Big Hands, Warped Minds
The sign on the door says UniFil. The name stands for United Fulfillment, Inc., and that's exactly what Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy, Paul Chaplin, and Mike Nelson seem to be enjoying as they sip their morning coffee on the couch in this small St. Louis Park office. It has been a little over a month since they launched their new online humor magazine, TimmyBigHands (www.timmybighands.com), and after a spate of struggles with matters that aren't their forte--Web design, courting advertisers--they find themselves with more time to do what they love: being silly.
After ten years in production, the locally spawned cult-favorite program Mystery Science Theater 3000 was dropped by the Sci-Fi Channel last summer. In the aftermath, Corbett and the others (along with fellow alum Patrick Brantseg, who's not present for this coffee klatch) decided to rent an office together with the aim of pursuing individual projects, and perhaps collaborating a little. They've ended up collaborating a lot.
"We really just want to keep working together," says the 35-year-old Nelson, who was the host of MST3K. After the show was canceled, he explains, the group assayed a few Hollywood pitch meetings. "They asked questions like, 'So, will your show have a monkey in it? We like shows with monkeys,'" Nelson laughs. So that was that.
MST3K, as fans refer to the show, got its start in the Twin Cities in 1988, when KTMA-TV (Channel 23) was looking to fill a two-hour Sunday time slot. Local comedian Joel Hodgson's name came up, and Hodgson, then 28, quickly came up with a rough outline of the concept: a schlocky futuristic set in which a man (Hodgson) and two robots watch B-grade science-fiction movies and mercilessly ridicule them. After 21 locally run episodes, the show was picked up by Comedy Central (then known as the Comedy Channel); the series moved to the Sci-Fi Channel in 1997. Nominated for four Emmys, MST3K garnered a Peabody Award in 1993. (Hodgson left the series that year and moved to Los Angeles.)
"Mystery Science Theater got its start because of its unusual nature at the right time in cable history," says Chaplin, age 43, who joined MST3K as a writer in 1991. "Now Internet entertainment is in its early stages and nobody really knows where it's going to go, and that's very exciting."
TimmyBigHands is a departure from what Chaplin and Co. perpetrated on cable in that there's no science fiction involved. But the spirit of MST3K clearly lives on in cyberspace--and not merely in the multitude of fan sites celebrating the canceled show. For one thing, the group designed the Web site on their own--by reading books, Chaplin says, and, as he puts it, just trying to "see what works." The site's namesake is a line-drawing of a stick-figure-like body with a big round head and even larger hands. "We're trying to provide something worth going to if you're a dignified human being," Chaplin explains.
In a manner of speaking, he means it. He and his partners are aiming for a site filled with what they call "actual quality humor." Rather than define the ineffable, Chaplin cites its antithesis: an Easter weekend visit with his family. "We're all standing around, and my brother-in-law says, 'You know what's funny is this picture somebody sent me of a guy farting on his wife's forehead. Now that was a good joke.'"
TimmyBigHands is, well, more dignified. The closest thing to bathroom humor on the site is a paean to the human posterior, in a section called "Reviews": "Though they get no points for style, buttocks are very useful protuberances that house impressive musculature and do a fine job of filling square inches of pant." (The horse, the granule, the Statue of Liberty, and pain--"a good solid feeling"--have also been reviewed.)
The site, which is updated daily, consists of ten sections. One, labeled "Essays," features Nelson's aptly titled "Socratic Dialogue with a Steak," a lament called "Music: What Happened?" and "Let Me Talk," a rant against those who would ban drivers from talking on cell phones ("I regularly chat away into my sleek lime green Nokia while driving, and thus far I've been in only seven accidents. All of them were the fault of the other drivers....") Other sections include "Poetry Corner," a serialized "novel," "Syrup Ads," "Games," and a comic strip created entirely from clip-art books.
Chaplin admits that he and his cohorts haven't ruled out a future in television. But for now he's optimistic about their prospects on the Web. "If we can achieve a fairly decent level of traffic on the site, that might mean it will actually start to provide a living for us," Chaplin says. In the meantime he and Nelson pay the bills by writing for print and online publications. To supplement his own freelance writing gigs, the 43-year-old Murphy also does voiceover work. Corbett is a playwright, actor, and screenwriter who will soon have an animated series on Icebox.com.
The group recently signed a contract with Newcity.com, a Chicago-based company that sells advertising for more than 70 alternative weeklies, as well as a few dozen Web sites. They say they're relieved to be out of the business end of things.
"One of the first people who queried us about an ad was this guy who has an exterminating business in Louisiana," Murphy recounts. "He was very sincere--"
"That's our fan base," Chaplin interjects.
They got calls from a Chevy dealer in Ohio, a hockey team in Oakland, and a kid looking to run a banner ad for his school play, Hold the Pickles, Corbett reports. "I felt so bad. He was such a sweet kid," he says. "I mentioned that those ads cost money and the kid said, 'I'm willing to spend up to $60 if you can take that in installments.' I had to tell him we couldn't do that.
"He'll probably own our asses in five years."
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