The Geniuses Behind RiffTrax Talk Bad Movies and the Possibility of an MST3K Reboot
Not many people can say, "It's really, like, one of the worst things we've ever done" in reference to something they're proud of. But that's exactly what Bill Corbett, one-third of the comedy team known as RiffTrax, did. And he meant it.
'Mystery Science Theater 3000' alums Corbett, Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy started RiffTrax seven years ago, reigniting their tradition of making truly terrible movies enjoyable. And they started out with a brilliant twist -- releasing their contributions as stand-alone mp3s. This allowed them to tackle some Hollywood blockbusters they otherwise wouldn't have been able to, like 'Twilight' and 'Jurassic Park.'
Now, a successful Kickstarter campaign means they get to riff on another big-budget groaner -- the 1998 version of 'Godzilla' -- live, broadcasting the event to theaters nationwide. The campaign was so successful, the fellows were able to fund a second film, the big-budget, all-star fiasco 'Anaconda.'
We caught up with the guys to see how they feel about the success of their crowdfunding campaign, the success of RiffTrax and their thoughts on a possible MST3K reboot.
Your 'Godzilla' Kickstarter was a huge success, with you guys hit your goal within 24 hours. How does it feel to have such a big show of support from your fans?
Murphy: It floors me every time. I mean, we’ve done this twice now, so I’ve been floored both times, by just the passion that people show for what it is we do. It’s humbling. It’s great. Kickstarter is a great thing for us because it’s helping us to do these bigger things that we could not do without the support of our fans beforehand. So now we can get a movie like ‘Godzilla’ where we couldn’t before. And that’s, like, one of our most requested movies. So it’s really cool that we’ll be able to do that. And Kickstarter, it’s been a great vehicle for us. And, yeah, it’s mind-boggling that we are able to surpass our goal within the first 24 hours. People have a passion for us digging into bad movies, I guess.
Corbett: This time, we had a definite movie, and it was one people have been asking us to do for a long time. I knew that we would make our goal -- really, highly suspected we would. Yeah, but a day was pretty cool.
You'll be doing 'Sharknado' live soon. (Performances will be broadcast nationwide on July 10 and July 15.) What's your initial impression of this movie so far?
Murphy: We’re preparing for it right now, so I’m about to spend an entire week with that film -- about five to six eight- to 10-hour days with the movie, just in the next week. So I’m really going deep. We end up going deep, and it’s not always pretty. And this movie is not gonna be pretty at all. It’s maddeningly hard to watch because the editing is just so ridiculous. So we have that to work with. I mean, it makes Michael Bay’s editing look skillful, and that’s saying a lot.
'Sharknado' seems to be part of this trend of intentionally making bad movies, like 'Snakes on a Plane.' How do you feel about this trend, and where do you think it comes from?
Murphy: It’s different because the filmmakers set out, I guess in their minds, to make a bad movie. And I guess you can say they succeeded. But when you succeed in making a bad movie, you’ve made a bad movie. They succeeded in making themselves look sort of lame and incompetent. And so, you know, we’re just going to take advantage of that. They pulled their pants down for us, and so now we’ll just make fun of what we see. For me, it has its roots also in the movie mills of the early post-war era -- late ‘40s, early ‘50s -- when all of these monster movies were really kickin’ out in a hurry. And they really didn’t care what they looked like, as long as they were able to put something saucy in the bill and get it on a schedule with a double or triple feature at the drive-in or the local theater. And they didn’t care, so they were hiring a lot of incompetent folks. But then you look back at, and have these fond memories ... When we go and see them these days, they look, really, sillier than they were. And you realize how poorly made they were. And that really didn’t mean anything, because you enjoyed them for what they were when you first saw them. And I think that’s just sort of come back around again, with the added perverse twist that, yes, people are intentionally setting out to make a bad movie. Mike Nelson was the first person I knew who would intentionally, he’d go out with our editor, Brad Keely, and they’d just go out with the intention of watching bad movies. Even at 'Mystery Science Theater,' I didn’t do that too terribly much. But they would just run with it. So he comes by his profession quite honestly, Mike does.
One of the aspects of 'MST3K' that I've always loved is that, throughout all of the shows, both in the film segments and the sketches, everyone seems like he or she was having a lot of fun. Was making the show as fun as it looked?
Nelson: Yeah, that was always true, and continues to be. I feel really blessed to be able to have a job that I like so much, and have had it for so long. But it’s definitely true. I remember I got the job -- I met the guys -- this is going way back, to the late ‘80s, and I was working at a restaurant at the time. So they kind of called me in, friends of friends, and they knew about me. We were just doing stand-up comedy. I remember the first day I was there, and I went back to my then-fiance, now wife, and was like, “There’s this job that I might get for this TV show, and I had the most fun I’ve ever had.” I was just sorta like, “I gotta get this job,” and then it was every bit as much fun as I thought it would be. We just laughed all the time. It was always great. You know, when you’re doing hard work, there’s always things that come up, and frustrations, and TV is always hard. But you never go, “Oh, man, I have to go to work today.”
Corbett: Yeah, it was really fun. I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of it. It’s funny, because my kids are relatively still young, and they’re just getting into MST3K now, years after the fact. So I’m watching a lot of it with them, and I’m just remembering the fun we had, especially on the shoot days, when we’d have the whole crew there. Yeah, it was great fun. Unlike many or most jobs I’ve had, I was really sad when this one ended. Other jobs have ended for any other reason -- I’ve either quit or been fired, or the job itself ended, and like, “Ok, no problem.’ But that one made me really sad. ‘Cause I could’ve done a couple more years and been very happy.
Murphy: You know, running a business is headachey. Doing the stuff that you wanna do, and that’s why you have the business, that’s the fun stuff. And yeah, actually making the show, when we’d be in the studio and we’d make the show, or we’d write up the sketches and share them with each other, that was an incredible amount of fun. It was Martin Mull who said that “Hollywood is high school with money,” I believe, or “college with money.” I never quite get that quote right, but that’s the feeling that we had, is very much like a summer camp with really cool toys.
Do your backgrounds in film and theater studies made watching terrible movies more difficult?
Murphy: Well, in some ways, it can make it even more delicious. Because you can actually almost anticipate the filmmaker making the wrong choice. You can almost predict the badness if you’re looking for things that are classic film techniques that are just horribly botched. It helps a lot. I mean, take a movie like, oh, let’s say ‘Twilight,’ which is one of my favorite movies to make fun of. I guess you’d say it’s relatively well-made. But it tries to take everything so seriously, and yet be so, sort of, highly dramatic at the same time, that it ends up looking ridiculous. And it’s not because it’s poorly shot or poorly cut, although the little baby vampire is one of the weirdest looking creatures I’ve seen in film in a long time. It’s just, they don’t quite get it, you know. And the bad is not as much the making of the film as it is the tone of the film, which is, I think, making a really nice version of that story just makes it seem all the more stupid. Making a nice, cute film and realizing, “Oh, this is the most infantile story that I’ve ever seen.”
Corbett: I share Kevin’s feelings about the technical aspects, although Kevin is a little more knowledgeable about that. But I went to graduate school for playwriting and screenwriting at Yale drama school, so I’m a little snooty about the quality of a script, maybe unreasonably so. I mean, I like trashy movies when they’re good as much as anybody. But you can just see the, sort of, writing problems in so many of our movies. It’s really fun to kind of notice it and point it out. Like so many of them, a lot of bad scripts will give all the exposition up front in a really awkward way, from a character. We just did one, an old 1950s Universal movie, it was written by Ed Wood, the great Ed Wood, where this couple, they’d just gotten married. And for a honeymoon the next week, they’re going to Africa on a safari, which is his thing. And that’s where all the intrigue takes place. But, in the very beginning of the movie, the husband is basically telling his wife all about their plans, and you think, “She knows this already.” You don’t have to take her through it so awkwardly. And man, is it ham-handed.
Mike, you did a lot of impression work on the show, which was just great. Do you ever miss that?
Nelson: Really, the impetus for any of the impressions was just that, it wasn’t like, “Oh, Mike’s such a great impressionist,” or anything. It was just there was some component of it that made people laugh in the writing room, and that was always our fun thing. You notice something about the movie, and it couldn’t be handled in just a joke in the film. It was always fun to sort of expand on it in the sketches. So that’s usually why there were a lot of impressions.
Kevin, do you ever miss Tom Servo?
Murphy: Well, you know, it was really fun to do the puppet for the time I had to do the puppet. It was great because he was so well-written.
He was the smart one.
Murphy: I suppose, in his own way. I mean, he thought he was smart. The great thing about puppets is you can attribute to them Einsteinian levels of intelligence, and then, like, the next moment, they’re farting. That’s the great thing about puppets: They can cruise the whole spectrum, and you can also blow them up, which is pretty cool. And then they’re back the next day. But it was so much fun to do it. It was a rare and wonderful thing that I got to have that puppet over my head for nine years. Do I miss it? Well, you know, maybe sometimes. But I’ve moved on and we’re doing other things now. And those are just fun. I’m having a blast these days, and I don’t have to carry 10 pounds of plastic over my head.
You guys worked with National Geographic to produce a few shows. Do you have any plans for future collaborations with them or any other networks?
Murphy: I don’t know, maybe. I mean, it was a great gag to do on April Fool’s, so if they wanted us to do it again on April Fool’s Day, I think that would be a lot of fun. I think a lot of people enjoyed it. We’ll see what happens. National Geographic came to us with the idea, and that was really kind of delightful. But it’s not something that we’re actively seeking out at every moment. We’ve got our own little company, so we have all this, we can control our own destiny here, which is great. When one gets involved with a TV network, one has to give up some of that control. And that’s always a little uncomfortable -- someone telling you what to do or what not to do with your material and how to be funny. And that does tend to ring true with us. So we’re happy to be the masters of our own destiny, as it were.
How does the freedom allowed by doing the audio-only format compare to the ability to do MST3K-style skits?
Nelson: The skits were always, for us, as fun as they were, the amount of effort that went into them was so much huger. That’s just something that I don’t think we could mount in any similar way with RiffTrax. So, if we sometimes miss them, miss being able to do the kind of things we did in the "host segments," as we called them, what we do is rewrite sketches and audio things that we do as extras, to kind of play that same role. We’re in our seventh year-plus and going strong, and really having a blast. And the new, sort of shot in the arm has been doing the live shows. We’ve done them for a few years now, but just being able to step up last year, doing ‘Starship Troopers’ was a great thing to finally work with an A studio title. I think you can call that an A studio title. Some might argue with that, but it’s a big Hollywood movie, which we haven’t had the chance to do, not a relatively recent one. You could argue, we did ‘Jack the Giant Killer,’ which for its day, was a big-budget movie. But to be able to do these live events, it makes for a whole package so that we’re not just doing one thing.
Speaking to Wired, Joel Hodgson mentioned that he'd consider revisiting 'MST3K.' Is that something you'd consider?
Nelson: I probably wouldn’t. It’s just sort of a personal preference. I mean, I already have RiffTrax going, and that’s taken my last seven years, and I’m fond of how that’s working. So there’s just no need, I feel. And I wonder about revisiting something like that. But who’s to say that it couldn’t be. You know, it survived a lot of changes, so it could start again. Who knows?
Corbett: It would depend completely on the arrangement. I loved doing 'MST3K,' was honored to be part of such a great show and had a wonderful time during my years there. But the owners of the show cut me off as soon as it was over. Haven't made a cent from it since I filmed my last show in 1999, and all attempts to change that arrangement have been rejected. A few attempts to revive 'MST3K' have already failed because of such issues. So I'd be skeptical.
Murphy: You know, I’m really not interested. As I said, where I am right now, I’m really loving what I do. We’re having great fun with RiffTrax, and to go back and do that again would ... it has this ‘Return to Gilligan’s Island’ feel to it. You know, they did that again, and it just looked sad and lame because it was the same characters, except they’d gotten old. Or they’d substituted in new characters, and it didn’t really feel right. I think they had a fake Ginger in there. I don’t remember, but it just never felt right. It never felt like the real thing. We made that real thing for 10 years, so I’m really not interested in going back. It’s like going back down to your basement from when you were a kid when you’re an adult and making the same kind of car models that you did when you were a kid. It just doesn’t ring true to me anymore. What I’m doing right now with Mike and Bill at RiffTrax is a blast. We’re having a great time doing it, and people seem to like it. So I’m happy to do that. And if Joel wants to do the show again, God bless him, and I hope he has a lot of fun doing it. But I think I’m happy where I am. Don’t get me wrong, I loved [it]. I was the one fortunate fellow who was involved in every single episode, from the time the show started at the local TV station in Minneapolis until the time we closed up shop and pulled all the sets down. I got to be involved, in one way or another, in every single episode. So I have a real fondness for the show and everything we did. And yeah, one of my favorite things about doing the show was doing the skits, the sketches. That was really great fun. Because we did have that little theater community there, and it was like getting into the barn, and getting together the stuff and putting on a show. And luckily, doing these live shows gives me a little bit of that feeling because we actually really get to be on stage in the flesh and do these things in front of an audience and interact with an audience. And that’s really gratifying. It’s one of the things we don’t get to do when we produce television in a studio. And it’s a really fun thing, because really the audience becomes part of the show, too. And it just makes it that much more fun. I’m very happy to be doing that for that reason. And also the thing you identified, which is yeah, we’ve been able to make fun of movies we never would’ve done on 'Mystery Science Theater.'
To keep up on upcoming live RiffTrax events and other happenings, swing by their website. And in case you haven't been exposed to the beauty that is Rifftrax, here's a sample video.