Barry Diller’s Defining Moment: Will He Save MST3K ?

One of the most gratifying aspects of writing this column over the past

four years or so has been the number and variety of crusades (and feuds)

I’ve had the pleasure of pursuing on behalf of cultural obsessions.

Not all of them have been successful. Books & Company is gone, although

the campaign to save it crystallized, if only briefly, a beautiful

community of impassioned readers and writers in support of a place that was

not just a unique bookstore, but a thrilling embodiment of New York

intellectual life.

And I don’t think I changed the minds of the vast masses of America

about Jerry Seinfeld with my Can’t Stand Seinfeld Society campaign.

But I’d succeed in making the not inconsiderable number of individuals

who shared my loathing for the smug, simpering, insipid New York Lite

sitcom feel less lonely and isolated in their disaffection.

Nor have I–yet–succeeded in reversing the foolish, uncritical

assent the media and mainstream publishers in America have given to the

claimed “discovery” of an overlooked late work by Shakespeare, a

wretched “Funeral Elegy” whose dubious claim to

authenticity rests upon the shaky foundation of computerized word-frequency

programs. But on a question that goes to the heart of who Shakespeare was

as an artist, I have at least raised the flag of dissent here in America to

a claim widely disparaged by serious Shakespeare scholars in Britain and

elsewhere.

I haven’t stopped the Ford Motor Company from running repellent

image ads for their raving, Jew-hating founder, but I have succeeded in

raising awareness of Henry Ford’s long-forgotten shame.

And, no, repeated railings in this column have not punctured, even

dented, the smug New Age corporate culture of Starbucks, although I have,

after repeated and strenuous assaults, at least succeeded in winning from

Starbucks’ Seattle headquarters a nationwide right-to-refill policy

for their secret off-the-menu coffee-and-steamed-milk drink, the

“misto.”

And there have been larger victories. My columns here (and in

Esquire ) decrying the scandalous neglect of the novelist Charles

Portis, whose brilliant, idiosyncratic last three novels ( The Dog of the

South , Masters of Atlantis , and Gringos ) had gone out of

print, were instrumental in getting all of them (and his first novel,

Norwood ) to be reissued by the Overlook Press beginning this spring

with The Dog of the South . Buy this book and you will be eternally

grateful to me for some of the purest reading pleasure–and one of the

most memorable voices–to be found in contemporary fiction.

In addition, on a more arcane but even more urgent literary issue, I

believe my columns on V. Botkin have convinced at least some Nabokovians of

my critique of some recent lit-crit revisionist theories about the

“true” narrator of Pale Fire .

And remember my plea to the new owners of the Chrysler Building? To keep

the lights on the beautiful spire lit up all night long (instead of being

shut off at 2 A.M., as the penny-pinching previous owners had). It resulted

in this most luminous icon of the New York skyline now illuminating the

dark nights of our souls all the way till dawn.

And, most recently, there was the triumphant vindication of Barney

Greengrass’ chopped liver, a unique New York cultural asset, against

all contenders and pretenders, a vindication sealed by a blind taste test

conducted by America’s leading Jewish weekly, The Forward .

But nothing, no crusade, no feud was more satisfying than the war I

waged two years ago to save Mystery Science Theater 3000 , the

smartest, funniest show on television (with the possible exception of

The Simpsons ), perhaps the funniest ongoing critique of American

culture ever. You might recall that two years ago MST3K –as

it’s known to the fanatic following it’s developed for its

caustic revenge-of-the-spectator, talk-back-to-the-screen

stream-of-consciousness cultural studies comedy–was threatened with

extinction.

It would have been a tragedy: There is little doubt in my mind that, by

the time the next millennium rolls around, those archeologists studying

20th-century American civilization will find close scrutiny of MST3K

episodes far more valuable than all the cultural-studies monographs

produced by all the jargon-addled academics in all the world, in

decrypting, deciphering and recuperating the pitch and attitude of

contemporary popular culture consciousness at its sharpest and most

self-aware. MST3K is, I’ve suggested, in its endless

fragmentary tapestry of comic cultural references projected upon the scrim

of truly bad movies, nothing less than the Dead Sea Scrolls of American

culture. In its encyclopedic, parodistic self-referentiality, in its

elevation of commentary into a comic genre, it is a satiric Talmudic

Anatomy of Melancholy . So funny, it’s the supreme antidote to

melancholy.

But two years ago, after a long run on Comedy Central, a new regime

there, headed by Doug Herzog (a name that will forever live in this

column’s hall of infamy) decided that their money was better spent on

buying more humorless Saturday Night Live reruns than on producing

original episodes of this low-key masterpiece of comic irreverence. The

fate of MST3K was then in the hands of the honchos at the Sci-Fi

Channel who were considering picking it up when its Comedy Central contract

ran out. At that decisive moment I ran a column focusing the spotlight on

Sci-Fi Channel programming head Barry Schulman, naming him a potential

Culture Hero–or potential Culture Villain–depending on his

MST3K pickup decision. I was later told, by the then-head of USA

Networks (which owns the Sci-Fi Channel) that my column had a real

impact in, shall we say, “empowering” Mr. Schulman to do the

right thing and save MST3K .

It was a splendid victory, for the fans, for the culture, for me. But

eternal vigilance is the price of cultural victory, and I must admit I

dropped my guard; I took MST3K ‘s continuing presence for

granted for a while, and neglected the fact that the final year of the

three-year contract with the Sci-Fi Channel was approaching. The show

cruised along at a continuing high level of comic-genius consistency and it

didn’t occur to me that anything could go wrong again. It didn’t

occur to me until I got the shocking news (more than a week after the

announcement) that the Sci-Fi Channel was not renewing MST3K after

its upcoming third season there.

Ironically, I got the news on the day I was supposed to participate in

the literary equivalent of the Experiment that is the premise of

MST3K . You know the MST3K premise, don’t you? Well, you

should. The show airs now at 10 A.M. on Saturdays and 10 P.M. on Sundays,

so start watching as if your life depends on it, because it might not last

forever (although back episodes from the Comedy Central years can be

ordered from Rhino Home Video, 800-432-0020)

But for those who have missed it somehow, the premise of MST3K is

a diabolical experiment conducted by Mad Scientists in which a shlubby guy

(originally MST3K ‘s whimsical genius creator Joel Hodgson, now

the terrific deadpan persona of Mike Nelson) is shot into space on a rocket

ship and there, in isolation, compelled to watch the worst schlocky movies

(mainly really bad sci-fi flicks) produced by man, ostensibly so the mad

scientists could “monitor his mind,” but really so they can enjoy

the infliction of cultural pain.

The MST3K Experiment subject’s response in this

tongue-in-cheek framing device is to build a couple of makeshift robots

with whom he watches the bad movies, and most of the two-hour show consists

of us, the TV viewers, watching them watch the awful flicks and interpolate

a stream of brilliant wisecracks over the soundtrack. It is, you could say,

a meta-cultural parable, a revenge comedy, in which the spectator victim of

pop culture uses the weapons of pop culture itself to deconstruct its

idiocies while mapping its contours with visionary accuracy. The Experiment

is a metaphor as well, a meta-metaphor for the human condition: for the way

we are all, in effect, forced to watch the bad horror movie that is History

with no weapon but wit to console ourselves.

Anyway, I’ll never forget the day I got the bad news about the new

peril this endangered cultural resource faces. (In a funny way it’s a

resource not unlike Books & Company, a site that’s more than a

show but a showcase of sensibility, a meeting place of minds.) I got the

news from Deborah Wardwell, a witty fellow MST3K aficionado who was

cutting my hair in her salon on West 80th Street as I was on my way to

participate in a literary analogue to the MST3K experiment.

The premise for this experiment was to bring together four writers

who’d never met each other (Meg Wolitzer, Dale Peck, Kathryn Harrison

and me) who (as it turned out) had little or no book-group experience, to

assign them to read two novels they might not have read otherwise (Sue

Miller’s While I Was Gone and Hanif Kureishi’s

Intimacy ) and to put them on a stage at the New School before a

paying audience and ask us to act as if we were an ongoing book group.

It could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t, thanks mainly to the

other three writers, all of whom proved to be smart, funny and spontaneous

on stage, and managed to make up for my mostly wooden observations (I hate

trying to be spontaneous). It could have been a disaster because even real

book groups are encountering disasters these days. In fact, according to an

article PEN’s event-organizer Michael Roberts showed us in the green

room before our experiment began, there are so many outbreaks of

bitterness, divisiveness and psychodrama in the mushrooming nationwide

book-group movement that a new subspecialty of the helping profession has

emerged: Book-group therapists who are summoned to help deal with divisive

interpersonal issues spreading dysfunction in book groups across the

land.

This resulted in some apprehensive laughter among us four subjects of

the PEN experiment (where was our book group therapist?) and it was

in a moment of nervous conversation before stepping onto the stage that I

found myself comparing our experiment to MST3K ‘s–and was

gratified to learn that the supremely witty Meg Wolitzer was almost as much

of an enthusiast as I was. And that she agreed with me when I called

MST3K “the smartest thing in American culture.”

This reaffirmed my secret, somewhat snobby belief that MST3K is a

kind of test , that an affinity for it often betokens a more

sophisticated sensibility than is found in those who don’t watch it,

or worse, in those who’ve watched it and don’t get it.

And so, after a brief plunge into despair about the future of American

culture, and despair over the bleakness of my own future without fresh

infusions of new MST3K episodes and the champagne-like, effervescent

effect they have on my spirit, I decided it was time to mobilize, time to

take action, time to mount another quixotic crusade, to try to save

MST3K once again. I even decided it was time to do something I

almost never do, which was to go on line to see what the official and

unofficial MST3K sites had to say about this incipient tragedy.

I’d known that the Web was a hotbed of MST3K fandom but I

was surprised to find nearly 60 unofficial MST3K sites (download a

listing of them from Umbilicus at mst3kinfo.com), many of them personal

“shrines” to MST3K episodes and characters akin in a way

to Elvis shrines, if you’ve ever seen them, a true measure of pop

culture devotion.

It was clear that a Save MST3K campaign had just gotten under

way, but not all the sites were up to speed on the tragedy, and not all of

them agreed on tactics. Nonetheless, spending some time with them suggested

to me a strategy and a focus for the crusade: a focus on Barry Diller,

owner of the USA Network and thus the boss of the bosses at the Sci-Fi

Channel who made the terrible decision not to renew MST3K . The buck

stops with Barry Diller.

The Sci-Fi Channel’s official Web site tries too hard to make the

cancellation seem like a beautiful moment, a consensual kill. “A Fond

Farewell” proclaims its Web-page posting of the news. “As the

series ends its remarkable 10-year run, the network is proud to accompany

Mystery Science Theater to this television milestone,” they

say, announcing a special April 11 final season kick-off show which

features the return of MST3K creator Joel Hodgson to the set.

But don’t you just love the Orwellian language: Terminating the

series and kicking it out the door becomes “accompanying it to this

television milestone.” Milestone as in gravestone. MST3K ‘s

“Actors get a break” after 10 years, the Sci-Fi Channel release

actually proclaims. Yeah, like Dr. Kevorkian’s patients get “a

break.”

But if you turn to the latest posting on MST3K ‘s own site,

the one sponsored by Best Brains Inc., its production company

(www.mst3kinfo.com), you get a somewhat different story. Their page

headlines the rescue campaign: Fan Efforts to Save

“MST3K.” They report that Best Brains honcho Jim Mallon

“has stated that they would indeed be interested in working on an 11th

season.” That they’re encouraging fans to write

“polite” letters and faxes to the Sci-Fi Channel asking them to

reconsider, while at the same time they’re raising the possibility of

moving to another cable or broadcast outlet.

Things get less polite when you move to the unofficial Save MST3K

sites. The official MST3K site discourages fans from making the

Sci-Fi Channel the villain; they say they have a good relationship with the

channel and that the best thing to do to advance the cause of the

show’s survival is to promote viewership and thus ratings for the

final 13 episodes of the last season.

But the unofficial sites are less inhibited: They encourage letters of

support and protest to the Sci-Fi Channel (address: Bonnie Hammer, Vice

President of Programming for the Sci-Fi Channel, USA Networks, 1230 Sixth

Avenue, 20th floor, New York, N.Y. 10020; fax 413-6532; e-mail

program@scifi.com). But they’re also not averse to pointing the finger

higher up the corporate food chain–at Barry Diller.

In somewhat melodramatic terms whose urgency I can nonetheless

sympathize with, another Web site describes the situation thusly:

“Once again Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been given the

heave-ho by evil corporate overlords. The overlords in question this time

are the ones controlling the Sci-Fi Channel and USA networks. Barry Diller

and his goons have run off the good Barry, Barry Schulman and the new folks

are more interested in buying Lycos than producing quality

programming.”

As I said, it’s a bitterness born of understandable desperation,

but there’s some truth to it. The buck stops with Barry Diller. Does

anyone doubt that if he were to intervene with the small-minded number

crunchers who made this shortsighted decision, he could get it reversed? If

this cultural crime in progress was committed without his knowledge, he can

step in and stop it. And if it was done with his knowledge, even at

his instigation, he can show what a large soul he is by reconsidering and

countermanding the order.

In many ways this can be a defining moment for Barry Diller. A moment in

which he decides whether he represents anything more than the sum of his

recent corporate manipulations and takeover games in which a famous but

(relatively) cash-poor mogul keeps trying to leverage his way to ownership

of a major media empire. Once Barry Diller was someone who brought some

promise, some vision to television sterility. He was, after all, head of

the Fox TV network when it green-lighted The Simpsons , which

continues to be one of the few great irreverent triumphs in recent

television history.

But ever since he left Fox and failed to take over Paramount

Communications and CBS Corporation, Mr. Diller’s been wandering in a

wilderness of deal-making, refinancings, initial public offering fantasies,

home shopping network buyouts and UHF networks without producing anything

worthy of note as actual creative content. Yes, his recent Universal

Television deal makes him a certified mogul again, but several times more

removed from the creative process. He looks to be a creative executive

who’s lost his creative touch in endless, exhausting deal-making. A

powerful but empty suit, no longer relevant to the culture he was once a

vital part of.

Unless … unless he makes a bold gesture, steps in and saves

MST3K , shows us where his heart is, shows us he has one.

It would be a signal, a defining gesture–and not nearly a

charitable one: I have a feeling that if Barry Diller told the Sci-Fi

Channel he wanted MST3K to succeed they would promote it intensely

enough to make it succeed, even in number-crunching Nielsen terms.

It’s a gesture than would do more than allow Barry Diller to escape

the opprobrium of villainy in MST3K Web-site culture, it would

insure him a place in the pantheon of those who encouraged the vitality

rather than the sterility of American popular culture. It would make him an

instant culture hero to some of the best and brightest pop culture (and

high culture) enthusiasts in America.

He may be cash-poor for a mogul, but let’s face it, he’s got

more money than he’ll ever really need (how many homes, how many cars,

does any one individual need?). Still, there’s something no amount of

money, no concatenation of corporate reshufflings and buyouts can buy Barry

Diller: genuine respect for his creative sensibility. Here with one

masterstroke, with one red-tape-cutting intervention, he can recoup his

creative cachet, his reputation for programming vision–or refuse to

act and condemn it forever to death when MST3K dies.

Write Barry Diller at USA Networks Inc., 152 West 57th Street, 42nd

floor, New York, N.Y. 10019, and send him the column, send copies of your

letters to me at The Observer . It’s time to see who Barry

Diller really is. As they say on the Emergency Broadcast Network: This is a

test.