Tag Archives: self-aware

Saturday Theme Songs: Animaniacs

Continuing my new series on theme songs from ’90s cartoons, I come to a hilariously anarchic, idiosyncratic show: Animaniacs. Produced by Steven Spielberg in coordination with a wide variety of writing and voice talent, it lacked the coherent narratives and respectability of its less manic peers. You could call it a sort of Monty Python, Jr. – just as the Flying Circus riffed on everything that 1960s British TV had to offer, Animaniacs took on every assumption children had about what cartoons were “supposed” to be. It followed in the hallowed footsteps of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, using borderline-sociopathic characters to assault and delight the viewer. All of these qualities are at work in this opening.

One important aspect of Animaniacs that the opening gets across is how scattershot and fractured it was. It resembled a string of vaudeville routines more than a conventionally plotted children’s show. Granted, it had main characters – “the Warner Brothers, and the Warner sister, Dot” – but they were more like self-aware hosts, delivering fourth-wall-breaking jokes in a detached, Groucho-like tone. The meat of the show was in the numerous recurring segments, like “The Goodfeathers,” “Slappy Squirrel,” and of course the beloved “Pinky and the Brain.” However, there weren’t solid borders between segments either, as the stories would occasionally slide together. It was a cartoon free-for-all, where all logical concerns were subordinated to the characters and jokes.

Alongside this intentional lack of structure came Animaniacs‘ love of self-reference. Starting from the title, it was a cartoon about cartoons, and the opening demonstrates this repeatedly, telling the audience that “now you know the plot,” and later exclaiming, “the writers flipped, why bother to rehearse?” Even the characters’ identities (the Warner Bros.) are rooted in the series’ real-life origins, as well as the history of animation itself. This is a show where characters drew attention to jokes as they were making them. They also regularly mocked other shows’ “morals of the week” with their “Wheel of Morality,” which would churn out an arbitrary (and absurd) lesson. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot seemed to take great pleasure in tearing down any pretense of straightforward fictional storytelling, just as they did with the niceties of TV programming. If not ideologically, it was at least a very formally subversive series.

It’s also a great text to examine when trying to determine the zeitgeists that drove ’90s cartoons. Animaniacs was a stand-out, but it was by no means alone in its innovations, and this might hint at a strange cultural moment when adult animation was just entering the mainstream (see: Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, or of course The Simpsons). Perhaps “children’s” cartoons were able to piggyback on their newly acceptable levels of topical sophistication, a stark contrast to the many ultra-toyetic ’80s cartoons with little to offer the adult viewer. Whatever the case, Animaniacs was decidedly a product of its time, with an original run (1993-98) tucked neatly within the Clinton years (and, indeed, Clinton himself is featured in the opening). This may have been the only time in history when cartoon theme songs have used the phrase “pay-or-play contracts.” Those are the facts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Media

With the help of his robot friends

So, inexplicably, my last post – a random little overanalysis of a government flyer – has received almost 100 views in the past two days, more than this whole blog has gotten in the past several weeks. I can’t account for this except, maybe, to say that having “teen” and “sex” as tags encourages viewing – but after all, those were just honest descriptions of the post’s content. So, for what it’s worth, people like reading about teen sexuality. Or just sex. Sex. SEX!!!! I’ll keep that in mind.

And now, as promised earlier, I plan to explore the fertile territory that is MST3K.

Mystery Science Theater 3000

For the uninitiated, Mystery Science Theater 3000 or MST3K is a television show (1988-1999) and cultural institution, the brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, in collaboration with a number of other brilliant minds from the Twin Cities area in the late ’80s. Other important names associated with the series include Trace Beaulieu, who played mad scientist Clayton Forrester, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, voices of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo respectively, Mary Jo Pehl, who played Clayton’s mother Pearl, and of course the great Michael J. Nelson.

The premise of the show was absurd and simple: the Mads, by virtue of being mad scientists, wanted a guinea pig on whom to experiment, so they took a worker, Joel (and later Mike), “shot him into space,” and forced him to float around on the Satellite of Love watching terrible, terrible movies. It’s as ridiculous as the plot of any Bert I. Gordon B-movie, creating a meta-structure from which to gaze upon several decades of mediocre, low-budget cinema. If you’ve never seen MST3K before, here’s an excellent example of the show at its prime.

This is Mike and the bots riffing on a 1950 informational film called A Date with Your Family; as any bad-movie lover knows, un-self-conscious, unintentionally hilarious, and poorly-made films readily inspire mockery, or “riffing.” This is MST3K’s guiding principle. Maybe I’m being overzealous in laying out the show’s basics, but, well, you’ve gotta walk before you can run. After all, I take this show for granted – growing up while the show was running, watching it on the Sci-Fi Channel on Saturday mornings, episodes like Devil Fish and The Screaming Skull, and supplementing this with locally-broadcast shows like Horror Incorporated and frequent viewings of much-beloved opuses of badness, whether from the Godzilla series, other specimens of daikaiju cinema, or homegrown horrors involving Boris Karloff or Edward D. Wood, Jr. All of which is to say, the ethos of MST3K has very much informed my movie-watching experiences.

Statler and Waldorf

So the reason I felt compelled to start writing this blog was that, watching the show almost every day as Ashley and I do, I started thinking about its unique approach to entertainment: it’s hyper-cannibalistic, drawing its entire value from merciless dissection of another work’s flaws. The other day, we were sitting on a couch pissed off about this and that, and realized we were yelling at someone who wasn’t there (perhaps an embodiment of the State of the World). And I observed how we were like Statler and Waldorf, the two hecklers from The Muppet Show who would sit up in the balcony having exchanges like this:

Waldorf: Just when you think this show is terrible something wonderful happens.
Statler: What?
Waldorf: It ends.

I then added that Statler and Waldorf had always been two of my many, many heroes – eternal malcontents, never willing to give the performer any credit, just as we endlessly must gnaw at the ankle of the status quo, never giving it a break: after all, even if there are 1 or 2 nice reforms, that doesn’t mean the system’s fixed. Women’s suffrage was granted just about 90 years ago, but the fight is far from over; thus are hecklers and malcontents a role model for activists everywhere. Or so it is in my cracked worldview.

So I return to the ideas, absurdity, and influence of MST3K. The title, visual aesthetic, and content are all deeply rooted in a heritage of bad science fiction movies, starting around 1947 (I always trace it back to the Cold War, and Kenneth Arnold‘s sighting of the first UFOs in Washington State) and continuing maybe until somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. The facts are (more or less) these:

1) we have media outside the movie theater to thank for our knowledge and love of these movies, as they were rediscovered in the ’60s-’70s on late-night TV by the generation containing my father and Joel Hodgson, and later on through VHS and DVD  by everybody up to us. Also, since they’re so cheap, low-prestige, and, well, bad, they’re low-cost and easy to distribute – hence the dollar store DVDs or 50-movie sets you can cheaply buy, making a treasure trove of B-movies available to new audiences in search of ironic entertainment.

2) enjoyment of these movies is primarily based on ironic appreciation of their badness, an interesting and already heavily discussed fact that’s given rise to a whole subculture across America – midnight screenings of Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda, and affectionate documentation of the past like Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood, which can be viewed vis-à-vis MST3K as a similar demonstration of this kind of film appreciation; also compare Michael and Harry Medved’s influential 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, which propelled Plan 9 to its current status as the anti-Citizen Kane. Or look at the Golden Raspberry Awards, continuing the trend of what I described as “recognizing suckiness” (The Carl, 2/27/09, p. 20).

It’s this idea that if something aspires to great enough levels of bad, it somehow becomes worth watching. Or reading, if it’s the poetry of James McIntyre, or listening to, if it’s the music of The Shaggs, who have themselves achieved a kind of cult status. I think you could probably connect this interest in the bad with the disillusionment of postmodernity. You could, if you knew how to use those words appropriately. Maybe it’s something like cultural overload. We’re so overburdened with millennia of literature, music, and art – we live in such a fractured, overwhelming world full of such doom and gloom that it’s easier to take comfort in a kind of anti-sublimity. I’m not condemning it at all. Hell, I’ve done it all my life and I love doing it. I’m just going off of the symptoms and speculating as to a possible diagnosis.

So we have Mike Nelson, stranded in outer space with his robot friends. “Now keep in mind Mike can’t control / Where the movies begin or end.” Stuck in a neverending cavalcade of godawful movies, always in a sisyphean struggle to escape but inevitably thrust back into his cinematic womb. And then there is the riff.

This is one of my favorite MST3K shorts, a (dubiously) educational film from 1940 called A Case of Spring Fever. As Ashley and I have noticed, watching it over and over again, the short is hilariously pointless: one clod, as Mike describes him, wishes away all the springs in the world, causing an animated “spring sprite” named Coily to appear and grant his wish; minutes later, after some groveling, Coily returns the springs to their rightful places, and the clod spends the rest of the short lecturing his visibly bored and frustrated friends about the many uses and benefits of springs. Sure, the viewer – while also becoming bored and frustrated – does gain some valuable spring-related knowledge, but the moral of the story seems to be that if you become obsessed with springs, you’ll become a paranoid wreck and alienate all your friends!

Coily, the spring sprite

So, needless to say, it’s dumb. And cheesy. Low-rent. Uninteresting. Really fucking dull. Perfect fodder for MSTing (oh yeah, it’s a verb): the awkward pauses between lines can fit hilarious commentary about the moronic premise, poor acting, inane dialogue, ridiculous set design, and everything else under the sun. Including, of course, allusions to everything from Gilbert Gottfried to Eleanor Roosevelt, It’s a Wonderful Life to Tamagotchis, and Looney Tunes to munchkin Billy Barty – this diverse allusiveness is another sign of MST3K’s cultural omnivorousness, its integration into the whole of late-20th century popular culture. It’s not expected that any one person will understand every single reference, but they do speak a common cultural language – hoping we’ll get the joke about Billy Barty’s height, or Gilbert Gottfried’s strident voice, or the iconic twang at the beginning of the Looney Tunes theme song. It presumes, perhaps, that we’ve watched some movies & TV. That we’ve participated in the flow of recent pop culture, the same touchstones, with a glint of recognition when we hear “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old couch,” presumably fueled by recollections of yuletide television consumption.

The long, open comedy format of MST3K is especially appropriate for this hodgepodge of allusion, grabbing at high and low culture, since as Trace Beaulieu explains:

There was a lot of room in that show. It was 90 minutes long, two hours with commercials. I remember sometimes thinking, “Man, that just doesn’t do it for me at all.” But it didn’t matter… there was space. And I think the thing that was great was that if it did work for somebody and didn’t work for me, there’d be that rare moment where somebody out there would hear a joke and say “I get this, I don’t think more than eight people would get this.” And that was a very personal moment.

Maybe it’s especially fitting that so many people have interacted with MST3K itself in so many ways, when it’s a highly interactive reappropriation of past “junk” culture, deriving endless entertainment from what would otherwise be considered virtually null in terms of entertainment value. One way of viewing the show is as standing in this very disillusioned viewpoint I’ve described, so overdosed on culture, with an assembly line churning out another blockbuster every other Friday – slick, glossy, well-made products with about as much meaning as “art” as Plan 9 (if not less; it’s a question worth asking, since at least Ed Wood had some kind of artistic vision and desire).

And we stand here after so many cultural upheavals, from one movement or rebellion to another, repeatedly recycling and processing and then commodifying the artistic credibility of yesterday, and now we interrogate the junk of the past. A Case of Spring Fever could be the stream of electromagnetic radiation flooding the cosmos, reruns of bad sitcoms stretching into the outer reaches of the galaxy, or another kind of space junk, perhaps a derelict satellite, some forgotten Soviet space probe, bumping up against the S.O.L. in the midst of its orbit. In 1961, Newton Minow referred to television as a “vast wasteland.” And now here we are, practically standing amidst a giant cultural dumping ground, trying to track down genuine artistry anywhere in the huge heaps of refuse; go to Best Buy or turn on cable or browse through the IMDb, and what do you have? One TV show or movie or whatever after another, all begging for your attention – and you can choose what you want to read about or watch, you can make your cultural decisions clear via your spending money, you can align yourself with this cult or that. It’s a disorienting state of affairs.

So with MST3K we, the jaded & wiser members of the Most Recent Generation, can begin the cultural excavation – watching and laughing at the follies of the “unemotional” past, to invoke the narrator’s hilarious mantra in A Date with Your Family. So often Ashley and I will manage to get out a sentence or two amidst our laughter: “How could they have made this? What were they thinking?” (I forget why I mentioned that. It ties in somewhere.) And so often I find myself repeating “Noooo springs! No springs, my friend!”

I don’t know if I’m quite doing justice to how & why MST3K works as well as it does, and what it really does, but it’s so interesting to explore: it’s as if it’s in the show’s in the business of cultural (a word I use very, very often) reconstitution, perhaps? We denizens of a splintered yet globalized world, closer but further apart than ever before, trying to get back into some kind of common understanding – like Mike, tethered to the planet but still far away, desperately wishing to get back into the loop of earthly affairs, trying to “keep his sanity” by criticizing the movies, processing them through the machine of highly allusive, acerbic comedy, and rendering them entertaining through the resulting synthesis of old junk and new commentary.

So this is part of what MST3K does: it gives us another way to view – and repurpose, and recontextualize – movies, interacting with them, talking back to them, inserting hilarious dialogue we wish was there in the first place. Telling the movie what it’s really saying. It establishes a kind of tether between this localized past of pro-spring or anti-emotion ephemera, of wholesome families with Brother and Junior, and with the otherwise historically and culturally adrift present, connecting the two via the line of sight between spectator – even if it’s the silhouette of a robot with a bubble gum machine for a head (building the erudite viewer Tom Servo out of yet more ephemeral junk) – and the junk piece of cinema. Even if we are so much more cynical and self-aware, at least we’re able to somehow relate to this past we’re watching.

So this is kind of my attempt to scratch the surface as to what makes MST3K so good, unique, and compelling, and why I love watching it and have for most of my life. It popped up at just the right time in recent memory; Ashley points out that people have always done that with movies, but MST3K made a show out of it – it codified this universal idea of making fun of what you’re watching, as I’m sure the groundlings did in Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, into “riffing” or “MSTing” for the 21st century. Watching MST3K, I’ll be struck for a moment by how odd it is: I’m watching a movie, but also listening for – and laughing at – the superimposed reactions of three other viewers, the new, absurd dialogue they inject into the preexisting scene; the narration and impressions they toss out; the side jokes and jibes they come up with.

For a moment, contrasted with my usual solemnly contemplative movie-watching style, it’ll strike me as odd – but after all, it’s not so different. For me, the viewing experience is all about participation. If you’re passively letting some pictures and sound wash over you, well, what’s the point to that? After all, no one goes to an art gallery and just allows the paintings to wash over them; it’s obvious you’d get about as much from that experience as if you set a book in your lap, flipped it open, and said to it, “Be read.” That, I think, could be why TV and film have, for so long, gotten such a bad artistic rap. Of course, this is a really big kettle of fish (mmm…) to open as I’m quickly approaching the end of the blog, but it’s worth exploring in the future. Why, after all, should film be any different, why should you just lie back and feel the light and noise bouncing off you? And so, I think maybe MST3K encourages that kind of active viewing: it takes intense participation and investment in the movie to analyze intelligently and draw conclusions, but it takes similar effort to come up with riffs that witty.

I could write a lot more – hell, there may be a book somewhere in this – including my (and Ashley’s) love of the show’s handmade, unrefined aesthetic, as well as the defiant self-awareness of the theme song (“Just repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show / I should really just relax'”), but I’ll keep it (relatively) short. It’s a fantastic show; probably one of the best. And so, if you’re still relatively unfamiliar with it, you can take some of these ideas in mind, go forth, and watch! Browse the list of episodes and keep in mind that most are available on YouTube, including classics like Space Mutiny, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The Internet seems a very fitting medium for continued viewing of a show that so effectively embodies its damn-intellectual-property, DIY attitude – especially a show whose copyright wrangles cause no end of DVD release issues. A show that introduced the name Torgo to a whole generation of film-lovers.

Robot roll call!


Filed under Cinema, Media