Crow, Mike Nelson, and Tom Servo, moments before accidentally destroying the Hubble Telescope on a dare.
Sometimes I get jealous when I read about how easy it is for preadolescent children to pick up and master new things – at that developmental stage a child’s brain is supposedly a big sponge for information, making it far easier for them to learn new languages and skillsets than it is for big, lumbering, stupid teens and adults. Had my parents dragged me to Chinese lessons or hired a college student to teach me how to code when I was a kid, my life could be completely different right now. But instead, I spent countless hours of my childhood watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, which means that the only thing I’m really an expert at now is making wiseass comments during movies.
Although I’ve got tons of warm, fuzzy memories of watching The Muppets as a child, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3k) remains the puppet show that has had the most profound impact on my life so far. It’s also worth noting that my life so far and MST3k’s life so far are almost the exact same amount of time – the first episode aired on a Minneapolis public access station 25 years ago today.* I was born three days later, probably because my Mom’s womb didn’t have a television and I wanted to watch what would become my favorite TV show.
*“Today” referring to November 24th, because seemingly the only blogs I can’t finish on deadline are the time sensitive ones, God damn it.
I can’t say for sure when I first saw the show; in my mind, watching silhouetted figures heckling B-movies is just a natural part of life. It must’ve been sometime in the mid 1990s, because in the episodes I watched Mike Nelson had already taken over hosting duties, playing the role of an unlucky temp trapped in space by his mad scientist boss, where he’s tortured by an endless stream of bad movies with only two sassy robots as company.
Lots of shows are funny, but no show is funny in the way that MST3k is. Soon after Mike Nelson was promoted from head writer to host, the show’s comedy took on a degree of smart, self confident absurdity that was way ahead of its time. My favorite example of this is a season 8 cold open in which Mike finds his robot friends, Crow and Tom Servo, in tears after a childish game gone wrong. As Crow tearfully explains:
“Mike, we were playing dog and bear, you know? And Servo was chasin’ me, and I ran panicked over logs and through streams, maddened with primal terror, y’know? And I turned and raked my deadly claws against his howling snout, y’know? And I rose to my hind feet, towering, and still bellowing he came and I mewled and spewed gore from my wounds and snot from my flaring wild maw, and- And- And then we were locked like lovers, and then I was engirdled by moiled spotted hound-bodies and my entrails were hanging out and I tried a savage feral roar but alas my force was spent and I died! And Servo took it too far!”
Each episode of MST3k is densely packed with references to movies, TV, advertising, literature, theater, music, and current events of the 1990s, but to the best of the fan community’s knowledge, this monologue isn’t a reference to anything else. It wasn’t lifted from a Faulkner novel as a subtle in-joke for all the English majors in the audience. It was just something the writers thought would be funny – a robot emotionally naïve enough to take a heavy emotional stake in a game called “Dog and Bear” but articulate enough to describe what had happened with extremely vivid, dramatic language.
It’s very likely that you watched that video and thought, “This is stupid and not funny.” You’d probably say the same thing about this extended debate over the relative boldness of Mike’s new barbecue sauce, or the trio’s attempt to create ice sculptures so that their evil captor can try to pass her castle off as a cruise ship. What makes MST3k my favorite show is that the writers were no doubt aware that a lot of people would think these bizarre sketches were stupid and not funny, but they nonetheless fully committed to them because they thought they were funny.
This tactic earned the show a Peabody award, two primetime Emmy nominations for writing, a movie deal, and kept them on the air for eleven straight years – not bad for a no-budget Midwestern puppet show. MST3k didn’t go looking for an audience; they just marched to the beat of their own drum and in time an audience found them. That attitude is why I continue to churn out long form text-heavy blog posts when all evidence suggests that what people really want to see are listicles full of looping .gifs from Mean Girls.
I end almost every day by tuning into a Justin.tv channel that plays a continuous loop of all 197 MST3k episodes and then crawling into bed, watching Mike and the ‘bots mock movies and each other until I fall asleep. There’s just something I find extremely comforting about watching this show. It’s been one of my favorite things since I was a child, and no matter where I am – Portland, Eugene, London, LA, a whorehouse in northern Nevada – it makes me feel like I’m at home.
And it serves as a reminder: You can’t amuse everyone, so you may as well just concentrate on amusing yourself and count anybody else who gets amused as a bonus.
Truman Capps watch out for snakes!