The Robots That Conquered Cable

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Esquire on 1 November 1994

NERDLY CHANNEL-surfers are not the only ones responsible for making Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 the cult hit of cable television. The three silhouetted characters sitting Loony Tunes-style in a theater between us and some pretty awful B movies are serving up some of the most astute media critique and pure, cheesy camp on television today.

The premise is relatively simple: In the not-so-distant future (next Sunday A.D., to be precise), a janitor at a high-tech company, hated by his bosses, gets shot into space, where he is forced to watch bad movies. To combat loneliness, he uses spare parts to construct two witty robot companions who make wisecracks during the torturous screenings.

Viewers of nearly every obsessive stripe, on the other hand, flock to this framing device quite voluntarily. MST3K has its own national convention and, count ‘em, four separate newsgroups on the Internet dedicated to discussing the show’s finer points–such as which robot has a better singing voice. Appealing to an audience ranging from schlock junkies scanning for the next inside joke about Godzilla to self-made media theorists delighting in the nuances of metatheatrical bracketing, the show has managed to mix (or is it muddle?) a wide range of comedic styles:

Sci-fi fanaticism: A Japanese monster reptile’s theme song is given lyrics: “Gamera is really neat. / He is filled with turtle meat!”

Broadway camp: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Grill is invented to burn the self-derivative composer’s scores.

Nerd cliché: During a brief intermission, the two robots argue heatedly over the relative merits of DOS Windows and Macintosh operating systems.

Boomer nostalgia: Mad scientist Bela Lugosi enters his lab, removes his suit jacket, and dons his lab coat as a robot sings, to the tune of Mr. Rogers’s opening theme, “It’s a beautiful day in the laboratory….”

A nod to the intelligentsia: A woman throws down a magazine in disgust as the janitor speaks her thoughts: “I hate Hugh Sidey!”

TV trivia: The painfully long opening sequence of a spy film follows a woman’s legs as she walks through British streets. “Watch this: They’ll pan up and it’s gonna be John Cleese.”

Brechtian alienation: The sounds of guns and guard dogs pursue escaping female convicts. “Sounds like the Foley artists are chasing us! Move it!”

But maybe the last self-referential laugh is on the viewers themselves, who, like the janitor alone in his spaceship, content themselves with the company of media-generated buddies on a Saturday night when there’s no one else around willing to muse on the semiotics of Roger Corman.