Laughs and lessons from the “Satellite of Love”

Two trends in my life have collided recently.  One is that with all the busyness of taking care of Sean, the rest of the family, the house and grounds, this blog and what-have-you, I have to find some way to relax at the end of the day.  Preferably one that doesn’t cost any extra money.

The other is my on-and-off relationship with popular entertainment, which means that I’ve often missed entire waves of pop culture because I’m simply occupied elsewhere.  (There’s only so many hours in the day, after all.)  For instance, I was largely unconscious of the entire grunge movement in the early ’90s and the Alanis Morrisette thing a few years later.  I’ve never watched a single episode of The West Wing, The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, and only one each of Seinfeld and Frasier.  These were part of the lives of millions of people, but had little or no impact on me.  Sometimes I get caught up after the fact; other times, I’m simply left mystified at the appeal of this or that trend and move on.  (Alanis falls into the latter category for me.  Sorry, ma’am.)

Recently I’ve discovered a one-time pop culture phenomenon that is also serving as a method of relaxation for me.  It’s a little low-budget TV show of recent vintage with the unlikely title of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

In case you’re not familiar with MST3K (as its fans call it), it’s a show that ran for eleven years (1988-99), starting on local cable in Minneapolis, then graduating to Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel.  Nowadays, I can watch many of them on my computer, using Netflix’s online-play feature.  The premise is that this normal guy (Joel Hodgson for the first few seasons, Mike Nelson thereafter) has been shot into space by an evil non-genius (villains vary from year to year) as some sort of mad science experiment.  Each episode the villain(s) force their victim, marooned on the “Satellite of Love” (no idea why it’s called that, and frankly I’m afraid to ask …)  to watch an incredibly bad film, usually a science fiction or horror flick, with only a couple of robots for company.  Really, though, all of that is just a framing device for Joel/Mike and the robots — Tom Servo and Crow — to spend the better part of 90 minutes making fun of a terrible campy movie.

And therein is the real genius of the show.  TV is often at its best when it mirrors real life — not the contrived “lives” shown on so-called “reality television” (my second-favorite oxymoron, after “Supreme Court justice”), but how regular people act when they’re NOT on camera.  The View is a good example: four women dishing on the news of the day, just like conversations I’ve overheard in the local Denny’s.  (The male equivalent is Pardon the Interruption, because when guys get together, they tend to argue about sports.)  Well, who hasn’t sat around with some friends and cracked wise while watching a bad movie — or even a good one?  If you’re gutsy, you’ve done that in a theater (I recall a memorable experience riffing off of Star Trek: Generations as the other patrons tried to ignore us), but home is really where the snark is in this case.

Well, that’s the heart of MST3K, and since they use only certifiably crappy movies, the possibilities are expanded.  Furthermore, the writers were legitimately smart folks who shared a love for these hoary films with no-name casts and budgets less than your average weekly income.  I’ve watched about a dozen episodes now, and am amazed at how much comedic material they could get from wooden acting, inappropriate-for-the-scene music, action sequences singularly lacking in action, or special effects where all the wires are showing.  In one episode, they managed at least ten solid jokes in a running gag about how the female lead resembled a Resusci Anne doll (which, in all fairness, she did).  It’s all I could do to keep my laughter from waking up my wife and kids.

So yeah, it’s really funny, but then I’m told Frasier was too.  What’s different about MST3K is how they mined humor out of such negligible cultural ore.  The movies they use really are horrendous, so much so that sometimes I wonder if their badness is too much for even Mike, Crow and Servo to overcome.  (Most of the time, they still do.)  In a way, they’re redeeming cinematic garbage, giving it a new life it would never have had on its own.  It’s a real aurum de stercore situation.  (It’s Latin; look it up.)

And that’s a lesson for all of us.  It’s a lesson I should know from my Bible, specifically Joseph’s statement to his brothers in Genesis 50:20 (“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”)  Making good from evil is a big part of God’s job description; everyone whose life belongs to him has been redeemed out of evil through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus.  And we are supposed to remember that He can use any and all things for His glory (Romans 8:28).  But in the midst of disaster, it’s easy to forget.

Or worse, it’s easy to deny.  What good can come out of my son’s suffering with Leigh’s disease, or my wife’s CMT, or my continued joblessness and congregation-less-ness?  Where’s the blessing in 100-degree weather, leaking auto coolant systems, roaches in the cupboards, or floors that need scrubbing?  How are we supposed to smile when an employer refuses to honor their hiring agreement, a bureaucracy loses the paperwork it’s demanded, a sewage pipe breaks and dumps into the basement?

Well … we’re supposed to smile because we can smile, because we know that things will get better on earth or, that failing, in Heaven.  Nina is making numerous friends through her CMT.  I wouldn’t have time to do this blog — or take care of Sean — if I was locked into an 8-to-5 job, and would have trouble reconciling what God has been teaching me if I was locked into a 10-to-12-on-Sundays congregation.  And on and on. Every rose on earth has its thorn, that’s part of living in a fallen world.  But if you let God open your eyes to see, you’ll find that thorns have roses.

And when all else fails, you can do the one thing Martin Luther said the devil can’t abide: laugh.  Like when a friend suggested before Nina’s and my wedding that when she came up the aisle (we didn’t know it was CMT yet, only that she had problems walking), they could play DC Talk’s “What If I Stumble?”  Or how we’ve nicknamed Sean “the Grinder” — not because of his perseverance, but his teeth-grinding habit.  Or my most recent Twitter comment regarding mopping floors.  (By the way, my Twitter feed has become mostly an outlet for humor.  If you want spiritual uplift, come here; if you want fast quips, go there.)  None of these pains in the butt are permanent, right?  They’re all going to be left behind once earth is gone and we’re in God’s house.  So why take them over-seriously?  Better to have a laugh a their expense — it’s supposed to be good medicine, after all.

So with that in mind, grab some popcorn, call in your favorite robots and sing along with me:

If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes

And other science facts (la-la-la)

Then repeat to yourself, “it’s just a show —

I should really just relax”

For Mystery Science Theater … Three Thouuuu-saaaand!

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One Response to Laughs and lessons from the “Satellite of Love”

  1. Lori Knutson says:

    Ray,

    This is weird – just the other day I was thinking back to the 2 or 3 Mystery Science Theaters I’d seen circa 1995. I just now read your blog; what a coincidence!

    It has generally taken something REALLY FUNNY to make me laugh aloud while watching TV, and I remember chortling and practically guffawing while watching those episodes. They were great.

    As always, I really enjoyed your blog.

    Lori

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