It's Just a Show: Me and My Very Serious Feelings About Mystery Science Theater 3000

Beyond its primary comedic brilliance, this strange, humble little puppet show was so often the thin line between me and worry, me and fear, me and despair.
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November 16, 2015
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growing up, feelings, cult tv, Mst3k

It was two years ago, almost to the day, that I wrote a long and tangled rumination on how a cult-favorite television show called Mystery Science Theater 3000 has influenced my life.

For the uninitiated, Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- MST3K to its friends -- consisted of a simple premise: a man is imprisoned on a satellite by mad scientists who force him to watch bad movies as part of an experiment. Said man confronts the situation with good-natured aplomb, and even builds a couple of wisecracking robot companions, and the trio responds to the torment of terrible, laughable films by making jokes back at the screen. This, at its core, is MST3K.

But there’s also more to it: there’s the way MST3K encourages you to find humor in the worst situations; the way it quietly affirms that with good people around you and a sense of perspective, you can survive almost anything; and possibly most importantly, that worrying about whether you fit in is futile -- don’t worry about who’s going to “get” you, better to trust that the right people will.

The piece I wrote on it back then resonated with many people, including series creator and original host Joel Hodgson, who even took time to send me a brief reply on Twitter thanking me for writing it. As a fan, you can imagine how I beamed at that.

Last week, a Kickstarter to revive MST3K -- canceled lo these 16 long years -- was launched, and I watched as my social media timelines exploded into lengthy and capslock-filled exclamations of joy and excitement at the prospect of seeing this beloved TV show brought back to life.

But I have a secret to tell: my more complete story begins back in July.

On a Friday morning in the middle of summer, I received a direct message from Joel via Twitter, asking if I could help him out. My immediate reaction was that it had to be some kind of mistake. I was so shocked and baffled that I waited hours before replying. Four hours, in fact. A not-insignificant portion of this time was spent staring numbly at the message he'd sent, trying to wipe away the irrational fear that this was some kind of prank.

My reaction was upsettingly out of character for me, and so out of sync with my usual optimistic belief that the world is full of magical possibilities, and that the best sort of living happens when we keep ourselves open to them, even when doing so makes us vulnerable.

To be fair, I’ve had a bit of a rough year: it began with a burst-pipe building flood that wrecked one third of my home, and while good things have also happened, it’s been overall a complicated eleven months, throughout which I have further struggled with the fact that finding time to write -- the thing that gives me the deepest satisfaction in my life -- has been nearly impossible. Had 2015 just ruined me, I wondered, if I could not see a positive and awesome thing present itself without instantly clouding it with doubt and negativity?

When I finally replied to that message, and Joel asked if we could talk on the phone, I lost my cool detachment altogether, and ran across the house to wail at my bewildered husband: "JOEL HODGSON WANTS TO TALK TO ME OH MY FUCKING GOD WHAT DO I DOOOOOO." (This is terrifically embarrassing to admit, but it totally happened.)

I calmed down. I took the call. I subsequently learned that the rights to MST3K (long tied up in boring and complicated legal purgatory) had finally been liberated, and Joel wanted to reboot the series with a crowdfunding campaign. Given the continued intensity of MST3K fandom, it seemed like a natural fit. And apparently, Joel hadn’t forgotten the post I’d written two years prior. This astonished me, because even I had to go back and reread it to remember what I’d said. He wanted to enlist me as a resource on the fan perspective as the project slowly came together.

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For many of its fans, MST3K is more than just a TV show; it is an identity. This is especially true for those of us who found it when we were young, because it is most often teenagers who can spare the energy and devotion to invest themselves so deeply in a piece of media that it becomes a part of how they define themselves.

If you doubt me on this, talk to anyone in their 20s today who grew up loving the Harry Potter series (or in their 40s, who grew up on Star Wars), and odds are good you’ll see that a piece of them still belongs to those stories, and probably always will. The media that influences us the most has a certain mystique that is missing in the other media we are exposed to. We are entertained by it, yes, but it also belies a deeper philosophy, or it creates a world we want to live in. And in the best scenarios, that media inspires us to look at the world already around us in a different way.

As host and creator, Joel Hodgson has figured heavily in my life. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a thread I can draw through two and a half decades. From teenage years spent doggedly amassing a recorded-from-TV VHS library of episodes and an encyclopedic knowledge of the series’ minutiae, to the adult me, sitting anguished in my flood-destroyed bedroom one cold February evening twenty-five years later, watching Pod People on my laptop because laughing at it was the only thing keeping me from crying -- MST3K has never been very far away. Beyond its primary comedic brilliance, this strange, humble little puppet show was so often the thin line between me and worry, me and fear, me and despair.

It is odd to admit, but nevertheless true, that in some ways Joel’s presence was as familiar and recognizable to me as a real-life friend. It’s remarkably challenging to have a normal conversation with a stranger who created something that you feel such a keen and longstanding affinity for -- and let’s be blunt here about the fact that becoming a fan of something, whether it’s a sports team, a pop star, or a cult TV series, is essentially a more detached and impersonal form of falling in love. Thus, that conversation is particularly challenging because the person you’re talking to doesn’t feel like a stranger; he actually seems like someone you’ve known since high school, in spite of the intellectual understanding that this is not the objective reality.

It was difficult to be chill, is my point. I did eventually get over it. (My powers of chill are now the stuff of legend. I could teach seminars in How To Be Chill. I could deliver a mic-dropping TED Talk on Chill Acquisition. TED, call me.)

It helps that it’s not just me. Joel’s heady influence in nerd circles is hard to overstate. He was a maker before makers were a community; he was a vanguard of geek culture before geek culture had a name, let alone a hashtag. When I was active in MST3K fan communities in the early 90s, people told each other a million stories of what Joel was "really" like. Pretty much every one I ever heard was wrong. Joel in real life is remarkably similar to the guy who stayed up late watching movies with you on Saturday nights; maybe a little less performative, a little more thoughtful, a little quieter. But he’s the person you always hoped he would be: he wants to build the stuff that exists in his imagination, and he wants to share cool things with you, and ultimately, he wants to make you laugh. And if he calls you while you're driving through Connecticut on your way to Boston from New York on a Saturday night in November, he may tell you to "drive carefully" no less than three times. And he’ll never really know that talking to him at all feels like a privilege, and a gift.

As the series creator, it’s impossible for Joel to understand exactly what it means to its fans. As admirably as he may try to get a piece of it, he’s too close to the end product. What he does understand is that MST3K is important. It may be important to him for different reasons than it is important to everyone else, or there may be places here and there where the two spheres overlap, but the importance is never in doubt.

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Over the past few months, I have had the extraordinary opportunity to talk, and watch, and listen as plans for the next iteration of MST3K have unfolded and evolved. And it will be different. I mean, if you think about it, it has to be. No amount of money or effort could bring it back the way it was, the way its longtime fans remember it -- not only because reproducing it would be impossible in the first place, but because we are all different, now.

Throughout our conversations, Joel has repeated his hope of reinventing this experience for a new generation. Still, while many kids watched and loved it, MST3K was never exclusively a kid’s show. When I first discovered it as a 13-year-old, I connected with it because it recognized me, but at the same time, it didn't talk down to me. It was bright and colorful and silly and had songs and costumes and puppets, and on a casual glance, it may well have looked like a perverse, sci-fi-flavored Muppet Show. It's not an unreasonable comparison. Like The Muppet Show, MST3K never condescended to its audience, however young or naïve that audience might be; the people making it never believed they were smarter than the people watching it. Alongside stalwarts like the original Muppet Show and the intensely clever old Bugs Bunny cartoons, MST3K is one of precious few ideas that are truly cross-generational, where adults can laugh at the most childish jokes, and kids can slowly learn to identify the more grown-up humor.

Even without any plans to have kids of my own, I would rather live in a world where MST3K exists than one where it doesn’t. There is a wide-eyed and open-hearted enthusiasm that is elemental to MST3K, and this is often what makes it so appealing to adults as well. In conversation, Joel has referred to the show as “a friendly filter for a scary world,” and I think that’s as true as anything that’s ever been said about it. While kids certainly benefit from such a filter, it’s equally useful for anyone trying to survive their life, at any stage. If you’re 10, or 67, there’s a profound reassurance in the idea that nothing that happens to you is ever so bad that it cannot be laughed at.

As MST3K has gained recognition as a cultural landmark, some have occasionally misunderstood it as a harbinger of snark culture, assuming that its goal was to destroy the movies it riffs on, to punish them for being so inept and low-budget and generally bad. Snark is the enemy of contentment; snark is cruelty dressed up, pretending to be a joke. And while it’s true that MST3K was often deeply sarcastic, it was never snarky. Snark tends to carry with it a vitriol that simply wasn’t present in MST3K. Far from hating or punishing its films, I believe that MST3K is secretly in love with movies, and with the people who make movies, and with bad movies especially; it would need to be, to watch so many of them, and its fans would need to be as well, even if they don’t realize it’s true.

As I said at the start, 2015 has been a complicated year for me, but I am realizing now, nearing the end, that none of it was anything I couldn’t handle with a sense of humor and the companionship of people who love and accept me as I am, and that even the darkest moments are temporary, and there is always something to laugh about just around the next bend. Twenty-five years after first discovering it, I am still drawing wisdom from the show that helped define my adolescence; in the same way that MST3K loves the movies that represent its central conflict, I can be in love with my complicated life, and with a world that is never perfect or predictable or rational, while finding humor in the most absurd and terrible moments.

And when there are new episodes out in that world again, maybe more people can take this lesson from Mystery Science Theater 3000 as well. Or you can just laugh at it. That always works too.

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You can support the MST3K Kickstarter here, if you're so inclined. No pressure though.