Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett of Rifftrax
By Zack Handlen
There’s an art to making fun of bad movies, and Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett have it down. Veterans of the cult classic TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, the three have been in the business of laughing at the screen for nearly two decades. When SCI FI cancelled MST3K in 1999, Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett took some time off for other projects before coming back in 2007 with The Film Crew, a series of Shout! Factory DVDs that mimicked the MST3K model, minus the talking heads. After Shout! stopped distributing the new project, the three established their current home, Rifftrax. Stripping the MST3K concept down to is essence, Rifftrax offers downloadable audio files of Nelson, Murphy, Corbett, and occasional guest stars presenting gags on a wide variety of films, from Twilight to the Star Wars series to classics like Jaws. On August 20, Rifftrax will bring its act to the big screen, with a live riffing on Plan 9 From Outer Space to be simulcast to movie theaters across the country. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett to talk about how they work to attract new audiences, the challenges of riffing on Harry Potter, and what happens when puppets turn into middle-aged men.
The A.V. Club: What prompted the Plan 9 From Outer Space live show? What sort of technical difficulties did you have to overcome to bring it to multiple theaters?
Mike Nelson: There are satellites involved in this. We are actually using the resources of outer space to bring Plan 9—which I think Ed Wood would’ve liked. But actually, it came about just because we love doing these live shows. The actual Rifftrax business requires us to keep our nose to the grindstone instead of going out, and spending a lot of time on tour just didn’t really work out. So this is the best way to reach a lot of people, something we’ve had a lot of success with.
AVC: You’ve riffed on Plan 9 before. Is there a concern about repeating old jokes?
Bill Corbett: We are defiantly not changing a thing.
MN: Because we think we’re that great.
Kevin Murphy: It’s like a Mozart concerto. No, that’s actually silly. We’re freshening it up some, but we realize also that most of the people who are gonna come to see this have never seen us do Plan 9 in any way, shape, or form, live or even on video. We’re getting a brand new audience here, we’re reaching places we never have before. Small towns are gonna be able to see us live. We’ve never been able to get there. It’s a much bigger audience, and it plays so well onstage when we’ve done it before. It seemed just like the perfect film for us to perform.
MN: Although when we do it, it’s been different every time. It’s not been hugely different, but we just find that we like to do a pretty in-depth review each time we do a version of it, and then revise as needed. We just want to tinker and make it better. So there’ll be new surprises.
BC: And we always do a certain amount of messing around onstage that’s improvised, sometimes to our detriment.
AVC: Do you leave room for improvisation?
KM: Oh absolutely. Reacting to the audience is a big part of it, because it’s funny, sometimes you’ll add an errant grunt or groan—
BC: That’s really Kevin, adding the grunt.
MN: Or flatulence.
KM: And the audience will go crazy like they never have before. People react to the film so differently all the time. When the film itself is so silly, sometimes it doesn’t need our support whatsoever.
BC: Yeah, there are times when the audience is in full belly-laugh mode, and it seems a little greedy or unreasonable to try and wedge a joke right in the middle of that. We try and go with their rhythm. It’s a lot of fun.
AVC: Why Plan 9? Is it just a film you like working with?
MN: It’s that, and it’s also, this is something we hope people will go to a theater at night and go, “Oh hey, look at that on the placard, there, I think I’ll check that out.” So the movie needed its own marquee appeal. There’s not a lot of movies that do that, in terms of the movies we like to use. If we did Voodoo Man, which is an old Bela Lugosi one we like, that’s not gonna draw in a lot of people. Plan 9’s got a lot of appeal, and it’s a lot of fun on its own.
KM: It’s sort of the 1812 Overture of bad movies.
AVC: If this is a success, will you do it again?
KM: Oh yeah.
MN: That’s part of the goal.
AVC: Rifftrax has really opened up the kind of movies you can riff on. When you do something like Twilight, is there concern about the negative reaction from fans who don’t get the joke?
MN: Not really. Actually, the Twilight one surprised me. I thought we would get lots of spooky goth girls picketing outside the Rifftrax headquarters, but that didn’t happen.
BC: Well, they would’ve had to be out in the sunlight for that.
MN: If we just keep daylight hours, we’re fine.
KM: It doesn’t rain here enough in San Diego for the Twilight girls to come by.
MN: But no, we haven’t—aside from hearing years ago that Roger Corman wasn’t a big fan of what we’d done at Mystery Science, we haven’t gotten a lot of complaints.
AVC: Roger Corman? It seems like he’d be happy for the free publicity.
BC: You would think.
MN: Yeah, I think he’s just a little sensitive. We don’t actually do a lot of—in sheer numbers, we don’t rag on the film. It’s not like this constant shaking our fists on the screen when we do something. It’s sort of a funny meta-commentary. But maybe in his case, maybe we got a little personal.
BC: Every now and then.
KM: I think we beat on Corman more than any single director, and he richly deserves it, too.
AVC: In terms of the meta-commentary, do you work to strike a balance between goofy jokes and outright bitterness when it comes to the movies you really don’t like?
BC: Very well put, actually. I should write that down. That’s a good mindset to go in with. Every now and then, I think it’s safe to say for certain material, we’ve uncorked a bit much. But we also have recently done movies we like a lot. We did Jaws, we did Casablanca, movies we genuinely love. That was great fun in terms of the meta-commentary. It wouldn’t work for any movie we loved, but I was very pleased how those turned out.
KM: It does turn out to be more of a roast when we do those. It’s a riff-roast rather than a riff.
BC: Yeah. We’re just missing Dean Martin and Foster Brooks.
AVC: Are there movies you love that you have your eye set on in the future?
MN: Maybe the Godfather series—which I think are great, except for III, of course. Because it’s something that everybody knows, and it’s so much in their consciousness that it’d be fun to add something new to it. Blasphemy, perhaps, but still, it might be fun.
BC: Yeah, these are things that will outlive us in the ages, too. So anybody who’s worried about us making fun of them can rest assured that they’ll outlive our measly little commentary.
AVC: Does being annoyed with a movie make it easier to riff?
KM: For a thing like that, when you’re generally genuinely angry and impatient with a film, you do have to kind of temper that, but it does certainly flavor the scene, because you can feel that coming through. I think we’ve learned how to censor ourselves, and generally, I don’t think we add any commentary there that a lot of people in the audience wouldn’t be thinking, but perhaps not expressing out loud.
MN: I think there’s a few times where people have said we were a little too harsh on a film, with Star Wars in particular. But for every person who says that, there’s a dozen who say, “It was perfect, they actually held back on that.”
BC: Since we have put down the puppets, and we’re no longer filtering the commentary through cartoon characters, basically, it’s a slightly different thing. Because you’re kind of playing yourself. We’re still in a sort of character at times. We have little skitlets in our material, when we’re hitting each other in the face. Certainly it’s scripted. I think it’s great, we have learned to ride it well. Occasionally we twist one way or the other, but…
AVC: Does working without obvious “characters” change the jokes you tell?
MN: Yeah, I think it does a little bit. We have to be pretty aware of the fact that we’re three middle-aged men sitting in a booth watching movies. Our characters are just slightly to the side of ourselves. It definitely changes it—like Bill says, when we were speaking through ventriloquist dummies who could go to any lengths, and then we could just pull the dummy back and say, “Now cut that out!” But in the case of our own selves… But we can get away with a little bit, you just write a premise where someone goes mad for a couple of minutes. You can go pretty far.
KM: We take turns going mad.
BC: That’s the good part, yeah.
KM: Or all of us are.
AVC: You’ve been doing this a while. Do you feel like you’ve got the process nailed down at this point?
MN: I do. I think we’re in a good place with it. I see when other people try and do it, when we look for new writers, it’s quite a learning process. It’s hard to get it down, and it’s a hard kind of writing. It’s a very specific kind of writing. I think we’ve been doing it long enough that we’re very familiar with it. I quite enjoy the specificity of it, and the poring over film, but it’s not for everyone.
AVC: Do you still get surprised in the writing? Do you still surprise each other?
BC: Oh yeah.
KM: Absolutely. It’s one of the things that keeps it fun, as a matter of fact. The three of us like working with each other, in part because we always keep it interesting for each other.
BC: We actually had a funny little case of that, recently, what we all come up with when we accidentally wrote the same parts of a short we were doing. We duplicated our efforts. It was funny because of the different stuff we came up with for the same moment. Both were interesting, but very different takes.
KM: I want to give credit to sort of the fourth riffer, who is Conor Lastowka. He’s been writing Rifftrax as well, since just about the beginning.
BC: Since he was 7 years old.
KM: And he just blended in so quickly and has done so well that he’s really an integral part of what we do now.
MN: He brings quite a different perspective. For one thing, he’s a lot younger than us, and we love that. We’re instructed by him often in pop-culture matters.
BC: Otherwise, all our references would be The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So we have to watch that.
KM: He can wear a “W00t” shirt, and it’s not ironic.
BC: Or it has like a triple-gainer of irony that we have no access to.
AVC: Do you each bring different things to the writing and performance?
BC: I will speak personally and say it’s amazingly flexible when we write. I don’t give a ton of thought as to who does what, because I actually think Mike and Kevin can kind of do anything. Maybe the one thing I’ll say is that if I have something that really needs great singing, I’m inclined to give it to Kevin.
MN: He’s really, really our only option.
BC: He’s our point man there.
KM: I usually sort of want to give the lines that dealt with rage to Bill. I honestly don’t know why, but he does rage well. But Mike does rage perfectly well as well. I don’t know if I do. But I’m just inclined to give it to Mike or Bill.
BC: Kevin has single-handedly spread the meme that I am a psychopath. Thank you very much.
AVC: Back on Mystery Science Theater 3000, you were working with movies that were edited for TV. What’s it been like adjusting to full-length movies for Rifftrax?
MN: The longer your movie is, and when you can’t edit out a chunk, you end up burning whole premises early on that you don’t have for later, so it gets exponentially harder as it gets toward the end, especially if you have five action sequences that are basically the same. You end up having to be a lot more inventive, and I think it’s allowed us to stretch a little bit. And also to work a bit harder, because there’s no, “Let’s trim this part out, there’s nothing here.” That option not being available to you makes it quite a challenge.
KM: And it becomes exponentially more difficult when we’re doing sequels. Say with the Harry Potter movies, you can’t go back to the same well over and over again. You burn all the goofy Harry Potter jokes in the first film, so that’s been a real challenge.
BC: Yeah, we have nothing else to say about Hagrid, I think. It’s fair to say. We’ve pretty much covered him farting, belching, everything.
KM: It’s all been done. So we’re done with Hagrid. We just won’t say a thing when he’s on the screen from now on.
BC: There’s one more aspect to it that’s interesting to me. We’ve taken on some long movies now, three hours and counting, and then it becomes this weird existential question. Three guys are actually sitting there, peppering out lines fresh as daisies, three and a half hours later?
KM: Who the hell are they?
BC: It was a little different when it was roughly an hour and 20 of material for Mystery Science Theater.
AVC: Now that you don’t have to worry about censors, have you considered doing more explicit movies than you have in the past?
BC: Mostly we avoid that stuff. I think we don’t—I don’t think any of us are drawn to doing particularly more edgy or blue or violent stuff.
KM: I’d say that during all the time we’ve been doing this, we’ve found that trying to make fun of films that are pointedly violent or pointedly sexual, it gets boring really fast for us. I guess it’s just not our inclination.
BC: Yeah, it’s confusing. Kevin and I did do Saw, as a Rifftrax Presents, which is just a—how would you describe it, Mike? As an offshoot of the Rifftrax brand?
BC: Kevin and I just wrote it and recorded it in Minnesota. It was fun, I enjoyed it, I thought it was pretty good material, but I’m happy to stop there with the Saw series.
AVC: Rifftrax is audio-only. Do you miss doing the sketches from the MST3K and Film Crew days?
MN: I do, a little. I’d have to say that those were so time-consuming compared to the rest of it, and there are many, many people who kind of wanted to fast-forward through those. I mean, I’m proud of them and I enjoyed them. Among ourselves, we had a ton of laughs, and really did some inventive stuff, but in terms of concentrating our efforts, I do like to knuckle down on the movie.
BC: I kind of miss the camaraderie of the shoot days, when the whole crew would come and it would be kind of a party after a long bunch of writing. Not always a party, sometimes things could go wrong. I do miss them too. I enjoyed them, but as we put down the puppets, and are getting up there in years, I’m a little less eager to jump in front of a camera like a silly person.
KM: Oh God, yeah. [Laughs.]
BC: That said, I think a lot of people—like, my wife was a fan of Mystery Science Theater and liked the sketches, and tended to skip over the movie parts. So I know that the opposite of what you said is true.
KM: We have gotten a chance to do music recently, and that’s a lot of fun. That sort of gives me the creative release I used to get doing sketches.
AVC: What would you say to bring in MST3K fans who, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten into Rifftrax yet?
MN: I think the Plan 9 thing is going to be very comfortable and familiar for the people who were real MST fans. I think the spirit of the humor is, there’s a continuation there that I don’t think will jar anyone. I understand people getting emotionally attached to something and not wanting it to change. We saw that on the show itself, we’d change something on the wall, and people would write in and complain.
BC: That was me, Mike. I really liked that thing on the wall.
MN: That’s why we hired you, to stop you writing letters. I think that Plan 9, though, will be very, very familiar to those fans.
KM: As we develop Rifftrax as a site, there is something for people who are familiar and comfortable with the Mystery Science Theater stuff. We’ve got actual DVDs of old bad movies that worked out really well. And we’ve got this MP3 podcast technology that allows us to riff any movie we want. So I think we’ve got something for the generations past and the generations present and the generations to come. It’s been fun to adapt the thing to new media and new technology, and still have it be guys making fun of movies.
BC: Yeah. I ditto what both Mike and Kevin said. I would add to the list of things we have that are comfortable for MST fans—we have a lot of old industrial and educational shorts.
KM: They’re swell. They’re so much fun, they’re just delicious.
BC: People are gobbling those up. And we love doing them. In the end, it’s definitely different, but it does feel like a continuation. Like Mike, I kind of understand people who may have liked a thing about the show in particular that’s not with Rifftrax, but I also think it’s true that what we’re doing now is pretty much a response to what we got at Mystery Science Theater. Especially in our last couple of seasons, when we were doing the blockbuster specials and the Oscar specials. We did these little clips of Titanic and the Halloween movies and Jurassic Park 2. And people just responded so well, they said, “It would be so great if you could bring your treatment to the stuff that’s coming out in theaters now.” We kind of found a way of doing it.
KM: So we’d like to invite all MST fans of the past to step up on our porch and try our lemon-drink. See what they think of it.
BC: Yeah. Kevin’s especially.
MN: I will add, not to be too long-winded here with this one particular question, but the Twilight thing seemed to open up a whole new fan base of people who didn’t know what in the hell MST was. They saw this, and they get it. That’s such a great in for people, that movie’s so serious. To have people talking back to it seems perfect. I’ve been delighted to find there are fans that don’t know what MST is.