The show premiered on Thanksgiving Day 11/24/88 at 6:00 PM as part of a special day of science fiction broadcasts on KTMA. Movies started at 2 PM, then MST3K at 6 and 8 and Elvira was on at 10 and midnight.
The first episode was Invaders From The Deep (K01) followed at 8:00 PM by Revenge Of The Mysterons From Mars (K02). Both were Gerry Anderson super marionation-vision productions, a creepy combination of sci-fi and marionettes. The first showing brought in a Nielson rating of 0.8, or about 4000 households, but none of the creators knew if anyone "got" the joke.
The third episode, which was already taped, would air just three days later and would include an innovation that showed great forethought. When Star Force: Fugitive Alien II (K03), aired at 6:00 PM Sunday, 11/27/88 a telephone answering machine had been set up and the number was announced for viewers to call in. And call they did. The entire tape was filled in an hour with mixed, but generally positive comments about the show.
On 12/4/88 the fourth show, Gamera vs. Barugon (K04), aired beginning a string of five consecutive Gamera movies. Not only was Joel sporting a new short haircut, but also a few of the telephone messages were shared. Luckily for MST fans, some early viewers began recording episodes starting with this one.
Even though cast members would occasionally have to be written out of the script due to other commitments the show was beginning to hit its stride. We should remember that Jim and Kevin were technically the only KTMA employees. Joel was paid a whopping $100 per show and Trace and Josh, who each worked about a day and a half per episode, got $25 each. They still relied on their stand-up jobs to pay the bills.
The show received its first press when an article by Dave Matheny was printed in the 12/19/88 issue of the Minneapolis Star & Tribune.
Over the next few weeks the show continued to develop. In Gamera vs. Gaos (K06) Servo got a new dynamic voice and immediately started going by the name Tom Servo. Perhaps the biggest change was the on screen introduction of the mad scientists that launched Joel into space. That would occur in the seventh show, Gamera vs. Zigra (K07) that was shown in a special New Years Eve airing. The evening of 12/31/88 began at 10:00 PM with Scott Hansens Freeze-Dried Comedy Special followed at 11:00 PM by the hour long TV23s 23rd Annual New Years Eve Extravaganza Golden Jubilee. This third melon drop again featured Kevin as Bob Bagadonuts and also Josh as terrorist Ahmnon Lebowitz and Czechoslorabian comedian Smoid Vistaqi.
At midnight, immediately following the melon drop, MST was shown. In this seventh show we finally meet Trace as Dr. Clayton Forrester and Josh as Dr. Lawrence Erhardt. There is also a short clip of Joshs performance from earlier in the evening.
The name Dr. Clayton Forrester was based on the character portrayed by Gene Barry in the 1953 George Pal adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel War of the Worlds. The name Dr. Lawrence Erhardt was a take off on Werner Erhard who founded the est self empowerment movement in the late 1970's. (est stands for Erhard Seminars Training.) Therefore, the MST mads appropriately sprung from 1950's monster movies and cult leaders.
During this time Joel was still performing at The Comedy Gallery and commercials for him as well as Travel Agency ads starring Kevin were shown. The popularity of the show also resulted in Josh and Trace starring as the mads in a commercial for the local Pizza N Pasta.
By the time Fugitive Alien (K12) was aired on 2/5/89 a fan club was announced and a couple weeks later Joel began reading letters sent into the show by viewers. The viewer support helped convince the powers at KTMA to extend the run of the show and eventually 8 more episodes were produced. On 3/12/89, during the final segment of Superdome (K15), Joel showed the new fan club certificate, membership card and the first issue of The Satellite News. (Note: because the newsletter states it was formerly known as The Binding Polymer some fans, who did not catch the joke, searched in vain for years for earlier issues.) The 1000th fan club member, Ms. Gidget Howell, even won a demon dog hat personally modeled by Joel during The Last Chase (K20).
Away from the show, Joel taped a pilot, with co-host Sue Scott, for Seriously Weird Magazine at KSTP-TV, channel 5 studios on 3/25/89. It was recorded in front of a live audience in two separate shows at 1 PM and 7 PM. The producers, including Scott Hansen, were hoping this would be the first comedy series syndicated by Hubbard Broadcasting.
In April, anticipating a change may be required, the Brains sent out a 7-minute pitch tape to other stations. 5/28/89 saw the 21st and last episode aired on KTMA even though the fan club had climbed to 1,131. At the end of Legend of the Dinosaurs (K21) Joel explained they were going on hiatus. Little did they know, although they may have suspected, KTMA would file for bankruptcy two months later and they would be left without a home.
An interesting side note: on 5/15-28/89, right about the time the run at KTMA was wrapping up, a comedy competition was held in Minneapolis. Not only did Josh and Trace participate, but also two other stand up comic/ food service regulars named Mike Nelson and Frank Conniff.
On June 5 and 6, 1989 MST Live! was performed at the Comedy Gallery to around 600 lucky fans. The show was hosted by Jim and included a viewing of the original pilot and stand up performances by Joel, Josh and Trace followed by a question and answer session. There were also some props from the show on display.
Soon after that show issue 1.2 of The Satellite News was mailed out requesting that fans write to KTMA supporting the show, but of course that would turn out to be unnecessary.
Negotiations had already started with HBO, who was launching a new 24-hour a day comedy station, The Comedy Channel, in the fall. Everyone felt secure enough that a contract would be signed that in July 89 Jim and Kevin quit their KTMA jobs and along with Joel, Trace and Josh formed Best Brains, Inc (BBI), which was officially incorporated on 7/14/89. After all, the shows growing cult following and Joels proven audience appeal were well known. Besides, the vice president of The Comedy Channel was Stu Smiley who had known Joel during his stand-up days, when Stu worked for Showtime. The one show stopper could have been Joel and Jims demand that the show be produced in Minnesota. They insisted that they could only maintain the control and integrity of the show they wanted by keeping it away from New York City or Los Angeles. The HBO executives finally agreed to this demand.
They built a studio in a 7,500 square foot warehouse, sublet from Traces brother Bryan, in an Eden Prairie industrial park. By September the deal for 13 episodes was signed and production of the new shows began in October.
That same month another young comedian, and acquaintance of Josh, by the name of Mike Nelson was added to the writing staff, initially to do some typing. Mike grew up in Illinois and Wisconsin and had attended the University of Wisconsin River Falls and toiled in a dairy cheese factory before working the Midwest comedy circuit for a few years. He was also just returning from his honeymoon with his new bride, comedienne Bridget Jones. He said goodbye to his blossoming career at TGI Fridays and began his life with the Brains.
On 10/21/89 Joel was taped as he performed onstage at the KCTA-TV Land O Loons III showcase (aired 12/6/89).
In the 11/11/89 issue of TV Guide the show received its first national press. Unfortunately, it was a luke warm review of Joel and MST3K along with some of the other shows to be presented on The Comedy Channel, which officially debuted 11/15/89. It wouldnt be long before the critics changed their minds.