I’ve spotted at least four Mystery Science Theater 3000-inspired tattoos etched onto the bodies of fans (or, “MSTies”) in the lobby as we wait to be seated in the theater. I’m seeing MST3K’s 30th anniversary live show in Washington, DC, the third stop on the tour, which concludes shortly before the season 12 Netflix premiere on Thanksgiving—an appropriate date for any MSTie dedicated to traditional MST3K “Turkey Day” marathon episode viewings.
A Kinga cosplayer stands to my left at the merchandise table, and there are at least three guys in jumpsuits—two emulating MST3K creator Joel Hodgson as host “Joel Robinson,” one dressed as his successor Mike Nelson—while a pair of meticulously constructed Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo puppets lurk near the lobby doors.
Seeing the show in DC, or “the lion’s den” as I’ve become accustomed to calling it, where protests are ever present and sometimes shut down the entire city, feels strangely perfect. I grew up watching MST3K, and it has seen me through tumultuous personal and adolescence-fueled crises.
For me, and other fans who caught late-night viewings alone in their bedrooms, MST3K provided some relief, a haven wherein viewers could laugh at ridiculous B-movies with expert movie riffers. I also appreciated the sly progressivism embedded in the show’s atmosphere. It may seem small, but gestures like Joel and the bots booing at misogynistic violence when depicted on screen, and riffs that destroyed antiquated, sexist ideas about women through sarcasm and mocking, meant something to me.
Now, it feels like a respite from the gaping maw of the news cycle when Joel walks on stage and says, “It’s me, Joel” like he’s leaving a message on my 90s-era answering machine. The live show opens with a quick, nostalgic look back at the show from the days of KTMA onwards as the MST3K “love theme” plays and the audience sings along.
New host Jonah Ray, as “Jonah Heston,” joins the robots and Joel, donning his red jumpsuit for the first time in decades, for a little DC-centered chat aimed at the audience. “Did Kanye make it?” Jonah asks as he scans the crowd. Tom Servo reveals that the Washington Monument is actually his robot sibling, and “it’s waiting,” which seems ominously on point.
Some cities on the tour are lucky enough to get two movie showings, and I’ve secured tickets to both. As Joel and Jonah join the bots in silhouette (the show’s signature “Shadowrama”), the first feature, “The Brain,” begins. We are barely three minutes into this film and a teddy bear is bleeding from its eyes. It’s oddly delightful. There is a surreal connection between the absurdity of this film and our 2018 existence. My eyes might begin bleeding at any moment too.
It would be a mistake to think the new version of MST3K relies solely on nostalgia, and although fans naturally want a return to something familiar, I think Hodgson has the right idea about bringing new players to the show. To do otherwise would be to sentence MST3K “The Return” to the ever-growing graveyard of unsuccessful reboots. Joel graciously refers to Jonah as “the future of movie riffing” during the live show, and I recognize much of those early MST3K days in Jonah’s presence.
During the second feature, the ghastly fantasy spectacle “Deathstalker II,” Jonah riffs, “So, this is what it’s like for women on the internet?” when a female character is surrounded by an approaching mob. The riffing is updated with references to everything from I, Tonya to mansplaining and toxic masculinity, and nothing feels out of place.
Season 12 will be significantly shorter than the previous season, with only six episodes instead of season 11’s fourteen, but I’m looking forward to seeing how the show evolves. The live show gives us more Pearl-clone Synthia and introduces us to a new character we’ll see in the next season, played by Deanna Rooney.
The show might be moving forward but it retains its comforting silliness. Although the state of the world can seem dire, we should remember to give ourselves permission to find joy when and where we can. In this sense, watching MST3K, or embracing the fandoms we love, is a type of self-care. Sometimes, we have to take a break, and find the light in a cold, dark theater—if only for a little while.
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