I don’t know why for every cohort of kids, you’ll find one geek, but you know I wouldn’t be writing this unless I were that geek. As you are reading this, it is more than possible you were that geek, too. But we are now on the internet, where it is easy to connect to like minds, and when I speak of first unfurling my freak flag, it was in days of analog yore, when one truly suffered for one’s love of Doctor Who. This is why I can almost sympathize with gatekeepers from my generation and older who stake furious claim to what they believe they have lost so much dignity and treasure for, be it boy Ghostbusters or an eternally optimistic Luke Skywalker. But then, when you’re angry because others have embraced something you loved or something you loved changed, you have become the thing you hated, friend: ossified and ostracizing and superficial. It’s probably never a good idea to define yourself by someone else’s story at any rate, and even if you’re a creator, you have no more ownership of Star Trek continuity than I do. The internet has truly brought us many new and terrible ways to torture each other, but it’s still made it a pretty good time to be a fan, at least if your heart is open.
But I digress. As an analog geekling in the 80s, I figured out pretty early that I couldn’t help being what I was or loving what I loved, that no one would ever fall for my imitation of normal, and pretending would only make me miserable. I had a dim hope that I’d find someone sympathetic in the far future of college, but until then, I had no expectation except remaining a lonely satellite. And then I saw Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was a little like being stranded on an island for years and finally seeing the outline of a ship break the horizon. That first episode of MST3K is captured forever in the amber of Important Moments for me. I honestly can’t remember my first kiss, but I remember that. The episode was Alien From L.A., a very 80s take on Jules Verne, in which Sports Illustrated model Kathy Ireland plays against type as a nebbish waitress searching for her explorer dad in a lost civilization at the earth’s core. In this Journey to the Center of the Earth, everyone is Australian and looks like A Flock of Seagulls, and like a lot of the better MST3K episodes, the movie was one I might have willingly watched on late night cable anyway. But what struck me at the time was a single line. A bald alien takes a header off a golf cart-cum-alien mobile in one scene, and host Mike scoffs, “That’s Donald Pleasance!” (It wasn’t.) And that was the Universal Greeting to me right there, bah-weep-graaaaagnah wheep ni ni bong, speak friend and enter, play me some funky golden Voyager disc. Someone else knew who Donald Pleasance was. No one I knew knew who Donald Pleasance was. The rest of the episode featured oblique riffs on Highlander, The Andy Griffith Show, Star Wars, and so much more, and even better than the fact that they were speaking my language, they were speaking it in a way that suggested they didn’t care if you got it or not. The right people would get it. I was finally the right people.
If you’ve somehow never crossed orbits with MST3K, the premise is that a hapless human – originally janitor Joel, then temp worker Mike, and in the 2017 reboot, valiant pilot Jonah – gets trapped on a spaceship called the Satellite of Love and is forced to watch crummy movies by various mad scientist teams, each headed by a member of the evil Forrester clan. The test subject ends up making fun of the movies to stay sane-ish, with the help of their robot friends Crow and Tom Servo. Consult the opening theme for more details. It’s a fun sci-fi twist on snarky horror hosts like Elvira, Ghoulardi, and Svengoolie combined with the subversive puppetry of the Muppets, and it anticipated all the commonplaces of home media and internet-assisted viewing experiences, from DVD commentaries to livetweeting. It was a niche show that might have died on the public access vine, except for the serendipity that cable channels happened to be hungry for cheap, long programs at the time, and MST3K was both. It was the exact right show at the exact right moment to find an audience in all the freaks and geeks out there who were just starting to make their first tentative keystrokes on BBSes. Geek chic wouldn’t a be a thing for decades, but MST3K articulated a platform for geek credibility and a love of esoteric reference-based humor that informed almost everything I found funny in the 90s through today, from Norm Scott’s Hsu and Chan comic in Electronic Gaming Monthly to the enormously popular WB 90s cartoons like Freakazoid! and Animaniacs to Futurama, Community, Mysteries Inc, Family Guy, Borderlands, Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next novels — look, just everything, OK? MST3K was a harbinger of the meta, memeable world we now find commonplace, and over twenty years later, it’s firmly embedded in pop culture. The other day, thanks to my two-year-old, I witnessed evil wizard Gargamel and his two familiars talk over the end credits of The Smurfs: The Lost Village (2017) in a deliberate homage to MST3K. Freaking Smurfs.
All that being said, I have had the same conversation over the years, and I reckon I’m inviting it now, with people who eschew MST3K on principle, and it comes down to critics feeling that MST3K is inherently disrespectful. Here’s a bunch of wiseguys making fun of films made on a shoestring, films made by people still learning their craft, films that might have something to offer if you could forgive the fact that the spaceship interior is clearly a vacant boiler room. Films that MST3K edited, too – for time, usually, and in one infamous example, to snip out a rape scene they didn’t realize was in the movie before committing to use it,* but still. You take a film and make it into a chopped up pan and scan TV show and then make fun of it — that’s not entirely fair, and sometimes it makes a difference. In arguably MST3K’s most famous episode, Manos: the Hands of Fate, the position of Joel and the Bots onscreen kind of obscures that lackey of the damned Torgo is actually a satyr.** And that’s to say nothing about the baked-in homophobia, transphobia, and body shaming of much of the humor in the first 10 seasons.*** MST3K was always of its time, and if you need reminding of how white-cis-het male geek culture was back in the day, Ready Player One is playing near you.
If you feel that there’s no way these guys aren’t fundamentally jerks, you’re in good company, too. There’s a sad little vignette in The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, in which the writers and cast reminisce about the original seven seasons of the show, where writer and Tom Servo performer Kevin Murphy remembers meeting one of his idols, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., at the Cable ACE awards. When he introduced himself and his show, Vonnegut politely reminded Murphy that a lot of hard work went into the films his puppet show took shots at, and when Kevin still mustered up the courage to invite his hero to dinner, he was rejected – only later to notice Vonnegut eating alone at the same restaurant. There are a lot of generous explanations one might imagine for how that happened, but the simplest answer, the one that Kevin Murphy probably gets to visit every now and then at 3 a.m., is that Vonnegut would have rather shared his time with the guys slapping carpet remnant costumes on dogs to make monsters in The Killer Shrews than the snarky bastards laughing at them for their failure to do it well.
But they aren’t snarky bastards is the thing. Well, not only. They can be rough on their subjects, but it’s older brother holding you in a headlock-grade rough, not the school bully. In an interview with the A.V. Club about a different project, his podcast about books called 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back, MST3K head writer and host Mike Nelson said, “We’re not bitter people who are not having fun. We’re having fun and inviting other people to have fun with it. Who wants to listen to a bunch of bitter idiots ripping on something they hate?” That’s the MST3K ethos, too. Their own show is basically hot-glued together. It’s not like they don’t know how hard it is to make a thing onscreen cheaply for people to love. Ultimately the success of any given episode depends on the movie they build around, and no one would stay tuned in if it was 3 guys purely hating something for 90 minutes.*** It’s comedy, not Hannity.
And it’s the affection at the bottom of the show, along with the scholarship in geeky and obscure things that comes naturally with being an Inside Kid, that I respond to. I think it’s what a lot of fans respond to. Sure, there’s going to be the odd fart joke that everyone can enjoy, but most riffs, the best riffs, are observational comedy coded in Geek. The good-natured quality is easier to spot in the first, relatively amateurish seasons when the pace was more casual. As they got better at riffing, especially after Mike took over as host, everything kicked into a more savage, possibly more professional, gear — although even in the Joel era, they spent the entirety of Eegah! making fun of Arch Hall Jr.’s looks and Mitchell has enough cracks about Joe Don Baker’s weight that you can’t exactly blame him for allegedly wanting to take a swing at them. (Arch is a real good sport though.) I scowl a little when they make fun of Bela Lugosi’s acting to the cheap seats in Bride of the Monster or John Carradine’s thunderous bass singing “Night Train to Mundo Fine” in Red Zone Cuba. (“Oh, to be blessed with an instrument like that!” deadpans Mike. Bite me, Mike.) But then these guys are invoking Thornton Wilder or Philip Glass or Fawlty Towers or Tony Dow or Sylvia Plath and I can’t stay mad at them. They are still people who would watch John Carradine and Bela Lugosi by choice. And they’re just funnin’. Mostly. It’s also true that, for better or worse, a great many movies, stars, and TV series enjoyed profit and a kind of immortality thanks to MST3K. Maybe it’s not immortality on terms you’d fantasize about, but when you make a movie like Puma Man, take any love you get for it is my advice.
That love and scholarship is on full display in the MST3K reboot, technically titled Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, at Netflix. The behind-the-scenes issues that occasioned creator Joel Hodgson to leave MST3K halfway through its first run have always been half-cloaked in a very Midwestern unwillingness to air dirty laundry, but Joel clearly came to regret it, even as he championed the show’s continued success and he and other alumni staged their own post-MST3K riffing projects. When he successfully mounted a record-breaking Kickstarter to bring the show back in late 2015, his approach seemed galvanized by decades of thinking about what he could have done better. That meant the aw, shucks, sleepy-eyed prop comic revealed himself as a pretty meticulous producer, rethinking everything from the pace of the riffs and host segments to the logo, plus recasting the entire thing and conscripting famous fans of the show like Dana Gould, Joel McHale, Wil Wheaton, and Patton Oswalt as performers and writers. It also meant, apart from a few cameos, bringing MST3K back without the help of his former colleagues, but that doesn’t seem to have dampened the spirit of the show at all. If anything, the show is overflowing with love and excitement, because this time it’s being made by a lot of the same people it was once Important to. The fanbase has always been pretty rabid, but here that cult following has been turned to uplifting the best version of MST3K possible, not flame wars on Compuserve.
Of course, MST3K won’t be Important in the same way to a new generation of fans as it was to my patheticness in the early 90s. The experience of being a geek has changed, both by virtue of the internet and also the way that the ubiquity of premium genre stuff has made everything with pointy ears and dragons hot properties. Like I said, it’s a good time to be a fan of this stuff. I’m inexpressibly glad MST3K is back though, not just because there are still so many bad movies that still deserve skewering or because it’s incredibly funny, but because, ultimately, ripping into a David Carradine sword and sorcery flick is an act of love – maybe not for the movie, but definitely for myself.
* That film was the grim Ross Hagen flick The Sidehackers, which still shows a fair bit of violence, so trigger warning still in effect.
** Of course, if you’ve seen Manos, you know losing the full context of Torgo’s “big knees” is the least of its problems.
*** I want to emphasize here that I believe all the MST3K people are good folks and they were just transmitting latent prejudices in the culture at the time. I think this is borne out by the raised consciousness of a majority of the jokes in the latest series.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is primarily available through Shout Factory, although selected episodes are also up for grabs at Rifftrax.com. You can find the original series streaming on Shout Factory TV’s dedicated Mystery Science YouTube channel and Netflix. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is streaming on Netflix.
If you enjoy MST3K, you very likely will also like Rifftrax, which has an insane catalog at their own website and selected episodes streaming on Amazon Prime, and Cinematic Titanic, which you can find on YouTube. Also keep an eye out for Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff’s live riffing tour under the name The Mads.
You might also really enjoy livetweeting. I have hosted a few myself. The website http://livetweeting.org/ is a good place to find recurring tweetalongs.
Angela’s top 10 MST3K episodes are Pod People, Bride of the Monster, The Beast of Yucca Flats, Avalanche, Space Mutiny, Cave Dwellers, Riding With Death, Starcrash, Space Travelers, and The Final Sacrifice, but keep in mind this list changes pretty much hourly.