DR #36: How MST3K Became the Internet

Dear ‘Dear Reader’ Reader,

Usually I tie these letters to comics, but I don’t need to do that today. I don’t need to tie it to comics, reading, or Great Aunt Nancy’s homemade bread and butter pickles. It doesn’t matter, because this is important.

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is coming back.

MST3K Pic 1

(If that sentence grabbed you by the diaphragm with a feeling like watching the ships of the Grey Havens raise sail for the Undying Lands, as the grey rain curtain turns to silver glass and is rolled back, and beyond you see white shores and a far green country under a swift sunrise… Then we understand each other. You have no need to read the rest of this letter. Go in peace, Brothers and Sisters, and may blessings of Joel, of Mike, of Crow, Servo, and Gypsy be upon you and remain with you forever.)

(If you’re still trying to parse that Lord of the Rings quote in hopes of figuring out what on earth I’m talking about, then read on.)

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (or MST3K—get used to seeing it called that) was a show that ran on Comedy Central and the Sci Fi channel back in the nineties. Its creator, Joel Hodgson, is arguably the most influential comedian in human history.

The Origins of MST3K

The premise was so simple and obvious, it had almost been done to death. You remember the Cryptkeeper? Elvira? Those Horror anthology comics DC published in the seventies, characters from which went on to show in supporting roles in Sandman?

(Hey, just because I said I didn’t need to tie this to comics doesn’t mean I’m not going to.)

MST3K Pic 2

Well, that kind of “Fictional Character Who Introduces a Low-Budget Movie” show used to be a staple of local broadcast TV. On the surface, MST3K was no more than another one of those. You have the cheap puppets and effects, the barely-there premise that explains why someone is presenting these cheesy movies, and the comedy skits that punctuate the showing of the movie. Pretty much every local TV station had one, usually running on weekend afternoons, showing the same rotation of B-and-below-movies as all of the other affiliates.

The genius touch, and the thing that made MST3K an influence, was that the host segments weren’t all there was. The hosts followed you into the movie, watched it with you, and made fun of it in the form of little silhouettes at the bottom of the screen all the way through.

This changed the show in two ways: first, it let them acknowledge that the movies were bad. Elvira, the Cryptkeeper, or whoever else, they had to keep any acknowledgement of the movie quality so firmly tongue in cheek that the tongue was suing the cheek for delinquent maintenance on a tenant dwelling. With MST3K, the movies’ being bad was the POINT of watching them. It was in the premise: mad scientists were running an experiment on this guy by forcing him to watch nothing but the worst movies ever made.

Secondly, it changed the format of the show from “Here, watch this” to “Watch ME watch this”. You weren’t watching Manos: the Hands of Fate (because why on earth would you?), you were watching Joel watch Manos: the Hands of Fate.

So this show gave a whole generation of geeks two ideas: So Bad It’s Good, and Watch Me Watch This.

MST3K and the Foundations of Internet Culture

Right at this time, a new form of mass media was becoming widespread to the public for the first time. Message Boards, MUDs, GeoCities, and Angelfire were blank slates upon which a new kind of culture was to be engraved. But what form would this culture take?

And what kind of sense of humor would it have?

Fast forward to 2010 or so. Who are the most-known internet personalities? AVGNSpoonyNostalgia CriticSeanbaby? The guy that does DM of The Rings and doesn’t really use an Internet Pseudonym?

Or just look around today. Even just from my YouTube history for yesterday, what have we got? Your Grammer Sucks, JonTron, Game Grumps, Todd in the Shadows, and Bad Lip Reading.

You don’t even have to look at internet personalities. Look at Reddit, 9gag, and Tumblr. Look at all the memes in Facebook. Obviously don’t look at Youtube comments (because don’t ever look at Youtube comments), but if you did, you would see them (trying to) make fun of the video they are watching.

Hell, we’re doing it right now. When you read my letters, aren’t you Reading about Me Reading This?

Watch Me Watch This, which is So Bad It’s Good, is the bedrock of the internet’s sense of humor. And it inherited it directly from MST3K.

Just think about that. The internet is the first cultural exchange medium that reaches everyone. It’s the first marketplace/amphitheatre/library that, theoretically at least, every single living human could be in at the same time. And just by accident a prop comic from Minnesota ended up with his hand on the rudder of that cultural exchange before it was even formed.

MST3K Pic 3

That’s why it matters that it’s back. Because when you live on the internet like I do, then MST3K is Homer. It’s the Bible. It’s Mythology and Fairy Tales and the source of how you function as a cultural entity. It’s not that I’m a fan. It’s that MST3K is the language I speak.

There’s going to be a reunion show June 28th (rebroadcast July 12th,) which will put Mike and Joel back on the same stage for the first time in decades. What’s more, it’s going to be our first shot at seeing the new host, Jonah Ray, in action. If there has ever been an event that was a Factor for Geeks, it’s this. This is where we finally inherit the earth.

Marvel finally did comic book movies right, The Force Awakens rescued Star Wars from Jar Jar Binks, and now MST3K is coming back.

The only way geek culture could be more ascendant than that was if Firefly got revived.


Keep Circulating the Tapes,

-The Guy Who Wrote This.

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