Wed
Jun 26 2013 10:00am
8 Lessons MST3K Taught Me About Writing, Life, and Everything

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a classic cult show, taking B-movies, sci-fi clichés, and pop culture references and blending them all into a consistently hilarious masterpiece that also ended up providing a sort of stealth manual for life. In the not too distant past, it gave me a way to me a way to look at life and writing that made the whole growing-up-and-trying-to-be-a-real-writer-thing much less frightening.

I had a joke I used to tell my friends, that I was basically a feral child, and that I was only civilized through my fortunate exposure to PBS. Sesame Street and LeVar Burton gave me just enough social skills to make it to high school. Then I discovered this man:

I tend to assume that everyone knows this show, but in reading the intriguing Onion AV Club discussion about the changes in MST3K’s structure, I saw that even some AV Club staffers were unfamiliar. So, a quick refresher: Joel (or Mike) and the companion robots Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo watch terrible movies while Mad Scientists monitor their minds, and Mike (or Joel) and the ’bots make fun of said movies in order to stay sane. This format allows Joike and the ’bots to run amok through 40 years of pop culture, time, space, and occasionally the American Midwest, making fun of everything. That’s really all you need to know, and leads us into lesson one:

 

1. Life is a choice between having control of when the movie begins and ends, and having robot friends.

Joel Gypsy Tom Servo CrowFinding himself on the ship, Joel has to make the choice between controlling “when the movie begins and ends” and using those unnamed, but apparently “special,” parts to make his robot friends. Granted, this is one line in a song packed with information, but it tells us everything we need to know about Joel’s character. Trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation, Joel creates companionship for himself rather than trying to establish any dominance over his environment—which I think would be the most natural impulse. You’re stuck in space, and Mad Scientists are giggling at you through a viewscreen—of course you’d want to carve out any space you could to establish personal boundaries. But not Joel. He even gave his robots pals free will (which he notably regrets in Experiment 314: Mighty Jack.) That’s just cool.

 

2. Always do your research!

When I was in high school, and got my hands on a copy of the Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, I read it repeatedly.

(Seriously - the black isn’t some border effect, it’s the guts of the book falling out.)

In the entry on Experiment 202: The Sidehackers, Mike Nelson talks about how, up to that point, the writers would watch portions of movies they thought might work for the show, schedule writing sessions, and then sit down as a group to go through an initial riff. This tactic worked until this movie, when they discovered that a brutal rape and murder scene happens toward the end, and is actually a catalyst for the ending. They had to cut a pivotal scene, and try to write jokes around the gap this created in an already thin plot. Plus, obviously, the idea of writing jokes about a film that ended so tragically wasn’t a pleasant experience. They changed their policy based on this movie, and screened complete movies from then on before choosing.

 

3. Specificity = universality.

The more local the riffs got, the better they were. Circle Pines, Minnesota accents, casserole recipes, Garrison Keillor digs, the Wisconsin Dells, Packers, Prince…for a girl trapped in flat, dull, sub-tropical, tourist-trap Florida, these tiny glimpses of life in the Northern Midwest were like windows opening into a wider, less-humid world. It also gave me personal investment in the world of the show that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, which leads to the idea that despite the silliness of the show, and the advice not to take it too seriously, these characters had more depth than many of the cardboard sitcom characters that were on television at the time. Plus, the show was movie-length, and allowed for a level of investment that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise—which actually leads into:

 

4. Art can be ritual.

The ritualistic aspect of the show has been commented on many times already. Most MSTies can tell you about the first time they saw the show, and many have made it a ritualistic event—getting up to watch it on Sunday mornings, watching it in dorm rooms, and a surprising number of people use it as a nightly sleep aid. But I think the biggest aspect of the show-as-ritual is the cult-like way that people would slowly learn what the show was, and then begin trading tapes and watching communally. The first episode I ever saw was Experiment 508: Operation Double 007, at a slumber party, after all the other kids had passed out. So my first experience of it was sitting eyelash-length from the TV, with the sound as low as possible, laughing into a pillow so I wouldn’t wake anyone else up and get us in trouble. I think the illicit nature of this first viewing that added to my love of the show—it was my thing for a while, because most of my friends didn’t seem to like it the way I did. But, since my family didn’t have Comedy Central, it quickly became a very intense relationship of finding people who had tapes and gathering for weekends (or occasionally skipping school) with people who became my closest friends, who all shared a love of this weird show. This cemented my thoughts about the role art could play in people’s lives, and the sort of bonding that can come only come from suffering through Manos, the Hands of Fate.

 

5. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience.

The people who get you will find you, or will be willing to do the work to figure it out. The references in the show are actually important, because they speak to this trust in the audience. Because of their large writing staff, who had a variety of interests, MST3K was written by people who were all reacting to each other as well as the film, and building those interactions into the show. You can go from the name of the Satellite of Love itself, through invention exchanges like Dr. Sax, Tragic Moments, the William Conrad Alert Fridge, and Daktari Stools, to the highly-detailed parodies of Star Trek: Voyager, Planet of the Apes, and 2001, and around to impressions of Tug McGraw and Rollie Fingers, and before you’ve even hit the actual riffs you’ve got a dizzying display of culture, both “high” and “low.” If you get the joke then you get a thrill of knowing that someone else noticed something about culture that you thought was interesting, but if you don’t get the joke, it’s on you to go look it up.

 

6. American Culture (1950—1990 Edition) was Inexhaustibly Interesting.

My teachers tried their best, but really, if it wasn’t for MST I’d have a pretty bare, bullet-point idea of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Luckily MST3K was there to fill in the gaps. ‘50s sitcoms, Quinn-Martin productions, C-list Japanese monster movies, Zappa lyrics, Aztec theology—I don’t know where I would have been without them. And obviously, when I did get a reference, I got to experience the burst of synaptic joy of being in on the joke.

 

7. How to Critique American Culture (1950-1990) 101.

Coming to a national network at the very beginning of the ’90s, MST3K stared into the void of our culture, and when that void stared back…Crow said “Bite me.” The writers of the show managed to balance a genuine love of the B-movies they watched with a quick, pointed attack on the movies’ celebration of mediocrity and conformity. Faced with two hours of blonde dullards, they unleashed their full AV geek arsenal, pointing out shallow values systems, kneejerk racism, misogyny, and classism—and also just the basic fact that many of the movies pushed boredom and blind acceptance of the status quo as the solution for all social ills.

 

8. “It’s just fiction. You don’t have to accept the ending they hand you.”

(Go ahead and skip to 1:27:00, unless you want to watch an unhealthy amount of Jack Elam.)

Probably the most important thing I ever learned. Probably the most important thing anyone can ever learn. As far as I’m concerned, this is the essential lesson of postmodernism, the rise of “geek” culture, fanfiction, Sweded videos, and hell, the whole last half of the 20th century. We are not passive consumers, we don’t have to receive top-down wisdom, we don’t have to roll over and let culture wash over us. You’re pissed off that Sansa Stark is a simpering kid? Re-write her so she’s stronger. You love a movie so much you wish you’d made it? Make your own version with cardboard and duct tape. Maybe it won’t all be good—the Bots' re-write of Girl in Lover’s Lane is ridiculous—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. And if you keep going, you might make something as timeless as Experiment 910: The Final Sacrifice.

 


Leah Schnelbach should probably repeat to herself it's just a show...but the part in Laserblast when Mike and the ’bots all become Pure Love and Pure Energy and stuff makes her tear up a little. You can find her not-Tweeting here.  

22 comments
wizard clip
1. wizard clip
Rowsdower!
Philip Gonzales
2. BatmanJesus
MST3K shaped my sense of humor more than anything else I encountered as a young man. Maybe H2G2, but mostly MST3K.

"Idiot control
Bees on pie
Burnin' rubber tires."
wizard clip
3. Nivair
WHEE! I LOVE this article! Thank you so much for all these beautiful reminders of why and how this show has made my life more awesome. :D

P.S. Did you mean "burst of synaptic JOY at being in on the joke"?
Karen Morrell
4. karenm83
I got hooked on this show at the ripe old age of 8, my dad was staying up with me because I was sick and we happened across it. I've been a die hard fan ever since and now my kids are hooked on it too :)
Philip Gonzales
5. BatmanJesus
Oh, and it was "Monster A Go-Go" caught late at night at a friend's house in high school. The first joke I remember laughing at was "No body." "No bounce."
Adam S.
6. MDNY
MST3K was one of the shows that my dad and I really bonded over. He had all these memories of watching cheesy B-movies in the '50s, and suddenly we were able to watch them together with a built-in, hilarious robot audience. I will always remember watching "The Killer Shrews" (episode 407) together and literally rolling on the floor for like 30 minutes. Both of us.
Angela Korra'ti
7. annathepiper
If I say to you "let me sing you the song of my people", chances are I'm about to start belting out "IN THE NOT TOO DISTANT FUTURE, next Sunday A.D.!" (heart)

A cornerstone of my entire adult existence. Thank you, MST3K!
Ian Tregillis
8. ITregillis
*Turn down your lights (where applicable)*

My all-time favorite show, hands down. My most prized possession in the world is my collection of 100+ episodes painstakingly videotaped over the years and recently converted to DVD (it only took 6 weeks). My fondness for this show (particularly the Joel years) knows no bounds. I even took a date to a live showing of MST3K in Minneapolis once, long long ago. One of my regrets in life is that I never went on the Best Brains tour, even though I lived nearby.

"My manager at the Happy Chef is a real dink. He won't give me the weekends off."

*Keep circulating the tapes.*
Jeff Schweer
10. JeffS.
My favorite invention exchange?

The Tank top
and of course Joel riposting with the tickle bazooka.
good times, good times.

I actually turned both of my daughters into MST afficiondos and right at the moment they're watching a Riff Tracks episode called "right or wrong"

Yes, it's all my fault that they turned out this way and I couldn't be prouder.
wizard clip
11. James Parr
This show is perhaps the greatest pop culture artifact ever. If I could only ever watch one show, this would be it. I'm one of those who falls asleep to episodes. I've seen movies like Time Chasers or Pod People more than I've seen Star Wars.
wizard clip
12. Jan the Alan Fan
Love this show. "Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of Babylon 5."
wizard clip
13. MGille
My family went to Lake George NY regularly on summer vacations, where they had the Comedy Channel loooong before south jersey did. First one I think was Gamera vs Guiron, I was 9 and sort of got it, my father nearly fell over cackling by the time Servo sung on the fate of the poor biking children and Office Cornjob. So yeah it had him by the balls real quick, and I easily grew into it. I wish we knew someone in the tape network, instead episodes became part of the annual treat of vacation until the scifi channel era made it available at home. It may have limited our overall exposure for a long time, but I loved looking forward to MST3K as much as the roasting of marshmallows and diving into the lake and hitting the trails.

Right now a best friend wants to see what his new roomie will think of the show, and we're having a blast just working out what are the best starter episodes for her to try! Our agreement on the best place to start everything? Final Sacrifice ^_^
wizard clip
14. robotdesi
I love this! I was the only family member who would watch this religiously in my house, since it was on Comedy Central. I was too young to realize what a cult following it had then. And now with the internet, I realize how many friggin' people are as obsessed with it as I am.

It is weird how we all just wanna congregate. It is hella special.

Watch out for snakes!
wizard clip
15. kitastrope
Was introduced to it in grad school back in 1990 and was hooked immediately. Inordinately proud of my MST3K form letter rejection sent after I applied for a position (that wasn't available). It was genius and I'm going to see the Starship Troopers Rifftrax in August. My wife and I toss lines back and forth to one another constantly
wizard clip
16. Jason T. Corpse
I teared up reading this. Thanks for a killer article! MST3K THUG LIFE 4 EVAH!!
wizard clip
18. HeatherSV
The first and only time I skipped a full day of high school, we crowed into a tiny bedroom and watched Manos, Hands of Fate. It was one of the best days ever!
wizard clip
19. J. C. Runolfson
My dad and I used to make a habit of watching the b-movie double feature that inevitably aired on Saturday afternoons wherever we happened to be living. One day, we tuned in to one of our favorite monster movies and wondered what the little silhouettes in the bottom right of the screen were about. Then, as I opened my mouth to heckle the movie (which was part of the whole ritual), one of the silhouettes said exactly what I was about to say. That was our introduction to MST3K, and it was love at first listen. We got to the point where we had a contest to see who could accurately predict the most jokes in a given episode, a tradition I continue when I "inflict" the series on friends who haven't had the experience yet.

I have to say, though, classic as Manos: Hands of Fate is, I think the worst-while-still-being-entertaining movie they ever tackled was Future War. All I have to do is think, "Is that a maternity habit?" and I'm snickering for hours.

Also, The Final Sacrifice is the best episode of anything ever. Rowsdower!
Joel Cunningham
20. jec81
my copy of TACEG looks just like yours! @ITregillis I can't believe you never went on the tour. For Shame! I really wanted to go, but I was about 12 when they quit doing them I think. Unless they kept it up during the Sci-Fi years. I was also to young to go to the last big convention they had. Sad face.
Jason Parker
21. tarbis
"Oh, my god. He's a puppeteer."

Every year I make sure to watch an episode or three on Turkey Day. It isn't a marathon, but it is a fun tradition.
Clare McBride
22. The Literary Omnivore
Holy crow (not to make an atrocious pun), are you me? I, too, make jokes that I was a feral child, although it's more along the "raised by French wolves" line of thought. I knew nothing. I didn't even know TV shows came on once a week until I was fifteen. Television, according to me, was Whose Line is it Anyway and I Love the 80s. I feel your pain.

But, miraculously, I still found my way to MST3K on reruns on Comedy Central. I agree with all of these life lessons, especially number seven. I picked up riffing and otherwise critiquing any media I came across from this show, and for that, I am forever grateful.

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