November 26, 2014

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How Mystery Science Theater 3000 Changed My Life by Tyler Hauck

With the second year of the return of the MST3K Turkey Day Marathon coming up tomorrow, I figured this was a perfect time to examine this fanzine that Erica picked up (right before I was going to) at the Portland Zine Symposium in 2014. It's more than a typical fanzine, as Hauck uses the show's strengths (and sometimes weaknesses) to look at the show on a deeper level, all without going off on three thousand word essays or falling down rabbit holes of fandom that are interesting to talk about but make for boring reading.

I have a funny feeling most Panel Patter readers know about the show, but just in case here's the short version: Working within the spirit of Rocky Horror callbacks to the screen and stand-up comedy, Joel Hodgson created a show, with the help of others, that took really bad movies and talked back to them. Threaded loosely into the concept of being the plot of an evil scientist and his various henchmen and family members, Joel (and later, Mike Nelson), had to watch these movies to see if his will could be broken.

To survive, Joel created robots to help him make fun of the movies, which ranged from old black and white sci fi and horror to Japanese monster films to god-awful thrillers, beach movies, and more. Combined with skits that relate to the movie and references that are topical, obscure, and often laugh out loud funny, it went from being cable access to basic cable over its life, and things like Mike Nelson's Rifftrax and local movie viewings in Baltimore and other cities with "riffers" (as they're called) all come from this show.

It likely comes as no surprise that Erica and I big fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I believe her interest in the show predates mine, but to give you an idea of how important it is to both of us, my first-ever gift to her (before we were even officially dating, I think) was a VHS Copy of the first Mike episode, The Brain That Wouldn't Die. We used to watch at least one episode of the show every weekend before we moved in together, and even now, they're still in regular rotation, with some favorites (Mitchell, Pod People, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank) getting played at least once a year, sometimes more than that.

And in the spirit of "There Ain't No Tradition Like a New Tradition," we watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians every year on December 25th. Hooray for Santy-Claws!

While I am a fan of the show, I'm nowhere near the level of others, like Panel Pal Steve Seck, who has an entire poster devoted to MST3K, or Tyler Hauck, the author of this zine. Like my experiences with Looney Tunes, The Three Stooges, and other comedic vehicles, Tyler grew up on MST3K, as it began when he was eight. For him, watching the show "taught me my first lessons about deconstruction, the DIY ethic, intellectual history, and what is now called media literacy." That's an amazing description of the show's power--and why it endures when so many similar things tend to fade out over time.

This zine is a love letter to those lessons, broken down into 13 sections, such as "In someone else's trash, you can find treasures," "your heroes are imperfect," "it's okay to be a nerd," and "you don't need to be polished to be good." Each of these lessons gets a small explanation, discussing how the show taught Tyler this lesson, along with plenty of pictures from MST3k, typed out quotes, and background images from the show.

(As an aside, speaking as a person who creates zines, a huge shout out to Tyler for taking the time to ensure these pictures are clear and photocopy properly. It's not easy to get pictures to copy properly, and there are a metric ton of pictures in this zine. Well done!)

None of these sections are particularly long, but they are insightful and get right to the point. A typical example of this is from the section, "Mediocrity is the fabric of life," where Tyler lists actors who are extremely well-regarded (like Clint Eastwood and Raul Julia) that ended up in horrible movies for whatever reason. Tyler's point is that no matter how much we aspire, a lot of what we do won't be amazing--but that's no reason to give up. Similarly, echoing the imperfect heroes section, those we tend to admire have their moments, too.

That's really powerful stuff, and Tyler doesn't have to dwell to make the point. Some sections are barely more than a few sentences to reinforce the point. It's designed to make you think, and even long-time fans of the show like Erica and I were given reasons to stop and think about MST3K in ways we may not have before while also reinforcing some of our primary reasons for loving it and watching the same stupid jokes and awful acting over and over again.

But not Skydivers, which is so awful I have vowed not to see it again.

Speaking of bad-bad movies, Tyler's zine isn't all about being philosophical. Like many fanzines, there are also lists, such as "worst movies" which features Skydivers, along with the equally bad Castle of Fu Manchu, (not even watching Christopher Lee collect a paycheck can save that piece of @##&), and multiple examples of Coleman Francis, who Tyler argues may be the worst filmmaker in history). Best songs is there, of course, along with Tyler's favorite sketches. These are mixed in among the deeper discussions, are well-illustrated (with even episode name and number given), and provide a great breather.

How Mystery Science Theater 3000 Changed My Life is a great zine, and even if you are just a casual fan of the show, is well worth your time. Anyone who can quote riffs at will and argues the merits of Manos need to get a copy of this right away. You can order it online from Tyler here.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone! Watch out for snakes!