“You Should Have to Make Your Case with Comedy”: An Interview with MST3K’s Michael J. Nelson

He has been the host and head writer of both Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, and now takes on his biggest comedy challenge yet: riffing 1998's Godzilla in front of a live audience.

As was the case with most people who saw it, Michael J. Nelson doesn’t remember staying awake for the entirety of Roland Emmerich‘s Godzilla.

“You know, I think we were still doing Mystery Science at the time,” Nelson recalls, “so we probably screened it together. I don’t know if you remember at the time but it was such a huge deal and it was gonna be so big. And so I don’t remember who I went to see it with, but I think I fell asleep and I think I was probably eating some Taco Bell product at the time, and it kind of made no impression. It was like ‘Oh, well that was … that was no big thing.'”

The man knows of what he’s talking about. As the head writer and later host of the cult series Mystery Science Theater 3000, Nelson and his cadre of comic friends relished in lampooning the terrible B-movies that time has (rightfully) forgotten. After it was canceled in 1999 following a decade-plus run, Nelson wound up gathering together MST3K‘s last core trio of himself, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy to tackle similarly-themed riffing on the short-lived Film Crew project. Soon, however, all of them became a part of RiffTrax, launched in 2006 and continuing the group’s distinct brand of rapid-fire zingers for Hollywood blockbusters, simply selling the audio track of their commentary that you then sync up with the movie itself. Since then, the company has gone on to host short and full-length films on their website, release DVDs of some of these films, and even do numerous Fathom live riffs which are broadcast into movie theaters across the country. Godzilla is their latest victim, broadcasting August 14th (with an encore presentation on the 19th).

In the run-up to the event, Godzilla has been cited as one of the most-requested films for the guys to heckle. When asked if there is, in fact, a true list of such heavily demanded titles, Nelson gladly confirms: “We have that list floating around, and when we do a Kickstarter, we approach all the studios (well, not this last one, ‘cos we had it pre-figured out), but there’s a bunch of stuff we’d like to do. I guess in my fantasy list for all of them, I wish the movies were shorter. [laughs] It’s just for the audience. Like, I can riff as long as you’d like—I got some good stamina going—but that’s one of the things: I just wish blockbusters were shorter for us to be able to riff on it. For two hours and 20 minutes though—you’re going to be laughing a lot when you see Godzilla.”

When asked if he saw the critically acclaimed film that came out this year, Nelson admits with a laugh that “I didn’t. We were busy on other things and we were told that it sort of met expectations—that it didn’t even eclipse the 1998 one!”

Of course, for someone who’s been in the business as long as he has, one wonders if that snarky comic voice would still rear its head when seeing just about any film, but he goes on to say that “You know what, I think we’re on the same page where we like really good movies—but there’s something about us, the comic or the critic in us, is actually drawn like a moth to flames where it’s still really fun to do. You know, if all of us (Kevin, Bill & I and the whole RiffTrax staff) went and saw a great movie and it was just total silence [after], then we would get up and walk out and go like ‘Well, I’ll see you guys all later.’ [laughs] Like, there’s something about us [where] the critic in us can’t help but complain. It’s not a bitter thing: we all appreciate film, and we appreciate even bad ones and we take on the challenge of doing it, but it’s not like this is a super chore for us. I mean sometimes there are movies that do go over the edge, and usually we make that somewhat evident in our riffs. It’s not a secret when we don’t really like it. But I like most things, I have a high tolerance for crap. [laughs]”

In an interview he did earlier this year, Nelson has admitted that for all of the derision he heaps upon Michael Bay‘s derided Transformer films, the crew’s riffing of the 1993 Super Mario Bros. was actually a more painful experience for him. On the assumption that Godzilla wasn’t nearly as brutal an assault on the senses, Nelson laughs before noting “I think you are correct, yeah. That particular one I had no handle on it at all. I wasn’t that into the Super Mario world. I had played a few of the games, but that just hurt my brain. But this one [Godzilla], it’s a fairly linear pattern, even if it’s not a fully-realized movie. It doesn’t just sit on top of you and dangle spit in your face and punch you in the ears all day, which, the Super Mario Bros. kind of did.”

Yet what’s unique about the riff for Godzilla is that this event was their second one to be funded by Kickstarter. Their goal was $100,000 in order to secure the film rights from the studio, but the event was so successful that they managed to also get the rights for 1997’s B-grade horror flick Anaconda as well, which will be part of its own event broadcast on October 30th. The guys did try (and were funded) for a live-riffing of the signature RiffTrax title Twilight, but the studio backed out at the last minute, which meant the trio wound up riffing Starship Troopers in its place.

Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy, and Michael J. Nelson

Nelson is perpetually stunned by the support of his fans, and the Kickstarters have been able to open up new doors that RiffTrax previously hadn’t been able to:

“It’s been great in terms of just — we’ve never had the door open to a major studio. And the first Kickstarter allowed that, and while we didn’t get Twilight, we actually talked to the people who owned Twilight, and they actually listened and understood who we were and entertained the idea. They were like ‘Oh, that’s interesting! Oh we like what you guys do! Oh, that didn’t fit into our plan!’ blah blah blah. But that was cool: we have the power with all of our fans to actually get the attention of major studios and to do things that would have been completely out of the range of a tiny company. We are a tiny little company. It’s just Kevin, Bill & I and a couple other people. To be able to do that, to harness the power of people who get the attention of studios is absolutely fantastic. We’re thrilled.”

To this day, Nelson still espouses how great it is to actually do the live events, if not just to actually have the jokes they have meticulously work on actually get a reaction in real-time. “Oh, it’s fantastic,” he starts. “We are comedy trolls: we sit in our little sub-basements and we mine little nuggets of comedy [laughs] and we come out in the daylight every now and then and interact with actual humans. I always relish those. I love it a lot ‘cos a lot of comedy writing is solitary—which is weird! It should be brought out in front of people and presented to them. You should have to stand and make your case with comedy. It is fun to do it and it’s also very infections, you know.

“We did the Sharknado thing in Minneapolis,” he continues, “and I was not born and raised here but [I spent] many years there, so a lot of my friends were here and a lot of my nieces and nephews. We had them at a reception afterwards, and everybody really really liked it, and it was so fun: ‘Oh, really? What I’m doing actually made you laugh?’ So that experience is really good for us and I think good for the audience, ‘cos otherwise we’re just putting it out there and just trusting that it works well enough — but it’s fun to do it live.”

For all of the powerful fan support that RiffTrax has received, though, there is still a part of the RiffTrax page where the group asks for donations in the case that someone happened to view a RiffTrax’ed film without paying for it. Although no longer directly linked on the site, there is a page still up tackling the MST3K “Keep Circulating the Tapes” motto, and the page goes to great lengths to establish the fact that MST3K and RiffTrax are not the same thing. For MST3K, fans made tapes of shows and passed them around, creating an effective word-of-mouth tool (and it’s for this reason why literally dozens upon dozens of full-length MST3K episodes have been up on YouTube for years). Given that RiffTrax was never on a network and exists purely on the internet, The business model is different.

While one can certainly see that a stray RiffTrax film could lead to a customer down the line, the fans that support the guys as much as they do are doing so partially due to the perpetual goodwill that RiffTrax has generated over the years. When pressed on the issue of illegal downloads, Nelson notes that “It’s an interesting question; there is no way to quantify it for us. All we know is that if people are taking it, then— it’s the only way we work, ‘cos we have no ads or anything in order for people to buy it. And we have great fans [who are] very kind and very loyal and we meet them all the time and they’re great people, so I think we just survive on that, we survive on that goodwill. There are some times where, like we say (and we’re pretty honest about it), occasionally someone will send you something and go ‘Hey, this is funny, you should check this out!’ and you watch it and at the end of it we say ‘Hey, if you got this without paying for it, do us a little change’ because this is the only way. Literally, there is nothing else we can do. So that’s our position on it. And we try to be pretty light-hearted about it ‘cos this is the internet and it’s a jailbreak as far as our stuff [is concerned], so there’s not much we can do. But we’re very very fortunate to have people who understand that, and it’s a pretty simple system, and that’s the way we work it.”

Although the reputation of Mystery Science Theater 3000 has undoubtedly lead to some great fans and massively successful Kickstarter campaigns, Nelson is surprisingly coy when asked if there are more ambitious plans for RiffTrax in the future:

“You know, my #1 responsibility is to keep it funny. I mean, that sounds cheeky, but I’m not being cheeky. I really mean that it’s kind of my thing and I really enjoy doing it, but anybody can do this, literally, and they do and I like that there’s a lot of people that do it really well, but if we let that quality fall at all then we’re doomed. And I really enjoy what I do so that’s kind of what I’m focused on, but the live shows are really fulfilling that way, like we’re doing four this year and we’ve [only really] done two in the past, so those are are really great way to reach out and, like you say, actually get out to meet the people who contribute to the Kickstarter—and I really, really like that. I think just keeping the direction that we’re going … I don’t really have any grander plans for it, ‘cos I think we’re still kind of a niche thing, and luckily we’re in an era where there can be a lot of niches. I don’t have to be Grey’s Anatomy or whatever—that shows how old I am. But you know what I’m saying: I don’t have to be a hit show on a major network: we have a lot of fun doing what we do, and hopefully we can do it for a few more years.”

Of course, for someone who’s been working tirelessly at the art of film mockery for as long as he has, Nelson has been able to accomplish a lot through his good wits and sheer determination. When asked if he has any regrets throughout his storied career, he has a typically Nelsonian answer: “I hate to be cliché, but I don’t really have a lot of regrets, ‘cos there’s nothing really—I mean, I guess maybe right after Mystery Science was over if I had moved to L.A., but I had a young family—I don’t know, I’m inventing that one to be honest. [laughs] So yeah, I don’t really have a lot of that.”

As for his proudest accomplishment, however, Nelson doesn’t have to invent a thing: “My proudest accomplishment is just sustaining something where I’ve worked with a bunch of people I like and respect and are really funny. To be able to laugh at your job is a fantastic accomplishment and I’ve done it for years and years and I’ve worked with people including ‘Weird Al’ and Paul F. Tompkins and a bunch of fun people that I like, and of course Kevin & Bill who I’ve worked with for 25 years almost. So that’s my accomplishment: is just being able to continue to work with them. I think a lot of people would almost look at that as a weakness, like ‘Why are you still doing that?’ And I look at it as a real strength, like ‘C’mon man, who else can work with someone for that long?’ and still enjoy each other’s company and still laugh—like really, really laugh. So it’s a long-winded way of saying that my greatest accomplishment is sort of the staying power of doing comedy.”

And perhaps that is the most amazing thing about Nelson’s career: by making fun of so many films with such well-crafted jokes, its his own work that will be remembered with greater fondness than that of, say, Godzilla—and that’s an accomplishment to truly be proud of.