JANUARY 13, 2016
I STILL REMEMBER the first time I ever watched Mystery Science Theater 3000. We didn’t have cable at my house, so I’d devour all of the strange, fascinating stuff from the early days of big cable at my grandparents’ house. We’d make the trek up to Raleigh to help them out for holiday or just for a social call. My dad would talk to his folks. My brother and I would head straight to the television, trying to figure out just what the hell all these channels were for.
It was Thanksgiving, 1989 or 1990, and we’d done exactly as we always did: my father, always smelling faintly of smoke from his job with the Forest Service, talking about serious things with his serious parents, my brother and I running toward the TV like it was a magnet and we were iron. And there it was: a rocket ship, held by wires, landing on a moon made of Styrofoam or maybe papier-mâché. Then, a joke. Something about Dairy Queen or Steve McQueen or the Queen of England. These silhouettes of a man and … robots? Monsters?
I was already well in love with cheesy horror flicks of old. Monster movies, Godzilla, Shaw Brothers kung fu, and bad ’80s cartoons. But this show that I’d stumbled upon, MST3K, was something else. Ostensibly a puppet show about a guy in space forced to watch bad movies alongside two robots he built to stave off the loneliness of the void, MST3K was actually a celebration of a certain strain of pop cultural badness. It was rarely mean when the hosts were cracking wise about the Z-grade flicks they were subjected to. Even when the movie was the worst stuff imaginable, there was a certain grudging affection for the honesty of the hapless filmmakers.
“This is the best we could do,” the movies whispered. “We know it’s not good, but this is who we are. Hate us if you must, fine, but know it’s all we’ve left the world.”
The show became a thread that ran through my teens and twenties. We got cable, so it was on. It was always on. I never missed their Thanksgiving marathons. I almost never missed a weekend episode. I skipped school sometimes to watch a choice rerun. I remember the first time my dad left me alone for a weekend. I invited my best friend Bryan over; we trashed the house and watched MST3K from a pile of pizza boxes and skateboarding magazines, staying up all night, watching the episodes over and over, laughing our asses off, then scrambling to clean up before the arrival of an adult signaled an imminent grounding.
MST3K became this thing with a life of its own. It changed hosts, it didn’t matter. It was still there. I graduated high school, went to college, dropped out of college; it moved from Comedy Central to SyFy. Still there. I became old enough to drink, so I watched it drunk. I became old enough to be sad, so I watched it sad. I got married, so I watched those last two seasons with my wife, both of us young and in love and laughing.
I remember, with a clarity that startles me, the first time illness intruded on my life. We don’t talk about our bowels. They’re gross and smelly. At best, we laugh about them with a fart joke. But talk about them seriously? Never. But I have to. It was late 2002. There was a football game on TV, presumably the Panthers but I can’t confirm that part. I was lazing around when I had the urge to shit. No big deal; that’s a regular occurrence.
The bathroom in our apartment was one of those tiny, under-the-stairs affairs. Right next to the television. So I go in and I just don’t come back out. I did come out, eventually. That’s obvious. But it felt like I never did. There was wracking, tortured pain in my guts and it wasn’t like when you get food poisoning or a stomach bug. This was different. It felt like my intestinal tract was shortening, straightening, and I could feel this process happening from the inside out. My abs were taut, like a wet trampoline. I was in there an hour and a half, just waiting to stop hurting.
Laurie, my wife, came to the door, asking me if I was okay. I’m fine, no big deal, just something I ate, but I knew — I knew — that something was horribly wrong. My health rapidly deteriorated. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s after a harrowing two weeks of stool samples, rectal exams, and sigmoidoscopies. From my perch at Waldenbooks — part-time, so I had no health insurance and there were no hours to get health insurance — my manager and I pored over medical manuals.
“Maybe it’s a thyroid thing,” she would suggest, hopefully.
“No,” I would reply, mournfully. “I’ve got Crohn’s.”
I had no insurance, so my doctor would stick a thumb up my ass weekly, charge me 80 bucks, and tell me I still had Crohn’s. I remember once he told me that there was an experimental drug that could save my life but it was way too expensive without insurance so he wasn’t even considering it. Then he laughed a bit, not at me so much as at things, because doctors are sometimes sociopaths or they wouldn’t be doctors. I loved him and I hated him so much.
My weight dropped. I’m a shade under six feet tall. When I got sick I was at 150 pounds. At my worst, I was 110. I couldn’t walk because of the arthritis that comes with Crohn’s. Laurie had to help me stand up in the shower because I was too weak from malnourishment a lot of days to stand for too long on my own. I’d tough it up to go out, to see people, to get out of bed, but that only made things worse; friends thought I was faking or exaggerating, not understanding that I just wanted to be normal for a couple hours at a time, that it wasn’t that I was fooling everyone else but rather that I was deliberately fooling myself just to make it.
And there was no sleep. This was the worst part, the part that made me feel like I was losing my mind. Two to three hours a night, every night. The rest of the time, in the bathroom or in pain. Your mind drifts when you don’t sleep. The constant pain and exhaustion and stress started to make my sanity slip.
So I turned on MST3K.
I’d started a full collection of episodes before I got sick, but getting them all became a borderline obsession after. I’d download them, 750mb at a time, burn them to a CD, watch, repeat. There was no real joy in these viewings, just this gnawing hunger to keep touch with something I’d once loved as a means of hanging on. I curled up on the couch, fitfully drifting in and out to the sounds of the theme song.
“In the not too distant future, next Sunday AD …”
“There was a guy named Joel …”
I felt that if I ever stopped watching, if I ever lost this rock I was clinging to, I was done. Maybe I’d just drift off and not wake up. Despite not being suicidal, maybe I’d just hurt too much and kill myself. Maybe I’d starve, maybe I’d be institutionalized. I needed Joel, Mike, the Bots, the Mads, everyone who made that show more than they’d ever believe if I told them.
That experimental medication eventually became not so experimental, and a bad doctor gave way to a good one who not so miraculously found a way to get it to me. Things improved. If I was not healthy, I was healthy-ish. And Laurie was pregnant.
We’d settled on the name Simon if our child ended up a boy, but we couldn’t settle on a girl’s name. As we nestled into the MST3K episode “The Beatniks,” a movie about ’50s teens who are not at all beatniks, we heard the star snapping at his girlfriend.
“Shut up, Iris,” he growled at her.
“What if we named her Iris,” Laurie asked me.
We both started laughing. That was stupid. Naming your kid after an episode of a television show.
Iris didn’t want to wait the full nine months. In August of 2009, a good six weeks before her due date, my heavily pregnant wife came downstairs at 6 a.m. to inform me that her water had broken. I fell off the couch like a dad in a bad sitcom. Now? Now?!?!? It’s early, it can’t be now!
That afternoon she was there, little Iris. But she barely cried. We touched her briefly and then they whisked her away to an incubator. They pricked her to take her blood. No sound. She was awake, alert, but she just didn’t care. When it was time to go home, it was just me and Laurie, my tired wife holding a potted plant instead of a baby.
Iris was experiencing bradycardia: a low heart rate and periodic cessation of breathing. Her lungs weren’t developed enough. She was jaundiced. The incubator was her home.
We would go to see her twice a day, lumps in our throats. Two feedings and brief cuddles with this tiny, alien creature. Her heart rate alarm would go off and it was back to the incubator. Once midday, once in the evening. Back and forth, day after day, mile after mile.
“She’ll be ready tomorrow,” the staff would say.
But it was always tomorrow, never today. It wasn’t their fault things changed so often, but I remember getting so goddamned mad. I snapped at them once before breaking down in the middle of the NICU. I just wanted my baby.
We were ground down to nubs. We had to get away from the hospital, with its beeps and respirators. RiffTrax, an MST3K successor group led by former cast members, were going to be simulcasting their poking fun at Plan 9 from Outer Space. The granddaddy of them all, live, and it was going to be in one of our local theaters.
I asked Laurie if we could take a night off, just go out. Be a normal couple. If we could laugh again around this shared thing we loved. So we shrugged off the guilt of leaving Iris in the hands of the staff for one night and went to the movie theater.
It was glorious. It was relief. We laughed with abandon, not even necessarily because of the show, but just to get lost in something else. We walked out, arm in arm, the release of laughter washing away the muck and grime of stress and sadness.
Iris came home five days later.
If I am skeptical of the cultures that spring up around television shows, I’m never skeptical of the shows themselves. Television does a thing no other medium can do, which is to stretch a moment longer than it would otherwise exist. Television feels like something that rarely strives to be eternal in the way cinema aspires to, instead trying to capture a specific cultural moment. You can watch even the greatest prestige television and usually place it within moments; Breaking Bad’s anxiety over healthcare and the meth epidemic of the late ’00s, X-Files’s ’90s paranoia of a government gone haywire. They persist over hours and hours, but seem like touchable microcosms of an era. You can’t go back, but you can remember and reflect. That can shade into nostalgia, which is a mixed bag, but at their best, television shows can break through the shatterproof glass of the then to help you in the now.
MST3K is that for me. It saved my life, at least twice. There’s no hyperbole in that declaration.
The show is back, of course, having successfully Kickstarted a new season helmed by the creator and original host, Joel Hodgson. The casting choices suggest a different show, one that seems more wedded to the all-devouring geek culture surrounding us than the quirky celebration of bad movies it once was. The weird puppet show with unknown cast members and a set made out of garbage now has commitments from big names like Patton Oswalt, Felicia Day, and Dan Harmon. I’ve gone from enthusiastic to skeptical very quickly.
But maybe that’s not the point. Joel seems to want MST3K to be several shows, a mirror universe of Sesame Street where the show goes on forever through changes in cast and tone. In that sense, what is true today may not be true for tomorrow. And there’s always a tomorrow, with someone who’s sick and in need of comfort, who’s stressed or sad, who’s coping with something unimaginable.
In that case, it’s never enough and it’s never too late.