Movie riffing isn’t as easy as it looks, despite what many, many people on the internet and at midnight screenings of obscure old schlock will tell you. The reason people think they can do it is because the godfathers of that particular brand of comedy make it look like a breeze, and like a lot of fun, too. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett are all, of course, veterans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and for the last several years have been the voices and minds behind RiffTrax, the a-la-carte comedy site that offers MP3 audio riffs to play along with some of Hollywood’s biggest movies, as well as pre-synced weird movies and shorts in the MST3K vein. They’ve also done live shows that have been screened in cinemas nationwide as a Fathom Event. This Thursday, August 14th, they will be performing 1998’s Godzilla, done as part of another successful Kickstarter campaign. We spoke to Mike, Kevin, and Bill about this latest excursion, about getting to cater directly to their fans, and about what goes into a good riffable film.
Nerdist: First of all, congratulations on the Kickstarter, which was so successful you actually get to do a second movie (Anaconda) in October. Were you surprised by just how successful the campaign was this time around?
Mike Nelson: Yeah, I was. We’ve already done one before in the back of my mind I’m like, well, look people already shelled out; we’re not going to do it again. I mean, this is the great way of pre-selling something and we’re never really sure if they’re interested, so we are happily surprised.
N: Almost 5,000 people donated also, so it must be really gratifying for you to know that so many people want to come and watch you in theaters you aren’t even at.
Bill Corbett: Absolutely. I have no problem being gratified in that way.
Kevin Murphy: It’s very encouraging that people still love it and connect with it in that way, and obviously we get better every time, so we want to give it our best just for that reason.
BC: We also tried to refine it this time around, because the last Kickstarter we did, we didn’t definitely have a title, we were just kind of shooting for it. So, we are learning as we go as well. Have to make it work for them.
N: The 30th Volume of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on DVD just came out, and between the way those sell and the success you guys have had with RiffTrax, are you finding that your brand of comedy is perhaps more popular now than when you were doing the TV show back in the ’90s?
MN: Well, I think more people DO it. Obviously, the internet opened it wide for anyone to mock movies. There’s a bunch of similar things, there’s people who do it live. Yeah, I think it’s just a broader base of appeal. You know, we used to be considered quite kitschy and culty; now with the internet we can reach those people more directly. I don’t know if it’s more popular but I think more people are doing it so it doesn’t appear strange anymore.
N: You guys are really the godfathers of the format, though, so do you feel propriety over it at all, like “Hey, this is our thing, man, we were doing this first”?
KM: Yes, we’ve grown in power. We consider ourselves power-mad now.
MN: We’re like Galadriel.
KM: “I shall become a queen!”
BC: You ARE the goddess of all that is liquid and water.
N: Yeah, I’ve always thought that about you; that you’re the goddess of all that is liquid and water.
MN: Thank you; I’m glad you noticed.
N: I wonder if you might explain a bit about the process of getting a Fathom event off the ground. I know in the past you’ve chosen a title and then couldn’t get the rights to the title and had to pick another one, so what actually goes into getting that on the screen?
MN: Well, when we first approached the studio, I think there was a lot of trepidation because they’d never done anything like it, but to their credit, Sony… You know, you walk up to anybody with a big enough check and they’re going to be interested. But I think they were a little nervous about it the first time around and then they saw, “Oh, hey, this is a fun event, and the sky didn’t fall, and these guys aren’t really mean to our movies.” You know, we’re not tearing it down and slandering everyone involved with it, so they opened up their library and we went back again. They’ve been really great to work with; we’re not used to working with the big players.
N: For your riff of Starship Troopers last year, you had members of the cast actually tweeting out and helping to promote the event, to the point where you were actually kind of apologizing to them during the show as you cracked a joke about them, which was pretty funny.
BC: It is a little odd because it was not very common on Mystery Science Theater because the movies were older as a rule, and with our stuff with RiffTrax, we do a lot of video on-demand that’s really obscure and old and shorts from the ’40s and stuff like that where the people involved, mostly, are no longer with us and wouldn’t care anyway. But, yeah, with these people [in Starship Troopers], they’re on Twitter and they’re aware of stuff that’s going on. It’s not a bad thing for us, I think, to know so we don’t get personally abusive, but it’s also flattering in a way to know they support it and are good sports. Just about everybody in Starship Troopers who weighed in was really, really nice about it.
KM: And, let’s be honest, we could have been a lot harder on Tara Reid if we wanted.
BC: Who isn’t even in Starship Troopers. Like, “Why aren’t you in this movie, Tara Reid?”
N: At a certain point they have to know that those aren’t maybe the best movies.
KM: One would hope.
MN: We did Birdemic and the major cast members, if you can call them that, were watching in the theater and the female lead was kind of adorable in the movie and just does the role, but the guy was such a schlub, so her we kind of just gave praise to and him we tore a new one. I felt pretty bad about that, like he’s sitting next to her in the theater going, “Hey, I… come on, man!” But I don’t know what we’re supposed to do; his performance was… not quite there.
N: And whether they’re there or not, at a certain point you owe it to the riffing audience to be like, “sorry, buddy, you’re not good in this movie.”
BC: We have many duties. Our responsibilities are vast and grave.
N: Since RiffTrax does the old and obscure like you were saying and also newer, glossy Hollywood movies, do you approach the writing of it any differently?
BC: I think probably not. I think if a movie is somewhat good, we’ve done some good movies, as Kevin has said before, will end up being like an affectionate roast. I’ve always liked that framework that Kevin uses. The other thing is you find more nooks and crannies to kind of impose jokes on the movie rather than commenting on the badness of the movie itself. Which is actually good for us to discipline ourselves. We’re there to provide comedy not social critique necessarily.
N: The Rifftrax model is based almost entirely on direct communication and catering to fans; do you enjoy that kind of one-to-one feedback?
MN: Yeah, it’s great. People suggest things for us to do; we get immediate feedback as to if we did a good job. And, obviously, it sort of drives things like the Kickstarter and it kind of steers us in the direction we need to go. You know, we would endlessly do Stallone ’80s movies if let off of our leash. Or whatever; we might go our own way with little things that fascinate us, so it’s good to know what people want.
BC: We’ll finally take on The Sorrow and the Pity.
N: Finally! Or Shoah.
BC: Right! I would also say it fits our size and our relative cultural…obscurity might be too strong, but we’re not right in the middle of NBC’s lineup or anything like that. We’re really based on the web at this point, almost completely, outside of these Fathom shows. It’s good to have give and take where all the people are, where all the fans can find us. I think that might be one of the reasons why we’re chugging along so nicely. It’s easier to be interactive with the people who want to see what you’re doing.
N: And with the internet, you can cater directly to people who already like you as opposed to casting the wide net like I assume television demands.
KM: Yeah, I don’t think we could be as successful at what we do if we tried to cast a wide net. It would be too watered down.
BC: It would fail, on many levels.
MN: I think if we get to that point, we just add a monkey in a hat and then we’ll be good to go.
N: A monkey in a hat always works! Even though you work primarily on the internet, you guys obviously enjoy doing the live shows; what is it about them that you love the most?
BC: I love the interactive energy. You know, maybe I’m shameless because I like hearing laughs for stuff that I say out loud. I like that the audience gets to direct us a little bit with what they like and don’t like. We will drop a joke here and there, or a add a little bit. It is tremendously fun to come out of the bunker once in a while and make a house full of people laugh.
KM: There’s an element of it that the show is LIVE; once we start the train rolling downhill, we can’t stop. We have to get through this thing, so the energy is put towards that and have as much fun as we can along the way. So, the live aspect for me is really adrenaline that makes it more of a high-wire act.
BC: Yeah, we love being scared shitless.
N: Finally before I let you go, and thank you again for talking with me this morning: this has been a pretty packed summer for blockbusters; are there any that you’re already excited at the prospect of getting to riff?
MN: Well, you know, we’ve been so busy I didn’t get out and see anything, so it’s really hard to say. Kevin, you usually go see everything.
BC: Decide for us, Kevin!
KM: Uh, what’s the name of that one with Scarlett Johansson?
BC: Oh, [as Ricky Ricardo] Luuuuucyyyyyy!
KM: Yeah, Lucy I think is the one we’ll really be able to tear into because Luc Besson is not a subtle man.
BC: [Still as Ricky Ricardo] Honey, stop using 70% of your brain!
KM: That’s definitely one that we could tower over.
MN: So there you have it, Kyle; Kevin has nominated Lucy.
N: Very good! I’ll say right now, don’t bother with Transformers 4. I’m sure you’ll have to do it at some point, but boy is that a slog and a half.
MN: I would rend my own eyes out.
The RiffTrax LIVE skewering of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla will be this Thursday, August 14th, with a second (albeit no longer actually live anymore) showing of it happening Tuesday, August 19th. Tickets for these can be purchased via Fathom Events. For all other comedy goodness, visit RiffTrax.com.