Our very own RiffTrax RoundTable member, LadyKenobi, had this recent interview with Mike. She’s a contributing writer for MSNBC.
Some of Michael J. Nelson’s former coworkers are now his competition, and he has an idea.
“I’ve tried to encourage a rivalry like the World Wrestling Federation,” Nelson says, “where we taunt each other in public and then behind the scenes we make giant piles of money.”
“The only thing missing is the giant piles of money.”
For over a year, Nelson, the former host of cult TV hit “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, has stood alone in the ring, holding aloft the mighty belt of Rifftrax (www.rifftrax.com ), a catalog of downloadable full-length movie commentaries. The television show about a man and his robots marooned in space and forced to watch horrible movies ended in 1999, but through a variety of projects since, Nelson has fine-tuned, rather than fled from, his forte as a professional detractor of Patrick Swayze.
In that sense, he’s tended the flame of bad-movie commentary more faithfully than the show’s creator and original host, Joel Hodgson. “It’s a lot of fun for us,” Nelson said in an interview with MSNBC.com, “so I’ve never repudiated it.”
By “us” he means ex-castmates Bill Corbett, who puppeted Crow T. Robot, and Kevin Murphy, the man behind (or, rather, beneath) Tom Servo. The two joined Nelson first in a quartet of DVDs as “The Film Crew”, and now on Rifftrax, which currently boasts almost fifty commentaries. “We’re like a band that just can’t stop playing the music,” Nelson said.
Wait… speaking of music, what’s that coming over the loudspeakers? Why-that’s Joel Hodgson’s theme! Where the Internet is concerned, there’s rarely zero-sum happy, so currently sprinting down the ramp and into the ring is Hodgson.
And he, too, brought a tag team.
After five years in his character’s red jumpsuit, Hodgson, fearing a cult star’s future doomed to “signing pictures at an RV show,” climbed into an escape pod titled the “Deus Ex Machina” and left “MST”. Following him was Trace Beaulieu, who played the evil, movie-inflicting scientist as well as the original voice of Crow. Frank Conniff, the portrayer of Beaulieu’s sidekick, also departed. All three cited a desire to explore life beyond movie ridicule.
In late October, the “Deus Ex Machina” came crashing down on the Internet in the form of Cinematic Titanic. ( http://cinematictitanic.com/) “Thanks for mentioning [‘Mystery Science Theater 3000′], thanks for keeping the dream alive, and thanks for buying the DVDs,” wrote Hodgson on the site. “It’s all been strange and mysterious and lovely, and it makes me want to do it all over again.”
But although Hodgson has no qualms about touting Cinematic Titanic as “powered by the original cast of MST3K,” he has edged away from limiting himself to “MST” fans, who, since the show’s demise, have had to comfort themselves with sporadically re-released episodes and rapidly disintegrating VHS tapes. Hodgson is quick to announce that his new product is “gentle and easy to swallow for those that are new to movie riffing.”
Beyond the understandable desire for a broader customer base, details are sparse-even for Nelson, who served as “MST”s head writer before stepping in for Hodgson. Still, he maintains that the movie-derision water is plenty warm: “The more people doing the Rifftrax thing, the better,” he said. “…I think they’re being secretive, as we are with our future releases.”
Hodgson, no fool he, seems to have returned to his revolutionary concept of literally contrasting his main characters against cinematic dreck. His new venture’s logo involves scaffolding supporting five silhouetted cast members, whom apparently represent Hodgson, Conniff, Beaulieu, former “MST” villainess Mary Jo Pehl, and — this was the true shocker — J. Elvis Weinstein, who first served as Tom Servo when “MST” was but a fetus, a hotglued, mostly ad-libbed timefiller on a local Minnesota television station.
Why not dust off the iconic theater seats? Hodgson doesn’t own the rights to the “MST” silhouette he helped to fashion. That horizontal gold mine is in the hands of former executive producer Jim Mallon.
Wait a minute… what’s that music?
That would be the original theme song to “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which Mallon also owns, along with the rights to the characters, the logo, the merchandise– and now a re-launched mst3k.com. (http://www.mst3k.com/)
Mallon, not to be deterred by the spin-offs of his two former hosts, barreled through the ropes on the same day Hodgson released his new offering. Recruiting former “MST” writer Paul Chaplin, Mallon reclaimed the URL from a fan site, put together two Flash cartoons featuring Crow and Servo, and introduced a retreaded web store. And although they’re seen in vintage video clips, conspicuously missing from the relaunch were Nelson, Corbett, Murphy, and every single person on Hodgson’s scaffolding.
Nelson pronounces the site “cute.” “It seems to be an after-the-fact use of the (robot) characters,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to see them again after all this time, and think of them in that context, so it looks completely different to me.”
Less forgiving are the fans. Unimpressed by Mallon’s offerings, at least one cyber-trotted his Flashtoon over to Cuts (http://www.cuts.com), a Rifftrax site which allows users to drop pre-recorded ridicule from Nelson and company into video clips. Therefore, viewers are now treated to the sound of Murphy meta-heaping scorn upon the character he played for nine years.
“I think my head just exploded,” Nelson said when informed of this development.
The web will do that. Users are now fully prepared to find entertainment online, and as Americans weather a television writers’ strike, the timing of the virtual “MST” explosion highlights the industry’s tension. “The necessity of having some pesky man who has to actually create the thing that you do is really a thorn in the side, and (producers) loathe paying writers,” Nelson says.
The supreme irony is that “MST” and the Internet shared a social nursery; the program was just taking off when the Web began its slow lava flow out of labs and businesses and into homes and dorm rooms. Both are marked by intellectual intensity and a snug sense of community, and it was little surprise that when Nelson took Hodgson’s seat in the theater, the virtual villages that had sprung up in support of the strange, cheerful show burned with “Joel vs. Mike” flame wars.
Now that a series created in 1988 has gone kaboom all over again in 2007, the matchup is fully riff-to-riff in the virtual marketplace. Courted by both hosts as well as the holder of the brand, the online realm may have become the fans’ playground, but what of cast members caught in the middle, such as Pehl, who recently joined Nelson for a Rifftrax treatment of the Mariah Carey debacle “Glitter”?
If the market has its say? Plenty of work, with giant piles of money for all.
Mary Beth Ellis runs BlondeChampagne.com (www.blondechampagne.com) and is the author of Drink to the Lasses.(www.drinktothelasses.com )
You can read the unedited version, as well as the chat transcript with Mike, on our forum here: http://forum.rifftrax.com/index.php/topic,6050.0.html