Congratulations, Pitchfork, for turning fifteen and for finally being recognized as part of the pop culture firmament: In Jack, the MST3K (well, ex-MST3K) guys dismissed a demon wielding a three-pronged weapon as a “hipster music critic.” (Site’s also name-dropped in this new sorta-okay(*) Butch Walker song.)
So have you guys ever gone to one of these Fathom Event things? Where everyone pays movie theater admission to gather and watch big-screen TV together?
I had not, this seemed an appropriate place to dip a toe. Not just because I am a fan of the old show or because comedies are often best experienced in herds. This was a chance to be wildlife in an exaggerated habitat, watching people watch people watch people watch.
While people have always yelled things and thrown things at movie screens, from 1988 on MST3K provided both a shorthand for that phenomenon and one example of how you can take bad things and make them better and make them your own.
It also got pegged, unfortunately, as an act of metacommentary and an example of interactive television. I don’t think it often qualifies as the first (beyond the theme song’s plea, “Repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax,’” it’s mostly just captured reaction to the featured film, not a commentary on itself. And apart from inspiring laughter and online quote marathons, MST3K is almost the opposite of interactive: It takes the interactive process away from you and keeps it for itself.
Seeing 1996’s Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie in a theater was semi-odd in that you were in theater seats watching the silhouettes of theater seats on the screen. Rifftrax (unlike the other ex-MST3K project, Cinematic Titanic) often exists without any onscreen presence whatsoever; the company sells mp3s meant to be played along with blockbuster films they couldn’t hope to get the rights to ridicule. But these occasional “Rifftrax Live” events give you the opportunity to sit in a theater full of people and watch another theater where people are watching the Rifftrax guys perform their scripted commentary.
The night was funny and fun, of course. There was a bizarre short for kids called “What is Nothing?” (you can watch and/or download it for free, here, but cannot embed it) that could have been presented sans comment as a testament to the power of Huh? (Winner riffs: “Nothing is what’s left at the bottom of his bong,” “Now they’re just reading one of Jewel’s poems,” “These kids wrote the last two seasons of Lost.”) There were a pair of unmocked animated shorts that Something Awful’s Rich Kyanka made with his daughter(?) that had heavy shades of Axe Cop. And the feature was probably the best kind of bad movie for this sort of show - an adventure film in the vein of the Sinbad movies that collapsed under the weight of poor effects and a rudderless urge to pile on. (By the end, the “good guys” included our hero, a chimp in a thong, a dog, a rhyming leprechaun, and a rescued princess who had temporarily been a witch.)
(I can’t imagine wanting to be in a large room of people who’d just sat through Manos or a Coleman Francis film. That sort of masochism is best kept to your living room.)
The screen usually showed the movie being riffed, but would occasionally shove that to one side of the screen so you could see vertical windows with the three men reading their scripts. I only noticed a single sight gag over there, but I guess they decided the performers needed some sort of visual presence. More disconcerting were shots that showed the full theater, if only because that pushed the projection screen farther away. The sound was cranked to the extent it could be hard to tell who was laughing, the folks in the theater onscreen or the people around you.
Ultimately it felt an odd sort of entertainment because it was so quaint. The riffage was contemporary (nods to Lady Gaga, Four Loko, etc, and they resurrected ye olde “Imma let you finish…” in a satisfying, appropriate way), but the model seemed so old. So passive. MST3K always had a heavy nostalgia element to it, from the movies it featured to the homespun references to the sets and puppets made of elbow grease and garbage. Joel Hodgson was a wise-ass Andy Hardy, puttin’ on a show in his barn. But by the time the show had settled into its second phase (after creator Hodgson left and head writer Mike Nelson took over) it was recognized as an institution and didn’t have much more to offer beyond different subjects and fresh jokes. Which is fine, these guys will make you laugh, these guys are good at their jobs.
But their job is to make fun of things, and there’s a whole internet that often seems to specialize in little else, and that internet is so ravenous for new material that so much gets suffocated a thousand times over before it’s allowed to draw first breath. It’s not just the MST3K format that seems quaint, anymore, it’s the process. They watch things multiple times? And write a script? And sometimes perform the script in front of people who have to buy tickets in advance and drive to a theater and are expected to sit silent and just listen and watch? Where’s the knee-jerk egotistic satisfaction in any of that? In this meme-building age — and Jack the Giant Killer ends with a double rainbow, for serious — what are we supposed to do with this densely joked, fixed thing?
Maybe it just seems weird that somehow part of the original show’s legacy is that I found it impossible to ask the old woman sitting next to me to stop playing with her iPhone or to tell the kids behind us to please, please stop talking through the movie.
(*) Bouncy enough, but basically “Come on Eileen” bogged down with ultimate insider Walker’s increasingly tired outsider whining. “I didn’t name my band after an animal,” sings the man fronting The Black Widows.