(Content note: This essay contains descriptions of child abuse.)
Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) was, for those who don’t know, a show that aired in the 80s and 90s. It aired on a lot of different channels: first on local Minneapolis television, then on the Comedy Channel, and when that channel merged with Ha the two became Comedy Central. MST3K ended its original run on what was then the Sci-Fi Channel.¹ Earlier this year, the show was rebooted on Netflix.
Here’s the premise: There’s a guy trapped in outer space with his robot pals. There are mad scientists and bad movie “experiments.” The Mads intend to drive their prisoner mad with these terrible movies,² so he takes to riffing the films with his robot friends—and because he’s built the robots himself with spare parts, he can’t control where the movie begins or ends.³
In the course of the show’s history, there have been three different guys trapped in space: Joel, Mike, and Jonah. Joel’s my favorite and I’ve never quite recovered from his departure at the end of Mitchell.4 This isn’t to say that Mike doesn’t have his moments, for he does. I’m still not sure about Jonah—I’m only halfway through the rebooted season, so don’t feel qualified to make a judgment.
The format of the show is pretty simple: there’s a bad movie interspersed with host segments, which often include goofy songs or skits, as well as the Joel and the ‘bots being taunted by the Mads.
I’m not sure when I started watching MST3K, but since I was in high school, it must have been around 1990. Certainly not later than 1991, as I know I was watching it before my mother died.
There were a lot of things I found appealing about the show: the goofy DIY sets and props for the Invention Exchange,5 Tom Servo’s sarcasm, and especially the running commentary while the movies were playing. The jokes were often mundane, but every so often there would be one that either taught me something new or that made me laugh so hard I thought I’d pass out.6 The host segments were why I also loved the relationship between Joel and the ‘bots. They felt, to me, like a family—one that bickered, but also one that clearly still cared for each other as well.
I grew up in a relatively small town in Metro Detroit; my entire life was contained within about a four-mile radius. I think my generation is the last to have grown up without the internet everywhere, so it’s hard to explain just how constrained the world felt, particularly in a small community. My exposure to the wider culture was not, shall we say, extensive. The reviews I had access to were different from what I saw MST3K doing; they were about texts that were mostly inaccessible to me at that point in my life. Whereas with MST3K, I did have access and because of the format of the show, I could listen to the criticism while watching the film.
I’m not sure which episode was my first, but I do remember the one that hooked me: Santa Conquers the Martians from season 3. It has the Patrick Swayze Christmas song, without which I never would have bothered renting Roadhouse, one of the hidden classics of American film.7 Don’t @ me.
I started taping the show, at first to watch the episodes again so as to catch more jokes, and then to show my friends. The tapes came with me to college and I think some of them may be in my basement at this very moment.
It wasn’t until I started to watch the Netflix reboot that I realized what a profound influence it had had on not only me but also across the wider critical landscape.
For me, MST3K punched a hole in the conceit—learned in English class—that critics are Important Thinkers. I’d seen some episodes of At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert on PBS, but they were mostly reviewing movies which I couldn’t access (no driver’s license, overprotective mother). I read newspaper reviews of films and television, but those suffered from the same problem of accessibility and I never felt that I was part of their audience—I didn’t feel left out when I watched MST3K.
Unfortunately, that probably wasn’t the case for many other viewers of the show. The show centers the perspective of cishet white men and that has rendered some of the jokes problematic. This problem was somewhat mitigated by Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Jones Nelson in the writers’ room, but that didn’t come until later in the show’s run.
On MST3K, no one seemed to take anything particularly seriously while they were, in fact, often being extremely critical. I’m a tremendous fan of many of the shorts they covered, particularly the “educational” ones. My favorites: the surreal “Mr. B Natural” which is about a nerdy kid learning about the joys of playing an instrument from an androgynous, Peter Pan-inspired “Spirit of Music” and “Last Clear Chance,” which belongs to the grand tradition of films about horrible ways to die while in an automobile, or in this case, by a train.8 There were others about how to be neat and tidy, how to interact with your family, and how to stand up straight—all pushing the idealized image of Americans as cishet white people.
Without MST3K, I don’t think Television Without Pity would have been as successful as it was. (Briefly: TWoP was a website that specialized in detailed recaps of television shows; they were known for their biting senses of humor and the heavy-handedness of their moderators.) TWoP led to the rise of other recaps of television series on other websites and helped to launch the careers of a number of writers. I’m pretty sure live commentary on social media would still be a thing, but I don’t know that it would be as starkly and as directly critical—and often, as funny—as it is without MST3K and TWoP. And the riffing during the film certainly had an influence on DVD commentary tracks, at least outside of the Criterion DVDs.
But perhaps the most important thing I learned was that a text didn’t have to be “good” to be worth criticizing. MST3K helped puncture the bubble that the “canon” lives in.
My high school English classes were dominated by books and stories written by cishet white men, mostly American. I didn’t find them interesting to read in large part because they seemed so far removed from my experience. And I know I’m not the only person who has felt that way. The question of what is considered to be part of the “canon” has been debated in literary circles for decades and has recently come to the fore in genre circles.
There have been a lot of uncomfortable discussions about the preponderance of cishet white men in our genre “canon” and reactionary movements borne out of the fear that comes with not being the center of attention anymore.9 The argument is often that this was the only group producing work worthy of merit and if you believe that, perhaps you should read some Joanna Russ. The lessons of How to Suppress Women’s Writing are, sadly, transferrable.
Cishet white men are not the only people capable of writing important stories or books. They are not the center around which the Earth revolves and they are certainly not representative of all of humanity and it is reprehensible that, in the aggregate, they have leveraged their power to shape our culture around their desires.
At any rate, I know that MST3K didn’t invent this mode of interacting with the text but it was the first window I had into that mode of criticism. My high school English classes were fine, but we weren’t encouraged to bring our own perspectives into the work. Particularly AP English—in that case, we were being taught to write the kinds of essays that would help us to pass the exam, not to come up with our own theories.
The idea that you could talk back the way Joel and the ‘bots did was counter to everything I’d learned. My besetting sin as a child and teen was that I had a “smart mouth,” often followed by a backhand. Speaking was something often denied me and speaking critically especially so. I often made the decision to not speak, because so often speech meant punishment. Against this background, MST3K was irreverent in a way that felt deeply subversive and almost dangerous. And it was stealthy—it was “just” bad movies, after all. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously—they were just joking around, right?
And then my mother died and my family shattered. I lost myself in television that year. MST3K was one of those shows. It was a constant, something I could watch when everything was simply too hard. And if that were the only thing the show did for me, it would be enough.
But it also helped to shape how I approach writing about books and other media. I learned not to hold anything as sacred—just because something made it to the page or the screen wasn’t any sort of quality guarantee. I also learned that brevity was a virtue and that by keeping things short, your impact could be greater.10 And finally, taking yourself too seriously is possibly the worst thing you can do as a critic.
In a wider context, MST3K has helped to open space for other voices, even though the show itself is still centering a cishet white male perspective. I would love to see a woman of color stranded in space with Crow and Tom Servo; I’d love to see recurring female villains who aren’t defined by their relationship to Dr. Forrester. Heck, I’d like for them to revisit some of the movies they’ve already done and write new jokes for them.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a weird, low-budget show that I somehow managed to encounter at precisely the right moment in my life. And for that, Joel and the ‘bots have my eternal gratitude.
¹ Now called Syfy. I find this decision to be quite inexplicable.
² The theme song says they’re going to “monitor his mind.” I have never been sure how that was supposed to work.
³ La la la.
4 I am, for the record, still pissed about this: https://imgur.com/gallery/DM1ZiS4
5 My favorite was the Junk Drawer Starter.
6 One I remember is the Oscar Wilde, Space Pirate joke in Santa Conquers the Martians. And that Droppo is the laziest man on Mars.
7 “Hurts, don’t it?”
8 “Why don’t they look, Ralph? Tell me, why don’t they look?”
9 Like they’re three-year-olds or something.
10 This was not a virtue in my college days, where I often struggled to make word count.
© 2017 by Natalie Luhrs