Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy of RiffTrax | Interview

Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 remember the days when Michael J. Nelson traveled through space with his trusty robots Crow and Tom Servo (puppets voiced by Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy), gleefully mocking old B-movies that they were forced to watch. Since MST3K went off the air, Nelson, Corbett and Murphy have taken their movie-roasting talents to the Internet with RiffTrax, where the trio offer downloadable commentary tracks that can be synced up with DVDs of the latest blockbusters to turn the latest Michael Bay blockbuster into a bellyaching comedy. (They also continue to riff B-movies, as well as old educational shorts.) We chatted with the RiffTrax team last week about their upcoming commentary for the latest installment of Twilight, but the guys had even more to say about what goes into creating RiffTrax, their experiences with online piracy and whether they'll be directing their barbs at the Oscar ceremony. What follows is extended online-only outtakes from my interview with them:

Time Out Chicago: In the format of MST3K you had this built-in narrative and characters to introduce why you guys were watching and mocking these terrible movies. While you don’t have that framework in RiffTrax, you do have something of a working universe in the way you relate to each other. How much of that is built into the writing of it and how much of it is there because that’s just how you guys interact with each other?
Kevin Murphy: Since we’re puppet-free, we had to just be ourselves here. We decided not to build characters around each other. And I think Mike and Bill and I have been working together so long that, kind of like family, we’ve learned how to turn our actual, inward, seething resentment for each other to what looks, outwardly, like affection. 
Bill Corbett: I think we wind up just playing goofy versions of ourselves and we joke often about how we trade off being the crazy person in our little skits, with the others sort of strangely shocked at the other one’s behavior. In so far as we have a universe, that’s it.

TOC: Additionally, you also build in various callbacks and inside jokes that are great for people who listen to multiple riffs, such as your references to [The Lord of the Rings'] Tom Bombadil and [Spider-Man's] Bonesaw.
BC: Thank you for calling it something other than laziness.
KM: I think those things, they catch in our filters and we repeat them to each other endlessly and it still remains amusing and then we even try to repeat it even more.
MJN: We have to have some reward for ourselves for not being extremely popular. Look, we’re paying attention. We may as well amuse ourselves now and then.
KM: Although we have gotten some mail from people getting a little sick of us making references to the TV show According to Jim. ‘Please stop,’ they said and our answer was, ‘No.’
MJN: It’s been off the air for five years.
BC: ‘At least update your bad jokes, guys.’

TOC: What is your process for writing and creating a RiffTrax?
BC: We do it a little differently than we did back in the puppet show days when we had a central writing room where we all just kind of went through it a half-minute at a time and then stopped and then everybody would blurt out jokes and we would take turns recording them. It was just sort of a mass Tourette syndrome that was recorded. But now, since we live in different places—Mike’s in San Diego and Kevin and I are still in the Minneapolis area—we split the movie up. We all take a crack at it. Mike works here with two younger writers, Conor [Lastowka] and Sean [Thomason] and then we eventually all get together and we review it for about a day and improve it where we can and record it pretty soon after that.
MJN: The writing is, by far, the longest part. By the time we get that script together that we rehearsed, we’re 97 percent there. That allows us, when we get into the recording booth, to have fun and relax knowing that we don’t have any heavy lifting to do. It’s just voice work at that point. That’s where it gets fun.
KM: By that time, we have watched the living hell out of any film that we’re gonna be doing.

TOC: How many times do you usually have to watch a movie before you actually finish with it?
KM: I think, all the way through, at least three or four times. The thing is, when we’re writing, it’s an intense, concentrated look at a chunk of the film over the course of a week. It’s really like looking at it with a scanning electronic microscope.
MJN: Yeah, to say three viewings is deceptive. It’s a viewing that each one would take probably a couple of days. So, we’ve each watched it intensely slowly, rewinding each moment. It’s a lot of minutiae that is all rewarded at the end when we just get to sit down and go, ‘Me read words! Be funny!’

TOC: Do you have a preference for riffing the big blockbuster spectacles versus the lesser-known B-movies that you still do occasionally?
BC: I like mixing it up. When we started a couple of years ago here at RiffTrax, our emphasis was a lot stronger on the blockbusters and they’re longer; their act three is usually a little more confusing and full of action and a little bit more of a challenge to write. Also, the whole fact that they are longer makes it a bit of a weirder experience as an end user. ‘Four hours into Return of the King and these guys are still chipper and making little jokes about hobbits? What’s wrong with them?’ So, I’m glad we’ve worked in these Video on Demand older movies, too. It really mixes up the work and makes it a lot more enjoyable for us.
KM: And also the shorts are a wonderfully refreshing thing. They’re concentrated so you don’t have to worry about having joke continuity throughout because they’re usually over in ten minutes. That’s our way to stop ourselves from being so intense and dark when we have that little concentrated vignette of life in the fifties. It’s really easy to just drill down into that and be really nasty.

TOC: There’s a perception that you guys really strongly dislike a lot of the movies that you riff. Is that true or do you actually end up riffing things that you enjoy watching?
BC: Yes! It’s true that there are a lot of things that we think are pretty dumb and we’re not shy about saying it in the riffs. But there are also things that we have riffed that we actually like quite a lot and are big fans of. It may not be the norm but we’ve done Jaws, which all of us are fans of. Some parts of it haven’t aged great, but it’s still a pretty fun movie. We actually did, specifically, a RiffTrax challenge to ourselves, to just kind of tell our fans that we’re not supposing that every movie we riff is awful. So, we decided to do a movie that everybody thinks is great, which is Casablanca. As Kevin has put it, it was more like a roast of something, like a friend that we feel some affection for and just wanted to have some fun with.
MJN: I often feel like one function of what we do is like we’re the safety inspector that shows up at a barn dance and says, ‘You know, there’s a pitchfork over there that someone could step on. This could catch fire.’ But really, it’s a lot of fun and we recognize that. In our professional sense, we have to stare at it and do due diligence on it and poke fun at it here and there. But overall, there’s nothing serious going on here.

TOC: With online piracy being such a huge issue right now, can you talk a little about your experience since you sell non-DRMed media on your site?
MJN: That’s a tough one. It’s something we decided early on. This business model would either succeed or fail on based on the idea that people have to be able to listen to these things on whatever product they have and we can’t limit that. And that, obviously, opens us up to enormous piracy and it’s sort of just built-in. There’s nothing we can do about it. All we can do is appeal to fans. We’re baffled by the sometimes twisted responses when we find someone who claims to be a fan uploading something to a pirate site.
BC: There’s stuff I understand about some of their arguments, but I can argue back. One is, ‘Well, I want to be able to try your product first and sample it.’ And my answer is, ‘Go to the many, many free samples we’ve uploaded to YouTube for specifically that purpose.’ I think people, maybe without the meanest of intentions, convince themselves that they’re beating the system or beating some huge entertainment giant conglomerate. But, in our case, they’re just not. They’re just making it hard for a pretty small, tight group of people to keep doing what they, presumably, like.

TOC: A question was posed on the RiffTrax Twitter stream asking whether people would be interested in riffs of live events like the Oscars. Is that something you guys are thinking about?
MJN: We’ve just toyed with the idea of doing some sort of stream that occurs during the commercials—we haven’t nailed it down—where people could just flip over if they’re having an Oscar party to us writing down some notes and giving our take on it. We don’t have any solid plans, but I’d love to do it.
KM: I’d love to do it, too and, I’m guessing, in a situation like this, beer would be involved.
BC: It would be a little more off-the-cuff. A lot more off-the-cuff. Way off-the-cuff, because we wouldn’t have the luxury of writing it all down. We’re gonna try and do something. At this point, there’s plenty of people doing Twitter commentary as it goes and some are even semi-organized, so we’d like to do a little more than that if we’re going to do it. But we’ll see. We’re thinking about ideas like that or maybe other events.

Rifftrax content can be purchased and downloaded at RiffTrax.com. Read our interview with the Rifftrax team about their upcoming riff of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)