Back in the early days of the World Wide Web, there was a war. It forced nerds to choose sides, pitted brother against brother, and consumed every online forum it touched. I speak, of course, of the Great Joel vs. Mike debate of the ’90s.
See, Mystery Science Theater 3000 had two hosts during its 10-year run: the sleepy-eyed Joel Hodgson, followed by the Midwestern everyguy Mike Nelson. When Mike replaced Joel in 1993, the argument over which host was better began instantly and venomously. Both were excellent, of course, but in one of the earliest recorded instances of the internet turning what should have been a reasonable debate among nerds into belligerent flame wars of insanity and hate, that was not considered a reasonable answer.
Happily, the debate has long been over (the show hasn’t even been on the air for 13 years) — Joel and Mike had different styles and different strengths, but they each contributed to one of the finest, funniest television shows ever created. So consider this list not as an attempt to restart the flame war, but more like a thoughtful look back at one of the nerdiest conflicts of all time. And why it was totally unnecessary.
* With What I’m Sure Will Be a Lot of Editorial Oversight by Rob Bricken**
** There is. -Rob
WHY JOEL IS BETTER THAN MIKE:
5) He Created the Show
Well, yeah. Joel developed MST3K for a small local TV channel in Minnesota called KTMA, and it was his baby. He wrote for it, directed it, executive produced it, wrote the opening music, performed the music, and sold the show to what was then the Comedy Channel. It was his brainchild and as its creator, he should probably get the distinction of being the best at it. The man takes all the marbles. And just like how people remember the early seasons of The Simpsons better because, at the time, there were fewer of them, fans really latched on to certain bits from the early episodes because they were funny and there was no vast sea of riffs to get lost in later.
4) His Riffs Were More Clever
One of the strengths of MST3K was that it appealed to intellectuals. It launched as the Comedy Channel’s (later Comedy Central’s) hallmark shows, rife with smart quips that rewarded the brainy, the trivial, the obscure. You had to know politics, movies, music, old television, and world history to fully appreciate a Joel episode and it made us all feel good to be the one laughing while our friends were still scratching their heads over a good Firesign Theater reference.
3) He Had a Better Relationship with the Bots
As the story goes, Dr. Forrester and Dr. Erhardt shot Joel into space to force him to watch bad movies, but Joel rebelled and built robots to share the pain and crack wise. And in the Joel episodes, he and the ‘Bots got along great. Most of the time he was a paternal figure, doling out rewards and punishments, trying to comfort the ‘Bots during the worst of the movies, while dispensing homespun wisdom and advice. Occasionally he was an equal partner in their mischief, but mostly he was the dad, and the ship ran smoothly. Most of the time.
2) He Was More Consistently Funny
Joel was responsible for creating MST3K, but he was also responsible for keeping it on the air. MST3K was the fledgling Comedy Channel’s first real hit — and one of the first things they showed besides clips of old comedy specials and Clutch Cargo reruns. When Comedy Channel merged with Ha to become Comedy Central, the executives knew that MST3K was a consistently funny show with consistent ratings (and it was two hours long, which was once a desirable thing). Maybe Joel benefited from coming first, but more MST fans know more Joel episodes than Mike episodes, and think of them fondly — and speaking of…
1) Manos: The Hands of Fate
There is no argument — Manos: The Hands of Fate is the ultimate episode of MST3K. If there’s one episode people know, or remember, or have seen, it’s Manos. It’s the episode the defined the show and is likely more responsible for MST becoming a cult hit than any other episode. Hell, Manos has become its own cult phenomenon, and that’s entirely due to MST. And Joel was the host.
WHY MIKE IS BETTER THAN JOEL:
5) He Was the Head Writer
Sure Joel created Mystery Science Theater 3000, but the riffs he made in the theater? Mike Nelson wrote most of them. Mike was brought on board during the show’s first Comedy Channel season, and was made head writer from season two through the series end in season 10. Joel was responsible for show’s look and format, but Mike was MST3K‘s voice for most of the show’s 10-year run.
4) The Riffs Were More Accessible
While MST3K was a treat for intellectuals, the average Joe often could feel left out when Joel would point to someone on the screen and say, “Look! It’s Didi Conn!” and they had no idea who Didi Conn was. With Mike, the jokes were broader and would more often focus on inanities in the films themselves than the niche joke. Honestly, this probably has less to do with Mike and Joel’s styles as it does the fact that over time the MST writing staff just got better at their jobs, and the later host reaped the benefits. Of course, since Mike was still the head writer, he still gets the points.
3) He Had a Better Relationship with the Bots
While Joel was Crow and Tom Servo’s father figure, Mike was their equal (often their inequal, but you get the point). This meant the ‘Bots could torture Mike more, Mike could screw around with the ‘Bots in a way Joel couldn’t, and most of all, they could tell dirtier jokes. Mike helped free up the show in this regard — the above video is full of great examples, and not coincidentally they’re almost all from Mike episodes. Obviously, whether you enjoy Joel’s relationship with the ‘Bots or Mike’s more is a matter of personal preference, but they both had their advantages.
2) He Was Funnier
More people may remember more of the Joel episodes fondly. And certainly, Mike probably had more “dud” episodes than Joel (not that a bad MST episode was ever that particularly bad, but there are some episodes where you can’t recall anything about them). But when Mike was on his game, his episodes blew Joel’s out of the water. Seriously, think of Joel’s best episodes, like Mitchell, Pod People, Eegah! and Gamera Vs. Guiron. Now think of Mike’s: Werewolf. Outlaw. Puma Man. Any of the Coleman Francis trilogy. Joel’s best episodes are funny as hell, but Mike’s best episodes are gutbustingly, fall off the couch, laugh-so-hard your-face hurts hilarious. And speaking of…
1) Space Mutiny
Manos: The Hands of Fate may by MST3K‘s ultimate episode, and the one that the show will always be best remembered for. But you know what? It still doesn’t hold a candle to the Mike-hosted Space Mutiny from the Sci-Fi era. It’s just not. That’s not knocking Manos, which is a phenomenal episode — but Space Mutiny is a masterpiece of riffing, where Mike exemplifies all everything mentioned above. Joel and the ‘Bots cowed before Manos, and understandably so, but when faced with the almost as dire Space Mutiny, Mike, Crow and Servo provide 90 minutes of the merciless, savage riff-fueled takedowns of a movie that the world has ever seen. Manos will always be the MST3K episode everyone remembers… but Space Mutiny probably should be.