It’s not every day that you get to interview one of your idols, but I actually had one of those days. Kevin Murphy has been killing it for 24 years as a master riffer (riff guy?). First showing up as the second Tom Servo in the second season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Murphy had a long-lasting position as a puppeteer who would spend hours making fun of bad movies. A dream job for sure. As a writer and performer on the show, Murphy stayed prominent until it’s cancellation, where he wrote a book A Year at the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey in which he watched a movie a day and chronicled his findings. In an attempt to bring back MST3K’s glory, he, Mike Nelson, and Bill Corbett starred in a series of DVDs as The Film Crew, where they again made fun of bad movies.
The trio found success in 2006, with RiffTrax. A web-based follow-up to MST3K, the trio (and the occasional guest like Weird Al or Neil Patrick Harris) would rail on more widely-known movies, legally protected by only releasing mp3s of their commentary and leaving finding the movie itself up to you. The brand grew stronger over the years. They’ve released well over a hundred movie shorts. They’ve started releasing more obscure B-movies for download with the commentary already attached to it. They’ve even hit the movie theater a dozen times by doing RiffTrax Live, where their live performance would be broadcast across the country (and Canada) and showcased to countless theater-goers.
Their thirteenth RiffTrax Live show is coming up on October 30 with Anaconda. Months back, RiffTrax put up a Kickstarter to raise the funds needed to do a RiffTrax Live of the 1998 Godzilla movie. Because, you know, getting the rights to show that movie on such a level isn’t cheap. Not only did they shatter the $100,000 goal almost immediately, but by raising over $250,000, they used the excess to get access to Anaconda too!
I got to speak with the upbeat and energetic Mr. Murphy, who is the nicest guy you’ll ever talk to. Together, we spoke about the upcoming Anaconda showing, as well as Forrest Gump, Harry Potter, Bobo the Gorilla, and a majestic, old-timey criminal named Gabe.
Den of Geek: Originally this interview was meant to hype up the upcoming RiffTrax Live of Anaconda – in theaters on October 30, thanks to Fathom Events – but as it turns out, big things are happening with RiffTrax. The site just got redone and there are a ton of big bells and whistles on the horizon, like mobile apps and the ability to subscribe. Anything you can tell us about this new direction?
Kevin Murphy: Well, see, I’m just the guy who makes the jokes. I know so little about how the website works, it’s amazing I can even turn on my computer. But we’ve been looking to do this kind of stuff for a long time. It’s a lot more user-friendly for people who are there for the first time. If you’ve been on there a lot, you can go automatically to wherever you want to go. If you’ve never been there at all and you’re wondering what we do, there’s a nice introductory video that’s right there. Types of movies that you might want to look at, all grouped under different collections that we suggest for people and, yeah, we’re looking for the ability to perhaps subscribe in the near future. If that’s the kind of thing people want – and a lot of people say they would – for regular users on the site it ends up being a lot more affordable, which is pretty cool. And it’s just easier to find what you’re looking for on the site, I think that’s mainly a thing. Navigation’s a lot easier, checking out’s easier, makes the whole process—I think we’ve grown up. We got a great working website here like we’ve never had before and I attribute that to Erik [Peterson] and his work.
Speaking of growing… After Mystery Science Theater 3000 finished up, you guys first did the short-lived Film Crew, which didn’t quite work out in the end. On the other hand, RiffTrax has been a gigantic success and grown more and more over the years. At what point did you realize that this particular follow-up was really taking off and becoming something huge?
I tell you what, when me and the other two first did a live show – I think we first did it in San Francisco and we did Plan 9 From Outer Space at the Sketchfest out there – and we saw what this was like in front of a live audience and we filled the theater, which totally blew me away because it was a huge theater, we all said to each other, “People have been missing this thing. The culture and the riffing in particular.” So we were trying to do more live shows and it became nation-wide and it became evident that people like this kind of stuff, they like the way we do it. There’s still a lot of fondness for us and a lot of passion for the goofy world of riffing. So we just kept going and it’s going even stronger than ever.
Do you feel that there’s more freedom with RiffTrax than Mystery Science Theater 3000? With MST3K, I feel that you guys had a lot of movies that were bad, but more often than not, they were your run-of-the-mill bad sci-fi/horror movies, while RiffTrax has been giving us a lot of shorts and movies that keep topping each other in how incomprehensible they are.
I’m halfway into ROTOR right now…
…I have no idea.
Oh, man, yeah. It’s kind of wonderful. First of all, I don’t think we’re ever going to run out, because once we think we’re going to run out of inventory, we call another collection and find another distributor or someone sends us a link to something on YouTube or we pull out a film from an actual 16 millimeter – we do comb 16 millimeter libraries – and we find all this wonderful stuff. And I’ve never heard of ROTOR, but then when we did it, we started getting these emails saying, “Oh FINALLY you’ve done ROTOR! We’ve been waiting for you to do ROTOR!” I’ve never even heard of ROTOR! Where did this thing come from in the first place? So yes, our resources are vast and wonderful and they never seem to end because people continue to make bad movies and they will continue to make bad movies because there are a lot more bad filmmakers out there than there are good filmmakers out there.
(laughs) God bless ‘em. I have a friend Caitlin, who is also a huge fan of your work. I told her I was going to be doing this interview and asked if she had any questions she’d like me to ask. So here it is. Ahem.
“ask him if it ever got hot in that bobo makeup lol I don’t know.” End quote.
(laughs) Okay, YES. The answer to that question: it always got hot in that Bobo makeup and it got smelly and we only had two masks and they both ended up stinking and I can’t tell you much those things stank. Because even with all our success, we were still a really low-budget show and we could never afford that kind of big time makeup and appliances and all that. So we went pretty low-budget and it felt pretty crummy and I had to wear that horrible fright wig and the fur gloves and the thing around my neck and all the makeup, so YES, it was damn uncomfortable in that thing.
Someone brought it to my attention that you’re always wearing this badass skull ring wherever you go.
Is there any significance to that?
I just love it. It’s a constant reminder of my eventual face.
So it keeps me humble when I feel cocky, like I’m the master of the universe and everything. I look at my finger and there it is! So yeah, I bought it originally in Mexico, jeez, about twenty years ago. I bought it for my brother…so I had it longer than that. Anyway, I bought it for my brother who at the time was at the seminary and I thought this is perfect because monks are big into skulls and things like that and it terrified him, so I’ve been wearing the ring ever since because it doesn’t terrify me. Again, this is what we’ll all look like at the end, so it’s kind of a great equalizer.
And that’s the reason I do it. Well, other than how Keith Richards always wears one. Actually, my dad won a skull ring that he – I love this story – he won it from a Luftwaffe officer in a poker game. How’s that for cool?
That is pretty badass.
(laughs) So I honor my dad by wearing a skull ring too.
One of the true staples of the RiffTrax library is Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, which I consider, in all seriousness, to be the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. The movie’s completely fascinating in how batshit it is, but one of the more interesting aspects is that there’s another version of it where instead of Santa telling the story of Thumbelina for 50 minutes, they do Jack and the Beanstalk.
Are there any plans to maybe revisit Ice Cream Bunny and maybe riff this version of the movie?
Oh, that would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? If we could find a screenable copy of that and get it cleared, I think we would love to do that. Anything to do with that universe, I’m totally, totally in love with.
Oh, that movie…
You’ve been very open to the fact that the movie you seem to hate the most is Forrest Gump.
I do my research! Have you guys ever talked about giving that the RiffTrax treatment? I have to think that that would have to make some good catharsis at the very least.
You know, that’s a good point. I just wouldn’t want to spend so much of my life on the damn film. I saw it so much already that I would vote against it just on general principle because I don’t want to give that thing another bit of exposure in any way whatsoever. But yeah, it would probably make for a good RiffTrax. You know, the problem we always run into is that comedies don’t really work very well for us. Forrest Gump is ostensibly a comedy, at least in parts, until it gets really sickly, stupidly melodramatic and pandering and all. So that part is a particular challenge as well. And yeah, I just wouldn’t want to give that movie any more justification than it already has.
And rather, if we’re going to do a movie like that, a quote-unquote “Oscar-winning classic,” I’d rather we do the Godfather because that would be fun.
That would be! That would be a long one, though.
It would be a long one, but it would be fun. It would be more like a roast. That’s kind of what we did with Casablanca and what we did with Jaws. So that would be a heck of a lot more fun for me at least. It’s one of my favorite films, so it would be fun for me to just sit down and poke fun at that thing for a couple hours.
Plus you can, you know, work your way up to Godfather 3.
Oh yeah! Well, that would be beautiful too.
Any word on when you guys are going to get around to doing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2?
Oh, you people keep harrying us about that! This series starts so light and silly and goofy and Chris Columbus-y and then it just becomes this horrid tragedy! Twilight of the Gods at the end there! It’s just miserable to watch! It gives me a stomach ache whenever I watch that thing. Remember all the bright pumpkin colors? Now it’s just a bunch of muted grays and dark, desperate shades of black. We will eventually get around to it, but we are dragging our heels. We’re going full George RR Martin on this shit.
And we will finally, I think, before we all die, eventually get around to say, “Okay, there’s your damn Deathly Hallows Part 2!”
Speaking of finishing up series, you guys just finished up doing the Batman and Robin serials from the 40s.
Oh, and you know, it’s all about Gabe.
(laughs) You ARE a fan!
I’ve not finished it yet, I’m like halfway there, but I know enough that it’s all about Gabe.
Just so you know, the last episode in the series is a spoiler in itself because the name of it is “Batman Victorious.”
Heh! Well, a lot of the episodes didn’t actually have anything to do with the titles. There was one called “Robin’s Wild Ride” and he had nothing to do with it or something.
They tacked them on at the end, I swear it!
Anyway, are there any plans for other movie serials or are you just going to move away from that?
Oh no! We definitely want to do another movie serial as soon as we can! I think after these two live shows, this Halloween show we have coming up and a couple other things we have in the hopper for the end of the year, we will then revisit—we have a couple picked out, we just have to pick and choose which one we want to do. We enjoyed it a whole lot and there’s a lot of classic serials out there, each cornier than the next. So yeah, I think that early next year you’ll see a whole brand new serial coming out. And there were a whole lot of episodes in that, so you’re talking about over a year to get through that Batman series. Kind of fun to have something that hung on that long.
Do you ever look at some of the more famously bad movies and think about how they could have been good? Like personally, I think movies like Manos: Hands of Fate and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians are great concepts for their respective genres, but they’re buried by how badly they’re handled in terms of acting, direction, and virtually everything else.
Oh yeah, I mean, Santa Conquers the Martians is a classic tale of alien abduction that’s been done better different times, so sure, you could definitely go a better route on that. And Manos reminds me more of Paranormal Activity than anything else. Particularly, the way it’s shot, which is clumsily and poorly and looks like it’s amateur. But sure, in the hands of a natural screenwriter, you take that kind of stuff and you give it to Wes Craven and he could have had a hell of a time with it. It would be fun to see Wes Craven’s version of Manos.
Yeah, I was watching the RiffTrax Live of it and it’s weird. I noticed that none of your criticism was – or at least very few of it – was actually about the plot itself. If you had someone like Wes Craven do it in like the 1960s it could have been a cult classic for the right reasons.
It’s true! I mean, Night of the Living Dead…there’s really not a lot of story in there. It’s all about the suspense and the anxiety and the fear about the unknown and these weirdoes outside. Yeah, if you go with the basic storyline of Manos to someone like that – Romero or Wes Craven – then it could actually be a classic for a whole different reason.
Anaconda’s coming up for RiffTrax Live, thanks to the many devoted fans helping out on the Kickstarter.
Yes indeed, thank you Kickstarter people, we love you.
Anaconda is a movie that I’ve only seen once, when it was in theaters, and I honestly can’t remember much of anything about it.
Same thing with Godzilla ‘98. You guys just did that. What is it about Anaconda that makes it worthy of such a high-profile thrashing?
Well, there’s several things, really. First is who the cast is. With your Jon Voight and your Ice Cube and your Kari Wuhrrrrerrrrrr and J-Lo and Eric Stoltz and Owen Wilson in one of his first performances. And it’s also what the cast does. Jon Voight plays the most wonderfully over-the-top evil bad guy. There’s not a moment in the film where you don’t think he’s evil even though he pretends not to be evil for the first third of the film.
Eric Stoltz ends up with the best job in the world. He starts the film, he’s sort of a romantic love interest for J-Lo and he’s the cool leader of the whole bunch and then he gets stung on the throat by a wasp and sits out the rest of the film in a coma! I mean, surely, up until nearly the last scene, he’s in a bed and he doesn’t get to say a damn thing. What a wonderful role to have.
Ice Cube so thoroughly did not belong anywhere near this film.
You can say that about nearly any Ice Cube film.
Yes. Yes, indeed. Again, it’s just one of those perfect storms of goofiness. And of course the giant, digitally-created snake, which…looks exactly as I just described it as. It’s perfect for us.
Last question. Of all the movies you’ve seen through all the different riffing shows, which is your favorite character and why is it Harry De Bauld from Guy From Harlem?
(laughs) Isn’t he wonderful?
By God… Just so you know, I made sure to ask you two questions for that.
(barking is heard in the background)
Harry…it’s the suits, the mannerisms, the delivery of the lines. It’s beautiful.
Sorry about my dog barking there.
It’s a beautiful thing. Oh easy, easy, easy! You stay! Stay. Stay.
Sorry, there’s a coyote in our yard. I live in the woods and we get coyotes, actually.
Do you want me to keep that in the transcript of this interview?
(laughs) Keep that in if you want to, yeah!
“What is going on with this…?!”
No, the coyotes are out there and they’re putting this 16 ton weight that says “Acme” on the side of it near the road. Can’t understand what they’re doing there.
But anyway, besides Harry, I’d say Reb Brown…that guy…Blast Hardcheese from Space Mutiny will always be one of my favorite characters.
Thank you for your time. It’s seriously such a thrill for me.
Thanks! It was my pleasure.