Finding “The Right People”

Fire Maidens, Bokononism, and Puppets: A love letter to Mystery Science Theater 3000

Put that on still-store, will ya Cambot?

“Yo from Joel!” was the subject line of the very top email in my inbox.

My morning email check usually doesn’t contain anything worth (literally) jumping up and down about. But there I was, pre-coffee, bounding around my house, doing my best unintentional impression of an inflatable wacky waver tube man at a grand opening sale.

Some little moments in life are a combination of joy, excitement, and fear — big jolts to the nervous system. I find these moments easiest to express physically. Usually, I consider my body a reliable mid-size sedan for my brain, not so punchy but effective. But in those little moments, the old girl comes through, blasting out my immediate hit of crazy energy in a way that is way more satisfying than simply screaming or allowing my socks to explode off my feet.

My husband Charlie, Joel Hodgson, and me (very happy), at the Greenwich Odeum in RI

Two days previous, I had met Joel Hodgson at a performance of his talk ‘Riffing Myself’ in Rhode Island, a birthday present from my husband. I nervously mentioned the letter to Joel, and he perked up. He asked for a few more details and my email. I figured he was just being polite and that would be that. I mean, that guy is a busy guy.

And yet, here I was, wacky waving, with an unread email from my childhood hero.

It took me back to a similar moment of intensity 23 years ago, when opening a letter addressed from Hopkins, Minnesota resulted in me running up and down the stairs, accompanied by ecstatic singing. The letter that sparked such an uproar said that the fanmail I’d sent in to my favorite show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, was going to be read on an upcoming episode (Fire Maidens from Outer Space) to be aired on the upcoming 1992 Turkey Day Marathon!

As a fully-skippable aside — if you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say MST, I recommend you take a few minutes and watch this short on home economics at Iowa State University. Just trust me.

Imagine if you had watched that with the intensity of a child viewing their favorite movie or cartoon, rewinding and re-watching until the magnetic tape on the VHS wore out. Now, imagine that expanded to a full two-hour movie, usually something similarly corny or outdated or just plain bad, plus funny breaks with inventions and banter by cute, snarky robot puppets and their human hosts in a low-budget spaceship setting, and multiply that by 197 episodes. It’s a little different for everyone, but for me, that’s MST!

“We never say, ‘Who’s gonna get this?’ We always say, ‘The right people will get this.’” — Joel Hodgson

When I was a kid, I was constantly trying to get friends into MST. I figured the only reason anyone could have for not loving something I so clearly understood to be fantastic is that they just hadn’t seen it.

I quickly figured out this was not the case. Most people were confused about why you’d want to hear people talking through a movie. Even rare, good friends with whom I shared my particular sense of humor would usually react with polite nodding. I began to understand a very crucial life lesson, one that the world loves to teach and reteach: Different people like different things, and that is OK, and has nothing to do with their worth as a person, or the ability to empathize with them.

It began to sink in that having other people who ‘get’ what you ‘get’ just simply isn’t always available, and that’s ok. The things you love that are just for you, just your own, are more special for it. And so it was with the Fire Maidens letter.

I remember writing a rough draft of the letter, then recopying it. You can tell because you can almost read my handwriting.

When I watched it for the first time (a few weeks after the original broadcast on Thanksgiving day — we didn’t actually have Comedy Central, and so there was a slight, uneasy lag while the tapes were doing their dance of circulation) I was over the moon; I think I rewound and re-watched it twenty times. My family was happy for me, and I was happy I had cheered up the bots, and... that was that.

Finding your tribe as a human being is both easier and more difficult than ever, thanks to the internet. The cool thing about having my name publicly stamped as an MST fan so young, is that every few years, I make a connection with another human over it. And somehow, that human is always just excellent.

Like the humans Luke and Max, the quiet art kids I admired but thought were too cool to be my friend in school, approaching me after class one day and asking if I was “THE Ashley Holtgraver, you know… from MST?” We started hanging out, went on to found the illustrious extracurricular group “Pizza Club” together, and still keep in touch years later — they are both teachers and makers and artists, and I am proud to call them friends.

Or my husband, Charlie, also an excellent human. We watched the Giant Spider Invasion episode on our first real date — an event that occurred over 10 years after our first meeting. We could have lost touch with each other at any given moment over those years, but the few trading-card-style factoids I knew about Charlie were all just too good to lose track of — and one of those was that he fell asleep watching MST3k every night.

The point is that we nerds can have a hard time finding our people, and I think that’s why fandoms can be so popular with us. They’re weird shortcuts to finding the other teeny tiny percentage of humans whom you can really grok in this world.

Kurt Vonnegut drew this

To throw another science fiction reference out there — I’ve always loved the fictional religion of Bokononism, dreamed up by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle. In it, he describes a “karass” — a group of people with a true, genuine connection to each other. He also talks about a “granfalloon” — a false karass; people who believe they are linked but in truth just have similar likes and dislikes.

There’s nothing wrong with a good granfalloon, and simply enjoying “our show” puts MSTies in that camp at first glance.

But I think MSTies are a karass. Or at least, they can be (if you’re willing to stretch the definition a bit). Like any show, we can have the fun of trading references and geeking out over details. These simple pleasures of just enjoying something together are lovely, but there is a deeper connection I’ve experienced to be made over MST. I have a theory it has to do with creativity and humility.

In my family, “MSTing” became the action form of renting a movie for the sole purpose of us all making fun of it together. The Invention Exchange became a hallowed pastime for me and my siblings growing up, and I find it useful in my creative work today to try channel the type of blue sky thinking we’d employ coming up with great ideas like “Toy Poodle Stilts” and a chimney swimming pool for Santa to enjoy. And of course, I know that by and large, people who like MST will enjoy a similar brand of humor as me. They’ll be snarky, but always root for the underdog. There’s a real warmth underneath the biting wit of most MSTies I’ve met.

After ‘Riffing Myself’, over the course of November, Joel and I exchanged a few emails, talking about the letter, and what a kid who writes a letter about cloning their siblings to a TV show ends up doing with their life. When he learned I liked to perform with my band, he invited me to appear on Turkey Day 2015. Sadly for tiny instrument detractors everywhere, I opted out of my usual synthesizer setup and grabbed my trusty ukulele. (I’m in a synthpop band, Freezepop — another funny turn in life where I met them years ago as as a fan, became pals, and eventually joined after a lineup change. It was weird and awesome.)

MST is currently running a Kickstarter to reboot the project. Like another popular and long-running sci-fi series, they are planning on keeping the original format, but updating the cast and generally taking it into the current decade. I have as many misgivings as the next geek about any kind of reboot of anything, but I trust that MST’s heart is in the right place. At any rate, this year’s Turkey Day was going to be a chance to connect with people about what exactly they were trying to accomplish.

Magic. well-lit moments in the Kickstarter cafe

Last week, I took an Amtrak down to New York City, and got to join Joel and the rest of the crew at the Kickstarter Headquarters to shoot the interstitial segments for this year’s Turkey Day marathon. On camera we recounted “the letter”, and I sang a little cover version of the Love Theme to MST. I always loved the goofy, pedantic way the original theme song walked you through the show, and the song itself is just fun.

I updated the lyrics to be about my experience with MST — the experience of us fans. We’ve kept that little show alive — through circulating the tapes, file sharing, telling our friends — for a full decade after it went off the air. And I’m frankly really proud of us.

Very very very good vibes.

Now, with the Kickstarter, we have an opportunity to feel the full force of connecting all these loosely coupled people across the country with this uncommon thing in common. We have one week left to show our support. I am already feeling it — on the Kickstarter comments, on Twitter, through the goodwill of nice people after Turkey Day, and through my MSTie friends getting in on the action.

The MST karass has a chance to shake things up right now, and it’s really exciting.

But like the song says — we have to make it happen on the internet!