Mike Nelson and the Art of Riffing
by Jef Burnham
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Rifftrax Live will be bringing their show to a movie theater near you this Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 8 p.m. EST. Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans turned Rifftrax.com riffers, Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy will be streaming into some 430 theaters around the country with a jampack show featuring music, prizes, and most importantly, their riffing of a short film and Plan 9 from Outer Space (in color), which is often held as the worst movie ever made. You can pick up your tickets at: www.rifftrax.com/live
With this live event fast approaching, I had the opportunity to speak with Mike Nelson himself (Rifftrax riffer, author, and former host and head writer of Mystery Science Theater 3000) about some of the best and worst movies and the art of riffing.
MIKE: It could be something by Coleman Francis. We did a series of his movies during MST and Frank Conniff was a big fan. I was less enthused. There was one of them that I remember right in the middle of it I was just having a horrendous headache. And it started to get into my mind that it was actually killing me, which I didn’t think was physically possible. But it almost did… So yeah, those were inept; but also kind of weird and boring.
Which one gave you the headache?
Red Zone Cuba.
Since Rifftrax is 100% audio, at least on your end, you no longer get to do sketches. Do you miss that?
Yeah. It was a really fun day when we got to do that. The down side of it was how much work we had to put into it. It was a small part of the show. It was an important part, obviously, but I’m just talking in terms of time… We got a lot of laughs out of it, but in terms of the actual work, it just makes things a little more efficient not to have to do that. And it makes us concentrate on the script a little more, which I quite like.
Have you thought about working some in to future Rifftrax Live events?
Well, at this Live thing coming up this Thursday, we are doing some. I wouldn’t say we’re doing skits, but I think that in our live stuff I’d like to do a little something and we now have friends of Rifftrax who probably do that stuff better than us. We’re having John Coulton do music… There’s stuff we could put in that doesn’t have to come from us, which I like. I like a little variety.
More of a communal project like Mystery Science Theater was.
Is there a particular type of film you like to riff more than the others?
Well, I do like cheesy movies from the ‘80s. They make me laugh. I don’t know. They had a formula down, movies were only 90 minutes long, and they were all pretty much standard issue. They’re just a little easier on my psyche, I suppose, than more recent movies, like a Transformers-style movie, that really do hammer on me in a way that those movies don’t. I mean, every movie has its down side but it almost seems like you’re entering Mayberry when you look at ‘80s movies now. There’s a certain naiveté about them in the way that they entertain that makes me laugh. It’s sort of a comforting place for me to go.
And when you tackle something like Transformers, it’s always like 3 ½ hours long.
Yeah, I don’t know what happened. To me, they’re throwing away money. They’re making movies so much longer and you can’t turn over as many. And I don’t like to sit in theaters for nearly three hours, especially when you’re being pummeled by special effects and the movies are loud. And if you’re not on board, it ends up being a punishing experience.
The detractors of riffing have always maintained that it’s a mean-spirited thing, and it demeans the hard work people put into these movies. Do you think riffing Casablanca has dispelled that belief?
Yeah, I hope so. There’s been real change in the way that we view them. But I think it was always there in Mystery Science— that we were tipping our hats [to the movies], and there was something affectionate about it. But the premise of the show had a bit of a negative spin (that we were forced to watch these movies that we would never view otherwise); whereas with Rifftrax, the whole thing is that we’re just making these movies funny. And there’s something about these movies that we like that’s built in, otherwise we wouldn’t be watching them. I think each movie gets the appropriate amount of derision. I’m sure we miss the mark sometimes and for some tastes. But with Casablanca, it remains probably one of my top three favorite movies. I love it. So it was an experiment to see: can we use this commentary that we do to make it more entertaining, or entertaining in a different way?
What are some of your other favorite movies?
Yeah, Casablanca. I still think It’s a Wonderful Life is a fantastic film. My taste in movies, as far as what is best, is pretty straightforward. I really quite like the movie Cinderella Man. It’s a terribly named movie and not a lot of people saw it, but it’s a great movie. I really like the Lord of the Rings movies. Those are kind of my mainstream tastes. Then there’s a lot of smaller movies I love… I really like the Marx Brothers. I like Laurel and Hardy.
It seems to me that the complaint that the live event being shown in movie theaters is like Rifftrax “joining the enemy” is somehow also related to the misconception that riffing is inherently mean-spirited.
All I can say is that I sort of understand that. If you’re one of those film buffs, I get it. But I’m not a fan of scorn. All I can say is that you have to come and see it. My whole thing is that I want as many people to laugh as possible. I’m not trying to create a closed club that does this snarky, “You couldn’t possibly get what’s going on here” thing. It’s supposed to be like we say, watching a movie with your funniest friends. You obviously like your friends and that’s what we’re trying to create. We’re trying to create a pretty open environment. But I understand if you like to watch your movies unadulterated. I have no problem with that. Every person has a right to that, certainly.
And in terms of friends, audiences have known you guys for some 20 years now.
Yeah, I would hope so. And we really do a lot of thinking about our commentaries, and about how they’re going to come across. We want to make sure that it’s nothing overly negative. I don’t think it would be fun to just watch people beef about something they’re watching. Because obviously, the proper response to that would be, “Why the Hell are you watching?” We try to make it a shared experience that is simply to make people laugh.
From the viewer’s side, I’ve always felt of it as a shared experience. It seems that as soon as I notice something weird in the movie, you guys are right on top of it.
As a comedian, one of the things you’re sometimes afraid of is a joke that seems obvious. We learned that the audience is owed this, because there it is, just sitting there. We shouldn’t shy away from it and try to get too clever. Again, it should feel like your funny friend sitting next to you would say that. We don’t try to put a spin on it that gets in the way of the obvious things, but we still try to be funny and clever.
How would you say the audience for Rifftrax differs from the audience of Mystery Science Theater?
It’s hard to tell. We always had this filter [on MST3K]. It was just whoever wrote to us, and a lot of people wrote. We have a pretty close connection here at Rifftrax too. But that doesn’t represent the whole audience. It’s kind of a mix. I’m sure there are Mystery Science fans, and some people have come aboard with some of the films we’ve done, like genre films and Harry Potter fans. We did Twilight and we got a lot of fans from that. So it’s a mixture. But I think there’s a spirit running through it all of talking back to pop culture, not just taking what is given to you.
Do you think being able to do these pop culture movies can account for a substantial growth in your audience?
I do think so. But I think there are some people who still think this is a cult show and just say, “Oh this is not for me.” If they saw us they’d realize we’re pretty broadly comic. We’re quirky to be sure, but “cult” sort of means it’s not for you. Certainly, that’s not true of Rifftrax at all.
Thank you for talking to me today, and as a fan…
Thank you for all the years of entertainment.
It’s been my pleasure. I feel very lucky to have been able to do this.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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