MST3K: The Weirding of Film
Before I dive in, I ought to clarify something. I am a MiSTie, a dyed-in-the-wool, die-hard fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K). I think the show was one of the most original, odd, funny shows in the history of ever. I have watched hundreds of hours of it, recorded more than 100 hours of it on videotape, and bought some of the DVDs. We still break them out once in a while (though they’re all up on YouTube now). I’ve even watched some of the KTMA episodes, the ones with the Fake Frank (not all of them because *whew* some of them were bad). Needless to say, I have a deep affection for the show. In its own way, Mystery Science was amazingly redemptive, in a recycling sort of way (I mean, what else are you going to do with really, really bad movies?).
Recently, a friend heard that I was a fan and challenged me to do my “popologetics voodoo” (apparently there’s a mystical chant involved) with regard to Mystery Science Theater 3000. This is easier said than done, because strictly speaking, MST3K wasn’t a normal show with a storyline as much as it was a way to present other people’s storylines. Yeah, it had a flimsy story that sort of held things together (we’ll get to that in a moment), but at its core, it wasn’t a “what” as much as a “how.” It introduced us to a new way of seeing bad cinema. It was more medium than message, more filter than film. But as a thought experiment in submitting all things to Christ’s lordship (at least in my own head), I thought I’d try to run through the five questions I presented in Popologetics:
1. What’s the story (or mood)?
2. Where are we? (The style and moral-spiritual landscape of the work.)
3. What’s good? (Where is the common grace found?)
4. What’s bad and deceptive? (Where is the idol found?) And how do we subvert it?
5. How does the gospel apply here?
Sit back and get comfortable. Grab a bag of popcorn while you’re at it, cause this is going to take some time.
What’s the Story?
For the uninitiated who are mystified by the sheer concept of MST3K (where were you in the 1990s?), let me clarify by telling you the story and why it wasn’t just about story.
The show’s story, such as it was, was simply an excuse to create a situation for people (and puppets) to mock bad movies. This frame narrative involved a secret underground lab called Gizmonic Institute headed by two evil mad scientists, originally Dr. Forester and TV’s Frank (together affectionately known as the Mads). They built a satellite, imprisoned within it a hapless janitor named Joel, and then shot it into geosynchronous orbit above their underground lair. Joel made robots to keep him company, and together they became the crew of the Satellite of Love. The Mads then subjected Joel and the bots to bad films, recording their reactions, ostensibly to measure emotional and psychological stress, and so on. The episodes were even labeled “experiments.” The horror.
In later seasons, because of friction among the cast and writers, the characters changed: Joel Hodgson was replaced by Mike Nelson, and Dr. Forester and TV’s Frank were replaced by Pearl (Dr. Forester’s whiny but diabolical mother), assisted by a Planet of the Apes refugee referred to as Professor Bobo, and a hyper-intelligent noncorporeal alien known simply as Brain Guy. But whoever they were, the characters always fell into two groups: the tormentors (those who sent the movies to the satellite) and the tormentees (those forced to watch the movies). The writers broke up the movie into manageable portions by interspersing the show with host segments at regular intervals. These host segments contained short sketches where the characters could interact with each other, further discuss or mock themes in the movie, or sometimes enact a drama that had little to do with the movie. But for my money, the show was really about what happens when you subject a witty human and two snarky robots to a tremendously bad movie.
And that means, as I said, that MST3K isn’t about story as much as a way of presenting lots of stories from bad films. The show is about presenting another layer of meaning on top of the film, like spreading a tasty frosting over a horrendously tasteless (in both senses) cake. This process became known as MiSTing: exposing a source text to mocking commentary, a contemporary comic version of the way medieval monks would add interpretive notes and asides in the margins when copying ancient manuscripts. And like the monks, the commentary doesn’t have to apply only to film. MiSTing can be done with written stories, television, or songs as well. MiSTing is considered by some to be a new genre of fan fiction, a sort of meta-fanfic that takes bad fan fiction and sprinkles healthy doses of mocking commentary on it like so many jimmies on a soft serve ice cream cone. Lately, MiSTing has even reached to the interwebs (I mean, of course it has). Without MST3K, you wouldn’t have YouTube phenomena like “How It Should Have Ended,” “Honest Movie Trailers,” “Everything Wrong With,” and “Too Long; Didn’t Watch,” (all of which mock plot holes and other faults in movies). A case could be made that even “Bad Lip Reading” is a distant descendant. And certainly, there are some videogame streamers whose comic asides are as entertaining as the actual gameplay (I’m looking at you, Day). Even certain Tumblr blogs such as OMGBuffy or OMGSpock (Tumblr feeds that showcase mocking commentary about screen captures from beloved but sometimes cheesy TV serials) would not exist in a pre-MST3K universe. MST3K really was groundbreaking by providing a thoroughly postmodern way to perceive and endure laughably bad cultural works. In effect, MiSTing creates a hyper-audience that says all the things we wish we could, a sort of heckle on demand. So MST3K isn’t so much about story as it is about casting a critically comic eye toward bad filmmaking, making the film just that much more bizarre (and enjoyable to watch) in the process. In one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strips, Calvin and Hobbes discuss the way contemporary English changes nouns to verbs (e.g., access). Calvin sums it up and goes all meta when he asserts that “verbing weirds language.” Well, the heart of MST3K is that it weirds film by using silly mockery.
Where Are We? (Style and Moral/Spiritual Imaginary Landscape)
The style of MST3K was unmistakably goofy and low-budget. The show started on a public access cable station in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and it never forgot its humble origins. Or at least it didn’t look like it had. One of the main puppet characters (the robot Crow) had a head that was a gold, spray-painted plastic bowling pin, and the other main robot (Tom Servo) was made from an antique gumball dispenser. Sets, like the humor, were loveably shabby pastiches of found objects (though in later seasons, they spruced up set design a bit). Nobody would ever accuse MST3K of going high-brow. This was comedy by the people (and robots), for the people.
The humor consisted of three small silhouetted figures at the bottom of a movie screen (called “shadowrama” by the show’s creators) making wisecracking commentary during the film. The humor is so varied and rich, I can’t give a complete topography of all the kinds of jokes used. There were some standard fixtures, such as the groan-inducing puns, finding the boom mikes that snuck in frame, mimicking characters’ voices, mocking names in the credits, creating lyrics for movie theme songs, and so on. But four types of commentary deserve special consideration: 1. cultural references, 2. giving characters extra lines or interior monologues, 3. pushing the absurd, and 4. the lament.
1. Cultural references. What gave the show its nerdy, intellectual reputation was the breadth of cultural references that Joel or Mike and the bots made. The unexpected connections, if they were understood, always elicited delight. Take for instance a reference early in the Russian fairy tale Jack Frost (ep. 813). (The original movie is actually a New Year’s television favorite in my adopted homeland, the Czech Republic). Tom Servo notices that Mafushka, the ugly and evil step-sister of the tale, bears a passing resemblance to Tom Petty. So whenever there’s a close-up on Mafushka, Tom starts singing, “It’s alright if you love me,” or “You don’t come around here no more.” Meanwhile, Mike and Crow bots have compared the evil stepmother to Jack Klugman, and Mafushka to an infant Penny Marshall. While our heroine knits stockings for her evil step-sister, Tom Servo bursts out exuberantly, “You keep knitting, and knitting!” (a reference to a line from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure). (The Tom Petty references occur at 6:30 and 9:15 in MST3K “.s08.ep13 – Jack Frost”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZJXeXxOvHI.)
The references fly fast and thick, and nothing is too obscure: Kubrick, scientific discoveries, Variety magazine headlines, even intellectual history. In one of my favorite episodes, Gamera vs. Gaos (ep. 312), a giant space turtle battles a shovel-headed beaked monster. As Gamera falls from the sky onto Gaos, Tom says, “Isn’t that how Aeschylus died? Yeah, a pelican dropped a turtle on his head. Look it up.” The writers even included references that only locals would get. They didn’t care who got the joke, just so long as they found it funny. In a documentary about the making of the show, creator Joel Hodgson said, “When we write a joke, we never ask, ‘Who’s gonna get this?’ We always say, ‘The right people will get this’.” The effect was humor mixed with a bit of exclusivity, humor for those in the know.
2. Extra lines/interior monologues. One of my favorite humor-devices is when the cast provide extra lines, asides, or unintended interior monologues, lines that the characters might say (and would be really funny if he or she did say). A couple of examples: in the creepy horror flick Devil Doll (ep. 818), a sinister ventriloquist named the Great Vorelli begins his act at a party by leaving his doll (the spirit-possessed Hugo) on a chair and helping himself to ham. “I do love ham,” he smugly proclaims. The doll, from the chair, protests that he’s hungry and wants to eat too. Vorelli commands the doll to get it himself. When Hugo mysteriously moves (amid the gasps from the audience), Crow chimes in, mimicking Hugo’s voice, “You think he likes ham? Wait till you see me like ham!” (This exchange begins around 33:10 in the episode; you can find it here: “MST3K 0818 – Devil Doll,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhgKERWo-FA.)
Another example: Pumaman (ep. 903), a family favorite at the Turnau house. Tony Farms, an archeologist, is informed by a South American shaman, Vidinho, that he is a mystical god-man, the Pumaman. Vidinho lists his superpowers: he can see in the dark, has super strength, can jump like a cat, and can fly (because, you know, pumas are known for flying), and can sense danger. And then Tony Farms spends the rest of the movie not sensing danger, which leads Mike and the bots to give Tony interior dialogue, “I sense danger!” at the most awkward, inappropriate times.
Or take The Final Sacrifice (ep. 910), in which a wimpy, whiny boy named Troy McGreggor seeks to battle a Satanic cult and find the archeological discovery that cost his father his life. During the film, he finds unexpected help in a mulletted, beefy, alcoholic Canadian redneck named (inexplicably) Zap Rowsdower. The way Troy says “Rowsdower” just lends itself to mimicking (especially since Troy says the name a dozen or more times in the film in that annoying voice of his). In the hands of Mike and the bots, this becomes an invitation for the creation of a whole new subplot. They make Troy say “Rowsdower” longingly, giving Troy a man-crush (or wimpy boy-crush?) on Rowsdower that culminates in the infamous “Rowsdower song” that Tom sings in Troy’s voice while Troy wanders in the woods (it occurs around 2:43 of the YouTube video, “A Tribute to Rowsdower”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJd3g6LGSFc.)
These extra character lines are usually little more than comic asides, one-off jokes. But at their best, this riffing leads to a situation where the commentators actually inhabit the character’s head and motivations, playing off of real character cues and exaggerating or twisting them into something bizarre and very, very funny.
3. Pushing the absurd. This trope includes all sorts of jokes that seize upon something inexplicable or weird in a film and amplify it just a touch (up to 11, as Nigel Tufnel would say). For example, in Gamera vs. Guiron (ep. 312), there is an exchange between the mothers of our young heroes. They are ultra polite, repeatedly saying “Hello” and “Thank you” more than is strictly necessary. This gives Joel and the bots all the license they need to insert arbitrary hellos and thank yous for the next minute and a half (see “MST3K – Hello Thank You”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDvCMFExdfE.)
Pushing the absurd is often combined with #2 to make the character sound as absurd as he really is. For example, take Prince of Space (ep. 816), a cheesy sci-fi adventure film from 1950s Japan featuring two young boys. One of them is so ridiculously formal in his attire (a little jacket and tie) that Servo endows him with lawyer’s diction: “Allow me to reference the aforesaid codicil…etc.”). The film’s villains, Krankor and his henchmen from space, have ridiculously long, pointy noses. So Crow makes clucking sounds whenever the villains are on screen. Pushing the absurd shoves the awkwardness of bad filmmaking into the territory of the bizarre.
4. The comic lament. Some of the most memorable moments of MST3K have been the laments, the times when the film was soooooo bad that the commentators groaned, lost their cool, or just broke down and wept. This can happen occasionally in any film, but there are a couple that were so mind-grindingly awful that there was no use in pretending to make jokes anymore (jokes being the ultimate defense against bad movies). The armor was penetrated and Mike or Joel and the bots were left empty husks of the humans (or robots) they once were.
Everyone who is even a little aware of MST3K knows about Manos: Hands of Fate (ep. 424), supposedly the worst movie ever made. Less famous, but even more painful, was experiment #323, The Castle of Fu Manchu. It was so painfully bad that in the final third of the film, the jokes just peter out and die. Joel and the bots are broken in spirit and weep inconsolably. When Dr. Forester and Frank celebrate at finally breaking the crew of the Satellite of Love, Joel challenges them to try to make jokes in the face of such a horror. The Mads accept the challenge, try, and fail miserably, and soon they too join in the commiseration. It’s all done for comic effect, of course, but it’s touching in a way. It draws you into a community of suffering. After all, you watched this stinker too. The only difference is that you, the viewer, chose to be there.
Overall, the style of humor, the fast-paced banter and riffing, creates a buffer between the viewer and the movie, an enclosed space in which together we laugh at a laughable film. This is underlined in the host segments, skits done to break the film into watchable chunks. At their best, host segments deepen the comedy through a prolonged reflection on some aspect of the film. For instance, one intermission during The Final Sacrifice finds Mike and Crow taking revenge on the very Canadianness of the movie by making a string of lame jokes about Canada. Tom Servo tries to defend Canada with a song about the nobility of Canada. But Crow and Mike persuade Tom to join them in satirizing our friendly neighbors to the north. Tom (as usual) takes things too far, and things escalate to an insane degree. The segment ends with verses so outrageously anti-Canadian (with Tom Servo calling for the bombing of Prince Edward Island and the extinguishing of Canadian culture), it’s like a little declaration of war (see “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Canada Song,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RHVoFpncgA.) Why? Because it’s funny. And because the film is so awful, and so Canadianly awful. What can you do but wish (in jest) for the destruction of the land that produced such a cinematic stink-bomb? But underneath, it’s more a critique of the “us versus them” mentality that would demonize difference (more on that later).
In this way, the humor of MST3K plays with boundaries of exclusion and inclusion. Those who get the jokes and can laugh knowingly are “in,” those who can’t are “out.” MST3K invites its viewers to join a community of mockers, a “Fellowship of the Zing” if you will.
What’s Good and True and Beautiful Here (Common Grace)?
If asked to find what’s good and true and beautiful about MST3K, some Christians will be left scratching their heads. What could possibly be good about a show based on mocking films? After all, doesn’t Psalm 1:1 warn us against sitting “in the seat of mockers”? Doesn’t Peter warn us against being mockers in 2 Peter 3:3? Well, not so fast. It all depends on what is being mocked and why. The thing we are warned against mocking is God’s law in Psalm 1 and the coming of God’s judgment in 2 Peter 3. But in neither place is there a prohibition against mockery per se. In fact, there are some things that deserve mockery. There is a broad feeling of justice done in mocking a terrible movie, a catharsis borne of deserved comeuppance. It is the common grace analogue of divine judgment, kind of a jejune Day of Reckoning. Do away with this kind of humor and you are left with a dry, humorless view of the world (one which too many Christians see as essential for faith).
Allow me to speak in defense of mockery for a moment. Much truth can be spoken in mockery. Take, for instance, Isaiah 44:9–20, where God mocks the idol-makers. Comics like George Carlin and Louis C.K. can at times be great truth-speakers. They expose the foolish and the hypocritical and cast it into a light that makes it laughable.
And this is sometimes the case with the mockery on MST3K. In the closing moments of Pumaman, Vidinho kneels and kisses his sacred amulet (macramé adorned with little seashells) as the spherical spaceship containing the aliens who started the cult of the Pumaman appears on the horizon. Mike comments, “The Bible? A bunch of hooey. It’s all about aliens and spinning globes!” Servo, clearly underwhelmed by the gods’ “majesty,” says, “If this is the best the gods can do, I’m over to the dark side so fast.” Later, he adds (in a voice reminiscent of American medicine advertisements), “The theology in this program may not be wholly accurate. Consult your doctor before embarking on a theology program…” The snark effectively punctures the movie’s ridiculous New Age gravitas. I doubt even the movie took itself that seriously. But for some people, true spirituality is found in precisely in exotic peoples from South America, aliens, and amulets. Speaking truth in the face of such foolish credulity indeed needs a little mockery to reveal the ridiculous for what it is, to call out the emperor for being buck naked.
But really, the mocking in MST3K isn’t mean-spirited. The wonderful thing about it is that there is also affection for these movies. You get the feeling that the show is written by people who genuinely enjoy watching campy schlock, who enjoy watching goofy films with Japanese men in rubber suits duking it out while attacked by toy tanks. These are people who really would like to dine with Ed Wood and Roger Corman. Indeed, this affection gives the show a warmth that keeps it from the cynicism and bitterness sometimes expressed by other comedians. It’s funny, silly humor that doesn’t really cut anyone down (except for the occasional hack filmmaker, who the writers really do love because they provide such choice material). This affection for bad movies gives the show a sort of nerdy, goofy camaraderie rarely found outside of fan conventions. The humor of the show effectively creates a warm (if imagined) community between the show and its fans, even while groaning at the awful filmmaking. You are initiated into the League of Extraordinary Nerds who can endure (and even enjoy) bad movies with the best of them. MST3K proves it. It’s all about joyful play in the fields of inept filmmaking, sort of like kids having a great time in a junkyard.
There’s even an element of self-mockery in MST3K. Remember the infamous Canada Song from Final Sacrifice? I showed it to a politically correct friend of mine, and he frowned and said, “That’s not funny. How can you find that funny?” He didn’t get it. The humor springs from the way over-the-top meanness is used to mock our own tendency to be mean to those different from us. In that host segment, poking fun at Canada quickly escalates to Tom loudly singing about the evils of Canada and how a whole nation should be destroyed, while Mike and Crow look shocked and stop him from going further. “No, no, that’s OK,” Mike croons, cradling Servo, traumatized by his own brutality, “We mustn’t hate.” “At least so overtly,” Crow adds. “Exactly,” Mike responds, “we must disguise our hate, just a little.” And Servo sobs, crying, “Pardonnez moi! Pardonnez moi!” When all is said and done, the joke is on fallible, sinful humans who hate and then cover it up by saying, “I was only joking.” And the crew of the Satellite of Love places itself squarely in that category. Self-mockery evidences the humility of grace, a cutting critique of a bungled and botched humanity that too often gets hung up on its own importance. Being able to laugh at oneself and be the brunt of another’s jokes (as Mike does so often) is a blessed thing.
There is something divine about goofy, playful humor in and of itself. What is the essence of humor? Many eminent philosophers and psychologists (Freud, Kant, Kierkegaard, Bergson, and many others) have analyzed humor. Some saw the essence of humor in incongruity, or a positing of superiority of the joker over the joked, or conversely, as a positing of a common human frailty (we are a laughable species). For my part, I find that the essence of humor stems from an unexpected, delightful connection, a synthesis that no one saw coming but is wonderful once discovered. Who knew that Mafushka’s face could recall Tom Petty’s? But there it is, and lo, it is awesome, and it tickles. This too is a reflection of divine grace, a sudden blessed order that emerges out of chaos, connection that arises from the fragmented. It is an intimation of a broken world set right, the culmination of God’s plan that has been grinding slowly along since the Fall, the healing of all things when hilarity will ensue…forever.
What about the other aspects of MST3K humor mentioned above? The just mockery, the community of frolicking comic laughter and lament? Why call these things common grace? Because they are gifts of the King that reflect his character and purposes in the world. The justice in mocking the mockable anticipates a time when the twisted suffering and injustice in this world will be no more. Perfect justice will reign, and we will mock the evil that once seemed insuperable. We will laugh with joy at the triumph of our King (see Isa. 37:22, “The Virgin Daughter Zion despises and mocks you. Daughter Jerusalem tosses her head as you flee”). We will bask in the glow of truth triumphant, of God over the “gods.”
The invitation to become part of a playful community likewise mirrors God’s purposes in the world. At the end of ages, after God’s decisive victory, we will frolic and play in the company of the redeemed in a world unburdened by darkness. We will drink long draughts of nothing but pure joy in a creation made new. For all its silliness, MST3K bears much grace and truth within the hull of the Satellite of Love.
What Is Deceptive, Evil, Twisted (the Idolatry), and How Do We Subvert It?
But like any cultural work, it is not pure as the driven snow. To be honest, the idols and deception of MST3K are much harder for me to detect and examine because of my deep affection for the show. It feels like running down a boyhood friend (with words, not with a car). Nevertheless, I’m under no illusion that MST3K somehow miraculously escapes the inescapable influence of sin in the human heart.
Locating the idolatry of MST3K is trickier than your run-of-the-mill television serial. After all, we’re not dealing with a story, but a silly, mocking way of viewing stories. I’ve spoken previously how MiSTing can provide a buffer between the viewer and a bad movie. In the show’s narrative, humor is literally a defense against the abuse the Mads inflict through the awful movies. But more than that, humor and mockery can provide a buffer against dealing with the real. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once wrote about the “armature of an alienating identity,” describing how we build up our sense of self from pieces of the world around us. We then use this “armor” to protect ourselves and tell us who we are, but it cannot—it only distances us from our actual identity (or lack of identity). In a similar way, perhaps we could speak of the armature of an alienating mocking riff. Part of the grace of the show is that sometimes, truth is revealed in the humor. But humor can also conceal, keep things from view that we’d rather not deal with. In a way, as long as the zingers fly, we don’t need to deal with any of the deeper themes or questions posed by the movie (provided there are any).
Take, for example, the end of Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (ep. 311). It’s not a bad film, if you like movies about giant pickles invading earth (and who doesn’t?). But the film takes a serious turn at the end of the film when Peter Graves delivers the moral of the film. Standing over the body of the dead villain, he intones (sermonizes, really), “He learned almost too late that man is a feeling creature…” He warns the audience against accepting “perfection from outside” (like the aliens tried to force upon earth). The only way misery and strife will be ended is through man’s achievements alone; we are our only hope. It is a humanist encomium worthy of Dawkins, but it is a slightly ridiculous when it comes at the end of a space-pickle movie. But what happens next is instructive. As soon as Joel and the bots come out of the theater, we see them watching the same speech again, mesmerized. And when it’s over and they call the Mads, Dr. Forrester shushes them because they are watching the same speech. And then the credits roll, and instead of the theme music, we hear the same speech again. And the beginning of the speech is played again at the tail end of the show (during the 8-second “stinger”). (You can see the whole thing here: “MST3K – He learned almost too late…” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npFcKXfcx2o.) It’s a very, very funny way of mocking an overly serious moment in a silly B-movie. But it’s also a way of dismissing the form without ever having to deal with the contents of the speech. Corman might just have been trying to say something worth talking about. But it just doesn’t matter. It’s mock-worthy, good for a laugh, and we’re done.
It’s true that MST3K is not really the place for an extended philosophical or theological round-table discussion. Doesn’t really fit the genre. My point is that there are ways of doing humor that are insightful (and MST3K has those moments), but there are also ways of doing humor that distance us from insight. In their treatment of the “He learned too late” speech, the cast distances us from insight by, in effect, saying: “Look! Corman’s trying to teach us something! Doofus!” A lot of their humor can have that effect. In the end, it’s hard to tell if anyone is really saying anything. And even if they were, would it matter? It’s funny!
I don’t want to attribute heart-motivations to people I don’t even know, but it is true that silly humor can provide a Teflon coated armor that keeps a person from asking disturbing questions about what is finally real, what is finally good. It’s altogether possible that the writers and cast don’t do this in their private lives, in their own conversations with friends (in fact, I’m pretty sure at least Mike is a Christian). But when the humor becomes dismissive mockery, MST3K teaches others how to avoid meaning and skim along the surface of life, riffing all the way. If that posture is maintained long enough, it hardens into cynicism. Silliness can calcify into something much darker, something nihilistic, a humor-filled denial of all meaning worthy of Nietzsche. Not that I see that in MST3K—there’s too much playful affection and goofiness. But it’s a risk, especially for those who want to avoid God (and that’s been all of us at one time or another).
So if the armor that humor provides turns out to be an idol, how does one subvert this kind of buffering? How does one pierce that sort of alienating armor? The first thing you don’t do is call humor out-of-bounds and insist that everyone must be serious. That’s playing right into Nietzsche’s hands. It makes one ripe for mockery. Humor is not the enemy. As I said above, mockery can often reveal truths, bring things out into the light. In fact, far from being an ultimate denial of meaning, humor (and specifically the silly, riffing humor of MST3K) points toward ultimate meaning that has its foundation in God.
Remember what I said about the essence of humor: unexpected connection that creates order out of chaos to our delight. Seeing Tom Petty’s face in the face of Mafushka brings together two very disparate cultural phenomena in a way that would be impossible were it not for the fact that we live and move and have our being in an ultimately meaningful universe. Why does making such a connection cause delight? Why do human beings so crave order and meaning except that we were created in the image of the God who created meaning? We build little bridges of humor between Russian folk tales and American rock stars, between a wimpy Canadian kid and his beefy side-kick, between a creepy ventriloquist dummy and ham, because we love for things to take on new meanings. It’s a creative quest that gives us no evolutionary benefit (silliness generally confers no competitive advantage in the survival of the fittest). The Dawkinses and Hitchenses will try to explain it away, but really there’s no accounting for it except for the fact that meaning—ultimate, ontological, basement-level meaning—exists throughout our cosmos, and we know it at some level. Just like Nietzsche’s philosophy, humor can only deny meaning by employing it, pointing back to the very thing it denies. And through that meaning, through this absurd bridge-building, we open ourselves to delight and wonder and joyous laughter that points to the world made right, laughter that busts past this veil of tears.
In short, we don’t have to penetrate the armor of riffing humor from without. It explodes itself wide open from within. The 17th-century English metaphysical poet George Herbert once wrote, “Love and a cough cannot be hid.” Well, neither can the laughter at a good riff be contained (I should know—I’ve spit my beverage across the room too many times thanks to MST3K). And it points to the Creator.
How Is the Gospel Relevant Here?
It may seem like a weird question to ask, but it’s totally appropriate. The gospel makes a huge difference to how we understand MST3K (as it does for everything). That’s because Jesus didn’t come just to save us from our sins. He came to save us from futility, meaninglessness, and cynicism (see, for instance, Romans 8:18–25). He came to save us into hope and meaning (1 Pet. 1:3: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”). Without Christ’s victory that will ultimately heal all of creation, without that decisive blow to death, the playful laughter of joy we enjoy now means nothing. The mockery that accompanies victorious judgment is forever forestalled, for there is no final victory, no hope, no final meaning. Death and evil win, and cynicism reigns. But because Christ did defeat the powers of sin and decay, our laughter now partakes of and anticipates the pure hilarity and joy of a renewed creation and a world set right.
Not only does Christ wash away our sins, he holds together a universe in which goofy humor is possible and meaningful. In Christ, all things do hold together (Col. 1:17), including the bridges that bring things together in funny and delightful ways that are seized upon by riffing robots watching bad movies. In Christ, the warmth and camaraderie found in mocking campy movies finds its truest expression in the inclusion of mock-worthy people like us into the people of Christ. It sounds weird, but MST3K anticipates the victory of Christ the King. Without wiping out Canada. Rowsdower doesn’t save. Gamera doesn’t save. Not even Godzilla saves. Jesus saves all meaning everywhere. MiSTing weirds movies; the victorious Christ makes meaningful weirding possible. Enjoy it. Be grateful for it. And dim the lights.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.
 MST3K episodes are given in three-digit numbers. The first digit indicates season, the next two indicate episode number within the season. MST3K didn’t actually produce 813 episodes (though I wish it had).
 See Jeff McGinnis, “The Right People Will Get This,” Toledo Free Press Website, 5 January, 2011, http://www.toledofreepress.com/2011/01/05/mcginnis-%E2%80%98the-right-people-will-get-this%E2%80%99/.
 If you want the cast’s opinion of their favorite obscure favorites, see The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide (New York: Bantam, 1996), appendix 2, “The 50 Most Obscure References,” pp. 161–71.
 “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Ecrits: A Selection, transl. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 4.
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