When I was in high school, I made a thrilling discovery. I discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000.
I was up in my room one Saturday night. It was around Christmastime, well after midnight. Mom let us girls stay up as late as we wanted, pretty much. We were in high school, after all, and if we were home, reading or drawing or doing some kind of creative project*, as was our like, there was no harm in letting us stay up; when we were tired, we’d go to sleep.
I had the retired family TV in my room. (Still not sure how I scammed that away from my sisters, but it was awesome.) I was doing my favorite thing ever: painting a picture while watching all the late shows. That night, after SNL, after the show that came on after SNL and the show after that, I saw Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the first time. Someone at the Des Moines area NBC affiliate station was watching over me.
Here’s what Mystery Science Theater 3000 — or “MST3K” — is, from The Wikipedia:
“[MST3K] features a man and his robot sidekicks who are imprisoned on a space station by an evil scientist and forced to watch a selection of bad movies, as part of a psychological experiment… To stay sane, the man and his robots provide a running commentary on each film, making fun of its flaws, and wisecracking their way through each reel in the style of a movie-theater peanut gallery. Each film is presented with a superimposition of the man and robots’ silhouettes along the bottom of the screen. The film is interspersed with skits tied into the theme of the film being watched or the episode as a whole.”
The episode that came on that night was Santa Claus Conquers The Martians and it remains my favorite episode of all time. I had never laughed harder in my life or been more instantly in love — I loved this show more than I loved my realest high-school crush, Cary Hollingsworth. It was for real. My eyes were glued to the screen, my mouth hung open. This was magic. What was this?? I had to know. Mind you, it was 1995; we didn’t have internet in the house, yet. I didn’t know the name of this incredible program and I couldn’t find out everything about it in 4 seconds flat with a google search.
But it wasn’t getting away from me. No, no, no. The very first commercial break, I ran out of my room and bounded down the stairs to the TV in the living room. I didn’t care if I woke anyone up. I dug through a drawer of VHS videotape and found something blank enough. I crammed it into the VCR, turned on the TV and clicked through the channels to find my show. I jammed my finger on the big red button and was able to record three-quarters of the Santa Claus episode. I watched the whole thing again when it was over. I collapsed into bed around 4:30, deliriously happy.
I had found my people. My VHS tape was my evidence.
The show tapped a vein for me, tone- and humor-wise. These people were smart, hella smart, and totally irreverent — but they weren’t gross. If there was a fart joke, it was because it was the best joke that could be made at that moment in the film, not the easiest. This appealed to me. The sheer number of cultural references made in a single episode expanded my knowledge of the world: who was Johnny Mathis? What is a “wrathful Buddha”? I learned a ton while I wiped tears from my eyes, silently shaking with laughter till I had to gasp for air. I taped every episode while the show ran on that station, which was well over a year.
As it turned out, MST3K was beloved by a lot of people. It’s a cult thing, which means that the weirdness of it was so specific, it appeals to a huge number of people. (Fascinating how that works.) The show ran from ’88-’99 on various networks and there was actually a feature film in ’96, which I went to on opening night, naturally. Members of the cast perform a live version of the show from time to time even today and I travelled far into the suburbs a few years ago with a friend to check it out. It was a scene, that’s for sure. But it wasn’t mine.
I’m not a follower. I don’t get dressed up in costumes for movie screenings. I participated in a pub crawl exactly once in my life (never again.) The cult of MST3K ain’t for me: there will be no Tom Servo** tattoos. But you don’t have to be a part of the extended scene of something to love it. Last night while I was sewing, I watched one of my favorite episodes — Mitchell — on a well-worn DVD and I was so happy. I was sewing and chuckling and marveling that anyone ever believed enough in that bizarre and wonderful show to give it a budget and produce it.
I’m so glad they did. What a bunch of freaks.
**I once got a hold of a hot glue gun and attacked an old typewriter. Gluing plastic gemstones and fake flowers to an old typewriter is the kind of project one must do in the wee hours.
**One of the robots.