Mr. Beaks Interrogates The RiffTrax Gang About This Thursday's Live, Beamed-Across-America Roast Of REEFER MADNESS!
Published at: Aug. 17, 2010, 6:39 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
The interview you are about to read may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. RiffTrax is that drug, a violent narcotic, The Real Public Enemy Number One!
If the above paragraph sounds at all familiar to you, I'd highly recommend that you get your tuchus to a nearby movie theater this Thursday night (August 19th) for the RiffTrax gang's live roast of the 1938 marijuana scare flick, REEFER MADNESS (aka TEACH YOUR CHILDREN). And if you've never seen the public domain classic that indirectly led to the financing of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, SE7EN and THE LORD OF THE RINGS... honestly, I couldn't think of a better way to experience the movie for the first time than listening to professional merry-makers Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy and Michael J. Nelson give it the business in the old MST3K style. In a theater packed with like-minded comedy nerds no less!
Since REEFER MADNESS runs a scant sixty-six minutes, the boys have dug up a trio of extraordinarily obscure 16mm shorts to ridicule as well (perhaps they've discovered the next "Mr. B Natural")! They'll also be premiering two new shorts from Richard "Lowtax" Kyanka of SomethingAwful.com. And there's always the possibility of group sex.
For more info on the event (and to find out if the trio's witticisms will be getting beamed into a theater near you), head over to Fathom Events, where you can also buy tickets in advance. And if you fancy yourself a wisenheimer of the fourth power, be sure to enter the RiffTrax gag-writing contest by 8/18 at 11:59 PM PT. The best jokes will be worked into the live performance.
And just in case you're wavering, here's a free-flowing interview with three of my comedy heroes. Topics discussed: REEFER MADNESS, adjective fetishes, August Strindberg, prop comedy, THE LAST AIRBENDER, and so much more. To get us started, the publicist asked the group to let fans know what they can expect come Thursday night. Nelson didn't hold back.
Michael J. Nelson: It's going to be a huge letdown. No! I never know how to promote stuff.
Mr. Beaks: So it's just not going well?
Murphy: It should be fun. We're doing it live from Escondido, and beaming it to roughly 500 theaters around the country. Not only do we have Legend Films' delightfully restored and very weirdly colorized version of REEFER MADNESS, we also have three equally, if not more, hallucinogenic shorts to go along with it. It should be quite the fun evening.
Nelson: As well as a couple of shorts by Lowtax from Something Awful. It's another level of weirdness for us, which we love.
Corbett: No one will actually need cannibus once they watch what we're presenting.
Murphy: We don't do drugs. We are drugs.
Beaks: (Laughs) You're basing the performance out of Escondito, California. Are you going to the Stone Brewery?
Nelson: Yeah, we're big fans of Stone. We have outdoor showings of our RiffTrax there during the summer.
Murphy: Mike will just lay on the bar, put his mouth under the Ruination tap, and just let it go.
Nelson: That describes a typical Tuesday night for me.
Beaks: It's one of my favorite places to visit down there.
Nelson: Yeah, it's great.
Murphy: But the theater in Escondito is at the California Center for the Arts, and it's gorgeous. It's a really fun place to do the show. We've got a wonderful production team, and they make us look and sound better than we ought to. They almost make us look presentable, which is quite a task.
Beaks: I figure there's no use in asking "Why REEFER MADNESS?" I guess the question is, "What more is there to wring from REEFER MADNESS at this point?"
Nelson: Well, part of the reason we selected REEFER MADNESS is... there's obviously the iconic moments everybody loves, but people forget there's a really weird story told in it about people who all look the same. People in the 1930s all looked the same. All men looked alike, no matter if they were seventy or twenty.
Corbett: They were born with hats back then.
Nelson: Yeah, hats and boxy suits. So I think we have fun with the parts people would not remember from the film. And we went back with this one because we'd worked with it before, and basically put it up on the rack and retooled it all together. We got our other two crack writers working on it, so it's kind of a different perspective. We're looking at it really as sort of a new thing.
Beaks: How long do you guys spend in a day working on new material for something like this?
Murphy: This winds up being a labor of several days by several people in order to whip it into shape. I know Bill spent a few days looking over the script. Everyone spent a few days looking over the script and making recommendations. We really put it up on the rack and put a new engine in it - and that takes quite a few days. Then Bill and I are going out to San Diego on Friday, and we'll be working on getting it spit-polished for the show on Thursday. So, boy, it's really a lot of work.
Corbett: And we do have to retool this thing, which we recorded a while back. Actually, Mike recorded it first as a hybrid of our riffing and traditional movie commentaries, and that sort of evolved into our three-man riff on it. Now we're looking at making it more of a live show, which, speaking for myself, sometimes means the jokes have to be a little less wordy.
Murphy: Bill has a big adjective fetish.
Corbett: I do. It's thoroughly out of control. And sometimes we just need a little more room for what we hope will be laughs.
Beaks: And perhaps leave space for something that might come up in the moment?
Murphy: It doesn't happen very often, but it is inevitable. Quite often it's because of the crowd's reaction to a joke. Sometimes, we'll have a groaner and not realize how much of a groaner it really is. Then the pitchforks and torches come out, and we have to defend ourselves.
Nelson: Or the bizarre thing where - having seen this many, many times - there'll be things onscreen that we don't notice that suddenly the entire audience sees and begins cracking up at. It's a weird and exhilarating experience because you suddenly have to go "What the heck's going on?" The audience is looking at something we didn't see, reference or make a joke about. But they're laughing, so, obviously, you have to ride along with that wave.
Murphy: Probably a lot of people have not seen REEFER MADNESS all the way through in a long time, or perhaps ever. I think they've seen bits and pieces here or there, or maybe went to a midnight movie showing of it, which means...
Corbett: ... they've seen it stoned!
Murphy: Yes, or they've seen it stoned and don't remember a thing. So we can be the drugs, and they can look at it with fresh eyes.
Beaks: When you do have to react to something like that in the moment, I wonder if sometimes there's a running joke that requires set-up that might get lost. It seems like this could be very tricky, that you need to be cognizant of things you need to say to make a joke pay off later.
Murphy: It can be tricky. We have to be quite light on our feet. And for that reason, we don't like to set up elaborate jokes that require several lines going down the road in case we miss one for that very reason.
Nelson: You always have the writer's lament of "Wow, the audience just laughed over a really great joke." It's like, "Stop! Back up! Stop laughing! I want you to laugh at the one I wanted you to laugh at!"
Corbett: There's something fundamentally greedy about that, and we try not to get caught up in that.
Murphy: If they're laughing, that's the reward.
Beaks: At this point, you've got to know your audience so well, and the kind of stuff you should be referencing. Do you ever find there's a joke that you love you're worried might not go over well with your audience?
Nelson: Yeah, it sort of happens on the night of. It's weird. You're looking forward to something, and for whatever reason - and I really don't know what those reasons are - you just get the sense that they're not going to laugh at it. Either it's way it's worded, or it might be distasteful to this particular audience, or...
Murphy: On some nights, our series of Strindberg jokes just won't work.
Corbett: And, really, that accounts for about forty percent of our REEFER MADNESS script. Down from seventy.
Nelson: On the fly, they are all converted to Carrot Top jokes. And everyone's happy.
Beaks: So from MISS JULIE to prop comedy.
Corbett: We actually assert that Carrot Top wrote MISS JULIE.
Murphy: It goes from DANCE OF DEATH to Lady GaGa, and that seems to please the crowd. (Laughter) Get us going on Strindberg, and this is what happens!
Beaks: I always forget that someone had to direct REEFER MADNESS, so I looked up Louis J. Gasnier. I just love that on his IMDb page there is one bit of trivia, which is "Close to his death, he had very little money."
Corbett: Shocking, isn't it?
Murphy: Why am I not surprised.
Beaks: How much research do you do on these movies?
Nelson: I did a lot when I did a solo commentary just because that was part of the design: to give a little bit of information about it. But generally we do just enough to avoid embarrassing ourselves. Otherwise, we try to keep the jokes on a more immediate level that doesn't depend too much on that knowledge. (To the others) Am I talking out of my hat here, guys?
Corbett: You are.
Murphy: Yes. And in addition to that... (Laughter) If the jokes are fact-based, or based on a movie fact, then we should make sure we have our facts straight - and we do that. But we still get it wrong sometimes, and fans take great pains to point that out to us.
Corbett: That's one of the delights of being our fans, is to watch us screw up. We take that seriously.
Murphy: But things like pant length: those are more important to us than getting the actual dramaturgical facts straight on the movie itself. The fact that everyone wears their pants up their nipples in this film is much more important to us.
Corbett: Those were in the heady pre-nipple days, though.
Murphy: True. They couldn't show the nipples, so they had to wear pants over them.
Beaks: Was it a big suspenders era? I can't remember. I haven't seen this movie probably since I was in college.
Murphy: There are a lot of v-neck sweaters and a lot of incredibly high pants. Also, everybody was skinny, and they all had the same haircut.
Corbett: Yeah, there are a couple of guys in this movie who are sincerely hard to tell apart.
Murphy: They're identical. One's named Jimmy and the other's named Billy, and that just doesn't help things at all.
Beaks: I guess one of the liberating things about having fun with a movie like REEFER MADNESS is that you don't have to worry about that contingent of cinephile who'll say, "How dare you attack this film! You don't understand the subversive brilliance of the movie!" REEFER MADNESS is pretty well regarded as an absolute goof.
Nelson: There was a little circuit of exploitation films that traveled around, and a husband could get away and watch some titillating thing because it was "educational" - and the Hayes Code wasn't invoked because of the "educational" nature of the film. So, yeah, they were always intended to be nothing more than that. And I think this one started out with serious intent, but the producer bought it and added the titillating things later. That's why it also doesn't make a lot of sense.
Murphy: I think that's why they also have the sour-faced guy at the beginning: to give it a sort of legitimacy; you have to sit through the scolding lecture in order to get to the good stuff.
Nelson: "Honey, I'm watching this thing on the dangers of drugs! Come on!"
Beaks: "Our kids are going to have to know this!"
Corbett: That's one area where there actually is some history to it. It was financed by some church group who wanted that message crystal clear.
Murphy: It was called TELL YOUR CHILDREN when it first came out.
Nelson: Dwain Esper, I believe, was the name of the guy who had the little exploitation thing. There were obviously more of them, but he would bring a series of movies into town and hand out pamphlets saying "You're going to have to learn about these wicked women...."
Murphy: And the evils of oral sex.
Beaks: I think the great thing about doing these live events and including your audience, is the communal thing. There are so many fan communities out there, and they often seem to be really aggressive and unpleasant. But I think RiiffTrax, and everything that's grown out of the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 community... it's just one of the friendliest fan communities I've ever encountered.
Murphy: Oh, man, absolutely.
Corbett: I would agree with that. We really don't run into that degree of yuckiness that I think some people on the business end of fandom do. It might have to do with the fact that we're just not that huge. I mean, physically, yes, but as a phenomenon we only grew so much. It tended to keep the riffraff out on some level.
Murphy: Not to overthink this, but we were a comedy show first, so anything science-fiction related came later; the kind of thing that grows something to a cult status was kind of secondary. For some reason, it seems like comedy crowds can be a lot friendlier than those that are sticking to whatever bible of science-fiction or fantasy that they're about. We have a lot of license.
Corbett: Which is not to say that we have entirely escaped that. But those are outliers. I think the rest of the community has pretty much mocked them soundly and told them to go away.
Beaks: So you've never noticed any slash-fiction involving Tom Servo or Crow?
Murphy: I'm sure it exists.
Corbett: I've written a fair amount of it, actually, and I think I've done a pretty good job of it. It's erotic, but tasteful.
Murphy: Bill, you've been very good at it, and the forum has really seemed to support you.
Corbett: I include real tenderness in their relationship. It's not just hot and steamy.
Murphy: Bill did a great job with his FROST/NIXON slash-fiction. That was really quite wonderful.
Beaks: I liked the BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Crow and Tom Servo. That was very touching.
Murphy: (Groaning) Oh, I'm sad now.
Beaks: Thinking about movies you're going to get to in the future, movies that are richly deserving of the RiffTrax treatment... have you seen THE LAST AIRBENDER?
Murphy: I have. I was drooling in the theater as a matter of fact. I think it's going to be delightful fun for us. M. Night just can't make movies fast enough for me right now.
Nelson: I'm hoping for THE HAPPENING 2, but I'm not keeping my hopes too high.
Corbett: I'm thinking of bankrolling that one myself.
Murphy: I'm thinking of going to the theater to see CHARLIE ST. CLOUD. It might also be perfect. It's the kind of movie that might appeal to our TWILIGHT audience.
Corbett: What is this?
Murphy: It's Zac Efron, and he's moony and teary-eyed, and he's got a little brother who's a ghost. And he's got a teary-eyed girlfriend. It's all teary-eyed. And Zac just gets to moon at the camera with his giant bushy eyebrows. What else do you need?
Corbett: Now you're talking!
Beaks: For some of us who spend time watching some of the artier movies, I would love to see you guys have a go at LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD or HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR.
Murphy: Well, sure. It would be great for you and the six other people who would buy the RiffTrax. That's the thing. I would love to do some of those things, too, but they end up being sort of financially, and time-wise, impractical. Maybe if we come up with just the right thing, we could do something...
Nelson: "An Andalusian Dog", perhaps.
Murphy: Oh, my god, yeah. Or METROPOLIS.
Beaks: I guess that's the idea. To find the right vintage genre stuff. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI or something.
Murphy: Something that really sticks out, and is really vivid in people's memories or imaginations.
Corbett: I want to take that fraudulent bitch THE SORROW AND THE PITY down. It's about time.
Murphy: Isn't that three-and-a-half hours? Isn't that endless?
Beaks: It's long. If you're going there, you might as well hit all sixteen hours of BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ.
Corbett: We have actually done a few good movies. We had the RiffTrax Challenge last year where we did CASABLANCA. And as you may or may not know, we don't get in this just to call movies crap. I mean, some are, and we're not shy about saying it, but we also like to do, as Kevin calls it, a "roast" of a movie. I like that idea a lot. So we've done CASABLANCA and JAWS. And we've done the LORD OF THE RINGS movies, which we're all kind of fond of. And it's not just an unremitting drumbeat of "Oh, this is a piece of crap." Although we do those, too.
Beaks: Have you ever heard from any current filmmakers who've listened to your RiffTrax and perhaps enjoyed them?
Nelson: You know, we haven't. Usually all the things we've heard are hearsay, and only a few of them were authenticated. We've only heard rumors here or there. I'm not even sure if they're worth repeating.
Murphy: It sounds like Tommy Wiseau was confused by what we were doing.
Nelson: Yeah, we did have a nice conversation with Tommy Wiseau, that's true. What he kept saying, what stuck out to me was - because the conversation went on for, like, an hour-and-a-half, with us trying to figure out exactly what he was saying - he kept saying, "I don't want this to become a rollercoaster." And I couldn't figure out what he meant. "You don't want, what, this phone conversation to become a rollercoaster? Your hat? I'm not sure what you don't want to become a rollercoaster."
Corbett: He's very anti-rollercoaster. He's known for it.
Beaks: Do you ever get the sense that he's a performance artist? That it's an Andy Kaufman thing?
Nelson: I was only fifty-one-percent sure he was real, even while we were doing it. But there were just a couple of things that convinced me that he's got to be real. Although he still may pull off a mask one day and go, "Ah-ha!"
Corbett: If so, a true master, and a truly odd creation. Like "How did you think of this combination of things?"
Nelson: Along those lines, I just saw AFTER LAST SEASON. Although it isn't proven yet, I think that's a Tommy Wiseau-inspired hoax.
Beaks: Which takes the fun out of it.
Nelson: It really does. It angers me.
Beaks: Here's an MST3K question I have to ask every time I talk to you guys: has there been any movement on the Sandy Frank movies?
Nelson: I'm totally out of the loop on that. Kevin?
Murphy: The last I'd heard from the folks at Shout! Factory was that that organization is a very tough nut to crack. But nothing is ever said and done in the very weird world of film distribution. Right at this very moment, it's not looking great, but who knows? Six months from now, things could change entirely.
Corbett: I liked that you called it an "organization".
Murphy: That's what they call themselves. The Sandy Frank Organization.
Corbett: (Laughs) I didn't know that. That's hilarious.
Murphy: I think he might still be around. He's just this bitter, bony, cigarette-y guy--
Corbett: He is still around. I actually know someone who lives pretty close to him. They said they talked to him, and he cursed our name.
Murphy: He doesn't like us at all. And as long as he's alive, it's like Castro and Cuba: we're never getting in.
Beaks: But that doesn't prohibit Michael from doing the Gamera song whenever he wants.
Nelson: No, I think I have the rights to that.
Beaks: So aside from what we discussed, what's the real selling point for the fans showing up Thursday evening?
Nelson: I obviously have great faith in REEFER MADNESS being a thing that would be entertaining even if we weren't there. But the shorts that we have unearthed for this should be quite a spectacle. I'd be very surprised if anyone has seen them before, unless they were in Mrs. O'Hara's sixth grade class back in the forties.
Corbett: I'd conjecture that they have not even been seen by the people who made them. (Laughter) Or indeed by human eyes at all!
Nelson: We've gotten very adept at hunting through piles of 16mm films, and finding things that we thing will entertain. So I'm just excited for the debut of these three bizarro things, which I think will fit nicely as appetizers for REEFER MADNESS.
Murphy: A big variety, all within the theme of abject weirdness. And then we've got Rich Kyanka's shorts, which are wonderful. They're actually some of the best stuff I've seen him do. They really took me by surprise. I think they'll take the audience by surprise, too.
If you've read this far, I'd wager your tickets are already purchased. If you're planning on hitting up the L.A. Live screening, I'll see you there!
As usual, it was an absolute pleasure talking to these gentlemen. Next time, I promise: more Strindberg.