The Greatness of Mystery Science Theater 3000

One of my favorite shows as a kid was Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). If you’re not familiar with it, MST3K was basically a show about people making fun of terrible movies. There was a rudimentary plot about a janitor (Joel Hodgson and later Mike Nelson) being banished to a space station, then forced by a made scientist to watch the worst movies ever made. To keep their sanity, Joel and Mike were joined by a couple robot pals named Crow and Tom Servo. MST3K ran these bad movies in their entirety, with the crews’ silhouettes at the bottom. Their constant running commentary somehow made these movies entertaining. It was a simple concept, but quite effective! It also had a top tier theme song/intro:

The original run was from 1988 to 1999, basically cracking me up from childhood until the end of high school. The show was rebooted on Netflix in 2017, with a new host and robot voices (creator Joel Hodgson was involved off camera). A trio from the original 11 season run – Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy (original Tom Servo), and Bill Corbett (second Crow) – also created an independent spinoff called Rifftrax. Rifftrax is the same concept, but the guys also do some live shows (live broadcasts into movie theaters across the country). I dragged my wife to one that was basically a terrible ripoff of Hitchcock’s The Birds, and it was so incredibly funny. Rifftrax also has some guest “riffers,” like Weird Al Yankovic, Joel McHale, Paul F Tompkins, and many others.

MST3K Mitchell

With 11 seasons of the original series, there were many great episodes. But two in particular always stick out in my mind; Mitchell and The Final Sacrifice. Mitchell is essentially about a sloppy, embarrassing cop (played by Joe Don Baker) and his adventures. Whenever our hero got drunk, fell down, or otherwise did something humiliating, the MST3K crew would shout, “MMMMMitchell!” to emphasize his sweet action star moves.

MST3K Final Sacrifice No One Calls

Mitchell was close to the pinnacle of movie mockery, but The Final Sacrifice might be even better. The Final Sacrifice follows a teenager named Troy and a somehow even more embarrassing mess named Zap Rowsdower as they battle a cult. So, instead of one main person to make fun of (Mitchell), this one had two main characters, a creepy mountain man, and an entire goofy cult. It’s an amazing piece of work, and the MST3K crew were in fine joke-cracking form.

MST3K Rowsdower Beer on the Sun Final Sacrifice

The actor who played Zap Rowsdower passed away recently, which is really what triggered my thinking about the show again. The Final Sacrifice was one of only two movies he ever appeared in; according to IMDB, it seems his primary career was actually as a registered nurse. Anyway, I wanted to draw something related to MST3K because I’ve always loved the show so much. And as one of my favorite episodes, ol’ Zap and The Final Sacrifice seemed like a really fitting thing to work on. Rest In Peace, Mr. Rowsdower.

I went with the “I wonder if there’s beer on the sun” scene. As usual, I’ll post the final result, talk about it a bit, then show a progression .gif. Here’s the drawing:

As you can tell from the captioned .gif above, it was sort of dark in that scene. As I started shading Rowsdower’s neck, I realized I had made it too dark. Basically, I tried to emulate the shadows from the actual scene, and without the surrounding background darkness, it looked really weird. This threw off my normal “no background” plan. So, I made a snap decision to get crazy and add some darkness. I didn’t want to wear my black pencil to a nub, so I made a second crazy decision and tried using charcoal!

I wanted the silhouetted figures to be a really deep black, which seemed like a job for charcoal. I also wanted a smudgy darkness around him, which I also leaned heavily on the charcoal to achieve. It was interesting, but extremely messy! I’m not sure I could make a habit out of it, because I looked like a coal miner by the end. I am pretty happy with how the silhouettes turned out, but the background was sort of a miss. I actually think, aside from the way-too-dark neck, the picture looks much better with a clear background. Unfortunately, this drawing didn’t have a state with the silhouettes filled in and the background clear.

So, I suppose for a first time using charcoal it isn’t too terrible. And for one of the first backgrounds I’ve done, even though it was just dark/black, it could have been worse. But it’s definitely not one of my favorites. Here’s a progression .gif to show how this thing changed. Maybe you can see what I mean about the background-free stage:

MST3K Rowsdower Amdall Progression

Another problem I currently have is I don’t know what to do with the drawing. The charcoal still rubs off, so I don’t really want to put it in my usual portfolio book. I’ve read that hairspray does a good job of freezing the charcoal on the page, but we don’t have any around the house apparently. I guess for now, I’ll have to put it up high somewhere so our girls can’t get to it!

Note on the .gifs: Credit for the movie .gifs goes to the GiffTrax Tumblr ( and the MST3K Tumblr (URLs appear to be broken now, but files still show up in Google Image searches). I think all three appeared on the GiffTrax page, but only the last two were linked to MST3K.


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  • I still can’t hear the name Mitchell without calling it out. Another one of my favorites is, “Manos: The Hands of Fate.” I also like the propaganda shorts like, “A Date with Your Family.” Great post!

    • Thanks Eduardo – I’m with you there, those are also classics! It’s honestly amazing that so many of those bad films got made. Makes me think I could be a (terrible) director too!

  • Nice drawing! I think the face and the hand are the best parts. Yay for charcoal! I love using charcoal because you can get a great range of value and it’s super blendable. One of the things you can do to make charcoal less messy is to use a stick of compressed charcoal, rub it back and forth on a sheet of scrap paper, and use a paint brush to gather the charcoal dust and paint it on the picture. As for what to do with the drawing, hairspray works, but it can cause yellowing or discoloration (depending on chemicals in the spray). I think a better alternative would be fixative spray from an art store.

    • Thanks for this advice! I scrapped that hairspray idea. I went to the store to look at this fixative stuff, but I got a little freaked out by the warnings on the cans! It didn’t just say flammable…it said “Extremely Flammable!” And instead of hinting at cancer risk, it said, “This product contains chemicals known to cause cancer.”

      I’m probably being a bit crazy about it, but I’m just not sure my art space is ventilated enough. Ultimately, I decided to just by some clear sleeves. Maybe not the best solution, but a good idea for someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing!

      So, as someone who uses charcoal a lot, how do you achieve finer details with it? I loved the deep color it has, but I struggled with accuracy

      • I usually use charcoal pencils for finer details. It is also essential to use a kneaded eraser when you use charcoal. You can shape it to a fine point or a skinny wedge to erase mistakes and pick up charcoal to make things more accurate. Another thing you can to to get bright whites is white charcoal (not really charcoal but more of a dense chalk). It makes the really dark areas pop and draws the eye to the highlights very well. One last technique I use a lot is doing the paint on thing I mentioned earlier for surrounding areas and then using the pencils for very fine parts. There is less charcoal dust that spreads around that way rather than using vine charcoal, compressed charcoal sticks, or charcoal pencils for the whole thing. Hope this helps!

      • Ahhh, that’s great information, thank you. I actually have a kneaded eraser, but I’ve never used it! At last, it has a purpose beyond my kids thinking it’s Playdoh. And I didn’t even know there was a white color of charcoal, so that would be helpful too if I try it again.

        One of these days, I’m going to compile all of the great advice artists have provided into a post. I feel so many valuable little bits of wisdom from experience (like your comment) have been shared, it would be cool to organize them so others can reference if they want to.

  • I like the silhouettes! And yes, you got a great, solid black with the charcoal. I don’t use charcoal that much because it is messy! (you can use a fixative spray sold at art stores – not sure about hairspray … )

    • Thanks! I do like the solid and very dark quality to the black, but I’m with you – it’s really too messy to make a regular thing.

      I actually went to Hobby Lobby this afternoon to figure out what to do about the drawing, and almost impulse purchased some pastels! I was thinking about what you and a couple other folks do with them, and it seems like a cool thing to try. But I talked myself out of it, because I hadn’t done any research at all. I need to go back and look at that post you did about pastels, maybe watch a couple YouTube videos first I think.

      • That sounds like a good idea – just fyi, I found pan pastels to be only marginally less messy than charcoal. (I tend to jump in and try things so my two cents almost always comes from a newbie perspective!)

      • Uh oh, thanks for that warning – I’ll take some precautions (kids asleep, clothes that can get messy, etc)

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