On Meeting My Heroes, and How Mystery Science 3000 Has Influenced Basically My Whole Life

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Hey, MSTie pals—it’s Lesley, as you have come to expect. We have been extraordinarily busy behind the scenes working on the two new shorts (and in my case, working on developing the future of this website to eventually become a center for fan community that y’all have long deserved!). In the coming weeks I’ll be introducing you to some of the instrumental folks who have been making MST3K happen since the reboot began, but I should probably begin by more thoroughly introducing myself, and Joel has suggested I do so by republishing the essay that kinda got me a job (well, many jobs) at MST3K in the first place. 

A little context first: in 2013, I met the cast of Cinematic Titanic following a performance in Boston. As a lifelong fan, I was extremely overwhelmed, so I was a little… much, and to this day Joel loves telling people how absolutely bonkers he thought I was on that first meeting. 

At the time I was employed as a deputy editor at a now-defunct personal essay website, and I went home and did what I always did: I wrote about the experience. The essay was widely shared in MSTie circles, and Joel sent me a reply on Twitter telling me how much he loved what I wrote, which was all I could have asked for. (Who says you never get a second chance to make a first impression?)

TWO WHOLE YEARS LATER, in July of 2015, Joel sent me a Twitter DM asking for my phone number so he could call and pick my brain about rebooting MST3K. I gave myself several hours to calm down, and then I replied to his message, we had a long chat over the phone, and I started a pretty darn magical journey working for and with the series that has had a huge impact on my life.

So, without further ado, the essay.

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ON MEETING MY HEROES, AND HOW MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 HAS INFLUENCED BASICALLY MY WHOLE LIFE

Nov 5, 2013

I don’t have idols. Not properly speaking. Not in the remembering-birthdays, gif-making, fanart-drawing, Tumblr-ing, cosplaying sort of way. I have never really obsessed over anyone like that — I’ve had strong influences amongst creative people in all sorts of fields, for sure, and although I have stood curiously around the fringes of various fandoms, peering into the cracks with mild inquisitiveness about what happens therein, I’ve always remained an outsider, lacking the forceful commitment of the Real Fans.

I mean, I say this, but it’s not maybe entirely completely true. Because I do have Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Like so many kids of my era, I discovered MST3K entirely by accident, flipping through cable channels late at night on a weekend visit to my mom’s place. My mom had far superior cable offerings than the ones at my dad’s house, where I lived, so I often forswore sleep in favor of staying up late watching all the channels I couldn’t ordinarily see — like Comedy Central, which at the time was mostly a 24-hour loop of stand-up clips. With the one notable exception.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 presented itself rather subtly within my idle channel-switching, a grainy, clearly low-budget film with three small silhouettes superimposed at the bottom of the screen. There was a backstory: Joel Robinson, former custodial employee, had been launched into space by mad scientists and forced to watch bad movies as a sort of pointless experiment. Joel, rather than face his terrible fate in solitude, built robots to keep him company during these experiments.

And they talked. They talked over the movies. They talked back to the screen. They made jokes. I don’t know what drew me to MST3K so much that first time I watched it, but I was rapt, sitting there on my mother’s couch, in the darkened quiet of her apartment at 1AM. Watching it, I felt recognized, in a way — I felt immediately understood.

It was 1990. I was 13, trapped in that hellish world of early adolescent girlhood. It was a time when I hated all my friends, when I hated myself for being fat and awkward and just generally bad at being a girl, hopelessly inept at doing my hair properly and wearing the correct clothes and navigating the suddenly shifting terrain between myself and the boys I went to school with. I was not alone in this, but I sure felt I was, and all the more so when I finally abandoned the relative safety (and unpredictable torment) of my 8th grade clique in favor of spending my daily lunch period hiding from my social failure in a locked bathroom stall.

In retrospect, it’s little wonder that this curious and unexpected television show connected with me — I could have been adrift in space myself. What would I have given for purpose-built companions who accepted me and got my stupid jokes? Watching MST3K was like having friends. Watching MST3K was a revelation that maybe it was okay if I wasn’t popular; maybe there were other things to be.

I spent a couple of years believing that MST3K was a secret that only I knew; I taped episodes and watched and rewatched them alone, only occasionally sharing them with the few neighborhood friends I spent time with, and quickly turning them off if said friend didn’t get the appeal right away.

When I was fifteen, I discovered the internet — well, I discovered the Prodigy online service, which had some very active MST3K fan bulletin boards, and I found that there were, in fact, a lot of people who loved the show as I did — even as there were also a lot of people who totally didn’t get it in my immediate vicinity.

This gap wasn’t helped by the fact that in the first few seasons, the jokes were often incredibly obscure, all the moreso in a pre-Google era where you couldn’t simply search for a particular phrase to find its origin. MST3K was like a code, a secret language of cultural references I desperately wanted to unravel, and to this day when I recognize a long-obscured joke I feel a little thrill of satisfaction. (Like just this week, when I was driving a rental car and listening to the radio for the first time since I last drove a rental car, probably, and the song “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” came on, and I recognized the words and realized OH, THAT’S WHAT THIS IS.)

Recall like that comes only from repeated viewings. And I have done repeated viewings. For years, I had the entire series captured on VHS tape, recorded from cable, complete with BK TeeVee commercials and ads for light-up LA Gear sneakers. When those tapes began to wear out after ten years or so, I bought homemade DVD-R sets of entire seasons from nice people on the internet — and then, when I could finally purchase legit copies from which the series’ creators might actually see some revenue, I always did (and still do).

Mystery Science Theater 3000’s influence on my life really can’t be overstated, although I have only truly appreciated it in the last few years. In college, I majored in film largely because of MST3K. In my 20s, I even dated people based on their familiarity with the show. Indeed, the closest I’ve ever come to being arrested was directly related to Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, and it’s a ridiculous story, although one I won’t be telling here until I’m certain the statute of limitations has run out.

MST3K was originally created and hosted by Joel Hodgson, and while I appreciate that MST3K was always a group effort, Joel has always loomed large in my life as a creative influence — here was a guy who had a totally strange idea for a television show about interrupting movies, one that would probably repel a lot of people, and yet he did it anyway, in PUBLIC, in spite of the certain knowledge that many folks would never “get” it. I admire that. How could I not? Also, it was his character on the screen that I so related to that first time, and his face that became such a familiar comfort from my earliest teens straight through to my adult years. 

Much later, after Joel had left the show, Mary Jo Pehl stepped in to the role of Pearl Forrester and provided a different kind of reassurance to an adult me, out of college, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Pearl was important because she was funny without being self-deprecating — and self-deprecation is fine in moderation, but to see a hilarious woman in a role where she never doubted her ability to literally take over the world was wonderful (and I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention that she was also individually important to me because Pearl was also fat, like me, and this was never ever used as a punchline — that was tremendous to witness).

In 2007, many of the original MST3K cast members — Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein — reunited for a new project called Cinematic Titanic, and I was thrilled. When it went on the road as a live show, I was straight-up ecstatic, and when I turned up at Boston’s Wilbur Theater for a show in 2010, I was unprepared for the cast to hang around afterwards to meet with fans and sign autographs.

That first time, I stood in a long line, with nothing to be signed, but just needing to say hello and thank you, and as I approached the table where the cast sat, I found myself unable to breathe. Also I had no saliva in my mouth whatsoever, and it occurred to me in a panic that I might not actually be capable of speech, but would only emit an incoherent throaty garble before the people who are the closest things to idols I’ve ever known. My hands felt like inanimate blocks of ice.

I have never in my life been starstruck until that moment — indeed, I’d always sort of rolled my eyes at people who freaked out about such things.

I’m more sympathetic now. I don’t even remember what I said that time, I just remember feeling overwhelmed to be sharing the same air with the people whose voices had been with me for so long. (And then when we got to the car I literally screamed like I was being murdered because I don’t even know why.)

Sunday night, Cinematic Titanic stopped in Boston again on their farewell tour, and this time I was slightly better prepared not to lose my mind during the meet and greet afterward. But as the picture from that moment demonstrates, I was only partly successful.

Barely holding myself together. You can probably tell.

I said “Thank you,” several times. I don’t remember what else.  Oh and Mary Jo told me SHE is a big fan of MINE and my brain kind of started shrieking AAAHH WHAT NOTHING MAKES SENSE and I hope I didn’t do anything too incredibly ridiculous because I had more or less lost all control of my faculties.

When you meet someone whose work has had a profound effect on you, I wonder if this level of personal meaning can never be adequately conveyed and understood. I can say to Joel and the cast of MST3K, “The things you have made were arguably some of the most meaningful influences on my development as a writer and simply as an adult human and if I stood here and said ‘thank you’ a thousand times it wouldn’t even begin to convey my gratitude for that.”

I can explain that watching MST3K made me feel like I wasn’t alone in many difficult and lonely periods throughout my life, that it gave me hope that someday, I would find other weirdos (I hope you all recognize yourselves in this, dear readers) to connect with, that someday I would be understood; somewhere, I would find acceptance as I am, without constantly feeling left out, or messed up, or otherwise like a chronic outsider.

I can say all of this out loud to the cast but it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t really get it out there. I can’t make these people — who are, ultimately, just normal people who have participated in some things that meant a lot to me, a stranger — really grasp what I mean when I say thank you.

And the truth is also that as much of this as came from MST3K, it also came from me — it came from what I did with that experience, how I invested myself in it, what I took from it, and how I used it as a touchstone for my own approach to media criticism, which is a huge part of my work as a writer and editor today.

The people who unwittingly supplied all of this to me can never really get how deep that effect goes. I’ve experienced this in reverse on a much smaller scale, when people I have met who have read me for years try to explain how I have helped them, and I can hear them say it, they can say wonderfully kind and grateful things about how my work has affected their lives, but I can’t really get it, because as much as they may know about me and my life, I know nothing of theirs, or how reading words I wrote down impacted them.

People have told me, with tremendously humbling directness, that I have changed their life for the better, and I want to say no, no YOU did that, I was just a handy conduit for what you needed at the time. Because that is also true. And ultimately, I’m just another person doing a thing I love to do, and I doubt I can ever fully appreciate how my doing that thing has stuck tendrils into other individuals and helped them figure out their own lives in a better way.

So in a strange way I see both sides of this. Still, having grown up with the voices of the MST3K cast as the soundtrack to so much of my life gives them an importance beyond what I can ever say, beyond even who they are as individuals. I spent my teenage years falling asleep to taped episodes of MST3K every night; when I left Florida for college in Boston, so long as I had tapes to watch, I never felt homesick. I still have vast dictionaries of film dialogue meshed with jokes stored in my memory that I can draw up and recite to myself. I still watch episodes on a regular basis, new DVD sets are still coming out, and this month will mark 25 years since the series first aired. Today MST3K is far more widely recognized and appreciated as an important pop culture artifact, and this recognition is entirely due.

But even beyond the sheer entertainment it’s given me, the real impact of MST3K on my life was philosophical. It was learning a willingness to step back and laugh at nearly anything, including myself; it was developing a capacity to not take everything so seriously, and to talk back to culture if the circumstances I’m faced with are unacceptable. It was also figuring out how to poke fun at things without viciousness and sharp-edged snark, without cruelty or meanness, but with a gentle, good-natured sense of irony  — to respond to life’s inevitable absurdity with laughter instead of incredulity and outrage.

They say you should never meet your heroes, the conventional wisdom being that they will inevitably disappoint you by being normal, imperfect, complicated everyday people. They can never meet your expectations, they will hear you tell them that they are amazing and that you love them and yet they will never understand how that can be true, because what we really know of the people we idolize is so much more limited than we like to believe, and because your excitement at meeting them will always be tempered by the realization that your hero, whoever they are, however intimately they have spoken to you in your darkest moments, knows you only as a stranger.

But I’m glad to meet my idols, because they’re not superheroes, because they’re just people who managed to figure out how to do something they love for awhile, and have shared it with a grateful audience. And as someone who’s only ever wanted to put together words that other people like to read, or watch, or listen to, and that maybe even get them thinking, this is what I want too. I’m happy to have any illusions shattered. Because if they’re just normal folks who have wrangled this magic out of life, maybe I can do the same thing too — maybe so can you.

14 thoughts on “On Meeting My Heroes, and How Mystery Science 3000 Has Influenced Basically My Whole Life”

  1. I could not have said it better! I’ve been a fan since the early 90’s and have never looked back. I live in South Florida and back than the fan base was small. I had to travel a long distance to watch the movie in a theater (well worth the drive). I have never had a bucket list until RiffTrax announced the MST3K reunion show. Convinced my wife to take a trip to Minnesota and watched it from the third row (I love my wife)! Never thought Minnesota would be one of our vacation destinations, we loved it. Than came a live show in Orlando with the new MST3K cast. Got to meet my hero Joel at a meet and greet after the show. My wife couldn’t believe I just stood there and said nothing when I had the opportunity. I couldn’t, like you I was star struck and didn’t want to say something stupid. We seem two more live shows on Joel’s final tour (hopefully not final). This time I had the courage to ask a question. It was a great experience and we had a light conversation that I will remember forever!!! Thank you Joel and all of the MST3K cast for giving me a smile when I’ve needed it most. Thank you Lesley for sharing your experience. I’m not the only one. Wanted to share a few pictures of Joel and I but couldn’t figure out how to attach them.

    1. Oh I want to see the pictures! Once we have a forum situation set up I’ll make sure everyone can share photos.

      And thank you for sharing this. I grew up in South Florida as well! By the time the movie came out I was living in Boston, and saw it in a theater alone because none of my friends knew what it was — except I wasn’t alone because I knew everyone there was a kindred spirit. So many good memories of this show.

      1. I love hearing the positive impact this show has had, in so many different phases of life.

        Personally, I was no kid.

        All right, I encountered the show as a child, and loved it. But for the most part, Joel and the bots were a forgotten thing until my early thirties.

        I had two little children to take care of. My husband was working hard on a career change, which necessarily left me alone. I had no car, no money… just whatever happened to be in the house to sustain those days of isolation.

        The highlight of the day was nap time for the babies, and lunch time for me. I’d heat up a bowl of soup and sit before the computer, where I’d watch some silliness like “It Conquered the World” with my imaginary friends. That daily treat made me feel refreshed, as if I had gone to the movies with real companions.

        Better still: I was absorbing a good example. There was Joel Robinson, trapped with those two naughty beings of his own making, with nothing to pass the time save what happened to be on the Satellite of Love. He took it well. He accomplished a lot. The bots routinely scorned his efforts to make nice projects for them, and made hash of his attempts to draw moral lessons from really bad movies… but hey. He TRIED. And he did it kindly and relentlessly, with whatever junk happened to be on hand.

        Joel was, uh… I’ll just say it. He was an exemplary mom. Hanging out with him for a little while made me want to go back to my post, and do it better: to invest in those two naughty beings of my own making, to do it kindly and relentlessly, to make it fun, and to use whatever junk happened to be on hand.

        Things got better. My children matured. My husband succeeded in his new career. My years of isolation eventually passed, and years of extreme busyness with many new faces took their place.

        I don’t need my imaginary friend anymore. But still, I love him. I am forever fond of that face, and those days of solitude and chicken tortilla soup. Joel Robinson was my cheerful example, in the days when no one else had the time or inclination to provide me with one.

        (Hm. Suddenly, I hear Kevin Murphy’s voice singing “Mother’s Little Helper” in my head. That’s distracting…)

        Anywho. When the Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour came to town, my husband took me to see it. What a great evening! I laughed until my stomach hurt. And when Nate Begle so graciously invited the ovation I’d been waiting to give – a last chance to cheer for Joel – I was the first idiot to leap out of my chair and scream.

        It probably sounded like a clumsy four-year-old pinched her finger in the car door. But it was meant as: thanks for everything.

        So… Yeah. Right there with you, Lesley.

  2. Well Said, Leslie.

    I like to think of Joel, Trace, Frank, Mike, Kevin, J Elvis, Mary Jo, Bill, Jonah, etc as family. We might not see them all the time, but when we get to see them? It’s just like old times.

    They’re good people, as are MSTies in general.

    And I’m glad to count all MSTies as friends.

    Peace this evening,

    Tim

  3. What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.

    I met Joel and Mary Jo in Rhode Island with my brother. I remember both being very gracious with their time. I was thrilled to get a pic, and I think I mumbled something to Joel like “now I can die happy.” It was great meeting them.

  4. Great piece Lesley! You have truly captured what it meant (means?) to be a MSTIE. I, too, was a regular on the Prodigy boards in the early days- my roommate and I even hosted a season premiere party in our Philadelphia apartment, where many mid-Atlantic msties showed up. (Good thing msties aren’t serial killers, because we didn’t personally know any of them!) I wish my memory was better, because dollars for donuts we had discussions on Prodigy back in the day! Congrats on your current dream job!

    1. Thank you! And I bet we did. Prodigy was such a gift for a nerdy teen like me. I’ve sadly lost touch with everyone I met there but it was such a great community, I really treasure those memories. And yes, I met so many local MSTies and never even considered that might be risky. They were MSTies, they had to be good people. Ha.

  5. This is a technical issue, but have you considered changing the text color from a bright white to a light gray if you’re going to keep the black background? It’s very difficult to read long posts like this one with that level of contrast, and there’s plenty of articles online about the problem. Personally, the text starts to blur for me and I feel my eyes straining to focus.

    Thanks for your consideration, especially for those of us who have older eyes.

    1. Absolutely, Melody, and thank you for speaking up! We are very much still testing this stuff so always feel empowered to make suggestions like this.

      1. FWIW, using Safari, you can switch to Reader View, which homogenizes the page to being basically just text (though it keeps a general formatting of paragraphs/etc.). If I remember correctly, there are plug-ins for Chrome and Firefox that will do something similar.

  6. I’ve only just started reading the article, but when you wrote about stumbling on MST3K back during the Short Attention Span Theater days of Comedy Central, and basically falling raptly in love with the show, the concept, the people, all of it — “Watching it, I felt recognized, in a way — I felt immediately understood” — that just spoke straight to my heart.

    I tried my damndest to remember the first movie that I saw on it (I can’t) but that actually didn’t matter in the bigger scheme. Here was something that got who I was, who I’d always been. I called my oldest friend (known since the early 1970s in first grade) and told him that I’d found the show we’d be waiting our whole lives for. (And FWIW, his local cable company, Charter, carried CC until 6 PM (Central) on Saturdays, whereby they’d switch to a shopping channel (IIRC), so I would record the episodes on VHS (3 to a tape) and mail them to him once a month, not even realizing I was circulating the tapes before I’d read it during the closing credits.)

    Thanks for the article; going back to reading it now (I just couldn’t contain myself).

    1. Ha, I also had the weird Comedy Central split channel! As I recall ours switched over to CC from 6pm to 6am daily.. Eventually they started running episodes at midnight on weeknights and that was when I started taping. A year or so later we got Comedy Central full time but it was very frustrating for awhile there.

      I love how so many of us share this sense of being recognized by this show.

  7. Hi Lesley,

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

    I think Joel was right to suggest you make this available here. More then just being a lovely essay, there’s a real bravery and honesty in what you wrote and I think that’s why this resonates with so many people. 🙂

    Keep up the great work!

    PS- I tried sending you a message via alternaversal and hope it finds its way to you.

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