The episode: “City Limits,” ep. 403
The riff: Spoken in a deep, gravelly voice by Crow as a large black man appears in a doorway and brandishes a shotgun at the motorcycle riders who have just arrived.
The explanation: As it turns out, the actor is James Earl Jones, but he’s mostly unrecognizable at this point in the film, the first time we see him. The “this is CNN” line is a reference to Jones’ voiceover work. For many years, a recording of his voice was used to introduce CNN segments, and he also recorded a second one, “This is CNN International.”
Novelty factor: Didn’t know this one, probably because I hate news networks and wouldn’t have been watching them years ago. They’ve made this same reference numerous times before, though, so I was glad to finally understand what it meant.
The episode: “Attack of the Eye Creatures,” ep. 418
The riff: Muttered by Tom as a crotchety old farmer in a hat comes ambling down his front walk.
The explanation: I had some trouble finding the source of this one, but ended up tracing it to the 1941 film classic “Sergeant York,” starring Gary Cooper. The film, a somewhat fictionalized biography of American war hero Alvin York, begins with the farmer York wanting to get himself “a piece of bottom land” that is richer and more fertile than his own so he can provide for his sweetheart. He ends up going to war and killing a lot of Imperialist Germans, and eventually returns to grateful townsfolk who have indeed purchased a plot of bottom land for him as a gift.
Novelty factor: Definitely couldn’t have predicted this particular one. As I said, it wasn’t even that easy to find the reference. And no, I’ve never seen “Sergeant York.”
The episode: “The Puma Man,” ep. 903
The riff: Added by Tom as the wimpy Puma Man (a white guy who for some reason has Aztec god powers) trails after his Indian protector, Vadinho.
The explanation: At first glance it appears to be just a reference to the Indian term “maize” for corn, but if you look up the phrasing, it’s actually a much more direct reference to an old television advertisement. Marzola Margarine was the product, and its ad campaign featured native Americans expounding on the virtues of “maize” and margarine made from it. “We knew all about the goodness of corn before America was America,” the comely Indian lady in the commercial says. “Mazola tastes fresh and good,” she adds.
Novelty factor: Never heard of the product, but this is one cheesy commercial.
The episode: “The Deadly Mantis,” ep. 804
The riff: Asked politely by Crow as a doofus officer offers the one woman in the movie a cup of coffee to stave off the arctic winter.
The explanation: The Tom and Jerry is actually a form of holiday cocktail in the Midwestern United States, particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota. It was invented by British Pierce Egan way back in the 1820s, so the name refers not to the MGM cartoon characters or even to famous mixologist Jerry Thomas. The cocktail is essentially heated eggnog with rum or brandy and nutmeg, served in a mug. Presumably, it’s the kind of cocktail you might drink if you were stationed at the north pole like the people in this movie.
Novelty factor: I’m actually kind of surprised that I don’t know this one. I wasn’t sure what the riff was going to be a reference to, but I wasn’t expecting a cocktail. I guess this one is pretty regional. Stupid Minnesota and Wisconsin, with their own languages.
The episode: “Eegah,” ep. 506
The riff: Observed by Tom as the movie’s repulsive blonde kid stumbles into view while searching for his girlfriend in the desert, his skin sunburned and slick with sweat.
The explanation: Markie Post was a 1980s TV sexpot, known for her roles on ABC’s “The Fall Guy” and then NBC’s “Night Court.” There’s not a terrible lot else to say about her career or attributes as an actress that doesn’t involve her measurements.
Novelty factor: I don’t believe I’ve ever actually heard the name before. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the below clip, where Post first:
a. Brings an old, leather-bound book of law to the beach to read in a bikini, then
b. Shuts down a yokel gaping at her exposed body, and then
c. Abandons her reading just long enough to be captured and drag aboard a boat by villainous suba divers. Enjoy. You’ll have to follow the link, as this one doesn’t allow embedding for some reason.
She brings a lot of intangibles to the show.
The episode: “Outlaw of Gor,” ep. 519
The riff: Sarcastically asked by Crow as an old wise man yammers on about how the good King Marlenus is going to be corrupted by the evil priest Xenos (played by none other than Jack Palance).
The explanation: Seems to be a straightforward reference to Marlene Dietrich, the great German-turned-American citizen who was one of the great stars to thrive in both the silent and sound eras of Hollywood. She was known for her adaptability and evolution throughout her career, first playing sexy femme fatale-type characters when she was younger and then aged who had “seen too much” when she was older, such as her role in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.” She was also a very successful cabaret performer.
Novelty factor: I’ve always rather admired Dietrich since seeing “Blonde Venus” in college. Likewise, her types of characters were kept alive by several Madeline Kahn performances, who satirized her style and sex-symbol status in movies like “Blazing Saddles.”
The episode: “The Sinister Urge,” ep. 613
The riff: Yelped by Crow as a big crowd of “teenagers” run away from a fight in progress as the cops close in.
The explanation: This is a subtle reference to a short story by noted American humorist James Thurber called “The Day the Dam Broke.” In the story, printed here, the citizens of Columbus, Ohio get swept up in a bout of mass hysteria after mistakenly thinking that the dam outside of town has broken. They rush the streets yelling “go east!” Ironically, this story was later adapted as the basis for a 2003 TV film called “Killer Flood: The Day the Dam Broke,” which decided to just straight up ignore the satire of the original story and have the dam actually break so the heroes can outrun the water in their cars. In an incredible stroke of MST3k coincidence, “Killer Flood” was produced by none other than David Giancola, the producer/director of one of my favorite MST3k movies, “Time Chasers.” Why am I not surprised?
Novelty factor: I’d never heard of the story before, but I’m really glad I chose this riff for its unexpected connection to another MST3k episode.