It’s scary now, thinking about how much Mystery Science Theater 3000 I watched growing up. Woody Allen took an entire Japanese action film and re-dubbed the entire dialogue track to make What’s Up, Tigerlilly, but MST3K defined the art of film riffing. When the show’s 11-year run finally came to end, cast members went in different directions with the premise, and thus, Rifftrax was born.
Essentially an MP3 service that allows you to sync up the dialogue track created by Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, Rifftrax has grown to include other facets of entertainment and live shows. Mike, Bill, and Kevin came to NYC for their first ever live Riff in the Big Apple as part of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. I caught up with the crew the day before they premiered their new live Riff for the cult classic, The Room.
Den of Geek: I’d like to think I’m in the know with these things, but I’m surprised to realize you’ve never done a live show in New York before.
Kevin Murphy: No, no.
Is there something special about doing these shows in the big cities?
KM: Well, it’s funny. We’ve done a lot of these Rifftrax live shows now via satellite and the theaters in Manhattan always sell out. As a matter of fact, they’ve had to add shows at the Union Square Theater, and screens, because they’ve been selling out. So that’s wonderful. It’s great to hear that. So I think it’s a really fun place to come and to come to the Tribeca Film Festival and the fact that they actually contacted us and thought we were cool and invited us to come figure out something to do, which was great.
Bill Corbett: To be fair they never said they thought we were cool. They invited us.
KM: Right. Fair enough.
BC: It was written on an old envelope they recycled from something else.
KM: And someone said, “Okay, you can come.”
BC: Yea, we’ll let you come. I guess.
Now, you guys have found a new way to circumvent some copyright issues from some large movies and smaller movies, but does it still seem like a fight to get the things you need out there?
Mike Nelson: Oh, to varying degrees. It’s pretty easy with Tommy Wiseau. Relatively easy. We contacted him a while back and I think he was asleep that day or something. So we did it again and he was surprisingly open to the idea. But yea, to varying degrees depending. It has no correlation to the quality of the film, how hard it is to acquire. Films that you would think, “Didn’t you just find it in a dumpster anyway? Can’t we just have it?” are difficult, and some are easier. Working with Sony was easy when we did the live shows for Starship Troopers. Relatively speaking.
KM: We do get a critical mass of good films by any standard. I mean, our video and demand stuff; I can’t believe the gems we get at this point that have never been done before. We have a long list right now of stuff to tackle as the year go on.
Where do the choices for the live shows come in? I mean, you’ve done The Room before but it was technically not live. Are there changes this go around from your last Riff on it?
MN: Oh yea, definitely. We’ve re-written the script from top to bottom and I’d say less than a third of the mp3 version will be in the live show. Lots of new material. It’s been a long time since we did it.
BC: Been a long time, I think we’ve gotten a little better, we’ve learned a little about how to do this a bit more. And also yea, tailoring it for the live is a different experience.
It’s funny talking about you upping your game since you’ve been doing it for a while. I mean you guys made an art out of this. This is something my father and I would sit around just doing ourselves and all of a sudden it’s, you know, “What are these guys doing?” Does it ever still feel like, “I can’t believe I created this animal, this monster?”
MN: No, it’s fun! It felt sort of natural as we went along. We always heard that we did this at home and there’s varying reactions to that, some people going like, “Why don’t I get to do it? I’d do it better than you.” But yea, since it does kind of have that commonality to it I think it’s fun to be a part of that and share it. On our site we do the iRiffs thing where people can put in their own riffs. I say the more, the merrier.
KM: Rifftrax really kind of grew out of Mystery Science Theater from television onto the internet, where everybody seems to be getting their entertainment now. What I’ve learned from that is it’s really all about the movies, about what we do to the movies that people really tune into. And I think that’s why that’s we’re still able to do what we do and continue to grow an audience.
Talking about transitioning from Mystery Science Theater into this, did the process take a while to get a hang of, now that you didn’t have sight gags to hang onto as well?
MN: Yea, that’s one of the things we always missed, is that you can’t just stop a film and go, “Now, did you just see that?” So we try to work that through the film and work it into running gags and things. Occasionally they overflow and for our own amusement we’ll write gags that we just put on our site. We’ll write sketches or we’ll do a video or do a little mini podcast about it. Just to sort of clear out those things that we couldn’t cover just by doing the Rifftrax.
KM: Or we’ll beat the hell out of the dead horse on Twitter or Facebook.
BC: We still have an outlet for it one way or another and make sure we get it covered.
Did you ever want to or still want to produce something completely separate, like a thriller. Bill, I know you had a big stage background. Do we have Rifftrax the Musical coming to Broadway anytime soon, or something more off the beaten track?
BC: I’m not feeling anything we would do, would be off brand for us. I mean, we might say, “Here, our sense of humor applied to a narrative form. See what you think.” But I don’t feel the need to do that because I feel like we do that apart from it anyway.
KM: I think we’ve had our various outlets over the years with one thing or another. Writing books, doing some music, now we’re doing some radio. Those are some nice little asides that have nothing to do with our business. And it is nice to do that every now and then, challenge yourself in another way.
MN: Vegas show, that’s what I’m looking for.
Is it a cardinal sin of Riffing on a comedy? Because I’m trying to think back and I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen you Riff on a comedy that I can remember.
MN: I don’t know that it’s a cardinal sin; it’s just harder to do. And we’ve run into things that have been partially comedies or have comic moments and sometimes when they absolutely fail you can point that out and just be a real dick. Point out the failure of the comedy. Pirates of the Caribbean, we did that early on. It has its horror moments and its melodrama moments. It really is funny. It intended to be funny, and succeeds a lot. So I think that was a little difficult for us.
KM: We haven’t done a lot of Rifftrax, but the one we are doing right now, In Search of a Yeti…was as close to a comedy as we’ve done.
MN: Yea, that’s trying hard. Starring Meatloaf. That’s maybe all you need to know.
BC: Well, we did do a lot of the popular shorts that we did a lot of live shows of, the Norman Shorts. Norman is a comic foil, like he steps in the toilet and electrocutes himself in his bathroom. Stuff like that.
KM: There’s something about those. It might just be the fact that they’re just really quite short shorts and the fact that we can’t really pin down what anyone was intending…
MN: They’re just so grimm. Norman is this desperate dope that nobody likes and his life is just a living hell.
BC: And unlike a lot of our shorts with an educational component, this is just like, “What? Don’t step in the toilet? Is that the lesson?”
MN: It’s a pointless hollow of despair. There’s only one out of the four that isn’t toilet related in some way. It’s amazing.
These are honestly the questions that I hate, but I’m actually interested in knowing. If you could have someone to Riff with, who would be there by your side?
KM: We have these sketchfest shows quite a bit, and we’ve gotten to do it with a lot of people we wanted.
MN: They’re people I would have wanted anyway.
KM: Absolutely. Thinking of Kristen Schall, Paul Tompkins, Chris Hardwick, Weird Al, Andy Richter, Joel McHale, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk…really great to do that.
BC: Pre-Breaking Bad Odenkirk. There’s somebody missing from that. Maybe one of the Monty Python guys.
It’s interesting, now that you mentioned his name, thinking about Joel McHale for instance. The Soup, well even back when it was Talk Soup, is technically an offshoot of what you guys have done. Do you see how you kind of bled out into society that way?
BC: I think those kind of things are in the zeitgeist, kind of happen all at once. I think we get a lot of credit for it in the press whether earned or not.
MN: There are little predecessors to it, too. And there’s Beavis and Butthead, which is slightly after but grew up on another track.
KM: L.A. Connection did the overdubs of whole movies and they improvise from start to finish, which is something I never dare at times.
That’s funny, I totally forgot Beavis and Butthead was basically the cartoon version of MST3K. You totally forget things sometimes and then you go back and you realize, “Oh, I’ve seen that before.”
KM: There was actually one when I was growing up back in the fifteenth century called, “Fractured Flickers.” Hans Conried who was big in the borscht belt community and did the movies, and they did film commentaries on old films. Roughly the same thing we do. Sometimes they add voices to these films and they’d strip out the sound from the film and do essentially what we are doing. Totally fits now.