Comedians Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett—all veterans of cult favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000—have transitioned magisterially into the digital era with their online comedy service RiffTrax. Offering downloadable commentary tracks that can be synched up with your favorite mass-market DVDs, RiffTrax infiltrates the soundtracks of Hollywood’s worst drivel, delighting in its profound insipidness. Slant managed to catch the guys between heated shuffleboard matches, learning about their upcoming live show on August 19th, which will be broadcast to theaters across the nation, and plumbing the elusive etymology of the term “batch.”
How long does it take you to record a typical Rifftrack?
Michael J. Nelson: Oh, the recording’s pretty easy. We’ve got everything figured out by that point and getting in the studio is actually sort of the fun part at the end of the process because the script is all buttoned down. And then basically we try to get the other guy to screw up and that keeps it nice and fresh and spontaneous. So the recordings are only a little longer than the length of the actual films. It’s almost real-time.
Kevin Murphy: It’s the prep work that takes days and days to get ready.
When you’re writing a script for a particular film or short, do you do it together, collaboratively, or do each of you sort of spend time alone with the film?
Murphy: We start by dividing the movie up into chunks and each of us taking a chunk of the film and writing it. And then we bring the script together and then rehearse and do revisions at that point. So it starts as an individual thing and then ends up as a big ol’ collaboration.
Do you write jokes for each other then?
Murphy: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Compared to Mystery Science Theater, your RiffTrax personae aren’t quite so developed, so have you guys had to work to sort of establish Kevin as a particular character, or Mike as a particular kind of character who makes particular kinds of jokes?
Bill Corbett: I think it’s fair to say that even then we mostly wrote what we thought were funny jokes and assigned them more or less randomly, although every now and then there’d be stuff that I think would sound more like something Mike could hit out of the park, or something like songs I often give to Kevin because he’s a really good singer. But for the most part, we all kind of write anything for each other.
When you’re in the studio recording, you don’t have to do multiple takes? You don’t go back and tweak your inflections, or try to get a beat right? Or do you fix that all in post-production?
Nelson: Mostly we breeze right through it and if you do stumble, you go back and catch it. But we’ve got a pretty good bead on it. We’ve rehearsed it enough, so there’s not a lot of correcting a bad read or anything. We have two writers not in the studio with us, listening to it, and they kind of produce it and try to catch last-minute mistakes and stuff, but otherwise it really is our reward for having done the work up front. We get to just relax and have fun with it.
Murphy: I think trying to polish it would be counterproductive, as a matter of fact.
From beginning to end, from the moment you decide to target a particular film to the time it’s ready, how long does that whole process take?
Murphy: Eleven years, I think.
Corbett: We usually have anywhere from three to five writers at this point, so probably the better part of a week to write. And then review at least a day, sometimes two, and then recording it is just a few hours after, at the end point.
Murphy: And then there’s beer after that.
Murphy: Not during. That’s counterproductive, for sure.
Corbett: Although we haven’t really experimented enough with that yet.
Nelson: That’s true. If we were British, we’d be drinking all the way through. Americans tend not to do that.
Murphy: We’d have what they call “the tea cart.” Filled with booze.
Corbett: That’s how Winston Churchill won World War II—
Murphy: Staying drunk.
Have you done live shows like this upcoming Reefer Madness event on August 19 before?
Nelson: We’ve done two of them already. We had taken sort of a live thing around to different cities; we’ve done them in L.A., we’ve done them in San Francisco for the Sketch Fest that happens in the winter there every year, and we’ve done them in other locations. But beaming them out is obviously very efficient and we reach all those places where we just don’t have the time or energy to travel to.
Corbett: And there is a live show on location this time in San Diego. Our first one last year, which was Plan 9 from Outer Space, we did that from Nashville.
Do you guys get nervous at all performing live, or again, have you just been doing this for so long that it’s second nature?
Corbett: I don’t think we get particularly nervous, for better or worse. None of us are particularly prone to stage fright.
Nelson: When you’re beaming out to thousands and thousands of people it puts a little extra energy in it. I get nervous about five minutes beforehand and then it just kinda turns into performance energy after that.
Do you try to crack each other up when you’re riffing live too?
Murphy: We don’t try to trip each other up too much, but we do entertain ourselves when we’re up there. Once we’re getting into the movie and we’re actually doing the riffing and making each other laugh, it’s terrific fun and we do forget about the fact that it’s being beamed out to five hundred theaters and the audience is with us, and it’s a blast.
Corbett: It really helps that we have such a great crew and team working with us. You really feel like you’re in good hands and all you have to do is be funny at that point.
Those moments when you do manage to make each other laugh in the recordings always feel like these moments of great solidarity for your audience. We feel like we’ve been let in to the recording studio with you. Do any last-minute, spontaneous jokes sneak in as they occur to you during the performance?
Nelson: It happens kind of all the way up until the end. We keep running over it and thinking, even when we’re rehearsing the day of the show and we’re going through a certain section, you hear guys on the crew, and they laugh in a certain way, or don’t laugh. You do actually get a little clue, like, “Eee, that line isn’t gonna cut it,” or “Hey, that one’s great. Let’s make sure that we highlight that, give it a lot of room.” So those decisions are made then and actually during the show, where you’re kinda like, “I gotta change the wording of this, just based on this audience, I can just tell they’re not gonna like the way this is worded.” So you’re mentally going through this rearranging of a particular joke or just saying, “I’m not gonna say this one, it’s not gonna work.”
Murphy: It’s always surprising the way audiences react to jokes. Something you thought that was just a chuckle turns out to be a huge laugh or something else turns out to be a groaner, where the audience is playfully ready to attack the stage with tomatoes.
Corbett: We also drop lines on the fly, purposely, when the previous one got a big laugh. It’s kinda pointless and greedy to try to get it in while everyone’s laughing, so we’ve learned to just let the next one go if they’re already having a belly laugh.