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How Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Saved My Life (Sort Of)} ?> My friend Chris introduced me to Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K) after we became friends in university, and the show changed my perspective on community. Chris was an active tape trader. The show wasn’t easily available in Canada, so Chris used a wide network of associates, trading things from his impressive collection of VHS tapes, laser discs, and, later, DVDs to get episodes. I still have a banker’s box full of Seasons Eight through Ten of MST episodes I inherited from Chris in my office. Soon, word of the show spread through my apartment building and every week a group of 20 or more university students would gather in the living room of my two-bedroom apartment to watch Joel/Mike and his robot pals make fun of some of the worst movies ever made: The Skydivers, Mitchell or, my personal favourite, Manos: the Hands of Fate (Manos literally means “hands.” So the actual title of this film is Hands: The Hands of Fate. The only thing you need to know about this piece of celluloid sludge is that it’s about a fertilizer salesperson from Texas).
As someone who grew up well before “geek” was the term of endearment we’ve all embraced, liking geeky things could be incredibly isolating. In the pre-internet era, there wasn’t an easily accessible network of fan communities. There may have been comic conventions in some of the larger urban markets, but they were primarily about comics (as the name does suggest, though it has since grown to mean so much more). I certainly remember being teased because I liked science fiction and comic books. I had specific friends who shared interests, but my fandoms were usually limited to one or two people. I had a couple of friends who really liked Star Wars, a few who liked comics, a few others who liked wrestling, and one who really liked Battle of the Planets. Those groups rarely interacted with each other and I instinctively believed they wouldn’t get along anyway.
But somehow, this low-budget show with puppets and general silliness brought a wide variety of people together. It was my first real experience of a geek community and it was amazing. It started with people I knew, but soon expanded to include friends-of-friends and acquaintances. There was no hiding, no awkward explanations for why we liked this weird puppet show. We were invested and everyone was welcome. Of course, not everyone embraced the show with geek-level enthusiasm. I’m pretty sure, for example, that only Chris and I joined the fan club.
At its heart, MST3K had a “let’s put on a show” vibe, a community effort where everyone gets involved. The essential humour of the show is cooperative and inclusive. Unlike stand-up comedy, where one person tells jokes alone, riffing a film is a group effort. The experience is communal. In watching a film, the three characters would take turns riffing, adding a bit of dialogue, commenting on what was on the screen, or making an obscure pop culture reference. As I learned more about the show, I discovered just how community focused the show was. The writers would write the show together, building off each other’s best jokes. Actors wrote and worked behind the scenes, creating sets or answering fan club phone calls. Writers performed bit parts in sketches. Reading the closing credits shows just how participatory the show was—a small group of dedicated people could make a Peabody Award winning show with limited resources and a lot of imagination.
In those few years in university, I learned how people can connect around a shared love. With the revamped MST3K, I’ve been thinking a lot about how important the original series was in shaping how I thought of community and belonging. Without that experience, I don’t know if I would have continued to identify as a geek, something that has been an important aspect of who I am and has impacted the relationships and various communities I’m part of now.
Understanding the importance of community has been a lifelong lesson for me. Maybe it’s my childhood experiences and feeling like I was isolated by the things I liked, but I have always struggled with the desire to go it alone. Doing life together is much better than doing life alone. In the book Community and Growth, Jean Vanier argues that with the breakdown of trust in community and family, people are more in need of community than ever before.
I don’t want to overstate watching MST3K with some university friends as some sort of “perfect community,” but that experience did offer a glimpse of community that has continued to nudge me towards making close bonds with other people. As Christine Pohl observes in her excellent Living into Community: Cultivating Practices, “Religious as well as secular researchers have recently rediscovered the human need to ‘belong’ and describe various versions of our longing for community—a place where one is known, or at least a group where everyone knows your name.”
I’ve been fortunate to find myself part of many different communities—churches, work, scholarly, and fandoms. Not all those communities have been easy, some have been negative. Sharing life is always messy; however each community I’ve been connected with has within it a trace of what I loved so much about those MST3K nights back in 1996. For me, it required stepping outside my isolationist bubble and finding people with shared interests to make those important connections.
Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.