On Meeting My Heroes, And How Mystery Science Theater 3000 Has Influenced Basically My Whole Life
I don't have idols. Not properly speaking. Not in the remembering-birthdays, gif-making, fanart-drawing, Tumblr-ing, cosplaying sort of way. I have never really obsessed over anyone like that -- I’ve had strong influences amongst creative people in all sorts of fields, for sure, and although I have stood curiously around the fringes of various fandoms, peering into the cracks with mild inquisitiveness about what happens therein, I’ve always remained an outsider, lacking the forceful commitment of the Real Fans.
I mean, I say this, but it's not maybe entirely completely true. Because I do have Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Like so many kids of my era, I discovered MST3K entirely by accident, flipping through cable channels late at night on a weekend visit to my mom’s place. My mom had far superior cable offerings than the ones at my dad’s house, where I lived, so I often forswore sleep in favor of staying up late watching all the channels I couldn’t ordinarily see -- like Comedy Central, which at the time was mostly a 24-hour loop of stand-up clips. With the one notable exception.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 presented itself rather subtly within my idle channel-switching, a grainy, clearly low-budget film with three small silhouettes superimposed at the bottom of the screen. There was a backstory: Joel Robinson, former custodial employee, had been launched into space by mad scientists and forced to watch bad movies as a sort of pointless experiment. Joel, rather than face his terrible fate in solitude, built robots to keep him company during these experiments.
And they talked. They talked over the movies. They talked back to the screen. They made jokes. I don’t know what drew me to MST3K so much that first time I watched it, but I was rapt, sitting there on my mother's couch, in the darkened quiet of her apartment at 1AM. Watching it, I felt recognized, in a way -- I felt immediately understood.
It was 1990. I was 13, trapped in that hellish world of early adolescent girlhood. It was a time when I hated all my friends, when I hated myself for being fat and awkward and just generally bad at being a girl, hopelessly inept at doing my hair properly and wearing the correct clothes and navigating the suddenly shifting terrain between myself and the boys I went to school with. I was not alone in this, but I sure felt I was, and all the more so when I finally abandoned the relative safety (and unpredictable torment) of my 8th grade clique in favor of spending my daily lunch period hiding from my social failure in a locked bathroom stall.
In retrospect, it’s little wonder that this curious and unexpected television show connected with me -- I could have been adrift in space myself. What would I have given for purpose-built companions who accepted me and got my stupid jokes? Watching MST3K was like having friends. Watching MST3K was a revelation that maybe it was OK if I wasn't popular; maybe there were other things to be.
I spent a couple of years believing that MST3K was a secret that only I knew; I taped episodes and watched and rewatched them alone, only occasionally sharing them with the few neighborhood friends I spent time with, and quickly turning them off if said friend didn’t get the appeal right away.
When I was fifteen, I discovered the internet -- well, I discovered the Prodigy online service, which had some very active MST3K fan bulletin boards, and I found that there were, in fact, a lot of people who loved the show as I did -- even as there were also a lot of people who totally didn’t get it in my immediate vicinity.
This gap wasn’t helped by the fact that in the first few seasons, the jokes were often incredibly obscure, all the moreso in a pre-Google era where you couldn’t simply search for a particular phrase to find its origin. MST3K was like a code, a secret language of cultural references I desperately wanted to unravel, and to this day when I recognize a long-obscured joke I feel a little thrill of satisfaction. (Like just this week, when I was driving a rental car and listening to the radio for the first time since I last drove a rental car, probably, and the song "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)" came on, and I recognized the words and realized OH, THAT'S WHAT THIS IS.)
Recall like that comes only from repeated viewings. And I have done repeated viewings. For years, I had the entire series captured on VHS tape, recorded from cable, complete with BK TeeVee commercials and ads for light-up LA Gear sneakers. When those tapes began to wear out after ten years or so, I bought homemade DVD-R sets of entire seasons from nice people on the internet -- and then, when I could finally purchase legit copies from which the series' creators might actually see some revenue, I always did (and still do).
Mystery Science Theater 3000’s influence on my life really can’t be overstated, although I have only truly appreciated it in the last few years. In college, I majored in film largely because of MST3K. In my 20s, I even dated people based on their familiarity with the show. Indeed, the closest I’ve ever come to being arrested was directly related to Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, and it's a ridiculous story, although one I won't be telling here until I’m certain the statute of limitations has run out.
MST3K was originally created and hosted by Joel Hodgson, and while I appreciate that MST3K was always a group effort, Joel has always loomed large in my life as a creative influence -- here was a guy who had a totally strange idea for a television show about interrupting movies, one that would probably totally repel a lot of people, and yet he did it anyway, in PUBLIC, in spite of the certain knowledge that many folks would never "get" it. I admire that. How could I not? Also, it was his character on the screen that I so related to that first time, and his face that became such a familiar comfort from my earliest teens straight through to my adult years.
Much later, after Joel had left the show, Mary Jo Pehl stepped in to the role of Pearl Forrester and provided a different kind of reassurance to an adult me, out of college, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Pearl was important because she was funny without being self-deprecating -- and self-deprecation is fine in moderation, but to see a hilarious woman in a role where she never doubted her ability to literally take over the world was wonderful (and I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention that she was also individually important to me because Pearl was also fat, like me, and this was never ever used as a punchline -- that was tremendous to witness).
In 2007, many of the original MST3K cast members -- Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein -- reunited for a new project called Cinematic Titanic, and I was thrilled. When it went on the road as a live show, I was straight-up ecstatic, and when I turned up at Boston’s Wilbur Theater for a show in 2010, I was unprepared for the cast to hang around afterwards to meet with fans and sign autographs.
That first time, I stood in a long line with my husband, with nothing to be signed, but just needing to say hello and thank you, and as I approached the table where the cast sat, I found myself unable to breathe. Also I had no saliva in my mouth whatsoever, and it occurred to me in a panic that I might not actually be capable of speech, but would only emit an incoherent throaty garble before the people who are the closest things to idols I’ve ever known. My hands felt like inanimate blocks of ice.
I have never in my life been starstruck until that moment -- indeed, I’d always sort of rolled my eyes at people who freaked out about such things.
I’m more sympathetic now. I don’t even remember what I said that time, I just remember feeling overwhelmed to be sharing the same air with the people whose voices had been with me for so long. (And then when we got to the car I literally screamed like I was being murdered because I don't even know why.)
Sunday night, Cinematic Titanic stopped in Boston again on their farewell tour, and this time I was slightly better prepared not to lose my mind during the meet and greet afterward. But as the picture I asked my husband to take demonstrates, I was only partly successful.
I said "Thank you," several times. I don't remember what else. Oh and Mary Jo told me SHE is a big fan of MINE and my brain kind of started shrieking AAAHH WHAT NOTHING MAKES SENSE and I hope I didn't do anything too incredibly ridiculous because I had more or less lost all control of my faculties.
When you meet someone whose work has had a profound effect on you, I wonder if this level of personal meaning can never be adequately conveyed and understood. I can say to Joel and the cast of MST3K, "The things you have made were arguably some of the most meaningful influences on my development as a writer and simply as an adult human and if I stood here and said ‘thank you’ a thousand times it wouldn’t even begin to convey my gratitude for that."
I can explain that watching MST3K made me feel like I wasn’t alone in many difficult and lonely periods throughout my life, that it gave me hope that someday, I would find other weirdos (I hope you all recognize yourselves in this, dear readers) to connect with, that someday I would be understood; somewhere, I would find acceptance as I am, without constantly feeling left out, or messed up, or otherwise like a chronic outsider.
I can say all of this out loud to the cast but it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t really get it out there. I can’t make these people -- who are, ultimately, just normal people who have participated in some things that meant a lot to me, a stranger -- really grasp what I mean when I say thank you.
And the truth is also that as much of this as came from MST3K, it also came from me -- it came from what I did with that experience, how I invested myself in it, what I took from it, and how I used it as a touchstone for my own approach to media criticism, which is a huge part of my work as a writer and editor today.
The people who unwittingly supplied all of this to me can never really get how deep that effect goes. I've experienced this in reverse on a much smaller scale, when people I have met who have read me for years try to explain how I have helped them, and I can hear them say it, they can say wonderfully kind and grateful things about how my work has affected their lives, but I can't really get it, because as much as they may know about me and my life, I know nothing of theirs, or how reading words I wrote down impacted them.
People have told me, with tremendously humbling directness, that I have changed their life for the better, and I want to say no, no YOU did that, I was just a handy conduit for what you needed at the time. Because that is also true. And ultimately, I’m just another person doing a thing I love to do, and I doubt I can ever fully appreciate how my doing that thing has stuck tendrils into other individuals and helped them figure out their own lives in a better way.
So in a strange way I see both sides of this. Still, having grown up with the voices of the MST3K cast as the soundtrack to so much of my life gives them an importance beyond what I can ever say, beyond even who they are as individuals. I spent my teenage years falling asleep to taped episodes of MST3K every night; when I left Florida for college in Boston, so long as I had tapes to watch, I never felt homesick. I still have vast dictionaries of film dialogue meshed with jokes stored in my memory that I can draw up and recite to myself. I still watch episodes on a regular basis, new DVD sets are still coming out, and this month will mark 25 years since the series first aired. Today MST3K is far more widely recognized and appreciated as an important pop culture artifact, and this recognition is entirely due.
But even beyond the sheer entertainment it's given me, the real impact of MST3K on my life was philosophical. It was learning a willingness to step back and laugh at nearly anything, including myself; it was developing a capacity to not take everything so seriously, and to talk back to culture if the circumstances I'm faced with are unacceptable. It was also figuring out how to poke fun at things without viciousness and sharp-edged snark, without cruelty or meanness, but with a gentle, good-natured sense of irony -- to respond to life’s inevitable absurdity with laughter instead of incredulity and outrage.
They say you should never meet your heroes, the conventional wisdom being that they will inevitably disappoint you by being normal, imperfect, complicated everyday people. They can never meet your expectations, they will hear you tell them that they are amazing and that you love them and yet they will never understand how that can be true, because what we really know of the people we idolize is so much more limited than we like to believe, and because your excitement at meeting them will always be tempered by the realization that your hero, whoever they are, however intimately they have spoken to you in your darkest moments, knows you only as a stranger.
But I'm glad to meet my idols, because they're not superheroes, because they're just people who managed to figure out how to do something they love for awhile, and have shared it with a grateful audience. And as someone who's only ever wanted to put together words that other people like to read, or watch, or listen to, and that maybe even get them thinking, this is what I want too. I'm happy to have any illusions shattered. Because if they're just normal folks who have wrangled this magic out of life, maybe I can do the same thing too -- maybe so can you.