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Humorous Matters


More often than not, the worst films get hype and multiplex openings, as if they deserve it. And you end up watching “entertainment” as disappointing as the soggy popcorn for which you’ve paid $7. Writer and comedian Michael J. Nelson knows what this feels like. A Minneapolis native, he started as a standup comic in the 1980s, then worked for Mystery Science Theater 3000, 10 seasons as head writer, and 5 as host. More recently, he’s written regular columns for TV Guide and Home Theater Magazine, and a couple of books, Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese and Mind Over Matters, which looks at contemporary U.S. consumer culture. He also has a debut novel in the works, Death Rat.



PopMatters:

How did you get into standup comedy?



Mike Nelson:

I was doing theater and a friend of mine had mentioned standup and it was kind of right before the boom happened. You actually get paid for it much quicker than theater, so I sort of made the jump.



PM:

Were you living in an area where there was an active standup comedy scene?



MN:

There was actually, in Minneapolis. I think there were more comedy clubs than in L.A. back in the late ‘80s.



PM:

What were you like as a comedian? Was it observational humor or similar to the humor you do now?



MN:

I guess it was similar. I was a little strange. I had an extended piece of an imitation of Robert Frost that really didn’t go over when you’d start getting out of the city and you would go on tours and stuff and you would just quickly realize, “Man, I better get some dick jokes whipped up here! ‘Cause I’m just eating it out here!” So, it wasn’t a thing that I wanted to do forever. It’s a special discipline that doesn’t really promote a lot of growth in terms of writing.



PM:

Joel Hodgson [the show’s original host] had a similar standup act, different from regular standup comics. I saw him on Saturday Night Live, and he was working with puppets and stuff like that.



MN:

Yeah, he had sort of a prop-based act.



PM:

Not like Carrot Top.



MN:

No, no, very different from Carrot Top. I always wished, you know, when things get tough and you’re out on the road, that I could start juggling or whip out the prop, because it could save your life.



PM:

But your act worked?



MN:

I always say that my act just never worked at all, and my friends always correct me and say that I had a very good act. It’s just that standup is tough. Sometimes it just doesn’t work and you end up just doing the same thing over and over again, because, you know, who wants to fail? Trying new stuff often fails so there’s not enough turnover and I wanted to write a bit more than that.



PM:

How did you get involved in the show [Mystery Science Theater]?



MN:

I was pretty good friends with Josh Weinstein [writer and performer on the show] on the standup scene and I knew the other guys somewhat, Joel and Trace Beaulieu. So, they needed someone to help out with typing and Josh sort of lobbied for me to come on down. I did, and I hit it off with the guys. I guess I did a good enough job.



PM:

Do you recall the first real horrible movie you’ve seen?



MN:

Oh boy, I’m trying to remember if I even knew. I think when I was young, even the bad ones, there was something entertaining about them. But it was probably The Mummy or one of the Mummy ones, maybe not the original but one of the many, many Mummy films. I remember just thinking, “You know, this is actually fairly lame. The Mummy can’t really do much, you could just push him over, the movies are fairly slow, there’s long scenes with no music in them. That’s the first movie I can remember not liking at all.



PM:

MST3K used obscure references as jokes. Did you feel confident that viewers would get all of them?



MN:

No, I think we worked from a position of ignorance, as that we did the stuff that made us laugh and we assumed that there would be people out there that would get it. I guess that’s true for the most part. Also, we felt like we were dishing out enough of it that, if that one wasn’t for you, you don’t have to wait very long and you would probably get a fairly accessible joke. We felt like the show could support that.



PM:

What films screened on that program do you wish could be erased from your memory entirely?



MN:

Oh, there’s many of them, but there’s a particular group of films by a guy named Coleman Francis.



PM:

He made a film called Skydivers.



MN:

Yeah. Those just really, really, really hurt me. At the time, I was having real bad headaches and I was on medication and everything, and I had to watch these things and I remember thinking, “Oh! This is just death! This just goes beyond the hazards of the job, this physical punishment.”



PM:

Did that become drudgery, as each show took about nine days to produce?



MN:

Yeah, even with the best [films], they were just terrible. You’d think, “Oh, The Girl In The Gold Boots is kind of a fun movie.” When you actually have to make every moment of it count and you have to fix all of their mistakes and make it funny, you end up noticing their mistakes and those mistakes just grill their way into your brain. You become so angry with certain moments, out of all proportion, just because you have to watch them over and over again.



PM:

Do you think that the really horrible ones produce the episodes that pay off.



MN:

Yeah, as long as there’s something inherently funny. As long as there’s a foothold in the film itself. There are a few that I think were just talky: they walk back and forth between two lousy sets and they just talk for a while, and then they walked to the other [set]. Those are almost unrecoverable in their badness, because they’re just boring bad. If they’re bad, bad, bad, but they’re funny, like Manos: The Hands Of Fate, it’s great. It works well.



PM:

I read Roger Ebert’s review of Rob Reiner’s North. He called it “one of the worst movies ever made.” And you know, some of the so-called film enthusiasts I hang out with would say that a good movie like Unbreakable or Castaway was the worst movie ever made, and then I just kind of shake my head and say, “They didn’t have to sit through Manos!”



MN:

Yeah, I think they’re saying that from a position of ignorance. One viewing of Skydivers would easily persuade them.



PM:

I think when I saw Manos, a piece of me just died [laughs].



MN:

Yeah, something in you does die. I’ve learned that. You’ll heal eventually!



PM:

How did you develop the book, Movie Megacheese? Is it a collection of essays you wrote for Home Theater Magazine?



MN:

About half of them are. I spent a month, the summer after the show was out of production, watching color bad movies, basically.



PM:

The much more recent Hollywood movies.



MN:

Exactly. The big budget ones, a lot of action movies and some chick flicks. It was painful to move into that, but I didn’t have to watch the movies over and over again. I’d make a few jokes here and there and then do a short piece on it. It was an odd move to go out of bad movies and into bad movies!



PM:

What’s the difference? Do you think that these more recent movies are as bad as the more obscure bad movies?



MN:

They tend to morally outrage me more. They’re sicker, in a way [laughs].



PM:

So, you go to movies knowing they’re bad.



MN:

Yes, oh yes! I still occasionally try to the find the worst movie out there. I have a group of friends, and we just like to go to the worst movie and then have a couple of beers afterwards and smoke a cigar and talk about it. It’s more fun than talking about good movies. We can all agree that Coyote Ugly will be a bad movie. There’s just no way around it.



PM:

Have you seen anything lately?



MN:

This isn’t incredibly recent, but it’s so incredibly bad that it sticks out: The Master Of Disguise.



PM:

I know, but it’s kind of strange because I figure with the experience Dana Carvey has, why would he make something like that?



MN:

I think I have the answer for you: it was produced by Adam Sandler.



PM:

[Laughs.] Here’s a challenge for you. Adam Sandler’s new movie [Punch-Drunk Love] has recently opened. Do you think it might change your mind about him at all? It’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and more of an indie film.



MN:

It’s specifically him [Sandler]. I find him to be wholly and completely without talent. Plus, he’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. I won’t be able to take it, no matter what.



PM:

What about the movies you like?



MN:

I always find that, unfortunately, I never have the movies I like right at the tip of my tongue; I’m always remembering the latest pain. But I like plenty of movies. I just can never think of them. I’m sure if you name a good movie, I’d probably agree with it.



PM:

How did you develop the book Mind Over Matters?



MN:

After I did the movie book, my editor said, “Why don’t you apply the same formula towards life?” I wanted to try that, in a small format. It’s high risks and low rewards, because people could always say, “You know, that’s just not funny.” They’re right, and there’s nothing else to it, because it’s simply saying, “This is funny” and you don’t agree. When you write humor, you’re out there. Either people like it or don’t.



PM:

But you take strange subjects and push them, like beef jerky.



MN:

[Laughs.] Yes, I’m hung up on meat, I have to admit it. I like doing research and I like being specific about things. There’s a fine technique to choosing your words and your jokes to make a payoff. I enjoy that.



PM:

How do people respond to that specificity?



MN:

Most of the people I know like it and that’s sort of my mode of communicating. Sometimes I wonder, is it a Midwestern thing? Is it specific to a region or to a type of person? All you can really do is do what you think is funny and hope that it works for somebody.



PM:

How did you get into public speaking?



MN:

When I speak at colleges, it’s kind of the best of both worlds, because you get to do standup, but then, if your joke fails, you can say, “Well, it’s just a speech. You weren’t expecting a standup comedy joke.” I love to write speeches on the fly. It’s like speaking short comic pieces out loud.



PM:

You also have your first novel coming out in 2003.



MN:

I had sort of a nutty idea that I wanted to write a novel with the writers at Mystery Science Theater. When we were together, I thought we should all take sections of this book and just finish in x amount of time and just turn it in. But we never quite pulled it together and then went our separate ways. I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll have to do it myself.”



PM:

What is it about?



MN:

It came from an idea that you could write a stupid adventure book, because there’s so many of these adventure books out there, about guys climbing Mount Everest and killing themselves and getting lost in the woods and surviving for 10 years on berries and grubs. As long as the author looks like a rugged, adventurous guy, you could sell that and go on book tours. So, I had the idea that we would write this book and hire an actor to play the author and see if we could get it to be a bestseller based on that. The book is about that: an old, unsuccessful author writes an adventure novel and he can’t sell it because he’s pudgy and unattractive, so he hires a young guy to sell it for him and that gets him in all sorts of trouble.

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