Tom Servo: This Is Your Life!
© 2003, 2004 Neal Bridges. Certain images courtesy of Jack Theakston.

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Tom Servo at work

As Joel Hodgson (Tom Servo's original creator) describes it, Servo's name derives from a robot-shaped vending machine named the "Servotron" once located in the Southdale Shopping Center in Edina, Minnesota; Servo's snack-dispenser head pays homage to that origin. The seeds of Servo's design can be found in elements of many other robots that came before him, including the hands, springy arms, and transparent dome of Robby, the Robot from Forbidden Planet and B9 from Lost In Space ("You bubble-headed booby!"), the hovering ability of Nomad from Star Trek, the squat shape of the drones from Silent Running, the cylindrical body and rotating head of R2-D2 from Star Wars, and the chest-mounted gun turrets of certain Japanese tin robot toys.

Robby The Robot B9   Nomad   Silent Running   R2-D2   Tin Robot

The original Tom Servo was built from specific 'found objects', thrift-store items from Minneapolis in the late 1980's: he has parts from a snack dispenser, a barrel coin bank, the engine block from a toy car, a Halloween candy bowl, toy trains, flashlights, a C. More Bunz doll, and a ventriloquist's dummy. Many of these items are now long out of production and quite rare.

KTMA: First, there is Beeper
Crow, Joel, and Beeper, from the pilot tape
Crow, Joel, and Beeper, from the pilot tape

Crow and Servo (with popcorn in his head), from episode K01
Crow and Servo (with popcorn in his head and a clothespin on his beak), from episode K01

Crow and Joel and Servo, from episode K04
Crow and Joel and Servo, from episode K04

Season 0 (1988-1989), Episodes K00-K21

The Mystery Science Theater 3000 series (MST3K) premieres on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988, on the small independent Minneapolis UHF station KTMA-TV, channel 23.

Joel Hodgson from Season 4 All the bots are orignally designed by the creator of the show, Joel Hodgson, pulling an all-nighter to build them the day before the pilot tape is shot. The bots are made from thrift shop junk — 'found objects'. (Joel had spent a year building probably fifty such bot puppets of various designs and sold them in an upscale gift shop in Minneapolis called 'Props'.) Joel said of the bots, "They're kind of a collage, a bunch of junk — plastic junk that looks good together."

Joel Hodgson plays the role of 'Joel Robinson' on MST3K.

Tom Servo began life as 'Beeper', so named because he speaks only in annoying noises. Beeper only appeared in the pilot tape (never aired).

Beeper is made of various 'found objects':

  • Head is a plastic retail Spangler Dum Dum Pops dispenser
  • Eye is a vintage desk microphone, part of a L'eggs plastic pantyhose container, and some black electrical tape
  • Body is a vinyl 'Money Lover Barrel' coin bank (New York Vinyl Products, Inc., 1970-1973. Barrel is stamped '1971'.) (a)
  • Hoverskirt is part of a plastic flowerpot
  • Shoulders are bottoms cut from Empire Toys plastic bowling pins (b)
  • Arms are corrugated tubing
  • Hands are from a disturbing Jerry Mahoney ventriloquist doll (c, d)
  • Lots of silver paint (e)
a) Money Lover Barrel  b) Empire Toys 'crown' pin
c) Disturbing Jerry Mahoney doll
d) Jerry Mahoney doll hands e) plain silver paint

Gaffer's tape Servo's cummerbund is electrical tape in the pilot, black gaffer's tape in K01, red in K16, black again in K21. Every time the tape changed, his barrel body seemed to lean a little further forward.

The same Crow and Servo seen in the host segments are used in the theater segments in this season — Servo's head is transparent, and this makes it very hard to see against the movie screen.

After the pilot, Beeper's head is replaced, and he becomes Tom Servo in his earliest form.

Danish Gumball Machine Changes:

  • Head is now a plastic gumball machine, designed in Denmark in 1982, painted silver. This original Danish version of the gumball machine is made of thick plastic, and has a slight overbite. The hoop on the beak is left on, in contrast to Servo in later seasons where the hoop is cut away.
  • Additional black tape is added to his cummerbund.

Beeper/Servo is puppeted and voiced by Josh "J. Elvis" Weinstein. Josh Weinstein

Josh is responsible for naming Servo 'Tom':

Josh: I did think of him as being a bad morning D.J. with a giant ego and delusions of being a chick magnet. I can't say it was any truly fleshed out concept I had, I was just riffing in the office on it and threw in the "Tom". Everyone laughed and the rest is "Myst-ory". I tried a few different voices for Servo in shows before settling on the "Tom" Servo character.
Comedy Central: Servo Turns Red
Season 1 Servo
A blender and Servo, Season 1
Season 1 (1989-1990), Episodes 101-113

The show is picked up by the Comedy Channel (a cable channel that will later merge with a competing channel and become 'Comedy Central'). The key minds behind MST3K form a new company, 'Best Brains Inc.' (BBI).

This is a transitional year for Servo. He undergoes a number of changes at the hands of the Art Director, Trace Beaulieu:
  • Head is now a red plastic Carousel 'Executive Snack Dispenser', unpainted, with the hoop cut from the beak (this Chinese-made version of the gumball machine is built from thinner plastic, and has a slight underbite) (a)
  • Beak is painted white until episode 105, when it is painted silver
  • Hoverskirt is a 'Halloween Trick or Treat Boo Bowl' made in the late 1980's, painted with white primer (b). Dimensions are:
    • 11.25" across the mouth
    • 4.875" across the base
    • 5" tall
  • ½"-pipe foam insulation around the mouth of the bowl
  • Hoverskirt decorations are black vacuformed copies of a Tyco Turbo Train — six of them, roughly placed around the bowl (c)
    (Vacuforming is a technique wherein a sheet of plastic is heated until pliable, then stretch-formed over the original object by the suction power of a vacuum.)
  • 'Money Lover Barrel' body (recycled from KTMA Servo) is now painted Testors #1629 Ruby Red Metal Flake (d)
  • Engine block on front of barrel is from a toy dragster car, painted Testors #1629 Ruby Red Metal Flake, painted silver on the pistons with flat black inside the pistons (note: the original toy engine was yellow plastic, in a pink plastic car — if you find this original toy car, please let me know!) (e)
    (The engine block entirely covers the embossed words "Money Lover Barrel" on the front of the barrel.)
  • Shoulder pieces are vacuformed copies of the front hood of an Eveready #108 or #208 "All American Floating Lantern" (Gypsy's flashlight), painted flat white (f)
  • Arms are corrugated black tubing
  • Hands are as in Season 0, but now painted flat white (g)
a) Carousel Executive Snack Dispenser
b) Boo Bowl
c) Vacuformed Tyco Turbo Train, and real train
d) Testors #1629 Ruby Red Metal Flake
e) Engine from a toy dragster
f) Eveready 208 flashlight
g) Servo's hands, painted white

At this stage of Servo's development, his CPVC control rod runs straight up through the body and is affixed to the inside back of the head. The control string for the beak runs up and over the top edge of the CPVC tube. This means a lot of friction, and a lot of broken strings.

Josh and Servo with his first 'theater' head There's now a 'theater' version of Servo's head (made from KTMA Servo's head!), painted to be non-transparent and thus visible in silhouette against the film screen.

In later seasons this becomes an entire Servo, all black, dedicated to theater use. There is also a theater Crow, again black, with padded webbing to make its shadow more visible.

Theater versions of Crow and Servo

Servo is almost 23 inches tall, from the bottom of the hoverskirt to the top cap of the globe.

This is Josh Weinstein's last season with the show, and with BBI. From Season 2 onward, Servo is puppeted and voiced by Kevin Murphy.

Season 2 Servo, head extended
Gypsy, Crow, Joel, and Servo (head extended), Season 2

Season 2 Servo
Crow, Joel, and Servo, Season 2

Season 2 Servo - Haircut head
Joel gives Servo a haircut, episode 205

Season 2 (1990-1991), Episodes 201-213

Bot construction is in the hands of "Toolmaster" Jef Maynard. Jef Maynard and Crow

Joel Hodgson: Yeah, they changed, you know. We went in and fixed them up, you know, we upgraded them so they looked a little crisper.

Kevin Murphy with a Season 4 Tom Servo Puppeted and voiced by the multi-talented Kevin Murphy.

  • C. More Bunz Arms are from a 'Mr. C. More Bunz' doll, with the attached springs, and the bladders to make the arms extend (later versions of Servo don't have the bladders)
  • Hands are now resin copies of the original doll hands, cast in a flesh-coloured resin normally used to make hearing-aids, and then painted white
  • Shoulders are now oriented more toward the sides of the barrel body
  • Servo has an extendable head, rarely used
  • Beak is now silver with flat black inside
  • Servo occasionally wears a fez as his gumball-cap

Haircut Carousel dispenser In episode 205, Servo gets a haircut; he wears this new head (another Carousel snack dispenser, unpainted red) for several episodes. Trace Beaulieu called this Servo's 'sport head'. Says Kevin Murphy, "There was no reason. It was pure experimentation. Since we could fuck with Servo's head, we did."

This Servo (with the globe head) is 'Servo as we know him'. Only minor changes are made over subsequent seasons.

Season 3 Servo
Crow and Servo, Season 3

Beez helps Kevin thread a new head onto Servo (from Season 10)
Beez helps Kevin Murphy thread a new head onto Servo (from Season 10)

Season 3 (1991-1992), Episodes 301-324

Until this season, BBI has only one production version of each bot — the originals. Concerned with having at least two of each, during this season they have an outside party create rubber molds of parts they have found impossible to locate (most notably Crow's shoulders, and Servo's barrel and engine). With these molds they can (and do) cast as many resin replicas as needed.

3-inch lazy-susan turntable bearing CPVC 'Tee' connector Servo's Workshop at BBI In mid-season, Servo's head construction is modified. The head can no longer be extended – it's mounted on a lazy-susan turntable bearing. The control rod now runs up into the center of the head, joining a CPVC "Tee" connector hot-glued there. The control string for the beak runs from the beak up through an eye-screw attached to the inside top of the head, and then down through a hole cut in the cross bar of the "Tee" and down through the hollow control rod without rubbing against it. This reduces friction on the string, so it breaks less often.

  • New arm springs — shorter and bouncier
  • Arm-extending bladders are removed
Season 4 Servo
Crow, Joel, and Servo, Season 4
Season 4 (1992-1993), Episodes 401-424

Theater silhouettesThis season onward sees the use of a white lumikey method (instead of chromakey) in the theater, resulting in a considerable improvement in the appearance of the silhouettes against the movies.

Extra lid beneath the globe A second snack-dispenser cap is added to Servo's head under the globe, making the globe detachable. The globe, having been cut away from the base of the head, is inverted and inserted in this new cap. The globe is held in place by friction and strong language, so it can be easily removed and replaced with special globes as required. The blooper reels show it frequently falls off with little provocation.

  • Body is now a resin copy of the Money Lover Barrel
  • Engine is now a resin copy of the original plastic dragster engine
  • Arms are now resin copies of the original plastic "Mr. C. More Bunz" arms. (Slightly more 'body' is attached to each arm than when original Mr. Bunz arms were used, so the arm mounts are somewhat more oval than they were previously; this style of resin arm is used from now to the end of the series, including the movie.) Reproduction C. More Bunz shoulders
  • Head is now painted Testors #1629 Ruby Red Metal Flake, like the body
  • Resin hands occasionally go unpainted this season
Bill Corbett: For awhile, Tom had flesh-colored hands... very disturbing.
Kevin Murphy: Joel brought me these hands and said, "Kevin, paint these. It's just far too disturbing."
Season 5 Servo
Crow, Joel, and Servo, Season 5
Tom, Mike, and Kevin Season 5 (1993-1994), Episodes 501-524

Joel Hodgson left the show mid-season (episode 512), to be replaced as on-screen host by head writer Michael Nelson.

  • Servo's hoverskirt is rebuilt and re-painted
Mike Nelson and friends in Season 6
Crow, Mike Nelson, and Servo, Season 6
Season 6 (1994-1995), Episodes 601-624

Jef Maynard leaves BBI at the end of this season to form his own company, "Blue Thumb Scenic", initially taking Patrick Brantseg with him.

No changes to Servo from Season 5.

MST3K: The Movie
Silver Screen Servo
Production still from MST3K: The Movie
Production still from MST3K: The Movie

MST3K:TM poster Filmed during Season 6 (1994-1995), in theaters April 1996

Robert Lane Robert Lane is credited as "Puppet Builder" for the movie.

A Swarm of Servos
A Covey of Crows
As part of the promotional effort for the movie release, BBI creates replicas of Servo and Crow and, in April of 1996, presents them to seven Planet Hollywood locations across the country. The fan community is instrumental in providing some of the rarer parts (Cooper XL7FG hockey masks for Crow, for instance).

  • Engine pistons are now silver inside
  • Hoverskirt is redone — trains pressed flatter against the bowl, accurately positioned, painted semi-gloss black
  • A vacuformed Tyco Turbo Train is now always centered between the engine exhausts (in earlier Servos, there was a train under each exhaust pipe, but usually none in the center)
...Comedy Central
Season 7
Crow, Mike, and Servo, Season 7
Season 7 (1995-1996), Episodes 701-706

Helena Espinosa with Tom Servo and Kevin MurphyBot construction is in the hands of Prop Master Helena Espinosa and Prop Builder Dean Trisko.

Crow and friends in September 1996, at the BBI Studios

Servo from the MST3K: The Movie is used on the show during this season.

SciFi Channel: Bigger Budget, Bluer Lights
Season 8
Crow, Mike, Servo, and Gypsy, Season 8
Season 8 (1997), Episodes 801-822

Bot design and construction is in the hands of Patrick Brantseg (Art Director) and Beth 'Beez' McKeever (Prop Diva).  

Patrick Brantseg and Crow Beez McKeever with Crow and Timmy (theater Crow)

No changes to Servo from Season 7.

Season 9
Crow, Mike, and Servo, Season 9
Season 9 (1998), Episodes 901-913

Madrigal Servo No changes to Servo from Season 8.

Season 10
Crow, Mike, and Servo, Season 10
Season 10 (1999), Episodes 1001-1013: Final Season

Servo with a beer Kevin and Tom go for donuts No changes to Servo from Season 9.