Talking to Mike Nelson About RiffTrax’s National Geographic TV Special
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett might all be better recognized by their voices than their faces. Throughout the ’90s, they were a part of a group that gathered some of the most renowned movie theater hecklers around: Mystery Science Theater 3000. In 2006, the trio took to the internet to bring us RiffTrax, the next wave in movie heckling. Together, they’ve riffed a pretty wide range of movies, ranging from Casablanca to 300, from Inception to Fast & Furious. Now they have set their sights on the animal kingdom. Earlier this week, Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett returned to TV for the first time since their MST3K days, with Total Riff Off, a three-hour April Fool’s special on the National Geographic Channel that saw them overdubbing class nature specials.
I recently caught up with Mike Nelson to discuss the National Geographic special and the future of RiffTrax:
How did you end up with National Geographic?
It’s funny, you know, they contacted us. And specifically there’s a guy there who’s a fan of RiffTrax and whatnot, and he got the idea. We were busy doing live shows and a lot of inquiries and we were kind of like, “Well, this is probably not an actual guy.” But we looked into it and were like, “Hey! He’s the guy who can make it happen!” So it’s been great. He’s really taken the lead on it since National Geographic may not at first seem like the most natural thing to do a show like this.
Yeah, this is certainly new territory. How has this particular shift in genre affected your writing style?
It’s really hard to say, I think the addition of younger writers has helped keep things fresh, and we always kind of challenge each other. The genres – a lot of times there’s kind of a technical difference with it, but generally we just need to have some spaces and a little bit of goofiness and we can do it. It’s pretty adaptable in that way, and to be honest, when we got the material from National Geographic, we weren’t sure it was going to be successful. Then once we finally got everything together, we were like, “This is pretty good. This works well.”
I know cable subscriptions have been declining with the advent of the internet and especially services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO GO. Are there any plans to live-stream the show for those without cable?
Nothing as of yet. This is kind of an experiment for them and for us. We love it, being able to take over for the whole night. And who knows. Viewers of National Geographic could go, “Who are these guys? Shut up. I’m trying to watch animals,” and that could be the end of it there. But there’re no plans beyond April 1st.
Last year there were plans on doing something with Twilight that fell through and you ended up doing Starship Troopers (which is fantastic also). Are there any plans to try and revitalize anything you did for Twilight?
We will keep gently approaching the people of Lionsgate about Twilight. We’ll keep trying. I think we’ve made pretty good evidence that it can work well and nobody dies and it doesn’t ruin your product if you let us do the movie for the night. That was kind of one of the points of doing it. Also to bring fresh material, or relatively fresh.
How’s everybody feeling about the first time being back on TV since Mystery Science Theater 3000?
You know, it’s funny. The reaction from it has been stronger and more positive than I would have thought. And being on the internet, you don’t think about it much. You think, ‘Well I’m reaching all these people all the time, but I guess there’s something about TV that kind of excites people.’ I don’t know if there are people who didn’t know we were doing RiffTrax or what have you. You know, maybe stuff on the Internet just doesn’t have the same kind of buzz about it, but it was fun to see people getting really excited by it.
What’s been the writing methodology for these episodes in particular? Is it the same as what you normally do? I imagine you sit down, you watch a movie once through, you pick a couple different parts you think might be more receptive to a funny comment…
Yeah, exactly. This one had a little extra step of just kind of finding the material because National Geographic has a lot of stuff, but they also have issues with certain things so they had to look through what was available and we had to screen it. They got pretty up-to-speed about what kind of stuff that we thought worked because our ways can be inscrutable in terms of “This one doesn’t work as well because of X and Y,” but they understood quickly and we actually pulled the material together pretty quickly. Then the writing was kind of our regular writing with some extra spit polish.
It’s exciting to have something like National Geographic coming to you and approaching you about that. I assume it must be relieving to see that people are aware that RiffTrax doesn’t necessarily demean their work in any way. They’re just funny ways to watch a movie or a show.
Yeah, it was kind of a turn we made. MST3K had a specific fiction around it, and the important part of that fiction was that we were forced to watch these movies and flat-out called them terrible movies. That shifted with RiffTrax; we realized the movie doesn’t have to be terrible for it to be funny. So that’s our motto: “We don’t make movies, we make them funny.” And that’s true of this too. I think we’re pretty gentle about stuff — if something’s worthy of some extra ridicule, then it gets it. It’s not just pure bitterness or snark. That wouldn’t be fun to watch over a long period of time. I think they realized we’re pretty gentle.
Are there any instances of particular vitriol you’ve received for RiffTrax?
No, we got more of it back in the MST3K days, and I don’t know if people are more used to that now. I haven’t really heard much. When we did Starship Troopers, we heard that some of the people who were in it — including Jake Busey, whom we were pretty rough on — actually enjoyed it. So we’re kind of been hearing the opposite lately. And we did Birdemic and some of the actors from that went to our live show on it. So it’s been a little more pleasant, and I think people realize the spirit of it. So I can’t actually recall that anybody’s been too upset about it.
Are there any more plans for live shows coming up in the future?
Oh absolutely. This year, we’re going to have several live shows. Hopefully, we’ll land a big title again. There’s nothing to report yet, since the shows don’t start until this summer. Then we’ll probably have one in the fall and then a Halloween show and a Christmas show. So we’re still gathering movies for it, but we should hopefully get some bigger titles and have some exciting stuff.
What’s the vibe with doing a live show? You have it written out but it’s nothing you can pause or take time with, so I’m guessing it must be a lot more nerve-wracking.
It is. It adds a little something extra to it. There’ve been suggestions along the lines of “Why don’t you do a concert version of it and do a couple shows and then take the best of that and make a real show?” That has some appeal to it, but there is something really special about it going directly from the stage to the satellite to the viewer. It does add some extra things in our performances — it’s kind of fun… it adds an edge to it. And every single time, when the stage manager is counting me down to five seconds and it’s about to go live, I’m always like, “Oh my God. This is really happening.”
RiffTrax’s National Geographic special Total Riff Off will be available on VOD on Friday, April 4th.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York City, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.