A version of this feature appears in Monday’s Your Life section of The Oklahoman.
MST3K alumnus Michael J. Nelson continues mocking movies with Rifftrax
Nelson and fellow former “Mystery Science Theater 3000” stars Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, will mock the 1997 sci-fi film “Starship Troopers” Thursday for “Rifftrax Live: Starship Troopers,” which will broadcast live in theaters across the country, including Oklahoma.
So, the writer/comedian best known for playing a space-bound version of himself on the beloved television series “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (AKA MST3K) is looking forward to Thursday’s live performance and broadcast of “Rifftrax Live: Starship Troopers.”
“For me personally, like during the writing … it’s very meticulous and it’s very much a bunker mentality to sort of crouch down and you write these gags. And you’re always wondering like, ‘Am I a madman? Am I a monk in a cave, like writing this stuff and hoping that future generations will see it?’” Nelson said in a phone interview last week. “Then you get out and you get to perform them in front of actual humans and, you know, you climb out of your cave and that’s the fun part. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, OK, this is actually is sort of a worthwhile thing.’ It’s fun to interact with humans.”
As he and fellow MST3K alumni Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett are “riffing,” or providing live wisecracking commentary, along with a special screening of “Starship Troopers” Thursday night at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tenn., their performance will be beamed live to about 600 movie theaters across the country, including several Oklahoma cinemas.
“For us, it’s somewhat terrifying, at least for the first five minutes. You realize like the satellite is right outside the theater, you know, poked up toward the sky, like this is beaming out. And you go, ‘Oh, man. This is real. A lot could go wrong here. You know, I could do a face-plant in the first minute of this and never recover from it.’ So that’s the scary part of it,” Nelson said.
“But the other part is just that for the people in the theater in Nashville and for the people at the theaters out in the country. There’s something really infectious about doing it in these live environments. Just being with other people, the laughter really grows … and sort of weird things happen and surprise you.”
Nelson, 48, is a perhaps a bit surprised but definitely delighted that he has made an almost 25-year career out of mocking movies. In 1989, the Illinois native joined MST3K, becoming a staff writer, later advancing to head writer and eventually taking over as host when creator Joel Hodgson left.
“From the first day, I got in the writing room and I met these guys and we started laughing and we pretty much ran this movie and just did what we we’re doing now. And I remember just like, ‘Oh, yeah, I love this,’” Nelson said. “I’d just been married, and I called her and I was like ‘Hey, this job that I got, it’s pretty cool, I think that we got something here.’ And then I left for my honeymoon shortly after … and I kept like calling back like ‘Is everything OK? Do I still have my job? ‘Cause I really like that.’”
“Through the ups and downs,” he added, “I’ve always really loved it.”
The Emmy-nominated MST3K aired from 1988 to 1999, first locally on a Minneapolis-St. Paul cable station, then nationally on Comedy Central and later The Sci-Fi Channel. After the Peabody Award-winning series ended, Nelson wrote a column for TV Guide, authored best-selling books and founded Rifftrax in 2006.
While the MST3K storyline focused on awful old B-movies mad scientists would use to break the minds of a stranded spaceman and his robot pals — not coincidentally, the kind of films the low-budget show could easily get the rights to televise — Nelson broadened his movie-mocking horizons with Rifftrax. He and his cohorts have produced downloadable MP3 audio commentaries of recent blockbusters and Oscar contenders that fans can sync up to their own copies of the films, along with DVD, Blu-ray and VOD releases riffing those familiar bad old feature and short films.
“I like a lot of movies that we’ve done. … We just say we make movies funnier. They may have even started as decent movies and then we just enhance it,” Nelson said. “Like people say, ‘Why do you hate “The Lord of the Rings?”’ We don’t hate ‘The Lord of the Rings’ at all. We all like it a lot; however, there are elements to it that can be silly or made fun of, and it’s fun to do that.”
Live in theaters
The Rifftrax trio partnered with NCM Fathom Events in 2009 for their first live theater broadcast, riffing “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” They have since averaged two such events a year, but they have been limited to old movies like “Reefer Madness,” “Birdemic” and MST3K favorite “Manos: The Hands of Fate” that are in the public domain or have minimal licensing fees.
In February, they launched their first Kickstarter campaign in the hopes of securing the rights to mock “Twilight.” Although the crowd-sourcing effort earned almost $265,000, well beyond their $55,000 goal, Summit Entertainment declined to let them license part of the supernaturally successful “Twilight Saga.”
“They did not say no; they said not right now. So I’m looking forward to revisiting that again,” Nelson said. “They were real nice about it and they thought that it was a good idea. But then they ultimately said, ‘Yeah, there may be other properties and we don’t know.’ I understand that.
“Most of sort of the Hollywood studios, it’s a little bit of an older kind of a mentality about ‘we’re afraid of ever acknowledging that anyone could make fun of these things.’ So, all credit to Sony for saying ‘No, go ahead, have “Starship Troopers.”’ I think it was real good of them.”
From Michael Ironside’s catchphrase-spouting to Neil Patrick Harris’ insect mind-reading, Director Paul Verhoeven’s bug- and guts-splattered 1997 adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein classic sci-fi novel is ripe for riffing. While “Starship Troopers” is the rare R-rated film for the Rifftrax crew to mock, Nelson said they’ve done their best to undermine the cartoonish violence and brief nudity.
“We’ve done some pretty big-name titles, but they are older. Just to do something that was made in the last 30 years, it’s just kind of refreshing for us to get to plow new ground and turn over new things and different tropes. And this is the early days — relatively early days — of sort of fully digitally produced special effects,” he said.
“We have discovered on the Internet there’s more than several people who are willing to tell you that ‘Starship Troopers’ is in fact a brilliant satire and fooled you into thinking that it was a big, dumb movie. To which I say, ‘It’s still a big, dumb movie, right?’ … Whether or not there’s a meta-dialogue behind the scenes about how they’re fooling me, that’s not really my job to burrow 73 layers below the surface of the film and discover what their master plan was. Mine is just to take the movie on its face and make some decent, good-natured jokes about it.”
Nelson, Murphy and Corbett have been hard at work developing themes and callbacks for their “Starship Troopers” riff so they can relax and enjoy the show.
“It’s kind of a reward for us to do the live shows,” Nelson said, “because we’re mostly hunkered down writing. We’re a little bit like a band that has been together so long we get along — I’m blessed to work with decent human beings who I like a lot — and we make each other laugh still after all this time.”
“Rifftrax Live: Starship Troopers”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday.
Where: 600 theaters across the country, including Tinseltown USA and AMC Quail Springs 24 in Oklahoma City, Spotlight Stadium 14 in Norman, Cinemark Tulsa 17 and Cinemark Broken Arrow.
Tickets and information: www.FathomEvents.com.