The episode: “Secret Agent Super Dragon,” ep. 504
The riff: Sung by Tom as the titular secret agent prowls through a room and a jazzy cello-plucked “bum bum duh dum” tune strikes up.
The explanation: These are lyrics to the eponymous Tom Waits song “Diamonds on My Windshield,” from his 1974 sophomore album “The Heart of Saturday Night.” The cue for the riff was the cello–Waits’ song begins with an almost identical jazzy beat. The only way you could understand what this riff was about is if you were very well-versed with the song to recognize the musical intro.
Novelty factor: Completely new to me, unsurprisingly. Seems like quite an obscure riff. Even if you did recognize the singing as Tom Waits lyrics, you still might not put together the reason for Servo singing them. Just understanding the reason for this joke requires at the very least an intense fondness for Tom Waits.
The episode: “Jack Frost,” ep. 607
The riff: Sarcastically spoken by Mike as the movie’s title character, Jack Frost, saunters into the frame. He’s a round-faced man with a long, white beard.
The explanation: A multi-part joke with two references. Bob Keeshan was a television actor known to millions as the title character of “Captain Kangaroo” from 1955-1984. Jack Frost has a very similar face in this movie, but his comical beard was more akin to “Mr. Natural,” the famous creation of underground “comix” artist R. Crumb in the 1960s. The character was cast as something between a phony guru and a criminal con-man. Of note: This has nothing to do with the famous MST3k short “Mr. B Natural.”
Novelty factor: I recognized the “Mr. Natural” reference because a previous riff led to me reading about R. Crumb (I don’t remember which). Bob Keeshan I didn’t know, although I am familiar with Captain Kangaroo. The character made some great appearances in “Black Dynamite.”
Just combine this guy…
…with this guy, and you’re there.
The episode: “Last of the Wild Horses,” ep. 611
The riff: Opined by Dr. Forrester as Glasser’s name appears in the film’s opening credits. Note, this is during a one-time-only segment in which the mad scientists have switched place with Mike and the Bots in the theater.
The explanation: Albert Glasser was a prolific composer of film music for B-movies, including many for MST3k notables like Bert I. Gordon. His music is rather over-the-top and bombastic, and many of the scores sound the same. They’re all filled with the entire orchestra seemingly playing at once–when you think of the sound of 1950s sci-fi, you’re probably thinking of Albert Glasser. Despite his bombast, the crew of the SOL seems to have a certain grudging admiration for him and his many appearances in their films, which shows in clips like this one and this one. EDIT: Found another reference here. They really liked picking on Albert Glasser.
Novelty factor: I’ve definitely heard the name before in previous MST3k episodes. He shows up a lot. A trip through his IMDB profile reveals that he was the composer for 10 different MST3k episodes, including “Earth vs. The Spider,” “The Beginning of the End” and “Teenage Caveman,” which gave him the pleasure of working with Corman in addition to Gordon. Now that’s a murderer’s row.
The episode: “The Mole People,” ep. 803
The riff: Quipped by Crow as our heroes wander the exceedingly dark tunnels of the mole people and spot the tiniest bit of light up ahead.
The explanation: Robert Motherwell was an American artist and one of the initial founders of the abstract expressionism movement. In particular, he was known for a series called “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” which focused on the fallout of the Spanish Civil War. Somehow, he achieved this through the use of over 100 paintings of big, black ovals. Yes, that’s right. Nothing but huge, black ovals. Observe below. Don’t ask me to explain.
Novelty factor: Completely new to me, and equally inscrutable. And people wonder why the general public is unable to embrace fine art on some level. I’m blaming this entirely on Robert Motherwell, so there.
THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.
The episode: “The Leech Woman,” ep. 802
The riff: Interjected by Mike as the movie’s title card appears: “The Leech Woman.”
The explanation: Sean Young was a star in 1980s American cinema who played notable parts in movies like “Blade Runner,” “Dune,” “Fatal Instinct” and “No Way Out.” Her career leveled off in the 1990s (although you might remember her as the villain opposing Jim Carrey in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”), and she developed a reputation as a bit of a kook. She famously tried to get the part of Catwoman in “Batman Returns” by constructing her own catsuit and confronting Tim Burton and Michael Keaton. She was also sued by actor James Woods, who said she was stalking him. It’s clear that Mike and the bots didn’t have too high an opinion of her in 1997 when this aired, but in more recent years she’s continued to trend down, being in and out of rehab for alcoholism, including an appearance on “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” in 2011. Not exactly where you want to be.
Novelty factor: I didn’t recognize Young by name, but that’s because I never really knew her name to begin with. I certainly recognize her from her parts in “Blade Runner” and “Ace Ventura,” but I had no idea of her personal problems. I find it interesting how the MST3k writers were calling attention to said problems around 14 years before she was on Celebrity Rehab.
The episode: “Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell,” ep. 703
The riff: Sincerely offered by Mike as an oddly Italian-sounding “warrior from hell” offers some advice to the movie’s hero, Deathstalker.
The explanation: Don Novello is an American comic, director and writer who is remembered as a writer for the early days of SNL, from seasons 3-5 and also 11. He was also a producer for “SCTV” in Canada. As a performer, he was known for the character of “Father Guido Sarducci” that he created, an odd, sunglasses-wearing Catholic priest who served in America as a gossip and rock music critic for The Roman Observer newspaper. The character in the movie has an odd way of speaking that is similar to Novello as Sarducci.
Novelty factor: I’d never heard of the guy before, I have to admit. After watching some of his Sarducci skits though, I think he’s rather hilarious. The “five minute university” sketch posted below is great, and just as relevant today as it was in 1980.
The episode: “Teenage Crime Wave,” ep. 522. Note: This has got to be the skimpiest Wikipedia entry ever for a MST3k film.
The riff: Insisted upon by Crow as the crew of the Satellite of Love contemplates a complicated escape plan in the movie’s first host segment. Note: Apologies, but the only place this episode appears on YouTube there is no first host segment, so I can’t link to it.
The explanation: This is a direct allusion to the 1963 film “The Great Escape,” a true classic as far as war movies are concerned. In the film, a crew of American and British prisoners engineer a daring and cerebral escape from a brutal German POW camp in World War II. The incomparable Donald Pleasence plays Colin Blythe, “The Forger,” who pores over stolen German documents to make passports and other necessary materials for the escapees to make it to the border. Unfortunately, doing so in nearly lightless rooms causes him to lose his eyesight. This whole segment is riddled with “Great Escape” references.
Novelty factor: I love this movie, and I love Donald Pleasence, who is mostly remembered in America for playing Dr. Loomis in the “Halloween” movies. It has a fantastic cast, an iconic soundtrack that has been reused a million times, and set many of the tropes for “escape movies,” even if it did borrow from earlier films like “Stalag 17” (also a great movie) in places.