Photo by Eliesa Johnson
In 1988, Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on Minneapolis public access TV, and the show about a captive janitor forced to watch an endless stream of B movies went on to become a 1990s Comedy Central staple. Today, three of the MST3K crew—Kevin Murphy, Mike J. Nelson, and Bill Corbett—are back in the game with RiffTrax, where they riff on everything from Birdemic to Twilight. Most Riffs are produced in a studio, but when the right flick comes along, they broadcast live from a theater. Which brings us to RiffTrax Live: Sharknado at the State Theatre, wherein the crew will put its spin on the Syfy original movie that took the saying “jump the shark” to its preposterous extreme by launching a chainsaw-wielding Ian Ziering into the mouth of a man-eating tornado shark.
What's the simplest way to explain RiffTrax?
MN: Impossible to do. You basically have to start with ‘Do you know Mystery Science Theater?’
KM: And if you do, then you just say, it’s just MST3K but it’s 99 percent puppet free. We provide a humorous film commentary track for movies. How’s that?
BC: Good soundbite, Kevin. You’re learning.
How many total movies have you guys Riffed?
MN: I think there’s well over 200 products. Some of them movies, some of them shorts, some of them MP3s. But, yeah, it’s way up there. We’ve been doing it for seven years now.
Where did RiffTrax come from?
MN: I had worked with Legend Films and the CEO wanted to work on something. I did a commentary for Roadhouse and we sorta just launched it and it was successful and it just kept going and I gradually brought these guys onboard.
What’s the process of creating a RiffTrax, because the beauty of them is that they seem like improv?
KM: That’s very high praise if it sounds improvised.
MN: I think we write to that end. We work so hard on the scripts that when we go into the studio for us it’s just relaxed.
KM: For me it’s crafting jokes that are really good and really funny and well-timed but also just these moments of discovery.
BC: We do have two staff writers, too. But basically we all do our chunk, then we put it into a big Google doc and then we review it and there’s always a lot of overlaps of jokes—bizarre overlaps—like a William Faulkner joke in three different parts of Sharknado. And then it’s editing. A lot of it feeling natural comes from eliminating words.
MN: Then again, if a person gave it a second’s thought they’d realize no human possibly came up with that on the fly.
One of the game changers with RiffTrax is your recent ability to tackle big movies. How does the licensing work for pictures like Sharknado or Twilight?
BC: For the big movies like Twilight where we have no chance of getting the rights, we don’t. We just make an MP3 that goes along with it. But there are plenty of movies that we do as video on demand that we either find out are in public domain or we buy the rights.
Sometimes you raise money to buy the rights on Kickstarter. Right now you’re raising money for Godzilla and Anaconda. That must be a substantial amount of money, right?
MN: You do not get the studio’s attention until you give them a big check.
So does the studio give you a set amount or does the number come from you?
MN: Well, the first time we just guessed because it had never been done before. But this time we had an actual cost of rights.
How many times have you guys actually done this?
BC: This is pretty new. We did it last year when we were aiming for Twilight but wound up with Starship Troopers.
MN: With studios you’ve got total silo mentality. We’re lucky to be able to work with Sony at all and they’re actually enthusiastic about it. But there’s people within Sony who still have to be convinced. So we’re pretty lucky to be able to be doing it at all.
The people who made Sharknado say they made it bad on purpose. You guys don’t usually Riff deliberately bad movies.
KM: You’ve heard my theorem about that, right?
MN: Kev thinks it was a documentary.
KM: I read an interview with the guy and it didn’t seem like he was the sharpest director in the director’s directory. And it sounds like Syfy hired him for that reason. But if it’s really that cynical and that “ironic” and they tried to make a bad movie well, they succeeded and the result is a bad movie.
MN: It’s not too wink and nod, though. It’s like a lot of other B-movies. Way back in Mystery Science we did the Killer Shrews, which is the same concept, really.
BC: But there’s a difference between that and, say, Birdemic, which is earnestly bad. An honest fuck-up. Like, a real big fuck-up but an honest one. But then they got popular and they started making money and Birdemic 2 came out and they tried to wink and nod and make comedy a little bit so we’re not going near that.
Does more go into a RiffTrack when it’s for a live performance?
KM: A lot more. We just take a lot more care. For a live audience we have to sorta try to be sensitive to the audience knowing they’re going to laugh at certain times so we do fewer jokes but we try to make it as polished as possible.
Live you’ve got one take. Once Sharknado rolls, it rolls, right?
KM: It’s going to keep going whether we want it to or not. The weirdest thing to me is that we’ve been watching this movie for weeks but then the audience will crack up at something we never saw coming.
Talk about the penultimate scene in Sharknado when Ian Zering literally jumps into the tornado shark with his chainsaw and cuts his way out with his girlfriend who had been eaten earlier in his arms.
BC: I wrote that section and that’s one of those moments where any joke would be futile because the audience is going to laugh already. So you have to jiu jitsu with the movie a little bit and let the audience have their moment with that, but then comment on the fact that that was entirely unnecessary, really, for anything.
MN: A couple of the moments that I found strange were when they referenced Jaws, which is basically like, “Remember this way better movie?”
KM: It’s weird. Their attempts at being self-conscious are naive. They’re really bad about being self-conscious. Instead of winking it just looks like they’re spazzing.
So they’re really almost a failure at being a failure? They made a bad movie that was bad for reasons different than what they had intended?
KM: That’s the conclusion I’ve come to.
MN: The first time I saw Birdemic I thought, “This would be great for us, however it can’t be real. The guy was kidding.” And only until you have that information that he was trying to do something can you really relax and go, “Now I think it’s funny.”
Have you seen more crappy movies than you have quality movies at this point in your lives?
BC: Oh yeah.
KM: But I think that’s true of anyone.
But you haven’t just seen said crappy movies. You’ve seen them each like 300 times.
KM: We’ve invited them into our homes to live with us. That’s true.
You are basically encyclopedias of crap cinema then?
BC: AKA, a life well lived.
KM: For me, and I think it’s true of all of us, once we’re done with it we try to get it out of our heads as quickly as possible.
MN: Same here. I try to dump the RAM as much as I can. There’s a few movies I actually end up liking, like Birdemic.
So you have to have a sort of innate love for bad movies or at least an appreciation for what they are, right?
BC: An appreciation of the fun of watching something exquisitely horrible.
MN: But there are certain movies that we just really end up hating and it kinda comes through in the RiffTrax.
BC: A good example is Manos: The Hands of Fate, which MST3K made famous and we did as a RiffTrax. Well, there’s something really unpleasant about that whole experience. Like kinda snuff-filmy or something.
KM: I hate that film.
RiffTrax Live Sharknado. July 10. State Theater. hennepintheatretrust.org