As integral cast members of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett made mocking Z-grade movies into a fine art. Their latest project, Rifftrax, widens the scope to major-market films like Twilight and Star Wars, with the trio's acerbic commentary available as audio. After debuting Rifftrax in movie theaters in August with a simulcast screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space, they're back with a holiday-themed edition playing in 500 theaters across the country Dec. 16 and 17, gathering a mostly-unseen collection of short films, which will likely run the gamut from the goofball to the disturbingly strange. They'll be joined by another connoisseur of the so-bad-it's-good genre, "Weird" Al Yankovic. The A.V. Club gathered the trio to riff on the Christmas movies they love to hate.
AVC: What Christmas shorts will you be screening this week?
MN: Well, let me amend that right away, because it would be unfair to our pork short to call every one a Christmas short. [Laughs.] We have a very esoteric and abstruse little bit of film; three guys, a sort of little swing trio, closed-harmony singing, extolling the virtues of pork, but only if it’s butchered a certain way. Weird Al is joining us for that, because when you think of pork-butchery, you think “Weird Al."
KM: It’s sort of an operetta, which is what makes it so exciting. A pork operetta.
BC: With exactly one tune the entire way through. [Laughs.]
AVC: Aren’t you worried that pork operettas are played out by now?
BC: Yeah, that is a danger. [Laughs.]
KM: There’s Porky And Bess, of course. [Laughs.] Oh, I’m so sorry.
MN: Would you please hit yourself for me, because I’m not there?
KM: OK. [Smacking sound.] Ow!
MN: Thank you. [Laughs.] You literally stunned me into silence there.
KM: [Laughs.] Sorry.
BC: Oh, and beyond that, we have a lot of really kind of weird Santa Clauses going on. Some of the shorts we have are quite old, they seem like they’re from, like, the 1700s. [Laughs.] The depictions of family life and Santa Claus are just a funny little window into mid-century America.
MN: And the through-line seems to be that Santa is insane. The laugh could go either way, it’s either maniacal or it’s joyful, but it’s tinged with a little bit of madness in almost every case.
KM: And he also, by virtue of his insanity, seems to enjoy hurling children into hallucinations.
BC: Pure blotter-acid hallucinations.
KM: We do also have a version of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. I should say immediately, not that Rudolph.
BC: It pre-dates it by about 100 years, I’d say.
KM: Isn’t it? It’s a Max Fleischer, I think.
MN: It is, yeah. The guy who did those great Superman animations in the '40s.
KM: I think it was when he was younger and had not discovered drugs yet.
AVC: Over the years, in MST3K and your other projects, you've all been subjected to probably dozens of terrible, soul-crushing holiday films. What gets your pick for the worst of all time?
KM: I’ll just start the bidding with the entire Robert Zemeckis Christmas movie library. [A Christmas Carol and The Polar Express.] He’s really tried, with his dead, doll-like eye animation that he does, to destroy Christmas for children all over the world, and I think he’s done a pretty good job.
MN: Smack dab in the middle of the uncanny valley, aren’t they? You just don’t know whether to scream or be delighted.
KM: Just to warm myself up for seeing [A Christmas Carol], just to amp up my hate a little bit, I watched the Christmastown/Nuremberg-rally scene in Polar Express. The end, when the elves are marching in formation, and Hitler—oh, I’m sorry, Santa—comes out…
BC: [Laughs.] Hitler Claus! We can just split the difference.
KM: It’s severely backlit behind him, and everyone is just sort of…
BC: [evil voice] "Ho Ho Heil!"
KM: [Laughs.] Yeah. I can’t get on board with Roger Ebert about A Christmas Carol. I think he’s one hundred thousand percent wrong.
BC: Did Roger Ebert like it? Wow. What’s going on with that man?
KM: I don’t know. Maybe he likes misery and horror for children.
MN: I’d like to up the ante with my favorite, which we just screened here. Guys, I can’t remember if I screened it with you, so forgive me, but: Santa Claus And The Ice Cream Bunny?
BC: [Laughs.] Oh yes, we were there.
MN: This is a true nightmare.
BC: It is unbelievable.
MN: It was made by a now-defunct theme park in Florida called Pirate's World. It was sort of sad. It got closed immediately when Disney World opened, but it was sort of a throwback to old theme parks. It looked really unsafe.
BC: [Laughs.] Run by actual pirates, I think.
MN: But they made a movie. They just sort of filmed a display they had of Thumbelina, and they bookended it with this story of Santa Claus getting stranded on the beach, and he has to be rescued. So at the end, in a really, really bizarre scene, a guy in a horrible mascot bunny suit shows up on a fire truck filled with kids and everyone just sort of cheers, and that’s the end. He’s apparently the Ice Cream Bunny, although you kind of have to take it on faith.
BC: Yeah, there’s no apparent ice cream going on. [Laughs.] I will also add that, as surreal as that is, the playing out of it is actually more surreal, because when the Ice Cream Bunny and the kids come to Santa, they seem to be approaching forever. They’re visible in the distance and they keep coming in this slow-motion truck, waving. It’s really an experience in time-bending madness.
MN: And they drive through the theme park, which is really, truly just barely hanging on—you can tell stuff hasn’t been maintained. And it also just rained and washed some of the filth from the theme park into these urine-stained puddles, and they drive through these things, and it just makes it unbelievable.
KM: It makes The Room look cheerful and sort of more coherent.
BC: I would throw in something a little more mainstream—Jingle All The Way. It’s a real vice on the head for two hours.
KM: It’s hard to watch.
BC: A joyless affair.
MN: It did at least give us one of the more famous Schwarzenegger lines, that my kids absolutely love: “Put the cookie down! Now!”
BC: I knew somebody who was in it who reported that the scene where Arnold was supposed to coaxing this kid out of one of those plastic ball things that kids jump in, and they let him improvise—“Try some stuff, Arnold.” And he was saying, “I’ll give you candy! I’ll give you toys! … I’ll give you strudel!” [Laughs.] Temporarily just forgot he wasn’t in Austria anymore.
MN: How is it that he has lived here this long and not improved his accent one bit? It’s getting worse, honestly! I don’t know how that’s possible.
AVC: Which do you think is worse: a Christmas movie that’s really cloying and sappy, or one that uses Christmas in a really tasteless way, like Silent Night, Deadly Night, where Santa’s a knife-wielding slasher?
MN: Yeah, that one was justifiably condemned by people. That’s a bit cynical, I’d say.
BC: You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of those movies, but it actually does kind of make me get on my haunches [more] than the sentimental cloying ones. At least they’re not trying to crush all the joy out of a childhood Christmas icon.
KM: Have you ever seen Jack Frost with Michael Keaton? It’s really more winter-based than centered around Christmas, but it does crush all of the joy out of the season. I used to watch that.
AVC: There is also a serial-killer movie called Jack Frost, so there's both kinds of bad movie for that title.
BC: You could do a side-by-side comparison of which one crushes the joy more thoroughly.
KM: Yeah, which one would a give a 12-year-old kid more nightmares? Because the premise of the Jack Frost movie with Michael Keaton is that he dies, and then he comes back as a snowman.
BC: Yeah, a snowman who plays with his son.
KM: He bonds with his son because he never bonded with his son when he was alive. It’s horrifying!
BC: It actually is, and if you’ve ever seen a picture of [the Michael Keaton character], it’s definitely horrifying, it’s really an ugly, kind of creepy snowman.
KM: And it doesn’t look anything like Michael Keaton. It looks more like Larry Miller.
BC: Yeah, like where’s his little porkpie hat?
MN: Oh, and we have a third Jack Frost that we did for Mystery Science Theater!
KM: That’s right. It was in Finnish. That’s much better than the other two Jack Frosts we were talking about. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it certainly is funny.
BC: I love that one. Love it.
KM: It was fun and very colorful and it made no sense whatsoever.
AVC: The worst Christmas movie that I can think of was Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.
MN: The Pia Zadora film? Yeah, that one is just supremely annoying, and that does crush a lot of hope and a lot of joy, so let’s not put that one out of the running.
KM: It’s the monotony of a film like that that really breaks my spirit. It really grinds me down after a while.
MN: It’s been a while since I’ve seen it but, Ernest Saves Christmas. I mean, I know he’s passed on and he’s in a better place now but it’s kind of the one that started them all, so that’s why I hold a grudge against it.
BC: I was just made aware recently of the existence of Ernest Goes To Africa. I thought it was a joke; it’s a real movie! He actually puts a bone through his nose and runs around Africa.
KM: It’s very serious and deals with some deep issues. It was directed by Werner Herzog! It's the sequel to Where The Green Ants Dream. It’s terrific.
MN: Also we just screened, thanks to you, Kevin, Santa With Muscles, starring Hulk Hogan.
KM: He bills himself as Dennis Hogan in that one, doesn’t he?
MN: Uh, well, he tried, but the studio took that away from him.
BC: [Laughs.] “Well, that’s about all got there, sir! Hulk’s about all you got going for you!”
MN: He’s a successful weight-lifting supplement salesman, so he’s really playing against type.
BC: And they did a Scrooge story with him, right?
MN: Yeah, he comes to believe that he is Santa Claus—I don’t remember what the device that causes that is.
KM: Hallucinations because of the bad supplements.
MN: He got some Chinese supplement powder with a lot of lead in it.
KM: Oh, remember Alexander and Ulya Salkind's Santa Claus: The Movie?
MN: Oh yeah, Dudley Moore, right?
KM: Yeah, Dudley Moore was in it as an elf, and John Lithgow was the corporate meanie guy who was trying to destroy Christmas and Santa Clause was just sort of a figurehead puff-ball in that, he did absolutely nothing to help himself.
MN: And John Lithgow the actor did destroy Christmas for all of us.
BC: It was very inconsiderate.
AVC: I guess that’s why we needed Ernest to come and save it in the first place.
BC: Exactly, it all fits together… And this is why Jesus was born.
MN: There’s a whole slew of made-for-TV Christmas movies, too. I don’t know if I can remember a single one except for that really unfortunate remake of It’s A Wonderful Life with Marlo Thomas.
BC: It Happened One Christmas.
MN: Yeah, where she kind of upped the tragedy and it became creepier. I think it was Wayne Rogers who played her equivalent of [Jimmy Stewart voice] “Mary” and in her vision, having not been born, he was this really creepy, pervy garage mechanic—like, wow! That got dark.
KM: [Imitating Clarence the angel] “Wayne Rogers is just about to close down the library!” I’m guessing they had Ted Bessel in the role of Sam Wainwright for that? Was that the case?
MN: [Affecting a Ted Bessell impression] “I—I’m hee-haw.” [laughter] Ah, Ted Bessell jokes. You have to be of a certain age, I think.
BC: Kids love Ted Bessell jokes! They lap 'em up!
MN: That’s why we’re putting so many of them in our live Christmas show!
BC: We guarantee, 60 percent Ted Bessell references.
MN: I would like to throw in one more, because I just saw it, if you don’t mind. It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown.
KM: Oh no!
AVC: You’re going for the classics, there.
MN: No, this is one they re-did in 1992, and all the sort of cozy feelings it gave you in the first one is completely gone and replaced by sheer horror. This one just wizzes all over the classic. Anyway, just wanted to point that out. Steer well away from it.
BC: That came right on the heels of You’re Adopted, Charlie Brown.
KM: Did they update it, Mike, so now he’s roughly 45 years old?
BC: Living with his parents, yeah.
MN: He got super jowls with that much flesh on his head, there were like 6-inch jowls, but never got a lick of hair. All those decades.
BC: Like John Goodman with no hair.
MN: And “good grief” had been replaced with a string of filthy profanities.
BC: I’m going to have to avoid this at all costs!