It’s just a show…

by Tom Ingram

I’ve been watching episodes of MST3k lately, as part of a Sunday night movie-and-laundry-folding ritual. They’re not strongly ordered, so you can watch them out of order and see how the show’s character changed over the eleven years of its run. For instance, the first few Joel-hosted seasons had an emphasis on classic B-movies of the 50s and 60s, often in black and white with wooden, indifferent acting (Ed Wood’s movies, Daddy-O, Gamera). Mike’s tenure had a lot of newer films that often involved synth rock and were usually overacted (Space Mutiny, Hobgoblins, The Pumaman).

One of the things you notice, if you immerse yourself in the show, is that you very rarely laugh at the introduction and interludes. In the beginning, the show featured the pre-movie “invention exchange” between Joel and the Mads. Joel was a prop comic and that was the sort of thing he did before his TV career. Mike did them too, at first, but quickly stopped in favour of skits and musical interludes. In these skits, it’s easy to recognize what Chuck Klosterman calls the “form of funny”, but they’re not usually laugh-out-loud affairs, especially Joel’s. Mike was somewhat more energetic as a performer, and Joel’s comic persona had (intentionally, I’ve heard) a bit of the stoner in it.

Still, Joel was the better host.

To understand why this is, you have to be immersed in a certain culture. You don’t actually need to frequent TV Tropes, but you can’t be at more than one degree of separation. MST3k embodied and may have even kicked off a certain tradition of caustic audience participation (cf. Linkara, Yahtzee, etc.) in what’s often called genre fiction. The leaders of this vitriolic knockdown genre are mostly good at what they do. They’re funny and often insightful. Some, like Linkara, come off like they’d be genuinely nice people in real life. The problem is the fans, who don’t seem like they’re in on the joke.

The big secret is that the “genre” slum may not produce fiction that is unusually bad, but it’s often read and watched by unusually bad people. Bile is flung, some competently and some not so much. If you spend enough time in this community, it becomes inescapable. TV Tropes has undergone major structural changes over the years to minimize and quarantine this attitude. Whole clusters of pages have been renamed, shunted to a different section of the site, or even deleted. It’s their #1 administrative problem. For a certain type of person, it’s impossible to hate mildly or quietly, and you know what an excess of bile causes….

This is where Joel comes in. The MST3k movies are unusually bad even by the standards of bad movies. While Linkara’s comics are sometimes enjoyable, and the games panned by Yahtzee are often some of the most popular titles, MST3k was always scraping the bottom of the barrel for new depths, and if anything the main complaint you could make about it is some of them are so bad it’s not even funny.

But Joel never seemed vindictive or angry about it. He never seemed to hate the movies or the people behind them. There was something in his voice that was kindly—the kind of intonation you use to soothe a child. Between the bots, Joel was a father figure and mediator, while Mike was the equivalent of a brother. In short, Joel was nice, and he established the tradition of the show being nice.

Which is important because while the movies were low-budget, the show was, too. Teenagers From Outer Space had to make do with the shadow of a writhing lobster projected onto the screen as a monster, true, but MST3k‘s props usually look like stuff they picked up at the dollar store that morning.

The lack of expensive visuals, and, yes, Joel’s somewhat shaky comic numbers, made the show seem like a couple of buddies threw it together in their garage as a labour of love. It takes on a friendly everyman appeal that makes it hard to get mad. When you laugh, it’s the genuine belly laughter of enjoyment, not a bitter, derisive imitation. Joel epitomized the MST3k philosophy, which is outlined in the title theme and embedded surprisingly deep in its fibre: “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.”