Thursday, December 17, 2009

MST3K, RiffTrax, and Me

After trying (again) to explain the concept of MST3K/RiffTrax and why I enjoy it so much, I decided to just write a post about it that I can point newbies to. So if you're already a fan of Mike/Joel and the 'bots, then please let me know if there's anything I need to include. If you're wondering what the heck this is all about, read on.

The Basic Concept
In essence, both Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) and RiffTrax do the same thing: provide running commentary on a video as it's being shown. If you've ever talked back to a commercial, made a mordant observation during a film or TV show, or even provided your own dialogue over top of what the characters are actually saying, then you're doing the same basic thing as the MST3K commentators. The difference is the frequency, level and quality of the comments.

A Bit of Background - MST3K
Mystery Science Theater 3000 started off as a gentle spoof of the locally-produced late-night SciFi/horror movie shows that were popular in the 1960's and 1970's. In such shows, the host would introduce the movie, usually a B-grade movie (cheaper to rent). MST3K took the concept a step further by having the host segment extend through the entire movie.

The conceit is that an evil mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forester, has sent a hapless victim -- first Joel Robison (Joel Hodgson), and later Mike Nelson (Mike J. Nelson) -- into space. The victim is forced to watch bad movies as part of an experiment. The victim resists by commenting on the films, aided by two robots -- Crow T. Robot (originally voiced by Trace Beaulieu, later Bill Corbett) and Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy).

MST3K ran as a two-hour program on Comedy Central from 1988 to 1999 and developed a large fan base. They eventually released a theatrical movie version of the show, skewering "This Island Earth" before calling it a day. Rhino Records is reissuing many of the programs on DVD.

RiffTrax - The Legend Continues
With the rise of the Internet, the concept of MST3K returned in an expanded form. One of the drawbacks hampering MST3K was the need to get rights to use the films they lampooned. A limited budget kept the list of available films limited to movies fallen into public domain and really low-end productions.

A RiffTrax production is just an MP3 audio track, which means the staff can comment on virtually any film available on DVD (there are instructions telling you when to start the audio track so the sound syncs up). A much lower overhead and an expanded range of available films have revitalized this peculiar art form practiced by Mike J. Nelson and fellow MST3K alums, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

So where's the humor?
If you're someone who watches movies and TV shows uncritically, then this probably won't appeal to you -- you'll probably wish the commentators would just shut up so you could enjoy the show! However, if you've ever noticed details in films you weren't supposed to, or find that some parts of a TV show seem odd, or occasionally deconstruct a video, then the MST3K/RiffTrax commentary can be a wonderful thing.

Humor comes from surprise and unexpected juxtaposition. And that's what the commentary of Nelson and company provides. There are some recurring tropes. Some may give you an idea of the appeal these shows have.

  1. Cultural commentary - There are regular references to public radio/TV programming, opera, classical music, classic jazz, art works, classic literature, and history. Whenever the heroine trips and sprawls on the ground, count on someone mentioning Andrew Wyth's painting "Christina's World."
  2. Pop cultural commentary - This actually spans several generations. It can include current pop music and movie stars, as well as references to iconic moments from older films and TV shows. A recurring trope (which they lampooned themselves) was the cite "NBC Mystery Movie," an early 1970's TV show whenever someone shown a flashlight in the fog (the TV show opened with such a shot).
  3. Visual or audio riffs from the film - A silly phrase from early in the film may get repeated throughout the movie, heightening the humorous aspect of it. In "Teenagers from Outer Space," a character overly dramatizes the word "torture." Every time the character appears, a commentator adds "... and torture," to his lines, delivered in the same tone of voice.
  4. Breaking the fourth wall - The commentators often take a step back and make observations about the quality of the production. Doors that open the wrong way ("Why is my room in the hall?" a commentator asks), a movie set in prehistoric times that clearly show tire tracks in the road, awkward blocking, botched transitions, continuity errors, muddy dialogue recording -- it's all grist for the humor mill.

Finally, while it may seem easy, it's not. Anyone can sit back and crack wise while watching a video. But the commentators of these programs operated differently. They viewed the films several times, making notes, recording commentary and then refining and polishing their ideas to create finished scripts that sound improvised, but aren't.

And that, for me, is really the appeal. The quality of the humor usually consistent throughout the entire program. And the commentary is dense enough that it's only after a second or third viewing that I finally get all the jokes.

So there you have it. Something that I can enjoy with repeated viewing, that consistently makes me laugh, and something that does what I like to do, only better -- that's the appeal for me!

- Ralph

Yes, I know I haven't mentioned Cinematic Titanic, but I haven't seen any of their productions, yet. Some of the MST3K alum appear in RiffTrax, while most of the founding cast (Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and others) appear in Cinematic Titanic -- same basic concept, though.

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