Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"It's just a show, I should really just relax."

After the few brief, shining years when we had the satellite dish, its rusting, hulking frame taunted us from the backyard as we sank to the ground like Icarus, having flown too close to the sun. The rabbit ears went back into the spider plant's pot at the top of the stairs, and we went back to just having four TV channels. Channels 3 & 6 (CBS and NBC, respectively) usually came in pretty clearly (explaining the vast quantities of
Cheers and Seinfeld we'd consume in years to come), but for the next twenty years, anytime we wanted to watch something on 10 (ABC) or 8 (PBS), you had to cross your fingers and hope the snow on the screen wasn't too bad that day. (On the other hand, I can credit that fuzzy reception for limiting my exposure to Full House and Family Matters on ABC's "TGIF!" Friday night line-up, which was probably blessing in disguise. My brains were already rotted enough and they didn't need more help from Urkel.)

Our last reliable outlet for soaking up the wondrous offerings of cable TV was my Grandma Rosie's house -- more specifically, Grandma Rosie's back bedroom, which wasn't really used like a bedroom at all but was more of a sewing/TV room/hideout for grandchildren. On major holidays (major enough to prompt a big family feast, that is) and on lazy summer days (or afternoons after school), me and my brothers and our cousins would usually wind up back there, eating off TV trays or balancing plates on our laps, watching illicit, non-Grandma-sanctioned programming like WWF wrestling,
Beavis & Butthead, The Simpsons, South Park, and Ren & Stimpy. If you heard Grandma coming down the hall, you'd better make sure you had PBS or something wholesome queued up to flip over to, because Grandma did NOT approve of vulgar fart humor. (Or did she?)

Christmas at Grandma Rosie's house, 2004.
(Still hiding our viewing habits from Grandma despite the fact that we were all in our 20s, Christmas 2004.)

And in that room is where I saw
Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the first time.

It was sometime in the late summer or fall of 1992 -- the exact circumstances that brought me to Grandma Rosie's that day are lost in the fog. Was I there after school? On a weekend, when the family went down to do chores in her yard? Who knows. But I do remember sitting there, flipping through the channels, and landing on this.

"She's cute, she's rooty-toot-toot/I bet she smells like Juicy Fruit."

I'd never seen anything like it -- my thirteen year-old mind was blown. What the hell was this? I sat through the rest of the episode and was completely mesmerized. It was so, so funny, and so out of left field.

If I had to pin down what spoke to me most about the show when I first encountered it, it would be two things: one, that it was really smart and super funny and showed me that maybe my nerdy, bookworm-y skill set (which wasn't doing me many favors as an awkward middle schooler) could eventually come in handy. And two, it was made by people from Wisconsin and Minnesota, not out on a coast somewhere -- to a kid in the middle-of-nowhere in middle America, hearing people crack jokes like "filmed on location in Spooner, Wisconsin" on a nationally broadcast TV show was, like, the greatest inside joke ever. ("Oh my god, I've been to Spooner!") Hearing references that were specific to my mother country, and which would likely fly over the heads of a lot of other people ("ride the ducks!"), made me feel like I was in a secret club. There's nothing a thirteen year-old wants more than to feel smart, and to feel like they're cool, and that's what MST3K did for me. It made me feel cool to be smart.

I started scouring the TV guide listings in the Sunday paper, figuring out when this weird, weird show would be on again, funneling VHS tapes down to Grandma Rosie's so she could tape it for me. (It should be said that Grandma Rosie was pretty technologically adept, especially compared to my parents -- they
still don't know how to set a VCR timer.) Every few weeks, Grandma would have a new tape ready for me, and I'd bring it home and watch it over and over, until I took it back so she could tape some more.

This went on for a few years, with Grandma's taping skills growing more erratic (and the show getting harder to find on the TV schedule). I hoarded the shows I had and guarded the tapes like a crazy person, lest they fall into a family member's hands and get taped over. Then, on a back to school shopping trip in Duluth, in an overpriced Suncoast video store, I found...officially-released MST3K episodes. Oh, they were overpriced, but they were worth every penny. I was way more excited about the tapes than I was about any back-to-school clothes.

By this point, I was in high school, and even though I was still a nerd, I'd found a lot of other nerds to be friends with. (I mean that affectionately.) My house became a weekend hangout -- we'd go down into the basement and watch movies, play board games, eat frozen pizzas, dig outold toys in the furnace room...that sort of thing. One weekend, hunting around for something to watch (and still just having four TV channels to pick from), I pulled out my Pod People tape...and the rest was history.

Watching MST3K turned into a communal experience. Not everyone "got" all the same references (and I don't think any of us ever got them all), but everyone found something to laugh at. When I went to college, my MST3K tapes went with me, and when I moved to Montana, they took up valuable real estate on the back seat of my car (instead of, say, clothes or winter boots or anything like that). I've made some of my best friends watching MST3K.

There aren't many things I fell in love with at the age of thirteen that are still relevant to me today. (Hey, I may still have that Ace of Base CD I got that year, but I don't actually listen to it.) MST3K has been my favorite show for over half my lifetime. I've seen some of the episodes dozens of times, and what surprises me as I get older is how I'll be watching some movie or reading a book, and BAM! I'll encounter a scene or a line and out of the blue, some joke on MST3K that I've heard a hundred times but never really "got" will make sense. It's a show you can grow old with, without it ever getting old. It's had, without a doubt, the single biggest influence on my sense of humor outside of my immediate family.

A few weekends ago, me & my brother Nick drove down to Minneapolis to go to a Cinematic Titanic show. Nick isn't as ardent a MST3K fan as I am, but because of me, he grew up watching the tapes so he's pretty fond of it, too. It wasn't my first Cinematic Titanic show -- I saw them in Minneapolis when they came through a few years ago -- but this time, we lucked out and sat right next to the stage, literally an arm's length from these people I've watched and idolized since I was a kid. It was like an out-of-body experience -- a really funny out-of-body experience.

After the show, the cast came out to sign autographs. Me & Nick got in line and shook hands with everyone...I got totally tongue-tied and just kept saying, "So nice to meet you!" when what I really wanted to say was "you people are my heroes."


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