In the Not Too Distant Future…


If you were to look at my Netflix Instant Queue, you would find quite an ecclectic collection of movies (not including movies I have on Blu-Ray, such as the 1998 Godzilla and the Director’s Cut of Nic Cage’s The Wicker Man). Oh, sure, I have timeless classics on my list like Once Upon a Time in the WestTwelve O’Clock HighThe UntouchablesScarface (the 1932 original), and Glengarry Glen Ross. I have brilliant and timeless television series’, like Firefly and The Tick. I have great independent movies like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Brick, and I have fascinating documentaries like BullyIndie Game: The Movie, and Trekkies.

But I also have films like the cheesy Bounty Hunter starring former WWE Diva Trish Stratus. I have the immortal Street Fighter. I have what I affectionately dub the “Trejo Trinity” of Bad AssPoolboy, and Rise of the Zombies (co-starring LeVar motherfucking Burton). I have Titanic II in my queue (hah, it rhymed – I should be a writer or something…)

Titanic-Fucking-Two.

I even have Noobz, which is easily one of the worst things in existence. Why would I have such godawful movies in my library? Because Ilove awful movies. Why is that, you ask? Well, to explain my love of awful, campy, goofy, downright awful cinema, we need to go back to my childhood…

L to R: Bobo, Pearl Forrester, Brain Guy (Observer), Crow T. Robot, Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Tom Servo, Gypsy, Dr. Clayton Forrester, TV's Frank, Dr. Larry Erhardt NOT SEEN: Cambot (click for image source)

L to R: Bobo, Pearl Forrester, Brain Guy (Observer), Crow T. Robot, Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Tom Servo, Gypsy, Dr. Clayton Forrester, TV’s Frank, Dr. Larry Erhardt NOT SEEN: Cambot (click for image source)

 

It was the summer of 1997. My mother had just come home from the hospital after a prolonged battle against a rare and aggressive form of kidney cancer. Because of the treatments she was undergoing, would spend much of her time lying on the couch, and when I would come home from school we would typically sit and watch TV together. We had basic cable so a lot of my childhood was watching old movies on syndication, along with VHS tapes of things I was given for Christmas and my birthday: Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers episodes, Disney movies like AladdinBeauty and the Beast, and The Big Green. I also had Coming Out of Their Shells, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rock concert which still stands as one of the downright most bizarre things I have ever seen.

One night I couldn’t sleep. The air conditioning had broken down again, and the house was sweltering. As I got up to go get a glass of water I could hear my mother moving around in the living room, which startled me. After all, I was a nine-year-old who was up at close to 11:00pm – summer break or not, it was way past my bedtime. But I really wanted a glass of water with lots of ice, so I tried to stealth my way down the hall and slip undetected into the kitchen. Unfortunately, our dog Leo (or “Muttley I” by my naming convention) was lying on the cool linoleum floor and yelped when I stepped on his tail. My mother shuffled into the kitchen, bracing herself against the counter as she looked at me with passive disapproval.

“Why are you out of bed, Jimmy,” she asked. My mother, to this day, calls me Jimmy and my mother, to this day, is the only human being alive who can get away with calling me Jimmy.

“I’m too hot.”

“You can’t sleep?” I shook my head, afraid that I was going to be grounded for being up late. Instead she shuffled into the kitchen and around Muttley I, opening the freezer and handing me an orange icicle pop. “Go in the other room and sit down. My show is about to come on.”

Wait, I thought to myself as I did what anybody does with an icicle pop – sucked the juice out as fast as possible. I’m allowed to stay up!? I was overjoyed at my motherly-sanctioned act of rebellion as I walked into the living room and sat down on our old, yellow-orange-brown fabric couch that had cigarette burns and was starting to smell ever-so-slightly due to the dog. A moment later my mother walked out of the kitchen holding two glasses of ice water. She placed her glass down on the end table and handed me mine, which was in my favoriteRiddler mug from McDonald’s.

As we sat there, a program on SciFi was ending – I want to say that it was Dark Skies, but I couldn’t honestly tell you. As the credits were rolling, I looked over at my mother. “What are you watching?”

“Shh,” she said. “It’s about to start.”

The credits ended and the screen faded to black. A moment later…

I was immediately enthralled. In the first minute this show – this strange, weird odyssey starring grown-ups acting like children – had given me space, robots (which I thought were real robots for the first few minutes), catchy music, monkeys, and about a dozen other images that made absolutely zero sense. I sat in utter, speechless amazement and amusement. I had no idea why, but I was intrigued – and then the show began.

“Ladies and… Gypsy,” said the gold-beaked robot. “Michael Nelson IS Lord of the Dance!”

I was laughing hysterically at the goofy shirtless man with his puppets. I wasn’t entirely sure why they were doing what they were doing, but I didn’t care. It was funny to me. What made me feel so much better was that my mother was also laughing – not nearly as hard as I was, but it was still the most I had seen her laugh since she came home from the hospital. After another brief section in which I saw a monkey and a pale bald man holding a brain inside a giant Petri dish bickering at each other over ointment application, the show ramped up and my love affair with bad movies began.

My first episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was “Jack Frost.”

I didn’t make it through my first episode. I don’t remember when I fell asleep but I remember waking up the next morning and being very, very, very nine-year-old upset over it not being on. For the following week I spent every opportunity telling my friends at school about the “goofy guy and his robots” who watched movies on TV. My classmates had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, though I remember my teacher, Mr. Brewer, laughing a hearty belly laugh when he heard me describe the show.

In retrospect, I think he knew.

By the time that following Saturday came around, I was so amped and ready to watch that my mom let me in on the secret – it didn’t just air late at night. My mother was one of those parents who insisted that I spent time outside with my friends. But on that Saturday, just as I was being swept out of the house with a big ol’ broom, mom told me to be home no later than 3:30pm because my “new favorite thing” would be on.

I went to my friend Malcolm’s house, where we played Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Dinosaurs for Hire for a few hours before I rushed home at 3:30pm on the dot. I came inside, sat down on the couch, and waited with a glass of Mountain Dew (which was also in my favorite Riddler glass… I miss that glass). 4:00pm came around, and that funny, catchy theme song came on once again.

After the intro host segment, I was treated with an episode called “Riding With Death,” which was not only funny enough to force my mother to mute the show once or twice due to the laughter causing her pain and needing a moment to calm down, but it was an actual bonding experience. She sat and told me about how what we were watching wasn’t actually a movie, but an old television show that she watched in high school called Gemini Man. This began a conversation about how she had her own problems with being picked on growing up because of her bad eyesight, and how she loved coming of age during a time as memorable and free as the 1970s were. She told me about how she wanted to write poetry in school, and how she missed being able to paint – both qualities that I, independently, had picked up and started to enjoy.

MST3K 02 SmallThis went on for many more weeks, with me being antsy and impatient as I waited for the next episode to air. For the rest of that summer, I would count down the minutes until the clock read 4:00pm each Saturday, when I would rush home from whatever I was doing and plop down on the smelly orange couch (until we replaced it with an old, but non-smelly teal one) to watch Cambot, Gypsy, Servo, Crow, and Mike endure yet another experiment. Throughout that summer, my mother and I were able to bond in a way that, honestly, we hadn’t before and really haven’t since. She was always busy trying to keep the bills paid, I was pre-occupied with school, my very few friends, and video games. But for two hours, every Saturday, my mom and I (and my younger brother Robert, on occasion) would sit down, eat chips, drink cola, and laugh.

One day, shortly after the school year had started, I came home with a bloodied nose after being pushed to the ground coming off the school bus and smacking my face on the sidewalk. I was crying, upset that after the summer break I had to return to being the poor kid with the hand-me-down plaid shirts and Moe Howard haircut that everybody loved to pick on. I remember that my mom, after cleaning the blood from my nose and giving me one of her overly-sweet talks about how I was special and would do so much more than those who picked on others, she stood up and walked into her room. A moment later she returned with a shoebox. At first I was excited because I thought I was finally getting a new pair of sneakers – maybe I’d finally get the ones with lights in ’em! Sure, they had already gone out of style by that point but I didn’t care – I still think they’re cool.

Sadly, they weren’t sneakers. Joyfully, there was something much better.

You see, my mom is an OG nerd. She grew up watching shows like Lost in Space and The Twilight Zone. She was one of the people who attended the very first Star Trek convention in 1972. She was the one who pulled me into both Star Trek and Star Wars, and thereby inadvertently kicked off my career as a game developer. Before her mind started to slip, she’d always say that her favorite movie was Jeff Morrow’s This Island Earth (which would be riffed, hilariously enough, in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie). In short, my mother was a hardcore nerd who had just placed a shoebox in my lap filled with unmarkd VHS tapes.

“Pick one,” she said.

I looked at her, somewhat puzzled and not really feeling up to watching anything. But, seeing that she obviously had something up her sleeve, I grabbed one at random and handed it to her. She took the video, walked over to the old woodbox TV with the VHS player sitting on top of our cable box, and put the tape in.

I watched the fuzzy tail end of some Isuzu ad before the screen went black. Then…

The music began to play, and I was ecstatic! But… but wait. This doesn’t sound quite… Joel? Who the heck is Joel? What’s with the goober in the green coat?!

I was utterly confused, but I rolled with it. I mean, I still recognized Crow. I still recognized Tom. I still recognized Gypsy. I still… okay, Cambot looked weird, but I at least knew who it was! We watched, and I wasn’t sure I liked Joel – he was way more relaxed… and Crow sounded… different. But I liked the goober in the green coat, and his portly assistant. Then the movie began.

Godzilla vs. Megalon!

Not only was Godzilla vs. Megalon my first Joel episode, but it was my first Godzilla movie – and I remember, being nine years old, getting angry at these guys for making fun of a movie about a giant monster beating up another giant monster which, to a nine-year-old, is basically the best thing ever. At the same time, some of the lines made me laugh until I forgot about my hurting nose, or the mockery of the other kids when I faceplanted on the sidewalk. I was in my own little world, and by the end of the show I had warmed to Joel, and Dr. Forrester, and TV’s Frank, and even the different Crow voice.

MST3K-Joike

When I came home from school the next day I was greeted by my babysitter, Nicole. My mom had started another round of treatments and was out of the house, but she left the shoebox on top of the TV. For the next several weeks I burned through the tapes – about a dozen in all, each one with two episodes. It was through these VHS tapes that I saw “Master Ninja I,” “Hercules Unchained,” “Secret Agent Super Dragon,” and the all-time classic, “Manos: The Hands of Fate.” I remember, being ten years old and watching Manos for the first time, that I hated it. I hated it with a passion – the movie itself was just… so boring and confusing and bad.

I hated it for years. I wouldn’t watch it for years.

But as I grew older, my taste in movies became slightly more refined. However, I had an interesting problem develop. You see, most of the movies I watched were at home – and most of the movies I watched at home were on MST3K. So not only did my tastes skew towards movies that looked silly, I was essentially raised to be that guy in the theater who talked during the film.

This was short-lived, thankfully, as I learned my lesson after my jokes and pitiful attempts at riffing Dr. Dolittle wound up getting my whole family kicked out of the theater. I still feel slightly embarrassed by that.

When the show finally came to an end in 1999, I was outright sad. By the time “Diabolik” aired, it felt like I was saying goodbye to friends whom I’d never see again. I remember watching the finale and, although I laughed a few times, I spent much of the episode in a mopey funk. I didn’t want it to end – I didn’t want to say goodbye. When the final scene aired and then faded to the credits, I went to bed distraight and laid there, unable to sleep.

At least I have the tapes, I thought to myself as I became resigned to the fact that I would never see these guys again.

For the days and weeks after, I’d watch the tapes – ones my mom had from before, and the ones I had recorded myself – over and over and over. It became a daily ritual for me during the summer, and if I had time after homework I’d watch on school nights. Eventually, as weeks became months and months became years, the viewings became less and less frequent. I still loved the show, sure, but as I was growing up life was getting in my way. Besides, I only had about 50 episodes in total – after a while you find your favorites, and over time you can wear yourself out on even the best episodes. I had thought that, maybe, it was time to put the show behind me.

But then the Internet happened.

We had a godawful dial-up service from Kmart called Bluelight, but it was still my window to the world. I used that window as anybody in their early teens did at the time: I looked for people to talk to. I found message boards and chat rooms, where we would roleplay Resident Evil (family friendly RP, I promise) or talk about how Unreal Tournament was so much better than Quake III. I eventually found a TV chat room where we’d talk about our favorite cartoons, or that fancy new Who Wants to be a Millionaire show that was all the craze. One day, while in the chatroom, somebody brought up the subject of their favorite TV show. Before I had the chance to reply, the first answer given was “MST3K!” This started a discussion about the show that quickly turned into a “Joel vs. Mike” debate, before ending with us just quoting lines to each other.

GBSTVThis is when I knew that while I may be by myself in my little social circle in Michigan, I would most certainly find those people online. And I did. At first it was just MST3K fans, but then I explored my other interests, like gaming. I signed up for the G4TV message boards in November 2001, and… well, what effect that ultimately had on my life is a story for a different day. But I had found my people!

As the web evolved, I convinced my mom to upgrade us to high-speed Internet. Shortly after, I discovered the world of video streaming. One day, while I was surfing the Internet in search of fun videos to watch, I came across a website known as gbs.tv (Goon Broadcasting System). They were airing all sorts of odd music videos, Bill Nye episodes, Star Wars fan parodies, etc. I was a fan from the onset, but what pushed me over was on Thanksgiving day when gbs.tv streamed – all day – MST3K. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon was something I had fond memories of, and to see it live on via the Internet made me so happy that I called my mom into my room and we sat there, my mom in my computer chair and me on a wooden stool I had grabbed out of the dining room, watching MST3K again for the very first time.

Appropriately enough, the first episode we caught was “Jack Frost.”

This marathon resparked my interest, and I was on a mission to find these shows. Shortly after Thanksgiving I was introduced to the wonderful world of torrents, and in no time I had found a repository of every-single-episode of the series – including the rarely-seen KTMA episodes from the show’s days as a Minneapolis-area public access program. These episodes are almost universally awful, but I did not give a damn. I wanted them, and once I had them I ate them all up – as did my mom.

For her, it was a chance to reminisce on when we would make a day out of waiting for the show to come on, of the hurried snack or bathroom breaks during commercials, and of her telling me stories of seeing some of those movies in theaters growing up. For me, I was looking at this show through an entirely new prism. As a child, I thought it was funny and a little goofy. But looking at them again from a more mature age, I saw just how smart the show really was. There was some biting social commentary in those jokes, along with some of the smartest and longest-lasting political humor you’d find anywhere. Going back and seeing those shows again, I was able to not only enjoy the product, but I could appreciate and respect the creative process that went behind it. And I dare say that those viewings, as well as my continued fandom that I fuel through DVD releases, Netflix, and the occasional YouTube uploaded episode, has kept my wit sharp.

MST3K KTMA smallMST3K is also chiefly responsible for my love of movies. By watching the worst of the worst, you could always tell which movies were just things thrown together to make a quick dollar and which products were labors of love. For as unfathomable and awful as Manos: The Hands of Fate was, you could tell that Harold Warren wanted to tell a story… I’m not sure what that story was, per say, but he wanted to tell it! It also gave me an itching desire to find movies which were off-beat, that you normally wouldn’t find in the local theater.

In short, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is why The Stabilizer (basically an Indonesian Death Wish starring the New Zealand version of Sylvester Stallone) is my favorite movie of all time.

Hell, my best friend Stephanie and I bonded over watching MST3K episodes on Netflix, back when their app on Xbox LIVE would allow you to do party viewing. We’d stay up until all hours of the night, shooting the shit and laughing hysterically at this show – a show that we both grew up on, and that we both loved… even if she is Team Joel and I, firmly, am Team Mike.

Thanks to the Internet, Mystery Science Theater 3000 lives on. Hell, thanks to the Internet you have spiritual successors to MST3K: Joel Hodgson’s Cinematic Titanic, and Mike Nelson’s Rifftrax. These services keep the spirit of riffing bad movies alive, and while they certainly make me feel warm inside for nostalgic reasons, I also love them for reasons of their own – reasons that, frankly, I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend as a child.

But even still, the magic of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will never be replicated – not for me, at least. It’s not because Rifftrax or Cinematic Titanic is different. It’s because the nostalgia associated with MST3K is so supremely personal. Whenever I see a clip from Jack Frost, I will think back to that sweltering summer night in 1997 when my mother let me stay up way past my bedtime to watch a man and his toys make fun of a silly, colorful, goofy movie. To me, MST3K is not just brilliant mockery and biting satire, but it’s also a Hexfield window into my childhood, giving me a birds-eye view of what it was that made me, well, me.

I hope to have the chance, someday, to thank the brilliant men and women responsible for their part in shaping my childhood. But until that day comes, to Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson, to Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff, to Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, to Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Jones and Patrick Brantseg and Jim Mallon and J. Elvis Weinstein and Paul Chaplin, there is only one thing I can think to say…

Watch out for snakes.

MST3K Silhouette