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Arts and Entertainment

LAist Interview: Michael J. Nelson of RiffTrax and Mystery Science Theater 3000

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Michael J. Nelson first appeared on the scene as the (seasons 5-10) host of Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which he and robot pals Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot provided a hilarious running commentary to some truly bad sci-fi movies. In the years since MST3K, Nelson has written a number of books, made some guest appearances on NPR, and reunited with the old MST3K gang under the name "The Film Crew."

Last year, to the delight of MSTies and movie fans everywhere, Nelson launched RiffTrax.com. The website provides downloadable commentary that can easily sync with popular DVDs via MP3 device, CD player or computer. Nelson is a riffer on each track, and "guest riffers" have included people such as Bill Corbett (Crow T. Robot), Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo), "Weird Al" Yankovic, Neil Patrick Harris and Fred Willard. LAist spoke with Nelson last week and got the scoop regarding bloopers, politics and Los Angeles:

One thing I’ve always appreciated about your work is that it’s comedy that’s both edgy and clean. In your opinion, why don’t more comedians go that route rather than going blue?

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Well, I think because it’s easy to go blue and it’s just so common at comedy clubs. I like the restriction of not taking that route, and I think it makes you more creative. The novel I wrote is not for kids, but I wrote it as a challenge—as sort of a G-rated book to see if I could make adults sound like they’re actually talking, but never use blue language. And it was really fun to try to do. I had to place the novel in sort of an alternate universe to make that seem real.

Which do you feel is the best introductory RiffTrax for new users?

Well, I think an easy way in might be something like 300, that is a lot of fun to watch on its own and has a visual element. But I’m really fond of the 80s ones—such as Over the Top and Road House. And I like the Britney Spears movie, Crossroads, too, but those movies are a little harder to come by and so they’re not as popular with RiffTrax viewers.

You’ve said on a number of occasions that Road House is your favorite bad movie. Any chance you’d try to get Patrick Swayze to do a riff with you?

Absolutely. I think that would be wonderful. I’m going to pursue it; I think it would be a riot. I’ve heard he’s a very nice guy and I’m pretty sure he’d be up for it.

I love the fact that your riffing includes both timely humor and evergreen riffs. Do you make a conscious effort to balance the two types of riffs or does it just come naturally?

The only conscious effort is not to get too timely, or if they’re timely you kind of just have to have a good barometer for what’s going to sound really bad in the future. But a lot of times when you hear it later, you don’t cringe…it sort of just sets it in time. If you’re trying to be really topical like a Saturday Night Live, which does it on purpose, that’s different. When you do see the older episodes, a lot of times you groan over what they were going for. So that’s the only conscious part—the balance of not being topical in a way that’s going to age poorly.

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A friend of mine travels a lot and often listens to RiffTrax while on long plane rides…without the DVDs. He usually chooses movies he’s familiar with and says that they’re still hilarious. Is that a common occurrence or is he a unique case?

Well, it’s not unique. I had heard there’s one other guy who reviewed a RiffTrax while doing that and negatively reviewed the fact that he could occasionally hear me breathing. I’m like, “Well, there’s supposed to be a really loud movie playing!” (laughs) So I have heard it before but I don’t imagine it’s very common.

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Where do you find those hilarious short films such as “Act Your Age” and “Lunchroom Manners”?

There’s a great site called archive.org that has a bunch of public domain stuff and within that there’s something called the Prelinger Archives—named after the guy who collected all these films—Rick Prelinger. And they’re all on there; you can get lost in the site. There are so many things—from old drive-in movies to local commercials and then, obviously, those kinds of shorts. It’s a treasure trove.

I know you watch each movie a number of times as you prepare each riff. Is there anything in particular you do to cleanse your mind after having to watch something like, Manos: The Hands of Fate or the PG-rated strip scenes in Hollywood After Dark three or four times?

It’s amazing how mentally tiring it is. When we’re through with writing and recording, you just want to go do anything else. Seeing a good movie is a good way to cleanse the horror. For example, I recently saw Once, which I liked a lot, and now the songs are stuck in my head.

Is there a movie do you love so much it is off limits to make fun of it?

Well, probably not, although there are some that just wouldn’t work from the standpoint of not lending themselves to the humor. But I’ve thought about trying something like Casablanca, which is one of my favorite movies. But could it be riffed on? Would people think, “Oh no, you can’t possibly do that”? The commentary isn’t just sitting there whacking at the film; it’s a meta-commentary. We’ll certainly take some shots if the film deserves it, but if it’s decent we really don’t go into it that much. So it could work. I’ve always wanted to do The Godfather, but it comes out low in our online polls, so I don’t know.

It seems that the fans really love to actively participate in your work. What surprised or impressed you most about the fan-written RiffTrax for Batman & Robin?

Well, we had heard one that they’d done already so it wasn’t a surprise that people really did a good job and really understood what they were supposed to do, and there are a lot of funny people out there, too. We love the fact that people want to get in on the act. To me, it makes it more enjoyable. It was really great to do, and to see how people view the process. I also liked hearing from them that it was incredibly difficult. It at least made me feel a little better. (laughs)

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Have you heard about “Project: Riff” in which an MST3K fan has counted the total number of riffs in each of the episodes and calculated the “riffs per minute”? What was your reaction to that?

Good heavens, no I had not! Wow! So this has been scientifically reduced…now I’m kind of scared. (laughs)

It’s flattering, but it’s also a strange thing because I think I let people down when I meet someone. Often, if they’re a big fan, they’ll have me sign a book or something with their favorite comment—the thing that sort of stuck with them forever—and I have no idea what they’re talking about.

I always apologetically say, “You have to understand, there are thousands of comments in my head and no brain can hold them all!” But they always are a little disappointed in my lack of remembering their favorite line.

I loved the MST3K blooper video you put out…do you have any audio bloopers from the RiffTrax you’ve done so far? Do you ever get to a point where you have to stop recording because you’re laughing so hard?

There are times, yes. I think our sound guy is collecting a bunch of bloopers and I’m a little alarmed to hear it. But I think at some point we will release them. When you get in a studio with all these people, all your hard work is already done. The recording of it takes a certain concentration, but mostly, that’s the fun part. You’ve already written and honed it, so now you get to go in and just mess around. So that process yields a lot of bloopers and a lot of crackups and all of that.

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It’s really cool that your wife did a RiffTrax with you. Are your kids starting to follow in your footsteps? Perhaps starting to riff on some Disney films?

Well, yeah, despite our best efforts to steer them in other directions, they do seem sort of inclined. They are funny. I thought of experimenting and having them do their own riff on something, but they’re pretty shy, too, so they haven’t gotten into it yet. But yeah, I was hoping for them to both be whizzes at something like mathematics, which would actually yield something in life. But no, it seems like comedy is in the family.

It’s almost a thing of legend, but I’ve read reports about the rare live-riffing performances. Any chance that you, Bill and Kevin might do a live riff in LA?

Yeah, actually, that’s been discussed. We’ve done them in San Francisco with the Sketchfest. Two of the people who run the festival live in LA and I think they’re looking for an LA venue. So, no firm plans, but I think it’s in the cards at some point in the future.

Now that you’ve been living here for a little while [after moving from Minnesota], what do you love most about Southern California?

Well, the fact that I don’t have to wear a stupid-looking warm hat. Ever. That’s really a plus. Not only for me, but for everyone who has to look at me.

But I do love just being able to—every single day—work out and take a run and bike or whatever. It’s really great.

Any upcoming projects you’d like to promote?

RiffTrax is going to take a little detour and we’re going to do some political stuff—that is, we’re going to strip the politics out of political ads and make them funny again. So we’re recording a bunch of those and are going to post them on the Web just for fun. That’s just a little detour we’re on because politics can be so hard and bitter and everything, and we’re completely removing all of that and making it something that you’ll actually want to see.

To learn more and download RiffTrax commentaries (which run $ .99 - $3.99 each) visit www.rifftrax.com.


Sample movie riff—Jurassic Park with "Weird Al" Yankovic


Sample political ad riff

Photos used with permission.