Can ‘Mystery Science Theater’ be the glue that holds together generations of fathers and sons? One dad finds out.
Connecting the past, present and future at The Merriam Theater.
I’m not the first parent to realize that time plays cruel tricks on you. In the beginning, when your babies howl more than they sleep, it moves like a leaky faucet, the days passing by one slow drip at a time. And then the years flit ahead — at what Mel Brooks might call ludicrous speed — until you suddenly find yourself almost nose-to-nose with someone who used to cling to you like a spider monkey.
With two teenage sons and an infant, I have a foot in each of those worlds. The contrasts are dizzying; the teens are constantly seeking more independence, while the little one is trying to solve small mysteries, like whether he can fit his entire fist in his mouth.
There are constant reminders that I’m running out of road with my older boys, that the next big transitions in their lives will be getting driver’s licenses and going to college — the start of their adult lives.
So I jumped at the chance on a recent Friday night to head over to the Merriam Theater with my almost-16-year-old, Jack, to catch a glimpse of something that tied back into my childhood and his: a live performance of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
For the uninitiated — where have you been for the last couple of decades, anyway? — MST3K is a subversive, deliberately lo-fi show that revolves around a janitor and three robot puppets who have been stranded on a satellite and forced to watch old B movies, which they mock relentlessly.
I couldn’t get enough of the show when I was a kid, and watched its initial run in the early 1990s on Comedy Central with my father. MST3K creator Joel Hodgson’s droll quips, and the compellingly awful quality of the films he selected, were the perfect way to kill a couple hours on a summer afternoon.
Years later, I introduced the show (now revived on Netflix) to my boys. My oldest possesses a sharply honed dry wit all his own, and was instantly won over by the sarcastic one-liners that Hodgson and his robot sidekicks — Tom Servo, Crow, and Gypsy — deployed to cut up dreadful ‘60s flops, like the nearly incoherent Manos: The Hands of Fate.
The show’s language became our own; instead of saying hi, we started to greet each other with snippets of Adam West’s stilted dialogue — heavy on dramatic ... pauses — from 1986’s Zombie Nightmare, and our favorite Christmas song became “(Let’s Have) A Patrick Swayze Christmas,” not the usual tunes you hear on the radio every winter.
It’s goofy, harmless stuff. But inside jokes are like connective tissue, the kind you hope that endures after your kid gets too old or too busy with his own adventures to hang around with his old dad.
The chance to relive some of that fun with my son was reason enough to squeeze my knees into a balcony seat at the Merriam, where Hodgson and his puppets staged The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour, which saw them screen and mock a very ‘80s non-classic called No Retreat, No Surrender. (If you’re curious: imagine a Karate Kid knockoff that features both the ghost of Bruce Lee and a cameo from Jean-Claude Van Damme, who wore two Gordon Gekkos’ worth of hair gel.)
We laughed almost nonstop. And when I caught a glimpse of my son in the glow of the theater lights, I was struck by how much happiness some jokes and a bad, old movie could bring him — and by the mustache that had started to dust his upper lip. I would later spend probably too much money at the souvenir stand in the lobby.
But it turned out that I wasn’t the only person in the Merriam carrying a little bit of melancholy. The tour marks the last time that Hodgson will perform live with MST3K, bringing to a close a journey that started more than 30 years ago in Minneapolis, where he dreamed the series to life as a budding comedy writer.
“I’ll keep working with the brand. And I love doing that, but I’m 59 years old,” Hodgson, who lives in Bucks County, told Marty Moss-Coane on a recent episode of NPR’s Radio Times.
He looked back warmly on the show, which evolved from a simple desire to entertain into something bigger, a community of people who want to take a break from life every now and then, and destress with rapid-fire riffs about patently absurd scripts.
“I actually made my own circus,” Hodgson said. But he sounded at peace with the idea that this was the right moment to pass the baton to the next generation of writers and performers.
Time doesn’t slow down for any of us — dads, robots, or humble space janitors.