I discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000 at the right time. I was in junior high, and it hit the right funny sweet spot, weird and wacky and nerdy all at the same time, that made it irresistible to me. Plus, it came on right after American Gladiators on Saturday evening, so I didn’t have to miss beefed-up body builders smashing peons with foam pugil sticks. Win-win.
I loved many things about the show: the cheesy movies they skewered with hilarious one-liners and non sequiturs of course, but also the concept and characters. A mad scientist and his henchperson send a worker drone to outer space to see what the effect of bad movies will be on his psyche (it’s all explained in the theme song embedded above). The jumpsuited everyman creates some robots to keep himself company, and they riff on the bad movies together.
There was something about Joel, the guy in a jumpsuit with the bots, that endeared him to me. Maybe it was his sleepy eyes, or his laid back persona, or his seeming discomfort at being in front of the camera. I could relate to his awkwardness, but he seemed to take it all in stride. Whatever it was, I liked Joel. I liked him a lot.
And then suddenly, with no forewarning, he left the show in the middle of the fifth season. His character found a way to escape the Satellite of Love, and poof, no more Joel. He was replaced by another worker drone named Mike, but it wasn’t the same. After he left, I didn’t watch the show anymore, except reruns that starred Joel or, more likely, the beloved episodes I had taped to VHS. (In hindsight, my response was unfair to Mike. But, in my defense, I was a teenager at the time. I’ve been assured by a few trusted MSTies that the Mike seasons were also great.)
I wrote about it at the time in my journal in an over-the-top and melodramatic way with tons of references to the show, here reproduced exactly with a few comments sprinkled in (two things to note: for some reason I used to write in all caps, a weird stylistic choice, but it does convey the earnestness of my cri de coeur, though the journal entries before and after are also in all caps so that kind of diminishes the effect in context, and also Joel’s last episode, Mitchell, aired on 10/23/93).
IT’S TRUE. THE AWFUL RUMOR IS TRUE. WHEN I FIRST HEARD IT I THOUGHT “NO WAY,” AND I WENT INTO A STATE OF DENIAL. BUT NOW IT HAS COME TO PASS. THE PROPHECY OF DOOM AND UTTER MORONICY HAS COME TO PASS. JOEL IS GONE. HE LEFT. JUST LIKE THAT. GONE. IT WILL NEVER BE THE SAME WITHOUT HIM. SOME LOSER NAMED MIKE NELSON IS TAKING OVER. [Mike was the head writer on the show.] NO MATTER HOW FUNNY HE IS IT WILL NEVER BE THE SAME. JOEL, HOW COULD YOU? I WAS A MSTIE THROUGH AND THROUGH. I HAD MEMORIZED THE LOVE THEME THREE TIMES. I WAS THERE DURING CLASSICS SUCH AS THE SIDEHACKER AND CATALINA CAPER AND EEGAH AND DURING SHORTS LIKE HIRED AND JUNIOR RODEO DAREDEVILS AND THE PHANTOM CREEPS. WE LAUGHED TOGETHER, CRIED TOGETHER, PLAYED HIDE-AND-GO-SEEK WITH THE BOTS ON THE SATELLITE OF LOVE TOGETHER, ATE CHEESE BALLS TOGETHER , I COULD GO ON AND ON. YOU MEANT THE WORLD TO ME, I LOVED YOU LIKE A BROTHER AND NOW YOU GO AND TREAT ME LIKE THIS? [I wasn’t actually a creepy stalker; this is a paraphrase of lines from aforementioned MST3K classic “The Sidehacker.”] WHO’S GOING TO TAKE CARE OF GRETCHEN THE SLINKY? WHO’S GOING TO CARRY TOM? WHO’S GOING TO BE GYPSY’S BEST FRIEND? WHO’S GOING TO WASH THE WINDOWS DURING THE MOVIE? WHO’S GOING TO INITIATE HEALTH CARE REFORM? [It was 1993, and somehow I had absorbed something about what was in the political conversation of the day, though I didn’t know anything about health care reform or what I thought about it at the time. It was a joke, my own attempt at a non sequitur, which now that I’ve explained it, it’s not at all funny, if it ever was.] WHO’S ON FIRST? [The famous Abbott & Costello routine was also a favorite of mine.] JOEL, DON’T YOU SEE WHAT YOU’VE DONE TO ME? I THINK I’M GOING TO HAVE TO GET GAMERA [a kaiju turtle, sort of like a lovable Godzilla in shelled form] TO KNOCK SOME SENSE INTO YOU. YOU HAVE TO COME BACK. YOU JUST HAVE TO. YOU’RE FROM MINNESOTA, DOESN’T THAT MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU? [My parents are from Minnesota, and we traveled there every summer to see family. I was pulling out all the stops, even personal connections.] YOUR PLACE IS BETWEEN TOM AND CROW CRACKING QUIPS LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW. I BET YOUR SEAT IS STILL WARM. JOEL, I’M GOING TO LEAVE YOU WITH THE COLD TRUTH: A COW HAS FOUR STOMACHS.
P.S. MOUNTAIN CLIMBING. [A reference to the classic episode “Lost Continent,” though in that episode they said “rock climbing” over and over. Oops.]
I’ve been thinking about MST3K lately because Joel recently launched a Kickstarter to revive the show (it’s still ongoing, as of this writing, so if you’re a fan of the show and hadn’t heard yet, go ahead and contribute). I think it would be great if the show can continue with new characters filling the familiar roles having fun riffing on bad movies. A new generation could discover the joy it brought me, and the old fans could make more memories.
MST3K has a way of bringing people together; it’s not really a solitary experience, at least it wasn’t for me. Back in junior high when I first started watching it, I would trade all the best lines on Monday morning at school with a good friend who also liked the show. In college a friendship started my freshman year with another MSTie who had his own VHS tapes of episodes I hadn’t seen yet. We would get a whole group of friends together to watch the antics of Joel and the bots on a Friday night (it was at Bible college—there wasn’t a whole lot else happening on a Friday night in rural Georgia). Later, when I was in grad school, which was often an isolating and lonely experience, another friendship deepened over watching episodes of MST3K. That friend even made me copies of dozens of Joel episodes for me to take to North Dakota, where I started another grad program even though I knew no one there, so I wouldn’t be too lonely.
I hope it can continue to bring people together and make them laugh.
Long live movie sign.