So while I was thinking about how many people would forget what it means for a country to demand its young accept the horrors of war had Hi and Lois not reminded people of Memorial Day, I learned the hipster bar near us is having 90s Karaoke Night this week. So I’m thinking about dropping in for when they’re going to be playing nothing but “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”. If karaoke night is at all representative of the real 90s, they should be playing this from about 9:23 through 11:15 without stopping. I might sign up for it myself since I’m not really sure what the verse is like. I’m assuming it has one. But in that regard it captures the experience of having watched Breakfast At Tiffany’s, since I’m awfully sure I’ve done that and I kind of remember there was something about a something or other happening and then at the end she’s not marrying the rich guy in the rain. This also matches my recollection of what the 90s were like. Might check in.
I realize we have bigger problems right now. But I’m stuck on this one: how is it that we, as a society, never made the movie Face/Off 2? The original was a popular yet dumb thing featuring people we weren’t really tired of on screen while stuff blowed up. And we were sated by this? Huh? In fact, up to this paragraph didn’t you just assume someone had made a Face/Off 2 that you never paid attention to?
I’m not sure what exactly the bigger, dopier, somewhat less likable sequel would be, but I imagine Face/Off 2: Facier/Offier would need to take any of the many chances to be more preposterous. Since it would have to come out in the late 90s I bet there’d be some hilarious Internet component to it. Like, there’s some info-highway site where criminals of all kinds can upload their faces for downloading onto other bodies to commit face-crimes, and John Travolta has to go on a cyber-hunt through a 3-D rendering of a Sears portrait studio to find the master computer allowing all this, before the super-villain — I’m guessing Jon Voight — can merge with the Y2K bug, and there’s a climactic scene where his face blends with a polygon rendering of Jon Voight’s face in the end? And a lot of other stuff blows up. Somehow we did not make this movie, and how did we not? Someone has to explain something to somebody else, is what I’m saying.
So back in the 90s there was this troll on Usenet. I know, shocking. The guy would post to the group alt.tv.game-shows, which was about such TV game shows as had that grunge sound. Also sometimes to the other TV newsgroups. He’d post about the forgotten 1984 Bill Cullen game show Hot Potato.
Anyway, the troll would post, sometimes several times a day, the question: how was Hot Potato played? Did Bill Cullen throw a hot potato at the contestants? That would be funny. And then he’d sit back and wait for the offended corrections to roll in. When the fun of that paled, he would repost, spelling some of the words wrong. You have to understand, this was the 90s. While it was theoretically possible to watch a video online, it couldn’t actually be done. All you could do was spend three hours downloading some program that claimed to be able to show videos, then spend an hour downloading a video, which would be a postage-stamp-sized thing that was mostly black, with occasional green speckles, that would then crash. And while memes were technologically possible, no one believed they could be made practical. We had to do what we could.
So anyway now you can imagine my joy to notice that this got posted last month to alt.tv.mst3k:
how wuz hat putato plaed? did bil kulin tos a putato at thu kuntestintz? tat wuld b a funi.
And doesn’t that just make you feel young again?
For the record, Hot Potato was played by Bill Cullen giving a category, and then the contestants having to name stuff in that category. Very few physical things were ever thrown at anyone during the game, as the referees kept very good game control.
So what to do after finally seeing, and getting into, Mystery Science Theater 3000? It being 1996, the answer was: Usenet. The medium is all but dead now, but attempts to reinvent what was great about it continue, without success. I suppose the nearest analogue is Reddit. Or if you imagine the web forum for whatever your favorite subject is. Or the Facebook chat group for your favorite podcast. There’s big technical differences in how they’re organized and administrated. But the important social thing was: here was a way to find and talk with people about stuff you liked. So I got to the newsgroup called rec.arts.tv.mst3k.misc. The name meant it was part of the big group about recreational topics; then the subsection of recreational topics that are about the arts; the subsection of the arts known as TV; the subsection of TV known as MST3K; and then … uhm … miscellaneous. Well, there was a rec.arts.tv.mst3k.admin that just posted “administrative” stuff like show schedules.
It was, like many newsgroups in the mid-to-late 90s, a lively place. Hundreds of people delighting in how they liked something, and how much they liked something, and how they liked it more than other people, and how other people didn’t like the right stuff about it, and how other people should stop liking the wrong stuff about it. You know, like people do. This sounds bog-standard now, but it was new to us all back then.
Some of the most fascinating stuff going on back then was a kind of flame war with a Star Trek fanfic writer. The fellow was named Stephen Ratliff. So far as I know he still is. You remember that episode where the Enterprise crashed into an Irwin Allen Disaster Movie, and the crew has to endure adventures like Worf helping O’Brien deliver her baby and Data popping his head off and Picard getting some kids to climb out of a stuck elevator? Stephen Ratliff was inspired by the kids of that episode and wrote some fan fiction. It has the kids start playing Star Fleet Officer on the holodecks and all that and forming their own little Kids Crew of under-twelve-year-olds. Anyone could have that idea. Ratliff had an idea of pure genius. He came up with some reason to put these kids in charge of the actual starship Enterprise. And then do it again, in more fan fiction.
There had been Mystery Science Theater 3000 fanfiction — taking the text of something and inserting jokes, using the characters from the show — for a couple years even then. But when one MiSTer (get it?) discovered Stephen Ratliff the genre was made. The stories had this magnificent natural absurdity told, in the earliest stories, with remarkable ineptitude. These flame wars on rec.arts.tv.mst3k.misc amounted to people decrying the offensiveness of the Kids Crew premise — ten-year-olds put in command of starships, even Next Generation starships where nothing all that bad ever really happens? — and Stephen Ratliff defending his premise with remarkable patience and grace and the not-quite-off-point argument that kids used to be inducted into the Royal Navy so why not have that happen again?
Sure, even without Stephen Ratliff there’d probably be a good MiSTing genre. The idea is too good. But he made it part of the fandom. Partly by writing stuff that was so joyous to read, and to riff on. Partly by being so interesting to talk about. Marissa, the girl from the elevator, gets adopted by Picard and becomes Princess of Deep Space England and travels in time to hook up Wesley Crusher and Chelsea Clinton before sending a space shuttle to Mars and becomes Lord High Admiral of the Federation and all that? (I swear.) How do you not want in on that?
So I got in, despite having — then — only seen a handful of episodes. I had a good source text. There was this cartoon series based on Sonic the Hedgehog, the video game character. In it he and the gang are rebels trying to save the world from the evil Doctor Robotnik and his robots — you know what? Doesn’t matter. It was popular in the 90s, and a lot of people wrote fan fiction. I found a piece and asked the author for permission to riff it. Asking permission was an important part of MiSTing culture. I mean, we didn’t ask for permission to riff spam. But if it was something someone identifiable wrote, it was at least bad form not to ask permission, and to give the author the chance to veto any truly unfair lines — or, in principle, the whole thing — before publishing. No sense being a cad.
It was well-received. One of my friends who’d written his own Sonic the Hedgehog fanfictions asked me to riff his. Other people in the group started looking to Sonic fandom and finding volunteers. There was much more to the MiSTing community than Stephen Ratliff and Sonic the Hedgehog, of course. There was a lot of fanfiction. There were the bizarre rants and conspiracy theories that people published on Usenet without regard for whether that made any sense. My favorite was someone accusing the English department of my grad school, an engineering school, with working to bring down civilization. (Did we even have an English department?) There was spam. So much spam. There was more normal yet poorly-targeted commercial messages. Someone did a whole Tom Swift novel. We did a lot of writing. I learned from it, a good bit about timing and pacing and how to write host sketches that could plausibly be done on the actual show. (Two or three minutes at most, few characters, few entrances and exits, as little editing as possible. This was my taste. Others wrote sketches that could only be done in fan fiction, where budgets and staging action and all aren’t issues. Their tastes.) Stephen Ratliff continued writing Marissa Picard stories that were gradually getting better, in internal logic and in fundamental writing technique. And sending out announcements so people could organize who’d get to riff his newest work.
He won us over. How can you not like someone who listens to you telling him why his stories suck, and thanks you, and writes stories that stop sucking those ways? We won him over. How can you not like an alert and obsessively responsive set of readers for your every word?
There was a lot that was great in the 90s. Mystery Science Theater 3000, Usenet, and MiSTing, were big parts of my great 90s.
Friday: I bet I have some more of this talk in me.
Friday comes the release of the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s a show that was important to me so I thought I’d talk about my relationship with it some. It’s a nearly one-sided relationship, although I do follow Frank Conniff on Twitter, where he has never noticed me. He’s had other stuff to do.
My first clear memory of knowing about the show was during one of their college tours. I think it had to be 1993. Some friends told me I had to go see it because I would love the show. They were right, but I didn’t believe them. I was still feeling burned after a lot of buildup for Ren and Stimpy, which I tried and learned was so utterly inappropriate for my tastes as to make me wonder if the people who recommended it to me knew anything about me. So I skipped it. Probably just as well. I’m sure whatever I was doing that night was more important anyway. It would have been playing Civilization I on the Macs in the office of the unread left-wing student weekly I wrote for. And I had nowhere to watch the show anyway, as I didn’t have cable, and even if I did, no cable systems had Comedy Central in those days. Yes, yes, there was trading in videotapes but I didn’t have a videotape player at college, because it was 1993.
A couple years pass and I hear occasional bits about what a great show it is. I go off to grad school. Mystery Science Theater 3000 begets a syndicated hourlong version, made by cutting each episode in half and airing them successive weeks. It doesn’t air in my grad school’s TV market. But I get to try out some episodes when I’m home for some break. The first half of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The first half of Pod People. Both are classic episodes, although Pod People was the harder to watch. The underlying movie is really sluggish, with muddy audio; if you’re not paying close attention the thing is gibberish. Still, I’m intrigued. The syndicated version goes off the air without my ever catching the second half of an episode.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 begets a movie version. I’m glad to give that a try. There’s some nice publicity drives that make the show sound appealing, or at least worth trying out. The movie is finally released, although not to theaters. The studio makes maybe two-thirds of a print and circulates it for literally minutes. If it ever, ever appeared in a theater in the Albany area I never heard about it.
Ah, but! My grad school changes its cable provider to one that’s got Comedy Central. Finally I can give the show a try. By that time the show’s been officially cancelled from its Comedy Central home, but it’s still running a bunch of episodes ahead of the move to the Sci-Fi Channel. It occupies a couple timeslots early Saturday and late Sunday. I try out my first episode: The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. It’s a fine episode, still one of my favorites. It’s a foreign movie, a Ruso-Finnish coproduction telling one of the legends of Sadko, whom I don’t know anything about either, which is why when the movie was imported it was redubbed as “Sinbad”. It’s a gorgeous film, full of practical effects and telling about a hero trying to bring happiness to his people and sailing to India and encountering magic and wonder. If it all comes out a little weird that’s probably because legends are a bit like that, especially when it’s legends from another culture and then made into a movie and then redubbed and probably reedited and all that. But it’s beautiful if odd and delightful. By the time I was forty minutes in I was sold on the show. It was also 2:40 am and I theoretically had classes the next day, so went to sleep, still never having seen the end of an episode.
Next Saturday there’s another episode. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, 10 am. I forget to set the VCR. (I know which episode it was because MST3K fans, incredibly, have kept track of the broadcasting of episodes.) Also somewhere in this time I’ve gotten a VCR. I set the VCR for Kitten With A Whip, 7:00 the next morning. Finally, finally I get to see an episode all the way to the end.
So, yes, I’m sold. Also I’m there at the last three months of the show’s Comedy Central run. I’ll have the chance to catch two episodes a week of a show that’s run for (then) seven seasons, and then probably never see them again. Mystery Science Theater 3000 exists in a complex battlefield of airing rights; there were already, then, episodes that everyone knew could never be legally shown again. There’s still some episodes that it looks like might never be legally released. But three months of the experience is far better than not having the experience at all.
I splurge, and start recording episodes in LP so they’ll be of higher fidelity. Not SP, though. I was a grad student. I didn’t have SP kind of money to spend on blank videotape, come on.
Tomorrow, unless I forget: my new MST3K fandom gets worse.
In the overnight hours of the 1990s there was a news broadcast called World News Now. There still is. Back then, they had regular appearances from a commenter, Ian Shoales. He was, as one of the anchors put it, an “amphetamined prince of darkness”, reading wordy comic essays at rapid-fire speed and signing off with, “I gotta go.” And so I encountered his writing at just the right moment for it to hit me, deeply. For a while I tried imitating his voice in my own comic writing, which resulted in my learning that whatever my natural comic voice was, it wasn’t very much like Ian Shoales’s.
Ian Shoales was, and I suppose still is, a character created by Merle Kessler, one of the Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater troupe, a comedy band you maybe remember from either Nickelodeon’s mock-talk-show Out Of Control or MTV’s Randee of the Redwoods, or possibly from the Ask Doctor Science radio/web feature. Obviously, I’m a fan; I also realize I’m learning still from his writing.
I’d like more people to be aware of his writing, though, and I’m somehow feeling a little too lazy just to look up what YouTube videos there must be of his World News Now appearances. So I’m making this a little Ian Shoales week, with essays from I Gotta Go, his 1985 collection. My copy is signed by Merle Kessler. I got it from the library’s used-book-store section.
For the first piece, let me offer “The Perfect City”, which I think gives a fine idea of his character’s cranky yet appealing personality.
Later in the decade Kessler would publish Ian Shoales’s Perfect World, a novel, which is only loosely connected to what’s described in this piece. It’s also kind of a weird book, although I haven’t had a copy to read in long enough that I can’t swear that reading it is necessarily a good idea.
The Perfect City
If this were a perfect world we’d have at least one perfect city. The perfect city would look a bit like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, without the worker problems and without the electronic music. In the perfect city, big-band jazz would be broadcast nightly on the streets, which would be paved with bricks and lined with elm and maple trees.
The only dogs allowed would be African basenjis, which cannot bark and would be trained to curb themselves. All cars would float on silent cushions of air. All the cops would ride horses. There are no pigeons and no statues.
In the perfect city, automatic tellers would spew cash at random every half hour or so, the concerts would all be free, all be reggae music, and never be crowded. Drinks are half price, and it is always early autumn in the perfect city.
In the perfect city, Woody Allen would be funny again, Steven Spielberg would take a vacation, and there would be a Kurosawa festival once a month. Westerns would make a comeback, and theater seats would be six bucks tops. Critics would be wise, enthusiastic, and fair, and so with the artists of the city. No art after 1900 would be displayed in the museums. Admission to museums would be free, and large groups of children would stay well away until I had left the building.
I would never be put on hold in the perfect city.
In the perfect city, all parties would be “by invitation only”, and guests would receive cash prizes when they went through the door. I would be invited to all these parties, and no matter how rude I became, I would never be asked to leave.
In the perfect city there would be a twenty-four-hour French restaurant but all the entreés would be under five bucks. The waiters would be named Mac and the waitresses would all call you Honey.
In the perfect city, clothing would be well cut, sharp, swell, and inexpensive. People would roam the streets in formal evening wear. In the perfect city, I would have a nickname like “Spats” or “Captain Danger”. Every newsboy, flower seller, and cabbie would know my name; even the muggers would know my name. The mayor would call me for advice, my quips would be legendary in the society columns, the library would be well stocked, and super heroes and heroines would drift lazily among the skyscraper peaks, seeking out wrongdoers everywhere.
The shower in my apartment would be hot and powerful, and all my neighbors would work nights. Women would laugh at my jokes, and men wouldn’t tell them. Guitars would stay in tune. I would have many friends, and they would not ask me for money. They would all have jobs, and their jobs would be good. I would have my own news program, in which I would bring bad news to the perfect city, but nobody would mind, because everybody would know I had a bad attitude anyway.
Women would stay with me longer than two months, or if they left they’d at least leave their record collections, which would include all recordings by the Ramones. And they’d leave me a record player. And some money.
All transportation is free, including tickets out of town. And down those mean streets a man would go, who was not himself afraid, and that would be me, the oldest pro on the block. Ian “Captain Danger” Shoales. In the perfect city.
— Watching the pigeons, 10/15/84.
I didn’t read Mandrake the Magician in the 90s. For one, I still got most of my comics in the newspaper back then, and newspapers don’t run a lot of story strips because they’re pretty awful. Plus Mandrake’s pop cultural moment kind of came and went … I’m guessing sometime during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration? I don’t know. Anyway, I didn’t pay much attention to it until recent years when it got easy to see online every comic strip that is still running, like The Katzenjammer Kids Somehow, and Mandrake is among them.
Or it was, anyway. Last year in the midst of a meandering story the cartoonist had to stop, I believe it was due to health issues, and they reran cartoons from the 90s while King Features decided it didn’t really need to replace him after all. Since then they’ve stuck with mid-90s reruns and I get to see what I missed.
And for the most part it’s been really, embracingly, nutty, in that way a long-running legacy strip that no grownups are watching will get. The previous story — and I need to emphasize that I am not exaggerating or fibbing or intentionally misrepresenting the tale, just reporting what I remember the narrative being — featured Mandrake being abducted 50,000 years into the future, by the Lords of Earth. These Lords were three women, who’d divided the government of post-nuclear-war, paved-over Earth into three departments (Potholes, Time, and Other), brought him to a crystal-glazed replica of his 20th-century home and showed him domed undersea replicas of major cities. They also introduced him to robot duplicates of his friends (who, back in the 20th century, did a quick search of all Earth and couldn’t find him, so were stuck for ideas) and arch-nemesis, until he had enough of this and spanked them, which they found thrillingly novel so they sent him home. And that was it. That was the story.
The current one is that Mandrake’s impossibly old father has come out of the Tibetan Or Whatever Mountains to poke around society, and that’s been mostly a tale of how he got past the customs guy by using his superlative powers of illusion. The past week he’s got into talking about he uses cosmic powers to travel the, er, cosmos, and I am wholly and unironically charmed by the “life unlike our own” shown in today’s strip, the long centipedes wearing the uncomfortable radio-equipped headphones we all used back in 1978. I don’t know where this is going — nowhere, is my guess — but at least it’s delightful along the way.
Of course the meandering and weird flights of fancy in story strips isn’t all I read comics for. I also read them to see what mathematical topics are discussed, and I found a bunch of them, so those are gathered up over on my mathematics blog and if you’d read them over there I’d be appreciative.