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A Historian's First Steps

  It was around the year 1998. I knew this for a fact because this was when, after Comedy Central decided to be dicks (at least to my irrational teenage mind) and take Mystery Science Theater 3000 of the air, the Sci-Fi channel had saved the day and picked up the program (until, years later, they decided to be dicks). The scheduling was a touch wonky, to be honest. New episodes would premiere in the mid-afternoon, with a second showing at eleven on Saturday.

Yes, I know it's from the Comedy Central era. No, I do not care.

  It should be no surprise that I love Mystery Science. I have a signed poster from the Cinematic Titanic crew right by my computer. The first episode of You Know It was inspired by the fantastic riffs of Mike and the Bots. The goofy intermissions and hilarious savaging of movies helped to shape my sense of humor and get me into a lot of trouble with my teachers for not staying quiet during movies. Come to think of it, it also is responsible for irritating the shit out of a lot of my ex-girlfriends.

  But I digress. Television and I have never really been cool with each other. I don’t mean that in the hoity-toity, I don’t own a TV way. No, sir, I like watching stuff from my couch. Rather, I mean that in the way that a lot of the time, I just don’t like anything that’s on. Before Burn Notice, Breaking Bad, Futurama, and the first couple of seasons of Dexter, it tended to take awhile to find a show that I can get into. Shows that I did like I tended to miss the boat on - sometimes by decades, like with Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Others that I enjoyed were teaching me valuable lessons about expecting too much out of my relationship with entertainment: at the time, The Simpsons was beginning its long, slow, boring decent into irrelevance and painful unfunniness – not yet to Family Circus levels, but drawing disastrously close.

  But MST3K always got a laugh out of me. If you waited long enough, there was a joke which appealed to pretty much anyone. High brow or low brow, it didn’t matter. Granted it takes awhile for some people to warm up to it, but I attribute this to working through the society-mandated taboo on speaking while watching movies. Either that, or they’re terrible people who should be punched in the face. One of the two.

  To further elaborate on the situation I found myself in, you need to know that my father picked up the occasional night shift on Saturdays. While I wasn’t always able to manage to stay awake long enough to see him come home, I would try. And MST really made the home stretch go much easier. The sad part about it was that my dad also liked the show, which made watching it that late, with him not able to join my mother and me, kind of bittersweet. Well, in retrospective, anyway. As with most people, I was a touch on the dumb side at the time.

  So, in between long stretches of nothing, my days would be spent playing video games until I got bored, then flipping listlessly through channels. One night, however, I stopped on PBS. Occasionally, the network would air episodes of Red Dwarf, a British comedy sci-fi series which helped spur my love for the genre.

Song provided without context.

Since this was the days before handy, on-screen television guide, I would stop there on occasion and hope for the best. I forget if I came in on the tale end of an episode and was hoping for a marathon. Dumb kid, remember? In any case, I waited.

  What I got was an episode from the second season of Blackadder. Specifically, the episode “Bells”. In it, the Elizabethan protagonist, Edmund Blackadder (played by Rowan Atkinson, famous in the States for portraying the terminally mumbly Mr. Bean) fell in love with a girl named Kate, who was posing as a man named Bob in order to stave off her father’s eventual bankruptcy. Naturally, I didn’t know this was a savaging of Twelfth Night, but I didn’t care. The banter was quick and hilarious, dirty with a knowing wink, but also incredibly smart. By the time the rogue Flashheart broke up the wedding, made out with the bride-to-be and declared “She’s got a tongue like an electric eel, and she likes the taste of a man’s tonsils,”* I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breath. PBS generously aired another episode immediately afterward; I graciously accepted.

  This, I think, was the real start of my love affair with history. “But Jonathan!” you shout, adjusting your monocle in disbelief. “Surely you must have had inklings of interest in the intimate iterations of historical insight!”

  Well, you alliterating foppish top-hatted brigand, you shall soon be without sight as your monocle goes shooting into the lower stratosphere. For you see, I never really cared for history before this point. I found it, at best, a subject I had to pass in order to continue onward in school. At worst, it was an irritation – in 5th grade we had a guest teacher come in and teach us history who gave us an assignment to do a paper and presentation on someone of debatable importance. I was stuck with some guy named John who, for the life of me, I can’t remember. You think I would... I wrote a report on the asshole. Um... John Smith? John McClane? Huh. All I do remember is my essay getting me a C- with the vague rationale that I had provided too much irrelevant information.

  It’s amazing how things like that stay with you, twisting you into a shell of a human being awaiting vindication. And then your will to live just continues to drain, revealing the bottom of the barrel that is your life, and then it just splits, showing you that’s there’s no end to the despair of getting a bad grade and knowing someone out there thinks so little of you that... wait. Shit. I mean... um... it’s funny how... um... I struggle to transition to the next paragraph. Dammit.

  Anyway, it has a lot to do with how history is taught before college. Thanks to the glory objective testing (what with it being easier to test and quantify for idiot school board members), all the fun and interesting stuff about history is flushed away in favor of names and dates. Maybe some key concepts, if the kids are particularly lucky. It’s a motherfucking disgrace, really. At the same time, though, I don’t know an effective solution to it. I mean, try explaining to a kid the hetero-normative gender roles endemic to 1950's America and how it relates to the Cold War without their brains exploding. But hey, I’d rather try that than punish students because they transposed the numbers in 1831.

  Anyway, the glory of Blackadder is that it doesn’t rely on contemporary humor. Rather, a large portion of the jokes are observational and, really, perfectly timeless. Those that aren’t are steeped within the history of the particular season. Each one occurs in a separate era, starting in the Dark Ages and ending in WWI, and each season has a loving attention to detail with its ribbing of historical figures, places, and concepts. Know the anecdote about the Earl of Sandwich inventing the sandwich? There’s a joke about that (which is not on YouTube because the BBC apparently hates me). Superstitious actors not being able to say Macbeth? Yup. It’s a show that rewards you for paying attention and for appreciating the particular time period each episode finds itself in.

  This isn’t to say that I immediately dove into my history studies or anything like that. I was still, at the time, a stupid teenager. But it made me start paying attention to the dirt in history. I read my books a touch more carefully. I asked more questions. I was appropriately shocked when classmates would say things like “The Germans were our allies in World War 2, right?” When my mother (the one-time history teacher) would explain concepts, I’d listen a lot more intently. After all, she knew a lot of the good stuff, like the completely fabricated but incredibly enduring rumor of... um... just Google “Catherine the Great’s Horse” and you’ll see what I mean. Just... don’t go through Image Search with the safe search off. You’ll... you’ll be very sorry. Or very pleased, at which point I will thank you if you never visit my site again.

  In any case, this was the first real movement toward becoming a historian. A shaky step, to be sure, but it was still there. I would change course many times throughout my life, but the one thing which always seemed like a perfect fit was history. Sure, I wasn’t going to focus on Europe in the end (you know, where the history’s from), but the affair began with a posh British accent and jokes about blackmailing psychotic baby-eating bishops. So, if you want anyone to blame, it’s the English.

And now, a melody to soothe your soul. Or something.

  John Cabot! That’s who it was! Goddamn that guy was a boring ass. Fuck him and his useless son Sebastian... jerks got me a below-average grade.

  * I still use this tremendously inappropriate line, at random, at least once a month. Try it, it’s fun! Just don’t be mad at me when you’re (justifiably) kicked in the junk.

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