Michael J. Nelson spent five years standing next to puppets and making fun of cheesy movies on the beloved cult hit Mystery Science Theater 3000. Since the show ended in 2000, Nelson has continued screaming back at the culture with his three books (Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese, Mike Nelson’s Mind Over Matters and the novel Death Rat) and Rifftrax, a series of MST3k-esque downloadable commentaries to accompany movies ranging from Roadhouse to Spider-man.
Though one of the masterminds behind that famous “cowtown puppet show” has moved out west, we learned he’s still ever the sweet Midwestern guy.
You are originally from the Midwest, but you’ve lived in San Diego for two years now. Do you enjoy living there?
Yeah, I’m liking it. There’s things about Minnesota that I miss. The bone-chilling cold is not one of them, but I had a lot of friends there. But I like San Diego a lot.
Do you return to the Midwest pretty often?
Yeah, I usually make it once a year, back home.
For someone who is unfamiliar with your work, how do you explain what you do for a living?
Boy, as someone who’s tried to explain a hundred times, I’m still trying to come up with the one sentence answer, and I have not yet cracked that. You know, if was born in the ’20s, I would say I’m a humorist and everyone would go, “Ahh, I’ve probably read your stuff.” But it takes a lot more explanation now. You know, it’s just, I’m a comic who’s worked in a lot of different mediums; I guess that’s what it is. And the “talking back to movies” seems to be the one I’m stuck on.
Can you walk us through a typical day at Rifftrax HQ?
First you get all coffee-d up, that’s highly important. And then, you know, mostly the writing is by far the longest thing. That process is just, we’ve come up with the term “grinding.” You’re sitting with this movie, and you recognize that it needs a joke in a certain place, and then it’s that sifting through the hundreds of things that could go in there. It’s just incredibly time consuming. So most days I am writing, and I’ll write at the office, I’ll be instant messaging other writers about certain things, “Did you make this Three Stooges joke?” whatever, and try to make sure we don’t cover too much of the same ground. And then I do a lot of writing at home as well. So it’s just many hours of that.
And once those cycles are done, then the fun begins, and Kevin and Bill will fly out and we’ll do a rehearsal, which is a little more fun, and then the reward is when we actually get to go in the studio and all the problems have been solved, and just perform the script. So that’s it in a nutshell.
What genre of movies do you think lends itself best to the riffing experience?
Well, I think, boy you know we hit these genres all the time because of this, but Sci-fi and the sort of comic book movies to some extent, when they take themselves seriously, or they put something forward, if you actually think about Spider-man or any of those things, what they’re asking you to believe in a movie is pretty hard to swallow. Which works differently obviously in a comic book. It’s a different medium, so your expectations are different. So those are easy. Also I’m a big fan of the 80s action movies because those ask you to believe absurd things, like that Sylvester Stallone can speak, and that Patrick Swayze is a world famous bouncer, so you’ve got all those things.
Are you saying that’s not a valid career?
Well, I’m sure there are people who do it, but whether or not they’re world famous bouncers, that’s where it gets tough. So anything where the movie takes itself fairly seriously works really well. And that’s also why I think shorts from the past, those are easy to – well, I don’t want to say “easy,” but they’re easy for people to understand our point of view on. But if those elements aren’t there, it’s also not a disaster, because there’s sort of a meta-commentary that you’re doing that’s providing a running humorous commentary. There’s that dry word “humorous,” but comedy should be endlessly inventive, there are lots of ways to crack certain movies. That’s my long answer. I went down a lot of rabbit holes.
On a side note, people are so happy the shorts are back.
We love doing them so I think those will always be a part of it.
The newest one, “One Got Fat,” is absolutely terrifying.
Is that not the biggest nightmare you’ve ever seen?
I actually felt bad. I read on Prelinger’s site, the archive site [www.archive.org], there were comments on there, and there was about 10 or 12 people confessing that they had seen this as a child and were traumatized. And they were so happy that it was back up because they actually sort of forced it away with the will of a child, and they thought they were insane, and I actually got kind of sad reading them, like “this is sort of heart ramming, people are actually traumatized.” So it’s good to bring it out into the full light of day and have it give people a chance to get their emotions worked out.
You mentioned 80s movies. When you riff solo, you tend to use the older ones, and when it’s you, Bill and Kevin, you tend to go newer and bigger. Is there a reason for that?
Well, frankly the niche ones from the 80s are things that I really enjoy, and those aren’t big powerhouse sellers, for one thing, so not as many people obviously enjoy them as I do. So they are a little bit of a throwaway to build the catalog and to give those few people who are like me some joy, but most people tend to like the bigger ones, the ones that they have a chance of just pulling down from their shelf and throwing in the DVD player. But I think we’ll continue to reach into the past every now and then because I do like the variation of styles and themes and decades and everything.
Do you consider anything off-limits in your riffing? Are there any titles you wouldn’t use, or any aspects that would prevent you from riffing?
For the most part, things that are just distasteful to me, I just don’t like. If you have a chance to comment on them and they’re not too bad, I don’t have a problem with them, but some stuff is just outside the bounds of taste to begin with, so to even put it out again is probably not a good idea. That said, there may be sort of classic movies that it would be fun to have a commentary on, like I’ve always thought The Godfather movies would be fun to have a go at. It doesn’t mean the movies are bad or anything, but they’re just so familiar, and they’re film archetypes, and I think movies like that could be done.
There’s a wide variety of stuff that we’ve done, I think it just has to do with availability, and if we can make the source material widely available through downloads or whatever, I don’t think there’s anything totally off-limits. Again, except for things we’re obviously never going to touch. Schindler’s List.
Passion of the Christ probably wouldn’t work.
Yeah, it’s not gonna work, it’s not appropriate, but there’s not like any sacred cows, where, “Oh, that’s too good.” Would we ever do It’s a Wonderful Life? Maybe, who knows?
Now, over the years fans have come to know that you, Kevin, Bill and all the others at Mystery Science Theater have your fair share of fixations, if you will. You know, the blog is pretty obsessed with bacon, Schnappi and speakers. Any current obsessions we’re unaware of as of yet?
Well, I think I’ve confessed before my obsession with roasting my own coffee, and making the best coffee known to man. And I believe that I do that, and I will challenge anyone on the blog and forum to make a better coffee than me. So that’s one. I maintain that on a daily basis.
Other than that, there’s nothing too new. There’s a couple of things on the forum that I want to settle, and we are going to have a “Rifftrax Eats the World’s Hottest Pepper” video thing. And we ask any forum members to submit their video as well, but it should happen soon. We’re having a little trouble getting a hold of the world’s hottest pepper. They only sell plants and seeds. So we might have to actually grow our own hot pepper, but that obsession will be covered and then buried hopefully after that.
The Rifftrax Greenhouse could be a nice side gig for you guys.
That’s not bad. You know, I have little glass windows in my office, I might just seal it off to get it really hot and moist in here, and then I can work in a loincloth.
You have riffed with your lovely wife Bridget several times now. Do you see the two of you riffing again in the future?
Yes, I think so. You know, her schedule is tight, and we keep talking about the perfect movie to come out and as of yet, there’s been nothing new that’s sparked it. But I think she’ll be back. Maybe we’ll do some sort of all-star riffing thing sometime too, and get a lot of people involved.
Is there any question that you get that you’re absolutely sick of being asked, that you’re asked every single time people interview you?
No, not really. It used to be, and this was a question we got from a lot of critics, was, “Why did you do x movie? I like that movie.” And it’s a hard one to answer. I’ve always been mystified as to why people get offended when movies they like, other people don’t like. I mean I sort of understand the instinct there, but some people get angry, and I’ve been confronted by critics who just say, “That was a great movie,” and you just have to put your hands in the air and go, “Okay, fine, enjoy it.” So that’s the one that I’ve gotten quite a lot.
Can you watch a movie at home in your personal life without dissecting it, or do you find yourself riffing on movies all the time?
Mostly, yes, the latter is true. I can watch them in silence, but when you develop a sharp critical eye, and most people do, I’m not saying that I have some special talent in that area, it’s just that comedians tend to be by nature, you are taking pop culture and you’re just wailing on it all the time. And so when you’re watching a movie, it’s the same instincts and everything are there, so it is tough, and I think people think that I’m a crank because I don’t like a lot of movies, but that’s because it’s your job, and you get that way. A mechanic sees enough crappy cars and when he sees them on the road he’s probably like “I hate that” so it’s probably that same thing. But I like a lot of movies, it’s just when people ask me the question, “What do you like?” it’s kind of hard to come up with it because I’m more focused on criticizing things. So my long answer is, I can do it, but it is difficult to switch that off.
This could be quite a tough question because we’re covering a lot of ground, but in your opinion, what is the most ridiculous movie moment you’ve ever seen? One that you’ve riffed, or one that you haven’t.
Well, just what came to mind, there are thousands obviously that contend for this, but there’s a moment in the movie – now I’m probably going to drop this, was it called Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman? The monkey-disease movie. There’s a really unbelievably stupid moment, that I haven’t seen it again, but I remember laughing and rewinding it many times, it’s like Dustin Hoffman secretly gives away the location of something, and gives something away, and Donald Sutherland the evil guy turns to him and goes, “What are you doing!? Are you dumb or somethin’?” And I just couldn’t believe that that line was allowed to be written into the script and then read that way. I’ll have to go back and watch it, but that moment came to mind as one of those moments were I just rewound and went, “Good lord.” It was a very, very, very forgettable movie, and that’s why that bit of stupidity was overlooked. I’d like to resurrect it. Maybe I’ll look on YouTube and try to find it and put it on the forum.
Are there any new Rifftrax related projects you can tell us about? Anything not totally top secret?
That’s the problem, everything is so top secret. But there’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes, I’m trying to think if there’s anything I can reveal, which I always feel so stupid, because this is not the Manhattan Project, and yet still you like to keep stuff a surprise. There’s little projects that are behind the scenes, they’re maybe a little longer term. There’s so much tech stuff behind the scenes, and that’s a bottle-neck, too. There’s the writing, and then just the tech stuff, it gets frustrating, like the web things that you want now and the web guys go, “That’s six months away.” That’s my obscure answer to that question.
What would you be doing for a living if you’d never gone into the entertainment industry?
I remember the best answer I ever heard, if I may take it, it was when Paul Newman was asked what he wouldn’t want to do as a job and he said be a greeter of some sort. I would agree with him, I would not like to be a greeter. But I wouldn’t mind, I’ve done it before, I would like to be one of those guys that fills potholes. Working outside, and you get a killer tan, and be one of those kind of skinny guys who’s got a dirty rag stuffed in his back pocket, working with a bunch of other guys. And there’s a couple of beers after the shift, ’cause that’s what you need to do. Your life is very simple, yet you’re doing a public service.
Once and for all, the fans must know, will you ever riff Red Dawn?
I’m gonna not take the weasel’s way out. I’m gonna say yes. I screened it about a month and a half ago I think, and yes, so the answer’s yes.
My secret shame was I had never seen it before, I don’t know how I’d managed to avoid it, but it’s awesome. And I’d never seen Dirty Dancing. I watched that with Bridget a couple weeks ago. That is coming too. Nobody puts that movie in a corner.
Interviewed by Courtney Enlow, May 2008. For more Mike Nelson, visit Rifftrax.com.