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Sharknados and Starships: For RiffTrax’s Mike Nelson, the post-MST3K world is sweet

Mike Nelson announces Rifftrax’s biggest live show ever and tells us how remix culture has changed his career


Aja Romano

Internet Culture

A movie worse than Transformers 2? Say it ain’t so! But for Mike Nelson, co-creator of RiffTrax and former head writer and actor of the beloved cult classic Mystery Science Theatre 3000, finding the worst of the worst of bad movies is like scavenging for pearls at the bottom of a very dank and infested ocean.

In the year since he and RiffTrax and former MST3K stars Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett launched their tremendously successful Kickstarter project, Nelson has been busy. After Lionsgate politely refused their attempts to purchase the license to Twilight for a live riffing, RiffTrax turned to beloved cult movie classic Starship Troopers. They recently released their second musical album and announced an upcoming April Fool’s special with National Geographic.

Today, they streamed a live announcement for their next live event. Hundreds of fans flocked to the channel to muse about what the next movie could be: Jaws: The Revenge? Time Chasers? The holy grail of live showings, Twilight?

It’s still not Twilight, but the shark fans had it: On July 10, RiffTrax will be riffing the viral SyFi hit Sharknado. The pressure will be on to make this live show even better than the last one, and also to deliver high-quality riffs—after all, the entire Internet riffed Sharknado when it aired. But it’s one the RiffTrax experts can undoubtely handle. The announcement is also a good sign that RiffTrax has gained negotiating power with studios who might have been unwilling to turn over their pet projects to RiffTrax’s noisy balcony section critics. Fans on Twitter and Reddit instantly applauded the announcement, but then fan enthusiasm has never been in short supply for the MST3K crew, which has arguably only grown more popular since its decade-long TV run ended in 1999.

And how does Nelson feel about being part of not one, but two cultural touchstones that have only gotten better with age? He sat down with the Daily Dot (and one very fannish reporter) to discuss all things RiffTrax: the age of riffing in the Internet, their ongoing attempts to take a bite out of Twilight, and the film that’s taken over the prize for his new worst movie ever.

Has the Kickstarter changed things for you guys?

Yeah, it’s been great. We now have a relationship with a big studio, so we can go after a different targeted movie—not that we’ll always be successful, but I think that they saw that the sky didn’t fall and everything was fine. And so I think they quite enjoyed the show, the people from Sony, so who knows? We hope to do more.

Do you think you’ll ever go back and try Lionsgate again for Twilight?

We will, yes. We will always be pounding on their door.

Did the Kickstarter do anything for the site in terms of visibility?

Oh, definitely, yeah. It was really a boost for us. You know, we have our business, and it’s been successful for us and growing, and everything has always been great. But just the suc­cess of that in such a short period of time, it really boosted our confidence. And I think in the end everyone hopefully got what they wanted out of it, it was really a great arrangement. And I think more people did notice us from that.

How did the National Geographic special come about?

It was their idea. There’s a guy over there who was a RiffTrax fan, and he’d been to live shows and everything. I recall we were in the middle of doing some live shows and he had asked us about this possibility, and you get a lot of such inquiries, and so you tend to think, “well, that guy’s not actually connected to National Geographic, maybe he empties their garbage or something.” Finally one of our people at RiffTrax was competent enough to go, “Maybe I should get in touch with that guy.” I think, you know, he probably had to do some convincing. Not everyone is a RiffTrax fan, we are a niche group! So he’s been our hero on the inside.

Do you have a favorite new amazing animal that you’re excited about as a result?

Well, I am shocked. I did not know that koala bears were the most revolting animals on earth. To go into any detail about it would be to risk both of us gagging.

Has moving to the Internet and being awash in remix culture changed how you think about what you do? Has it caused you to up your game?

Yeah, there’s all these people doing it and so you have competition, but for the most part it’s been great because our whole lives and careers have been kind of having to explain what we do, and now I think it’s something that needs a lot less explanation. There’s a lot more examples you can point to. When you’re talking to someone and you say, “Have you seen Mystery Science Theatre or RiffTrax?” and they say no, it used to be that you were totally stuck. But there’s a whole lot of stuff that people do now. “Oh, is it like that podcast where they tear down the movie?” “Yes, it’s like that.” So there’s a lot of examples of it now, so to me it’s just sort of made it a little more acceptable or mainstream, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Does it blow your mind, though, that “MST” is essentially a verb that people use now to describe this kind of thing?

Yeah, it’s so weird, you still, every time that happens, you get kind of a little: “Oh, wow, hey, that’s cool, I worked on that!” It’s neat.

Shout Factory just this week released my personal favorite MST film of all time. So in honor of Puma Man and the album that you guys just released also this week, what are the most singable episodes of MST and RiffTrax?

Well, since you do bring up Puma Man. It’s one that still, even just the mention of it, like now, for now, I’m doomed for days of the Puma Man song being in my head. There’s nothing I can do. But yeah, we’ve always been connected to music. Kevin’s a really good musician—he did most of the RiffTrax stuff. People will sing songs to me from MST and I’m embarrassed to say sometimes I do not remember producing it.  “But you sang it!” “It was a long time ago!”

Has there ever been a film that you needed to take mental health breaks from while watching and riffing, for your own sanity?

It’s funny that you should mention that. I was just talking about it today, rehearsing with Kevin and Bill, and I don’t think any of us have gotten over the trauma of Super Mario Bros. I’m not kidding you. I think Kevin and I both realized at about the same time we had finished up writing our sections of it and we were alone in our offices, we were on just an out-loud rant against this movie, cursing its existence. Yeah, truly. I was just like, “I can’t!” When we had to record, it I was like, “I can’t look at this again, I can’t do it!”

Is it the new Transformers 2 in your mind, or is Transformers 2 still at the top (or at the bottom)?

I actually said out loud, and I hope I don’t have to eat these words, but I said, “Guys, I have a fairly decent memory of how I felt during Transformers 2, and I really—this is worse.” So, you have it: I do think it’s worse.

You guys have said you won’t do comedy, but are there rules for something not just right for RiffTrax? Are some genres more inately riffable than other genres?

It’s not a hard and fast rule in comedy, and some things skirt the lines. We’ve done shorts that are probably trying to be funny, and so we do a little bit of cheating. But just like a flat-out, marketed as nothing but a comedy—it’s really tough, because it would have had to have failed, so it’s just dead, flat comedy that you’re commenting on. It just doesn’t work. But there are films, even in the MST days, from the earliest ones, we did one called Catalina Caper that people really liked. That had a lot of elements of comedy in it but it wasn’t strictly a comedy.

Would you guys ever consider doing more romances? I’m not sure that Twilight really counts, but…

Yeah, I think so! Mostly it’s just that when we do an .mp3, which requires that extra step of people acquiring the movie [separately from the RiffTrax], people tend to like the genre pictures more, because we tends to have similar sensibilities to our audience, so there’s not as many people out there who like romance and things. But when we secure the rights to them and do a Video on Demand, I think it’d be really good.

Kevin and Bill are both fans of Neil Gaiman. Who is on your RiffTrax guest wish list, if you have one?

Oh, boy. You know, I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of good people. You know, we’ve worked with Paul F. Tompkins and Weird Al. Kevin and Bill used to travel more and do a lot more live shows, and so they’ve worked with a lot of great people that we love. So I hate to be coy about it, but we have done a lot with people I love, and who’d be on my dream list. I guess just from an interesting standpoint, it’d be fun to do one with a major celebrity and see who has the chops. Is George Clooney able to sit down and riff a movie? Is Jennifer Anniston? It’d be fun to see how they’d work in that situation.

Robert Downey is your man, I have a feeling.

Yeah, I bet you he’d just sort of take over the booth and we could just leave the room.

Did you guys set out to give Disembaudio his own character or did that just happen along the way?

It just kind of happened along the way. We needed it as a tech thing, obviously, and then you just try to infuse a little bit into him. We’ve grown him outside the film world.

RiffTrax has gotten criticism in the past for relying on homophobic and transphobic humor as well as fat-shaming and other things. Do you guys ever discuss whether certain moments went too far, if you punched down instead of up?

Yeah, yeah. No, we discuss it all the time. In fact I’ve discussed it, and am happy to, pretty much openly with anyone who comments about that. And a lot of times it’s difficult, especially if you’re trying to do something like that over Twitter or something, so I usually try to take those things offline with people. So, yeah, we discuss it and we’re open to it. And I think there are probably times, always, in comedy, when you go, “We didn’t realize how we were coming off,” because we’re obviously not at all mean-spirited and you can tell that from the tone of our comedy. So when it does happen, the best you can do is say, “That certainly wasn’t the intention, but now I have new information, so thanks.” Most of the time that’s all people are really looking for. So I’m fine with that.

What is the greatest TV series of all time?

Oh, the greatest of all time. This is gonna be a pretty boring answer, but I’m going to play it straight, because occasionally I have to probably give a little glimpse of what I actually enjoy. But I very much like The Andy Griffith Show. One of my sons, we introduced it to him when he was really young. First of all I think they’re very funny, I love the dynamic. But my son, he was very, very comforted by it. School was very stressful for him, so he’d get home from school, and it was as though he were a businessman who’d set his briefcase down and have his martini, which was to watch The Andy Griffith Show. So I just have a lot of residual fondness for it.

What is a question you’ve always wanted someone to ask you about good movies?

[Laughing.] Oh, that’s a—that’s a good question. About good movies! I don’t know, people ask me what my favorites are, and what happens with that is that I so dwell in the world of these bad movies and they’re always on my mind so much that I don’t immediately have it on the tip of my tongue, and then I just feel like a heel. Like, what kind of person am I that I live in such a dark world that I can’t even name some good movies? ‘Cause I do, I like a lot of good movies! I guess, ‘Would you like to come over and watch a really good movie with me?’ would be a question I’d like someone to ask.

Would you like to come over and watch a really good movie with me?

Sounds great.


Photo via uncle_shoggoth/Flickr

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