Film and TV

RiffTrax's Bill Corbett on Tackling Tommy Wiseau's Disasterpiece The Room

Two powerhouses of modern comedy — one intentional, one less so — come together for one glorious night tomorrow at RiffTrax Live: The Room. The original RiffTrax for the film is one of the crew's most popular ever, but for this live event they’ve gone back to the well for an all-new take on The Room's unique charms. Even before the comedic enhancement of the RIffTrax crew, in its pure, unadulterated form The Room is a sanity-destroying exercise in bewildering WTFuckery, and the biggest question is how to tackle a film that does such a superior job of being its own worst enemy. To get the answer to that, and other burning questions related to Tommy Wiseau and his disasterpiece, we sat down with RiffTrax’s Bill Corbett to find out how to make an awesomely bad movie even better, how the live shows have changed the RiffTrax experience and what, exactly, Tommy himself thinks of all of this.

Westword: Are you a Room fan at all, or is this strictly business for you?

Bill Corbett: Yeah, I am. I mean, it’s one of those perfect storms of badness. When I first came across it, it had had quite a bit of notoriety. I do remember driving around L.A. and seeing the original billboard that Tommy Wiseau put up on Highland and wondering what the hell was going on there, like everybody else. But when I finally did see it, its reputation had preceded it, so I was a little bit skeptical, like, “It can’t be all that fun,” and it really was. It’s bad in all these perfect ways that really just hit my funny bone.

It’s kind of weird to say this to someone who watches bad movies professionally, but it kind of stands alone among bad movies — hell, among movies, period. It’s one of those rare, genuinely unique films.

Yeah! There’s a combination of elements in it you don’t find anywhere else. I was just trying to put this together the other day. A lot of the other bad movies we do have these sci-fi or horror elements to them. This is an apparently sincere attempt to do a relationship drama, and even given that small canvas of relationship stuff and that there are relatively few sets and no real bad special effects except the horrible green screen, it still manages to stand out. I think it can mostly be attributed to the man himself, Tommy Wiseau.

Even though the original RiffTrax for The Room is one of your most popular ever, I understand this live Riff is going to be almost entirely new material. Was it hard to come up with enough material to do two different riffs, or does The Room just feed you riff-worthy material?

It feeds you a lot and more. One of the tricks for us, one of the challenges I’ll say, is getting out of its way a little bit. It’s so hilarious, even without us, if you’re of the sensibility who can look at something like that and have a good time, and I think a lot of people are. I think just on its own it’s really entertaining, so we kind of want to do some jiu jitsu with it, which is to not squash the things that are funny about it already, but still provide a little extra entertainment as well. Especially when it gets a little bit long and boring, keep it moving along with funny stuff.

I know you’re working fairly closely with Tommy Wiseau to promote this, so I’m curious if he’s seen the original riff? Does he get what you guys are all about?

We assume that he mostly gets it. Mike and Kevin and I have tried to keep some amount of distance. It’s a tricky thing, because in some ways, yeah he’s cooperating and we paid him a fairly hefty sum of movie to use the movie — it is a business deal on one level — but it does get a little tricky because once he sees it, he may just turn on us like a rabid dog [laughs].

My impression is he probably hasn’t seen the original. He was a little confused about what it was. He thought we were taking it without permission. We had to tell him, “No, it’s an mp3, we’re not actually taking your movie.” I know he has passing awareness of what we do, maybe more than that, but he’s not letting on much. He’s being kind of diplomatic. We’ll see. I assume he’s going to show up and see it in May, and we’ll see what happens then.

Despite people’s perception, I certainly found him to be pretty canny and intelligent enough, if really strange. He’s managed to turn people’s ridicule and scorn into a weird kind of success.

Yeah, he’s found a way of rolling with it. Canny is the word that came to mind, too. He found a way of rolling with it and claiming it was intentional, but sort of backing away. And because he that weird command of English — or lack of command — that I think he turns on and off selectively, he’s kind of doing both at once. He’s saying, “Oh, I meant this to be a good movie, but then again I meant it to be funny, but then again…” He gives those really elliptical [answers] and then just says something else. “That’s life, you know?” [in Tommy voice]. What do you do with that?

You guys are doing more and more of these live RiffTrax events over the past few years. Do you enjoy the live aspect of it?

I love doing them. It’s been a real blast and the highlight of the RiffTrax year when we do them. They are a little bit nerve wracking, a little more so in the beginning. During our first show, which was Plan 9 [From Outer Space], we realized, “This is actually going out live. Anything could happen! Nobody does this anymore.” We had no delay and no back up and something goes live technically, we’re going to all have to tap dance or just run off the stage in shame. But so far, so good. We’ve gotten used to it more and we have a little bit of a routine.

The worst thing that happened once was we were doing a preview of Godzilla during Sharknado last summer — the idea was to give them five or ten minutes of it — and we had no sound at all, in the theater or in our headsets. We kept on with the riff, hoping it was going out with sound, and it turns out it was, but we weren’t hearing it. That was a little taste of how far south it could go, and that’s not even the worst that could happen.

Do you have a background in stand-up comedy?

I don’t have much background in stand-up comedy. I’ve did a lot of theater and a lot of sketch comedy and stuff like that, so I love performing and I’m a pretty big ham, all in all. I don't get stage fright as a rule, which may mean I’m a sociopath. All in all, it’s really fun. After we spend so much time writing and recording things by ourselves, we get a little bit insular, so to actually face an audience and have them laugh — and also not laugh — when want them to, is healthy and good and mostly enjoyable. It can be a little bit educational, too. It’s fun.

Not to take anything away from The Room, which is clearly the crown jewel of the run, but the rest of the year’s lineup of live events looks great, too. Miami Connection is another film that’s just legendary in bad film circles.

I am very excited about that, too. That’s one that not as many people know about but a lot of people are just going to love. Plenty of people from the film world and the bad film community know about it, and the Alamo Drafthouse crowd and all that, but I think it has somewhat less notoriety than The Room and I just think people are going to love it. It’s one that we’ve been hearing about for a while. There aren’t many taekwondo/rock and roll/crime movies out there.

It’s another movie made by a bizarro world auteur with a pile of cash and a desire to make the movie in their head.

God bless them, they keep us in business.

By contrast, what about something like Sharknado 2, which is sort of intentionally bad. Is that harder or easier?

I do find that a little harder. It’s a tricky thing, because Sharknado and Sharknado 2 clearly are designed to be a little bit cheeky. It’s like, “Let’s make a ‘bad movie’.” But even within that we found, with Sharknado — which I was little skeptical of doing, for that reason — it’s not even a really well done bad movie. There are a lot of boring parts, and that’s where we can find our place. It’s much more of a game of jiu jitsu or aikido — I don't know why I’m using all these martial arts metaphors, maybe because of Miami Connection — but it’s a little more and act of curating and saying, “Look at this turkey!” and we’re going to add some laughs to it.

Has the live in-theater approach brought you a new audience, or is it just the same people who are buying riffs on the website and watching at home?

I think it started that way — RiffTrax and MST3k fans — but we’ve been getting steadily more audience for these things. It’s not going through the roof, but more people are coming. I think if nothing else, the people that are coming are telling other fans about it and they’re kind of meeting in theaters around the country that are doing it. There are over 600 theaters broadcasting this and a whole bunch more in Canada. People are doing meetups and it’s really cool knowing people are out there finding each other and partying a little bit.

RiffTrax Live: The Room is at several area theaters at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 6, including the Denver Pavilions. Find complete details here.
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Cory Casciato is a Denver-based writer with a passion for the geeky, from old science fiction movies to brand-new video games.
Contact: Cory Casciato

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