I can picture where I was the first time I saw Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was in the little dining area of a house my family rented when we moved to California just before my 13th birthday. We only lived in that house for a year, and the peculiar sight of an old movie with little silhouettes in the corner pointing and laughing wrote a memory that has outlasted most of my other impressions of that place. I even remember the episode: the cringe-tastic White Saviors vs. The Ooga Booga adventure Jungle Goddess.
Once I got past that the show was just plain funny, elements of it started to emerge that were even more important than the laughs. I grew up in Ohio, and didn’t feel like a Californian. Even now, decades later, I still feel only half Californian. The Midwest is strong with this one. And MST3K was that rare animal, a creative work that was overtly Midwestern.
The performers never felt desperate for our attention. There was something more hospitable and humble about it; almost like it was apologizing for intruding sometimes. But it never took a back seat in its ability to entertain. Their rubber and styrofoam aesthetic and relaxed presentation concealed an all-inclusive and absolutely merciless facility for jest and mockery. That style was, again, familiar, ringing similar to those evenings with my family listening to A Prairie Home Companion. You might never have experienced it, but no one can match Garrison Keillor for the ability to smile gently while sticking in a culturally-self-critiquing shiv.
It was ingenious. The jokes and references didn’t just reward trivia-loaded nerds, they defiantly celebrated the virtues of cultural enrichment, and proclaimed that such things didn’t belong exclusively to the biggest cities. Anyone with a library and some curiosity could digest awesome literature, music, and history, and have instant rapport with people on the other side of a country or planet based only on that. More specifically to its era, it frequently reflected creator Joel Hodgson’s preoccupations with the mainstream Baby Boomer storytelling diet of Leave it to Beaver, and the way that the counter-culture systematically dismantled it with one brilliant assault after another.
If you watch any clips from his brief but astonishing stand-up comedy career, you see a precocious intellect short-circuiting from the attempt to process the milquetoast mush his elders fed him. In one bit, he unveils a pair of ventriloquist dummies he has fused together while singing the theme song to The Patty Duke Show: “They’re cousins…identical cousins, connected at the spine!” It’s no surprise that many of the show’s finest moments in his era occurred when his team got to aim flaming arrows at the ethos of Square America. In the short “A Date With Your Family”, watch at the 0:24 mark where the son opens the oven and Joel plaintively asks on his behalf: “Sylvia?” If you got how they managed to not only managed to land a pitch-dark and brilliant satirical bullseye against the homogonized content on screen, but also did it with a single word, you’re the type who could well feel, as a teenager with a lot of facts but not a lot of friends, that a TV show like this was sending you Christmas presents every week.
Once I attended a party full of professional puppeteers (don’t ask). Many of them were clearly very socially-shy; most preferring not even to make eye contact with you. And yet, if two of them had puppets on their hands; they would reach out to one another, seemingly of their own accord, and start interacting; using hands to sculpt a social exchange they didn’t feel up to committing their whole body to.
Joel has remarked on how rarely he interacted directly with other performers on the show when they were in human form. He seemed so little like a performer himself; he was simply Joel being Joel, all oddities intact. In an age where awareness of mental health issues is growing and taking on some necessary urgency at last, you can look back with new poignancy on the infamous “Joey the Lemur” sketch, which seems less like a sculpted comedy bit and more like a manic event that the cameras just happened to capture. Crow and Servo seem to lose the thread of how to even participate, and it becomes blatantly uncomfortable. But if you’ve ever had a friend who struggled with their equilibrium and needed to just ride out a peak with them, it might look familiar.
That word keeps coming up…friend. The theme song’s lyrics changed several times as the show changed hosts, and channels, but that key phrase: “his robot friends…” never changed. For a person as admittedly shy as Joel is – if you read between the historical lines as many hardcore fans do, you certainly get the impression that he quit the franchise rather than face a big argument with a key collaborator – the idea of building an entire TV show and family of robot puppets so he could have friends to share these peculiar movies with makes genuine sense. It’s the kind of radical-compensation-in-other-senses currently featured (albeit with a lot more punching) in Marvel’s Daredevil.
Friendship, and its virtue as your best weapon against madness, conformity, and mediocrity, is one of the pillars of MST3K. Another pillar is its pro-intellectualism, its unashamed celebration of being well-read and mentally limber enough to make non-intuitive connections in matching a reference to a prompt.
The final, crucial pillar occurred to me watching the revived Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix; where the sets are bigger, but not too much bigger; and the visual effects are better, but not too much better. A new crew has taken over, and their zest for the never-ending mission of the Satellite of Love is clear from the start. It feels like a true best of both worlds; reviving some of Joel’s idiosyncratic rituals like the Invention Exchange and playing towards his laid-back tone, while applying the experience and polish of the Mike Nelson era. They’re connected at the spine. Even if you’re a Joel homer like myself, you have to admit that many of the show’s all-time classics happened in the Nelson years; if nothing else, because the Best Brains crew had become very, consistently good at making their show.
I am only in the middle of the third episode, The Time Travellers, but already feel as if the promise the whole experiment has been fulfilled by Episode 2, Cry Wilderness. I’m quite prepared to call this crackpot Bigfoot adventure an instant classic for the series; if nothing else, because the sight of Crow and Servo cackling while making merry mischief in raccoon costumes has taken up immediate residence in the part of my brain where memories live that make me giggle helplessly at random moments.
It got me thinking about how the show’s “quality” could be a moving target. Their best episodes weren’t necessarily dependent on the relative goodness or badness of the film; more in what it was able to inspire in them. There’s a generation of would-be movie yucksters who seem to have missed the whole point of what MST created. There’s no value in just dismissing something, or calling it the worst thing ever. A lot of Internet commenters trying to win esteem trap themselves in a negative hyperbole cycle; hoping in vain to impress with their growing willingness to completely trash works that other people love and admire.
Over on the SoL, though, one of the constants is that, wherever the movie is on the spectrum that runs from Just Kinda Weird to Deep Hurting, the subjects of the experiments don’t ever bail out. They watch the movie from start to finish, and never even completely drown out the dialogue. They’ll let you follow the real plot even as they’re eviscerating it. There’s an inherent respect in that – people worked on these movies, even if they did it badly.
Think about it this way – on the worst dinner out with your friends, someone ends up in the hospital with food poisoning. On your worst vacation, you get bit by a snake and your luggage ends up in the ocean. But if you watch a bad movie, even “The Worst We Can Find”, well, with a creative mind and the company of good friends, even that can turn out to be a pretty good hang.
That’s what the revival of the show gets right, that’s what was most important to me to see preserved, and it’s why it feels so good to have the show back that I had to go blog like 1,600 words about it. It’s not just passive entertainment; it’s a stimulatingly good hang with clever people who mock movies because they think movies and the ability to watch them with others are ultimately things to be treasured.
The social organization of it feels a bit antiquated – you could have easy nightmares imagining a version of this show where anyone could hashtag a joke and have it trickle across the screen. But that would feel too competitive; everyone talking and no one listening. That’s not what MST3K does. It wants us in a conversation as urgently as it wants us to Keep Circulating the
It’s quietly radical of them to stick with that; to make a 90-minute show for a clickbait world. The show even acknowledges a changed world here and there. “What’s a radio?” one of the bots asks. Struggling to answer, new host Jonah settles on “It’s like a podcast you can’t control”. Culture comes on-demand in fast, tiny chunks now, but Quality Time takes time to create, and MST is back, bringing that kind of brain-rewarding, movie-loving, friendship-building Quality Time back into my life. It reminds me of the fellowship I have with anyone who would love giant monsters enough to create and perform an elaborate and damnably catchy rap number about giant monsters. With visual aids.