As the voice of wise-cracking robot Tom Servo and one of the original brains behind the cult sensation Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- known affectionately to fans as MTS3K -- Kevin Murphy helped elevate the act of jeering at shitty movies to an art form, leaving an indelible mark on pop culture in the process. These days, Murphy is still making fun of movies with former MST3K compatriots Michael J. Nelson (second host Mike) and Bill Corbett (the second voice of Crow) in RiffTrax. The base formula is the same -- bad movies made bearable via the addition of well-placed jokes -- but the group has embraced the Internet, making downloadable "riffs" for movies both obscure and popular, and branched out into live performance. Tomorrow, October 25 at Pavilions 15 and several other area theaters, RiffTrax Live will present Birdemic, an incredibly terrible movie about global warming and birds, as part of a live, 550-theater simulcast.
Before the show, we caught up with Murphy to talk about RiffTrax Live, his legacy and the effects of watching bad movies for a living.
Westword: I've seen Birdemic, and my first question is, why Birdemic? How did that happen?
Kevin Murphy: The question is, more to the point, what the hell?
Yeah, that would be another way to put it.
Well, we sort of fell in love with it, just because, first of all, it's a great example of really inept filmmaking, between the cast and the script and the story. And at the same time, it's so well intentioned, and it's so earnest, you can't help but sort of like it. Unlike movies like Manos [Hands of Fate], which, you know, I don't really like Manos. It's goofy but it has the little creepy elements to it. Whereas Birdemic, you're kinda rooting for the film, and then it just falls down and it doesn't get back up, and you're rooting for it again and it falls down again. It's a little crazy making by the end because it's so repetitive, but it's hard not to admire it at least for trying.
It's definitely very earnest. He has a message, even if he doesn't communicate it very well.
The message that's hits you over the head is "STOP GLOBAL WARMING! Stop it! Otherwise the planet's going to kill us!"
With birds! So, that ends up being the overwhelming and repetitive message we're pounded over the head with.
Speaking of Manos and some of the other really painful movies you've watched over the years, how does Birdemic rank? You said you wanted to root for it, which has to count for something.
That's true. All these films, our challenge is to make them fun for an audience that doesn't necessarily like bad films -- they sort of like the whole thing we've put together. We've had a lot of fans who are abd film lovers, but there are actually quite a few of the films we do that I think would be really hard to sit through without us helping along, or people doing at home what we try to do.
That's our job is to just sort of guide people through these things. The challenge comes when the film gets bogged down in driving scenes ... driving scenes... We always have to come up with fun and creative ways to make those funny. In the end [of Birdemic], I won't put out any spoilers out there, but the same thing happens for a really long time, and we have to find a way of making that fun for people to watch, because really nothing is happening on the screen.
I've watched a lot of the films you've done, both with and without your commentary and some of them are pretty hard to get through. Manos is a great example of the ones that's nearly impossible.
I've learned through this process [that] I'm really not a bad film aficionado. I really don't like to watch them for the sake of their badness. I try to make it better somehow. I think the whole point of riffing is to improve the experience for people, and transform it from something that would otherwise be dismal or dreadful into something that's really fun.
So for this Birdemic show, you guys are in a theater doing it live. Is there an audience with you in the theater, or is it just you and the the crew?
We're at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, which is a great old movie place and also a concert venue. It's great to do it in Nashville because the crowds there are really fun and just come to the show to have a good time. It's a great town to put on a show. The theater is just the right size -- between three and four hundred seats -- so it feels really intimate and we can really connect with the audience. I think when it uplinks and then beams down to the 550-odd theaters across the country, people sort of plug into that intimacy we're feeling there with the audience in the Belcourt. So it surprisingly so captured that live feeling, of being in a theater, live, with us, at the same time, there in the Belcourt Theatre.
Doing it live, in front of an audience in particular, has to be different than back in the MST3K days or recording for RiffTrax, right?
Oh yeah, it's a high-wire act. It's an adrenaline producing sort of experience, because a million things could go wrong and even one thing going wrong can put the whole thing off the rails. We have to really have our chops down and then rehearse it well and be ready for any sort of odd contingency to keep the show moving, to keep it entertaining. Once the trains starts rolling, there's no stopping it with a live show. It's great fun, and it's great fun because we react off each other, and we react off the audience, and they off of us. There's nothing rote about what we're doing there, even though we work off a script. It ends up being a lot of really spontaneous moments in the live show, and that's what makes it fun for me. One of the big differences between the MST3K days and now, at RiffTrax, is you've really broadened the pool of movies you can do and you do some blockbusters now. Is there a difference in approach between doing some of these cheaply made bad movies and a modern blockbuster?
Well, the modern blockbusters that we do commentary for are harder to do than these old films. First of all, they're a lot longer. Second of all, they're a lot more rapidly edited. I don't necessarily think that the process of filmmaking has gotten any better due to the fact that things have become digitized and special effects have become easier. I think that's obvious by films like, oh, say, Twilight. There harder to do in some ways, because they are longer, they're more rapidly edited, it seems like they are made for people who have shorter attention spans, and yet they go on for two and half hours. Whereas the old films are usually pretty compact, they don't linger too long. A lot of them are no more than ninety minutes, so you get a good solid ninety minutes of entertainment out of it.
They're harder also because they're a little bit more current. They're of our time, so we want to be as contemporary as possible, and when you're like me and you're getting old, it's difficult to be contemporary.
It does. I'm actually finding this myself. It gets harder every year.
[Laughs] It does. I mean, there's still some things that I look into, but clothing, music, tabletop games, social networking... it tends to leave you behind even when you're in your thirties. Suddenly you feel old. It's hard to stay current.
I think our audience, in some ways it's getting younger and in some ways it's getting older. A lot of people who watched us with MST is still downloading and buying RiffTrax. And we're getting a whole new audience, which sometimes are kids of our older audience, which I think is kind of cool.
I was wondering if you'd met any second generation fans. My daughter has been watching MST tapes since she was a little girl. Now she's grown up and she's your new target audience.
[Laughs] I think it's pretty wonderful that what we do has hung around that long. I always wanted to do something that was sort of like a pajama show, that you'd watch on Saturday morning with your kids, or on Friday night with your kids, sort of like a creature-feature thing, or a Saturday morning cartoon slot. I think we are that, which is wonderful. It's what I aspired to even in college, thinking of going into TV. So I'm delighted about that.
When you started this all those years ago, could you imagine that you'd still be doing it at this point, and doing it on this scale, broadcasting live to 550 theaters?
No. No. Absolutely not. We definitely tapped into something that people find they have in common, which is the urge to talk back to their media, and not just let it be jammed down our throats before we swallow it. So we tried to help them out in that way.
Along the same lines, you guys allow people to do their own RiffTrax and distribute via your site, right?
Yes, we do, iRiffs is what it's called and people can put up their own. There's a whole community of people who do this who have sprung up around it. Nobody does it thinking they're going to make a whole lot of money. They mostly do it because it's a lot of fun to do. It's hard, but they sure have a lot of fun doing it.
I know there are also some similar group doing movie riffing, including a group here in Denver and maybe one in Austin. Does that feel good to see people taking it and going with it, or is that weird?
Oh yeah! We're experts on it, we're not owners of it. People were doing it even before we started doing it on TV -- they were talking back to their TV sets. My dad used to yell at the TV screen. This isn't something we can own a patent on, it's what people do naturally. We just try to make it as funny as possible and I think we've succeeded and carved out our own little niche. In an odd way we've become the experts at a very narrow field of expertise.
Do you even have a rough idea of how many movies you've done over the years?
[Laughs] No. I lost track. I know that there were almost, what, 175 episodes of Mystery Science Theater? And I was involved in all of the episodes, from the time the show started at the UHF station in Minneapolis. Then, I'd have to go on the RiffTrax site and count, but I think, I guess, I'm upwards of, if you include the shorts, it's been 350 films I've been involved with doing this. And to get there I've had to screen and preview probably ten times as many films. So I've been exposed to a lot of bad culture.
That's pretty incredible. Do you feel that's warped your brain at all? It would almost have to, right?
[Laughs] Well, I've developed a lot of scar tissue. It's pretty easy to see what will work for us, and what is simply bad and unwatchable. It usually doesn't take long to figure that out. So I think I have a more sensitive filter for it, for really bad-bad, rather than promising-bad, and a pretty high bullshit detector when it comes to actually watching current movies and understanding whether they're going to be good or not in a very short period of time.
Does watching that many bad movies change your appreciation or understanding of what makes a good movie, then?
I have less tolerance for being pandered to by a motion picture. So yeah, I'm a bit of a movie snob, but I've always been a bit of a movie snob. I don't think that's changed. Perhaps my tolerance level has gotten lower. I don't tolerate as much mediocrity when I go to the movie theater any more.
Speaking of you tolerating mediocrity at the movie theater, tell us a bit about your book, A Year at the Movies.
It's actually -- it came out in 2002, so it's now ten years old. I wish there was some way to do a new version of it, but I don't know if that's worth it. It was a great exercise. I wanted to survey what the American movie-going experience was in 2001, so I promised to go to a theater and see a movie every day of the year, for the entire year. I just barely managed to do that, but I also got to travel while I did it, so I got to survey the theater going experience of a lot of different countries. It was great! It was terrific, but it was also harrowing and a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. I learned a lot about how I watched movies, how people watch movies, and the fact that it's simultaneously better and worse. I think that holds true today.
Is there anything else you wanted to talk about before we wrap this up?
At the Birdemic show, we're going to do another short film, which is one of our audience's favorite things for us to do. It's Halloween time, so we'll have a few surprises as we go along. It's going to be a fun show. It'll be even more joyous than our Manos show was, because the film doesn't make you want to die.
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Along those lines, for people who've been a fan of the show but have never seen you do it live, is there something you can tell those people that will convince them to come out and see it live?
What I've always found is the live version of this, in a theater, exponentially increases the fun, because when you see a really funny thing in a roomful of people who are laughing, it makes it even more fun. As much fun as it is to sit and watch at home, it's just that much more fun to go to a theater and see it live with us on stage.Follow @WestwordCulture