Riffing with Mike Nelson

Interviewed By Craig Phillips

In the not too distant past, Mike Nelson was host of the long-running cult TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, which had run for years on cable’s Comedy Central before moving over to the Sci-Fi channel (both channels, oddly, embraced the show for its cultdom while simultaneously screwing it over). When MST3K finally disappeared, those of us who had been fans from nearly the beginning were in a state of disbelief. The wisecrackers on the Satellite of Love gave us our fix for cheesy genre movies, making the horrible not only tolerable, but also damned entertaining.

Even those who were not "one of us" (Mysties) still had awareness of the show - "is that the one with the little robot silhouettes at the bottom of the screen?" they’d ask.

Mike Nelson was the one who was not a robot. He’d long been the show’s head writer as well as frequent guest actor (he did fine Morrissey and Jack Perkins impressions) until being chosen as the replacement for the original host, the hilarious sleepy-eyed comedian and prop genius Joel Hodgson, when Hodgson left the Satellite after one too many Z-grade movies Joe Don Baker's oily Mitchell was the final straw). Nelson then took the reins for six great seasons, sharing the screen with ‘bots Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot to sit through such classics as Legend of Boggy Creek 2 and the ludicrous low-budget Gremlins rip-off Hobgoblins.

But when MST was taken off the air, a great void in sarcastic movie commentary was left; Nelson and his crew were sorely missed. Well, he’s back. And this time he’s doing something MST could not: take on newer, studio-bred films that they’d never get the rights to show on television, but riffing separately is fair game. In 2006, Nelson was appointed Chief Content Producer for Legend Films. This includes providing on-going commentaries and developing other premium web-based programming, and the first project Nelson created with Legend was Rifftrax. Rifftrax reunites Nelson with MST's Kevin Murphy (voice of Tom Servo) and Bill Corbett (2nd voice of Crow), for new audio commentaries in MP3 format that are downloaded and then played alongside the DVD for that film, showing them in a whole new light. You haven’t seen Road House until you’ve seen it with Nelson commenting on top of it.

In addition to the downloads, Rifftrax has also been getting its act together and taking it on the road for some live riffing. I caught up with Nelson while he was in San Francisco for a live Rifftrax show as part of the annual Sketchfest event. His throat was hoarse from too much riffing and laughing (and perhaps a little crying), but he spoke to me anyway.

 


How did you choose Ben Affleck's Daredevil as the target at this live show?

We screened a bunch. There are considerations for a live show that don't enter into it for Rifftrax or MST. One of them is length - they just can't be very long. There's only so much you can do. There's a pace to movies, too, and a lot of the jokes go so fast and audiences do get tired out - there's a lot of laughter. Luckily, movies have their own rhythm; here's a big scene with a lot of laughs, and here's a talky scene that's a little lighter on our comments. It kind of has a rhythm that follows the movie, otherwise people would be tired out. "Okay, it's been an hour, I just can't laugh any more, can't pay attention." Anyway, a shorter movie is a good thing, and Daredevil is only 90 minutes - we don't do the credits.

So how do you prepare for a live riffing show? Do you script it all out beforehand or is it more improvised?

No, this is pretty tightly scripted.

Improvising would be asking for trouble.

I think so. If there's anyone who said they could pull it off for the whole movie, they'd probably be lying. You could probably get off 1 in 10 lines that were funny, but would they be timed right? It doesn't work that well.

You guys are picking a lot of recent films to do commentaries for Rifftrax, which is a change from MST. This includes popular films like Lord of the Rings. Do you have hobbits stalking you? I assume there's no Phantom Menace defender society out there offended you've riffed on that one.

There are probably some, somewhere, but mostly we did polls to choose some of these and people picked Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: Episode 1 first, and Star Trek - all the ones you'd think would be untouchable are the ones everyone wants to see, so anything is game. A lot of it is: How much fun can we have with this? It's all just a jumping off point for comedy. Can this make good comedy? That’s really the primary consideration.

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