Michael J. Nelson is a man who knows how to mock something. As the former head writer of Mystery Science Theater 3000, he helped define an entire comedy genre now known as “riffing.” In the years since MST3K went off the air, Nelson – along with fellow MST3K actors and writers Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy – has gone on to verbally eviscerate movies in a variety of formats. Post-MST3K, the trio continued to tackle old b-movies with the Film Crew. However, after the demise of that project, they moved on to the self-sustaining RiffTrax project, wherein the trio not only continue their attack on public domain pictures, but turn their attention to Hollywood blockbusters with downloadable riffs that you sync with your DVD player.
The trio does the occasional live riff, as well. Such is the case when they broadcast live to hundreds of theaters around the country this Thursday, August 16, via Fathom Live. RiffTrax will tackle what is widely considered to be one of the worst movies ever made: Manos – The Hands of Fate. The movie perpetually ranks as one of the top MST3K episodes of all time, so we were curious as to why the RiffTrax crew would want to tackle it again. Nelson was kind enough to speak with us by phone and explain.
Nick Spacek: I was curious as to how the RiffTrax live events’ tie-in with Fathom Events came about – broadcasting on a national scale.
Mike Nelson: We had done some RiffTrax live one-off events and, you know, those are great fun to do. But they’re tough to sustain, going from city to city, A to B. It’s not what we do – we have this Internet business. We’ve got to keep the product coming. This is just a cool way to reach all the various places we couldn’t get to.
We approached [Fathom] about it, and they said, “Yeah. That sort of makes sense. We do odd little projects like this.” So, 550 theaters … it’s not bad to reach all of them at once.
Mike Nelson: We love it when folks do that. It’s the spirit in which it’s the most fun: to be among other people. And, a lot of people do like to meet new people at these events, because we are not like a sitcom, where it’s just something to watch. We’re an odd taste. We’re a little bit out there. We know hat, we like it, and we embrace it.
It’s so fun to get together with other people who share this sort of odd niche-y thing that we do.
NS: Now, why revisit Manos?
Mike Nelson: We had heard about it being restored and that just sort of sparked something in our minds when we thought about doing a live show. When we did it on MST, I wasn’t in the cast. I was just there as a writer, so Kevin was the only one. We also have two new writers who’d always been curious about it, so we started talking about it. Like, “What would it be like to revisit it?”
It had been so long since we last did it, we figured we’d take a completely fresh approach and go back at it. Hopefully, we’ve learned something over the years and we can even be better than we were back then.
NS: What are the challenges of going back and revisiting a movie that’s been riffed on before?
Mike Nelson: Well, mostly it’s to bring something new to it. Part of it is that people really like it. The infamy of that movie has grown over the years, and it’s routinely cited now as being the worst movie ever. Getting a chance to take it back out again and dust it off – so much has changed.
But, I think the challenge for us is that we will not have watched what we did in the past until we’ve completely written the script. Then we’ll go in and check to see that we’re not just duplicating our own jokes from before. That’s basically the challenge – to make sure that this thing is fresh for everyone. That’s the big one.
Mike Nelson: Yeah. The spirit of the whole thing, we always say, is sitting around watching a movie with your funniest friends. So, our whole take on it is, it should probably be a pretty broad take, like everybody can share in this. It’s not a closed group. We’re not trying to be this insider thing with a lot of insider references. Those sorts of things sometimes happen, but they happen naturally, because you share a sense of humor with these people.
But, yeah – otherwise, we try not to be too offensive. We never work blue. It’s just something I’ve never done. Those parameters happen naturally, but sometimes there’s a discussion about things: “Is this joke too much?” Those things are always a little bit fuzzy at the edges, but we kind of come to a consensus pretty easily after all these years.
NS: I’ve noticed you tend to avoid things that are too topical.
Mike Nelson: Yeah, that’s because when you do give into those temptations – and we do, sometimes, because things are just too big and too out there, that to really actively avoid them is even more difficult – but if you can resist the temptation most of the time, then it gives it a bit more of a timeless quality, where you don’t cringe about the thing a couple of years later. You look back and you’re like, “Wow, we really leaned into that topical thing,” and now it’s dated it too much, made it hard to get into.
NS: How many writers does RiffTrax have coming up with the various stuff for all the movies?
Mike Nelson: We have five – the three performers, and two other writers, Conor Lastowka and Sean Thomason.
NS: What’s the gestation period for a riff – from watching the movie to it going live online?
Mike Nelson: Probably more than a week of writing. We’ll split it out and we’ll give each person a section. We’ll go through it first, and we’ll kind of work on some themes and things, then everybody takes a section and goes away and spends a really long time working on it. Then, we put it back together and we get together and go through it sort of line-by-line, and edit out things: repeated jokes. You have to pay attention to rhythms, and did we go to this subject matter one too many times?
There’s a lot of editing after the fact. That just allows us that, when we’re in the studio, that’s just the part where you can kind of relax. The performance is just so much fun, and that’s why people wonder, “Do you guys just improv it?” And it’s like, “Well, no. It’s very tightly-scripted. But we’re allowed to make it sound like it’s improvised, because at that point, so much work has been done, we can just relax and perform as if it were.”