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Interview: Rifftrax's Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

04.13.2017by: Eric Walkuski

Rifftrax interview Michael J Nelson Bill Corbett Kevin Murphy MST3K

Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy have perhaps the best jobs in the world. They get to make fun of movies professionally, first as part of the cultural phenomenon Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K for you cool kids), which aired for ten years on Comedy Central/The Sci-Fi channel, and now for Rifftrax, which launched in 2006. As part of Rifftrax, the trio has recorded commentaries for big-budget Hollywood spectacles like TRANSFORMERS and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (they record and sell the tracks independently of the movie, so no copyright issues come into play), while still plugging away at the kind of low-budget genre efforts that were MST3K's bread and butter. Since 2009, Rifftrax has been in partnership with Fathom Events to broadcast a handful of live shows a year across the country, so fans of the guys' hilarious one-liners could sit in a theater of like-minded jokesters and enjoy the show as a community.

Rifftrax's latest target is one they've actually recorded a commentary for in the past: SAMURAI COP, an unspeakably cheesy 1991 action film about an L.A. cop trained in the way of the samurai who goes up against a vicious Japanese gang, led in part by the legendary Robert Z'Dar - who is decidedly not Japanese. Nelson, Corbett and Murphy will be performing their riffs live from the Belcourt Theater in Nashville on April 13th and it will be simulcast to over 700 screens. An encore will screen on April 18th.

I'm a gigantic MST3K and Rifftrax fan, so it was a pleasure to chat with the guys about a great deal of topics. If you're curious about their process, the below interview should (hopefully) answer all of your questions regarding how one of these shows is put together. Additionally, the guys speak about their feelings toward Robert Z'Dar (an actor whose work they're well acquainted with and who passed away in 2015), letters from angry directors, their disdain for Transformers and Twilight, the upcoming reboot of MST3K on Netflix, and much more!

Rifftrax interview Michael J Nelson Bill Corbett Kevin Murphy MST3K

What made you want to revisit this particular title?

Mike: A lot of things go into what we're going to do for a live show. Because we love this movie so much and people were so enthusiastic about it. To revisit something we've done before is not out of the ordinary, but one as recent as this we just thought it'd be fun. I think it plays so well, and I think so many more people need to see this movie. When we do these things, we always rewrite them a lot, so it was fun for us to revisit it because even though it was recent, I forget everything I've done immediately after it's over. For me it was like, "I kinda remember this scene. Wait, I wrote this?" It's bizarre. We actually did a rehearsal of it and did quite a bit of reworking on it, so it was fun even for us to revisit it.

Do any jokes survive from the original track, ones that were too good to lose?

Mike: Yeah, there are a few, where it would feel weird to change it just for the sake of doing that. Which is not always true, probably ninety percent of jokes there's always a lateral move one can make. But there are moments where there is a perfect joke that sits in a perfect moment and it would be a betrayal to the audience to not honor that. [Laughs]

Is it more challenging to come up with new jokes for a movie you've already riffed on, or is it easier because you've probably seen it many times?

Mike: It's a little more difficult, I guess, because this movie has so many great moments, but it also has some longer fight scenes. Just on a technical level, it can be a little tough to keep coming up with a fresh angle. It's not a big deal, because they're funny things, but technically there's always something else you could do there, so it's almost like tearing them up and starting again because you might as well.

Samurai Cop Rifftrax interview Michael J Nelson Bill Corbett Kevin Murphy MST3K

Are you always writing together or do you work separately?

Mike: We do some separately and some together. Like today, for instance, it was a long session of all of us together kind of fine-tuning. We use the common Google doc and we do a lot of notes and tinkering on it. I think a lot of people might be surprised by the amount of technical writing that goes into it, where it's like, "Hey, if we move this joke one second earlier that'll give us time to say this..." It's such a weird thing to have these technical notes on it, but it makes a difference because, hey, we know what we're talking about anyway.

When you're up there performing, is the movie still funny to you? Or is it more like you're focused more on the performance than the humor aspect of it, if you know what I mean?

Mike: Yeah, I know what you mean, and I think the live show is sort of like the reward for all the hard work, when you can finally relax and enjoy it on the same level as the audience. There's the other level where, of course, you have to deliver your performance and you're concentrating, but we've done it enough where we do feel pretty loose and relaxed up there. There's actually been times when we've done it live and there's something happening in the movie and it'll be the first time I've ever noticed it. Because you're looking at it through the audience's eyes and not through the skewed way we do it, where we're pouring over it like it's the Torah or something.

Do you guys get nervous when you're performing live or is it so routine for you now?

Bill: I don't really at this point. Right before we go out on stage there's that moment of existential angst, like, "What the hell am I doing?" But really not, it's a lot of fun and we're always pretty confidant in our material by the time we go out there.

Are there moments of improv, or the urge to improv but you don't want to mess up the timing of your script?

Bill: Oh yeah. Our timing is pretty important and it's pretty worked out, but we get thrown off by audience reaction or one of us, usually me, flubs a line, or we just find something funnier to say in the moment. There's always a fair amount of improv or goofing around in the moment.

Samurai Cop stars Robert Z'Dar, who you guys have seen in plenty of movies. He passed away a couple of years ago, and I wonder if that changes your approach at all in terms of how you talk about him?

Mike: I think we acknowledge it and there's obviously some audience affection for him, having been in Mystery Science movies and other Rifftrax films as well. That being said, we don't go out of our way to be reverent or anything, because he's in this movie and you can't avoid it. If he had died the night before we might be tugging on our collars a bit.

Samurai Cop Rifftrax interview Michael J Nelson Bill Corbett Kevin Murphy MST3K

Do you have a special affection for a guy like that, who has appeared in multiple movies that you've riffed on?

Kevin: I think so, because he's such an iconic heavy. Even besides his very striking physical appearance, he generally plays the same guy in every film. Some movies he's crazier than in others, and in this movie I think he's level five and a half crazy.

Bill: I will also say he looks good in this movie, he has a beard that really suited him well and you can see that the guy was actually an athlete who kept in extremely good shape. The movies we've done with him before, like Soultaker, he had a big robe on. In Future War he was wearing this really dumb-looking alien, cyborg costume that made him look a little like a Doctor Who villain.

Do you guys have as much fun doing this as you always have, even going back to the MST3K days? Is it perhaps even more fun now?

Mike: I think being freed up from the burden of production... there's a lot of joys to production, but there's also a lot of headaches to just doing a TV show, it has a lot of other things that come with it. It's a little freer to be completely one hundred percent comedy-focused. I enjoy it, and the live shows as I said before are a little bit of a reward for all the hard work, where you get to come out and have fun with a bunch of people.

Bill: The first couple of years of doing Rifftrax, before we were doing the live shows, it was fun and all, but it did feel a little bit insular. This has really been the cherry on top for us, to go out and have fun with fans, and to hear the feedback live is really terrific. I will also say that not being beholden to a network is kind of great. We are thoroughly independent and don't have to answer to anybody, which in our grumpy middle age we kind of like.

In terms of your collaboration with Fathom Events, how is it decided what movie you guys will be doing?

Mike: We kind of work it out with them. Obviously, they know their type of audience, but title-wise they trust our expertise. I can't recall if they've ever independently searched out a title, but they get it. It's a partnership where they mostly trust us to bring in the titles.

Bill: Yeah, they've been great that way. They have to take care of their own internal standards and practices and their deals with the movie theaters, but they've been just great in giving us the leeway and space to do what we want. They've been really amazing partners.

I've seen a bunch of these now in New York and I gotta say, the audience is reacting just as well as if you guys were right there in front of them. The format really does work.

Kevin: I think that's one of the amazing things about it for us. We like the idea of touring, but touring is crazy and we'd have to charge people a lot of money, so that we can capture that live show experience of what we're doing in Nashville and put it across the country, that's really the magic of it that keeps us coming back, that we have this real intimate experience with hundreds of people across the country.

Bill: Really, really intimate.

Kevin: I would say tender, Bill!

Rifftrax interview Michael J Nelson Bill Corbett Kevin Murphy MST3K

Is there still a holy grail out there in terms of a movie you haven't been able to riff on, whether it's because you couldn't get the rights to it or for whatever reason?

Mike: That's a tough one. I think it's so personal, like I would love to do a whole bunch of 80s movies or action films, but it's really personal. I think it would be fun just because I grew up with them, and I remember when I saw that dumb movie and I paid full price for it, but that's not shared by everyone. I wouldn't say there's a shared thing of the holy grail, where we would all nod our heads in agreement. What do you guys think?

Kevin: I think there are some pleasures along the way. We did a show for a small audience in a comedy club in San Francisco, the Sylvester Stallone arm wrestling movie, and it was great. I think that's the kind of thing Mike's talking about, just these little wonders from our past that were fun to do but we don't know if we'd get a big audience, or if it would be an outrageous amount of money we'd have to pay for the license.

Bill: The movie I think we'd all love to do live, I know I would, is Twilight. It's out of our reach to get the rights to, just in terms of they don't want to, for one, but also they'd want truckloads of money. I just hope somewhere along the way someone will look at Twilight and go, "What are we guarding here?" [Laughs]

Yes, it's not exactly a treasured classic. I know you've had contact with some of the directors of the films you've riffed on in the past, do they still come out of the woodwork to this day? Either to compliment you, or to complain about what you've said about their film?

Mike: Yeah, a little combination of both, I think you got it! [Laughs] We've had some strongly-worded letters. Some day we need to write that book about it and publish those strongly-worded letters. We are legally prohibited at this point. Mostly it's affectionate. I think the one defining factor, which I never thought of when I got into this, is the bigger the movie, the easier it is. When you're dealing with a faceless corporation, they're like, "I don't care." But when you start getting crazy movies, you'll find someone who has been hoarding it in their basement for 50 years and they'll kill you if you don't do it the way they want you to. The smaller the movie, the more weirdos you're going to have involved. And I'm talking weirdos, man.

Have you ever heard from the Samurai Cop guy?

Mike: I don't think any of the three of us have dealt with him, but I believe Rifftrax had a very friendly conversation with him. That was the exception to the rule, actually. [Laughs] I think he was fine with it and was very nice about it.

Samurai Cop is one of those movies, kind of like Time Chasers, where even though it's terrible, you feel like the guy really cared about making it. Do you guys ever say, "I have affection for this movie, even as I'm ripping it to shreds"?

Kevin: Yeah, we had that experience when we did Time Chasers last year, and the whole cast was there! So we're not only making fun of the direction of the film, but also the appearance of a lot of the folks who were in the audience watching us do it. I think we governed ourselves a little bit, but we also made sure that when we met them, we did it before the show rather than after.

Bill: Right, so they wouldn't pull a shiv out afterward. I'll also say that I'm a lot more inclined to be more harsh with bigger studio movies, because of what they are and because of the resources they have. Time Chasers, to me, was silly and had its really dumb aspects, but there's a DIY aspect to it that I feel is kind of plucky. The guy is chasing his dream. And that's professional compared to some of the other ones we do that are a little twisted, like Birdemic. I feel a little different when it comes to something like Transformers, where you have all the money in the world and you've made something that's basically just a migraine trigger over and over.

Kevin: There's a built-in cynicism to a lot of those big Hollywood blockbusters that provokes rage in all of us.

Of course, MST3K is coming back and will be on Netflix soon; I'm curious what your thoughts on it are and what your involvement will be?

Bill: Wait a minute, they revived MST3K?!

Kevin: Nobody told us!

Mike: I haven't heard or seen anything from it, but I've read some fan reports from the initial screenings and it all seems pretty positive. I haven't had any involvement, I think you guys can speak more to it.

Kevin: Bill and I both did cameos on a couple of the episodes. I get to play Professor Bobo again, which is a dubious honor. We've got to know Jonah Ray a little bit and he is such a sweet guy and a very funny fellow. I met the other guys, who are playing the puppets, and they're all just young, great, funny guys, so I do wish them all the best with this.

Rifftrax interview Michael J Nelson Bill Corbett Kevin Murphy MST3K

To see if Rifftrax Live: Samurai Cop is playing in your town, either on April 13th or 18th, head over to Fathom Events. You can visit Rifftrax's official site HERE.

Extra Tidbit: Do you have a favorite Rifftrax or MST3K commentary?

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