RiffTrax just might be the funniest support group on the Internet. You might not have ever heard of the website that produces snarky commentary tracks for movies you can't stand (and a few you actually enjoy). But its three main "riffers," Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, have been making a living for over two decades on the backs of the terrible B-movies they once mocked on a little cult favorite called Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K).
Now they offer commentary tracks of movies old and new, great and terrible—and their fans are as loyal as ever.
With the RiffTrax team fresh off the heels of a wildly successful Kickstarter-funded party in which they wound up doing a live "riffing" of the cult hit Starship Troopers, Corbett, who voiced the part of Crow T. Robot for the latter seasons of MST3K, spoke to a packed ballroom at Dragon Con. Looking back at the 25 years since MST3K first aired on the fledgling Comedy Channel, he gave us a hint about what's next for the group.
Originally the RiffTrax team had hoped to do a live RiffTrax performance of Twilight, arguably one of their most popular riffed titles. The Kickstarter fundraiser was originally to help them purchase performance rights for the film; but when Summit Entertainment proved unwilling to let Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett make light of their mega-hit, the trio moved on to another, more understanding franchise.
Their riff of Starship Troopers turned out to be a huge success.
“I think Starship Troopers was the best we could have gotten," Corbett said. When asked what other titles were on the list, he declined to reveal what followed Paul Verhoeven's satirical cult favorite, but admitted that he "would have loved to have gotten something like The Avengers or 300."
Although The Avengers is arguably a good film—and one for which they've already created a commentary track—Corbett stated that was part of the joy of doing a project as flexible as RiffTrax. During the decade that MST3K was on the air, the trio gaily mocked terrible movies from Roger Corman, Ed Wood, Coleman Francis, and a litany of other notorious directors. But with RiffTrax, the team can mock mainstream blockbusters along with older films, because their comedy tracks are released separately as inexpensives downloads. Finding a copy of the movie itself is up to the fans.
"Mostly I like doing the bad movies," Corbett confessed, "but what I like about RiffTrax is that we're able to do a mix of just wretched movies and good movies."
Asked if he ever got feedback from the directors of either kind of film, he quipped, "Not often because they're usually dead. Is there a cause and effect? I don't know."
Of course, the downside is that with so many tracks released solely as audio files, there's a demand for illicit downloads that contain the riff track overlaid with the film. Fully aware of the culture to which they're appealing, RiffTrax has a simple donation page on their website, wherein they all but acknowledge the popularity of their titles at the Pirate Bay and other corners of the Web.
"[W]e realize there are times when you may find yourself in possession of a RiffTrax that you didn’t pay for (hey, it’s the Internet – it happens)," notes the site. The laissez faire approach works; RiffTrax fans seldom produce a download without linking to the Donation page and encouraging each other to contribute to the website. When asked if this system was working, Corbett was positive about the arrangement, though he couldn't say how much money was coming from direct purchases versus the donate route:
We're doing alright, and we're really happy that folks are keeping with us. [Piracy] is a fact of the Internet. There's no exact calculus on this… but that Donate page gets a surprising amount of donations.
Of course, raising over $250,000 through Kickstarter can't hurt, either. But while the crew is re-airing August's live performance of Starship Troopers in theatres across the country next week, Corbett told the audience they were "exhausted" and might not be doing another Kickstarter fundraiser for a while yet.
In the meantime, there's a possibility that the RiffTrax team might be joining forces with the other comedy trio to come out of MST3K, creator Joel Hodgson's troupe Cinematic Titanic. While the two riffing groups represent different eras in the life of Mystery Science Theater, they've stayed on good terms, and during the 25th anniversary marathon later in the convention, Hodgson placed two films from the Nelson/Murphy/Corbett era in his Top 5 films.
One of them, the hilariously corny Canadian film Final Sacrifice, made the top of Corbett's list when a fan asked him what was his favorite film out of everything he's riffed from both MST3K and RiffTrax. "Rowsdower!" he answered, referring to Final Sacrifice's unlikely, beer-bellied main character. "Walking beer can!"
As for worst film, that's one that RiffTrax fans know well: "Transformers 2," he stated without hesitation. "I have so much more respect for those old directors now."
Still, as happy as a reunion between RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic would make MST fans, don't count it a certainty. "We'll see," was as committal as Corbett got on the subject.
Throughout the session, Corbett remained gracious, speaking about the way the group had attempted to move away in recent years from comedy that could potentially alienate groups of viewers. He also noted that while "the only thing we really care about is whether we can make [a joke] work," they try to stay away from both comedies and extremely serious subjects. "If we try to do something like Hotel Rwanda or Schindler's List, we would look like monsters!" He added that out of all the people the trio takes potshots at, they make more fun of "sad sacks like ourselves" than anyone.
It's a formula that seems to be paying off. Corbett gets so into "riffer" mode sometimes that once his wife had to ask him, "Would you stop riffing breakfast?" Asked how he avoids the urge to deliver mocking commentary of everything, he says it's all about balance:
"I try to balance it out by occasionally being quiet, saying nice things to people, and shutting up—especially at the movies."
Photo via RiffTrax