The episode: “Mighty Jack,” ep. 314
The riff: Spoken by Tom Servo in his TV announcer voice as a submarine-like vessel swims through a very weird-looking shot that looks kind of like crystalline confetti.
The explanation: This is a reference to a popular and long-running series of commercials for Folgers Coffee in the 1970s and 1980s. The gimmick was that hidden cameras would be put inside “four-star restaurants” and patrons would be served Folgers instant coffee crystals and told it was premium, “gourmet” coffee, before then having their opinion of it assessed. The commercial announcer would always begin by saying “We’ve replaced the coffee they usually serve with Folgers dark, sparkling crystals. Let’s see if they can tell the difference.” In “Mighty Jack,” the ocean the sub sails through looks both dark and sparkling. EDIT: This riff reappears in “Ring of Terror” as a guy drinks coffee.
Novelty factor: I’ve known of this one for years because it was parodied in one of my favorite SNL sketches of all time. In it, Chris Farley plays a diner who goes berserk after hearing he is drinking coffee crystals, attacking people in a restaurant until he is brought down by the collective efforts of the staff.
The episode: “The Chicken of Tomorrow,” the short in front of “The Brute Man,” ep. 702
The riff: Said wryly by Crow as a matronly looking lady slides a huge pallet of chicken eggs into a warm place in their incubator.
The explanation: Crow is referencing one of the most famous scenes of the show “I Love Lucy,” in which Lucy and her neighbor Ethel are working in a candy factory in the episode “Job Switching.” As a conveyor belt speeds out chocolates faster than Lucy and Ethel can wrap them, the two women resort to stuffing the candy pieces into their mouths and hats in a memorable piece of physical comedy.
Novelty factor: Knew it right away. Although I didn’t grow up watching “I Love Lucy” or anything starring Lucille Ball, my parents used to make reference to this bit from the show all the time. I heard about it long before I ever saw the actual scene. Likewise, I think that’s really what Crow is saying here–in an age before the internet, you would say something like “I’ve seen the episode where…”. They’re referencing a pop culture event that couldn’t be re-viewed at any moment just by visiting YouTube–it lived on in people’s memories and descriptions of the scene, and in the occasional re-run.
The episode: “War of the Colossal Beast,” ep. 319
The riff: Exclaimed by Tom as Miguel, a terrified young Mexican boy, gazes up in a sort of trance from his hospital bed while police try to question him.
The explanation: “Bernadette” is a reference to Bernadette Soubirous, a young girl who had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858 in France, and was later named a Catholic saint. These so-called “Marian apparitions,” which presented to several people, are the source of the title “Our Lady of Lourdes,” as Lourdes was the region of France where this all occurred. Tom is joking that Miguel’s expression conveys a moment of religious ecstasy where he is seeing Saint Bernadette.
Novelty factor: I had absolutely no idea. Moreoever, I am curious which of the MST3k writers penned this one. It seems safe to assume that at least one of them was raised Catholic. Note that the riff doesn’t say “Saint” Bernadette. They went out of their way to make this a joke that only another Catholic would probably understand right off the bat.
The episode: “Prince of Space,” ep. 816
The riff: Each stated by one of the riffers, from Tom to Crow to Mike as a line of pointy-headed aliens emerge from behind some shrubbery.
The explanation: This is a reference to a Christmas carol and stop motion animated cartoon of the same name that is well-known in the Chicago area, where I grew up. It typically airs on WGN-TV every Christmas season, and the title characters are three of Santa’s elves who help him out during the Christmas season. Hardrock drives the sleigh, Coco navigates with maps, and Joe is generally useless but kept around for humor value and his basso singing voice. The cartoon was shown with several other songs/animations, like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Suzy Snowflake.”
Novelty value: I knew this one well, but I was actually unaware that this song was a Chicago-specific thing. I grew up being aware of it and assumed that it was also a well-known Christmas song elsewhere. In fact, I remember that we would even sing it in our music classes during grade school. Either way, this is another example of MST3k’s localized Midwestern humor. I still remember pretty much all of the words.
The episode: “Samson vs. The Vampire Women,” ep. 624
The riff: Realized out loud by Tom as a shirtless Mexican wrestler and bare-armed vampire size each other up and prepare to fight it out.
The explanation: Mapplethorpe was a famous American photographer who was known for his stylized black and white portraits of celebrities and nude men. Himself gay, Mapplethorpe’s provacatory work was controversial and raised questions about public funding of possibly objectionable art. He died at 42 from complications from AIDS, and the foundation created in his name continues to raise money for HIV research to this day.
Novelty factor: I didn’t know who Mapplethorpe was, but it was pretty clear from the context that he probably had something to do with the photography of muscly men. Another example of the MST3k writers’ versatility in riffing, drawing a reference from the fine arts world.
The episode: “Agent for H.A.R.M.”, ep. 815
The riff: Sung shrilly by Mike as a pair of hitmen eye the movie’s attractive female protagonist/communist spy, Ava.
The explanation: This one works on a couple of levels. The dark-skinned hitman in the glasses as Mike sings the line looks a lot like musical star Prince, and the line is a take-off from his hit song, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” from 1994. At the same time it reinforces all the wolf-whistling jokes that Mike and the Bots have been making throughout the film about actress Barbara Bouchet, who played Ava. Bouchet was quite hot indeed, appeared in Playboy several times, and may well be the most attractive woman to appear in an MST3k episode, although I suspect Mamie Van Doren would disagree.
Novelty factor: Call me clueless about pop music, but I didn’t know it was about Prince. I’m pretty sure they use this line in a few other episodes as well, so it will be something I’m looking for from now on.
The episode: “Hobgoblins,” ep. 907
The riff: Exclaimed in disgust by Tom as the movie’s two most promiscuous characters, ditzy Daphne and her army boyfriend Nick, emerge from a van that had just been a-rockin’, complete with “boing boing boing” sound effects. The whole bout of “sex” lasts roughly 20 seconds.
The explanation: This is a lyrical reference to the 1975 hit song “Chevy Van” by country singer Sammy Johns. The singer had a few other hits in his day, and wrote for other artists, but nothing approached the success of “Chevy Van,” which reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The final lyrics of the song proclaim “We made love in my Chevy van, and that’s alright with me.”
Novelty factor: I don’t think I need to tell you that I had no idea, but from the way Tom said it, I could tell in context that this was probably a song lyric reference.