The episode: “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies,” ep. 812
The riff: Yelped by Mike as a young woman flees, screaming and opens up a door where a zombie hand grasping in a claw shape paws at her.
The explanation: The shape of the hand is the inspiration for this riff. The fingertips-out motion makes it look like he’s grasping a knuckleball, which was the signature pitch of MLB pitcher Phil Niekro. Niekro is one of only a couple hall of famers who have reached the pinnacle of the sport using the knuckleball, which is typically thrown with the fingertips and not the knuckles as the name suggests. The purpose is to minimize any spin on the ball as it travels to home plate, which causes erratic motions because of the passage of air over the laces. A knuckleball can look very easy to hit, but at times it’s almost impossible. As of 2013, R.A. Dickey is the only pitcher in MLB using the knuckleball as his primary pitch.
Novelty factor: I know baseball well enough to be quite well versed in the knuckleball and Phil Niekro.
The episode: “Soultaker,” ep. 1001
The riff: Exclaimed by Crow as soon as a woman with short blonde hair comes jumping out of the back of an ambulance.
The explanation: Cathy Rigby was an American gymnast who enjoyed a considerable amount of fame at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. She won silver at the 1970 World Gymnastics Championships, making her the first female American gymnast to ever medal, raising public interest in the sport. After retirement at the ripe old age of 20, she was offered parts on stage, famously playing Peter Pan in a musical adaptation for many years. Later in the 1980s, she used her platform to speak to youth about eating disorders, having suffered from bulimia during her gymnastic career.
Novelty factor: Never heard of her before, unsurprisingly. I found her bio information pretty interesting to read, though. I’m always amazed by the short careers of gymnasts. Imagine retiring from your life’s main calling before you’re legally able to drink alcohol.
The episode: “Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders,” ep. 1003
The riff: A bit of a mysterious riff here. Tom says it right after the heroine asks about a curious, elongated purple and white stone in Merlin’s shop. Merlin’s wife calls it “very special” and then says it is something that is tough to make out, but sounds like “a laurel.” Tom then adds something that sounds like “a bassarino.”
The explanation: I am guessing that what he was actually saying was “Bass-Oreno,” a reference to a long-running fishing lure for catching, you guessed it, bass. The three-hooked jig was manufactured for almost a century. I suspect this is the reference because the MST3k crew has made plenty of fishing references before, likely due to the fact that they all seemed to grow up in the rural Midwest. The stone also is similar-looking to a Bass-Oreno lure.
Novelty factor: Definitely never heard of this lure. I doubt I could name any brand-name fishing lure, so that’s probably a bit of a gap in my knowledge.
Completely irresistible to both small and largemouths.
The episode: “The Giant Spider Invasion,” ep. 810 (i.e. “PACKERS WIN THE SUPERBOWL!)
The riff: Quipped by Tom as we get a long shot of two characters wandering around in a field of overgrown grass.
The explanation: They’re referring to pro golfer Greg Norman, and specifically to his disastrous meltdown at the 1996 Masters Tournament. At the time, Norman, “The Shark,” was the world-ranked #1 player, and on the first day of the tournament he tied the course record with a 63, maintaining his lead all the way until the final day. He began that day with a six-stroke lead, but had perhaps his worst-ever round as a professional, shooting a 78 and ultimately losing by five strokes to Nick Faldo. It remains one of golf’s most famous choke jobs.
Novelty factor: I actually knew this one, despite never following golf too much. That’s how well known the collapse was. Also, Greg Norman was always my mother’s favorite player.
Note: The only video I could find is in Japanese, but I believe this suckiness translates to just about any language.
The episode: “Gamera vs. Barugon,” ep. 304
The riff: Giddily cooed by Joel as one of the movie’s unsavory characters strokes a giant opal that he has just stolen away.
The explanation: Brunswick, as it turns out, has been a major bowling supply company for over a century. They make practically everything that a person needs to bowl, and many things that a person assuredly does not need in order to bowl. As with any hobbyist past time taken to the extreme, it becomes hilarious when viewed from the outside. Check out this list of awesomely complicated Brunswick bowling balls with names like “Nexxxus” and “Meanstreak,” or this even funnier review site for said bowling balls.
Novelty factor: I think we’ve all probably bowled at some point, but who among us has really looked at the brand name of our bowling balls, besides those who bring their own to the lanes? I’ve never heard of the company, and my career high game is like 140. Coincidence?
American life on the threshold of the golden 60s!
The episode: “The Undead,” ep. 806
The riff: Observed by Mike as a rather frightening-looking medieval guard accosts a woman in prison accused of witchcraft.
The explanation: Ray Nitschke was a hall of fame linebacker for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. He was sometimes known as “Mr. Hyde” for the difference in his on-field and off-field personas. On field, he was a frightful presence, a brutal tackler and all-around tough guy. Off the field, however, he was known as a gentle person and a devoted family man. He received many accolades in his career, is generally considered one of the top 10 linebackers in pro history, and has one of the Packers’ practice fields named in his honor. Also, this guy looks like him.
Novelty factor: I’d be lucky to recognize modern football references, let alone Lombardi-era ones. This is, however, a good example of one of MST3k’s Midwest-centric jokes.
He had a certain degree of “ogre face” going on there.
The episode: “Santa Claus,” ep. 521
The riff: Insisted by Tom during the riffs of this clearly Mexican-produced children’s movie about Santa Claus.
The explanation: Seeing that the film is Mexican in origin, Tom is cleverly combining Santa with the name of “El Santo,” the most legendary Mexican wrestler (or luchador) in history. It is difficult to overstate El Santo’s popularity or level of fame in Mexico–over his five-decade career, he appeared in comics and dozens of movies in addition to his wrestling accomplishments, never taking off his famous silver mask. These colorful, silly films gave birth to the entire subgenre of “Mexican wrestler vs. monsters” B-movies. MST3k even features one of these films–“Samson vs. The Vampire Women” as the season 6 finale. “Samson” is actually El Santo himself. I already did a riff from it.
Novelty factor: Recognized it immediately as both a fan of wrestling and cheesy Mexican wrestler movies. Long live El Santo’s legend.