Watch Yourself Watching
On May 16th, 2022, chat boards across the globe exploded with the news that the website Club MST3K, a cornerstone index of episode links and repository of fan conversation for the cult cable TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 [MST3K] (1988–99), had gone dark. (Actually, no, it was just me and a couple dozen people on Reddit.) Angsty debate ensued as to whether the site was gone forever or simply broken from years of disrepair. The Club’s own comments sections had been plagued by spambots for quite a while—though the absurdity of ads for butterfly valves, immigration lawyers, and “antic fire fighting companies in Pakistan” seemed in keeping with the spirit of the show.
Of course, the episodes themselves could still be readily found for free on YouTube, organized into comprehensive playlists by devotees. And today there are numerous online locales where MSTies can get their MST on. But the aesthetic of an Alphabet Inc. product has so much less charm than the archaic, anarchic look of the Club website, which seemed not to have been redesigned since the program’s 1990s heyday. Like the show, the GeoCities/Tripod aesthetic offered a different kind of spam: ironic comfort food, mostly but not necessarily for those who saw the program when it first aired. With Club MST3K gone, so much bonding over bad jokes had been lost, so many gleefully doomed attempts to parse incoherent plotlines had disappeared. Its prescient foreshadowing of what was to come with social media and its rapacious meta-commentary had become a thing of the past.
By May 25th, a mirror version of the Club MST3K site had reappeared, to my relief at least. By July 25th, it too was gone.
It feels embarrassing to explain Mystery Science Theater 3000, much as it feels embarrassing to explain a joke you’ve told (much as it feels embarrassing to write this entire piece). For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it’s kind of a “creature feature,” a weekly horror-movie slot spotlighting monsters and aliens, often involving a host to introduce the film at hand. The difference? The features are deliberately chosen to be execrable. The crux of the show is not watching the movie but watching others watch the movie: a guy named Joel, and later his replacement, Mike, plus their robot pals Crow and Tom Servo, all of whom have been marooned in outer space by mad scientists. This live-action troupe bookends and regularly interrupts the movie with interstitial skits, which take place on a duct-tape-and-chewing-gum set that vaguely suggests the interior of a spaceship. But the crux of the program involves the group sitting in a darkened theater while an awful movie plays, cracking jokes. We watch along with them as if seated a little ways back, their three silhouettes iconically visible in the front row.
I didn’t much watch the program while it was actually on. It became more of a habit in the past decade, when like a stray animal I became domesticated for a number of years. One of the great struggles of living in coupledom is figuring out what to stare jointly at on a monitor at the end of the evening as a way of spending time together. Of course, gripped by exhaustion after a wearying day, and despairing of the trials of the day to come, no can ever agree on a goddamned thing. Comfort foods aren’t usually a shared taste. And so the attempt to perform an act of simple household maintenance, not much different from cleaning the toilet, becomes another site of conflict. Eventually you give up and start entertaining yourselves separately.
With these inevitabilities in mind, I introduced Mystery Science Theater into my relationship. I had high hopes. Its mediocrity is warm and fuzzy—satisfying like frozen pizza, or the Grateful Dead—and there’s a pleasurable degree of puzzle solving in trying to decode its humor, both its faded references and genuinely idiosyncratic jokes. One of the program’s key constituencies is stoners: the acuity that THC can temporarily produce makes the absurdity and unpredictability of the best jokes hilarious, while the mental dullness that sets in after a while makes the many bad puns and incomprehensible riffs palatable. Weed is a bit of a drug for settling—settling in, settling for one’s lot in life. If I had to choose just one drug for a desert island, weed would be it.
Once my significant other and I gave up on trying to broker a video-content accord, I watched Mystery Science Theater probably four nights a week—stoned, sober, tipsy, drunk, lit up high at 3 am with work in the morning. Over this time period my relationship gradually dissolved, as they do. Many times I passed out on the couch to be awakened by the first rays of sun coming into the living room. And so the protagonists became my pals. We lived through something together.
The roots of MST3K reach back to old days of local television, the 1960s and ’70s, when regional stations, seeking to fill less-than-stuffed airwaves, created their own variety programming. (Prior to cable, broadcast channels would actually go off the air overnight, leaving the insomniac to endure fields of static.) Kids’ shows were one common genre: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began in 1968 on Pittsburgh’s WQED, for example, before becoming nationally syndicated. Another common if peculiar format, replicated around the country for three decades, was the creature feature. The pioneer of the field was Vampira. Her eponymous show ran only briefly, from 1954 to 1956 on KABC in Los Angeles. The compelling creation of actor Maila Nurmi, Vampira was sinister but also comic—and sexual, a definitive vamp with a razor jawline clad in a clingy, black, floor-length dress, cinched to a freakishly small waist. She opened the show by gliding down a crypt-like corridor, straight up to the camera, and uttering a chilling shriek before squealing with pleasure and declaring, “Screaming relaxes me so”—all eight years before Susan Sontag’s iconic “Notes on Camp” codified the urbane delights of simultaneously ironic and sincere appreciation for all things exaggerated and theatrical. Another flawless Vampira line, while sipping from a miasmic coupe: “A Vampira cocktail. Do you like it? It hates you.”
Thus a measure of humor was built into the creature feature’s DNA. Among the nation’s subsequent horror hosts was the less formidable Sinister Seymour, portrayed by an actor named Larry Vincent, whose Fright Night debuted on LA station KHJ in 1970. The schticky Seymour, who dressed inexplicably like a caped extra in a Western, performed skits and introduced one key innovation to the genre: he would appear during the films via blue-screen effects, mocking them as they ran. Vincent died in 1975, ending his brief run, but five years later KHJ rebooted the combination of studio hijinks and horror with Elvira, a cut-rate Vampira with both jokes and a neckline designed to appeal to adolescent boys.
The genre was losing steam when Mystery Science Theater 3000 emerged from the less cosmopolitan locale of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It premiered on local station KTMA on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, beginning a long-running association with the holiday via a characteristically bad pun on the notion of a cinematic “turkey.” The first season is not good at all, with the actors just finding their footing, the pace slow, the jokes flimsy, and the chemistry awkward. But in a moment when cable channels were throwing around cash to build out their schedules—rather like the last several years in streaming services producing original content—the Comedy Channel (later, Comedy Central) picked up the show in 1989. It ran there until 1996, at which point it was dropped, only to be picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel (today, the excruciatingly named SyFy). There it lasted three more years, expiring just before the turn of the millennium, fitting for such a thoroughly ’90s piece of programming.
Accounts today describe the show as being critically acclaimed, and it’s true, one can find quotes. A 2014 Wired magazine story on MST3K samples a period review from Keith Olbermann, calling it, very un-hiply, “some of the hippest, deepest satire of its generation.” In 1993, the show won a Peabody Award for excellence in television, a prize today more associated with documentaries and “issue” oriented programming. But as an essentially cognizant human at the time, I don’t remember it being excellent. Although I was not much of a cable TV consumer, I remember it being pretty cultish in audience, not especially well known, and to the degree I indulged it via VHS rentals, a guilty pleasure. Not guilty because it was racy, or even infantile, especially in the context of its era (the 1990s were the golden age of Adam Sandler, recall). Rather, it was just kind of not amazing. Like, not funny. You’d show it to a friend and it would fall flat, leaving you struggling to explain why you’d insisted on watching it in the first place. It reflected badly on its fans. In retrospect, I should have known what would happen when I presented it to my girlfriend years later.
More charitably, and more precisely, one could say that the show’s humor devolved in a particular way to emphasize the odd and the lousy, a tack that predisposed a positive response from a certain kind of disaffected ’90s American. And to be fair, it was only a TV show, not a Terrence Malick movie. Prior to today’s “prestige television,” one’s expectations were not too grandiose on an episode-by-episode basis; a degree of failure was part of the point. That attitude had been seeping into the cultural groundwater since David Letterman, another Midwesterner with an unaccountable sense of humor. As with fellow 1990s comedy Beavis and Butt-Head—which, premiering in 1993, follows on MST3K’s heels as a TV program where you watch someone watch something—the crappiness is part of the point, a community-cementing wink to the audience that says, “Can you believe they’re letting us get away with this?” With Gen X coming to the fore, the aesthetic emerged from the adolescent thrill that accompanies the first taste of maturity, of being able to break the rules and make one’s own, and prompted an aesthetic sea change in the process. The notion that this chintz was creating a revolution was largely met with a shrug. Gen X recognized a certain pointlessness of whatever change they were responsible for. But of course pointlessness was different then, when the worst societal outcome one could imagine was a cushiony drag like that of the early ’90s recession, a mild dip of the sort that doomed G. H. W. Bush and ushered in the sparkling era of William Jefferson Clinton.
On the other hand, to be fair and to admit my own fandom, the gray dome of OKness I describe was often riven with lightning cracks of wit. Mystery Science Theater is at times very funny.
The show’s jokes range high, low, and sideways. A classic episode from 1993, revolving around a ’70s hack crime comedy titled Mitchell, kicks off with a pun on the title involving Martha Mitchell, an obscure figure from Watergate, and includes a skit in which one of the robots reads lips à la HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the camera work duplicating the close-ups of the original. Within the film, a cop’s outline of a corpse on the ground garners a reference to Keith Haring; a mob boss critiquing his henchman’s ability as a butler elicits a reference to Harold Pinter and his script for the 1963 film The Servant. But there are also fart jokes and lots of internal monologues about the slovenly protagonist’s gluttony and alcoholism (“Want a beer? Some of them have cigarettes in them.”). In this episode as in others, there’s also regular geek service: at the sight of a guy with dramatically parted hair in giant shades and a leather jacket being booked in a police station, one of the robots declares, “They arrested Harlan Ellison!” The shout out is to the sci-fi icon whose pugnacity and flamboyant style brought him occasionally into the public eye in the 1970s and ’80s.
Like a good stand-up routine, the best work on MST3K employs some familiar strategies. It builds over the course of an episode, riffs building upon riffs, gags accumulating as it goes on, with callbacks to earlier bits and, eventually, to previous episodes. Through their commentary, the actors often make the characters on the screen they’re watching their own, torquing them in ridiculous directions—ones that they were usually leaning into, anyway. The Dolph Lundgren manqué hero of Space Mutiny is appropriately caricatured as a meathead, and so weightlifting jokes abound. During a love scene, his partner is ventriloquized as asking, “Why do you need that guy over there to spot you?”
More definitive of the show’s comedy—perhaps uniquely so—is not its longitudinal aspect but its focus on the moment, which it shimmeringly fragments with a density of reference that over the course of a two-hour episode is likely unmatched, certainly for its time. The citations spark off in any direction, their outré nature evoking not laughter exactly but delight or surprise. This modus operandi explains why the show could often fall flat by conventional standards; it also accounts for an effect it evokes that’s more contemporary to today—a delight at being bewildered. The references could be far more obscure than those I’ve mentioned. According to the MST3K fan wiki, the nonpareil episode featuring Manos: The Hands of Fate includes jokes involving an obscure 1971 movie called The Love Machine or possibly its theme song; the mother from John Irving’s 1978 novel The World According to Garp; a ’60s comedian named Morty Gunty; and a line from the Marx Brothers’ 1930 film Animal Crackers. Mentioning one thing conjures an entire other universe from it, or clues you into its existence, but the riff zips by before you have a chance to think about it too much. It makes viewing the show today feel similar to wading into an unfamiliar Discord or other online community, trying to decode its laminated, ever-evolving lore.
Appreciating Mystery Science Theater is a lot less alienating than that experience can be, however, as the existence of MST3K wikis and fan sites suggests. The show found a perfect technological complement in the burgeoning world of the ’90s Internet and its newsgroups and chat rooms; the geeky nature of its fan base made them predictably early adopters of such fora. When the Manos episode originally aired in 1993, only a rare few would have been able to decode those references to Garp or Gunty, and they flew by me on a recent rewatch. Online, however, you could pool intellectual resources, working collectively to unpack each episode like undergrads going at a chapter from Ulysses. Getting the gags while watching alone allowed you to feel a little less alone; it drew you into a circle of friends with the three personalities on the screen, a kind of consumer camaraderie that’s now familiar from podcasts. Linking up to other fans online made you part of a community of pop-culture scavengers. It was nice to have someone else around who recognized what a cultural garbage dump we lived in—calling bullshit on clichés as a way to cope. This understanding helps explain why the show can be at times less funny than satisfying. Getting the joke was better than laughing.
Perhaps most notably, MST3K introduced a crucial innovation that makes it a forerunner of the way media works today. It was the first mass entertainment to displace the thing itself—movie, TV show, album, sneaker, meme—for analysis and critique of that thing. Parody is ancient; self-parody is a regular feature of comedy; “meta” aspects of Western art go back at least to Don Quixote. But Mystery Science Theater was the first broadly available diversion to seamlessly integrate the work with a viewer’s ongoing commentary on it. Those three chatty silhouettes in the corner of the screen were not just our pals; they were our avatars. Real-time events today feel incomplete without a phone at hand to see how they’re being discussed on Twitter (as long as it lasts). A thread about The Bachelorette is more rousing than its trysts.
And so listening to ourselves talk became our foremost entertainment. If you want to get a little literary about it, Mystery Science Theater heralded into culture at large postmodern fundamentals like Roland Barthes’s death of the author, which displaces authority over meaning from the person who says something to the person who hears it. The reader, the viewer comes first; the auteur is taken down a peg. Main character syndrome is just around the corner.
In 1962, the same year Sontag published “Notes on Camp,” the film critic and painter Manny Farber wrote an essay less celebrated but similarly minded in its fresh take on the workings of art in a new era of mass culture. “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” is a lively polemic against the idea of the masterpiece. Despite the cultural upheavals of the day, Farber sees the art around him, both “high” or “low,” still largely hewing to traditional values like coherence, continuity, and a look-at-me emphasis of creative flourish. Such aspirations—one might call them pretentions—afflict not only Hollywood Westerns and the ponderous but celebrated abstractions of Robert Motherwell, Farber writes, but also the self-conscious vanguardism of François Truffaut and the fleet, machinic compositions of Andy Warhol.
For Farber, true revolution is emergent, modest, and ardent. He defines termite art as a “buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, overall, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed.” It’s an odd approach as radical as that of Barthes et al., this taking art down from its lofty pedestal and rejecting coherence as an operating principle in favor of an almost Zen-like engagement with the moment. Farber applied his thinking to the making of art, but it could just as well apply to its viewing. One no longer need receive a movie or a painting as something to appreciate from a distance like a delicate vase, but rather as raw material, stuff you can fuck around with.
In the 1990s, the Farber approach to art began to become ascendant. Let’s give Mystery Science Theater credit for getting termitism widely dispersed. The show nibbled away at movies joke by joke, dedicating itself to the fleeting, the unambitious, and the gleefully nonsensical: no matter how brilliant, no episode of MST3K could ever be a masterpiece, nor would it want to be one. Demographically, Gen X was nothing if not the termite generation, hating the try-hards, snacking on the cultural infrastructure in 65 million aimless ways and in its wake leaving the whole edifice riven with holes and a little shaky.
The funny thing about Farber’s vision is that termites are social insects; while a single termite is monomaniacally dedicated to its task, the group as a whole manifests a larger, coherent vision. Termites build towers of sand and spit, carve out air ducts so they don’t smother, gather wood and regurgitate it in hollows under the earth to create a little fungus farm that feeds them all. If they didn’t all work together, they’d die. In this context, Farmer’s closing lines, where he joyfully describes the sensation of going termite mode, is a little unnerving. The termite ethos is “the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.” This description captures contemporary notions of all art as a form of collage and culture as a blender, an idea culminating today. It also seems dated. Perhaps Farber, like the rest of us, misread the effects of seeing everything as expendable, as expecting destruction not to flirt with disaster. ♦
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