Eight years after the series ended, comedy writer Michael J. Nelson is still best known as one of three silhouettes at the bottom of the screen during the second-half of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). He was the sole human, alongside two robots (voiced by Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett), dispensing a constant stream of snark commentary on some of the worst films of all time.
In 1996, three years into Nelson’s tenure as the host, MST3K became a feature film. But thanks to a limited release and an advertising budget that was squandered on a Pamela Anderson vehicle, the movie essentially tanked.In 1999, thanks to a change in management at the Sci-Fi Network, the series came to an unceremonious end. But the show’s loyal cult following thrives, thanks primarily to an incredibly active Internet fan community. Having penned several books, but otherwise largely shying away from the limelight, Nelson (who was working at a T.G.I. Friday’s when he became a writer on the show) recently reemerged with RiffTrax.
Distributed by Legend Films, RiffTrax (see our hands-on review here) offers a format that should prove comfortably familiar to MST3K fans. For $2.99, users can download an MP3 of comedic commentary that can be manually synced up to a DVD. This time out, the movie selection is decidedly more contemporary, including titles like Star Wars Episode Two and the first season of Grey’s Anatomy. Nelson has also brought a few friends along for the ride, including Murphy, Corbett, Nelson’s wife Bridget, and actor Neil Patrick Harris.
We recently spoke with Nelson, who at the time was recovering from a stalling car and an emergency early-afternoon meeting.
Can you tell me a little bit about Legend Films?
I was doing a book a few years back, and I got a call from a friend of a friend, who was starting Legend Films as the CEO. It was going to release Reefer Madness as its inaugural film. He said, “I know you were with Mystery Science–can you do anything with it?” It seemed like a welcome change from writing a book, which is so solitary, so I broke off and did that for a little while. I guess it went really well, so, over the years, I’ve done a number of things for them. I did Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead, where I would write and perform my own commentary. So then last year, I was going to move to LA for some other projects, and really just got down about having to go to LA–I’d never been a big fan, frankly. So he called and said, “Come on down to San Diego. We’ll do something like the RiffTrax thing, here.” We did, and it worked out. That’s the genesis of it.
So what you’ve been doing with the company all along has been pretty similar to MST3K/RiffTrax?
How soon after the end of the show did you start working with Legend?
It was a couple of years, at least. I think one of the things a lot of the people who are fans of the show didn’t know was that it had been canceled and was in reruns for quite a while. Which is funny, because they canceled the show when a new regime came in. They said that really, they didn’t like the show, and then they kept it on for five years. “Hey, that’s not fair. You’re supposed to ditch it!” it had been three or four years since I had done a Mystery Science-type thing.
What were you doing in the interim? Strictly book writing?
I was in the middle of a three-book thing at that point. I was also doing columns–there was always a little bit of script doctoring, or this or that.
Were you relieved to be out of the MST3K-type thing for a while?
I think you begin to grow to not like what you do every day, but I never built that up as much as other people might. I really enjoy the craft of writing and working with funny people, and frankly, laughing is just one of my favorite things in the world. Working with really funny people and the exacting nature of writing these jokes is very unique. For whatever reason, I’m very attracted to that. I like the precision of writing jokes and also the joy of knowing that people will enjoy a joke. It’s not from a sense of “I’m great,” it’s just from a sense of, “It’s fun to craft something that’s good.”
Kevin and Bill had been doing it for a while longer than you had. Did you get the impression that they had grown a bit more sick of it?
I don’t think so. I think towards the end we had a crew that was hitting on all cylinders. We knew how the writing process should go. It was very comfortable. And all of the arguments–not that we were ever very contentious–but the larger creative arguments about where it was going to go had already been settled, and we kind of knew what the show was. It was easy to work on. When it’s two in the afternoon, and you’re watching a movie, trying to come up with your 400th comment, I’m not saying it’s a joy, but overall it was a fantastic working environment.
Did working on the movie change the dynamic at all?
It did, but in an interesting way. I think we grew closer a as group who was going to take on this big company. It was fairly antagonist about the way they get a movie out of you. They assume that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, and then they wear you down. It’s, “We want what you guys do…” And then the next day, it’s, “We want what you guys do… minus just this part.” And slowly, those things start to happen. It was a lot of fun, but it was also incredibly frustrating, because we had done 100 shows by that time, and this was essentially a big screen show. We weren’t trying to pull off anything that different. We knew that the experience of watching it in a theater was that much more fun. That was a little frustrating, but it got us to focus on what we do best, and what we bring vs. what the studio brings–which is the money and the screens, basically.
Do people generally assume that these shows are largely improvised?
That is the most common assumption, which I like, because that’s the point. It’s supposed to sound that way. But I think if anyone sat down–I’ll give you an example: Comedy Central for a while, kind of taking off on what we did, had a show where Dennis Miller and somebody else would riff live on political events. Now Dennis Miller is a funny guy, and so were the other people involved, but they were doing it off the cuff, and it was not pretty. It was funny, but it was a different experience. No one is that quick to have a killer comment that’s timed well every 15 seconds, which is sort of the goal of my writing. It definitely takes writers, and if anyone ever sat down and tried to do it, they’d realize that. When you’re watching it, the experience should be very relaxed. It should seem like it’s just some guy sitting there, cracking wise.
Are there any improvised comments in any of the shows?
A few. Very few. But I always say, they were originally improvised, and that’s part of your job as an actor and comedian, to recreate the moment where you made everybody laugh in the writing room. Or when Kevin and I are writing a script in the writing room, there are some comments that crack everyone up, and there are some comments that everyone just turns to without any emotion and says, “That’s funny. Put that in there.” You come up with the stuff off the cuff. It may sound a little disingenuous, but I do believe that the thing is improvised, in a sense, and recreated.
The first few RiffTrax you did were solo, right?
That must have been a trying experience, doing all of the writing and performing, yourself.
It is. It just takes longer, and you have to write a bit differently for the solo effort. There’s a different rhythm to it, and everything, but I quite enjoy it. The one that I did, Roadhouse, solo, is one of our most popular ones.
That’s probably one you’ve been thinking about for a while. There’s a quote from you somewhere, calling it “the cheesiest film of all time.”
Yeah. I think it’s pretty good. It’s still my favorite. We were picking clips the other day, and there’s a scene where Ben Gazzara is berating his thugs, and I saw the scene and started smiling again, the hundredth time I’d seen it. I don’t know what it is about it, but it makes me laugh.
Had you, in some sense, been writing that commentary for two decades now?
Yeah [laughs]. That’s probably true.
After MST3K, do you find yourself writing jokes in your head every time you see a movie?
The first time you watch a movie, not really. It’s more of just a general thing, like, “Ooh, this section is talkie. That’s gonna be trouble [laughs],” or, “That’s a 20-minute action scene with nobody talking. That’s gonna be hard.” Then the second time I watch it, I might zero in on it a little more.
Most of the movies in the RiffTrax catalogue are bad, but some, like Casino Royale or Predator, have their charm. Would this work with really good movies?
I think it would, because there’s something about–first of all, the movie has to do some of the heavy lifting for you. You can’t just create a piece of gold out of nothing. But also there’s a meta dialogue that you have to do. You’re not just tearing down the film, saying, “Look at that stupid guy, how dumb he is.” You’re building on and riffing off of this thing that already exists. I always thought that something iconic like The Godfather could be done and would be funny to people, because by now, everyone’s seen it. The impact would be gone, but they’d still enjoy it. There’s a few movies like that, where I think, “We could easily do a RiffTrax for that.”
So those may be coming?
How did the Neil Patrick Harris collaboration come about?
I was thinking of people I might want to pull in the booth, because it’s not a big production. You’re not asking them to do a movie or even a cameo, which still requires a lot of collaboration. I said, “Hey, I’ll write a script and send it to you, and if you think it’s funny and can say these words…” I thought of him because I knew he was a fan of Mystery Science, and he would at least understand what RiffTrax was. And he did, and it was very easy. He suggested the movie, and I looked at it and thought it would be fun. I wrote the script for him and tried to figure out what his voice would be, and he didn’t have a single complaint. I may be spoiled on working with celebrities after working with Neil Patrick Harris, because he’s a really nice guy, and pro.
Is there a commentary track on the MST3K movie DVD?
No, which I thought would be great. That movie is apparently anathema to the studio. They won’t put the damn thing out–I don’t know what the deal is. We assumed that would be a natural, if you wanted to re-release it, but it’s a no go.
Do you envision a standard commentary, or more of a meta-MST3K critique?
I would have to look at it. I wonder how that would work. It might get too annoying at the length of that movie, but maybe there could be two of them. One could be a standard commentary, and the other–we could attempt an actual riff on it.