Yesterday Wired published an exhaustive oral history of the Greatest Show of All Time, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and in the last two paragraphs dropped the bombshell that Joel Hodgson is planning to resurrect the show. Already plenty of pop culture sites have weighed in, and obviously the consensus has been YES WE WANT THIS NOW. And there is already a gleeful reddit debate about who could host. And while I am one of those jumping up and down in Muppet-like enthusiasm, the reaction has also made me ask: why? Why are we still debating Joel vs. Mike after all these years? Why is this show the one that continues to speak to us, even to people who were infants when the show started?
Why, in 2014, with so many options, do we keep returning to the Satellite of Love?
Of all the shows of the time, it seems on its surface the least likely to succeed: a two-hour long show, filled with references that are brainy and obscure, and host segments that not only recall the long-gone, usually creepy subgenre of kiddie puppet shows, but also maintain a certain aesthetic that’s only barley better than basic cable. The cast changed constantly, with the show even pulling a Darrin/Becky maneuver—twice—in the casting of Tom Servo and Crow.
Of course there are also plenty of reasons for both its popularity and enduring longevity: there’s no real plot, so it’s easy to jump on. The humor is multi-layered, so many ages can enjoy it, but not so topical that it’s confusing, in the way that some 90s satire is.
Much has also been made of the fact that MST3K was able to capitalize on the birth of the internet, but I would argue something a bit different—I would say that MST3K was more responsible for the creation of the modern internet than is immediately apparent. The early Joel vs. Mike debates perfectly encapsulate this—they both snark on the chestnut of Kirk vs. Picard, and serve the same function of those debates, by telling you a lot about the person you’re dealing with. (I duck this question by calling myself a TV’s Frank, by the way.) As the Wired piece says, the argument defined the early MST3K newsgroups, but also spilled over into other areas of the web as it grew, which in turn increased MST3K’s cult status.
Best Brains’ early encouragement to “keep circulating the tapes” also tapped into a culture of filesharing and condoned piracy that immediately endeared them to the AV geeks who were still the biggest proponents of the information superhighway. What other artists have done this? Radiohead, in their insistence that people post their concerts on YouTube, and invitations to remix and create videos for their work? Bjork, with her Bibliophilia project? MST3K was actively promoting fan art, fan fiction, remixes, the MST3K wiki, the MST3K digitization project, etc. When the show was cancelled (again) and VHS copies were few and far between, the MSTies just traded and shared until the DVD releases caught up with their fervor. And hell, jumping up to the present: what is Rifftrax if not a highly specialized comedy podcast, created just before that medium exploded?
The other obvious reason for the show’s continued relevance is that the kids who grew up on MSTie (and actually received it as the kids puppet show it pretended to be) have hit an age where they can form their own local troupes, while older fans, like Wil Wheaton, Chris Hardwick, Joel McHale, Paul Feig, Patton Oswalt, and Neil Patrick Harris, can work with the MSTies by turning in cameos on Rifftrax and arguing with them on Twitter.
But. That still doesn’t quite get to it for me. Why this one? Why not Kids in the Hall? Why not The State? Twin Peaks has a huge following, but doesn’t inspire the outpouring off love that I’ve seen for MST3K. Nothing Sacred? Brimstone? Wonderfalls? Why does this show, of all shows, have such an enduring legacy?
I previously wrote a piece about how MST3K helped me understand my parents. Aspects of their lives as pre-Boomers became a lot clearer to me when I watched the way Joel and Mike interacted with the conservatism of the 50s and 60s hygiene shorts, in particular. Writing that piece, and talking about it with my parents, made a few other thoughts percolate into a theory that I don’t have much support for other than reddit forums, but here goes: the show was this generation’s 1960s revolution. It was a show that both managed to lash out at the received culture of mediocre films, white hegemony, patriarchal authority, and rote religious practice, while being still harboring affection for that culture.
So the show does what no other comedy did at that time—it wasn’t just a catchphrase factory (SNL) a surrealism jamboree (KITH) or a crash course in a pure nihilism that would make Rust Cohle wince (Seinfeld). It mirrored a huge shift in culture over the 90s by showing us two different types of hero. For this, we must return to the Joel vs. Mike debate. The mistake a lot of people make is in framing the debate by asking whose jokes were funnier, or only considering the host in relation to the robots and the Mads. But if we look at the host’s relationship to his predicament, things get more interesting.
Joel is an existential hero. He was good at his job, he loves cleaning and holds himself to a certain standard (as evidenced in his encomium to service stations in Eegah) he was kidnapped and sent to space against his will. Rather than succumbing to despair as the scientists expect, he builds friends and talks back to the screen, transforming his torture into something fun. He also, particularly in the early seasons of the show, seems to be using his confinements in a Dostoyevsky-ish way, to contemplate his role in the universe and the meaning of his life. At the end of his time on the show he even mimes his own burial, seemingly in an attempt to come to terms with his mortality. Classic existential hero. Maybe it is just a void out there! Joel will still create and strive for some sort of meaning, even in the face of the abyss.
On the other hand, Mike is a temp. Every bit of backstory we get on him is that he drifted from pointless job to pointless job, more interested in music and a deep love of weed than in figuring out any sort of purpose. His reaction to being kidnapped, first, is to fight against the physical nature of his entrapment—where Joel accepted his time in space as a way to achieve spiritual freedom, Mike is constantly trying to find ways back to earth. His mental response, so different from Joel’s, can be critiqued through Northrop Frye’s classic study of ironic versus epic heroes:
“Criticism of society without change: Sources of values and conventions are ridiculed usually by a successful rogue who challenges the society’s generalizations, theories, and dogmas by showing their ineffectiveness in the face of reality; the rogue does not, however, offer a positive solution or create a new society.”
Mike doesn’t engage in any deep spiritual wrestling or moral quandaries, he just throws jokes out and hangs out with the ‘bots. He is the ironic hero, and he is the reflection of a cultural shift. Joel came too late to be an epic hero, certainly, but as a child of the 60s he can cling to certain ideals. Mike is the kid who came of age in the 80s, whose every response is snark, and Mike is the internet, and Mike is us. After he escapes and comes home in Danger: Diabolique (the SyFy finale), the final scene shows him and the bots watching TV in his crappy apartment, snarking on The Crawling Eye—the first Comedy Central episode. He has come full circle; the eternal has recurred. This even after the other finale, when the Comedy Central era ended with Mike, Crow, Tom, and Gypsy all transcending their current forms and becoming pure love, energy, etc. and playing at the edge of the universe.
I think this is the key to why Mystery Science Theatre 3000 has lasted the way it has. We can see a hero we aspire to be: idealistic, hopeful, creating meaning in the face of despair. But we can also bask in what the culture has actually become: a nation of riffers, reacting to everything on Twitter with perfectly crafted one-liners. The debate of Joel vs. Mike is really a different one entirely: sincerity vs. irony. The answer the show gives us is deceptively simple. We need both. It is in the conversation between irony and sincerity that real progress can be made.
So are you a Joel or a Mike, or something new?