Michael J. Nelson relishes the chance to occasionally emerge from his comedy cave and mingle with the rest of humanity, especially the portion that shares his love of mocking big, dumb movies featuring massive alien bugs, bombastic intergalactic warfare and the impossibly handsome Casper Van Dien.
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.”
“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.”
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” on 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.
“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.
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 — 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 video-on-demand releases riffing those familiar bad old feature and short films.
“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 crowdsourcing 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 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,” Nelson said.
“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.”
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,” 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.”