Mike Nelson Talks About A Lifetime Watching Bad Movies And RiffTrax’s Big ‘MST3K’ Reunion Show

With a full series reboot in the works following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s safe to say that it’s been a year of pleasant surprises for fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000. That continues with the 20th live simulcast performed by RiffTrax, a comedy-riffing institution formed in the wake of MST3K‘s 1999 cancellation and anchored by former MST3K host and head writer Mike Nelsonand ex-MST3K writers and performers Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

Broadcasting to theaters Tuesday, June 28, this new live event is a special one, and an event most fans thought they’d never see again: A full MST3K reunion that finds Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett joined by MST3K creator and original host Joel Hodgson, MST3K vets Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, and Bridget Nelson, and incoming host of the revived series, Jonah Ray.

Like many people, Nelson has been making fun of movies his whole life. The only difference between him and the rest of the world is that he makes fun of movies professionally, and knows exactly what his silhouette looks like. Ahead of the reunion show, we discussed what it took to bring the whole gang back together and what it’s like to be a person who cracks wise over movies for a living.

The Game of Thrones episode of RiffTrax is one of my favorite things you’ve done over the years.

That’s awesome to hear, that’s fantastic. We kind of debated a long time about it. We’ve tried hour-long episodes before, real early on, and people didn’t like them as much as the movies. So I don’t know what took us so long to get around to it, but it was really fun.

If the hour-long episodes are working out well for you, do you see a future where you have 22-minute episodes of bad TV shows to rip on?

I don’t think there’s any limit on it. There is a pretty broad range of stuff on the site, but a lot of it is old, like the shorts and stuff like that, so we haven’t explored a lot of newer stuff and I think that’s a direction we will go, especially given the reaction of GoT, people did seem to like it. So yeah, why not? I mean, it’s not that much different. It’s obviously similar to doing a modern feature film, luckily for everyone, it’s a little bit shorter.

What has been the most difficult type of movie or show to riff on?

Obviously, with GoT, famously we’ll have a bunch of ‘it’s very grim’ and ‘it’s very gruesome’ and that’s the banner headline for the series. It’s not always easy. Sometimes comedy can really work off of that because it’s so shocking that people already know it, then you can really defuse it in a way that even heightens the comedy. But the most difficult things are really kind of longer, confusing action scenes. I’m lookin’ at you, Transformers, among other things, where it’s just sort of repetitive. It’s probably trying to imitate a video game to entertain younger audiences or whatever, and it just doesn’t have a lot of content or flow. And so it’s just a bunch of single moments of mayhem, and that gets really tough to get a foothold.

Are there movies you’ll never touch? Or is everything up for grabs?

I think it’s kind of everything is up for grabs because the movie gets, from a comic perspective, the treatment that we think it deserves. I don’t think we try to be unfair to even bad B movies. Like, we’re doing one today, an old John Carradine movie, just terrible and very slow-paced. If you don’t mention that and use that for your comic advantage because, well, it’s just odd. And then when a movie is really good and is fun in a way, you kind of have to change your comic tone. You’re not hammering on the movie, you’re finding different ways to amuse yourself with this thing that you like.

For instance, Jaws: There are movies that we’ve done for RiffTrax that I can still watch completely without even remembering what we did with jokes. I can put it out of my mind and still really enjoy them. Obviously, Jaws would be one of them. We did Casablanca to sort of prove that point and it was on TV the other day and I stopped what I was doing and watched the whole thing again. You just give it the treatment it deserves, if that makes sense.

When you sit down and watch a movie, can you shut off your brain and just enjoy entertainment?

Yeah, I can shut it off, especially with stuff that’s good. I really love doing that. I watch a lot of tennis and you’re forced to endure the commercials, and that’s when it switches back on. So I get a little annoyed and start riffing on the stuff, but for the most part, it’s easy to switch off and just enjoy.

Everyone riffs even if they don’t know they’re riffing. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as a professional mocker of movies?

One of the things we’ve seen other the years is that when we’ve recruited writers for riffing, we’re trying to recreate that experience that you’re talking about, with everyone just sort of commenting back to the pop culture that comes their way, which is completely natural for this generation, but was always the case. Doing it on a professional level, there’s a measure of discipline that is very specific and odd and it’s strange that I’ve honed in on it. Some people just can’t do it. It’s almost like carving a little bit of stone, it’s very intricate. You gotta put on your jeweler’s loupe and just stare at it for a long time. A lot of people don’t have the patience, understandably. For whatever weird reason our group of writers really gets into that and likes the minutiae of it.

You guys release a ton of material. At RiffTrax, is it just like a factory of comedy?

Hahaha! Yeah, we like to say that we’re… Like, for instance, I have an office in my basement. It’s a nice basement and it’s a nice office, but I sometimes feel like I’m a comedy troll down here just mining away at these little nuggets that I can bring upstairs. We just have a staff of people doing that, but it does get a little more social and fun when we put stuff together. We write separately, but then we come together in the more traditional writing room sense and make it happen at the end. So there’s a reward always, even when you’re in the darkest moments of a Transformers action scene, you see that at some point you’ll get to share your pain with the other writers and make it come together.

I imagine there’s a little bit of competition in the writer’s room. Like, “I wish I would’ve come up with that!”

Oh yeah. The delight is that as you sit there by yourself, and it’s an odd thing to do comedy as you’re sitting by yourself assuming that at some future point this will make someone laugh, and you have that in mind obviously. We’re trying to make each other laugh first and then all the other things are negotiable. Like, well, we went too far with this joke, maybe people won’t like this or… You know, those things weigh into it. But the first and foremost, and I think that’s what makes it relatable, is that you really are trying to have fun and make these other guys laugh and share your sensibilities and point of view about pop culture. That’s your motivation.

How many times do you watch a certain movie or TV show until you feel ready?

It’s quite a bit. I’ll just give a recent example: I had a 15-minute chunk of this old, bad movie and that’s probably not quite a week’s worth of watching it over and over again because this one, in particular, was very slow and repetitive. So you think you’re through a moment and then you realize “Oh, the movie’s doing the same thing again.” So now I have to come up with some new tack on this thing that is almost identical to what I previously saw and I thought I was being clever before, but now I have to wind up the machine again. So it’s not that you watch it over and over. You do, but you watch it minutely over and over. Like, little bits of it again and again and again and try to solve the moment.

I’ve never watched the Twilight movies, but I’m going to now with RiffTrax.

God bless you.

You have that power to make people who would never want to watch Twilight, want to watch Twilight. How does that make you feel?

Well, hopefully, we’re using our power for good. We did get a lot of reaction when we first released the first one that only you and my girlfriend can make me watch Twilight kind of stuff. But technically that movie for us is kind of a dream because it’s got a languid pace that’s it’s almost like here’s a dumb line and here’s a nice pause for someone to tell this joke about this dumb line. And that’s very rare and the whole movie is kind of paced out that way, so it ends up working very well for us.

It seems like there’s no shortage of material on the horizon for you.

No. It’s obviously true that they keep making new stuff, but it’s also amazing that even with the old gems and hidden things, people are emailing us all the time, which I love, and saying “You guys have got to see this!” You go, “How did I miss this giant target from 1975 or whatever? I thought I had seen everything.” Over the years… I’ve been doing this a long time, I’ve been sent hundreds of boxes filled with film and there’s always something that you miss. So, yes, there’s new stuff, but there’s always old stuff too, which is amazing to me.

You have to have tons of people offering you new and old stuff to riff on. Is it easy to find something worth developing, or is it more typical that you have to mold the show into something that works?

That’s a good question because a lot of times people will send you a trailer that looks amazing like it has a couple of dumb moments, but then the movie is 90 minutes of real slogging boredom. So you have to temper your excitement. Obviously, we see things and go “That does look fantastic,” but there is that moment when you realize that for whatever reason it’s not gonna be all that fun despite these couple of moments. So you look at it cautiously. Trust, but verify when someone sends you a film.

I’ve watched some of the live shows and they’re interesting because you’ve got notes, but it also seems like you’re improvising. Do you feel like a doctor heading into surgery, or do you feel like a boxer gearing up for a fight?

Probably more the latter. You’ve done so much prep work in advance, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. And that’s part of the fun too, part of the excitement, and the thing that gets your heart beating. I mean, there’s a lot of people out there who’ve paid money for this thing and the satellite switches on and you have all of these things in the back of your mind: “I hope it actually uplinks to the satellite. I hope I don’t trip up the stairs and bust my pelvis on the way in.” There’s just a lot of concerns that seem mundane, but it’s important because there’s no second takes. And the live thing has that element to it, so there’s a lot of nerves for all of us going into it and those nerves turn into that excitement that happens on stage. When you’re kind of trying to mess with the other performers in a fun way, the banter and changing your line a little bit because you know it’s not gonna work this way, you can tell this audience won’t like it. All those things factor into it in a positive way. But yeah, it’s nervy.

The MST3K reunion show is brought to us by RiffTrax, the 20th live RiffTrax show. By now you’re pretty much a live show vet, but have there been any challenges in organizing this upcoming show?

Yeah, just in that it’s something that we wanted to really get right. It’s been a while since we’ve worked with our old pals and we’re hosting it and you just want everyone to be comfortable and feel good about it. On the performance thing, I’m looking forward to it because, working with these guys, something good happens when we get together and it’s always fun. So that’s a good part. But, again, there’s just that concern of being a proper host for people and making sure that the show pulls together. We have a lot of different elements than we’ve ever done before. It’s a lot of movement of people back and forth and more video elements. So, yeah, you’re just concerned about everything going right for an audience that will want to just share a fun night with you. A lot of the concerns are technical.

Because you’ll have the usual RiffTrax three or four people up there, not all nine, switching people out. Or is that what Super Riffapalooza will be?

Yeah, exactly! It’s an amazing thing. We’ve done it in the San Francisco Sketchfest. We do a pretty much yearly show there and we invite pals out there who just happen to be out at the Sketchfest at the same time and bring everyone out on stage at the end. And you would think it would be a mess. But my thought was maybe it would be a fun mess. And it turns out that is kind of is. It’s really fun to have a bunch of comedians sort of competing, but under controlled circumstances and for a greater cause.

We did one with John Hodgman and Paul F. Tompkins and Cole Stratton and Janet Varney and maybe Kristen Schaal did that one, and it ended up being just riotously funny. The video went out and we had to kind of improvise through an outage of a video, so it was really fun in a way, and it worked. It could’ve been a disaster, it was worth doing, but it was great. So that’s gonna happen too with the Riffapalooza. We’ll just get everybody together and see what happens.

So did all nine of you get together to write these, or were the RiffTrax writers involved? Can you explain some of the process for writing the reunion?

Yeah, it is a blend. It is a blend of us all sort of swapping scripts back and forth and sharing lines. That’s the other nervy thing, we may still be making changes up to it, but that’s nothing really new for us. Everybody’s a pro and has done this before, so we may get there and do a rehearsal and go “Oh, this one sounds weird coming out of Frank’s mouth or whatever. He just doesn’t like it, so we could change again up to the last moment, but that’s pretty much par for the course.

You seem like a down-to-Earth, Midwestern sort of guy. Are you self-aware when you say “everybody’s a pro” and that’s in reference to telling jokes over movies?

[Laughs.] Yes. Like I said earlier, you specialize in a weird thing, it’s a great privilege to be able to do it and to sort of have grown up with a genre of comedy that you build your own niche. I feel very privileged to be able to do it and to work with others who do it too. It’s a lot of fun.

From my perspective, looking back at your career, it seems romantic working on a low budget, making some of the best comedy ever and barely getting paid. Do you miss the old days?

Uh… no, not really. I mean, I’ve been blessed to be able to make a living at it and the few shots at going to Hollywood and doing other things just didn’t… I know this sounds like the refuge of a guy who couldn’t make it in Hollywood, whatever that means, but… I feel more that I’ve made it because I’ve been able to do this thing that I love for a long time. There’s literally zero regrets. How many people get to go to their job and just have a ton of laughs and laugh with other people who are really funny and do that for 27 years, or whatever it is.

You’re doing this reunion and MST3K is getting rebooted. Do you wish this happened earlier, or is the time just right?

It seems right. A lot of people ask questions about “Are you gonna do a reunion?” and there’s a lot of speculation as to why this didn’t happen. A lot of it just comes down to simply that there’s a lot of parties involved doing different things and those things add up to a big challenge to get people together. People are doing things in their lives and careers and raising families, so it’s not as simple as a desire to do it, it’s also the practicality of it. So it’s those outside forces that really control [things] and this reunion just happened to work out where Trace is living back in town, he lived out in L.A. for a long time and Frank was able to make it. So it was just practicality and everyone’s desire was to get together so it just worked out well.

Have you been trying to pull the trigger on this live show for a while?

I think it has come up before, but there’s been other challenges and this was just the time. I don’t know if we strongly worked towards it. I actually think that it was just brought up maybe a couple of years ago and we said, “Oh yeah, let’s try to think about that.” There are other things pressing on us like how we’re trying to find the right movie and thing like that for the live show. Again, a lot of practical concerns.

As a fan, it’s nice to see everyone together. There’s been a lot of scuttlebutt regarding the two camps being apart.

It has a long pedigree and history, the speculation on the internet. I think I’ve told this story before: Somebody had posted really early on, like when I became the host of Mystery Science, a transcript word-for-word. They said they came in to tour the Best Brains offices and they heard behind a closed door, they heard me screaming [Laughs.] about how I wanted Joel off the show and how I was going to ruin him and stuff like that. It actually made the rounds as a thing and it’s like there’s nothing you can do to control that. It was, of course, an utter and outright lie, but it circulated. It made all of us laugh, but it’s also sort of a thing that just fuels speculation for years. That and other things of that ilk.

About a year ago on Facebook, you said you wouldn’t be doing a cameo on the Mystery Science reboot. Is that still the case?

Yeah, as far as I know. But that’s just that they’re shaping up their show and that they haven’t asked and there’s a specific fiction that they’re doing, as far as I understand. Other members may be returning, but so far I have not been asked. That’s all I can say.

For these upcoming educational shorts that we’re gonna see at the live show, how long would that take to write?

You know, they tend to be a little bit easier because they kind of have one point of view. First of all, they’re obviously shorter and so the range of jokes that you have to come up with is a little narrower. If the short was three hours long you would obviously have a more challenging time as you got into the same point of view. But they tend to be short bursts of a certain point of view. So you can kind of more easily enter into it. So this is my long-winded way of saying… jeez, I don’t know, it’s probably… Maybe four days of writing? Four days for a 20 minute short? If I had to guess, a wild guess is like five minutes a day is pretty reasonable to do and not terribly difficult on a short.

How are iRiffs going? 

It seems good. I wish I could dip into it more. Unfortunately, for me, the writing is so time intensive and it really occupies your mind in a way that — my wife always says “We’re supposed to go out to dinner with someone” and I say “Honey, please, I am writing a John Carradine movie here!” Like, my mind is fully focused on laughs for days. And then you put it aside when you’re done and you start over again. The iRiffs, people respond well to them and I think people have built their own audiences with them, which is nice.

Do you look at iRiffs as sort of a farm system to find writers for RiffTrax?

Yes, yes we do. When you’re a small company, one of our goals is to have someone just deep dive into the iRiffs and find these writers. It’s one of those things that comes up nearly every meeting. “Who’s on this?” We’re busy, but that is definitely something we look forward to because those people are going to bubble to the top and we’ve done some things, but not enough frankly. So that is a goal, to do more sort of combing through the stuff and finding the talent.

Best advice for up-and-coming riffers?

I think producing funny stuff is always the best way. People submit scripts all the time and sometimes we will just look for funny people on Twitter or YouTube or whatever, where you find someone who you think “What they’re doing kind of applies to what we’re doing or they can be taught to do it.” So you kind of reach out and see if there’s interest in that. But it generally comes from people producing something, whether it be an iRiff (which is the obvious closest thing) or just comedy on YouTube and those things tend to find their way to us. That’s what I always tell young people — produce. Just produce stuff. Don’t wait around for anyone and maybe not try to get someone’s attention by finding their info and sending them something because people just get busy. That’s a tough one, it’s easier to just do something funny to get their attention.

Are you a sports guy at all?

I am a baseball and tennis guy and, intermittently, a football guy, but not as much.

Now that Cleveland’s drought is over, Minneapolis has the longest drought for all the big sports: 25 years. Are you saddened by that?

I had moved to San Diego to start RiffTrax actually, about 10 years ago, and the Minnesota Twins would get into post-season, I think in ‘06-’08-’10, they were always competitive. I was out in San Diego, displaced from my beloved Minneapolis, and I would go to watch the Twins by sneaking in a bit during lunchtime and watch them get absolutely pummeled by the Yankees. There was the sadness of not being home and the sadness of the Twins losing. And then I came back home and the Twins still stink. So I don’t know what to do anymore. Where do I have to move to make them better? I’ll do what I have to do.