MST3K II: Attack of the clones?

Is MST3K coming back? Or is it already here?

This is going to be geeky. You know I love Explaining Things, and this is a topic on which I’m passionate.

One of my all-time favorite TV shows was “Mystery Science Theater 3000” – MST3K to its fans — in which three characters were silhouetted against a really bad movie, which they made from bad to good by seasoning it with a constant stream of wise cracks and pop culture references.

MST3K started as a local show on Minneapolis television, then moved to something called The Comedy Channel, which a year or so later merged with HA! to form Comedy Central.

The show ran for seven seasons on Comedy Channel / Comedy Central, was cancelled and then ran for three more years on the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy).

The show was created, and originally hosted, by prop comic Joel Hodgson (whose character on the show was named Joel Robinson). He left midway through the fifth season on cable; the last 2 1/2 seasons on Comedy Central, and the entire run on Sci-Fi, was hosted by Michael Nelson (who used his own name). I like both, but I’ve always liked Mike better. Granted, in some circles this is tantamount to preferring Roger Moore to Sean Connery. (Kids, ask your parents.)

Making fun of movies was the meat and potatoes of the show, but the premise was that mad scientists (played, in various eras of the show, by Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl) had trapped the host (Joel or Mike) in an orbiting spaceship and was forcing him to watch bad movies as a cruel experiment. Joel/Mike shared the spaceship with wisecracking robots, two of whom – Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo – would join him in the theater when it was time to watch a movie.

After MST3K left the air, two different groups of alumni continued making fun of bad movies through their own self-distributed projects. Neither group used or had access to the MST3K characters or puppets.

Joel and some of the MST3K alumni who had moved to California had a group called Cinematic Titanic, which released DVDs and did live appearances.

Mike and the two riffers who were with him in the theater for the Sci-Fi years – Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett – had a brief run as “The Movie Crew” before forming RiffTrax. RiffTrax started by releasing audio commentary tracks which the purchaser plays in synch with a store-bought DVD or on-demand movie, and that’s still a big part of what they do. That allows them to make fun of big-budget movies which would have been out of MST3K’s reach, since they don’t have to purchase the rights to the movie.

But RiffTrax eventually started releasing its own DVDs as well, allowing them to cover the type of low-budget movies and shorts which were MST3K’s meat and potatoes. And RiffTrax does two or three live shows each year which are simulcast to theaters across the country. They’ve even done nights of programming on the National Geographic channel, making fun of bad nature shows.

Although the two groups were competitors in one sense, they were still collegial friends and former co-workers. A few people from either camp even made guest appearances on the competing product.

Cinematic Titanic ran out of steam a few months ago and announced that it was shutting down, leaving RiffTrax the sole survivor.

Now, however, Joel Hodgson has a Kickstarter campaign to bring back MST3K under the original name and with the original robot puppet characters. But Joel would be involved only as a producer. A new, young host and a new, young mad scientist would be hired, and new puppeteers would be hired to voice Crow and Tom Servo.

Mike Nelson took to Facebook to explain that he wasn’t involved in the new MST3K – and  he’s not interested in it, although he says he wishes them well. He explained that he was a “hired hand” at the old MST3K, while now with RiffTrax he, Corbett and Murphy are running their own show.

Joel has set a $2 million goal for the Kickstarter campaign, which is ambitious – but not unthinkable, given the dedication of some MST3K fans.

I wish Joel all of the best, and there’s room for both MST3K and RiffTrax, but on any given day I’d rather watch something by RiffTrax than a new MST3K hosted and performed by unknown quantities. Mike, Kevin and Bill are the MST3K reboot I want to see. If I give to any Kickstarter campaign in the near future, it will be the one by my Facebook friend Jerry Chamberlain of Daniel Amos and the Swirling Eddies:

go west, young second-graders

“I can’t believe you haven’t written something yet,” posted Regan Aymett to Facebook just a few minutes ago. Come to think of it, I ought to.

RaiseYourHandLogocolorfinal%20(2)I haven’t been blogging about my weekly Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary School as much this year – not for any particular reason; I love it as much as ever. I just didn’t have anything specific to say.

But Regan’s right; today was a little unusual. The woman she usually has in the room with her working with some of the kids wasn’t there today, so it was just me and Regan. I spent the first few minutes helping a small group of girls finish an assignment they’d already been working on before I got there. But then I had a big group for the rest of the hour – it must have been seven kids, where I usually have about, maybe, five.

Turns out there’s a difference between managing a table of five second graders and a table of seven second graders. I hope I did OK; there were times I had to be really deliberate about making sure I paid attention to each child.

We had a worksheet with a few paragraphs about the California gold rush. The nit-picker in me objected to the summary, because – while it outlined the many hardships that kept settlers from making it all the way to California – it sort of implied that the people who did make it to California got rich right away. But this wasn’t a history lesson; it was a reading comprehension lesson for second-graders, and by virtue of that it was necessarily a little over-simplified.

Regan told me to read through the little story three times and then to spend 10 minutes letting them read it to me.

As Regan noticed – and teased me about in her Facebook post – the kids were disappointed that I didn’t pull out my smartphone and use it to time that 10 minutes. Regan commonly uses her iPhone or iPad for things like that, but I didn’t see a need since I was sitting where I could clearly see the clock on the wall. (And I didn’t need to time it that exactly). After that, there were some questions for the kids to answer on the worksheet.

Two of the boys were playing with change – one of them had several quarters, and another had a handful of pennies. One of them went and got the item he’d brought for snack time, and even though he didn’t open it he and the other boy were talking about it and it was a distraction. I had to try to keep the boys focused without spending so much time on them that I ended up ignoring the other kids who were already working on the assignment.

Even though I’ve been back in class for about a month now – and I’m not the only one – the Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteers here in the county are supposed to attend an orientation session tomorrow at the school system central office. I think most of us are returnees and there are only one or two newcomers, so hopefully it won’t be too long. It is fun to hear about others’ experiences; some are signed up for one-on-one tutoring, others – like me – are signed up to work with groups.

Even after tomorrow’s meeting, I’m sure it’s not too late for other volunteers to sign up. I was a latecomer my first year in the program and didn’t start until January. Contact Pam Fisher at the United Way of Bedford County office (or your local United Way, if you’re elsewhere within Tennessee). It could be the most satisfying hour of your week.

A Hedy of her time

It was within the past two weeks that I posted a comment on someone’s Facebook post talking about Hedy Lamarr, who — during her peak as a glamorous movie actress in Hollywood of the 1940s — was also an inventor. She and a friend co-invented a technology called “frequency hopping” which they thought would help protect military radio transmissions from being intercepted during World War II. The military didn’t use it during the war, but it later became an important part of cell phone and WiFi technology.

It’s one of those too-strange-for-fiction stories. If I wrote a novel in which the protagonist was one of the top actresses in Hollywood and also a pioneering inventor, you’d laugh in my face and call it ridiculous. And yet, it actually happened. It’s a great story, and one that could be particularly useful in getting young girls interested in the STEM fields.

Don’t believe me? Go to google.com and check out today’s Google Doodle.

And, with all apologies to Harvey Korman, in this case we really are talking about Hedy Lamarr, not Hedley.

where did we go right?

I turned over to Turner Classic Movies: TCM just now to see the last few minutes of The Mouse That Roared, with Peter Sellers. I loved the the book, by Leonard Wibberley, when I was a teenager, and we did the play when I was a drama student at Cascade.

The movie takes some liberties; the Grand Duchess, one of several characters Sellers plays on screen, is a flighty young woman in the book, but an old dowager in the movie.

It’s a very funny premise. At the time of the book and the movie, the Marshall Plan was still fresh in everyone’s memory. The story (and I’m going by the book version here) is about the tiny — and mythical — European nation of Grand Fenwick, more like a small town than a country. Grand Fenwick has fallen on hard times because an American vintner has copied its signature wine, which is its primary export. The leaders of the country note that the United States is quite generous in rebuilding countries it has beaten in war, and so they come up with an ingenious plan: They will declare war on the United States, surrender immediately, and then reap the benefits.

But the plan goes awry. For one thing, the declaration of war gets lost in the shuffle at the U.S. State Department. For another, the somewhat dimwitted patriot Grand Fenwick sends to lead their invasion force is not privy to the real plan; he thinks he’s supposed to win, even though he and his men are armed only with bows and arrows. The invasion force lands in a seemingly-deserted New York during a disaster drill, and blunders onto the campus of Columbia University, where they take as their prisoner an Einstein-like scientist who has invented a terrible new type of bomb – and who has the prototype in his possession. The U.S. government has no choice but to surrender, an outcome for which Grand Fenwick is stunningly unprepared.

It’s the first of a series of books about Grand Fenwick – I vaguely remember reading one or two others but I think the original was the best.

TCM is showing a series of movies tonight about fictitious ruritanian countries. It started with “The Mouse That Roared.” Right now, there’s “Romanoff and Juliet,” about a tiny nation whose vote on a key issue in the UN General Assembly is being sought by both the U.S. and the USSR. But coming up at 10:30 is one of my all-time favorites: Duck Soup, in which Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo lay waste to the fictitious land of Freedonia.

A free offer

I have a special free offer for the first two men who respond to this blog post. Keep reading.

A couple of years ago, I decided that I missed blade shaving. I’d been reading about a couple of different Internet startups offering razors much more cheaply than Gillette, and I ordered a starter kit from Harry’s. I like Harry’s better than Dollar Shave Club for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I just like the razors, which I find to be attractive and well-made. I have the basic “Truman” handle, which is plastic, but there’s also a “Winston” handle, which is metal and which can be engraved. Unlike Dollar Shave Club, which buys its razors from a Korean company, Harry’s makes its own razors. (At the time I first ordered from Harry’s, they were contracting with a German company to produce their product. Soon thereafter, they bought the company.)

Secondly, unlike Dollar Shave Club — which only offers automatic subscription plans — Harry’s allows you to buy blades and other supplies on your own schedule. They also offer subscription plans, if you prefer automatic delivery.

In defense of Dollar Shave Club, they do offer several different types of razor cartridge — Harry’s has only one cartridge, a five-blade model — and they have very creative viral-video commercials:

Either company is going to save you quite a bit compared to Gillette or the other store brands.

Harry’s also offers shave cream, although I’ve found a different band, Cremo, that I prefer and which I buy from the store.

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Anyway, getting back to the free offer: After my most recent order of replacement blades from Harry’s, I got an e-mail from the company saying that I could send free Harry’s razors to two of my friends as a special promotion. I was trying to think of who might be interested. I’ve already given a Harry’s razor to my oldest nephew as a Christmas gift; my brothers both have beards. So I’m going to open it up. If you’re interested, e-mail me or fill out my website contact form. First come, first served. I do not know if this is the full starter kit or just the razor and one cartridge. But it’s free — and it will save you money if you’re currently buying blades at the store.

Anyway, let me know if you’re interested.

Umami dearest, or, Marmite makes right

When I was growing up, science textbooks explained to us that there were four basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty and bitter. There were different taste buds attuned to each one, and anything we could taste with our tongues was made up of some combination of the four.

Even during my childhood, however, this was out-of-date information. As long ago as 1904, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda had discovered a fifth taste, which he identified with a Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste,” umami. It took until 1985 for the term to be scientifically recognized worldwide, however.

Umami is often described as a “meaty” taste, and it’s present in things like meat, mushrooms, tomato and beans. Scientifically, it represents a famiily of chemicals called glutamates. Umami-rich ingredients like soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce pair well with things like meat because they complement the natural umami flavor in the meat itself.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the pleasure of interviewing my favorite food writer, Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats, to promote his new book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. The story will run in this Wednesday’sThursday’s T-G. To go along with the interview, I picked out a few of Kenji’s representative recipes from Serious Eats. Most used pretty standard ingredients – which is a good thing when you’re writing for a rural community – but the meatloaf recipe called for Marmite as an umami booster.

I have long been curious about Marmite (a British condiment) and its Australian cousin Vegemite. Lately, I had been thinking that on my next drive into Murfreesboro, I might try to buy a jar of Marmite from World Market at The Avenue.

But over the weekend, I happened on a whim to look for Marmite on Amazon and ended up ordering a jar. Because it’s actually being shipped from the UK, it won’t get here until next month, but the cost was quite reasonable for a specialty condiment. (I saw honey and hot sauce selling for much higher prices at the Webb craft fair last weekend in Bell Buckle.)

Vegemite and Marmite, as I understand it, are cousins but not identical. Both are made from spent brewer’s yeast, and both are quite salty and have very polarizing, love-them-or-hate-them flavors. Marmite is more syrupy, Vegemite more pasty. Either, and again all this is by reputation because I’ve never tried them, is best enjoyed in small quantities – spread very, very thinly on a piece of bread or toast. I have read that the reason non-Australians find Vegemite so disgusting is that they sample it by tasting a spoonful – and that’s not the way it’s meant to be eaten.

Most of my generation, of course, knows Vegemite from the lyrics to Men At Work’s “Down Under”: “He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.”

Many chefs on Food Network and Cooking Channel will use anchovies as an umami booster in dishes like pasta sauce. They always fall over themselves reassuring you that the finished dish won’t smell or taste like anchovies – you’re just using a little bit, chopping it finely and letting it melt into the dish. You wouldn’t want to eat a big spoonful of dried basil or down a shot of pure vanilla extract, but either of those things can be great when added to a recipe. Anchovies, by the way, are an ingredient in many brands of Worcestershire sauce, one of the things which give that sauce its umami. (Check the label if you don’t believe me.)

Anyway, Marmite is supposed to be marginally friendlier than Vegemite, but it, too, is meant to be enjoyed in very small quantities – spread thinly on bread.

I can’t wait for my Marmite to arrive some time next month. I actually think I may like it, especially spread thinly on bread. I tend to like flavors like soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, and I like salty things more than average.

Dippin’ time

I love creamy dips – ranch, onion, and so on – but they’re horrible for you, and I have lousy self-control when I start noshing and dip is available. Fortunately, I have had good success in recent years preparing dips using Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. No, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s quite good on its own terms, and light years better for you.

Greek-Yogurt-DipsI’ve used various commercially-available dip mixes this way, just substituting yogurt for sour cream in the instructions, but today I bought something different. Hidden Valley Ranch now has a special version of its ranch dip mix specially-formulated for use with Greek yogurt.

Well, I’m assuming it’s specially-formulated. The cynic in me has long held that the envelope of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix and the envelope of Hidden Valley Ranch dip mix are the exact same product in a different wrapper. But I really do think in this case, they have adjusted the seasoning and consistency to work with nonfat Greek yogurt. It makes a tasty dip, and yet one I can indulge in without guilt.

The company also makes a salad dressing mix for use with Greek yogurt.

The one question I have – and I’ve never been able to get an answer for this – is whether the salt in savory dips kills the live yogurt culture.

two great tastes that taste great together

A few weeks ago, I did an interview with a nutritionist for the newspaper, and she brought along some recipes from a dairy promotion group, a few of which I included in the article.

One of them particularly caught my attention: Creamy avocado hummus, a sort of hybrid of guacamole and hummus bound together by Greek yogurt.

For the Times-Gazette’s annual National Newspaper Week coffee, employees sign up to bring homemade dishes, and I thought that avocado hummus, with pita chips to dip, would fit the bill just fine, and give me a chance to see if the recipe was as good as it sounded.

I think it turned out quite well. It has the grainy texture of hummus (and the fiber and nutrition from those garbanzo beans) but the bright flavor of avocado and citrus. I was a little worried because I did not seed the jalapenos as the recipe called for, and so the dish had a little kick – not too bad, but some of the people who come to this event might not be spicy food fans. So I made a little tag marking the dish as medium-hot.

Anyway, if you’d like the recipe I’ll include it below. This reflects a couple of little additions I made. It may not be exact; I actually made about 1 1/2 times this recipe, and a couple of ingredents were eyeballed rather than measured.

1 large avocado, about 9 ounces, with pit and peel removed, cut into chunks.

1 cup canned chickpeas a/k/a garbanzo beans, drained

1 cup fat-free Greek yogurt

1/3 cup cilantro leaves

1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lime juice

zest from the lime (I always hate to let citrus zest go to waste)

1/2 t. minced garlic (I had some on hand and thought it would go well)

1 large (1 oz) jalapeno, roughly chopped, seeded if desired – but I didn’t. If you’re not sure, cut the jalapeno in half lengthwise and seed one half but not the other.

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor; blend until smooth. The dish may be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator, but according to the notes from the original recipe the whey from the yogurt may separate and need to be stirred back in.

back to school time

Yes, I know, school started two months ago. But for me, it started today.

WP_20151005_09_50_31_ProFor the past three years, I’ve been a volunteer with Raise Your Hand Tennessee, a United Way-coordinated program which places volunteers in elementary schools to help with reading for an hour a week – either through one-on-one tutoring or working with groups.

I am a volunteer at Learning Way Elementary, in the class of looping first-and-second grade teacher Regan Aymett. “Looping” means she has a class of first-graders, then stays with that same group of kids the next year as their second grade teacher, then loops back and starts all over again with a new class of first graders.

I volunteer on Monday mornings. When I first signed up for the program, I chose to work with groups rather than one-on-one (it’s completely up to you when you sign up). When I get to Regan’s class, she will generally break the class up into small groups, and I’ll work with one of the groups. The groups will rotate every few minutes, so by the end of the hour I’ll usually have worked with all of the kids. Today, I was listening to the kids at my table read from a little booklet. It was a fairy tale of sorts about three princes whose father, the king, turned them into bunny rabbits for misbehaving. One of the bunny princes escapes and falls in love with a beautiful princess, sort of a twist on the old Frog-and-Princess story. I would have two or three kids at a time, and each child would read a page at a time. We would rotate around the table. I was there to help with big or hard-to-pronounce words or names, of course, but the kids would also sometimes correct or help each other.

One things I noticed with several different groups today was that a child who would struggle while reading herself (or himself) would sometimes seem to do much better when correcting the child next to them! I’m not sure exactly how to explain this except that maybe they feel more pressure when it’s their turn to read. Regan, an NEA Master Teacher, could probably explain it to me, but obviously I never get a chance to ask her stuff like that when I’m in the classroom.

Because this is the second-grade year for Regan, most of her students this fall are the same students she had last year, and so I didn’t have to be introduced. The kids knew me. Because of the way the groups worked today, I didn’t get to see everyone, and Regan apologized to the kids who “didn’t get to work with Mr. Carney,” as if that were some sort of special treat.

New United Way of Bedford County executive director (and my former T-G co-worker) Pam Fisher, like Dawn Holley before her, waited to let school get started and things to settle in before calling the schools to place volunteers. When I ran into Pam at a news event last week, she told me that I could go ahead and start back for this school year whenever it was convenient for me and Regan.

New Learning Way principal Mary Pitner, whom I’ve known for years, happened to be in the front office when I signed in and got my visitor badge this morning and thanked me warmly for volunteering. But I told her it was my pleasure – every fall, I’m chomping at the bit to start up again.

If you’re in Tennessee, you can go to the Raise Your Hand website and find out more about how to volunteer. They’re very flexible, at least here in Bedford County, and can find a school and a schedule that fits you. You can, as I already noted, decide whether you want to work with a child one-on-one or with groups. United Way does a background check on each volunteer before placing them in the schools.