Television cult sensation Mystery Science Theatre 3000 may have left the air in 1999, but stars/writers Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy (“Tom Servo” himself), and Bill Corbett are still hard at work riffing movies we love to hate (and some we hate to love) on their popular RiffTrax website and downloadable soundtrack series. On Thursday August 19, RiffTrax is hitting big screens across the country with RiffTrax Live!, presented by Fathom Events, and featuring the MST3K tradition of a collection of (unintentionally) hilarious classic shorts before the feature presentation, this time a colorized version of the 1936 cult classic Reefer Madness!
RiffTrax is also rolling out two new contests to celebrate this event: a Joke Contest where fans can submit their own riff to a particular scene of the film for a chance to win a RiffTrax Swag Bag and get their names featured on-screen; and an iPod Sweepstakes promotion where those who purchase their tickets in advance get a chance to win a brand new iPod!
On a phone call this morning, I joined representatives from websites and publications ranging from ActionFigureInsider.com, MovieCultists.com, and The Oklahoman as we spoke with Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett about their upcoming nationwide event, as well as the legacy of their beloved 11-year television show.
Note: The RiffTrax guys are an energetic bunch who talk in rapid fire, and the interviewers weren’t always clearly identified, so questions and answers are not specifically credited. Change in speaker from one participant to another is identified with a hyphen.
Press: Is there a particular decade, obscure reference, or societal more you like to rip on?
RiffTrax: The 30′s. Reefer Madness gives us that heavily late 30′s/early 40′s, “everyone’s wearing suits, even if they’re ten years old” thing. / Everybody talks like each other – everybody’s “hard boiled” out. / Also, movies of the 1980′s. It’s a lost decade of insanity and bad feathered hair. / We did “Boy in the Plastic Bubble” – it’s 1976, but close enough. John Travolta in extremely tiny shorts.
Press: How do you come up with your jokes?
RiffTrax: They’re manufactured in Korea, then shipped over! No, we have a team of writers. / We get a lot of crap from people about that, too – they don’t want to believe the jokes are written by a team of writers.
Press: Did you run into people you’ve riffed on at Comic-Con?
RiffTrax: Tommy Wiseau. For those who don’t know him, Tommy Wiseau is the author, star, producer, director of a movie called “The Room.” We did a RiffTrax of it. / Tommy…he doesn’t seem to understand anything about reality. He wasn’t fond of our riffing on it, but it didn’t come to blows or anything. He thought we were stealing his soul in some way. (mocking Wiseau’s voice) “Oh, hi lawsuit…” I’m looking forward to “The House That Drips Blood on Alex.” Such a great title. / Dodging Viggo Mortensen can be a real trial…
Press: How do you feel about Manos the Hands of Fate being a movie people actually know now? It’s had quite a resurgence – Entertainment Weekly did a whole piece on it, and Elvira’s showing it on her upcoming show.
RiffTrax: (starts singing the haunting Torgo theme from the film) That movie makes me wanna put a bullet in my brain!! / (Mike) That is the movie I’m not allowed to mention around Bridget, my wife and former MST3K writer. Can’t bring it up in my household. / There’s been at least one Manos documentary done. There’s a guy who shows up to every Comic-Con as Torgo. He has the theme song tucked in his underwear endlessly as he walks around. / Oh, you said underwear!! / Damn it, I didn’t say underpants. / Will you get underpants into this conversation? / It’s an ongoing bet we have. To get the word “underpants” worked into conversation. / I think they’re actually trying to make a sequel – they want to do it from Torgo’s point of view. Maybe we can get Tommy to direct it!! It might actually be good, with all that bad involved. It might go all the way around the other side. Like antimatter.
Press: How has the RiffTrax Live! series grown since first launching on screens?
RiffTrax: It’s been wonderful! We’ve added more theatres as we’ve gone on. It’s great to get this show live to places in other areas that would never get this show. We’re actually thinking of doing it in 3-D! / I’ve always wanted to force people to wear an item of eye-wear. This could be my dream chance. / Bill Corbett looks like a proboscis monkey in 3D. There are many unsightly protuberances.
Press: Do you think any films of this generation will be a Manos for future generations, such as The Room or Australia?
RiffTrax: I think the Twilight movies can be nominated – I think they will baffle generations. / Any of the dozen of films where people can see a few minutes into the future. “Three and a half minutes into the future!” / I nominate the remake of The Wicker Man – definitely The Wicker Man. He’s dressed as a bear and punches out a woman!?! / Also, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, which we’ve riffed. Though it’s not quite as homemade and cheap special effects. Like Birdemic.
Press: If you were given cart blanche to riff any movie, which would you choose?
RiffTrax: Roadhouse. But they don’t wanna have us make fun of it. It’s our dream, but the power of Ben Gazzara… / He can crush us like a bug! / Also the 70′s film Billy Jack. A peaceful half-breed Indian who really didn’t want any trouble, but got pushed and pushed and ended up beating people’s teeth down their throats. / The Magnificent Ambersons, cuz that bitch had it coming.
Press: Any more live shows lined up?
RiffTrax: We’re working on a Halloween show, with House on Haunted Hill. With Vincent Price!
Press: Have any of the movies you riffed been especially painful to sit through?
RiffTrax: Transformers 2. I found that like being hit in the kneecap with a rock hammer. / I would co-sign Transformers 2 – it’s such a confuse-o-vision movie by the end of it, we didn’t know what to write. / Memento was a tough film to write, because they’re so much dialogue – you need some film to write to. / (Kevin) Transformers 2 made me itch. / You start to run out of jokes about Shia LaBeouf after about five minutes. / I can joke endlessly about Shia LaBeouf. / Reefer Madness is quite hilarious on its own. I think people remember the really funny parts of it, but there’s a lot of filler and that’s where we really have fun. We do a lot of work there, and that’s where we lift it up. I am the wind beneath Reefer Madness’ wings. / Contact highs of laughter. / One of the short subjects we’re gonna do may be the weirdest, most notorious short we’ve ever done. It’s supposed to be a fun kids’ craft short, and it ends up being a descent into madness… / What were they thinking in this part of the country that they thought you had to instruct adults how to brush their teeth with such vigor!?
Press: Who would be your dream guest riffer?
RiffTrax: Well some of my favorites that we’ve worked with are Neil Patrick Harris, Fred Willard, Weird Al Yankovich, and Chad Vader. / Joel McHale. / Don Rickles – was he ever born to do that. Whenever he’s ready! / Actually, Zach Galifianakis. He’s so light on his feet. I think he’s actually funnier improvising. He’s a very funny fellow.
Press: What do you guys think of what you do compared with Cinematic Titanic? Do you still keep in touch with Joel (Hodgson)?
RiffTrax: Well compared to Cinematic Titanic…I think we’re much better looking. That helps immeasurably. / No, I’ve chatted with them, done shows with them. / Mary Joe can go to Hell! I’m kidding. / We have these two projects that evolved from the same mother ship, and they evolved in different ways. There’s too many people now to do the same project. We all specialized in very different things. Plus we’re older and kinda chunkier, so there’s just no room.
Press: When you approach a celebrity to guest, do you have a movie in mind? Or do you give them a list to choose from?
RiffTrax: We give them a wide opening. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was not one I would have picked, but it was an inspired choice – it was one Neil Patrick Harris always wanted to do. Joel McHale immediately wanted to do Red Dawn. It’s been a little bit of give and take, but it was always left open to them.
Press: Have you ever thought about plugging in to the soldiers in Iraq?
RiffTrax: Yeah! I just was in touch with a guy in Afghanistan that we’re sending stuff to, and he told me they do viewings there. That was exciting. / We’re providing them with some stuff. It’s not live, but it got us thinking.
Press: What made you choose the parts, such as the robot? How did you come up with that madness?
RiffTrax: Here’s a funny thing: I got my character after it’d already been created. The madness you see is a product of the group madness. Everything I brought to that character I attribute to all the madness that everybody brought to that character. / Except for Bill. / (Bill) Yeah, I tried to bring Tom Servo DOWN!
Press: Do you ever find yourself taking these movies home with you, or speaking in movie quotes to your kids?
RiffTrax: The song from The Pumaman – that’ll be there for a couple of months. It’s a treacherous ear worm.
Press: What are some of your favorite shorts? And can you tell us about some of shorts that we’ll see at Reefer Madness?
RiffTrax: We tried to pick a theme, and one of them is from the same era as Reefer Madness. / We’re showing our first animated short! Don’t wanna give it away – really old, really terrifying animation. Story is sort of impenetrable – of course, everyone bobs up and down all the time. / Another one is a craft short, apparently made by no one or nothing, you can’t tell where it’s sourced. It seems to be from some world of madness. It’s from a hole in a parallel universe. / Who made this? What possible motive? How did this happen? / As far as favorites, Mr. Bungle. / Oh yeah, Lunchroom Manners. / A recent one was Drawing for Beginners. A lot of good gaps in that for us to get in and be silly with. / Also, Shake Hands with Danger. Falling off tractors, getting their hands cut off. / Oh, and Little Lost Scent – a baby skunk named Gregory who absolutely kicks ASS on every animal he discovers.
Press: Are any films off limits, or is anything fair game?
RiffTrax: There are some films that are off limits. We would be MONSTERS if we went after something like Schindler’s List, or Hotel Rwanda. / The closest we came was the beginning of X-Men. There’s a concentration camp scene with Magneto as a boy. We kinda made a joke of it – “this is not what I signed for, Nelson!” – but that was unsustainable in the long haul. / Also, movies like Saw - those slasher porn movies. Those are sort of difficult. There are two types of horror – slasher porn, and those horror movies that are knowingly winking comedies – that are hard to do.
Press: If you got permission, would you ever do The Day the Clown Cried?
RiffTrax: If I understand it, the film in its entirety doesn’t exist. Just purely raw footage. I think its the most notorious video never to make it to YouTube. / My knee-jerk reaction is – anything in that setting, just stay far, far away. At the same time, there’s dopiness to it – there might be something there.
Press: What has been the most popular RiffTrax?
RiffTrax: Definitive answer: sparkly vampires. Twilight. It’s amazing. It doesn’t seem like it’d be in our genre – I don’t think our comedy appeals to pre-pubescent girls. I think it’s mostly boyfriends that had to suffer through this. It’s their revenge. It was so damn much fun to write. / The second one was almost just as much fun. One of our favorites to write. / It takes itself so seriously, in such a melodramatic way. Technically, it had a lot of space for us to work with. The Twilight movies are kinda ponderous. A lot of space. / We’re looking forward to the next three movies. I wonder how they’re gonna pull the rabbit out of the hat with the last books – those things are gruesome and weird!! I don’t know how it’s gonna play to a large audience. It’s really weird.
Press: Have you ever gone further back into the Taylor Lautner closet of horror and considered doing Sharkboy and Lava Girl?
RiffTrax: (Mike) Well before you start ripping on Taylor, have you seen him with his shirt off?? He’s beautiful!! / (Kevin) I’m team Harpo all the way.
Press: Godzilla or Gamera?
RiffTrax: (Mike) You do mean to eat, right? / Gamera, all the way! / Gamera was always much more interesting – Godzilla was a one trick pony.
Press: Have you ever done a movie you really liked, and felt bad about riffing?
RiffTrax: There are actually movies we really liked, and didn’t feel bad about riffing. Casablanca is chief among them. / Well it’s important to point out that we’re sociopaths, and don’t really feel bad about anything! / Casablanca ended up being more of a roast. / Yeah, we decided with movies like Jaws and Casablanca and Lord of the Rings, we do think of those more as roasts. We’re not going so much at the movie or content itself, but just finding ways to have fun with it.
Press: Are there any sort of pitfalls you’re leery about when going into these live events?
RiffTrax: (Mike) Kevin’s drinking prob. / (Kevin) I really need to lay off the sauce before we go on stage. No, things can go wrong, sure. But between the Fathom folks and our production team Camp Digital, they’ve made us so relaxed, and made it so easy for us to just sit down and do our stuff!
RiffTrax Live!: Reefer Madness – August 19 in theaters everywhere!
- Logan Crow
August 6, 2010