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The Not-Too-Distant Future Arrives: Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 2009 A.D.

posted Nov 5, 2012, 12:21 AM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: December 4, 2009

Cleaning and reorganizing my house has developed into a project not unlike an archaeological dig in both its substance and the overall complexity of the process. My latest big find is my small collection of Mystery Science Theater 3000 VHS tapes, and I resolved to convert them all to MP4 before ridding myself of analog technology all together. After moving the files to my AppleTV, I (of course) took the time to watch them all, just to make sure the conversions had gone as planned before I tossed the cassettes.

Me and MST3k go way back, almost 20 years, when we were both relatively young. I first discovered the show sometime during its Season 3 (The Amazing Colossal Man is the first episode I recall watching all the way through, and it remains one of my favorites), when it was still on The Comedy Channel, and watched it religiously through Season 5. For me, the show was never quite the same after Joel Hodgson left, but when it was hitting on all cylinders, nothing else on television (or any other medium) at the time could make me laugh in quite the same way. It soothed and nurtured my spirit during the two years of darkness and isolation that I spent in a little studio apartment in Chicago writing my doctoral thesis — and for that, I will be forever grateful to Joel, the ‘Bots, and even Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank.

But all that was a long time ago, and at least five years since I’d watched any of the Rhino Video-published tapes in my collection. So how well has the stuff aged?

The jokes actually hold up quite well. Yes, many of them are tied to ephemera, and are clearly aimed at people of about my age, who watched quite a lot of television in the '70s and 80's while young enough to have their minds permanently warped by the experience. A younger audience, coming to the show now, would probably not get them. Few yet remain for whom Wayland Flowers and Madame, or the phrase, "a Mark 7 production" are a living memory. Describing the dark and elaborately mustachioed villain of Cave Dwellers as "that mean John Saxon-type guy" no doubt strikes a much deeper chord with me than it would with someone half my age.

But the pure ephemera was never what was funniest about MST3k. The show's true heart was its hilariously savage treatment of the inability to grapple with the basics of storytelling — what the budding literary critic that I was at the time would have called their rhetorical incompetence — manifest in the films it spoofed. Some of the gags were kind of mean, if apropos, but just about all of them were clever riffs on an undeniable reality, and the best of them brought out the sheer pain of watching genuine cinematic wretchedness. Call me weird, but once you’ve seen them goof on Manos: The Hands of Fate, watching Mike Nelson playing the misshapen henchman Torgo as an impossibly slow pizza deliveryman never gets old. Never.

YouTube Video

Instead, what strikes me as most dated about MST3k is the cultural context from which it sprang, the itch that stimulated it in the first place. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing

Colossal Episode Guide is more or less mum on the subconscious origins of the show, but it always seemed pretty obvious to me that it was rooted in something that smart, funny teens and 20-somethings — at least of my generation — always do in each other's company — riff on whatever you're watching on the TV, and the worse it is the more comedy gold you can dredge from it. If you and your buds were up late, either because it was the weekend or you just didn't have morning classes the next day, what was on TV was either reruns or bad movies that the station could get for cheap (and you were probably a little buzzed on something, too, which only made the whole experience even funnier). A big part of MST3K's genius was that it took such a banal activity and built it into a viable high concept.

But while the sheer awfulness of those movies transcends the passing of time, their presence on the air has not. In their day, midnight movies were a cheap way to fill air time, to make it profitable to sell advertising at a much lower rate than prime time. But now, infomercials fill those overnight time slots — no doubt, much more profitably. By now, an entire generation of Americans have come of age snorting derisively at half-hour plugs for systems for trading real estate instead of cheaply and incompetently made movies.

And on top of that, home entertainment options have proliferated so that the notion of being stuck with nothing to watch except painfully awful movies on your local TV stations seems quaint, if not downright strange. Nowadays, if you're bored in the wee hours, you probably have a whole range of options at your fingertips: not only dozens (if not hundreds) of TV channels through your cable or satellite system, but VOD, YouTube and other Internet content sites, whatever you haven't erased from your DVR, DVDs and probably a video game console or two. There are so many ways to entertain yourself, no matter what hour of the day or night, that feeling stuck watching something as stunningly bad as The Amazing Colossal Man or Eegah just seems self-defeating. At the very least, you could always zone out in front of the pre-dawn anime reruns on Adult Swim instead. If you're with friends, you'll just fire up the XBox360 and bash each other's digital brains out.

So it's the meta-context of MST3k that has aged, not so much the show itself. Ironically, the gags still seem as ingenious as ever, but their reason for existing in the first place already feels located in history, a relic. But this also insures that the show will join the Pantheon of classic comedy sooner or later. So many of the jokes in Bugs Bunny cartoons are temporal, fixed in time, and yet so many more are brilliant enough to be timeless — as is the enduring appeal of the character himself. It's hard to fully appreciate Animal Crackers without understanding historically local references ranging from the Wall Street crash of 1929 to Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, and yet it remains some of the Marx Brothers' funniest work. And so I believe it will go for Mystery Science Theater 3000, into next Sunday A.D. and beyond.