The first generation of Internet users has been heavily influenced by many things. It might seem silly to try to pin down one aspect that had the biggest influence, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’d like to share an intriguing little idea on how the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (referred to hereafter as MST3K) helped shape the Internet we all know and love.
I don’t mean that MST3K invented the Internet in a technical way. I mean that many of the people responsible for the content online are MST3K fans and are heavily influenced by that show’s style and its brand of comedy. The Nostalgia Critic, Angry Video Game Nerd, Confused Matthew, SF Debris, and other online personalities have mentioned that they are either MST3K fans or they have at least seen the show. In addition, you’ll find a lot of similarities between people who consume online content, post comments, etc. and the characters on the show.
If you’re wondering how all of this will make sense, you should really just relax and join me for a fresh take on Mystery Science Theater 3000!
MST3K tells the story of a man (Joel Robinson for the first five seasons and Mike Nelson for the last five) who is shot into space by two evil scientists and forced to watch bad movies in an attempt to find the worst movie ever made. Joel is an inventor, so he builds robots called Crow and Tom Servo out of spare parts (a bowling pin, La Crosse paddle, Tupperware and gumball machine) to join him in the theater. Of course, all of this is just an elaborate excuse to have a great time making fun of cheesy movies.
One of MST3K’s greatest innovations was its sense of audience participation in movies. Sure, The Rocky Horror Picture Show had used this strategy to great effect 13 years before MST3K debuted in 1988, but MST3K took that idea to a new level by doing it week after week with movies from all sorts of different eras and genres.
How does this relate to the Internet? People online don’t like to simply be told the news the way Walter Cronkite used to do it. They want to voice their opinions in comment sections, forums, blogs, etc. They speak passionately on topics they care about, even if it seems as futile to do so as it was for Joel, Mike and the Bots to complain and make fun of movies that can never be improved because of their input. The reason MST3K was such a hit was because it gave voice to filmgoers’ deep-seated longing to openly mock films that are distasteful, silly or just plain awful. The Internet does the same thing on a much larger scale. Nothing is sacred anymore. Everything can be picked apart and questioned, from scientific theories and economic theories to religious beliefs and societal institutions.
A Certain Sense of Humor
Even though MST3K was written and performed by a bunch of polite people with solid educations and insightful views into the world, many of their jokes are downright juvenile. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Some of my favorite jokes come when one of the characters shouts “DO SOMETHING!” or just screams at the complete inanity occurring onscreen. But I also adore the literary and historical jokes, which abound in pretty much every episode. The great thing about MST3K episodes is that they’re much longer than other TV shows, so the performers are able to cram in a huge variety of material, from silly to sophisticated.
The Internet is a silly place, to paraphrase Monty Python. You can find plenty of serious spots, but the articles, videos and infographics that get shared the most don’t seem to be in-depth analyses of complex current events or riveting discussions of American history. They’re much more likely to be silly memes of Admiral Ackbar yelling, “It’s a trap!” or pictures of kittens making cute faces with misspelled captions under them. Go figure.
The same is often true of people who create videos and articles online. Every reviewer tries to insert at least a few intellectual statements into their reviews, but SF Debris is the master at finding the perfect balance between puerile and polished humor. In his Star Trek reviews, especially, he blows your mind one minute with a great literary reference or some insight into a character, and then he has you in stiches a few seconds later when he gently jabs a character’s ridiculous remark. Live long and prosper, you wonderful reviewer.
Low Budget Is Cool
When you think about it, MST3K is nothing more than a puppet show. During the host segments, there’s a man standing behind a table that hides the puppeteers controlling his robot companions. During the theater segments, they’re all sitting in shadowy chairs that also hide the puppeteers. It looks very cheap. And yet it doesn’t matter how silly the sets and props are. All that matters is that the dialogue is extremely sharp and witty. The makers of this show discovered that substance trumps style. And that’s definitely true of online reviewers.
You’ll rarely find any impressive sets in online videos. James Rolfe, the Angry Video Game Nerd, is always in his basement. The Nostalgia Critic is usually in front of a beige wall. Confused Matthew doesn’t even have a setting for his videos. He just records his voice and sometimes shows nothing more than a film’s trailer over and over while he talks. He admitted he didn’t even have adequate video editing software when he started reviewing movies. But he still managed to create videos full of ideas that have challenged and upset many people’s preconceived notions about beloved films like The Incredibles, The Lion King and 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s an amazing feat.
Now that anyone can be a filmmaker if they have access to a digital camera and vocal chords, we seem to have broken down the old myth of entertainment – that it has to come from professional screenwriters, camera crews and actors. I get more entertainment out of watching, say, the Nostalgia Critic than I could from watching pretty much any primetime TV show. He and other content creators like him are always doing something creative and totally hilarious. It’s no longer taboo to love what used to be laughed at as Public Access shows. Somehow, Public Access has become the new norm thanks to the Internet.
The Good, the Bad, and the Angry
When I’m online and I encounter people on social media sites and the like, it might sound strange but I often notice that those people share the same characteristics as MST3K characters. Here’s a breakdown of the main characters on MST3K. I’ll leave out Pearl Forrester, Professor Bobo and Observer for three reasons: a) They came late in the show’s history, b) They don’t fit the personality types I’m about to talk about, and c) I don’t like them very much.
- Joel Robinson is a likable guy who is usually playful and gentle. He’s not usually outright mean, and he usually scolds the Bots when they make unkind comments. Even when he does say something rude, his voice is so kind that he never comes across as churlish. He almost never loses his temper, even when he’s treated poorly.
- Mike Nelson is sardonic and fun-loving. He’s amiable, but he lacks the calming quality of Joel. While Joel often fixes other people’s problems, Mike gets himself into plenty of bad situations. He can fly off the handle from time to time, but he always returns to his senses.
- Crow T. Robot (the T stands for The) is a scheming little robot who is also extremely funny. He’s an unsuccessful writer and he’s a little bitter about rejection. He comes up with half-baked schemes that never quite come off the way he expects, and he was even guilty of plagiarism in the episode featuring The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman.
- Tom Servo is sort of a hybrid between a know-it-all and a sarcastic jerk. And yet, he’s incredibly fun to have around. It’s strange.
- Dr. Clayton Forrester is a typical mad scientist, scheming to take over the world. He’s rude, prone to violence, and he likes to assert his superiority whenever possible. He steals others’ ideas and returns bitterness for kindness. I guess his mother never loved him.
- TV’s Frank is a delight. He’s a ne’er-do-well who still tries to be helpful. He wants to win over Dr. Forrester by doing his bidding, but all he receives are insults and abuses in return. If there is such a thing as Second Banana Heaven, I hope he’s happy there.
Notice a pattern here? The nice guys are far outnumbered by the not-so-nice guys. Not that most of the characters are thoroughly unpleasant. They just come across as having a few more negative qualities than positive ones. I recently heard that the anonymity of the Internet makes people less inhibited when it comes to criticizing others and sharing their thoughts. I try to follow Joel’s example and just be nice in real life and online because it’s no fun to be around a Two-Face. I hope the people I meet online who are rude are just having a bad day and that they’re actually happy, healthy people in the real world.
The Nostalgia Critic is a lot like Mike Nelson. He seems like a great guy, but he’s easy to push over the edge if you mention a Bat credit card or Battlefield Earth. You’ll find Crow T. Robot in quite a few forums where people aren’t ambitious enough to actually publish their own work, but they like to criticize. SF Debris is like Tom Servo. He’s sarcastic and he knows everything there is to know about Star Trek and other science fiction programs, but he’s also incredibly funny and he keeps people coming back for more.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of Dr. Clayton Forresters on the Internet. They’re on Twitter, Facebook, reddit, and many other places that would otherwise be perfectly benign places to share ideas. And where you find Dr. Clayton Forresters, you’re sure to find TV’s Franks – the people who second what thought leaders say so they won’t be on the receiving end of their wrath for offering a dissenting viewpoint. That’s an easy trap to fall into. Can you find yourself among these characters?
Host segments provide a much-needed break between the frequently unbearable badness of the movies that the folks on MST3K watch. Joel/Mike, Crow and Tom Servo always start the episode by doing a little skit outside the theater and then the Mads introduce that week’s movie before sending our heroes into the theater to suffer. Periodically, they leave the theater and do another skit inspired by the movie. It’s a nice, familiar pattern. It’s kind of tough to make it through an entire Rifftrax episode because it’s just the movie and no interruptions. Cinematic Titanic does a pretty good job, but it’s not quite the same as MST3K.
While MST3K used host segments sparingly, online movie reviewers use them a lot. The reviewers on Spill.com look like they’re in an animated host segment. There are usually four guys, and sometimes even a robot, who sit and talk to each other and the camera about how good or bad movies are. They often have hilarious reenactments of scenes from the movies they’re reviewing. The Nostalgia Critic and Angry Video Game Nerd follow MST3K’s pattern closely. They start with a clever introduction, dive into the movie/video game, intersperse clips of themselves suffering through the decrepit piece of “entertainment” and then finish with their final thoughts on the subject. All that’s missing at the end are the words “Push the button, Frank.”
MST3K lives on in more ways than one. Yes, there are great Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic episodes, but there are also a lot of people who were inspired by that low-budget show to put their own creativity on display online. For better or worse, MST3K is largely responsible for a lot of the silly, fun content we find scattered across the Internet. Have I made a strong enough case? To quote Joel, “What do you think, sirs?”
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.