun with the truly Minnesotan touch on a true holiday classic.