Pop Culture Tricksters

L-r:  Pee Wee Herman, Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Weird Al Yankovic

L-r: Pee Wee Herman, Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Weird Al Yankovic

I posed the question, “Could Joel or Mike on MST3K have been a chick?” (to be flip) over here, and answered, “No.”  On the way to justifying that answer I looked at the archetypes of the Trickster and the Holy Fool.  Now let’s bring it back to pop culture and apply it.

I think the host/captive on MST3K is really just a specific example of an archetype that occurs very commonly in pop culture.  Two other exemplars are Pee Wee Herman and Weird Al Yankovic.  There are others that spring to mind–for example, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley, and Ringo Starr have embodied aspects of the Trickster/Fool persona in movies and music–but the four I’m considering here are the best examples.  They are all about the same age and were at their peaks at approximately the same time.  More importantly, they all have embodied the archetypes more fully and consistently, and as a bigger part of their public persona, than the other actors and singers mentioned or for that matter than almost anyone else in pop culture.  There are also interesting parallels in their careers that I want to look at.

As one important proviso, I want to point out that when I speak of these worthies, I am speaking of their public personas, not their private lives, unless otherwise specified.  Thus, I’m not particularly interested in Paul Reubens or Joel Hodgson, but I’m very much interested in Pee Wee Herman and Joel Robinson, their on-screen characters.  Mike Nelson and Weird Al used their real names, but I am equally interested in their personas, not in them as individuals.

The first thing I want to do is to look at the personas of our four tricksters in light of some of the characteristics of the archetypes we’ve looked at in the last two posts.  I’m going to focus on only a few specific but, in my mind, very significant ones.  I want to focus on youth; childlikeness; androgyny; sexual ambivalence; liminality; and general “tricksterishness”, for lack of a better word.

1.  Youth

All four men were in their late twenties to early thirties in the most widely popular phases of their careers (mid 80’s to early 90’s for Pee Wee and Weird Al, early 90’s to early 00’s for Joel and Mike).  Even given this, they all looked particularly young for their age.  I deliberately chose the photo of Weird Al from his 1983 video “Oh, Ricky”, in which he shaved for the first and only time before the 21st Century.  Even with the trademark mustache and glasses he wore at that time, he had a very youthful face; but clean-shaven, his is  nearly a classic male baby face.  The same applies to Pee Wee, albeit helped along with heavy make up.  Joel has a sleepy-eyed, All American Boy look, with his tousled hair, elliptical face, and light frame.  Mike, with his more rectangular face and higher cheekbones looks more adult.  Even with him, though, there is the flash of the naughty twelve-year-old who knows how to charm his way out of trouble.

2.  Childlikeness

In voice and behavior, all four display a childlike demeanor.  With Pee Wee Herman, this is a deliberate part of the character and is played up with the high-pitched voice, strange facial expressions, and the trademark schoolyard jibes (“I know I am, but what are you?”).  Weird Al does many different and usually exaggerated voices, mugs a lot, and often adopts the persona of a whiny little boy.  Both he and Joel (whose soft, high voice has a boyish sound–Joel rarely did voices besides his own) made use of elaborate gadgets and toys in their shows (or videos) and show  strong fascination with science fiction themes.  Mike  played a more conventional straight man on MST3K and dropped the “invention exchange” segment that Joel had used during his years on the show.  Still, he did have plenty of moments of boyish horsing around with the bots.

In regard to this characteristic, it is not, I think, a coincidence that two of these men hosted children’s TV shows.  Pee Wee’s Playhouse is well-known.  More obscure is Weird Al’s short-lived Saturday morning offering, The Weird Al Show.  While MST3K was clearly aimed at a Generation X audience, it was definitely popular with younger audiences (my ten-year-old loves watching it on Netflix, even though she doesn’t get most of the references).  Weird Al’s albums tend to skew young, too, in their audience.

3.  Androgyny

It’s important to note at the beginning that “androgynous” is not synonymous with “girly”.  In this context particularly, it’s strongly correlated to number one above, youth.  After all, until puberty, boys and girls look very similar.  The same soft, rounded face and relatively weak chin that is characteristic of babies and young children is also considered more feminine than masculine.  What I have in mind is the concept of the kouros.  “Kouros” (literally “youth”) is a Greek term applied in art history to the idealized statues of young men at the brink of puberty that were popular from the earliest phases of Greek culture to the end of antiquity.  Kouroi are always beardless and have the soft, rounded faces of a youth on the verge of adolescence.  They could be called the original “baby faces”.  Alternately, they are the first “metrosexuals”, having a distinctly androgynous demeanor.  Have a look:

L-r:  Archaic kouros, Hellenistic kouros, detail of Hermes with infant Dionysus, bust of Hermes

L-r: Archaic kouros, Hellenistic kouros, detail of Hermes with infant Dionysus, bust of Hermes

Compare these to the photos at the top of this post.  Weird Al’s face, when clean-shaven, is particularly kouros-like or Hermes-like (dare I say, “Hermetic”?).  Please note also, in connection with our theme:  Hermes, who from the Hellenistic age onward is invariably pictured as a kouros (the oldest statues show him with a beard) is the trickster of the Greek pantheon, patron of travelers, tricksters, and thieves.  It is certainly no coincidence that he pops up here!

Once more, Mike is the outlier, being less androgynous than the others in physical appearance and with a deeper voice than the others.  In this area, he matches the Trickster archetype the least.  Al, of course, wore a mustache–a symbol of masculinity–through the 80’s and 90’s, but in his younger days his facial structure still managed to have an androgynous cast to it.

4.  Sexual ambivalence

In terms of persona (not necessarily personal life!) all four characters tend towards being asexual.  None of the characters had ongoing or regular girlfriends with the exceptions of Pee Wee Herman in his second movie, Big Top Pee Wee, and Weird Al in UHF.  Each of these is only a small part of the overall work of the men in question, however.  Furthermore, each movie still displays a bit of ambivalence in portraying sexuality–in the first, Pee Wee’s–ahem, loss of innocence–is played more for bizarre humor than as any kind of relationship; whereas in the second, the relationship between Weird Al’s character and the character’s girlfriend (played by Victoria Jackson, rather childlike and asexual in persona herself) is more like a Platonic, brother-sister relationship than a romance.  Aside from these exceptions, the Pee Wee Herman character is consistently the totally asexual man-child.  Joel and Weird Al come off as adult versions of the boy too busy with model cars, model rockets, and old sci-fi movies to think about icky girls.  Mike again is the exception, with a bit more knowing impishness about him than the others.  We could almost believe he smuggled a girl up to the Satellite of Love when Dr. Forrester wasn’t looking!  Still, his onscreen character is at least nominally neither attached nor seeking attachment.

In passing I’d note that in light of Paul Reuben’s brushes with the law over his public behavior and pornography collection, we can’t help but view his Pee Wee Herman work in a different light.  Even before these incidents, there were definitely creepy overtones to the Pee Wee character; and of course the later revelations add substantially to the air of sexual ambiguity and deviance.  Still, for the purposes at hand, in which we’re considering the characters and personas, not the actors themselves, the personal life of Paul Reubens is not relevant to the thesis being developed here.

5.  Liminality

Classically, the trickster or fool is liminal, being at the fringes of normal human society.  All four characters exhibit this trait in spades.  The premise of Pee Wee’s Playhouse was that Pee Wee Herman literally had a playhouse, to which he came at the beginning of each episode, and which he left at the end.  The playhouse was located in some strange, isolated location, was filled with often-sapient toys (in fact, the house itself seemed to be alive), and was the stopover for a panoply of unusual guests.  Similarly, The Weird Al Show seemed to take place in a studio of “Al TV” (the unwanted, dismal UHF station in the eponymous movie was essentially the same thing).  And of course, one can’t get much more marginal than being trapped on an orbiting satellite as did Joel and Mike!

6.  General Trickster/Fool Characteristics

In this regard, all four characters are more the Fool than active tricksters in that things happen to them (albeit with no permanent ill effects) more than they actively play pranks or cause things to happen to others.  Mike and Al lean most towards the Trickster side–Al is manic and has a definitely sadistic undertone to much of his humor (note, for example, the songs “One More Minute” or “You Don’t Love Me Any More”, or the Ghandi and Rambo segments in UHF), while Mike’s movie riffs are somewhat more cutting than Joel’s.  Pee Wee and Joel lean more towards the Fool, with Pee Wee being a slightly bratty man-child and Joel being more genial and laid-back than Mike.

One Trickster/Fool characteristic that we haven’t yet mentioned is unusual or outlandish clothing.  Pee Wee wears a too-small gray suit, bright red bow tie, slicked-down helmet hair, and heavy makeup.  Joel and Mike both wore coverall jumpsuits.  Weird Al favors Hawaiian shirts and canvas sneakers.  All four therefore nail this trait, too.

All four tend to show the classic Fool’s obliviousness to the real world in their personas, most notably Pee Wee.  Mike tends to project a vibe of knowing shrewdness behind the exterior naivete.  Joel and Al give off a boyishness that isn’t interested in grownup stuff.

Finally the near-hallucinogenic quality of Pee Wee’s Playhouse and the science fiction and fantasy themes in MST3K and much of Weird Al’s work are the modern secular equivalent of the paranormal and magical phenomena associated with tricksters.

All in all, I think it fair to conclude that Pee Wee Herman, Joel Robinson (Hodgson), Mike Nelson, and Weird Al Yankovic all consistently exhibit the archetypes of the Trickster and/or the (Holy) Fool.  I think this accounts for parallels in their careers, as I alluded to above.  All of them were most successful in their 20’s and 30’s (childlikeness being a strong Trickster trait); all of them produced material aimed directly at children, or children-friendly; all have done work with a strongly satirical bent (recall that Pee Wee’s Playhouse was simultaneously a kid’s show and a send-up of kid’s shows); and all of them have been relatively unsuccessful in non-Trickster/Fool roles (Paul Reubens has done bit parts in various movies and Weird Al has directed music videos, but neither has garnered much attention in those areas, while Joel and Mike have gone back to movie satire with Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax, respectively).

Returning to my original question, then–“Could a woman take the Joel/Mike role in MST3K?”–I answer once more “No,” though I will nuance that in a bit.  The reason is as follows:

Both the “host” role of MST3K and in fact the entire premise of the series are strongly “trickster-ish”.  The host essentially satirizes and makes fun of movies.  Satire is one of the strongest Trickster activities–think court jesters or the taunting attributed to Loki in Norse mythology.  The framing narrative of the show is in itself a satire of science fiction tropes (particularly 2001:  A Space Odyssey, explicitly referenced in the MST3K big screen movie, Silent Running, and all mad scientist and robot movies) in general, and the bits between the movie viewings are comedic and satirical themselves.  As the focal point of all this, the role of the person trapped in space has to be filled by a Trickster/Fool character.  I think that’s clear.

The issue is that Tricksters (and to a lesser extent, fools) are usually males.  I’ll admit that I am not well-versed in non-Indo-European mythology (though MST3K is an American–and therefore Indo-European–show, so I don’t see a problem there!).  I will also admit that there may be culturally significant female tricksters of whom I don’t know.  As to women generally, I love women and generally like them and get along better with them than I do with men.  I’m married with a daughter, so the majority of my household is female.  I firmly promote egalitarianism and proudly claim the title of feminist.  I can think of many, many great actresses and many women who are very funny stand-up comics, humorists, and comic actors.

All that said, it does seem that Tricksters are more frequently male than female.  In Western mythology, folklore, literature, and pop culture, I can easily come up with lots of male tricksters (and/or fools):  Loki, Hermes, Reynard the Fox, B’rer Rabbit, the Gallant Tailor, Rumpelstiltskin,  Bugs Bunny, Jerry (of Tom and Jerry), Jerry Lewis, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Eddie Murphy, and so on.  It’s hard to come up with any female characters (though if anyone has suggestions, I’d love to hear them).  Given the strong Trickster nature of the Joel/Mike role, it seems almost necessarily a male role.

A secondary aspect of this is that tricksters often are hoist with their own petard (even if they manage to turn it around)  and even abused at times.  Think of B’rer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, the indignities Bugs Bunny suffers before declaring, “Of course you know this means war,” the pratfalls of a typical Jerry Lewis character, and so on.  Archetypically, it’s easier to abuse men than women.  Imagine B’rer Rabbit, stuck on the Tar Baby and taunted by B’rer Fox, but imagine him as a female.  Imagine a Jerry Lewis character undergoing humiliation, but imagine it as a woman.  Imagine Dr. Forrester working his evil plots against a girl on the Satellite of Love.  Doesn’t seem right, does it?  With a woman, the undertones become darker and–well, to put it bluntly, abusive and rapey–in a way not true of a man.  Now you can get away with mistreating a character like Pearl Forrester, because she’s a villain, and her archetype is that of the Castrating Bitch–think the nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example.  A Castrating Bitch is just getting her comeuppance.  If the female character is sympathetic and someone we’re to identify with–as is true of the Joel/Mike role–then the dynamic is different and we’re not willing to put up with abuse that we’d find funny heaped on a male character.

Now as I start to wrap up this massive post, I do need to give one possible exception to my thesis here.  Last night I was discussing this post and its predecessors with my wife.  She was pretty much in agreement with my thesis, but she did suggest one possible female Joel/Mike, and upon thought, I had to agree with her.  The suggestion:  Ellen DeGeneres.  Of course, she is the vanishingly rare actress who actually manifests a Trickster persona.  She is lesbian and thus a gender-bender–very much a Trickster trait.  She dresses in a slightly mannish style (without tipping into cross-dressing).  She tends towards a deadpan delivery with a sort of bemused, innocent intonation, rather than being smarmy or cutting as many standups are.  Her character on the show Ellen had a strong Fool vibe, coming off as quirky and naive, with a tendency to ramble and a coterie of eccentric friends (of course, the character also came out as gay).  She has played similar Fool characters (notably Dory in Finding Nemo) and sometimes projects the persona on her talk show.  She manages to do this without coming off as the Ditzy Sexpot archetype (the general tendency for Fool-type female comic characters).  Also, she can do pratfalls, say and do goofy things, and be the comic victim of other characters without the projection of violated vulnerability that, as noted, tends to be an undertone with female characters.

Thus, I could actually see Ellen in the Joel/Mike role, especially in her younger days.  There’s not any other actress I could think of that would be able to inhabit the archetype sufficiently to pull it off.  Thus, while making the exception, I still think the role is archetypically male.  Now if anyone can think of other possibilities, I’d certainly be interested in hearing.  However, I think this niche is peculiarly male, which was my motivation in discussing the other pop-culture tricksters.  It’s hard, though not impossible, to imagine a female Weird Al; and I can’t even conceive of a girl Pee Wee Herman!  Of course, if you have any ideas for one of those, I’d like to hear them, too!  At any rate, even though I did the two previous posts to keep length down, this one has still come close to three thousand words, so I’m going to pack it in (Update:  I actually ended up doing one more).  If you’ve stayed with me this far, you can finish up by listening to the closing theme for MST3K below.  Enjoy!

Part of the series “Mystery Science Theater 3000″

Posted on 05/02/2014, in Entertainment, humor, mythology, pop culture, society, television, television and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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