Here's the bad news: I'm sitting in a small room with six other grown men, and we're all watching Titanic. And, yes, it's just getting to the part where Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet get it on in the back of a parked car. On a boat. Which is about to sink.
“Oh, teenagers,” Bill Corbett says into a mic. “Even on a gigantic luxury cruiser, they'll still find the back seat of a car when it's time for sex. It's nature's way.”
“It's nature's way,” Mike Nelson says.
“Sorry, this isn't working for me,” Kevin Murphy adds, as the action heats up. “Have you got any music in this car that isn't Celine Dion?”
Now, that's funny. And it's also the good news: I'm sitting in on a RiffTrax recording session, the first journalist to do so. This is a film geek's—emphasis on “geek”—fantasy come true, as the Artists Formerly Known as Mystery Science Theater 3000 ply their trade.
“I was talking to my wife about this last night, and I had to say to myself that, honestly, I make a living off an Internet humor site,” Nelson tells CityBeat. “On some level, it's shameful, and on another, it's sort of amazing. The average person hasn't even heard of us.”
RiffTrax fans, a rabid bunch, might disagree. But what, exactly, is RiffTrax? Here's the short version: Nelson, Murphy and Corbett write and record audio commentaries to films available on DVD. These are sold as MP3s at www.rifftrax.com, and fans sync them up to their retail DVDs, using instructions provided with the RiffTrax player, which does it automatically. There are video-on-demand options and some DVDs available, but the big sellers are for blockbusters like Twilight, Star Trek and Titanic.
It's an odd business model, but it works, and to the RiffTrax fanbase, each release is an event. The film titles themselves are kept secret until the Riff has been made public—I had to swear not to divulge the title of the film I sat in on.
But to understand RiffTrax, you must first know a little something about its origins. Mystery Science Theater 3000, known as MST3K by the faithful, was a cult TV show that ran on Comedy Central and the Sci Fi Network (now known as SyFy) between1988 and 1999. It featured a man and his robot pals trapped in outer space with nothing to do but watch and snark on sci-fi b-movies. Nelson started playing the part of the trapped guy during the seventh season, and he performed with Corbett and Murphy until MST3K was canceled.
In 2004, Nelson began doing satirical commentaries for Legend Films, a Del Mar-based DVD distributor. Two years later, RiffTrax launched as a division of Legend, with the first riff being recorded to the Patrick Swayze movie Road House. These days, RiffTrax releases approximately one commentary per week.
“RiffTrax was an idea I've been kicking around for a long time,” Nelson says. “I knew the Internet would eventually deliver the weird thing I kind of do, and I finally decided we had competent web people in the office. I didn't have the heart to do TV again, and I was interested in reaching people who like this weird sort of humor.”
The trio had worked together on and off since the demise of MST3K, on projects ranging from books to radio shows. Nelson is now based in San Diego County, and Corbett and Murphy fly in from Minnesota regularly to record in the home of recording engineer Rick Bowman.
“We're like a band,” Nelson says. “We knew each other's temperaments. Towards the end of Mystery Science, I was having the most fun I had on the show. That was largely because Kevin and Bill and I got along and worked well with everyone that was there. It's always easy. We don't have an intense time together where we have to endure each other for hours a day. We work separately and then we come together to work on these things.”
In fact, that's precisely how it's done. Once a film has been selected for riffing, it's divided up among Nelson, Corbett and Murphy, as well as writers Conor Lastowka and Sean Thomason. The jokes are written, and, eventually, the entire pieces gels into a cohesive whole.
“I like to compare the whole thing to the New Yorker caption contest, where they give you a cartoon without a caption and you have to make it funny,” says Lastowka, who won the CityBeat “Fiction 101” contest in 2008 and placed third earlier this year. “It's sort of like doing that, over and over, dozens of times a day. There's a whole lot of waiting for inspiration to strike. YouTube and Wikipedia often play huge roles in the ‘inspiration' process.”
Of course, it's one thing to record a riff for fans to listen to at home. It's another to do it live. But the RiffTrax Comic-Con appearances and performances the last two years have been huge hits. In June, they teamed with Fathom Events to digitally simulcast a live riffing of Plan 9 From Outer Space into hundreds of theaters across the country. And they'll do it again, on Wednesday, Dec. 16, for “RiffTrax Live: Christmas Shorts-Stravaganza.”
It's exactly what it sounds like. Along with guest Weird Al Yankovic, RiffTrax will take on classic holiday cartoons and commercials, and it'll be broadcast into almost 500 movie theaters at 8 p.m., with an encore screening the following night. RiffTrax fans all over the country can bask in the holiday spirit, but locals can see it done live, at the California Center for the Arts.