TubaTV remembers: ‘Mystery science theater 3000’


Everything I know about post-structuralism I learned from a couple janitors and their robot sidekicks.  Mystery science theater 3000 was really unlike any other TV show out there: its enlightened brand of comedy wasn’t situational, it wasn’t sketch-based, it wasn’t even absurdist.  Each of its nigh 200 episodes was two hours long and was produced for very little money — on a weekly basis, no less.  (Fuck you, Rome!)  The trick, of course, was not to worry about creating entirely original content, but to recycle long-forgotten B-movies from decades past.  It was sort of like the hip hop of geeky televisual parody, a (semi-facetious) comparison made all the more outrageous when one recalls that it was the brainchild of some of the whitest folks the Midwest has ever produced.

The series ended its run in 1999 after 10 seasons, but still maintains a dedicated cult following with a formidable web presence.  I won’t bother to trumpet its virtues (which are many); the point of this inaugural ‘TubaTV remembers’ entry is rather to reminisce fondly about how the show has shaped my sense of humor, and in so doing, how it paved the way for my eventual enchantment with post-structuralist philosophies of language.

MST3K‘s structural conceit is of course not without precedent, but it was only through the hours and hours of time spent with Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Crowe T. Robot and Tom Servo that I began to appreciate all of the subtleties it involved.  On those weekend nights when I couldn’t stay awake through the midnight broadcast of MST3K, I used to program my parents’ VCR so I could watch it — religiously, one might say — the next morning before the rest of the family mobilized.  Through the mid-nineties I used to thrill at the 24+ hour MST3K marathons Comedy Central programmed every Thanksgiving, so that by the time I graduated high school I’d managed to amass enough VHS dubs to sew myself a chastity belt from all the magnetic tape.

The show seems deceptively straightforward, in that watching MST3K isn’t terribly unlike making fun of a bad movie with some unusually pithy friends.  Poetically, though, most of the jokes are actually pretty sophisticated.  They tend to be highly economical: because the Satellite of Love’s crew have to interject their lines in the pauses between the original dialog of whatever movie they’re watching, there’s little time for preamble.  As a result, the jokes are either hit or miss.  When they miss, it’s usually because their references are just too esoteric for a national audience.  A substantial proportion of their jokes, too, are “callbacks:” insular (but often hilarious) references to movies the trio has already lampooned.  When the jokes hit, though, it’s another story…

Watching the show during my formative years, I was profoundly influenced by its manipulation of voice.  The commentators’ one-liners often assume the subject-position of a character on-screen, or that of a hypothetical narrator remarking on the scene.  In the context of the program, it’s usually pretty obvious whose voice is being emulated; when this particular comedic strategy is spirited into the world of everyday speech, however, it tends to fail pretty spectacularly, unless one has a longstanding relationship with one’s interlocutor(s).  (Ahem.  Thumbu.)  What’s so fascinating to me about this particular linguistic practice, regardless of whether it communicates or not, is its elaboration of what Derrida identified as the structure of the trace, or the possibility of iterability in general.

In Derrida’s linguistic theory, any utterance is a priori susceptible to repetition, independently of its intelligibility or its meaningfulness.  Any utterance, therefore, is never absolutely enclosed within its context; this is how intertextuality functions most broadly, and why “excitable speech” can be resignified under the right circumstances.  MST3K actually takes this (already powerful) observation one step further.  More often than not the show’s jokes don’t actually repeat pre-existing utterances; rather, by appropriating the voices of on-screen characters or off-screen narrators, MST3K‘s writers *anticipate* hypothetical utterances. That is, their jokes work in the conditional perfect tense, the domain of the might-have-been-said, taking protentional advantage of the structure of the trace.  The consequence of this practice is to fracture the subjectivity of the assumed speakers: they are no longer in full possession of their voice.  (I’d like to think that JD himself would have been impressed by the economy of MST3K, had it ever come to his attention.)  The effortlessness of this gesture of mastery always struck me as nothing short of brilliant, even if I couldn’t quite understand why, or reproduce its effects in my own language.  I’m grateful to the crew of the Satellite of Love for teaching me more about how language works than some of my linguistics professors ever did.

— J.C. Freñán


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