Grotesques on the Cathedral: Satire, MST3K, and the Simpsons



Godzilla flying kicks another monster.  Really.

Godzilla flying kicks another monster. Really.

Most of Europe’s cathedrals both gargoyles and grotesques adorning their exterior.  (Gargoyles are decorative rain spouts–hence the “gargle” in “gargoyle”–whereas grotesques are statues without practical function.)  Many of them are hideous or scary creatures–the National Cathedral in Washington even features a grotesque of Darth Vader.  


Did you ever ask yourself why?  Why do these buildings, structures designed to point your eyes heavenward and turn your heart to God, place ugly, creepy, or comical figures all around the outside?  What could possibly be the point?  

I heard a lecture at Cornerstone Music Festival about ten years ago, a lecture that borrowed some from a Chesterton essay called “On Gargoyles”, that suggested that one of the main reasons for the grotesque was contrast.

That is, sometimes we might forget the beauty, holiness, and power that we find in such a building, and by implication in God, and when we do forget, it might help us to remind ourselves of all that is ugly and false (tricksy!) in the world, and to see how ugly and false it really is, thus making that much more powerful the beauty and truth found in God.

We sometimes take God for granted, because we forget how horrible everything else can be.  And it pays to have someone remind us, “No!  There’s nothing good here!  Paying attention to this is only foolishness!”

I truly believe that satire is one of the great underutilized tools of the church.  I think God likes satire when it is appropriately used.  

Now, just to clarify, I’m not talking about base parody–something that directly imitates a specific person or work of art or media in order to mock it.  Parody is low, and parody is too easy.  And we have too much of it–Scary Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie, etc.

(On a tangent, it was recently announced that–this is true–they are making a parody of parody movies.  It will be called Not Another Not Another Movie, and I can’t for the life of me imagine what it could possibly be.  Perhaps Hollywood will collapse in on itself when this opens.)

I’m talking about satire–where a particular belief or value is held up to the light, exaggerated, twisted, with an overall message of, “You thought this was something good, right, important, or worth your time, but look at how wrong it is.”  We in America take far many things too seriously, things that aren’t serious at all, and we don’t take seriously enough the things that are matters of life and death.  We are a backwards country in many ways, and satire, properly wielded, turns us back around.

Improperly wielded, satire can make a mockery of things that should be taken seriously, and it has often been abused to that end.  Things that are holy, pure, and true should not be mocked.  That’s not to say that the church shouldn’t laugh at itself–there is much to laugh at–but, the things that matter should never be mocked.

But I believe that there is a way for the church to use satire evangelically–to use it in such a way that it wakes people up to the emptiness of false values.  We don’t want to mock people–we want to wake people up by mocking the lies they’ve lived by.  We want to throw a cup of cold water in their face, not drown them in it.

I first started to appreciate satire in the mid 1990s when I caught my first episodes of The Simpsons, several years late.  I noticed that God was using it to speak truth to me.  This took me off guard.

I hadn’t seen the Simpsons before that.  Central Vermont had no Fox affiliate, and you had to have a satellite dish to pick up the network.  For some reason, it was never very popular during my time at Baylor, and so it was only afterwards, when I was first teaching, that it came to my attention.

The first time it happened was Episode 5.7, “Bart’s Inner Child.”  A self-help guru comes to Springfield and, during his lecture, holds up Bart as the most healthy and balanced individual in town, mostly because Bart doesn’t repress urges but “does what he feels.” Inspired, the town decides to cancel their annual “Do As We Say” day and instead hold “Do As You Feel” day.  But instead of being a joyous occasion, the day breaks down into utter chaos as everyone’s feelings clash against each other.

That happened to be a lesson God was trying to teach me at the time–just because I feel something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing.  Sometimes your emotions lead you astray.  After seeing the episode, I thought, “Huh.  That’s actually Truth.  Following your emotions is a value in this culture, but it’s not always wise.”

The second occurrence was more profound.  In an episode entitled, “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish,” Homer consumes some Japanese blowfish, and is later given reason to believe that it is poisonous and that he has only 24 hours to live.

Homer decides to use his last day of life to do things that matter: reconcile with his father, teach his son to shave, leave last words for his youngest daughter, spend quality time with Marge.  And his final act, after all of that, is to sit and listen to the Bible on tape (as read by Larry King.)  At the end of the episode, he is seen with his headphones on, soaking in the Old Testament.  When Larry King gets to the end,”And God will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers…”, Homer collapses.  This very scripture has been fulfilled in his last 24 hours.

The next morning Marge comes out to his body, only to find that she can wake him and that the fugu wasn’t bad after all.  Homer awakes, rejoicing, and pledges that he will live, from that day on, as if every day is his last, embracing his family and living life to the fullest. 

The closing shot is of Homer, a few days later, sitting in his underwear watching bowling and eating pork rinds.

I saw that, and laughed.  And then as clear as just about anything, I felt the Holy Spirit speaking to me: “No.  Don’t laugh.  That’s you.  How many times have you had a mountain top experience, made big promises, and then gone back to your old ways a day later?”  

I literally ended up on my face.

Now, to clarify, I don’t fully endorse everything Simpsons.  The writing staff has a handful of believers on it, and their work does come through.  But I feel that over the past several seasons there has been some serious decline.  First, it’s just not as funny as it used to be (although a recent episode parodying Sundance was absolutely brilliant). Secondly, the early days of The Simpsons held a very solid moral core, a center of belief in family and even in God, though it loved to gently tease the flaws of the church.  But lately, it feels like the show has become much more postmodern, where literally nothing is sacred, nothing holds any value, and everything becomes mocked and meaningless.  I just can’t in good conscience support that.

But, oh, forget it–the only reason I started this post to begin with is so that I could talk about Mystery Science Theater 3000.  This has all been my excuse.

It’s the 20th anniversary of MST3K, and if you’re not familiar with the show, the main thing you need to know is that it’s basically some guys sitting around watching really bad movies and making fun of them.  The premise that holds that concept together is that some mad scientists have trapped a guy in space and are forcing him to watch really horrible movies to observe the effects of that on his brain, and to cope he builds some robots, and two of them sit in the theater with him to laugh at the movies.

I doubt there is an individual alive who understands every joke in an episode of MST3K. A very broad knowledge of culture, especially but not limited to popular culture, is necessary to follow the quipping.  A given episode might reference Bergman films, British sitcoms, obscure stand-up comics from the midwest, Charles Dickens, cheesy kids shows from the 50s, and the Pina Colada song.  That’s not to say that this is high culture comedy–the jokes come fast and usually rely on mocking the bad visuals, direction, or acting in the film being watched.  

The show went through several incarnations in its 10 years on the air.  It was started at a small public access station in the Minneapolis area by a comedian named Joel Hodgson, who played the guy trapped up on the ship for the first half of the show’s run. It ran for one season on public access, as Joel and his crew operated on what looks like about a $5 budget, running through bad B-movies the station had in its vault–non-classics like Japanese Planet of the Apes rip-offs and…Japanese monster movies starring Gamera, who for all intents and purposes is a giant flying spiked turtle.  

After a year, it moved to Comedy Central, the budget increased, and one of the two mad scientists was replaced, creating a classic duo in Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank.  That lasted about four years, and then Joel basically got tired of doing the show and was replaced by Mike Nelson, who had been head writer for awhile and had played different characters on the show’s skits.  

Later, Comedy Central cancelled the show and it moved to the Sci-Fi Network.  TV’s Frank left, then Dr. Forrester left and was replaced by his mad scientist mother and her companions, which is where the premise stood when the show finally ended.

(It is, by the way, considered inappropriate to bring up the “Who is better–Mike or Joel?” debate with other MSTies, as the fans are called.  That debate got a little intense during Mike’s first year, and it has since become uncouth to try and argue it.  Both have their strengths, but personally I far prefer Mike to Joel.  It’s a style question, and I’m probably in the minority.  Joel’s just a little too droopy for me.)

Most of the movies watched are of the bad sci-fi or horror variety; the show refused to attack sacred cows, instead going for films that were obviously shoddy.  They did occasionally try new things–once they did a German version of Hamlet, and there are the forays into bad teen comedy/dramas, adventure films, psychological dramas, etc.  There is also the odd film that defies classification–I’m still not sure what The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman is supposed to be.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed–the bad  movies of the 50s and 60s seem a lot more earnest–like the filmmakers really believed they were making something good, not realizing how cheesy a production they’d come up with.  Films from the 80s and 90s seem pretty aware how bad they are, and revel in it.  I’m not really sure what that says.

If a movie ran too short, they opened the show by showing part of a serial adventure or a short documentary, usually from the 50s.  These are the kinds of shorts they might show on a projector in elementary school, or as a training video at work, or before a feature in the movie theaters back then.  In my opinion, the shorts are some of MST3K’s funniest work.

It’s the 20th anniversary of MST3K, and I thought I’d just list some of my favorite things they’ve ever done:

1.) The 20th anniversary set features four fan-favorite movies.  Two of them are must-sees: A. Werewolf, a film from 1996 that features a bunch of apparently ESL actors, a villain whose hairstyle changes in every scene, and Joe Estevez, Martin Sheen’s lookalike B-movie star brother.  A favorite line: at one point, two of the characters are at a party and start to argue to the point of fighting, but the shot being used is from very far away, and the actors have their backs to the camera as the argument escalates, therefore rendering the dialogue becomes muffled and incomprehensible.  Mike says, “Um, movie…is there something you’d like to share with the rest of us?”

B. Laserblast: This is a hilarious episode because the movie is so painfully inept, and so it’s pretty shocking to discover that Leonard Maltin rated it 2 1/2 stars in his book.  Mike and the ‘bots spend a lot of time over the closing credits marveling at other, really good movies that get equal ratings in Maltin’s book.  

2) Monster-a-Go-Go: Yeah.  This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.  (The staff and stars of MST3K usually cite the horrid and dark Manos, The Hands of Fate as both the worst movie they watched and their best work, but Monster-a-Go-Go usually gets a mention, too.  I’m not that partial to Manos.) I’ve heard different stories behind its creation, but the best sources say that one director started it in 1961, ran out of money, and sold the footage to someone else, who hired a new cast and crew in 1965 and finished it out.  Therefore, halfway through the movie, all the characters leave and are replaced by new ones.  

The original explanation I heard was that three movies–a monster movie, a scientific documentary, and a teen beach movie–were all abandoned, and the studio took the footage and spliced it together into one new movie.  While this probably isn’t true, it certainly feels true.  No ending was ever filmed, and so the narrator explains what happens (the monster disappears for no reason, and the missing astronaut mysteriously appears thousands of miles away.  The End.)  

3) Creeping Terror–A monster movie about a giant walking alien carpet that “eats” people.  This holds a place in my heart for Mike’s scene with his sound system and the line scene where we watch a housewife, just introduced, take her baby’s temperature, inspiring one of the robots to say, “The first director to realize the dramatic potential of a rectal thermometer.”

4.) Space Mutiny–An 80s film that tries to combine Star Wars with…everything bad about 80s movies.  At one point, the villain murders one of the crew, and the next scene has that crew member back at her post as an extra in the background.  The villain is unfortunately named Kalgan, and numerous “Take me away!” jokes abound.

5.) My favorite shorts–There are so many great ones, two that get definite mentions here.  The first is “Are You Ready for Marriage?” where two high school sweethearts plan to get married only to realize they may be a bit young and naive.  The second is the very famous “Mr. B. Natural” about…well….this sort of Peter Pan-ish androgynous spirit of music that tries to talk this kid into joining band.  How they ever thought this would do anything but terrify kids is beyond me.  It is the only time I can recollect Joel and the ‘bots ever apologizing for what they were watching.  Watch part of it below. 

There is not really any value that I get out of MST3K.  All that I said about satire I really mean, but…I just wanted to talk about MST3K on its 20th anniversary.  Thanks for making me laugh.

By the way, if you like Mike Nelson, he’s written several books, and one of them, Mind Over Matters, is very good and very funny.  Both he and Joel have gone on to create new ways of mocking movies–both have online projects dedicated to this and have even moved on to blockbusters and films you’ve actually heard of.  In addition, Kevin Murphy, who voiced the robot Tom Servo, wrote a very insightful book called A Year At the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey which is about the entire moviegoing experience.  If you’re a film lover, and are frustrated by most theatrical experiences today, you will love this book.

And for those of you who like this blog, I’ve got entries coming up on The Office and on The Great Underground Christian Records of the 1990s.

I leave you with Mr. B Natural.  Enjoy:


2 responses to “Grotesques on the Cathedral: Satire, MST3K, and the Simpsons

  1. Great post! I really resonate with what you had to say. Plus, I’m a big fan of the Simpsons and MST3K for all of the reasons you gave above. We definitely have to get together sometime to watch some episodes–particularly of MST3K. I’ve collected a bunch of episodes, but I’ve only seen a few of the faves you listed in your post. I’ll have to check them out sometime.
    One more thing on satire: I don’t know if you ever listened to him or not, but Steve Taylor is a musician that I really enjoyed years ago (and still do) because of his believing and satirical take on the church and politics. In some ways, Derek Webb takes up that mantle these days, but with less outright humor. If you haven’t listened to them much, I’d suggest it (some of Derek Webb’s stuff is–or was–available for free on Anyway, thanks for an enjoyable read!

  2. Good stuff, John. I came over via Crosslin’s blog.

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