We’re close to the 9th anniversary of Rifftrax! For those who don’t know, Rifftrax is one of several creative continuations of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show that has a premise as insane as the belief that it would last the ten years that it did. Mad scientists shoot a man into space and force him to watch bad movies. To maintain his sanity, said man riffs the movies with the help of two robot companions. The set-up and even the characters changed over the course of those ten glorious years, but this isn’t a history of the show.
This about what the show, and Rifftrax, has done for my family.
I’ll be the first to admit that I entered the fandom well into the Nelson Era when MST3K moved to Sci-Fi before the channel lost its damn mind and became Syfy. I’d heard of the show before but had never caught an episode until I sat through Revenge of the Creature with Mike and the Bots on full power. Sadly, MST3K would only have three more seasons before Sci-Fi canceled it once more.
Of course, this wasn’t the end. I tracked down tapes, videos, DVDs, and soon also found the MST3K Digital Archive Project. I eventually got to know Joel, Doctor Forrester, and the rest of the first half of the show’s cast and crew.
But Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett were my first introduction to the show, and so they have a special place in my heart. Fast-forward to 2006 and Mike Nelson started Rifftrax, an ingenious idea wherein he would provide the riffed audio track for a movie while the customer provided the DVD. It was brilliant, and soon Kevin and Bill would join Mike for what is, at least in my heart, MST3K 2.0.
It’s hard to think that I started watching this show while I was still in middle school…
And yet the show, and these three men in particular, are very dear to me for many reasons.
When I first started watching MST3K, I was just entering my love of writing and seriously beginning to train myself to be an author, to be a writer, to join the greats. I was beginning to realize that stories were something I needed to tell, that science fiction, fantasy, and horror would be my bread and butter. I would learn from the best, the masters of the genre, and be the best I could be. The Holy Trinity of Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy, though, showed me that there was much to learn from the not-so-great entries into the genre. Sure, I could learn a lot from watching Kubrick’s work, from studying the classic paranoia of the 1950s invasion movies, and certainly could benefit from analyzing Dario Argento’s classic Italian horror… but I also had something to learn from the likes of Mansquito, Space Truckers, and Friday the 13th Part 8, the one where Jason dies by becoming a baby. I learned that I could laugh at these movies, not in a mean-spirited way, but as a way to learn what doesn’t work.
This led to the second revelation. I could enjoy even the bad moments in life. MST3K and Rifftrax showed that it was possible to find humor even in something horrible. Future War could in fact be a treat. Even fraking Twilight became an amazing cinematic experience when filtered through the likes of these three men. Engaging with the film, despite the social convention against speaking while a movie is playing, became a more intellectually engaging process. Even something as horrible as Hellraiser Bloodlines suddenly became an opportunity for fun. This was the key word.
No longer would we just accept the work on the screen. No longer would we be slaves to what others gave us. If the movie itself was terrible, we would and could make it better by virtue of riffing. Drinking games help, too.
Finally, and this couldn’t have happened at a better time, it’s important to not take yourself too seriously. Part of the humor in many of these films comes from the fact that, for example, someone thought it was a good idea to give Michael Bay the reins to the Transformers movies. On the other hand, some of these movies, such as Future War and Soultaker, clearly didn’t think things through enough. There must exist a balance between taking the work seriously and being able to laugh at yourself. You have to realize, at some point, that some parts of your life are absurd. Take me, for instance. Five years ago, my wife and I would go to bars, game every week, and watch horror movies while laughing our heads off. Now, the most gruesome thing we encounter is the host of eldritch horrors our baby summons into her diaper on a daily basis, more if she has curry.
MST3K was also present for another important time in my life. When my wife and I first moved in together, we didn’t have cable, let alone internet. The only television or movies we could watch were whatever DVDs we had or anything we had saved on our computer. I’d saved several episodes of MST3K to my hard drive. Before I even had a desk, the monitor would sit on one of our packed boxes and we would have dinner on plastic plates, while sitting on the ground, and I introduced Mary to the Satellite of Love just as I was introduced to it, through the Season 8 episode Revenge of the Creature. She became a devotee ever since then.
That was how we spent our first few weeks in that apartment, before we even had a couch, and before we set the apartment up how we wanted. Now, five years later, we watch Rifftrax and continue the tradition. If I knew a place to get plushy Tom and Crow dolls, you bet my baby would be snuggling up with one. I mean, she already has a Cthulhu plushie.
I was lucky enough to meet Mike Nelson back in 2007 when he spoke at DePauw University. I was also lucky enough to walk him from the hotel and have him sit in on our Comedy class to give his own insight on the genre. We had a short Twitter conversation back in February 8, 2012, where Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett also chimed in on the idea of the Greatest Canadian Hero. If I could have their attention for just one minute again, I would tell them that what they do is, under nearly any standard, absurd. It’s the kind of thing people have been doing since movies were first invented, and even then I’m sure people in Victorian England would sit around the latest novel and mock it as it was read to them.
And yet you turned it into an art form. Speaking to everyone who worked in MST3K, from the earliest days of public access, to the movie, and finally to its last hurrah on Sci-Fi, and to the various projects from Cinematic Titanic to Rifftrax, I want to say thank you. Thank you for more than twenty years of laughs.
Specifically, today, congrats to Rifftrax for continuing a tradition that has shaped lives and changed the course of pop culture. Movie makers are on notice. The audience knows it can laugh. I am who I am because of my family, friends, and teachers, but a part of this crazy mind is due in part to spending my youth, and now my adult life, with the Satellite of Love’s crew, wherever they may go.
And I’ve had a cherished part of my life now passed on to the love of my life. Trust me when I say that when the Little One is old enough, she’s going to laugh along with us too as we keep returning to the Satellite of Love. At least for a moment, know you’ve changed my life for the better.
Here’s to the next thirty years and beyond, gentlemen.
And now, a reminder that even if the premise is absurd, just acknowledging it and having fun with it are better than pretending you’re making Hamlet. Embrace the cheese.