McGinnis: ‘The right people will get this’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the best parts of writing for Toledo Free Press is the opportunity to converse with a lot of creative people. During the past year and a half, I’ve had the chance to talk with many artists in a wide variety of fields. It’s always fascinating to learn what makes them tick, what inspires them and how people working in completely different fields can have quite a lot in common.
One of the most striking parallels I’ve found between creative people is not just a common philosophy, but a philosophy inspired by a common source. I’ve heard the same quote recited to me no less than four times during the past year, from individuals as diverse as author and actor Wil Wheaton and CHIKARA founder and wrestler Mike Quackenbush. They each paraphrase it slightly, but know its sentiment by heart:
“When we write a joke, we never ask, ‘Who’s gonna get this?’ We always say, ‘The right people will get this’.”
The quote comes from Joel Hodgson, comedian and creator of cult television classic “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” He said it in a Comedy Central documentary in 1991 about the making of the show. And in doing so, he apparently inspired more artists to follow their bliss than he probably ever realized.
For a generation of television fans, “MST3K” was a revelation. The basic concept was fairly simple: Play an old, cheesy movie and make fun of it the whole time. But the project was infused with lightning-quick wit and remarkable creativity from its writers and performers. What could have been groaningly bad television became a milestone for fans the world over.
And it all stems from the philosophy Hodgson stated on the documentary. The writers were never afraid to throw out the most obscure or bizarre references they could think of. Sometimes, jokes were told that went over the heads of 90 percent of the audience. But for the other 10 percent, it would hit them dead in the face and make them roar with laughter.
But Hodgson’s quote isn’t just about a single joke or two. The spirit of it runs throughout the entire enterprise. “MST3K” was never made to appeal to a mass audience. It was made for a very specific kind of fan, one who would appreciate the intelligently silly humor the show would present. They never tried to dumb things down or make it a little more palatable, just to garner more viewers. Either they get us or they don’t, “MST3K’s” staff seemed to say.
Fast-forward about 20 years. Now, many who watched “MST3K” when they were young have grown into adulthood. They, too, have begun to leave their own marks on pop culture. And they have never forgotten the lessons of that little, low-budget comedy show — lessons that all stem from that one, simple quote.
For the artists who cite it, the concept is incredibly liberating. So much of the creative process is constrained by compromise.
Creators are often pressured to change their work in order to make it more “mainstream.” They need to think of John Q. Public, they’re told. This is a great, original idea you have, but it obviously needs some work if it’s ever gonna be accepted by a large audience.
The neutering of genuine imagination is the greatest crime modern media has committed.
But in Hodgson’s quote, there is hope — the belief and promise that sometimes, if you stay true to your vision, it will find an audience that appreciates it. You can’t make everyone happy, and it’s foolish to ever try. The best you can do is to make work that you think is great. If you’re right, you’ll find others who will support it — fervently.
The proof? “Mystery Science Theater 3000” left the air in 1999. Hundreds of other shows have aired in the intervening years. Most of them were made for the masses. Most of them had a goal of being as popular as possible. And most of them withered, died and were quickly forgotten.
But for many, the memory of “MST3K” remains, as strong as ever.
“…we never ask, ‘Who’s gonna get this?’ We always say, ‘The right people will get this.’”
Think about it. It’s about so much more than just art.
E-mail Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com. Jeff appears each Tuesday on The 92.5 KISS-FM “Morning Show.”