After fourteen years, dozens of bad movies, and too many jokes to count, the Mile High Movie Roast unspools its last frame on Friday, June 28, at the Oriental Theater. Co-created by local comedians Matt Vogl and Harrison Rains, the show took inspiration from Mystery Science Theater 3000 — the pioneers of making fun at the movies — and created a funky community of comedy-loving cinephiles, full of props, costumes and elaborate sight gags. But the hosts have grown tired of the grind of producing the small but beloved show, and they're offering fans one last hurrah with a secret screening featuring Rains and Vogl back in quick-riffing action.
Westword caught up with co-founder Rains to discuss how his humble show endured through venue changes, cease-and-desist orders and rotating co-hosts (in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I co-hosted a few Mile High Movie Roasts), and why he feels bittersweet about preparing to crack his last joke.
Westword: Talk about how the Mile High Movie Roast got started and all the name and venue changes you've undergone over the years.
Harrison Rains: So Matt Vogl and I were both comedians — mostly doing amateur stuff, but we were also on the list at Comedy Works — and Vogl had this great idea. He said, "We could start a regular standup show and it'll be done it eight months, or we could do something really silly where we just make fun of movies and see how long it goes." And he was friends with Scott LaBarbera over at the Oriental Theater, and we did about seven movies over there before we learned about paying for the rights to films. After that,we moved over to the Sie Film Center at the Tivoli, and then we did a couple shows at Cinebarre, which was a disaster. You can quote me on that.
Are they even still around?
I think so. They show normal movies, so they must be. I still see it off of I-25 in Thornton. [The location closed in February.] But anyway, they didn't work well with us. I don't think they understood what we were trying to do. And apparently, they stole their whole business model from Alamo Drafthouse anyway, so when we heard that the Alamo was coming to town, we made them our fourth theater. The great thing about this show is that it's always just kind of limped along to the next cool opportunity. So all of a sudden, we were at the Alamo Drafthouse.
How has the show itself changed?
We used to do more monologues and stuff, like games and videos. And then we got tired. I'm just kidding. I think it just got to a point where it was a lot of work to put it together, and we both have families now. Eventually, I took the whole thing over and kept it running for the last few years.
Does Matt not do standup anymore?
No, not at all. He's pursuing different avenues, and he's got some good stuff lined up. I don't, either, but sometimes we talk about going into Comedy Works some week and starting up again. But I don't know if I really want to do standup like I was. Those were my roots, but things change.
Did you eventually get to the point where you preferred doing the movie roast over doing standup shows?
Oh, yeah, the whole time. Because it was our show, man. No one was telling us what to do. No one was telling us how much stage time we could get. The only thing we had to deal with was when attendance was low, they'd think about sending us to another night. We were getting bounced around the schedule like an NBC sitcom, like maybe it'll be more successful in a different time slot. One of the worst shows we ever did — and because I don't always know the deal with the rights, I'm going to try not to mention too many movies by name — we did a Fourth of July movie in the middle of the day. It was ill-advised, but somehow we thought it would work. And fourteen people showed up. So sales were pretty bad, but, boy, we got drunk and had fun.
You did a show on the actual Fourth of July?
Now when you say it like that, it does sound stupid that we thought it would work.
Comedy shows on major holidays are always an uphill battle.
Totally. I mean, we'd always schedule a scary movie around Halloween and that would help us. But never an actual holiday. The Friday the 13th series was always good for us. You could watch any Friday the 13th movie and make jokes, and then turn around and watch the sequel without any prep, because it's all the same jokes. Somebody's horny, somebody's getting stabbed. They're all the same movie. But sequels and prequels are always good, because they're usually bad and they're licensed to the same studio.
The show was originally called Mile High Sci Fi. When did you change the name to the Movie Roast, and what prompted the change?
We changed when we were probably four years in, because we started running out of sci-fi movies real quick. A fan of ours made a big scrapbook of the first eight years of the show, with pictures, and article after article about us. He just gave it to me, which was so cool. We've had fans who've been coming since the beginning, month after month and movie after movie. I still see them at every show.
Will you still be hosting those movie parties at Alamo?
Yeah, for now. We're waiting to hear back. Paramount is being kinda rough right now, I guess.
So when you started out, you just showed whatever movie you wanted to. And I guess that's not a "fair use" thing, because you're charging people for tickets. When did you find out about securing the rights to movies you roast beforehand, and how did that limit your available library?
We got a cease-and-desist when we were showing a movie from that big company that rhymes with "Misney." We showed one of their movies and they sent us a cease-and-desist. And that was when we moved to the Tivoli, and after that, everything was on the up-and-up. Since then, we've been very careful. Certain studios are particularly brutal; they don't want you doing anything with their intellectual property.
They do keep their movies in a vault.
It's amazing to me. Our show could make them money! I mean, it's only a little bit, but I would think that a little bit is better than nothing. Especially when you're not showing it anywhere else to begin with.
So the studios are getting a cut of your ticket sales?
We started out by giving them a portion of the sales, but we'd been going through a flat-rate distribution company recently. But that company got sold and didn't allow it anymore. Like I was saying, we've always limped along.
What sort of movies work the best for the roast?
Well, it has to be more than just bad. We showed this Geena Davis pirate movie, and it was one of the worst shows we've ever had. There were lots of awkward silences, people were chatting in the back and not laughing. It was bad, and we had to accept that we couldn't show just any movie. Reefer Madness was a fun one, and if I remember correctly, it's in the public domain now. Back then, we had all sorts of props to enhance the film. We'd dress up in costumes and do a monologue before the movie and stuff, and in Reefer Madness, there's a scene where a lady falls out of a window, and we cued up a mannequin to fall from the ceiling at the Oriental. People lost their minds; it was so funny. It was like a 3-D effect.
Kind of a William Castle thing?
Yeah, yeah. We always tried to do something a little different each month, but we were limited a lot of times by the theaters. Alamo didn't really have the time or space to allow us to set up elaborate props before the show. Don't get me wrong: Alamo Drafthouse was always super-supportive, but I could also see how they might possibly get annoyed with the show sometimes. They could have had another Avengers screening in that theater or something. So it was always nice to have a bigger turnout than some of the new releases, and it was pretty common for us to beat opening-weekend sales. But I'm getting long in the tooth, you know? I've enjoyed it, but I've had enough!
Is it bittersweet to see it end? Because I assumed you're sad to see it go, but the movie roast was also a ton of work.
Oh, yeah. I was running a business. Not a very profitable business, but still, a business with taxes and licenses. So it was a lot of work for a little bit of payout. And every once in a while you get those Fourth of July-type shows, and those are rough. Empty rooms with no one laughing. So we're going to do one last show. Our longtime sponsor Oskar Blues is gonna help us bring in some nice things to give away to fans. We're going to do a costume-contest raffle for a big prize. I can't say what it is yet, but they've always had good stuff for us, like bicycles and snowboards. One time, we were trying to give this snowboard away at the Cinebarre, but then it just disappeared and the management were very sketchy about it. One of many reasons the show didn't succeed there.
Who are some of the other comics who've done the show over the years?
Matt Vogl was always the core guy. We used to book a third guest each time, but getting three people to meet up for seven writing sessions was always pretty rough. And then Vogl suggested, "You know, you and me could just do this ourselves for a while." So we did that for about two years. After he left, I didn't really go back to any of our original guests because they didn't really share our vision for the show. So I've been getting younger guys to do it with me. Chris Charpentier and Nathan Lund were some of the first ones, then maybe Kevin O'Brien and Sam Tallent. Then I brought in Mara Wiles a bunch, and when she did it — along with Timmi Lasley and Christie Buchele — I found that the girls kind of showed us up, so I started bringing them on a lot more. Especially for movies like The Craft, which was kind of targeted toward women. And even though I loved doing the show, it was always nice to take a month off and let them take over. And obviously, you did a great job, which is why I kept bringing you back.
That's exactly what I was waiting to hear! Do you know what your last movie is going to be?
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We're gonna keep it a secret. We didn't really want to make our last show about the movie; this is for those longtime fans of the movie roast. We're not showing anything we're not supposed to show.
Who's the guest for the last one? Will Matt be coming back?
Oh, yeah. We're coming full circle. We started writing a couple months ago, and we want to finish out strong. And it sounds like the Oriental is welcoming us back with open arms.
The Mile High Movie Roast's last show ever is scheduled for Friday, June 28, at the Oriental Theater. Go to the Oriental Theater box office page to buy tickets, $20, and learn more.