Riff-meister Michael J. Nelson on RiffTrax, Anaconda and the Legacy of MST3k

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When Michael J. Nelson founded RiffTrax in 2006, alongside fellow Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, the success of their venture was anything but guaranteed. Granted, MST3k had always been a show with a rabid, cult fanbase, but that could only carry the new project so far. The possibility of RiffTrax putting out a few riffs and then fading away into obscurity was a very real one—after all, how likely is it to strike oil twice? The project’s business model was incredibly simple—the only products it offered eight years ago were .mp3 downloads meant to be synched with popular films. In short, it was a far cry from what it has become today.

The triumph of RiffTrax can be seen with a single visit to the project’s homepage. They now employ a full team of writers and employees to help generate new RiffTrax on a regular basis. Downloads are available in .mp3, full video and video on demand. And of course, there are the regularly scheduled live shows, beamed out via simulcast to several hundred theaters around the country every few months when Nelson, Murphy and Corbett take the stage to live-riff another cinematic gem. Coupled with the unrelated efforts of MST3k creator Joel Hodgson to get his own new riffing project off the ground, it seems like the show has never been more relevant since its cancellation in 1999.

Recognizing that, and in anticipation of the next RiffTrax Live simulcast of 1997’s Anaconda on Oct. 30, Paste got Mike Nelson on the phone to talk both RiffTrax and the ongoing popularity of his former show.

Paste: I’ve read a lot about MST3k over the years, but I’ve never heard much about your time in Minneapolis before you met the MST3k crew. I know the legend goes that you were waiting tables, but what kind of stand-up comedy were you doing?
Michael J. Nelson: Well, It was sort of smart-assy, hard to describe. I always referred to it as a “comedy act,” but it was barely a real career. I had this whole routine about Robert Frost that I refused to stop doing and refining. I guess you could say it was a mix of high and low brow. I did that for just over a year, which is not a very long time in comedy at all.

Paste: Had you ever purposely watched bad movies before you met those guys? And when you heard the idea for the show, did you think they were all insane?
Nelson: Really, I think it made sense to me right away. I grew up watching the creature features in Chicago. They were on around 10 p.m., and my parents were strict. They’d make us go to bed before that for like two hours, but then they’d wake us up again and let us see the creature features for a little while.

When I came into the MST office, though, that was like the greatest first day I’ve ever had. It was an office in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t furnished. I barely knew any of the other guys—I met Jim Mallon that day, and I’d met Trace [Beaulieu] and Kevin [Murphy] like once before. But I couldn’t believe how much fun it was, and how easily it all clicked.

Paste: Do you prefer riffing the older, MST3k-style films that are legitimately bad in their own right? Or the modern blockbusters?
Nelson: I like them both equally I think; it has more to do with technical considerations. Is there enough space for riffs? That’s what makes Twilight so riffable, the pauses. And of course, there are plenty of old B movies that are really, really hard to do and still practically defy the process. But on the plus side, with the older ones you don’t have to worry about hurting feelings quite so much.

Paste: So where do you get those older movies today? You recently did R.O.T.O.R., an incredibly stupid, no-budget ‘80s cyborg movie. Who finds those?
Nelson: Well, these days a lot of suggestions come from fans and people who know us. Screeners come in from sources all over. The screening process can either be fun or drudgery depending on what box you open that day. Doing shorts is our happy fun day, because you never know what you’re going to get. It’s always really fun to think “We’re seeing something nobody has watched in 30 years.”

Paste: Do you actually get joy from watching a bad movie, then? Reading Kevin Murphy’s book, it really sounds like he doesn’t enjoy bad movies on their own merits, that it isn’t something he’d watch just for fun.
Nelson: I think of all of us, he likes the really weird, garbagey stuff the least. Like, if Birdemic came on TV today I would still watch it, but Kevin wouldn’t. That probably doesn’t speak highly of me. I like good stuff, too, of course, and I don’t like all bad stuff. I’m friends with Rich Kyanka of Something Awful, and his taste goes way into the sub-basements where I would never go.

Paste: When you began riffing blockbusters and even critically adored films with RiffTrax—say, something like Jurassic Park—does that change your approach at all? Knowing this is something people really love?
Nelson: Well, it’s something you personally like as well, so your tone really changes. What I saw is, we don’t drag movies down, we make them funny. Obviously you can’t be making jokes about how crappy Jurassic Park is, because nobody would agree with you. You just talk about the little oddities you notice about it, things that may or may not be about quality. You invent little fictions and run with those as well.

Paste: Your latest live-riff is Anaconda, My memories are faint—I mostly remember the snake regurgitating a monkey at some point. And a half-digested Jon Voight. What should people expect?
Nelson: Anaconda is great. The digital snake was probably the selling point, until you saw it. There’s a moment in it, a very small moment, but it’s indicative of the film itself—this shot of the boat in the third act, floating by this waterfall that is aggressively falling up. It’s the moment where you’re like, “You guys weren’t serious about any aspect of this movie, were you?” Jon Voight is great, his performance is such a wink and a nod, and it’s enjoyable to watch the early Owen Wilson hamming it up, but Voight steals the show I think.

Paste: Has the success of the RiffTrax live shows just been another reminder of how many people are out there who really share a connection with your humor and the legacy of MST3k? What’s it like knowing that there are thousands of people watching live in theaters around the country?
Nelson: It’s super fun, and it’s something we never got to experience with the TV show or RiffTrax with the .mp3s, so it’s cool to remember the connection this makes with people. The laughter is really infectious. I can’t believe we’ve been doing something this long and that I still love it this much, even the nitty gritty of the writing.

Paste: I’ve been to enough of the live shows to know there’s almost always a technical challenge to putting them on.
Nelson: Yes, it’s very nerve-wracking but really satisfying. We’ve talked in the past about not doing them live, but there’s something really cool about knowing “This could all blow up in the middle. A deer could run across the stage and kick me in the face.” It gives our performances an extra edge.”

Paste: Are you working on any non-RiffTrax projects these days? Any plans to say, write another book someday? An MST3k memoir would probably prove popular…
Nelson: I’ve thought about it, but in real life I’m a pretty boring guy. I should probably pick up a heroin habit just to have something to write about. I wrote some TV shows that should be coming out on Netflix later this year, and I’ve done some animated voice work, but as far as books, there’s nothing in the works right now.

Paste: Thanks, Mike. I leave you with this question: If someone has never seen Patrick Swayzie in Roadhouse, and you wanted to sell them on the idea, what would you say?
Nelson: I’ve always said that if you started playing Roadhouse on a TV in a distant room of a party, everyone would eventually drift in there. They can’t help themselves. It’s just so funny and appealing. My friends and I still quote it constantly, God help us.

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