The brainchild of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” alumnus Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy (aka Tom Servo) and Bill Corbett (aka Crow T. Robot), Rifftrax skewers cult classic films with hilarious live commentary.
The crew hit the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday evening for their first-ever New York performance, where the Rifftrax gang unleashed their signature comedic chops on Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” Before taking the stage for a packed house, the trio thanked “Bobby D” (Robert De Niro) for inviting them to the festival, and riffed on a short safety film from the 1950s.
If you weren’t able to catch the performance at Tribeca, don’t worry, Rifftrax will be doing four other live shows this year, including “The Room,” that will be broadcast into movie theaters nationwide. You can find more information on the Rifftrax Live website. Before the hilarious event, Indiewire sat down with the trio to look back on “MST3K” and dig into their process.
KM: I was involved from the very beginning, all the way through to the bitter end.
BC: It wasn’t that bitter.
KM: No, it was bittersweet. I was a camera tech guy. Built the sets, hung the lights, did the editing, that sort of thing. That was my deal when I first started. When the show went to the network, I quit my job at the crummy little TV station where I was working, and that’s when I met Mike.
MN: I started off as a writer. I had met Kevin right after we got married back in 1989. Kevin and I did not get married. [laughs] But yeah, I started out as a writing intern.
BC: I started out as a writer as well and just kind of asked if I could sit in on some of the shows. I knew Mike somewhat at the time, and a couple of the other writers had taken classes with me – those fools – in screenwriting. So yeah, it all just clicked. Then when they needed another puppet jockey, they said “Hey, there’s this writer here, let’s give him a shot.”
What was your first impression of the show?
MN: On my first day writing I was just like, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” I remember that just being the happiest thing. And they were barely paying me, I could barely eat. I mean none of us were getting paid, I’m teasing. But it was just great. I loved it from the start.
BC: It was really fun. I got to blurt stuff out. I seemed simpatico with the other guys’ humor. I knew the show a little bit, but not as much as a lot of fans did at the time. People ask me that a lot, they say “Were you a big fan?” I knew it a little bit more like in the couple of months before I actually started there. I was more aware of Mike and other pals of mine who worked on it. But then I was instantly a fan when I saw it, and honored to work on it.
KM: The thing that really drew me to it, and still draws me to it, is this opportunity to make fun of modern culture and the media. That’s what I enjoy doing. When we do these live shows, it’s nice to see how many people are like-minded. That’s what makes it gratifying even now, I’m amazed. To be able to do this many years afterwards, and the same people who come to Rifftrax live are probably the same people who are the same age, who have been attracted to this.
So how did “MST” inspire the beginning of Rifftrax?
MN: We three, for whatever reason… well, most of the other people moved to the west coast, after they were done with their stints at “Mystery Science Theater,” and we stayed in the midwest and always wanted to try to find a project to work on together, ’cause we still enjoyed doing what we were doing. And we had done a number of things. Then finally, the technological ability to do Rifftrax came into being. We’d always sort of thought about that. The time seemed right.
KM: We were able to take what we’d done on television for so long and do it online. Where so many people get most of their media now.
How do you guys decide which movies you’re going to riff?
BC: A very sensible question. I think there’s a whole bunch of different ingredients that we look at, in different combinations. First of all, like, are they available is a very big one. And the answer to that is sometimes, yeah we bought a whole bunch of stuff off the internet and a collection of obscure stuff, or we know it’s in the public domain, or if we do it as an MP3 it’s like a blockbuster that we just provide an audio track to. But beyond that, I’d say we look for stuff that generally takes itself kind of seriously.
KM: Like in the case of “The Room.” Aims high, lands low.
BC: But we also have done movies that we kinda like from time to time, like “Jaws,” “Casablanca,” just for the fun of it. So I think the answer is we like to mix it up and go from movies that we provide as Kevin puts it, a sort of “roast” of the movie, to all these things that we’re kind of curating like, can you imagine what part of the world or culture or somebody’s brain this came from?
BC: Yeah, unknown by the world until somebody reaches up from the dust… “Try this movie again!”
Have you guys ever faced any kind of backlash from filmmakers?
BC: Mostly not. A lot of them are from the past and they’re probably dead, frankly.
You’ve done more mainstream films, too, like “Twilight” and “Harry Potter.” “Twilight” has crazy fans, but you’ve never heard from them?
MN: I think we did get a little bit of the boyfriends of “Twilight” fans were going like, “Oh I showed my girlfriend your treatment of Twilight”…
KM: More than anything else, were boyfriends saying, “Thank you for making ‘Twilight’ watchable for me.” [laughs]
Do you find that it’s easier to come up with material for those older, B-movies than for the blockbuster stuff?
BC: Only technically. Sometimes they’re slower paced and they leave a little more room for our jokes. But yeah, the newer ones are pretty target-rich, as a rule. Like act three of some of the big blockbusters we’ve done, we’ve coined this term “confusovision.” For “The Avengers” or even something worse than that, like a “Transformers” movie, when it’s just like really choppy, quick editing, it’s like how do you get a toe-hold on a joke for that? But I kind of like doing a whole range of stuff. The shorts, the old stuff, the new stuff. Good and unbelievably bad.
So how did you go about picking “The Room”?
KM: We already had that in mind for a live show, and it seemed like an ideal way for us to give it a test drive. It is also the bad movie, of our time. The “Citizen Kane” of bad movies. [laughs]
MN: Yeah, something that has some name recognition. I think people trust us to come up with a movie they’re going to love. I think it also helps if someone is interested like, “Oh ‘The Room,’ I know that, that’s a midnight movie.”
What are you guys expecting audience-wise?
BC: People calling security on us is what I expect. [laughs] No, I’m working on the assumption that anybody who is coming to see us kind of knows what the deal is. If they don’t, they should’ve watched or looked at their ticket.
KM: The movie is always the fourth performer in this whole thing. I’ve been saying for years that the movie is our Margaret Dumont to the Marx Brothers. It carries a lot of weight, it sets us up for our jokes. So “The Room” is perfect for this.
Why do you think it is that people like to talk back to a movie or TV they watch? It seems like people want to interact with what they’re watching.
BC: I think that’s part of it, it’s a shared experience at its best. One of the things I love about our live shows is that although we know we are in a specific location, usually in Nashville, and there’s 500 people watching us there live, all over the country people are getting together and laughing together in movie theaters. They’ve started like, meet-ups. The regulars get together and watch our show in all parts of the country and in Canada now. I think that’s part of it too. We know this thing exists, we can always see it without the commentary, but lets have fun together.
KM: People like to do what we do because people like to call bullshit on what’s coming in through the screen without their control, and talk back to it a little. I do, at least.
MN: Yeah, and I think part of it is the curation of these oddities you wouldn’t otherwise see. To make it sort of entertainment someone actually wants to see. There’s some people who are never going to get over that. We announce a certain movie and they’re like “I’ll never watch that movie.” But we do curate these oddities, that are like, I wouldn’t do that on my own, but I trust these guys to bring someone to me that I’d like to see.
What are some of your favorites that you’ve done?
BC: I am really fond these days of “Fun in Balloon Land,” because it is probably the oddest of all the really really odd ones we’ve done. How it came about, and the structure of it, which starts off with all these inert balloons in a balloon factory. Literally like smaller versions of Macy’s Day balloons, in Philadelphia I think, in the early 60s. And they try to do interactive scenes with a little kid who wanders around and pretends that the balloons are alive. But then it just cuts abruptly to the parade that uses those balloons, and there’s a woman narrating it who seems like she’s on Lithium or Meth or something like that. They just allow her free reign to comment, and she’s hilarious.
MN: Well, we just did a short which we did live, which was kind of taking a risk for us, it’s called “Setting Up a Room.” I know that sounds exciting. It’s two kindergarten teachers setting up a room for half an hour, and that’s all that it is.
It’s just an instructional video?
MN: Nobody really knows!
KM: I loved it when we did “Twilight,” as far as first-run movies that we did. That was really fun to do. I actually like one that’s coming up, called “Radical Jack” with Billy Ray Cyrus as a toughened international agent. [laughs] And I’m really looking forward to doing “The Room” live. I can’t wait for people to see that who have never seen it.
Have there been any films that the other two guys were really into, but one of you weren’t?
BC: By the time we got to the second “Transformers” movie, I was ready to jump out a window. I don’t think any of us were really jumping up and down to do that. We just thought there was a demand for it.
MN: Yeah, I [remember] one “Star Wars” prequel Kevin and I did, Kevin got actually angry in the booth. People kind of enjoy that. [laughs]