Mystery Science Theater 2010: Riffer Madness!

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The other Thursday, as people walked in early to one of the 500 theaters where the RiffTrax demolition of Reefer Madness was scheduled to play, they found one of those pre-show movie trivia games in progress on-screen. “MOVIE MISTAKES,” one card read. “Furry Vengeance was classified as a movie on the Internet Movie Database.” And: “We apologize for the stickiness of the theater floor. Nick Nolte slept here last night.” Then: “MOVIE QUOTES: ‘Release the Kraken!’ —Liam Neeson, Schindler’s List (first draft).”

The guys from Mystery Science Theater 3000 are back, and back in style. In fact, they still have so many excellent jokes to make about less-than-excellent films, they split into two groups: RiffTrax, manned by Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett; and Cinematic Titanic, with Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis (ne Josh) Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl. So the show’s entire on-air regular cast, from the expanse of its 11-year run, can now be found on DVD or riffing live. The great monster of deconstructive comedy has risen again, as the thing with two heads. And what does Joel-head think of his rival Riff-head, and vice versa? Read on!

MST3K, as all MSTies lovingly recall it, was a two-hour show that started in late 1988 on the Minneapolis TV station KTMA and went national the following year on the Comedy Network (soon to be known as Comedy Central), where it spent seven glorious years; for a while it was on the air something like 19 hours a week. In 1996 it moved to the Sci-Fi Channel and, after 198 total episodes, shut down in 1999. Throughout its run, MST3K retained its outsider edge and midwestern niceness; it emanated from Eden Prairie, Minn., and the most of the actor-writers didn’t go Hollywood until their work was done. The show had the vibe of a local time-filler on a UHF station. It just happened to be the smartest, coolest thing in all of television.

Aside from being one of the 100 best TV shows of all time (Poniewozik said so), and winning the early acclaim of both pre-Poniewozik TIME TV critic Richard Zoglin and yours truly (I wrote about it herehereherehere and here), MST3K served as an early clue to the digital generation. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that Hodgson, the show’s creator and, for 4-1/2 years, its star, invented DVD commentary, that he was an aural precursor of all movie bloggers and that he sired one of the very first Internet entertainment cults.

They Send Him Cheesy Movies…

For the uninitiated, a quick background sketch. MST3K‘s premise was knotty: Joel Robinson (Hodgson), a janitor at the Gizmonic Institute, had been launched into space by his boss, mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Beaulieu), in an experiment to calibrate the effect of cheesy movies on the human mind; and, for company on his solitary mission, Joel built two robots, Crow (Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (Weinstein and, after the second season, Murphy). But the show’s format was simple: Joel and the bots were seen in silhouette at the bottom of the screen as they cracked jokes about the B-minus films we were all watching.

As the show went national, the comedy also got tighter and richer. Instead of doing live improv, more or less, as they watched the movie, Hodgson & Co. scripted each of the 600-plus gags per episode to the milisecond, insuring that a comment would come in between, not over, lines of the movie’s dialogue. The team made few film-scholar references to a picture’s cast or crew. (A rare one: noting that on movie was produced by Sigmund Neufeld and directed by his brother Sam Newfield, Mike observed, “They must have gotten in different lines at Ellis Island.”) But each episode was rife with allusions to other films, and you had to be on your toes to get them all. A ghoulish hospital attendant was “Nurse Feratu”; the choreography in a Japanese monster-movie bacchanal was attributed to “the Mothra Graham Dance Troupe.”

OK, everything has to end. Josh, just 17 when Joel recruited him, soon left for L.A., changing his name to J. Elvis because TV comedy already had a Josh Weinstein (he wrote for The Simpsons); he eventually was a producer on Freaks and Geeks. Joel bailed (in a dispute with producer Jim Mallon) in May 1994, and Nelson, until then the head writer and inspired bit player (recall his Michael J. Feinstein playing the Love Theme from Gamera), took over as host. Conniff (“TV’s Frank”) split at the end of season six and worked on Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Drew Carey Show. When the show moved to Sci-Fi, it was adieu for Beaulieu, who had been sort of the Frank Oz to Hodgson’s Jim Henson; he got a writing job at America’s Funniest Home Videos. For a few episodes Trace and Joel played characters on Freaks and Geeks;. That marked a reunion of sorts: series exec producer Judd Apatow had written for Joel’s post-MST3K venture The TV Wheel. Joel was also a writer for Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night ABC show.

Murphy and Nelson stayed with MST3K till the end, abetted by Corbett, who assumed Beaulieu’s role as Crow. Pehl, a staff writer, became Dr. Forrester’s dominatrix mom Pearl. After the show shut down, Nelson wrote humor columns and books (Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese), and Murphy spent 2001 traveling the world and seeing a different picture every day for the book A Year at the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey. He, Nelson and Corbett reteamed in 2006 as RiffTrax, which has offered separate audio tracks for popular movies (TwilightAvatar) and segued into the more familiar MST3K tradition of mocking Grade-Z product. In 2007, Joel convened the rest of the troupe and launched Cinematic Titanic.

Science Fiction Double Feature

Team Joel and Team Mike are like some classic doo-wop group whose members split-up and recombined as rival entities hoping to appeal to the same generations of nostalgiacs. Except that RiffTrax and Cinematc Titanic don’t do oldies, they keep generating new material, and it’s as choice as the old stuff. Just without the puppets.

All the CT efforts would reside comfortably on the medium-high to off-the-charts scale of old MST3K episodes. But since CT is essentially a traveling show, the DVDs you really must see are the ones recorded live from their concert work, where the five riffers are perched on either side of the screen showing the movie. The vibe is alive, as the audience performs a peculiar release-and-choke maneuver, exploding with laughter at one gag and instantly stifling itself to hear the next one. The gang is in high form on East Meets Watts, aka Dynamite Brothers, Al Adamson’s anti-classic blaxploitation/kung-fu farrago from 1974. A five-min. chunk of the riff can be seen on YouTube.) Some young Chinese punks convene As Trace says of the martial artistry on display here, “I think the can of whup-ass they opened here is way past its expiration date.” But the jokes aren’t.

The CT riff on Danger on Tiki Island, a 1968 Filipino melodrama originally released as Brides of Blood, includes an acute description of surf-movie regular John Ashley (“He’s like the Beach Boy version of Fred MacMurray”), an advisory to viewers (Joel: “Were you hopin’ for an action sequence? Well, I hope you enjoyed it, ’cause that was it.”) and some observations that might apply to any film the guys having been critiquing for the past 22 years. Joel: “Did this movie just go on break?” J. Elvis, with a sigh: “And that’s the take they went with.”

The RiffTraffickers’ usual format is DVD, where the butts of their jibes are beloved old horror and science-fiction features (Night of the Living DeadHouse on Haunted Hill, Plan 9 from Outer SpaceThe Little Shop of Horrors), plus an unending stream of the educational short films shown to schoolkids 40-60 years ago. But last Thursday they supplemented their day job with a live performance beamed from an Escondido, Cal., studio to hundreds of movie houses.

The bash began with two of those instructional films; they bore such hilarious internal contradictions that it’s astonishing the original MST3K group never got around to shredding them. More Dangerous Than Dynamite, from 1941, warns housewives against something they might already have known: Don’t wash your family’s clothes in gasoline! The 1970 At Your Fingertips, “a film by Peter Erik Winkler,” offers tips on turning blades of grass into kids’ wearables: hats, masks, dresses. (Mike: “This film is for patients the nurses won’t give scissors to.”) By the end of the film, when the children seem to be enrolling in a Wicker Man cult, Mike is nearly dumbstruck (“Oh, what fresh hell is this?”) and the audience is in handmade stitches.

RiffTrax already did a DVD commentary on Reefer Madness, the 1936 social parable (originally called Tell Your Children) which in the ’60s became one of the first college-campus camp classics. Riffing on it might seem superfluous — but also irresistible. (As Kevin Murphy wrote me: “When we choose the right film, it does a lot of the work for us. It’s Margaret Dumont.”) On Aug. 19, the big selling point for fans, other than seeing their heroes on the big screen, was a garish colorized print, which rendered men’s jackets in emerald green and most faces in pasty gray.

The live version also used a few jokes submitted online by fans, and updated one or two references. (When the movie shows federal agents burning packs of heroin, Mike had originally said, “You know, Robert Downey Jr. can’t even watch this scene without breaking down in sobs.” Now that Downey has been in recovery phase for a while, the celebrity abuser’s name has been changed to Tom Sizemore.) There was also a furtive salute to Joel Hogsdon. Toward the end of a pruny fellow’s interminable jeremiad on the dangers of drugs, Mike shouted out, “You’re not funny! Get to the watermelon-smashing!” That was an allusion to the ’80s prop comic Gallagher, a particular bete noire of Joel’s back in the day.

But the whole glorious evening was a first-class trip in the Wayback Machine to MST3K‘s glory days. The big difference and improvement: We weren’t watching in a college dorm with a few hip friends but in a theater with several hundred fellow MSTies, and in a cross-country hookup with tens of thousands. The Satellite of Love soars again.

Catching Up With Joel and Kevin

This report was originally pegged to the RiffTrax live show. But I also wanted to see what the Cinematic Titanic crew was up to, and so asked the CT publicist to send me some of their DVDs. A few days later I got an email, that a package was on the way, signed “Trace.” The great Trace Beaulieu is CT’s shipping clerk! As he explained: “We are such a little, artist-owned company that we have been doing DVD fulfillment from my little shed in the woods. Very much in the spirit of early MST.” Bless them all and send them money.

Joel then got in touch and very kindly answered my questions:

Me: I wonder why the Cinematic Titanic DVDs aren’t sold on Amazon, or rented on Netflix. Wouldn’t you reach a wider audience that way than by selling your wares out of your car trunk?

Joel: Sure, both Amazon and packaging our films as apps for the Droid are in the pipeline. Not sure about iTunes. However, right now our DVDs are available for instant download via EZtakes, and we sell DVDs directly from our website. Really, though, as you can see from our tour schedule, our big thing is our live shows, and our DVDs are documents of our live events.

Me: Do your team and the RiffTraffickers ever cross paths, or swords?

Joel: Yes, for sure — paths. I’ll be seeing them all in about two weeks at Dragoncon, and I think we get along pretty well considering we’re doing pretty much the same thing: Movie riffing. Also, we know for a fact almost all of our fans from MST3K seem to love both groups equally, So I think we are all cueing off them. Maybe we’re being nice to each other for the children’s sake, I don’t know. Besides, those guys can be really funny. Just yesterday on the plane I watched a SCI-FI-era MST and found it really entertaining – I was quietly shaking with laughter.

Me: How do you know if a movie you’re working on isn’t one they’re doing?

Joel: Hasn’t been a problem yet, and if we ever end up doing the same film, I’m sure Rifftrax would defer to me since I’m the guy who started up all this bologna.

Over at RiffTrax, Kevin Murphy affirms the mutual admiration: “Indeed we’re on fine terms with the CT folk. We don’t socialize all that much, but it was more of an organic separation — they all moved west and we stayed in Minnesota. And in fact I’ll be doing a ‘Servo / Servo’ panel with Josh at Dragon-Con [over Labor Day weekend], which should be fun. And Trace and I joked it up on stage in Minneapolis and Chicago for an event called W00tstock [this past June], and it was great fun to spend time with him.”

With their DVDs available on Amazon and Netflix, as well as their website, the RiffTraffickers have plenty of fans watching their work through normal channels. But for writer-performers who grew up in stand-up, doing it live has multiple rewards and challenges. As Kevin writes: “It’s an odd experience, playing to an intimate audience in a small theater in Escondido while it gets beamed out to five hundred other theaters. I think I’d panic if I had to riff in front of 50,000 people in one room, so this works out better performance-wise. I love the fact that we can bring our weird little roadshow to small towns as well as big urban centers. My brother in Hebron, Ill., saw the same show as my pals in Brooklyn, and at the same time.”

For guys like Murphy and Beaulieu, who spent their 20s and 30s crouched in front of a monitor holding up puppets while cracking wise, performing before large groups of real people has to be a kick. “There’s nothing I do in my job that’s more fun that a live riff,” Kevin writes. “We generally record our riffs in what amounts to a sensory-deprivation chamber — a voice-over booth. Hearing actual real sincere laughter? I mean, damn. When we’re done, I’m nearly in tears, I don’t want to leave the stage. Of course, I’m simply an animated ham in a Hawaiian shirt.”

Ah, but what could be a more satisfyingly American combo than prime ham and cheesy movies? May the MST3K crew, in whatever form, together or apart, keep at it for at least another 22 years.