Dennis writes stuff for the week of 1/25-1/31

Weeks now are strange. All marked out by deadlines, the need for more deadlines, and fear of both having deadlines and not having deadlines. I joke about being “a gentleman of leisure,” since I work at home (or from home—take your regional pick), which implies a lot more relaxing than is going on in our house. And even fewer silk lounging pajamas. Some, but not a lot. Anyway, here’s how I kept myself alive and beat back the insecurity demons this week!

This week I wrote about:

—The first entry in an AV Club Inventory about people hiding inside animals! Kick that week right off. I wrote about John Irving, which is the first time I got paid to write about John Irving, who is the person who made me want to get paid to write in the first place. This means something.

—An AV Club pre-air review of the WGN America hillbillies are interesting series Outsiders, which was both sillier and a lot more interesting than I thought it’d be.

—The Airplane! entry in this other AV Club Inventory about the very few parody movies that haven’t gotten terribly lame with time.

—This AV Club review of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, promisingly entitled “Dee Makes A Smut Film.” Funny—it’s Sunny after all—but a bit shaky. Still—Greico.

—An AV Club review of this week’s Workaholics, where Blake and Jillian adopt a kitty. It doesn’t go well for the cat, slightly better for the episode.

—An entry in this AV Club AVQ&A about the movie soundtracks you’d like to see performed live. Unsurprisingly (if you’re me), I picked Basquiat.

—This week’s AV Club What’s On Tonight feature, where I squeezed in clips from SCTV, Sleater-Kinney, and Near Dark. Because I’m me. You’ve met me, right?

—And this Portland Press Herald piece on a Portland bar holding weekly Kurosawa movie nights all winter. Portland ain’t bad.

 

And that’s it. A healthy number that week, but less than the week before—which does not make me feel very leisurely, frankly. (No Simpsons and SNL last week might be an excuse, but if you think that comforts me, you really don’t know me.) Back to work.

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Dennis writes stuff for the week of 1/18-1/24

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I keep all my assignments for the week (and Emily’s) on a whiteboard I redo every month. I call it The Big Board and refer to it several times a day, both to reassure myself that I am making my nut for the week and to reassure myself that I am not punting a deadline. (I need a lot of reassurance.) So, in keeping with the first goal anyway, here’s a rundown (complete with links you can click to bump up Dennis’ pageviews and reassure him some more) of everything I did last week. I’m going Sunday-Monday because it’s Sunday and I thought of it today.

This week, I wrote about:

—An interesting episode of The Simpsons for the AV Club that addressed the show’s ongoing Apu problem in a thoughtful and funny way.

—A mini-retrospective of David Bowie’s film roles for the Portland Press Herald. David Bowie is dead, by the way, which is the pits.

—Speaking of, a couple of entries in this poll of the best Bowie songs ever, thanks to my AV Club colleague and Sports Alcohol founder Jesse Hassenger. I was honored and it took over my brain for a few days.

—A Press Herald review of a thoughtful little documentary about Black History Month. Please watch it instead of anything Fox News dum-dum Stacey Dash had to say on the subject.

—An AV Club review of the new Workaholics, which continued the new season’s ill-advised choice of bringing in the most annoying guest stars they can think of.

—An AV Club review of the new It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia which sent The Gang into an 80s ski movie. Funny, but the show needs to get back to basics for this 11th season.

—My AV Club review of the new Saturday Night Live, hosted by kicking person Ronda Rousey. It went about as you’d expect.

—An AV Club Newswire (my first one!) about Tina Fey’s semi-triumphant return to SNL, attempting to out-crazy Sarah Palin, who may have gone beyond satire.

—A pre-air AV Club review of the new Amazon “aging bros in the jungle” drama Mad Dogs. Romany Malco is great in it—the show genuinely tried my patience.

—My weekly What’s On Tonight AV Club feature, wherein I use dumb jokes and random clips to make what’s essentially just the TV Guide entertaining enough to read.

—And an entry in this AV Club AVQ&A about terrible characters that damage your enjoyment of good shows. Nope—you have to click it to find out.

There, brain. There, Big Board. Leave me alone ’til tomorrow.

 

 

 

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TV Review: It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia— “Chardee MacDennis 2: Electric Boogaloo”

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I’ve written—at length—about how this show is a uniquely impressive outlier in TV comedy history. Sure, it seems, on the surface, like coming out of the starting gate for its eleventh season with a sequel to a beloved episode is a softball. But you can’t argue with results.

From my review at the AV Club:

Apart from being a sequel to a popular episode, the premiere doesn’t go out of its way to stake out any new territory (horrific new minigames aside), and that’s a good thing. The only other new wrinkle is a sixth player, in the form of Andy Buckley’s Andy, a potential investor from the Mattel corporation whose respectable demeanor in looking for new, more adult board game fare “that’s out of the box” doesn’t prevent him from getting fully and good-naturedly into the booze-fueled, flailing swing of things. Buckley is a canny choice for the episode’s interloper, the actor’s innately decent yet sneakily untrustworthy button-down persona admitting all manner of possibilities for his presence. Now, when an outsider is pulled into the Gang’s orbit, there are only a few conceivable outcomes. For the even-keeled Andy, the episode deftly sets up that he could be just what he says he is (which would probably entail his humiliation, if not serious injury or death), or that he could be another in the long line of scammers and manipulators that have preyed on the Gang’s overreaching, ill-advised ambition (which would mean it’s the Gang that gets abused and humiliated). In the end, though, the fact that the genial Andy is an actor hired by Frank to get Frank’s ideas into Chardee MacDennis makes perfect sense for an episode about Chardee MacDennis.

I missed you, Sunny.

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Every smart thing I can write down in the last hour of 2015

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Because humans love round numbers and artificial markers in our lives, here’s everything I can think of noting in the last 60 minutes of 2015.

I am now a full time writer. Sure, I had to wait until getting kicked out of the nest (see #2) instead of striding manfully into my lifelong dream like a manly man. Still, since August my only source of income (and thus sustenance, money, and food, and stuff) has been what comes out of my own head (that I can get people to pay me for). It’s gone well enough, especially since I don’t spend much, and my bank account sits about where it was in August. So, win, Dennis. Keep it up, tiger.

Videoport died. I worked at a great indie video store for 15 years. I loved it, despite the million daily indignities that go along with working when you’re not just typing away at home in your underpants all day. I met my incalculably amazing wife and life-wife, and partner-in-life, Emily there, when I wowed her with movie knowledge and she decided she liked my butt. (She tells me that all the time, still.) I even got paid, and got some serious, brain-career-aiding publicity out of the deal, writing about how much it sucked when Videoport died.

Everyone I love lived through 2015. Let’s keep it up, people.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is coming back in 2016. That’s a good thing. I donated to the Kickstarter. I’m oddly prideful about that.

On the brain-money front, I’m still writing at the AV Club, which is still, some three-plus years in, incredibly, bewilderingly flattering. It also builds up my self-esteem on a daily basis, which takes some of the edge off.

And thanks to the Portland Press Herald, which has employed me to write even longer. I always think I’m going to run out of Maine movie news to write about, but those crazy kids in the Maine film scene just aren’t gonna stop.

Emily and I are making a shockingly good go of it living in the same apartment literally 24 hours a day, every day. At least since August. If you knew the size of our apartment, you’d be asking us to host a marriage advice podcast, or flooding us with desperate emails and letters begging us to give out our secret. My take: We like each other, we both have our own work to do (Emily’s a writer too—also at the AV Club most of the time—and she’s much better at it than I am even though she started much later), and our individual crazinesses generally synch up so that there’s at least one sane person around at any one time. She also has a great butt, so we agree on that point, all around.

Therapy’s a good, helpful thing. I feel more together than I ever have, ever. So, thanks, Doc. I’m still fucking nuts (depression isn’t going anywhere, despite your efforts), but I feel better equipped to handle it than at any time in my life.

Thanks to Twitter mostly, I’ve better gotten to know a lot of my AV Club colleagues, and various other smart and talented people better this year. It’s made me feel more like I belong, both at the AV Club and as a writer in general. I was worried (a euphemism for fucking petrified) of the transition. There was the fear that Emily and I would drive each other crazy (a euphemism for Emily realizing that having me underfoot every day is far too much Dennis in life), and the equal fear that I wouldn’t be able to harness enough discipline to write as much as I had to to stay alive. Oh, and let’s not forget the ever-present terror of everyone realizing I’m a hack and all work drying up forever. But I’ve loved living what I call being “a gentleman of leisure” but what I really picture, especially when I’m in the middle of a ten-day streaming series binge-review, is this:

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I do have things I want and plan to do better in 2016. I want to see my friends more, especially now that I—theoretically—have so much more free time. (I don’t actually have that much free time, even as a full time writer-guy, which baffles me, really. I was working full time at Videoport and doing all this writing? Really? Was everything I wrote just hastily scribbled nonsense? Don’t answer that.) I want to use my theoretical free time more wisely, getting outside more instead of allowing the life of the mind to completely envelop the life of the body. I have this picture in my head of the ideal writer’s life—John Irving got imprinted pretty early on—and I want to get on that. A busy writing life, spread over a number of disciplines and projects, coupled with sport and friends and life and love! (See any John Irving author photo for a sense of what I’m getting at.)

Carrying on the 2016 tip, there’s always the idea of making dumbass New Year’s Eve promises to myself, so here are a few, dumbass! Starting a file of memorable moments from movies/TV/books to aid in year-end lists and broader, overarching, and lucrative thinkpiece articles. Watch more movies—I’m not complaining, but all this AV Club TV reviewing has made me TV boy. I used to be,  almost exclusively, movie boy. I miss movie boy. Learn to cook new things (I have a few solid standbys, but I want to expand the repertoire. (I’m sure Emily will appreciate that.) I want to read more, too, but who are we kidding.

In general, I want to be more engaged in my life. It’s always been my safe little shell, cultivated and protected, of scurrying out into the world to do all the things that it or “they” (whoever I imaged they are) had set out for me and then scurrying back home again where I could do… nothing. It’s not a way to live, born as I’ve come to understand it is of some childish, fearful need for isolation, and safety. I want to live like the person I feel like I could be. I’ve taken steps this year, my hand forced or not, and I’ve derived no insignificant slice of courage and self-regard from what I’ve done. I don’t imagine—the good Doctor’s best efforts notwithstanding—that I’ll ever see myself as a “grown-up” (a loaded term ever in my head). I feel like the awkward goof, the overachieving faker who’s run too far out and is waiting for the ice to crack. But I’m here, and I’m better, and I’m making a living as a writer. That’s been my dream since I was twelve—and I talked a librarian into letting me take The World According To Garp out of the grown-up library. It’s take a long time, much longer than it should have, maybe. But I’m here. It’s 2016, and I’m a writer. I like that.

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I squeeze the last penny out of the video store I loved

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Thanks to the nice people at Vox.com (and especially the great Todd VanDerWerff who hooked me up) for giving me the last chance I imagine I’ll get to whine about how the video rental industry (and Videoport, the store where I worked for an unconscionably long time) is dying. I got a lot of very kind words (and about 200 Twitter followers) from this, so thanks, Vox. And thanks, Videoport.

From the thing:

Over the years, we’d come to know our customers’ tastes, their pet peeves, and their soft spots. Our experience and movie expertise helped us make informed, intuitive leaps to find and fulfill entertainment needs they didn’t even always know they had. I’ve had parents hug me for introducing their kids to Miyazaki and The Iron Giant. Nice old ladies have baked me cookies for starting them off on The Wire. People knew they could come in with the vaguest description — “This guy has an eye patch, and I think there’s a mariachi band” — and we’d figure out they were looking for Cutter’s Way. Other times, they’d take a recommendation for Walking and Talking and come back saying, “Just give me everything Nicole Holofcener’s ever done.” If someone asked me for a great comedy, my first question was invariably, “What’s one comedy you’ve seen that you think is hilarious?” I’ve spent 20 minutes refining exactly how scary was too scary when picking out a horror movie. It’s a skill set you develop, a sensitivity to just the right vibrations of interest and aversion.

If you still have a video store near you, rent a damned movie. They’ll appreciate it, and you, more than you can know.

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The time I got to interview three MST3k-ers (and didn’t even geek out that much)

Just because the news of the impending new Mystery Science Theater 3000 is consuming my brain at the moment, here’s the time I got to interview Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy for the Portland Press Herald. They were in town for a comicon and were as nice and funny and gracious as you imagine they would be. I count it as a personal victory that I got Mary Jo to laugh (she has a delightful giggle), and that I kept it together in the face of talking to three of my favorite entertainers of all time, on the outside at least.

And yes, they all confirm that Manos is officially the worst movie that they’ve ever done.

Here’s a link to my article, that combines all their MST3k bad movie wisdom into an pitifully short space. And hey, here’s the whole article below, just for you, you knuckleknobs.

 The Coast City Comicon boasts a convention-hall full of great guests this weekend, but for me, the real draw was the chance to talk on the phone with Mary Jo Pehl, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. For MiSTies (fans of the cult classic TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000”), like me, those names (also known as, respectively, Pearl Forrester, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot) are comedy gods. Cracking courageously wise at the expense of the worst movies ever made on “MST3k” until 1999, and continuing to the present day in movie-mashing crews like Cinematic Titanic (www.cinematictitanic.com) and Rifftrax (www.rifftrax.com), these three have, alongside their “MST3k” colleagues, mined the cinematic landscape for unlikely laughs for decades. Before their trip to Portland, they were kind enough to share some with us:

Q: What are the essential qualities that make a movie ripe for the MST3k treatment?

MARY JO PEHL: Winnowing down the bad movies became an art form. You needed technical things – like you have to be able to see it, and hear it, for example. Also there needs to be a je ne sais quoi – such as maybe John Agar in tiny, tiny swim trunks (in “Revenge Of The Creature.”) Something to sink your teeth into, so to speak.

KEVIN MURPHY: The best ones are the ones that take themselves really seriously – no matter how competent or incompetent, that’s when we can really have have fun with it. Anything from “Twilight” to “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”

Q: Is there a special kind of wisdom that the MST treatment provides that traditional reviewing does not?

BILL CORBETT: I think we spend more time with a movie than a reviewer does. Sometimes I come to resent it, but maybe respect it more than I would otherwise – it’s an intensive way to approach it. And these experiences are not all the same. Seeing the umpteenth “Transformers” movie (for Rifftrax) makes us belligerent, frankly. But a cheesy local filmmaker – I have a little more affection for those things. At least they’re a little more sincere or grassroots.

MJP: I think what it did for me was to start analyzing films a little bit more – you can give a movie so much power because they are so self-serious (and I am so impressionable).

KM: We do a really close reading of the film – for hours and hours. So putting just about any film on the autopsy table like that, it changes it.

Q: Do you find yourself providing commentary even on things you do like?

MJP: Oh yes. Sometimes you can point out something dumb to deflate the intensity of a specific scene. My husband and I might look each other and made some crack – sort of leavening it or deflating the intensity of it

KM: On Rifftrax, we’ve done good movies like “Lord Of The Rings” or “Casablanca”, or “Jaws,” but we approach them more like a roast than a execution. We use the film as a foil to make jokes about ourselves, the world at large. The films end up being our Margaret Dumont.

BC: With Rifftrax, we all operate under premise that something good and classic will not be harmed by what we do – we’re just gnats nibbling at it. We have to be nimble about how we go about it – it’s like doing jazz riffs, but it’s all about the joke. It has to be funny.

Q: The movie-mockery formula MST3k created has proven incredibly durable. What’s so attractive that almost everyone involved is still doing it after all these years?

BC: First – it’s still fun to do and satisfying knowing a lot of people like it. At a certain point, I imagine we’ll be too decrepit for people to want to look at us, but for now we have parents bringing their kids, college students – it’s a narrow slice, but people still respond to this form of comedy.

MJP: For me, I just have a limited skill set. When the opportunity arises, I have to take advantage of it. I get to work with people who are tremendously funny, super smart, and whom I adore, and I get to make the funny with them.

KM: It can either be that we’re experts on subject, or we have bleak, lonely lives. It’s fun, we’re pretty good at it, and it’s a unique world to be the true only experts at it. And there’s still a demand.

Q: OK, what’s the single worst movie you ever did on “MST3k?”

KM: I really hate “Manos. The Hands Of Fate.” It’s just really hard to watch. We’ve done it on “MST3k” and Rifftrax and I’m happy I never have to see it again. Ray Dennis Steckler’s “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies” might be second. It’s almost unwatchable and not in a fun way. Also “Red Zone Cuba,” which is so depraved – it doesn’t have even the stylistic verve of “Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer.”

MJP: I hate to jump on the bandwagon but “Manos” was pretty unbelievable. Just incomprehensible and weird – but not in a good way. At least it has something compelling about it, though. Some, like “Radar Secret Service,” with guys in their big ‘40s suits are just incredibly boring.

BC: “Manos.” We re-riffed on it for Rifftrax. It’s not only bad, it’s so depressing to spend time with.

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The Wire, Tamir Rice, and how art’s instructive and useless

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I wrote this soon after the Tamir Rice shooting. You know, when a 12-year old black kid with a toy gun got shot at distance from a police car when a cop thought he was in so much danger that he had no choice but to gun the boy down. You know—just to be safe. I re-read it today, when Cleveland prosecutor Tim McGinty, in declining to pursue a case against the police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, said in his statement, “We don’t second guess police officers.”

Well, somebody fucking should.

I’m white. I won’t know what I’m talking about. Not really. A lot of cops fit that description, too.

From the thing:

Great art captures the complexities of the human condition — just as all art is almost ludicrously rendered irrelevant by the awfulness of the real life it tries to give meaning. It’s a disheartening collision of hope and reality brought into too-stark relief by a recent TV marathon, of all things.

When HBO ran its marathon of all 60 hours of The Wire last month, it came at a time when the public’s relationship to law enforcement was (and is) as fractious and divided as any time in recent memory. The controversial deaths of unarmed black men like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice (who was 12), and a disheartening number of others have brought the issue of police violence (especially against minorities) into the open. Predictably, the fringes of the debate teem with the worst of us. Racists, opportunists, and careerists all use complex human tragedy to further their own ends and transform public discourse to the polar opposite of The Wire’s layered, nuanced, and deeply humanistic examination of cause and effect.

It did such a good job that it’s almost enough to think that there are real world answers to be found there. It’s like a blueprint for a better society, even though the characters within the show, almost without fail, end up just as lost and disillusioned as they were at the start. It’s a fool’s errand to look to fiction for real life solutions, but if you’re going to do it, The Wire’s complex examination of America’s most seemingly intractable problems is as good a place to start as any.

The idea of looking to The Wire for a critical analysis of the police seems foolish, because at first glance there’s no quality series more sentimental about being a cop. Indeed, the highest compliment paid to any dead or retiring law enforcement official is to be eulogized as “natural born po-lice,” and it’s an admiration the series clearly shares — up to a point.

 

The rest is here. I honestly have no idea what else to do.

 

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TV Review: F Is For Family

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The pre-air PR for this Netflix animated series did the show no favors, focusing as it did ad nauseam on star and co-creator Bill Burr’s appeal as “a warrior against PC culture” and so on in the sort of proudly strident terms guaranteed to make me not want to watch it, ever. Luckily, those knuckleknobs at The AV Club paid me to review all six episodes of the first season, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much more thoughtful and interesting it was.

In retrospect, Netflix’s ad strategy might have been smart (most likely by accident), pulling in fans of, say, Family Guy, or just plain assholery and letting placating them with the undeniably incessant profanity and inappropriateness of Burr’s 1970s blue-collar dad and husband Frank Murphy while the show (from Burr and Simpsons writer Mike Price) went in a more interesting (if, again, undeniably crude and foul-mouthed) direction.

There are some significant weaknesses here—the characters outside the Murphy family are pretty poorly imagined (except for Sam Rockwell’s McConaughey-esque neighbor), and the show isn’t especially funny. But it’s aiming more for a sort of Bojack Horseman sitcom of quiet (or in this case boorish) despair, something that costar Laura Dern plied so devastatingly on Enlightened. And that it does pretty well indeed. Anyway, it’s a good show. Here’s a link to my AV Club reviews of the whole season. And here’s a clip from one of the reviews to get a taste of what you’re in for:

In a six-episode season, things are going to feel rushed, especially on a sitcom, where, by definition, situations drive character. But what’s become clear now that we’re two-thirds of the way through, is that we’ve been dropped into the midst of the Murphy family’s story at a crisis point. And, sure, the cliché about ”crisis” and “opportunity” might apply, but at this point, each member of the family is at a juncture that could go either way. As the season’s gone on, Burr and Price have made it clear that we’re witnessing a family on the verge of major changes, a fact that serves to smooth out some of the character shorthand.

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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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Saturday Night Live’s biggest failure of all time

Well, that happened.

Oft-busted plutocrat, reality show laughingstock, loudmouthed misogynist and bigot, and bafflingly viable Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hosted SNL. You know, despite being a legitimate and regular target of the show’s often watery political humor for decades, and despite the fact that, mere months ago, his “controversial” (meaning reprehensible) campaign rhetoric got him banned from NBC entirely. Since his booking was announced—and met with unsurprising outrage from people not reprehensible—I spent a lot of time wondering how SNL would navigate this seemingly no-win situation.

In the end, it did the worst it could possibly do.

I’ve already spent way too much time thinking and writing about this episode, and this man. Here’s and excerpt from the first AV Club piece I did, in advance of the show.

But that’s not to say that SNL should be more conservative than it is. In his career, Michaels has been shown to be as left-leaning as a pampered multi-millionaire mogul can be, and while SNL was never the bastion of radicalism conservative critics or rose-colored hindsight would have it be, it’s hardly a haven for right-wingers. The show’s humor consistently veers left. Why that traditionally remains true of most good comedy is a fight for another day, but SNL has remained successful for so long because it seeks the heat wherever it lives that week. But if the hot target is of the left, the tone of the comedy is different than if, say, a Republican presidential candidate comes out and states that Mexican people coming to America are “criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists,” or mentions immigrants within the same breath as the statement “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.” (Just a tip for political candidates: If you start a statement like “Mexicans are…” and end with anything but “…from Mexico,” you’re saying something racist.) A public figure saying something racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic—that’s when SNL, for all its often-tepid social satire, will traditionally hold up that person for scorn. Donald Trump is guilty of all of those things. Whether he truly believes them or is saying them to pick up votes from those who do (and which is worse?) is beside the point when the show is giving him a platform.

And here’s a chunk of the review itself, which bore out literally every horrible suspicion I had about how SNL would approach this mess.

After the first third of the show revealed just how irrelevantly sycophantic the episode was going to be to the Republican front-runner (who was disavowed by NBC as recently as June), I recall thinking that, if the show were going to engage in any meaningful satire, or, indeed, do anything but allow Donald Trump to preen and brag for 90 minutes (minus commercials and two soporifically similar Sia songs), then the stand would be made there. Look, it’s obvious that the guy reviewing this episode is not a fan of this particular host, but if Saturday Night Live is going to remain a player in televised political satire, then it has to take advantage of the opportunities it’s presented. And having a front-running Republican candidate in their own house was the biggest opportunity the show would have to show it still meant… anything. Instead, apart from Michael Che—who looked like he would rather be anywhere else, to his credit—jabbing Trump’s history as a “birther,” and a line about conservatives longing for “the good old days” which predated any and all civil rights reforms, Weekend Update was essentially a checklist of Trump targets. Ben Carson slams—four. Jeb Bush slams—two. President Obama slam, China slam, Iran slam—one each (plus a stereotypical “Asians are good at math” extra credit joke for good measure). Tina Fey has talked about her disdain for perhaps-even-worse SNL host Paris Hilton’s desire to use the show to make fun of her “enemies,” and it’s like Trump (and his people) presented the writers with a similar checklist of targets to pick from. (Notably absent from that list—Donald Trump.)

I took precisely no pleasure in being proved 100% right, by the way. No show has been a part of my life as vitally as has SNL. This just sucked all over.

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