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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

Lessons From One of the Greatest TV Shows Ever


- Paul Mooney

Let me begin by directing you to the earlier post from Present Tense partner Elana Duffy highlighting the good business sense to be taken from Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22. It inspired me to write a similar article about my favorite novel, but since that's also Catch-22, that was a no-go. And since my second favorite novel is Frank Herbert's epic Dune, I figured I'd choose a different medium as I'm not quite sure how to tie a tale of space witches, semi-fake holy wars, and giant drug-spewing worms set thousands of years in the future to making your company better (but once I do it will make for great reading). So, as a lover of television and writer in the medium, I've chosen to extract lessons from one of my favorite programs: Mystery Science Theater 3000, or MST3K.

For those who aren’t familiar with the show, I'll explain it. Mad scientists trap a man in space aboard a satellite. Along with two wisecracking robots, this "test subject" is forced to watch horrible B (or worse) movies. The audience watches with them while the trio dishes out scathing and hilarious commentary. The show is as simple as it is bizarre, but won a Peabody Award and was called one of the 100 best TV shows of all time by Time magazine. And, most importantly, every one of the 197 episodes makes me laugh my head off every time.

All that may sound like a winning endorsement of a great comedy series, but there are also lessons that can be learned from a show co-starring purposefully cheesy puppets and, for several seasons, a man in a gorilla suit:

Don't talk down to people. Despite the puppets and certainly being family friendly (the harshest word they ever said was "crap," and it was rarely said at that), it was not a show just for children. It made jokes about politics, advanced science, ancient history, and referenced everything from Bugs Bunny to Dylan Thomas. Yet the characters never dumbed anything down nor tried to over-explain. The writers treated everyone who watched MST3K like an adult. When you got a joke they made, it made you feel smart for knowing it. And when you didn't, you looked forward to finding out what made that moment funny for those who did.

People like knowing what's being talked about, but they also like feeling as if they're learning. Put things plainly, without condescension, and your audience will feel like you're on the same level, and will be more comfortable asking you a question or two to fully understand. Everybody likes being spoken to like a grown-up, no matter what the medium. Whether you're talking to a small group or writing a presentation for a large crowd, the people you're addressing want to be seen as equals, not treated like idiots.

You can teach people without them even noticing. I've seen every episode of the show at least once, most of them more so. But when I first started watching, there were plenty of those aforementioned references that I knew were funny but I, personally, didn't get. So, I did what any curious young lad these days does and pulled out my smartphone every time I didn't understand the punch-line. Before long I'd learned about Martha Mitchell, the Dateline NBC/GM truck scandal, and the time Lee Trevino was struck by lightning during a pro golf tournament. And that's just from one episode (season 5, episode 12, mocking the infamously bad Joe Don Baker film Mitchell).

I was doing research without realizing it in the interest of getting sarcastic jokes told by silhouettes over a bad film. I made the extra effort to learn more about what the characters were referencing to get the most out of my laughter. And the whole process was so entertaining and engrossing that it never bothered me that I had to put in the work to fully enjoy the show. If you get your audience to educate themselves to bolster what you're already teaching them to do, they'll appreciate you for steering them towards it and feel more involved in any process.

A broad base of knowledge is always good to have. Most, though not all the films, mocked were in the sci-fi/horror genre, and the story of a man stranded in space with robots is also sci-fi. But the jokes covered every topic. Music, pop culture, literature, religion, sports, and musical theater were among the countless references the show regularly brought up and riffed on. It appealed to die-hard science fiction fans as much as it did to people who appreciated seeing something that made them think as hard as it made them laugh. A broad basis for the humor was what helped the show garner such critical acclaim and so wide an audience.

If you're working on a project for a client, your boss, or yourself, don't just focus on what you have to do and the specifics you need to know. Educate yourself on peripheral topics as well. Learn about competitors, the history of the industry, the other businesses that tie in (for example, if your client is a real estate agency, learn a bit about construction). Starting from a wide foundation gives you lots of room to build and a stable beginning to do it. You never know what will factor in later on, so endeavor to know as much as you can about everything you can think of.

Be it brilliant literature like Catch-22, or supremely creative television like MST3K, there is wisdom in anything that gets people's minds working. On the surface, MST3K may look like nothing more than a well-made piece of entertainment. But the subtle ways it teaches, pushes you to learn, and exemplifies the value of a wide base of understanding give it merit far beyond the copious amount of enjoyment it provides.

And you never know: your new boss may find it extremely interesting that Lee Trevino was hit by lighting.

Paul Mooney is a contributing writer to Present Tense LLC. With a background of film, screenwriting, advertising, and a healthy dose of the Marine Corps he has many stories to share. He is a freelance writer and producer living in New York City. Follow some of his writing on Task & Purpose as well as some of his antics on Brocast News.

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