RiffTrax Talks B Movies, Joke-Writing, and Milk Duds

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Bill Corbett, Michael J. Nelson, and Kevin Murphy (a.k.a. RiffTrax) at a live ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000' reunion show
Bill Corbett, Michael J. Nelson, and Kevin Murphy (a.k.a. RiffTrax) at a live ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000' reunion show

This post originally appeared on the Drip blog

Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, a.k.a. RiffTrax, are responsible for some of the best jokes about the worst movies of all time.

Their hilarious film commentary anchored the show Mystery Science Theater 3000 from 1988 to 1999. After MST3K’s final season, the trio took their schtick on the road, riffing on B horror and sci-fi films at live screenings and online. They’re currently running their sixth Kickstarter project to host two live events, where they’ll riff on MST3K favorite Space Mutiny and the swashbuckling cult classic Krull.

In the meantime, MST3K creator Joel Hodgson rebooted the series with the help of 48,270 backers on Kickstarter, and the new season is available to stream on Netflix.

As longtime Kickstarter creators whose projects are routinely supported by thousands of faithful fans, and as some of the first creators on Drip, we asked RiffTrax to share their wisdom (and witticisms) with us. At the end of February, we partnered with Drip to host a Twitter AMA in which they answered fans’ questions about how they’ve stayed connected with their audience over the years, their favorite B movies, and whether there’s such a thing as an “unriffable” film.

Read on for some of our favorite responses  —  and check out the full AMA here.

Riffing on movies has become its own sort of cottage industry, thanks to you. What first made you think people would want to watch other people making jokes about B movies? 

Kevin Murphy: When I was in sixth grade, I found out that I could make the whole classroom laugh when I heckled our educational films. (I got sent to the principal’s office.)

Michael J. Nelson: Honestly, I assumed the sex appeal of an elderly John Carradine would bring in the viewers, and our jokes would just be a bonus.

Bill Corbett: I think [MST3K] recreated a universal pastime, and we just tried to do it with a little more planned joke-writing.

Which B horror or sci-fi movie is your all-time favorite? Not necessarily your favorite to riff on but your all-time, desert-island favorite? And do you riff on it when you watch it alone? 

MN: Tough to choose, but I remember liking The Horror of Party Beach. Also Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders. Oh, and the original Tremors. I remember showing it to our editor, Brad Keely, and saying, “This is fun.” After watching it he gave me the 1,000-yard stare  —  he disagreed.

BC: I second Mike’s choices, but would add another film from our RiffTrax catalogue: R.O.T.O.R. Must be seen to be believed. The more serious answer to this is Soylent Green, which blew my mind as a kid. Rewatching as an adult has shown some super-cheesy aspects, but also some wonderful moments.

KM: I really quite love Space Mutiny. It gets so many things wrong, and yet it’s so earnest in its attempt to tell a compelling action story. I mean, this is supposed to be a space colony, like Battlestar Galactica  —  who made the ruling that the women’s uniforms would be jazzercize leotards? Not terribly functional.

I should add that I never riff alone. I’ve had two rules over the years: 1. Never riff alone. 2. Never bring the puppet home.

Is there such a thing as an unriffable film, either because of its format or subject matter? Or is no film truly safe from a good riffing? 

MN: Yes, I think both of those things can disqualify it: Certainly we’ll never do Hotel Rwanda [for example].

KM: Flat-out comedies are really hard, almost impossible, bad comedies most of all. Also, movies about really difficult subjects simply wouldn’t be fun  —  it’s impossible to mock genuine torment.

BC: We keep re-learning and forgetting this: Don’t riff movies that are trying to be funny. Even if the humor is an utter failure, it sucks to just keep finding new ways to say, “Pfft, that joke didn’t work.” Turns very sour.

As you prepare a riff, I imagine you have several options for jokes about each particular scene or moment. How do you decide which joke makes the cut? 

KM: In the first draft, it’s often what makes me laugh out loud that stays. Then revisiting the moment to see if it still makes me laugh. In the reviewing stage, we all listen to each other. We keep funny the first priority, above clever or current.

MN: I will 100 percent of the time insist that every space is yet another opportunity for a Nick Nolte joke, but I am frequently outvoted. But actually, it’s a pretty painstaking writing and editing process. We’re even now learning and getting better at timing, pacing, etc.

BC: When we’re in final rewrites and there are a bunch of joke pitches on a particular thorny moment, [whoever has the next line will] pick what they’re going to say. That’s worked out very well so far.

What’s the secret to maintaining a community like yours for so many years? 

KM: We constantly try to give our followers new stuff. We say a lot of words at a lot of movies.

MN: We’re very fortunate to have great fans. We meet them frequently, and they’re always so kind and intelligent. I guess that’s the secret: Have kind and intelligent fans!

BC: It sometimes feels to me like pure great luck that we have such a wonderful fan base after all these years. But really, we’ve never been a huge superstar phenomenon, so maybe we’ve been just the right size for a little more personal engagement [with our fans].

If you could only eat one type of movie theater candy for the rest of your life, what would it be? 

BC: Milk Duds, baby. I love chocolate and hate my teeth.

KM: Malted. Milk. Balls. (Said in the voice of Snape.)

MN: Mints. But not too large. If only there were some way they could be made smaller, but then put into a large box…

There are 10 days left to support RiffTrax’s live Kickstarter project. You can also subscribe to their Drip and get access to digital downloads, regular updates, and other exclusive goodies.