I expect many of you are familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000 (otherwise known as MST3K). If not, let me give a brief explanation: MST3K was a comedy TV show that ran through much of the 90s. It showed bad sci-fi/horror/exploitation films, while robots and a human host ridiculed the films from a shadow theater.
MST3K is one of my favorite shows of all time. Some of the movies are so unbelievably bad that watching them would be insufferable were it not for the constant laughs supplied by the MST writers. It recently occurred to me that I might have actually learned a creative lesson or two from the show. Some of these lessons were learned from the sharp humor of the show’s writers, other lessons were learned from watching such bad films and realizing what mistakes should not be repeated.
So here we go.
1— Don’t make your heroes infinitely superior to the villains, or “Your weapons are useless against me!” – I’m not a fan of Superman. THERE I SAID IT! He has a fix-it superpower for almost every imaginable situation. But he’s not the worst abuser of the overpowered hero problem. No, the worst might be PRINCE OF SPACE, an awful Japanese sci-fi superhero, and the star of one of my favorite MST3K episodes. Basically, nothing kills this Prince guy. In the film, some weird chicken people from outer space come to enslave humanity… but they weren’t counting on Prince of Space! They shoot him with lasers and rockets and stuff and he just stands there like a bastard, absorbing everything they throw at him before shouting, “Your weapons are useless against me!” This happens on repeat for basically the entire film and the chicken aliens NEVER LEARN. The point is this: have some back and forth. I mean, I’m sure most of us want the heroes to win in the end, but we want to see them flirt with failure, too. Make your villains mighty in some way. Let them crush enough of the hero’s world so that the hero is forced to rebuild. And if you really want to go with an unbalanced power struggle, it’s typically better to go with villains who are stronger than the heroes every time.
2— Don’t try to say something when there’s really nothing worth saying, or “Focusing my attention on the good and the beautiful.” – Dig this exchange from the film The Phantom Planet. First, some setting: two astronauts are flying through space and there’s a lull in the action, giving one of the dudes a chance to get deep. He says, “You know, Captain, every year of my life I grow more and more convinced that the wisest and the best is to focus our attention on the good and the beautiful, if we just take the time to look at it.” To which the Captain replies, “You’re some guy.” Seriously. Momma always said if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. My version: If your characters don’t have anything worth saying, glue their lips shut. It’d be different if this wonderful nugget of dialogue meant something to the story. It doesn’t. There are many examples of this kind of an attempt at getting deep and profound, even in good books and film. It’s excusable but only as long as the dialogue is rich or actually meaningful in some way. But if it just sits there, doing nothing other than making you go HUH? then you gotta cut it out like a cancer and toss it in the biohazard bin.
3— Not every genius must be an eccentric, or “You’re weird, which results in creativity.” – In the bad movies shown on MST3K, artists and geniuses are often times presented as goofy eccentrics. Seriously, you don’t need to be a weirdo to be creative. They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. There’s nothing wrong with weird—I like weird. But it’s not a character requirement for crafting an intelligent inventor, writer, painter, scientist, whatever. Some creative people are actually kind of boring. IT’S TRUE!
4—Don’t make your characters pat you on the back, or “I sing whenever I sing whenever I sing!”—I don’t like it when characters in a book/film remark how eloquent, cool, original, or charming another character is… especially when I, as a member of the audience, fail to see what’s so cool about the dude they’re in love with. It just bothers me. It’s the writer patting him/herself on the back with what they feel is a great character and wonderful dialogue. If you’re writing a comedy, don’t have your characters laughing at the one-liners. If you’re writing an inspirational speech, don’t have a member of the audience remark, “How inspirational!” It’s too obvious. It’s insincere. It’s obnoxious. There’s this do-gooder kid in MST3K’s The Giant Gila Monster who writes and sings his own songs. The kid is devoid of originality but everyone seems to love his music anyway. A radio guy wants to make him into a star with his likely-soon-to-be hit song, which features the chorus, “I sing whenever I sing whenever I sing.” Oy… But even films that have not received the MST3K treatment are guilty of similar sins. Oliver Stone recently made the poor choice to direct a sequel to Wall Street. The sequel is not very good but it’s not an awful film. There is, however, an awful sequence where Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko is giving a lecture to students. The lecture is full of one-liners in a desperate attempt to strike gold again and find the next “Greed is good.” No gold is ever found, but in the audience Shia LaBeouf is eating it up. Shia’s in awe and thinks Gekko is awesome. Except, what Gekko’s saying isn’t awesome. I mean, it sure isn’t “greed is good” awesome. As a result, the scene sinks, the Shia character seems like a fanboy for all the wrong reasons, and instead of being happy to have Gekko back we’re mostly just thinking how much happier we’d all be watching the original Wall Street instead. Also, Shia LaBeouf sucks. But anyway, onto #5!
5— If you offer a warning, follow up on it, or “Watch out for snakes!”—Ever heard the written rule… or maybe it’s unwritten. I mean, I never read it, so I don’t know… anyway, ever heard the rule that says if you reveal a gun hidden in a drawer at the beginning, then you gotta have a character use it before the end? While I would normally agree that rules are made to be broken, my time watching MST3K movies has led me to believe this is one you should pay attention to. There are many bad movies that offer up a warning to the characters, but then zero conflict results from this. The ‘gun in the drawer’ rule is a promise to the audience about conflict still to come. Not following up on it is a broken promise and those are BAD. There is this one movie, I believe it was Monster-A-Go-Go, a horror story about a town gripped by fear when a mysterious monster stalks the night… The film ends with one of the characters simply saying, “There was no monster.” Um, okay? Why the hell was I watching your monster movie then?
6—The sequence that goes on forever, or “Saaaaaandstoooooorm!” – Ever gotten to a part in a book or film that just refuses to end? There’s probably a good chance that sequence is there simply to pad the story and give it some length at the sacrifice of your enjoyment. Rock climbs and sandstorms are the mortal enemies of the crew of the Satellite of Love. Not sure why it is, but many MST3K films turn to sandstorms to pad out their running time. Weird. I think the filmmaker’s intentions were to show us the character’s enduring suffering on some level, but all we get are some guys walking through drab shots of shit flying past the camera. NOT FUN. To the filmmakers of Hercules Against the Moon Men: you’re not David Lean and this ain’t Lawrence of Arabia… I’ll always believe it’s better to write a story that’s too short than to write one that’s too long.
7—Poorly written comic relief characters, or “Oh, for fun!” –While I prefer humor to be sprinkled about in the dialogue by all characters, there are plenty of successful works where most the humor comes from a single comic relief character. Which is fine. But! When you have a script full of humor that’s spread amongst the cast of characters, it’s easier to let the lame ducks slide. However! When you have a script with a single comic relief character, it’s much harder to ignore when his/her jokes fall flat. Your readers may begin dreading the appearance of the jokester and soon enough even the okay jokes feel like a cold shower. Actors say dying is easy and comedy is hard. Let me expand on that: comedy is hard, playing the comic relief is a bitch. The humor better hit the mark, the character better be well-written, and if it’s a film/TV show then the actor better be up to task. Otherwise you get a character like Dropo from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians… acting like an idiot every scene… and the only people laughing are the ones with written orders to do so. (One extra thought on this: drunk humor was apparently funny once upon a time. I guess. I mean, I imagine some people found the drunken comic relief guy from The Giant Gila Monster funny back in the day. Maybe not. Either way, he’s not funny now.)
8— The inequality of gender on film, or “Bad touch!”—There’s this trend in fifties/sixties B-movies where the female characters are presented as being, well, really stupid. Even the smart ones! A woman could be a scientist, a journalist, a doctor, a princess, whatever, but by the third act she basically stops coming up with ideas and steps aside for the male hero (who the woman inevitably falls in love with, even if he’s an asshole—ESPECIALLY if he’s an asshole). Your female character should have more to offer the story other than just being available for the hero’s celebratory sex when he saves the day. I mean, come on. I single out the fifties and sixties, but the simple truth is that little has really changed. Women get more respect now, but feminism is still treated like a dirty word. A step towards correcting that is writing stronger female roles in fiction. Women don’t need a man to save them all the time—they can save themselves and sometimes they can save the guys. Women don’t need to have marriage be their ultimate goal in life—sometimes they’re happy the way they are. And so on. In recent years, Marvel and The Hunger Games are doing a lot of good in changing people’s minds as far as what a girl can do in fiction and fantasy (this is especially important for young boys, I think). But the problem’s not solved, so don’t slack on this issue. Treat all women with respect, even the ones that you created in your head.
9— When you submit your work to the world, be ready for the criticism, or “…the hell?”—While I would never condone bashing fanfiction or the work of budding artists, the people who made the films which appeared on MST3K were professionals—or at least they liked to think so. As a professional artist, you’re hoping people are going to love your work. However, you must remain aware that the door is open for people to hate your work and make fun of you, too. Right or wrong doesn’t matter. As a professional your work is now going to be part of a great, big ocean—and the ocean is full of sharks with blogs, Amazon reviews, and twitter accounts. There’s a story about an MST3K episode for the movie Time Chasers, which was an ultra-low budget sci-fi film about time travel. The story goes that the filmmakers were huge fans of MST3K and were delighted to have their film featured on the show… but apparently they weren’t ready for the wisecracks that Mike and the bots made while watching their film. Supposedly their thinking was that the movie was going to impress in some way, and that MST3K might stop their jokes and go, “Hey, this is pretty good!” Time Chasers is not one of the worst films to ever appear on the show (far from it), but it’s not good either. And one must remember the point of the show is to have fun with the film they’re watching. I feel kind of bad for the Time Chasers crew, but really, what were they expecting?
10— Write your story your way, or “The right people will get it.” – One of the central ideas of MST3K’s humor is that not everyone will get every joke. The right people will understand certain jokes that fly right over other viewer’s heads. And that’s okay. The show doesn’t dumb itself down to be understood by the whole crowd. Whether you’re writing comedy, drama, or genre fiction, know that the right people will get what you’re trying to do. You can’t satisfy everyone, so don’t even try. Play the fool, make your heroes ugly, get all twisted, give us a dash of your weird sense of humor. You’re gonna confuse some people but the rest of us will love ya for it.
Thanks for reading.
Push the button, Frank.