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A Talk with the Former Host of Mystery Science Theater 3000

December 28th, 2007 by · 12 Comments

(via Associated Content – Nov 7)

It takes a special kind of talent to make a career out of riffing on bad movies, a certain snarkiness that’s not inherent to most of mankind.

Michael J. Nelson has that certain Midas touch of heckling, a sense of humor that he displayed for five seasons as the head writer and main character of the cult hit TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (also known as MST3K). Every episode, Mike and his robots would watch classically terrible films like The Sinister Urge and Space Mutiny, making comments easily more entertaining than the movie at hand.

Since the end of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mike has written several books and, with Legend Films, developed RiffTrax, an online service that sells commentary mp3s to users that can be played along with owned or rented DVDs for popular films like 300, Spiderman, and the Star Wars prequels–as well as less-than-popular films like Mariah Carey’s Glitter and the cult classic Missile To The Moon. Mike’s regularly joined by guests like MST3K co-stars Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy (who voiced the robots Crow and Tom Servo), Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), and Fred Willard (Best in Show).

I spoke with Mike about RiffTrax, dealing with celebrity guests, and the somewhat straining process of coming up with jokes for full-length movies.

Associated Content: Thanks for speaking with me, Mike.

Michael J. Nelson: My pleasure.

AC: Most of our readers are familiar with your work on Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’re now riffing on movies again on Why didn’t you go with the more established Mystery Science name?

MN: Well, for one thing, I don’t own it–the Mystery Science name is owned by someone else. And it’s really different [from Mystery Science Theater]–the main thing with RiffTrax is getting around the copyrights on the movies, and we had to do that by having people supply their own DVDs. It’s a different animal, obviously no puppets and no sketches. (laughs)

AC: You’re also working with a higher grade of movies than Mystery Science Theater. Some of the movies are very well-received critically. How does making fun of a good movie compare to making fun of a cheesy movie?

MN: It kind of varies. There are some movies that have things like extended battle sequences that you tend to see in a more expensive movie, but while they may be well done, they don’t necessarily lend themselves to riffing, or to comedy. On the other hand, a bad movie where two guys go into an office and talk for fifteen minutes just to kill time–that’s pretty deadly, too, and that’s pretty common in the B movies, even the ones you thought were funny as a kid. You probably forgot all those parts where nothing was happening, and that’s tough [to make fun of].

AC: On Rifftrax, you’re kind of doing a bit of both–you did 300, and Plan Nine from Outer Space, for instance.

Yeah, exactly. We tend to focus more on the newer ones. People just tend to want those more.

AC: So of the movies RiffTrax has done so far, which one is your favorite?

MN: Well, my favorites don’t necessarily tend to be other peoples’ favorites, that’s the way it kind of works. I really love all the movies from the 80s. I would love to do Red Dawn, and we did Road House, which is one of my favorites–I love those, but I’m from that era, so I don’t think people like them quite as much as I do.

Our listeners tend to like modern movies, like The Matrix and the Star Wars prequels–and I think the people that were disappointed by the new [Star Wars] trilogy really get a kick out of how much those new movies make me angry. I’m not faking in the least. They seem to identify. For some reason, it’s cathartic for those people.

AC: You’re also working with a longer format, since the Mystery Science Theater episodes often cut scenes out of some of the features. When you don’t have that control, does it make riffing on a movie more difficult?

MN: It does, a little bit. I think length is a factor, but I guess it’s mostly the writing and the production, because people don’t seem to mind the longer versions, or the longer movies. We did Lord of the Rings, for example, and people love it, it’s one of our top sellers. I guess I would expect that.The thing is, with Mystery Science, we edited out the boring parts, because it’s easier to make jokes on something that’s a little faster paced. We always ended up making the movie sort of better than it was originally, we sort of learned how to edit. Not being able to do that is a little bit of a downer, but on the other hand we tend to do movies that are bit better edited in the first place.

AC: How long does it take to write and record an episode?

MN: Over a week. The writing’s by far the longest, it’s a real long process. But just like with Mystery Science Theater, the actually recording is nearly in real time.

AC: So when you do a movie like Plan 9 From Outer Space Rifftrax catalog], do you actually end up watching the film about 40 or 50 times?

MN: Well, yeah, it amounts to that. It may be four viewings of it, but each one lasts days, so you’re backing up and watching things over and over again. And obviously, the flaws are magnified, and you begin to see things you wouldn’t normally. The tiniest thing that someone wouldn’t notice about the way an actor read a line will actually send you into a rage, and you’ll obsess on it–“why did he read it that way, why didn’t they do take two?” (laughs) So it does magnify it, and you have to resist the urge to focus too minutely on something that a normal person wouldn’t notice it all.

AC: On RiffTrax, you’ve got special guests like Fred Willard and Neil Patrick Harris. Do they get involved in the whole writing process?

MN: In that case, we write for them and get them involved in revisions of the script. These people are working actors, and they’re a little too busy to come in for the whole time. It’s amazing how we hit it for them, though–I’m a fan of both of them, so you just try to write in their comic voice, and you’ll send the script away thinking, “man, this is all wrong,” but in both cases, they just loved it. They do come in with some of their own material–Fred Willard brought in some jokes, which was great. But normally it’s about 99% done by the time they get it.

AC: Do you have any big guests lined up for RiffTrax in the near future?

MN: Well, we do, but as always in the world of Hollywood, if you wrongly drop a name and something doesn’t happen, they will actually murder you. And they’re stars, so they can get away with it, too.

AC: And you can’t put your life on the line for us?

MN: No, I don’t want to go into hiding for the next year just for mentioning that John Schuck is going to be our next guest–oh, no, I’ve blown it! (laughs)

No, no, there are some exciting people, but until these things are all sewn up, you just can’t do it.

AC: Well, speaking of getting away with illegal activities, what is RiffTrax doing to curb piracy? You’re not offering the MP3s with any DRM whatsoever, it seems like files would be easy to steal and trade.

MN: Yeah, I think that obviously they would be, and certainly there is a lot of piracy, but it’s impossible to know how much, and we really can’t do it any other way. People have to be able to use [the RiffTrax mp3s] in the widest range of ways possible for them make it work and make it convenient to them. A nd the vast majority of people are honest, so you don’t want to punish most of the people just because some people steal it. I think there’s always going to be people that will.

But look, there’s also the fact that if [the mp3s] get stolen too much, this business can’t survive. We don’t do anything else, we just do this. I think that most people understand that.

AC: There was an AC piece a while back about the best song on Mystery Science Theater 3000 that you’d done with the robots during the host segments. I think we settled on “Sodium”.

MN: (laughs) That’s not bad. But I was always shocked by the amount of people that really loved “Tubular Boobular Joy”, which was this vaudevillian song Kevin Murphy and I collaborated on about male and female body parts, because we were doing like a sword and sandal movie where everything was…on display. And that song was a lot of fun to do, and people always come up to me and say that it was their favorite thing we’d ever done.

AC: You do work with Kevin and Bill [Corbett] on RiffTrax. Have you worked with Joel since MST3K ended?

MN: I’m trying to think…no…I’ve seen him a few times, but no, I haven’t worked with him.

AC: And finally, you’re also the writer of a few books–do you have any other projects that you’re working on?

MN: There are a few things I have in the works, but [RiffTrax] is consuming most of my time right now. There are couple of books I’m working on, and a play, so hopefully I can get to those soon.

AC: We’ll be looking forward to them. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

MN: Thanks. It was nice talking to you.

Tags: Interviews · RiffTrax