Our heroes are trapped in space on a vaguely femur-shaped vessel called the Satellite of Love (a.k.a., the SOL), highly reminiscent of another bulbous spaceship piloted by Keir Dullea. They spend most of their time watching the excruciatingly bad cinema inflicted on them by their mad scientist tormentors, and spend the rest of their time taking ordinary situations to unhealthy extremes. Mostly they orbit the earth, except for the last episode of Season Seven and all of Season Eight, during which they wandered aimlessly through time and space. Though the actors have all changed at least once, the roles themselves have remained largely consistent. These include:
Joel Robinson: His eyes and voice always seem sleepy, but his comedic style is wildly inventive. His best host segments choose an ordinary topic which he and his robotic cohorts spin off into extraordinary extremes. The original janitor-marooned-in-space, he hosted the show from the KTMA days to Episode 512, resurfacing for a brief guest appearance in Episode 1001. His character’s official name during the cable run is Joel Robinson, but during the KTMA era he used his real name, Joel Hodgson. Of note: Joel Hodson is the show’s creator.
Mike Nelson: A temp hired to work for one day in the Mad Scientists’ secret lair, Deep 13. Unfortunately for Mike, this turned out to be the day of Joel’s escape to the Australian Outback; chief mad scientist Dr. Forrester bonked him on the head with a clown hammer and sent him up to take Joel’s place. His sense of humor is not as bizarre as his predecessor’s, but Mike’s self-effacing style is far more erudite and just a little meaner. He first appeared in Episode 512, and then hosted the show from Episode 513 all the way to the series finale. Mike Nelson is played by Michael J. Nelson.
Tom Servo: A small, legless robot with the body of a gumball machine, the deep, rich voice of a folk singer, and a sense of humor that generally favors the obscure reference over the obvious punchline. One of four robots built by Joel to keep him company on the Satellite of Love, and one of two who help Joel (and later Mike) comment on the films. Perhaps the most intellectual of the Satellite dwellers, he enjoys engaging in philosophical discourse, self-duplication, and overcomplicated, ill-advised hijinks. Josh Weinstein provides his voice and puppeteer work from KTMA through the end of Season One. Kevin Murphy takes over from the beginning of Season Two all the way to the end of the series.
Crow T. Robot: A spindly golden robot with ping-pong balls for eyes, a bowling pin for a mouth, and a lacrosse net instead of hair. He has a penchant for pursuing his interests to their logical conclusion, and then pushing beyond into the realm of absurdity. Crow’s sense of humor tends a little more towards the strange and non-sequitur than his Satellite cohorts, especially from the first KTMA episode through the end of Season Seven when he was voiced and puppeteered by Trace Beaulieu. Bill Corbett takes over at the beginning of Season Eight, resulting in a slightly less off-the-wall, slightly more mature, slightly more erudite Crow. He is also one of four robots built by Joel, and one of two who help comment on the films.
Gypsy: The third robot is the arbitrarily female Gypsy, who has infant car seat for a head, a single flashlight for an eye, and several hundred feet of vacuum cleaner hose standing in for a body. The first few seasons portray her as doorknob-stupid, but over the course of Season Three, she is gradually upgraded to the most competent, intelligent and compassionate member of the cast. (Despite this, her presumably unrequited love for actor Richard Basehart remains constant.) Executive producer Jim Mallon provides her voice and puppeteer work from the beginning through Episode 814. Prop master Patrick Brantseg takes over in Episode 815 and sees her through to the end. Except for a few minutes at the beginning of Episode 412, Gypsy does not appear during the film segments of the show.
Cambot: The last robot Joel built is the one with the built-in camera. He captures the Satellite dwellers’ antics on film and broadcasts them down to their mad scientist antagonists. Cambot appears briefly in a mirror during the opening credits, but his presence thereafter is only implied, never seen. He is, thus, not played by anyone.
Our villains lurk in dank, fetid locales—the subterranean mad scientist lair Deep 13 at the beginning, and the bleak and forbidding Castle Forrester towards the end, with some aimless wandering through space and time during Season Eight. Few reasons are given for the cinematic torment they persistently visit upon our Satellite-dwelling protagonists, and these are often contradictory and/or poorly defined. We are left to conclude that not even they know why. Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. The Forresters gotta make people watch bad movies.
Dr. Clayton Deborah Susan Forrester: Determined to wreak his vengeance on the world for wrongs unspecified, Dr. Forrester originated the experiment at the beginning of the show when he shot the Satellite of Love into space with the janitor (Joel) still aboard. In addition to his bad movie data-gathering activities, he invents bizarre contraptions to make the world a slightly worse place in which to live. His sartorial tastes run towards green laboratory coats, heavy green-framed glasses, and intermittently false mustaches with streaks of white. He lasts until the end of Season Seven, when a monolithic videocassette pushes him rapidly through his mortal ages to become a Star Baby...and gets smothered to death by his villainous mother shortly thereafter. Dr. Forrester is played by Trace Beaulieu.
Dr. Larry Erhardt: The big-haired Dr. Erhardt wears a black orderly uniform and black-framed glasses. He acts as Dr. Forrester’s shriller, dumber half from the show’s beginning until he disappears without explanation at the end of Season One. He is played by Josh Weinstein.
TV’s Frank: After Dr. Erhardt’s disappearance, Dr. Forrester hires a new dim bulb away from the local Arby’s to perform henchman duties, and that new dim bulb is TV’s Frank. Frank dresses the same as Dr. Erhardt, except with a single blond spitcurl in the middle of his forehead instead of glasses. Innocent and naïve (but in a sinister way), Frank bears most of his mad employer’s abuse with equanimity. Occasionally, however, tiny details will set off a self-destructive breakdown. (You should never, for instance, mention Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale in his presence.) Frank lasts from the beginning of Season Two through the end of Season Six, when he is assumed into Second Banana Heaven by the archangel Torgo the White, though he returns for a guest appearance in Episode 1001. TV’s Frank is played by Frank Conniff.
Pearl Forrester: Dr. Forrester’s mother makes her distaste for her erratic son clear from her first appearance in Episode 607. She returns in Episode 701TD for Thanksgiving dinner and, as the most competent and domineering member of the family, immediately takes charge of Dr. Forrester’s life. After causing her son’s untimely demise after the end of Season Seven, she returns to carry on the experiment at the beginning of Season Eight, having been frozen and then thawed five hundred years later by anthropomorphic apes. At the beginning of Season Nine, she settles into Castle Forrester, where she dedicates herself to world conquest...and bad movies. She leaves in the series finale to become Dictator-For-Life of Qatar. Pearl Forrester is played by Mary Jo Pehl.
Bobo: That’s Professor Bobo, son of Coco, and heir to the lineage of Godo, Vodo, and Chim-Chim to the rest of us. The cerebrally challenged leader of the anthropomorphic ape-men is responsible for Pearl’s survival into the post-apocalyptic future at the beginning of Season Eight. He survives Mike’s accidental destruction of Earth by stowing away with her when she flees the doomed planet. Thereafter, he hangs around to provide comic relief and invaluable advice on how to deal with monkeys and primates. (It comes up more often than you might think.) Though it’s never explicitly stated, we know the monkey apocalypse happened because Mike’s descendants married apes, so we can safely assume that he is Mike Nelson’s great-great-great-great-etc.-grandson. Bobo stays on until the end of the show, and is played by Kevin Murphy, some fake hair, and several tons of latex.
Observer, a.k.a. Brain Guy: After the future ape-infested Earth meets its doom (in Episode 804), Pearl and Bobo flee to the planet of the Observers—a race of fey, hooded aliens who carry their nigh-omnipotent brains around with them in giant Petri dishes. One of them survives Mike’s accidental destruction of his planet by stowing away with Pearl. Brilliant and powerful but socially inept; he lets Pearl to browbeat him into helping her with her various evil plots until the end of the show. Observer is played by Bill Corbett in a purple hood and a lot of clown white.
Most of the characters mentioned below are from the film they were screening at the time, and then just sort of wandered through a couple of episodes afterwards. I haven’t taken the time to list them all; these are the ones who appeared in three or more episodes and/or made an impression on me. Here they are, in no particular order:
Jerry: Jerry is a mole person who appears intermittently in Deep 13 during Season Three. He either sits still or moves very slowly, and never says anything. I don’t know who plays him.
Sylvia: Sylvia is also a mole person and intermittent denizen of Deep 13. See Jerry.
Glen Manning: The insane, bald, sixty-foot protagonist of Episode 309 and Episode 319. He appears at various intervals laugh himself into infarctions while decrying the lack of casting opportunities for actors his size. Glen is played by Mike Nelson.
Jack Perkins: The former host of A&E’s Biography occasionally appears to give warm, rambling introductions to...anything at all really. You don’t even have to ask him; he’d show up at your house and warmly introduce you to last night’s leftover cream cheese pasta if you let him. He appears occasionally to do just that in addition to his hosting duties for the show’s brief attempt at syndication. (The Mystery Science Theater Hour.) This mildly delusional version of the television celebrity is played by Mike Nelson.
Torgo: The wobbly, big-kneed goat man Torgo is actually the ineffectual evil henchman in Episode 424, but wanders through several other episodes to deliver pizza, steal Frank’s job, and cast aspersions on Mike’s Urkel impression as well. Torgo is also played by Mike Nelson.
The Nanites: These microscopic robots have been charged with the Satellite’s maintenance by Crow, I assume, though their ultimate goal is the utter subjugation of all other sentient beings. They’re introduced at the beginning of Season Eight and appear intermittently throughout the rest of the show. Their ultimate fate is not addressed in the series finale; I assume they either die horribly in the Satellite crash or escape and take over the universe. All of the cast members pitch in with Nanite voices, though most of them seem to be played by Paul Chaplin and Mary Jo Pehl.
Ortega: The inarticulate, knobbly-faced, stogie-smoking henchman of Episode 812 replaces Torgo as the disfigured mascot of the show after the jump to the SciFi Channel. He shows up at parties, to cater breaks, and answer phones at odd intervals thereafter. Ortega is played by Paul Chaplin.
Pitch: Santa’s rubber-bloomered nemesis first appeared in Episode 521, and appeared in nearly every episode featuring a devil-referencing film thereafter. He also sells a complete line of possessed toys at very reasonable prices. Pitch is played by Paul Chaplin.
Dr. Peanut: Bobo’s assistant on the Planet of the Apes was presumed dead after the future Earth’s explosion. A postcard, however, reveals that he was actually blown backward in time to a more human era, where he married one of Mike’s descendants. Dr. Peanut is played by Mike Nelson.
Flavia: The suspicious, toga-clad noblewoman who hosts Pearl and company during their brief visit to Roman Times. She likes to shout “Guards! Seize them!” and doesn’t get along very well with Pearl. Flavia is played by Bridget Nelson.
Callipygeas: The bumbling, good-natured nobleman who hosts Pearl and company during their brief visit to Roman times. Husband of Flavia. Played by Kevin Murphy.
Jan in the Pan: The heroic but insane severed head of a mad scientist’s lover from Episode 513. She shows up occasionally to crack jokes about her bodiless state and, in one episode, strips at Tom’s bachelor party. She is played by Mary Jo Pehl.
Mr. B Natural: This hyperactive, androgynous sprite is from his/her own eponymous short in Episode 319. She appears at the Forresters place with her/his significant other Jack Perkins for Thanksgiving Dinner, and gets killed off by salmonella. Mr. B is played by Bridget Nelson.
Kitten with a Whip: The hearty, bearded Kitten with a Whip is derived from the title of the movie appearing in Episode 615. He seems to have a lot to say, though we never find out what it is; he keeps stopping to vomit, lick himself, and hurl hairballs. Kitten with a Whip is played by Kevin Murphy and a lot of industrial carpet.
Nuveena: Woman of the Future: The musical ingénue of the short in Episode 524 will refuse to answer questions not expressed through song and dance. She also refuses to acknowledge robots as sentient creatures with feelings of their own. Played by Bridget Nelson.
Observers: See Observer a.k.a. Brain Guy for a description. Observer’s former companions were originally thought dead in the Mike-induced explosion that destroyed their planet. They escaped however, and returned to reclaim their former companion and destroy the Earth. With Bobo’s accidental help, Observer defeated them and cursed them to wander rural Wisconsin as vacuous cheese-heads forever more. The Observers are played by Mike Nelson and Paul Chaplin.
Robert Smith: The former running back for the Minnesota Vikings appears as mute eye-candy Howard near the end of Episode 803.
Leonard Maltin: The renowned film critic appears in Episode 909 as a bad movie consultant. He wants you to buy his book.