(via The New York Times)
WHEN “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ was canceled after 11 seasons in 1999, 146 distraught fans bought a full-page advertisement in Daily Variety urging another network to continue the show. But the series was not revived, and today devotees cannot even tune in to reruns because its premise – a host and his two robot pals mock B movies – required securing those movies’ broadcast rights, which expired after the show’s demise.
But those self-described “Misties” are welcoming a resurrection of sorts. Mike Nelson, the show’s longtime host and head writer, has begun a new venture called RiffTrax, and he can now skewer virtually any movie without infringing on copyrights. Recordings of him talking back at movies can be downloaded (for fees ranging from 99 cents to $3.99) from rifftrax.com. Start playing the DVD or VHS version of the movie and Mr. Nelson’s commentary simultaneously, and the effect is that of a director commenting on a DVD – except that Mr. Nelson is inclined to say, as he does during a scene in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” in which William Shatner climbs a mountain, “He’s actually trying to scale his own ego.”
So far there are more than 30 RiffTrax episodes, including “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” with Mr. Nelson adding three or four more titles every month. He said in a phone interview from San Diego, where he lives, that “hundreds of thousands” of the files have been purchased for download so far. (A spokesman for Legend Films, which produces RiffTrax, declined to clarify or confirm Mr. Nelson’s claim, saying the company considers sales figures proprietary.)
“Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which had its premiere in 1989, was the brainchild of its original host, Joel Hodgson, who left the show in 1993. Canceled by Comedy Central after seven seasons, the show was picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel for another four. “MST3K,” as it is commonly known, drew humor from both the upper and lower registers. The jokes could degenerate quickly from Schopenhauer to the scatological, said Christopher Cornell, a fan who runs the Web site mst3k.com with a fellow fan, Brian Henry.
While they gleefully lambasted B movies like “Attack of the Giant Leeches” and “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” the show’s writers were not predisposed to obscure films. Rather, they could afford broadcasting rights only for low-budget efforts, some of which were even in the public domain and free. But the prospect of Mr. Nelson and his colleagues training their sites on bigger game was tantalizing.
“Unfortunately some of the ripest potential ‘MST3K’ targets have always been beyond the show’s reach,” Peter Keepnews wrote in The New York Times in 1999. “The mind reels at the prospect of Mike and the robots sinking their teeth into ‘Waterworld’ or even ‘Titanic.’ And think what they could have done with ‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,’ which beneath all the special effects is an old-fashioned B movie at heart.”
What Mr. Nelson would have unleashed on “Star Wars: Episode I” is no longer a matter of conjecture: he and his fellow “Mystery Science” veteran Kevin Murphy (the voice of the robot Tom Servo) skewer the film in a RiffTrax commentary.
Mr. Nelson, who started on the show in his early 20s and is now 42, said that shortly after the series was canceled, he considered releasing new commentaries on CD, but figured the expense of duplication, packaging and distribution was prohibitive. Releasing MP3 files on the Internet sidesteps those costs.
“The technology had to catch up,” Mr. Nelson said. “Once the ubiquity of iPods and every other way to play an MP3 file came to be, it was like, well, let’s give it a try.”
The RiffTrax Web site emphasizes that it is not “MST3K 2.0.” Mr. Nelson explained: “I’m not trying to recreate the ‘Mystery Science’ experience. If you like commentary, that’s what this is, but there’s obviously not going to be characters, there’s not going to be puppets and all that stuff. I just want people to know that upfront, because of that passion that they have for ‘Mystery Science.’ ”
Short skits with a jumpsuit-clad Mr. Nelson and the robots opened the show and preceded commercial breaks, but are not part of the new format, in which Mr. Nelson and occasional “guest riffers” – who include the “Mystery Science” alums Mr. Murphy and Bill Corbett (the voice of the robot Crow) – use their real names.
“Misties always said the sketches weren’t important and the premise wasn’t important,” said Mr. Cornell of the fan Web site, adding that the digs at movies were primary. While viewers continue to joust over whether Mr. Nelson or the show’s founder, Mr. Hodgson, was the better host, Mr. Cornell said there was near unanimity that the new venture hits the mark.
“RiffTrax doesn’t have all the trappings of the show, but it doesn’t need them,” he said. “It still really feels like a little taste of the old show.”
Still, if RiffTrax does not appeal to some “Mystery Science” purists, they have something to look forward to. In June, Rhino Home Video will release the 11th volume of its “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection,” a four-DVD set of four episodes, each of which runs two hours. It is unlikely to be the last. In an e-mail message a Rhino spokesman, Mike Engstrom, wrote, “Considering that 176 episodes were produced and we’ve released fewer than 60 on DVD to date, I’m hopeful we’ll be in the MST3K business for years to come.” (Rhino lawyers renegotiate licensing rights to the films.)
Is Rhino concerned that RiffTrax might cut into its DVD sales?
“Not at all,” Mr. Engstrom responded. “The fans are multiplying, and I mean that literally. The college kid who loved the show in 1990 is watching the DVDs with his children.”
Jim Mallon, who was the executive producer of “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ and holds the rights to the franchise, struck the deal with Rhino, and Mr. Nelson does not get a cut from DVD sales. (Mr. Mallon did not respond to phone and e-mail inquiries.) Asked about the chance that the cast might reunite, perhaps for all-new bonus content on a future DVD, Mr. Nelson said: “I think it’s pretty much out of the question the way the business was structured and the way everyone’s in different places now. I would never say never, but it’s highly doubtful.”
What’s also doubtful is whether RiffTrax will ever have downloadable tracks for the sort of movies “Mystery Science” lambasted. In a sense RiffTrax is the yin to the old show’s yang. After all, while “Mystery Science” sought movies because they were obscure, RiffTrax requires that they be mainstream.
“If it’s not a big seller on DVD, then it’s less likely that people will be able to rent it,” Mr. Nelson said. “I try to do the ones that people have a shot at renting the DVD.”