Apr 26 2011

What’s in a Name?

This weekend, two different people asked me what the title of my blog means. That was surprising, considering I’ve been blogging so little lately that I didn’t figure anyone was checking it anymore. So here’s the explanation — the long, long version.

First some background. There was once a little TV show called Mystery Science Theater 3000 (aka MST3K).  It was started in Minnesota by some guys who liked to sit around and watch bad movies and make fun of them, inventing funny dialogue, pointing out mistakes, and so on. And oh yeah, they could work puppets. So they turned it into a TV show, which started on a local Twin Cities UHF channel and eventually went through two different cable networks, various actor changes (including the lead), a feature movie, and 199 episodes. It was cancelled by Sci Fi Channel, despite the fact that there are still many, many bad movies out there to make fun of.

The “inside the show” premise was that Dr. Forrester, an evil scientist, kidnapped Joel, his janitor (later replaced by Mike), and stranded him on a space station and forced him to watch bad movies, to see how long it would take to destroy his mind.  This was all somehow part of Dr. F’s plan for world domination. Joel got lonely, so he built some robots (the puppets) out of spare parts he found on the station, and they watched the movies with him.  Yeah, it’s a silly premise, but the point was just to give these guys some reason for watching terrible movies.  As the show’s theme song says, “If you’re wondering how [Joel] eats and breathes / And other science facts / Then repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show, / I should really just relax.’”

In the eighth season, they did a movie called Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, one of the weirdest (if not worst) movies they ever used.  It’s one of those movies that’s so weirdly bad that it has a small cult following of people who think it’s brilliant, and insist that people who hate it just don’t understand it (like Eraserhead, or anything starring Ben Stiller). The star is Raul Julia, a real-live Hollywood actor you’d recognize, but he gives an acting job so bad that you’d think he’s been sedated and forced to act at gunpoint.  It was made by a New York PBS station, so it seems like they’d know what they’re doing — unlike the “guy and his friends who borrowed the school’s A/V equipment for the weekend” who made many movies seen on MST3K. The movie wants to be a deep, cautionary tale about corporate governance, virtual reality, and other dangers of the future: sort of a combination of 1984 and Tron with the feel of Bladerunner.  It’s none of those things.  Mostly it’s Raul Julia looking bored and confused and people fretting and using words that sound science-fiction-y.

There’s a corporation/government that controls everything, including the weather. For some reason, they don’t let people watch movies (which they “futuristically” call “cinemas”); it distracts from their work or something.  Julia gets caught hacking into the company’s mainframe to watch Casablanca, so they send him off for “doppling,” a term for having your mind transferred into an animal’s brain for a while, which is supposed to relax you so you’ll go back to work for The Man refreshed.  (Seems like it’d be a lot simpler to just let them watch movies.)  For reasons too stupid and nonsensical to go into, Julia’s mind ends up being stored in the mainframe instead, where he’s able (by hacking the simplest passwords in the history of mankind) to battle the bad guy for control of everything.

So, the bad guy.  He’s fat. Fat in that way that says they picked him because he was fat (think Boss Hogg). And when he inserts himself into the mainframe to negotiate with Julia, his virtual self is just as fat, like greasy-looking fat. Characters in the movie just call him “Fat Man.” So Mike and the bots naturally make about a thousand fat jokes whenever he’s on screen, many about wanting more to eat, including the one that inspired my blog title: “I want more butter on my ham.”  (See, I got there eventually.)

It hit me that “buttered ham” would be a pretty good symbolic name for a diet (and way of thinking) that ignores the conventional wisdom spawned in the last 40 years and goes back to the sensible basics of, oh, all the centuries before that.  If you put butter on your ham, you’ve clearly rejected the Keyes/McGovern/USDA anti-fat dogma that now pervades everything we see and hear, from TV shows to magazines to comedy skits to school lunch menus.  If a comedian wants you to think “unhealthy overindulgence,” all he has to say is “bacon cheeseburger,” and everyone gets it, just as quickly as saying “Hitler” makes everyone think “evil racist dictator.” It’s not easy to ignore that kind of consensus being drilled at you from various directions every single day, but if you eat buttered ham, you’re doing it right.

So, finally, here’s the chunk of the show containing the line.  It’s in the first 5 seconds, so be ready. (There’s another great line at 48 seconds that pretty much sums up this movie.) If you’ve never seen MST3K, watch the whole thing to see one of the funniest, most creative shows ever.

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