That Time MST3k Saved My Life

My friend Tom introduced me to Mystery Science Theater 3000 via a snowy VHS tape right after college in 1993 or so. The first one I saw was Jungle Goddess (which he’d only managed to tape half of back home in Seattle) and I was confused, then intrigued and giggly. Then the next episode—a full one—started (it was Master Ninja 1) and I was obsessed, and giddy.

The next few years went fast—first well, then very, very badly. In love, married, new job, rental house, purchased house, divorce. Then isolation—in the worst possible place I could have chosen. Ever been to Richmond, Maine? If I may.

I’m sure there are lovely people spread out over the woodsy, field-y expanses of the place, but I lived downtown, so-called. Shambling after that divorce, I scanned local papers in a desperate rush, mustering all the concentration I could to the task at hand, which was about 30 per cent capacity in the whirl of pain and self-loathing and fear and so on. I picked an apartment in a house in Richmond because it was halfway between my two jobs. Which is nonsense, as it meant that I was always halfway away from home at the end of the long days, no matter which job I ended up at. Again, 30 per cent. Maybe 25. The place was cheap and big, with a second bedroom I never used except for stacking boxes I’d never unpack in the whole time I lived there.

The downtown of Richmond was (and may still be) the single most desolate place in Maine, a nothing of windblown nothing, and, therefore, an external representation of the inside of my head. The single, long main street sweeps down a hill, running straight into an icy river. In the winter, the wind hurtles straight down, eddying blown snow with a moaning howl that’s pitched just right on a sleepless night to echo (and enhance) bad thoughts. There was one mini grocery, two convenience stores (one with gas pumps), a hardware store, an auto garage, a laundromat, and one bar. I went, at times and not to be overdramatic, intermittently mad there. (Richmond could be the setting for any Stephen King short story ever.)

I had no internet (no money, plus it was still something of a novelty), but the school where I taught every weekday did, and I found, one day, a guy in Canada who promised to dub MST3k episodes for six or seven bucks apiece. My love affair with the show had endured as a constant pleasure through it all, with the few commercially available ones from Rhino Home Video being watched to pieces. (I took them home from the video store that was my other job—Mitchell, The Amazing Colossal Man, I Accuse My Parents, a few more.) They made me happy in a way no other comedy could—maybe it was the humanity at the heart of the silliness I responded to. And here, of course, I fully admit to lending the show a lot of resonances that were truly about me, but there’s no one more self-obsessed than someone constantly thinking about how worthless he feels.

Joel got shot into space by some psychos and, finding himself trapped in a lonely, cavernous place in the middle of nowhere, he rechristened it “The Satellite Of Love.” And then he made himself some friends. I wasn’t in outer space, but I was in Richmond, Maine. As Crow T. Robot himself said in that same Master Ninja 1, “The parallels…are inescapable.”

So I agonized over my bank account, carefully selected 20 episodes (Master Ninja among them, naturally) and sent a personal check to some guy in Canada, half assuming that I’d just gone to a great deal of trouble to scam myself. And then I waited for two months. When the tapes actually showed up, I was filled with relief, joy, and a gnawing greed so acute that I considered calling out of work for as long as it’d take to devour every last minute of every episode (most of which I’d never seen).

I didn’t call out—crazy though I may have been going, I’ve always been diligent to the point of paranoia. What I did instead was go through those unlabeled VHS tapes one by one on my TV/VCR combination unit on the floor of my cold, drafty, undecorated apartment and lovingly label them with each episode’s name and number and stack them all up next to the TV and stare at the 19 of them while I watched the one playing.

I spoke briefly of the why. I don’t know the why, not really. The silly little puppet show spoke to me almost immediately, and it’s never let go, not in two-plus decades. I suspect it never will. There’s the movie geek appeal, of course—that’s what I’ve always been, and, again, I suspect what I’ll always be. And, as long as I’ve loved movies, I’ve been drawn to obscure movies—and bad ones. I seek out bad movies still, having a hoard of bulk, clearinghouse collections of sleaze and nonsense and marginalia alongside the movies I actually love on their actual merits. The show made fun of such cinematic scraps, but it, like me, did so with the love of those who understood. Like me, with my carefully highlighted Psychotronic Video Guide and Danny Peary’s Guide For The Film Fanatic and Cult Movies (1,2, & 3), their jibes at the expense of these goofy, often wretched movie miscalculations came from the inside. And that insider perspective informed the jokes which made them funnier—at least to people who just knew they were on the inside, too.

Then there was the relationship aspect. I know that sounds like a lot to lay on a scrappy little puppet show, but I think it’s a crucial part of MST3k‘s appeal, at least for me. I remember when the then-shocking changeover happened, as Joel (of the sleepy eyes and rolling, drawling delivery) gave way to the blonde, bland-looking Mike (who turned out to be just as hilarious in the end), I was unsettled beyond all proportion. This was before my precious cache of tapes, so I asked a coworker who’d seen Mike’s first episode, with no small tinge of sheepishness, “How… did the robots, um, take it?” Thankfully, he, a fan (although not to my still-secret extent) understood the question and answered reassuringly, “It’s all going to be fine.”

(It was, thankfully, fine. All I’ll say on the Joel-Mike front is that they’re different, but their different strengths serve the same purpose, anchoring the show’s voice to the human element that makes it work. Call me a fence-sitter, but true’s true.)

Which brings me back to that empty place in Richmond. A mattress on the floor, a stack of tapes, a VCR. Lots of bad beer—unending cubes of cylinders of the cheapest American beer drunk from the moment I got home ’til I succumbed to sleep, usually long after midnight. Before the tapes, it was endless movies—either brought home from the video store, or from my own, endlessly re-watched collection of comfortable favorites. After the tapes, it was all Mystery Science Theater all the time. With three episodes on each tape, I could pop one in, pop the first of the evening’s beers, and lie in bed (my cat Baldrick curling up contentedly on my chest or at my feet) and watch and watch and watch. Some nights, one tape would finish and I’d start another six-hour block, only to fall asleep (or pass out, if you like) and wake up with the tape still playing the last episode of the three in the morning. Those MST3k episodes were what I looked forward to all day, and what I climbed into all the long winter nights like a blanket. I soon knew every joke, every reading of every joke, every pause, every riff and every song. I even got to know the commercials—local Canadian TV spots for tire stores and weather updates, inextricably bound to the shows like the skips and crackles on a favorite vinyl record you’d played again and again.

Eventually, things got better. While things can always get worse, I know, I also know, for me, they’d have to get better in that place. New girlfriend, then another—regardless of how both relationships ended, I still have bewildered gratitude to them for seeing worthwhile things where I saw virtually none. The tapes slowed to something less than nightly rotation, at least until, after I’d moved out of there and in with the second of those women, I sent another check and waited two months for another bundle.

Now I’ve got my DVD sets, and the internet (mandatory to all in 2015) makes seeing almost any MST3k episode as easy as opening my laptop, and I take advantage of that happy ubiquity, less out of obsessive need for comfort or solace (for the most part), and more like visiting with an old friend who’s always welcome. So when Joel announced the rebirth of the show, I donated money (although less than the hundreds I’d spent on my tapes back in the day) to help make sure that happened. The uproar over the recasting of all the roles, the fact that the rest of the old casts are sniping at Joel’s effrontery on Twitter, the uncertainty of how well this new iteration will click into place in the ongoing riff that is the show—it’s all worrisome and a little sad. But I also know none of that matters.

I only know that I’m looking forward to it. I miss it. I miss it in the way you miss something you know in your heart is going to make you feel happy, and comforted. Like you’re back inside.


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2 Responses to That Time MST3k Saved My Life

  1. Pingback: The time I got to interview three MST3k-ers (and didn’t even geek out that much) | …a good Gordon, Gordon

  2. Pingback: Every smart thing I can write down in the last hour of 2015 | …a good Gordon, Gordon

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