Sunday, May 30, 2021

contextual disintegration: on Mystery Science Theater 3000


Though I'd occasionally watched and enjoyed Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its original run in the 1990s, I became a fan—an "MSTie"—only in the last decade. For months at a time, I'd draw, work on math problems, sleeve the contents of a coin jar, and put together IKEA furniture with a YouTube upload of a taped television broadcast running nearby. I've tuned into every online Turkey Day marathon since 2012; I've got a definite opinion on the Joel versus Mike question; I'm genuinely fascinated by the filmography of Coleman Francis; Kevin Murphy shouting SLEEEP! and Trace Beaulieu's Rocky the Flying Squirrel impression ("again?") will never not make me laugh. I love MST3K.

I've tried to pass this love onto Shirley, but to no avail. She and I have very different tastes, it's true. She reads manga that she really ought to have aged out of by now; I read superhero comics that I really ought to have aged out of by now. She likes movies I consider stupid; I like movies she finds boring. She listens to K-pop and I, uh, don't. Nevertheless, I've sold her on classic Simpsons, The X-FilesDr. Katz, Professional Therapist, and Best of the Worst. Mystery Science Theater, however, is still something she'll only watch in order to humor me, and I've taken the hint and given up trying to get her to sit through ninety-minute sub-B-movies or awkward 1950s educational films with commentary tracks.

The fact is that Mystery Science Theater has not aged well. Yes, certainly, the effectiveness of any number of quips made in the late 1980s or early 1990s depends on the viewer's familiarity with pop culture references that are now practically ancient, but that isn't the problem. For every one obscure reference in a given episode are a dozen riffs that require no arcane, period-dependent knowledge to appreciate. The style of humor isn't the problem. Nor is MST3K an instance of outsized retrospective valuation of something that wasn't very good to begin with.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a product of a particular moment in the development of media culture—created, produced, aired, and viewed in a sui generis context. And outside of that context, viewed by somebody who has no experience of it, the show just doesn't make much sense.¹

After a short, embryonic run on a local Minneapolis station, Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on the Comedy Channel (rebranded as Comedy Central in 1991) in November 1989. The moment of its launch—at the end of the decade in which the number of cable-subscribing households in the United States tripled to about 53 million, and at the beginning the decade when the number of cable networks skyrocketed to nearly two hundred—was not only fitting, but necessary to its success.

Wheezing old xennial though I might be, I'm too young to remember the time when even basic cable was a luxury afforded to less than a quarter of the US population—when people mounted antennas on their rooftops and set "rabbit ears" on top of their sets to pick up the radio waves on which television stations broadcasted their content.² From the 1950s through the 1970s, the US household was assured of picked up three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), and maybe a local station or two (given their location and the cooperation of the weather). In 1980, the household with a basic cable package could, in theory, receive somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty stations. By 1990, this number increased to about seventy.³

TV antennae in Chuck Jones' Rocket-Bye Baby (1956)

This sui generis media ecosystem, situated in the technology timeline between the ABC/CBS/NBC triopoly and the consolidation of television and internet services through cable broadband, established the conditions in which channel surfing could become a popular (though inglorious) American pastime.

I'm told that the only people who read blogs nowadays are thirtysomethings with niche hobbies, so I'm sure that nobody here needs channel surfing explained to them. It was the pre-internet version of hopping from YouTube to Reddit to Instagram to Twitter to the Onion to ESPN to etc., searching for content but not knowing in advance what you expect or hope to find. Click. Click. Click. Click.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was designed for the channel surfer. Its cult success may have been less the result of word-of-mouth hype, good advertising, or a sterling writeup in an influential culture magazine than an aggregation of bored people flipping through the channels, stopping one night on the black and white movie with the three silhouetted hecklers in the foreground, and lingering on Comedy Central or the Sci-Fi channel to figure out just what the heck it was. Probably the internet and personal networks played a role in growing and consolidating the audience (I'm willing to wager the internet contributed more to the latter), but this was a show that relied on serendipity to cultivate a viewership. 

I hope I'm not generalizing my own experience. After my parents separated in the mid-1990s, my father would come by one night a week to send time with my sister and me while our mother was out of the house. After getting dinner somewhere and catching up a bit, we'd often end up in the living room, flipping through channels just to give us something to do while we talked. (In pre-cable times, people played cards and board games for the same reason.) On one such night we discovered MST3K—totally by accident.

"Wait, Dad—go back. What was that?"

It must have been from the Sci-Fi batch, but I don't recall which episode it was. We weren't paying very close attention. I remember we laughed at some of the quips, then resumed surfing when the show cut to commercials. We'd check back on it every now and again. Over the next couple of years, landing on MST3K during my father's visits was always a pleasant surprise. As I said before, I didn't make a point of knowing when the show aired so I could follow it on my own—for whatever reason. I suppose I was too set in my ways, only ever putting on Cartoon Network or MTV while I surfed the internet at night. I became a fan of Batman: The Animated Series and Sifl and Olly in precisely this way, having it on in the background while I traded instant messages with the members of an EarthBound fan community and/or strange goth girls, and perused fansites about Darkstalkers, anime, and Marilyn Manson. Possibly if I'd made a habit of viewing MST3K in the same way, I'd have eventually become the kind of fan who obeyed the admonition to make and circulate The Tapes.

Joel and the 'bots. (Notice the telltale fuzzy resolution of a
a television broadcast recorded to VHS.)

On the face of it, Mystery Science Theater was a professionalization—you might even call it an outsourcing—of something that people were already doing before 1990. It couldn't have been entirely rare that a few college students in the 1960s or 70s would get stoned and watch a late-night monster movie to guffaw at the cheap effects and bad acting. As video rental stores proliferated during the 1980s, it probably became not altogether uncommon for hip youngsters to browse the science fiction and horror sections in search of a spectacularly bad film to laugh at over beers and bong hits on a weekend night. MST3K's innovation was to supply the risibly slipshod movie and a professional peanut gallery to supply smart, scripted quips that most people couldn't produce in a writers' room, let alone on a spur-of-the-moment basis. Maybe this wasn't as much a milestone of 1980s cable television as the 24/7 news station, the amalgamation of pop music radio and short film, or a channel that presented an up-to-the-minute computer-generated weather forecast every ten minutes—but MST3K nevertheless deserves to be judged as groundbreaking.

MST3K made a novel contribution to television, but its story is a microcosm of cable television and the kind of programming that became viable as scores of new networks entered the field, all with weekly schedules to populate, and typically without deep coffers to subsidize high-end original productions.⁵ To use a clumsy metaphor, cable television was the squaring of the line drawn by broadcast television, and the world wide web represents the cubing of the square—a galaxy where endless diversity of content is conjoined with interminable repetition. Nothing remains unique for long.

The show's monopoly on movie riffing was effectively busted by YouTube. Some of the better-known non-Rifftrax players in the business are CinemaSins, Pretty Much It, and RedLetter Media, but you can find as many smaller channels as you'd like with a quick search.⁴ Heck, an enterprising YouTuber could, if he or she wished, crowdsource the writing the process by finding a famous movie uploaded to YouTube piecemeal, picking out the highest-rated quips from the comments sections, and then compiling them as riffs to be dubbed over the full film.

Maybe this has something to do with why Joel Hodgson went big with MST3K's Netflix revival. I'm reluctant to talk about the Jonah era because I've seen so little of it (I don't have a Netflix subscription), but despite the rose petals showered on it by the usual band of professional critics of "geek" media, the response among longtime fans appears to have been considerably more lukewarm than the 100% Rotten Tomatoes scores suggest.

In a completely unscientific survey of posts on an MST3K subreddit, I've found that the most upvoted criticisms of the Netflix seasons center on a sheen of overproduction, a pervasive (and decidedly un-Midwestern) overenthusiasm, an overabundance of both riffs and writers, and the new method of putting episodes together (having each actor record his lines separately, and then dubbing them over gestures and puppeteering performed for the camera). The prevailing opinion seems to be that the Jonah episodes are glaringly okay.

Netflix doesn't publicize audience metrics, so it's impossible to know how many people watched MST3K: The Return, how their demographics broke down, or how short the numbers fell of Netflix's requirements for greenlighting a third season. My suspicion is that the show did pretty well with thirty-and fortysomethings who'd watched the original run, but didn't do much in the way of growing the fanbase—especially not with viewers born after 1996.

Personally, I find the Netflix revival's aspect ratio more jarring
than the new actors.

From what I've seen, the Netflix episodes are decent (Cry Wilderness got some chuckles out of me, certainly), but it's fair to say there's some magic lost in the show's transformation from a low-budget Minneapolis production to a Los Angeles affair with big musical numbers and celebrity guests. But, again, I think the real problem with the revival has less to do with how the show changed after an eighteen-year gap than with changes to the way people watch television now.

As TV has merged with the internet, viewing habits have become more deliberate. My folks don't channel surf anymore; they choose shows from a menu displayed on the television screen. When I visit friends in my age group with TVs in their houses, sitting down to watch usually precipitates questions like "have you seen such-and-such episode of Rick and Morty?" or "does such-and-such streaming service have such-and-such show?", whereupon the matter of what to put on is soon settled. When Shirley uses Hulu, she beelines right for the show she sat down intending to see. My sense—perhaps unfounded, as I am an out-of-touch luddite—is that people who light up the TV at given time of the day just for the sake of having it on cleave to a handful of reliable networks, which they seldom deviate from. If they find nothing inoffensive on any of them, they don't channel surf; they bring up the menu.

I'm sure people occasionally sit down and browse the menus in search of something unfamiliar and curious-looking, but I doubt this is the norm. Netflix, YouTube, and the rest of the streaming platforms can serve you up a different table of recommendations every time you open up the app or visit the website; and sometimes in this way you discover a film, a series, or a channel that hooks you right away—but perusing a digital menu is still qualitatively different from channel surfing, and from a media environment which required the viewer have a printed listing on hand to know what she was watching on a given channel at a given time on a given day. (For that matter, a viewer in the 1980s or 1990s might need to wait for a commercial break and a bumper to learn exactly what station she was watching.) MST3K was made much more intriguing, and was much better sold to viewers who happened upon it fortuitously in the middle of an episode than by slapping it up on a Netflix banner and asking them to dedicate an attentive ninety minutes to something that was most assuredly a pop culture phenomenon. I wouldn't be at all surprised if a plurality of viewers who got their very first taste of MST3K from a Jonah episode walked away at least somewhat underwhelmed. They were promised an acclaimed must-see spectacle and comported themselves to view it as such—and what they got was a bad movie.

A moment ago I used the word "dedicate" deliberately. Around the turn of the century, the habit of watching cable TV was shaped up such that the viewer needn't commit to watching anything. Whether you were sitting out the couch eating Chinese takeout, doing homework, making bead bracelets on your bedroom floor, typing A/S/L? into an AOL chat room, or whatever, putting something else on the screen was as easy as pressing a single button on the remote control. On a platform like Netflix, one selects what she watches; to watch something else, she must select something else. It may seem outsized, the difference made by the small inconvenience of a few extra steps, and by the burden of decision. One could say it's an improvement—compelling the viewer to exercise personal agency in order to put something else on the screen instead of letting her tap a button to soak up whatever flavor of radiation is being emanated on the next channel—but television is television, and the medium is the message. One effect of this improvement is that the even background viewing is material selected in advance, committed to, expected of. Probably it will be something the on-and-off viewer is already familiar with—as MST3K was to me when I first began streaming it while sitting on my bed and penciling comic strips.⁶

Screen capture from a 1999 episode of an American television
show featuring an English dub of the 1961 German film version
of a stage play that debuted in England in 1603.

It may be improper to invoke Walter Benjamin's concept of the aura with respect to a media artifact produced and disseminated much further into the age of mechanical reproduction than his landmark essay on the subject (and in the context of a fairly trivial piece of writing like this one), but there is something very similar at work in the disintegration of MST3K's appeal. A marble statue of Venus "means" one thing when it is situated in a Roman shrine, viewed only by certain people on certain days, and used as a ritual device; it means something entirely different to people in the twenty-first century viewing it as one objet d'art among many on display in a classical statuary exhibition at an art museum. The statue itself is the same statue; what's changed is the way people are inclined to approach it—the way they use it, which is contingent both on the context in which they encounter it and the ways they've been trained to behave in that context.

Likewise, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (discounting the Netflix seasons) is still the same show it was two decades ago—but not really. The people who watch it today watch it differently than they did when they'd sit down to watch a new episode on Comedy Central in 1993. The twenty-year old who streams the Manos, Hands of Fate episode for the first time in 2021 will be a twenty-year-old shaped by a social and media environment quite dissimilar from the one which formulated the sensibilities with which 1993's statistically average twenty-year-old engaged with a cable television program.

The staying power of a book, film, television show, or painting depends less on whether or not it has been imbued with the ineffable glow of "timelessness" than on the continued existence of people trained not only to comprehend and appreciate its content, but to engage with it in the form in which it comes to them. The full-length record is one casualty of techno-cultural evolution. People born well after the 1960s enjoy listening to the Beatles, and their albums are easily transferred from analog to digital and made available on Spotify. But the technical dimensions and possibilities of streaming music services (not to mention the habits that electronic media in general tend to foster) have produced a cohort of listeners that prefers diverse playlists based on genres and moods to hearing twelve songs by a single artist in a row.

The novels of Charles Dickens and Renaissance-era triptych paintings are more fortunate: print culture lingers on (moribund as fiction in that form may be), Dickens' English is not so far estranged from modern English, and the medium in which he delivered his content to readers in the nineteenth century has undergone few material changes since its original publication;⁷ and while the triptych altarpiece may no longer have any religious function, it sure looks great in an art gallery.

Disney films and Loony Tunes/Merrie Melodies shorts are especially lucky here. You'd be surprised at how many people are surprised to learn that BambiDumbo, and some of their favorite Bugs Bunny shorts were not, in fact, made in the 1980s. That they were excellent pieces of popular art in their time and aren't riddled throughout with the kind of period-dependent memes that would have decayed into archaisms doesn't completely explain their persistence. It is perhaps equally important that nothing crucial has been lost in removing these artifacts from the context of a movie theater and bringing the former into the home as VHS tapes/DVDs/streaming video, and the latter as part of half-hour programming blocs on television. The translation from one medium to another has not brought them into a format where they ask something from viewers that they didn't when they were presented as theatrical releases, nor do they require viewers to recalibrate their standards or do anything to which they are not already accustomed while engaging with those formats.

Mere transformations of taste and fashion can only account for so much variability in terms of an audience's receptivity to a cultural artifact produced in an earlier decade or century—particularly when civilization is in the throes of a centuries-long spasm of technological evolution in which virtually no aspect of its way of life remains static from one generation to the next. A single TV show may be unimportant in the broad scheme of things, but it can exemplify the way in which the personal and public habits contingent upon the technical attributes of media strongly (though perhaps subtly) influence the ways in which artifacts in a given medium are consumed and appraised.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 required the techno-cultural environment of late twentieth-century cable television to be produced and to reach a national audience, and also required that its audience's viewing habits be shaped by the particularities of that medium at that time in order for them to warm up to and then fully appreciate it. It required the blind serendipity of channel surfing and a nation of channel surfers totally unfamiliar with the concept of entertainment by way of identification with people recording themselves talking over an existing piece of media. 

Today, most of the people streaming MST3K—if YouTube comments and message board posts are anything to go by—are members of its original audience. When they're gone, there will be as many people watching MST3K as there are people listening to 1950s radio dramas today.

But I happen to enjoy 1950s radio dramas very much—so take that as you will.⁸


1. Shirley was especially confounded by the host segments at first. I had to explain to her that introducing and interspersing the movies with kitschy skits filmed on ramshackle sets was, for decades, de rigueur for late-night monster movies showcasing the same caliber of film that MST3K riffs on. She's way too young to remember horror hosts—and, for that matter, so am I. But a child watches TV with far less incredulity than the adult, and when I saw MST3K as a twelve or thirteen-year-old, it never occurred to me that the host segments might be out of place or even cheap-looking.

2. It's really fascinating how the synchronized audio and visual signals are encoded in the same carrier waves, and I wish I better understood the mechanics of it.

3. I'm having a hard time nailing down hard numbers. There were twenty-eight cable stations total in 1980, and seventy-nine in 1990, but divvying up the lists between basic and "premium" channels is frankly more trouble than I'm willing to go through to ensure accuracy on such a picayune point.

4. Actually, riffing on video games seems to be more popular (and more potentially lucrative) these days.

5. This would be why Nickelodeon used to fill its entire nighttime schedule with reruns of black-and-white sitcoms, and why Cartoon Network's first original series was slapped together from recycled frames of a forgotten Hanna-Barbera superhero cartoon (Space Ghost Coast to Coast).

6. This is as good a time to mention that the modified WordPress software used for my comics page somehow shat itself, completely borking the site in a way I don't know how to fix. So Comics Over Easy isn't only dead, but buried. I'm sure nobody's really broken up over it—and, rather to my surprise, neither am I.

7. Obviously we could unpack the not-inconsiderable material differences between reading a novel in print, on a Kindle, or in a browser window, and speculate as to how the physical aspects of each format bleed into the reader's engagement with the same text—but this isn't the place.

8. An additional qualifier: I was introduced to Gunsmoke, Dragnet, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (my favorite) while driving in the Washington, DC area in late 2013, when I tuned into the local NPR affiliate and caught The Big Broadcast—in other words, as serendipitously as I discovered MST3K.

7 comments:

  1. This rings true to me-- I've certainly had no luck getting any of my friends into MST3K over the years. General confusion, boredom, or incredulity over some aspects of the format is mostly what has resulted from my trying to show my friends my favorite episodes. Rifftrax is a much easier sell, but there's something special to me about MST3K in particular. Maybe the term "aura" is the right one here. Rifftrax can be funny, but there isn't the aura that MST3K has/had.

    Semi-related, but I was reading a history of horror movies that looked at the stories through a queer lens (Monsters in the Closet, I think was the title) and it argued for a reading where the horror movie monsters and murderers stood in for a queer other (along with other others) and tracked how the treatment of horror movie monsters mirrored changing outlooks on queerness in society. What really surprised me was that when the history got to the late 80's/early 90's the author revealed that he was wildly enthusiastic about MST3K, seemingly moreso than any of the classic horror movies he had previously discussed. What he seemed to particularly like is the way MST3K turned the camp/queer subtext of the movies they riffed on into text, he seemed to treat this almost as a vision of the future of horror movies. I guess to him the ideal horror movie would be one where the monster came out of the closet, so to speak, and MST3K was forcing these old monsters out. All this to say, that's just more backing for your claim that MST3K was groundbreaking.

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    1. Oh one think I forgot to mention is that I did get very into MST3K despite never seeing it on TV and not being aware of it when it was more in the zeitgeist. I discovered it because I used to go to the local library with my parents a lot and browse the dvds, where I found the MST3K movie. I watched that and then the episode dvds the library had, and then I started watching episodes on early youtube and dailymotion and places like that. But that seems pretty in line with MST3K's core appeal, and maybe not too different from flipping to it on TV late at night: the experience of stumbling onto it like some inexplicable, ramshackle garbage that seems to exist just for you. It does seem like the possibility of that sort of experience is disappearing, both because so much media is so carefully curated and targeted, and also because outside of that there's SO much odd, but easily accessible, trash that it's hard for any of it to stand out.

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    2. (1) It's obvious to say that MST3K was TV and Rifftrax is internet, but...it makes sense to me. To get on television you had/have to have some sort of "hook;" your pitch to an executive couldn't be "we're going to just dub our voices over full-length movies." You'd have better luck with "we're going to build a spaceship set and do skits involving a mad scientist character and there'll be robot puppets and prop comedy and people talking over movies, and the whole thing will be a fond celebration of B-movies and the low-budget campy charm of late movie shows..." The internet doesn't have a guy who tells you what your YouTube channel or podcast needs before he'll allow you to start making it.

      (2) I've always appreciated how bland B-movie characters are augmented and improved by the MST3K treatment. I can't personally speak to the quasi-canonization of queer subtext—but in its method it's not that different from making the relationship between Troy McGregor and Zap Rowsdower even more bizarre than it was in the original film. In my mind it's all canon.

      (3) "The experience of stumbling onto it like some inexplicable, ramshackle garbage that seems to exist just for you." Couldn't have put it better myself.

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  2. I suspect that I missed out on the moment to watch MST3K. I just watched the movie in the early or mid 2000s, and I didn't "get" it. I heard that the TV series is better, but I didn't go on to check it out. I don't care much for RedLetter Media (outside of the Plinkett reviews, which are very different from their unscripted reviews) or CinemaSins, for that matter, so maybe the whole genre isn't really for me. There's this recreation of watching a bad movie with your friends and mocking the film in MST3K, and I guess I'd rather just make fun of movies with some friends, instead.

    As for channel surfing, I kind of miss it. I ditched cable years ago, and clicking on what the YouTube (or Netflix) algorithm throws at me isn't the same. Back in the 90s, I'd often check out random shows out of boredom, and I'd occasionally land on a great one that I would've never otherwise heard of or checked out (I also watched a lot of crap that I'd never sit through now, but eh).

    Additionally, I used to do some "channel sitting" back in those days, where I'd leave it on a specific channel for ages since the show I wanted to watch was airing later and I wanted to watch something to pass the time. I ended up discovering the occasional good show that way, too (and watched a lot of garbage, too, of course).

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    1. I've never liked CinemasSins, but I really enjoy RedLetter Media's stuff. Theirs is pretty much the only YouTube channel I regularly follow. As far as I'm concerned, Best of the Worst is the legit spiritual successor to MST3K. Possibly their being from the Midwest has something to do with it?

      I mostly stuck to Cartoon Network while surfing the internet in my teenage lair, but sometimes I strayed a bit. Ended up watching a lot of The Honeymooners somehow.

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  3. (1) I like how you covered every point I thought up as I was reading. In short, the novelty of something like MST3K is just gone, now, and never mind avenues like Twitch completely changing behaviour. (Not that most "content creators" produce anything worthwhile. I've never seen MST3K, though, so I'm unsure about the quality gap.)

    (2) This reminded me of an episode from a show I like. https://youtu.be/DeHMEqnupYg I think anyone reading this blog would like that show ("PeopleWatching").

    (3) I've always felt you're too critical of your work. I liked those Over Easy Comics quite a bit when I discovered them last year. They're good, Pat; it's a shame they're gone. I'll see if I can dig them up from the Wayback Machine.

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    1. (1) If you ever want to check out MST3K, my advice is not to play too much attention to it. It's pretty good to fall asleep to if you put it at a low volume.

      (2) I'm not quite as sympathetic. I'd hate to be watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theater full of people with short attention spans who're all fully confident that they're watching a stupid movie and being real vocal about it.

      (3) Hey, thanks. The files all still exist; the site's just broken. (I didn't set it up; a friend of mine from way back when did it for me. I never had any idea how any of it worked.) I don't think they were awful; I'm just surprised by how easy it was to let them go.

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