Ask Michael J. Nelson what he finds funny, and the answer doesn't fit with his television image as a regular guy who spent years trading wisecracks with robots while watching really bad movies.
"I love the golden age of the '20s, and even earlier," Nelson says, reeling off the names of such literary wits as P.G. Wodehouse, S.J. Perelman and Robert Benchley.
"I just love them all. I'm always a little worried--is it too late, that era? Will it ever return, where people really enjoy reading?"
Nelson, 37, does his part to recapture those days of droll humor with "Mike Nelson's Mind Over Matters." A collection of 58 essays on such subjects as "Portal to Hell: The RadioShack Experience" and "Television and How It's Shaped Us ... Into Balls of Dough," Nelson's second book goes a long way toward establishing him as a Midwestern Jerry Seinfeld.
Among the targets:
* Lunching in the Serengeti Room at the Cafe Odyssey restaurant. ("Is there anything enjoyable about eating a turkey club while living in fear that at any moment, a Serengeti leopard will leap from the tall plains grass, sink its teeth into the back of your neck, and as you thrash and scream, drag you up and into a nearby shade tree, where it consumes you slowly?")
* Leaf blowers. ("Leaf blowers have taken a world which was, on the whole, a decent place to live, in spite of talk radio, and turned it into a noisy and unpleasant vale filled with atomized bits of vegetal detritus.")
* "Whimsical" office furniture. ("After 10 days of noting the design's wink-and-a-nod attitude toward the modernist school, you'd punch the chair right in its smirking, witty little face and then step on it, bending a leg slightly and damaging its aluminum powder-coating.")
As former head writer and host of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," Nelson was with the cult cable-TV show for almost all of its 10-season run. He took over for the show's creator, comedian Joel Hodgson, as the trapped-in-space everyman forced to watch cinematic sludge such as "Soultaker" and "Invasion of the Neptune Men" while exchanging quips with robots Crow and Tom Servo.
In 2000, Nelson's first book after the show's demise, "Mike Nelson's Movie Megacheese," took aim at big-name movie stars and bloated Hollywood blockbusters. But for his new book, he was glad to get away from bad movies and just explore the things around him, such as his wife's obsession with skin moisturizers.
Nelson's wife, former "Mystery Science" writer-performer Bridget Jones, and their two young sons provide inspiration for some of the sketches in "Mind Over Matters." The final piece is a sweet, funny recounting of Nelson's attempts to read a bedtime story to the boys.
But Nelson's greatest source of material is himself, such as his clumsy attempts at musical theater or his celebration of his Danish heritage.
Television also provides a lot of comic fodder for Nelson. He writes a monthly "Watch Dog" column for TV Guide. For a future column, he's trying to get a tape of the Fox TV special "Celebrity Boxing," featuring the Tonya Harding-Paula Jones match.
"The goal [for TV now] is to be both stupid and appalling," Nelson says. "Remember the golden days, when TV was just stupid? When 'My Mother the Car' was all you needed?"
Nelson decries the so-called reality TV trend and wacky morning radio-show announcers who pretend to be someone else while interviewing unsuspecting subjects.
"Unless everyone's in on the joke, I'm not really interested in it. It just kind of makes me squirm."
Not that there aren't some "Mystery Science" bits that Nelson regrets, such as the skit in which the cast mocked a large-faced actor.
"We flat-out called him an ugly, ugly man," Nelson says. "And it struck us as funny. And then I watched the show, I saw it coming. It's like, 'Oh, what if that guy is sitting there and his movie comes on--'Hey, kids, let's watch.'"
Nelson recently returned to writing for television, joining the staff of the Twin Cities-produced show "Let's Bowl" for four weeks. The show, which features bowlers settling their grudges on the lanes for such prizes as a used Dodge Charger or a new chain saw, airs on Comedy Central.
Nelson recently taped a pilot for a TV show and is editing his next book, "a clean, funny novel." He also stays in touch with fellow "Mystery Science" cast members Bill Corbett (Crow) and Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo).
"We're talking about working on something," Nelson says. "That's how vague I am. We're maybe going to turn it into a concept and then an idea."