If you’re a fan of bad vintage sci-fi B-movies and snarky witticisms—and who isn’t?—you surely remember Mystery Science Theater 3000. MST3K, as it was known to fans, was a circa-1990s cable TV program with an offbeat premise: An evil scientist has exiled a man and two robots to a space station, where they were forced to watch bad movies as part of a twisted psychological experiment. To maintain their sanity, the trio talked back to the movies, providing a running commentary on their inane plot twists, wretched acting and improbable special effects. MST3K not only made for great fun, but its irony-laden irreverence in many ways presaged Twitter, YouTube mash-ups and the general ambiance a 21st Century pop culture. It’s no wonder that in 2007, Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik picked MST3K as one of the 100 best shows of all time.
Since MST3K went off the air, three of the comedians behind the show—former head writer Mike Nelson, Kevin “Servo” Murphy and Bill “Crow T. Robot” Corbett—have continued to poke fun at movies with a new venture. Their website, RiffTrax.com offers commentaries that are merged with cheesy old B-movies and short subjects, and also recorded commentaries that viewers can listen to as they watch recent blockbusters such as Transformers, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Inception on DVD. And on April 1 at 8 p.m., the trio will appear on the National Geographic Channel in Total Riff Off, a program in which they’ll aim their satirical weaponry at clips from nature documentaries and other standard fare. In a recent phone interview, the trio talked about their distinctive brand of humor. Here’s a transcript, edited slightly to make them look like real smarties.
Q: MST3K really seems to have had a big influence on current popular culture. You see the same sort of humor all over the place now on the Internet, from Twitter to user-created mash-ups on YouTube. It must be gratifying to you to see how your work has resonated.
Murphy: We claim total responsibility for the Internet.
Corbett: We're also waiting for our royalties. Mike, do you have anything to add?
Nelson: Now that people are used to the idea of making new things out of old material, we don’t have to do the heavy lifting of explaining it all again.
Q: What is it that you find appealing about this style of comedy?
Nelson: I don’t have to make a movie. I can just sit back and mock one.
Murphy: I appreciate that we're getting paid to do something that a lot of people simply do on their own, in their underwear at home.
Corbett: I actually do it in my underwear at home. I'm in my underwear right now, just so that you know.
Q: Well, I’m glad that we’re not doing this interview on Skype. Here’s a question about MST3K. How difficult was it to work with puppets?
Murphy: It’s much easier now. I don't have to do line reads while holding a 10 pound piece of plastic over my head.
Corbett: Try holding a 30 pound piece of plastic over your head. A little puppet macho here.
Nelson: I don’t have to stand next to a puppet whose eyes were constantly bursting into flames and doing fire stunts.
Q: But you could have gone down in TV history, with a horrific Michael Jackson-type accident.
Nelson: But it would have been much more embarrassing to have a puppet kill me. It’s a sweet ending, though.
Q: Periodically, there’s Internet chatter about an MST3K reboot, almost the way that there used to be rumors about a Beatles reunion or D.B. Cooper resurfacing. Are you spreading those?
Murphy: I'm right now trying to propagate the rumor that Mike is dead.
Corbett: We're working at cross purposes there, Kevin. Because I'm trying to propagate the rumor that Mike is DB Cooper.
Murphy: I’m just delighted that we have a whole new generation of fans who know us first for RiffTrax. An Internet-savvy generation, unlike us.
Q: How did RiffTrax evolve from MST3K?
Nelson: We always wanted to do feature films, modern stuff, and not just some obscure B-movie made in 1948. We did a couple of specials on MST3K where we made fun of a popular current movie, and fans reacted positively to it. So we started RiffTrax, which allows us to do a mix of things—current blockbusters, old movies, new movies, shorts. It’s great to have that freedom.
Corbett: We do classic movies, too. We recently did the Wizard of Oz, as a stunt, a little change of pace for us. We’ve done Casablanca.
Q: How different is it to make fun of a classic movie, as opposed to a current blockbuster?
Murphy: Movies today are edited differently, with a lot more rapid cuts, and faster action. Compare Casablanca to, say, Transformers. One sort of unfolds at a leisurely pace and the other is a massive two-and-a-half hour convulsion.
Nelson: Recent movies mean that you have to deal with a lot more stuttering Shia LaBeoufs. There were almost no stuttering Shia LaBeoufs in Casablanca.
Q: When you’re dealing with a movie like Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz, where people know all the trivia and the connections, do you have to push it to a different comedic level?
Corbett: No, we’re content to be pretty mediocre. But we have to do things differently. When you come across a line like, "We're not in Kansas anymore," it's been laughed at and referenced so many times. So the joke really has to be about the fact that it's such a pervasive thing in our culture.
Q: What is the perfect sort of movie or TV show for your commentary?
Nelson: We almost found that in The Twilight Zone. The way they were paced, and the self-seriousness. It made good material for mockery.
Q: Conversely, are there movies that you couldn’t or wouldn’t do?
Corbett: Part of me wants to go, yeah, we can make anything funny. But I actually don’t believe that. Some movies are just so technically horrible that people couldn’t watch them. And we tend to stay away from extreme violence and sex. And there are some movies that are inappropriate. If we tried to do Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda, we would seem like monsters. Even a film about a serious subject that’s not particularly good, or artful, is something you just have to be careful with. We also avoid riffing things that are trying to be funny, because it’s not that much fun to say that your joke didn’t work. We’ll never do Anchorman. Or even Anchorman 2.
Q: Is it true that you used to ad-lib the commentary in MST3K?
Murphy: That’s mostly a myth. We did that for the first three or four shows for local TV in Minneapolis, but when we started working for the networks, everybody just agreed that it was better when it was scripted and rehearsed. That was about the time that Mike Nelson came on, and I think our humor in general improved by about 100,000 percent.
Corbett: It’s important to remember, though, that was a different Mike Nelson. The guy we had then was a good writer, not like this load of cheese that we have now. But the original was replaced, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Q: But the jokes seem so spontaneous.
Murphy: It might seem that way, but there’s really no way that any of us is that Johnny-on-the-spot clever—except maybe me, of course.
Q: How do you come up with your witticisms? Do you all sit around watching the movies together, and then trade lines?
Corbett: We used to do it that way in the MST3K days. We’d watch the movie and one of us would type, and then we’d make that into a first draft and go over it a few times. But for RiffTrax, we just split the movie up, so that each of us does a part of it. It’s more efficient to do it that way.
Murphy: We do spend a lot of time staring at small chunks of these movies over and over. Sometimes, inspiration hits you like lighting, but that’s kind of rare.
Nelson: I’ve never in my life gone on a roll. There’s a lot of staring at the screen.
Murphy: There’s a lot of desperation involved. Not to dwell upon it.
Q: Could you tell our viewers about what they’ll be seeing on Total Riff Off?
Murphy: One of the wonderful things they’ll see is a British explorer—maybe Australian, I’m not sure—who is really bad at exploring. He scours Mexico, looking for a type of bat that doesn’t exist.
Corbett: We’re taking some of the programs that NatGeo gave us, and giving them the RiffTrax treatment. There are different types of shows, but the common denominator usually is animals. Some of them are about people and their unusual or disgusting pets. And there are exotic animals who kill each other. There are a couple of those blue-collar-dude working shows, the hard jobs genre. Dog trainers, and those guys who wrestle gators in the swamp.
Q: Which has more comedic potential--guys who do hard jobs, or exotic animals that kill each other?
Nelson: They’re both good. We’ve always had a fondness for animals, though, because they can’t talk back to us.
Q: Do you have future aspirations?
Murphy: I’m thinking of joining a light opera company.
Corbett: One word. Branson.
Q: Finally, do you have a coded message that you want to slip in for your fans?
Corbett: Here’s a seriously uncoded message. We have a bunch of live shows that we’ll be doing this year at theaters around the country. You can get all the details on our website, Lightbulbs4less.com…No, just kidding! It’s Rifftrax.com.