What Mystery Science Means to Me

Last weekend Joel Hodgson came to Cinefamily to do a couple of shows. Due to the Cinefamily participation and birthday proximity of one Random_Tangent, I was persuaded to get up to West Hollywood on a school night, which is a rare feat indeed.

Damn, I’m glad I did.

Of course Joel Hodgson put on a good show. Of course he packed the theater with worshipful gourmet-cupcake-eating hipsters (myself included, except for the cupcake-eating and hipster bits.) Of course he shared his non-chronological tale of ventriloquy, growing up in Minnesota, leaving MST, creating the bots, embarking on magic and stand-up and being inspired by public-access TV and giving us all uncontrollable giggles.

In your base covertly forming your dudes

But I am not here to talk about his hella good show and how you should see him if he comes to your town.

I’m here to talk about how Mystery Science Theater 3000 figured into the nerd self-acceptance of millions.

Now, I don’t know if every state is like this, but North Carolina is pretty hugetimes with the academic summer programs for middle- and high-school-age kids. There’s Summer Ventures. There’s Governor’s School. There was TIP, which is the Duke University-affiliated (read “not free”) one. When I got to NCSSM, pretty much every kid there had been to one of these programs and had some connection to other kids there. NC is pretty rad that way. I feel for nerdish kids in states that don’t have those options.

Anyway, at age 11, after three years out of the country and nine years of not paying much attention to the culture outside of Jim Henson and My Little Ponies (due to being a little kid and all; I spent my first summer at a three-week Duke University program.

Holy catballs.

This was my indoctrination into a world with many fascinating things:

  • “The Little Mermaid” soundtrack, at the top of our lungs, as often as possible
  • Stephen King novels I probably shouldn’t have been reading but oh my God how I read them
  • Long-term shared-with-strangers pooping facilities
  • Egyptian Rat Screw and Mao
  • What a scoliosis brace looks like, and how not to elegantly recover from expressing shock at one
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000

The TV hanging in the corner in the student lounge was hooked up to some temporal anomaly that caused MST3K with Joel Hodgson to play twenty-four hours a day.


It was the background noise of every lost hand and every Point of Order. I couldn’t tell you what episodes I saw, but I could tell you this:

  • Joel Hodgson’s eyebrows go straight up
  • Most easily memorized theme song ever written
  • So many in-jokes
  • The rubber cockroach during the doors sequence is what sells it
  • Team Tom Servo

MST3K remained a thread of gentle, reliable nerdhood — PG-enough to watch years hence on Comedy Central with Colonel Hoke. The great galvanizing aspect of the show was that Joel Hodgson and the other show creators came of age in the 70s, so there were always some jokes Dad had to explain to me, and some I had to explain to him.

The spirit of Mystery Science lives on in the riffing of Cinematic Titanic (with Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein) and the riffing of RiffTrax (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett) but MST3K will always be its own special formative organism. It was on basic cable, reaching small-town nerds all over the world.


Wherever there is Golan-Globus…
Wherever there is De Laurentiis…
Wherever there is Mitchum…
Wherever there is bad acting…
Wherever there is something failing to be scary or sexy or convincing…

Wherever there is a kid not playing outside…
Wherever there is a kid who doesn’t know any kids their age…
Wherever there is a kid going to summer camp for the first time… but the kind with electricity… because that kid is kind of a nerd…

The riffing will be there.


Draws. Sweats. Eats too much sugar-free candy.

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1 Response

  1. Erik R. says:

    Very cool. Yeah, NC is rad that way.

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