Our Imposter Syndrome cancels out our Dunning-Kruger

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. T. Hartwell
    December 27, 2013 @ 1:15 am

    "He wasn’t having any of this “warped by the narrative” bullcrap, he was going to build his own stories, and the show surprisingly acquiesced."

    This highlights pretty well why I never gravitated to the Mike episodes when I saw the show- there just seemed to be a mean streak to his riffing that I never got from Joel, and when 'riffing' then broke out into a wider part of the culture it bred this sort of attitude that it's better to ironically hurl insults at films and mock them for being 'bad' rather than attempt to actually engage with them as films.

    I mean, there's just a certain meanness involved when it comes to riffing and the styles of 'reviews' popularized by people like AVGN or the Nostalgia Critic (both of whom are definitely products of the culture partly launched by MST3K, if not directly influenced by it), and it depresses me to no end to see. Especially as it tends to also foster a rather stringent idea of "normalcy" in films (and art in general) where things not conforming to a specific standard get mocked at and bullied.

    I dunno- my feelings on the show are rather complex. Suffice it to say I generally enjoy the show itself, but loath the culture it produced.


  2. Seth Aaron Hershman
    December 27, 2013 @ 1:58 am

    I'd agree with that. I think that Mike had a bit of a mean streak that was tempered by having aficionados like Joel, Trace and Frank around, and the way the team divided after the show ending is frankly unsurprising. But I don't think there's no merit to what Mike does. I don't think his brand of riffing any more "fosters normalcy" than criticism in general. There are always going to be things you like and things you don't and reasons for each.

    For what it's worth, Mike's much better when it comes to big-budget blockbusters, and if you want the concept of normalcy taken down a peg there's really no better target.

    (At the end of the day, I'm more a Joel fan, but that's besides the point.)


  3. T. Hartwell
    December 27, 2013 @ 2:39 am

    Oh, indeed, I wasn't trying to argue that he had no merit whatsoever- he of course did, and the fact he was scripting during Joel's tenure should say something. It's just that his brand of doing things tends to leave a rather sour taste in my mouth.


  4. Sean Daugherty
    December 27, 2013 @ 4:13 am

    I think the only real difference there is one of general personality, though. Joel could be just as mean and dismissive as Mike, but his style was generally more mellow. Both were, judging by interviews with the two of them, deliberate choices: Joel was the kindly father figure, where as Mike was more of an average schlub. Whether or not either counts as a more genuine attempt to engage with a film is a matter of opinion, but I'm not convinced. If Mike could be sarcastic or abrasive on occasion, Joel was far more likely to be condescending.

    The difference between both Joel and Mike and their legions of imitators and successors (including folks like the AVGN or the Nostalgia Critic), is that neither of the former ever lost sight of the fact that what they were doing was exaggerated to comic effect. A huge part of the comedy in MST3K stemmed from the extremity of Joel/Mike's reactions to the films they watched. Those movies may have been bad, yes, but a bad movie is just a bad movie. The worst thing it can do is waste two hours of your life.

    But the entire premise of MST3K blows that up to ridiculous proportions: the Mads' ultimate scheme is to take over the world using the power of terrible cinema. Joel/Mike and the bots overreact to most things they see: I'm no more of a fan of "Manos: The Hands of Fate" than most people, but it doesn't trigger an existential crisis for me. The show is very carefully and deliberately over-the-top, and the result is that the people making the criticisms are every bit as ridiculous as the movies being criticized. Which saves the show from ever permanently descending into mean-spiritedness, IMO.

    That's less true of internet review culture, which was hugely influenced by MST3K. It's not that the AVGN and his like aren't willing to take themselves down a peg (the AVGN himself does this quite frequently, actually). But it's not so integral a part of their identity as it was with MST3K. When someone like the Nostalgia Critic lambasts a movie, it's far easier to forget that he's taking on a deliberately exaggerated persona, and that there's a degree of caricature and hyperbole even to their otherwise legitimate critiques. Put another way, MST3K (and RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic, for that matter) never did film criticism or even reviews, and they never described themselves in that way: they never let themselves get that serious about their craft. Too many of their imitators are self-styled as critics, and their comedy is far more likely to come across as mean-spirited and bullying as a result.


  5. PsiTrey
    December 27, 2013 @ 7:04 am

    I'm wondering if the author has been to any of the American conventions where they do "Mysterious Theater" which is basically doing MST3K "live" with a Doctor Who story. It's become quite an event at Chicago TARDIS and GallifreyOne with one of the writers/participant often being Scott Alan Woodward who has written Doctor Who stories for Big Finish.

    For me, my issue with MST3K was how it influenced fan culture, more particularly, a certain type of fan behavior. There's a belief out there that one way to demonstrate one's intelligence is to mock things; after all, it's how Tom Baker's Doctor often functions, and MST3K encourages that audience commentary.

    An unfortunate result is that post-MST3K, there are those fans at almost any fan showing of an episode or movie who seem to believe they are their own version of Joel or MIchael and can't sit through any showing without offering their own "clever" commentary. I'm fine with things like Chicago TARDIS's "Mysterious Theater 337" because you know that it's something deliberate. What I object to is when you have a viewing party for, say, the season premiere of Doctor Who, and while most people are quiet and caught up in the story, there often exists a few who prefer to riff on it. I've seen this in video rooms at various conventions.

    All storytelling is an illusion to a certain extent, and particularly with Doctor Who. The MST3K style riffing is like pulling off the beard from a mall Santa in front of children or pointing out loudly that the cast of CATS really don't look like felines. It might all be accurate and correct, but it ruins the moment for others. I think MST3K on its own is enjoyable, but I do think it encouraged certain behaviors in geekdom which I don't particularly care for.


  6. Seeing_I
    December 27, 2013 @ 7:23 am

    Was I the only one who saw MST3K and thought "Oh, it's Rocky Horror – The TV Series"?


  7. Spoilers Below
    December 27, 2013 @ 7:35 am

    If you're wondering how he eats and breathes
    And other science facts,
    Just repeat to yourself "It's just a show,
    I should really just relax."

    More important words have never been written. Not that it stops us, mind you, but we have to acknowledge that we're picking nits over things that movie/show/book couldn't care less about, rather than being clever and oh so much more intelligent than the average bear…


  8. Eric
    December 27, 2013 @ 7:36 am

    Interesting that this write-up comes at the end of a year where Mike's group did both of the Peter Cushing Doctor Who movies. Lots of jokes about canon in those…


  9. Alan
    December 27, 2013 @ 8:04 am

    An interesting idea. I suppose RHPC started off like that, but it quickly became ritualized to the point that instead of riffing, everyone shouts out the exact same joke in unison. I remember being a college freshman in 1987 trying desperately to memorize the audience jokes in RHPC so I could participate.


  10. Alan
    December 27, 2013 @ 8:09 am

    I'm old enough to remember rec.arts.tv.mstk3 (I think that's right) and I remember being astonished and delighted at the meta-meta-textual level of it all. People writing (bad) fanfics about their favorite shows and movies, and MST3K fans elevating them to genius by inserting their own fanfics of Mike/Joel and the Bots riffing on said bad fanfics. I still have the MST3K fanfic of "Treklander 3" somewhere on an old external hard drive.


  11. John Seavey
    December 27, 2013 @ 8:32 am

    Incidentally, Rifftrax seems to be moving slowly away from MP3s of big-budget blockbusters and more towards VOD versions of their old low-budget schlock targets. I think there's just something immensely fertile about those old horror/sci-fi films, because they were so individualistic; indie film-makers (and the people who did movies like 'The Bermuda Triangle' and 'Fangs of the Living Dead' were certainly not in the studio system) tended to make films that had a lot of personality, as opposed to modern blockbusters that tend towards a certain sameness. I think that when they riffed big-budget movies, they wound up feeling like they were doing the same film over and over and over again.


  12. encyclops
    December 27, 2013 @ 8:42 am

    MST3K was absolutely formative in developing my own sense of comedy and still heavily influences how I perform today — it's probably on par with Python in that, and in throwing the absurdities of life and its mirrors in entertainment into sharp relief. Yes, it can make it difficult to sit through a movie or even a speech without at least riffing in my head…but it also helped put me into a mindset where I never stop questioning what's being fed to me, and that seems overwhelmingly to be a positive result.

    I'm Team Joel as well, especially after the move to Sci-Fi, which is when I lost interest in the show. The more "Who-ish" host segments weren't that funny, and I lamented the greater emphasis on SF movies at the expense of the more extreme genre-hopping. But as a rule I've enjoyed Rifftrax as much as if not more than Cinematic Titanic, and their live shows and Fathom events are face-achingly funny.

    The Rifftrax versions of the Cushing movies were my first time seeing them. I don't think I was biased by the riffs in my opinion of the films; au contraire, the riffs made those two messes bearable.

    I loved this guest post, Seth — I never would have connected these two shows before, and now I'll never see them the same way.


  13. Seth Aaron Hershman
    December 27, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

    Thanks! The show was pretty formative for me as well, and I was introduced to it at about the same age my dad pointed me towards Python and a few months before I discovered Hitchhiker's. Who came a couple of years later.

    I wouldn't say I'm unfond of the Sci-Fi years, because the movie riffing stayed consistent so I could kinda ignore the increasingly wonky host segments, but you could definitely feel the cabin fever in the air. The show was pretty blatantly becoming unsustainable.

    And I'm glad you liked the post! The revelations that led to it were all rather last-second so I'm happy to hear my observations hold up, much less fundamentally alter your perception of the two shows.


  14. Seth Aaron Hershman
    December 27, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

    If that's a shift, it's one that's been happening since the franchise's inception. One of their earliest releases, if I recall correctly, was Plan 9, largely considered one of the great "missed opportunities" of the original series. It's a well RiffTrax revisits now and again but I don't think its one that's ever going to regain primacy.


  15. Seth Aaron Hershman
    December 27, 2013 @ 5:21 pm

    Well, I'm glad I didn't go with my original direction of analyzing fandom, then. No doubt you would've ripped my perceptions to shreds with relative ease.


  16. Seth Aaron Hershman
    December 27, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

    Pure coincidence. I mostly did it because of the recent back-to-back 50/25 anniversary, and of course because the opertunity arose. Haven't gotten a chance to listen to the Cushing RiffTrax yet, sadly.


  17. Seth Aaron Hershman
    December 27, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

    You have no idea how hard it was for me to not just straight-up quote the theme song at multiple points throughout the article. Those pictures were the only concession I made to my urge to go all-out with the in-jokes and references.

    That said, I do think that MST3K is in large part responsible for the larger cultural emphasis on nitpicking at the moment. It instilled in us the critical urge, but very cleverly deflected itself from such scrutiny.

    …well, it tried, anyway. It's funny reading recent interviews with Joel where fans have clearly read in interpretations and want to know minutia about the show's universe and all he can do is kinda shrug.


  18. Seth Aaron Hershman
    December 27, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

    I have a love-hate relationship with Rocky Horror. The hate, of course, largely comes from bitterness over attending three live performances in a row where I utterly failed to get a single Dr. Strangelove reference to catch on, which I've convinced myself is an inherent fault in the way the franchise handles riffing and is therefore a legitimate complaint.


  19. Sean Daugherty
    December 27, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  20. Sean Daugherty
    December 27, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

    If pushed, I'd identify myself as Team Mike. I liked Mike's everyman persona more than Joel's fatherly persona, for one thing, and I really liked the focus the more plot-driven host segments forced upon the Best Brains during season 8 over the often more meandering and stream-of-consciousness comedy seen during the early Comedy Central days. That being said, my opinions on the post-MST3K diaspora stuff is a bit more mixed. I think, joke by joke, Cinematic Titanic tends to be funnier, but they're significantly less prolific than RiffTrax, and I think RiffTrax generally has a better selection of films and shorts in their VOD offerings.


  21. Seth Aaron Hershman
    December 27, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

    Hm. I don't know if Mike's style of riffing is an active factor in his refusal to be warped by the narrative so much as it is a symptom of the personal quirks that allow that refusal to become possible. The narrative doesn't acquiesce because he's a jerk, but because that jerkiness translates to escape attempts and rows with the Mads.


  22. Sean Daugherty
    December 27, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

    I've heard Mike and company state that their VOD releases generally sell better than their downloadable commentary versions, which makes sense, given that the latter tend to be both more expensive (you need to get a copy of the movie and the RiffTrax), and more difficult to set up (syncing up the commentary to the DVD). There's definitely been a shift, and it's one the RiffTrax team have acknowledged.

    Creatively, I think it works better: while I think it's fully possible to riff anything, being able to select the material means that the resulting material is typically stronger than being tied to the whims of Hollywood fads.


  23. encyclops
    December 27, 2013 @ 6:11 pm

    I do think a lot of things got sharper once Mike took over, and my preference for Joel's mellower persona is the very slightest of edges. I think Rifftrax has a tight little team, and I've always had a soft spot for Servo/Kevin Murphy, so that helps. I've only seen Cinematic Titanic once, though, and it was a double feature that ended up being way too long for one sitting, so that probably has biased me a bit.


  24. Alan
    December 27, 2013 @ 6:48 pm

    Oh I hope not.:) There really is a lot of good fanfiction out their if you look for it. But the vast majority of it is neither good nor bad, simply mediocre (as is, frankly, the case with all things). The fanfic that gave rise to good MiSTings was usually epically bad. Ed Wood bad, even. The sort of bad where you wonder, slack-jawed, how anyone could have written it and thought it good enough to show to another living soul. Frex, the Treklander thing I referenced didn't just roughly shoe-horn the Highlander TV series into Star Trek DS9, it also incorporated the Zeist plotline from Highlander 2 (the one fans like to pretend never happened). It also repeatedly misspelled Jadzia Dax's name for something like 20 pages.

    It wasn't all picking on bad writers, though. I also remember a delightful, if dark, MiSTing of the Paramount press release announcing the addition of Seven of Nine to the cast, a very ill-conceived press release that stopped just short of saying "Hey nerds! Watch our show! We just added a hot blond with big breasts who'll be wearing a catsuit the whole time."


  25. Alan
    December 27, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

    I prefer Mike to Joel in general, but Joel has most of my favorite moments (to this day, the Gamera Song makes me giggle uncontrollably). That said, the show seemed to become a bit more flaccid after the move to SciFi, and I think I read somewhere that SciFi actually told them to reduce the frequency of jokes because they thought the older shows were too fast paced for their audience (which is consistent with the contempt SyFy has for its audience today). As a bigger fan of the show, do you know anything about that?


  26. Alan
    December 27, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

    Actually, I think the most interesting thing about MST3K is how its philosophy now dominates Syfy, the network that cancelled it but which now produces deliberately awful movies and then markets them as events ("Sharknado" for example) with the expectation that audiences would tune in just to point and laugh at the awful acting and production values.


  27. Josh Marsfelder
    December 27, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

    I would actually disagree pretty strongly about The Angry Video Game Nerd. James Rolfe plays a character much, much closer to how you're all describing Joel.

    Then there is, of course, the fact few people realise he is in fact only playing a character…


  28. thepoparena.com
    December 28, 2013 @ 6:45 am

    Reading MiSTings was a fun time waster back in the days of rec.arts and Website Number Nine. My personal favorite was "The Misery Senshi Neo-Zero Double Blitzkrieg Debacle," a Sailor Moon/Daria crossover that featured mass death, local militias, long detailed descriptions of military airplane technology and, oh yeah, Beavis and Butthead raping Quinn.

    Everything wrong with fanfiction, basically.


  29. Alan
    December 28, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    I was a big fan of the "Marissa Series," a legendary series of fics dealing with a Mary Sue character named Marissa who, through some contrived sequence of events, took the Kobyashi Maru test at the age of 11 or so, made "a perfect score" on it (whatever that means for a test meant to be a no-win scenario), and was immediately commissioned as a command officer on the Enterprise ranked directly below Picard and Riker. At one point, while she was in command, the Enterprise time traveled back to 1996 so that Wesley Crusher could fall in love with Chelsea Clinton. None of this was intended to be funny.


  30. Ross
    December 28, 2013 @ 10:41 am

    For my money, one of the strangest things was when I realized that Marissa is a canon character: she's one of the kids Picard gets trapped in the elevator with in 'Disaster'.


  31. talestoenrage
    December 28, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

    Watching MST3K on Comedy Central as a little kid, what stood out was how dense it could be. There were the obvious jokes, but they would just drop references and keep going, no explanation given. Whether that's a good thing or not is probably a matter of personal preference, but I loved it.

    Now, the move to Sci-Fi…not so much. I was kind of excited at the time, but the host segments becoming a serialized thing seemed like a big step in the wrong direction at the time. However, I loved the fact that for a while, the Sci-Fi channel ran a page on the MST3K section of the website where you could caption whatever was happening on the channel at the time, allowing a community to develop around riffing in general (things EXPLODED whenever an original Star Trek episode was on). It was a fascinating window into the idea that you could do this thing too, and in a setting where you weren't disrupting those who just wanted to watch the show or movie in question.


  32. BerserkRL
    December 28, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

    Mad magazine is in a way a predecessor here; its movie parodies were in effect a running MST3K-style commentary on the movie, except delivered by the characters themselves.


  33. Dave Lynch
    December 29, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

    I've always been a fan of Adam Cadre's take on "The Eye of Argon" from 1996.


  34. Seeing_I
    December 31, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

    That's too bad. I heard someone shout "Mein Fuhrer! I can f***!" One time when Dr. Scott revealed his fishnets. Seems like back in the 80s things were more loosey-goosey and improvisational than it is now.


  35. Katherine Sas
    September 3, 2014 @ 8:53 am

    Great analysis – those parallels hadn't occurred to me, but once you put them out there they're obvious, especially the bit about the contrasting attitudes to circulating tapes and copyright laws. I love MST3K – I grew up watching the later stuff on the Sci Fi Channel on Saturday mornings. I'm partial to that era with Mike, Kevin and Bill – I have to admit that I do genuinely prefer Mike's comedy to Joel's, who I find kind of sleepy, and hugely prefer Bill Corbett's voice acting to Trace Beaulieu's, so I'm a Crow 2.0 fan. (Kevin Murphy, of course, seems universally loved by all). But it's probably a lot like Who – you're fondest of the era to which you were introduced first.


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