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From MST3K to RiffTrax, the Mike Nelson Revolution

June 28th, 2007 by · 1 Comment

(via Bad Ass Birds)
When cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 left the air in 1999, it had won a Peabody and an army of fans. Since then, host and head writer Mike Nelson has forged a successful career writing several hilarious books, and has worked in many other media.
Michael J. NelsonToday he talks to us about stand up comedy, writing, and especially Rifftrax, downloadable commentaries made by him and fellow riffers that can be shown simultaneously with a DVD of the film being razzed.
The commentaries are easy to use and may be purchased from for a few bucks apiece.
JD: Hi Mike, I’d like to start with a little about your background. Did you always want to make fun of bad movies?
MN: No, I kind of fell into that with being in stand up. I always thought I’d be in music or be a writer of some sort. I was in a band when I was a kid but I wasn’t that into it.
JD: So you studied music pretty seriously. I’ve read a couple of your books and you mention wanting to be a music teacher at one point.
MN: Yeah, I went to school for music and quickly realized I just wasn’t going to be good enough to make it. So I had to look around for something else. I got into theater and ended up doing stand up comedy.
JD: So stand up was easier to get into than music or acting?
MN: Well, it was easier to get stage time. [At that time.] Stand up was really booming. Clubs and bars were hiring so there were a lot of places to do it. You could actually get paid much earlier being a comedian than a musician or actor.
JD: Oh, that makes a big difference.
MN: Yes, pay is very motivating.

JD: How did your work with Legend Films and Rifftrax come about?

MN: I was in the middle of writing a book and I got a call from Legend Films to do the commentary for Reefer Madness. I was so happy to be doing something other than writing a book – it’s so solitary – so I jumped at that. And then it worked out that they liked it. I talked to them about going to L.A. and they said “Don’t go to L.A., come to San Diego and we’ll work on some things here.”
JD: So you’re enjoying San Diego after the wilds of Minnesota?
MN: I am, but it’s not as tremendously different as I thought. In terms of the Midwest, we have an idea of California but most of that is L.A. San Diego is a little bit different. It’s easier here to raise a family and go about your business.
JD: Rifftrax has reunited you with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. You made the move to San Diego, are Kevin and Bill living there too?
MN: They still have homes in Minnesota so I make them fly out here. To lure them, I promise to buy them sushi. It’s great fun to work with those guys again. We just work really well together and whenever I work with them I laugh really hard.
JD: What is the process of making a Rifftrax like? Do you still collaborate with Kevin and Bill on the scripts.

MN: Yeah, I do, but the initial stages are more solitary which is more efficient, I have to be honest. The days of writing in a large, crowded room full of writers tended to result in tangents that really didn’t contribute to the final product. I think it was necessary for the health of the writing room and made for some great stuff, but in terms of writing for Rifftrax, it tends to be sitting down and pounding through it. But then there is a lot of emailing back and forth. In the final stage, they come back out and do a read through -then you can throw stuff out and come up with a finished product that you make sound as spontaneous as you can. So it’s not immensely different, but it’s a little different.

JD: MST3K allowed you to do some funny characters and impressions, including your hilarious send up of Morrisey. Do you miss the visual part of the performance?
MN: I do on one level. Once again, it was great fun, but it also amounted to the greatest amount of work just to do those short live action segments. And I think the most tension was due to that. I think it was essential for the T.V. show because you needed to know who these characters were. You needed to bond with them to go through this experience, but it was very, very difficult because it took most of our time. Now I can concentrate on producing the best script possible and we know the characters, so we don’t have to go through the exposition.
JD: I’ve noticed that you are starting to feature guest Riffers like Neil Patrick Harris. How do you match guest with movies?
MN: In that case, and in the case of what you’d call internet superstars, we let them choose. Except in the case of Chad Vader, where we asked him to do a movie. In the case of Neil Patrick Harrison, he understood the concept and thought it would be fun, and I said “Think of what movie you’d like to Riff on and we’ll write it. You can either add to it or not.” He was very easy going. If I was to do it again with a celebrity, and that is a goal, I’d just let them chose and see what comes.

JD: How often are new Rifftrax available?
MN: There’s been a little bit of a change in schedule in that there are a lot of other things involved, like travel. It slows me down and I’m not able to write. I try to do 3 a month or 3 1/2 a month.
JD: It sounds like it would be a lot of work to do one a week.

MN: It is and, again, it’s just hours of writing and watching the movies over and over again. A lot goes into it and I love it. I love the precision of it. But yeah, it’s very writing intensive.
JD: You’ve done two episodes of Grey’s Anatomy with your wife Bridget, a former writer for MST3K. Do you look for projects to do together?
MN: No, that one sorta came up. It seemed like it would be a lot of fun, but no we don’t really look for stuff to do together. We worked together for many years, obviously, and we do work well together. If something presents itself, but no we don’t really look for it.
JD: You’re the author of several books, including two books of essays and a novel. I’ve read the essays and they are laugh out loud funny, like a modern day Thurber or Benchley. Do you have any new books in the pipeline?
MN: I’m pretty busy with what I’m doing and I have to say I’m not entirely enthusiastic about books because you work so hard at it and it is so consuming, especially the way that I write – it just takes a long time. And then you give it over to someone and hope that they’ll put it out there and that’s all you can do is hope. For that reason, I’m a little bit soured on writing. I wish it were the days of the ’20s when writing like mine was everywhere and encouraged, but it’s just not the case. I’m thinking of ways of self publishing or using the internet. Hopefully, it will become viable for me to control my own stuff again. For right now, that’s my long answer.
JD: I saw your article in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago, talking about your chronic headache. It was quite an interesting essay. I could relate because I’ve have a chronic toothache.
MN: Oh…
JD: Your description of the neurologist was dead on. I was laughing quite hard.
MN: I’m glad. It was funny about that. It was meant to be a humor piece and I didn’t realize that I’d get hundreds of letters with suggestions. I wanted to write back and say, “Thank you, but I really wasn’t looking for ideas.”
JD: Yes, save the home remedies, please. You recently hosted a live version of Rifftrax at the San Francisco Sketch Festival. How did that go?
MN: Fantastic. We’ve done a few there. To be able to get that instant feedback is something we didn’t have with T.V. and don’t have with Rifftrax, so when we do it live its tremendous fun. All three of us enjoy the challenge. When we do the first night show, there’s bound to be clinkers. I really love re-writing for a live audience. Then we get the immediate next night response.
JD: Was it like the MST3K conventions you used to do?
MN: Yeah, exactly.
JD: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that your work at Legend Films is not full time. What projects do you have in the works?
MN: There’s a bunch of stuff that I’m trying to get to and it’s really tough. I love writing, but you can’t just sit down at the typewriter and force yourself to work. Writing is tough. In the off hours you really have to do something to write about. I have so many hours filled with writing. I contibute to the New York Times and a few other things. I do have a new book in the works, a play, a children’s book and I also have a movie. But to be honest those things are kinda on the back burner.
JD: Tell me a little about your Road House obsession. Would you say it’s your favorite bad movie?
MN: It is I have to admit. It comes from a good friend who was over in the first Gulf War. They really only had two movies, and one was Road House. When he came back safe and sound we got together again. I had seen Road House and we started to share lines from it and laugh over it. Then we’d watch it again. It’s just on of those things we bonded over. That started it, then I put it into one MST3K episode and the writers came to share my love of Road House. When I watch it again, I’m still amused by it.
What can I say, it makes me laugh.

Tags: Interviews · RiffTrax