Movie riffs making comeback from theaters to clubs

Associated Press Modified: August 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm •  Published: August 16, 2012
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Scenes of Tom Cruise filled the big screen, but the moviegoers packed inside a Missouri theater focused their attention on the action playing out away from the film: Three local actors and comics cracking jokes about the star's height, his fervent belief in Scientology and some of his cinematic shortcomings.

When it comes to movie theater etiquette, talking back to the screen is right up there with glowing and ringing cellphones and crying babies as no-no's. But now, some comedy crews inspired by the 90's cult TV show "Mystery Science Theater 3000" are making the heckles acceptable — provided the movie is cringe-worthy and the jokes non-stop.

The focus of the jokes at Kansas City's Screenland Slams on this particular Saturday night was Cruise's turn in 1985's "Legend," a Ridley Scott-directed romantic fantasy starring a young Cruise as a forest dweller battling the Lord of Darkness and his goblin henchmen.

"It's one of those movies that have really high aspirations. And there are some things in it that are great — it has really great cinematography," said Tom Lancaster, founder of the Kansas City comedy troupe. "But at the end of a day, it's about a unicorn. It's like it was made by a 7-year-old girl. So that's perfect."

More than a decade after the cancellation of the smart-alecky "Mystery Science Theater 3000," a generation of "Misties" weaned on the show is embracing its movie-riffing plot and taking it to theaters, comedy clubs and even sports arenas. The show's creator and original host Joel Hodgson, along with other former writers and cast members, tours theaters with the popular live show "Cinematic Titanic," firing jokes as schlocky horror and sci-fi movies play in the background.

Another group of "Mystery Science Theater" alums, the San Diego-based RiffTrax, performs its own live shows that are simulcast at multiplexes nationwide, including a Thursday night show of the not-so-classic horror film, "Manos: The Hands of Fate." The RiffTrax collective also creates online audio commentaries that can be purchased, sans movie, but played back at the user's convenience in perfect sync with the flick.

And comedy clubs and cinemas from Kansas City to Los Angeles and Seattle host their own sanctioned shout-fests, starring performers both well-known (stand-up comic Doug Benson's Movie Interruption at a Hollywood theater) and obscure (Kansas City has two movie-riff comedy troupes).

Audience participation also is valued: Theaters in Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, now offer Hecklevision, in which audience members are encouraged to send text messages on their cellphones while their jokes flash onscreen.