Anytime a TV show runs ten seasons, you know they’re doing something right. Anytime a TV show runs ten seasons after starting out on an indie UHF station, with a shoestring budget, using props, puppets, and sets literally held together with duct tape and hot glue, well…fans know that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is in a class by itself. The first episode aired on Minneapolis-St. Paul’s KTMA-TV on November 24, 1988, and the last on September 12, 1999, on the Sci-Fi Channel. In the intervening eleven years, MST3K aired 196 more episodes, received two Emmy and one CableACE nominations, won a Peabody award, produced a feature-length tie-in movie, broadcast on three different networks, survived two cancellation scares, and weathered a half-dozen cast changes including the departure of series creator Joel Hodgson midway through season five.
And almost from the very beginning, comedian Michael J. Nelson was there, progressing rapidly from typist, to writer, to head writer, and then, when Joel left, to host and star of the show. Since MST3K ended, Mike has written books, recorded commentary tracks for DVD releases of various cult films, and done voice work for film, TV, and radio. In 2006, Mike launched RiffTrax, a website selling downloadable MP3 commentary tracks designed to be manually synched, by listeners, with DVD releases of major, commercially successful movies like Roadhouse, Avatar, and the Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings series. Following the success of his initial, solo riffs, Mike brought MST3K alums Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, as well as an impressive list of guest stars, into the RiffTrax project, and today, besides original downloadable commentaries, RiffTrax produces DVDs, videos on demand, and even live movie-riffing performances around the country.
In 2008, RiffTrax introduced iRiffs, a profit-sharing service to promote fan-made riffs alongside their premium content. Like many longtime fans, my friends and I have often schemed over recording a riff or two of our own, and back in September, I got an unexpected chance to talk to Mike himself about how the pros do it.
Hi, Mike. Thanks for taking the time to talk today. I have been a fan for a long time.
Oh, that’s great, my pleasure to do it.
So, say I’m interested in riffing some old movie. I’ve got a film from the 50s or 60s, some cheesy flick, how do I determine if it’s okay, if it’s in the public domain? I always thought that it was, like, the filmmaker has a 100-year copyright and that’s pretty much it.
I used to think it was pretty standard, too, but that has changed over the last 10, 15 years. It’s a movable target and it’s pretty complicated. RiffTrax is a division of Legend Films, and they’ve been a player in Hollywood and done deals with the studios many times. So they’re really familiar with which films are generally thought to be okay, and which films a studio is going to give you trouble about, even though you can legally get away with it. But these are sort of trade secrets. If you know why they’re not in copyright, then you have the power, but if you don’t, the company says, “Well, no, it is copyrighted.” And people who own the film stock will hold these secrets and that’s how they, you know…
So, once you’ve figured out the legal stuff and decided on a movie you want to riff, about how long does it take to get it in the can, start to finish?
Well, sometimes the actual recording is delayed. But if we were to just do one movie at a time, I think we probably run it just under two weeks. And about five people will be involved with it, during that time.
How does your group brainstorming, your collaborative writing process work? It is collaborative, right?
It is, but at the beginning of the process, we break it out into individual writers, but before we got there, we’ve all seen it together and we’ll throw out general stuff. But even when we’re working individually, it’s collaborative to the extent that we’re always sort of linked up by instant message and we’ll be pointing out moments to each other: “Take a look at this. What do you think of this?” But then we get back together once we have raw scripts and that’s where it gets a little more directly collaborative.
Say you’re riffing along, brainstorming, and you have a stretch that’s un-funny. Do you stop right then and go back and fix it?
During the first go-round, once we’re just looking at kind of a raw script of what we have, we will probably just mark the stuff and move on because it gets too long to try to do it all and solve it all at one time. So we’ll mark those, and have an individual writer kind of go in and try to clean it up a little bit. And then we’ll go back and do another rehearsal, really fine-tuning it, and at that point, yeah, we hammer it out as we go along. So that final process can be fairly long.
So, how do you record ideas as they’re coming up during the brainstorming sessions? Do you have somebody there who’s writing stuff down? Is there an audio recording just for catching ideas?
No, we just write it down. I’m usually manning the computer on that. The rest will be reading from raw scripts and I will be on the computer with the, sort of, “live script.” We use Google docs so we can all have access, and with a lot of different changes being made, it works well for us to track those changes.
Once the group brainstorming process is complete, you basically have the final written script in hand? Or does some one person go back and clean it up or punch it up?
Occasionally, we’ll have a few things that we didn’t solve and there might be a couple of little bits to clean up. But mostly we don’t want to surprise ourselves on performance day too much. We are pretty much creatures that just read what’s in front of us.
I’m guessing the actual recording is not really that complicated from a technical perspective – pass out the scripts, turn on the movie and just go for it, back up and retake as necessary if something doesn’t come off quite right?
Exactly. The one aspect that can be sort of complicated is making sure that the movie syncs with the video. This is in the case when we do MP3 recordings. When we’re doing a video on demand, it’s obviously sort of baked-in already.
I assume you use a sound booth and professional recording equipment and so forth. Do you own your own stuff to do that?
No, we go out of house for that. Our sound guy is not within the company, and he’s very experienced at what we do, so it’s nice to have someone who knows what he’s doing in that regard, but also just the sound part of it is pretty big. I mean, you can record stuff in your office and get pretty close, but there’s a lot of external noise in there that makes a mess of things.
So if you had to do it on a low budget, in the garage, as it were, that would that be your chief concern? The sound isolation?
I think so. And a lot of people, for instance who do iRiff, you want to tell them, there are good mics out there for not a lot of cost. And that makes a big difference. Some people get too close to the mic, or the mic is really shrill, and no matter how good you are, nobody can listen to that at length. So the microphones are a big part of it. We occasionally will drop in something, if there’s something we really missed, and in some emergency, we can record a wild line on just a USB mic and drop it in. You won’t really notice, but you really need an isolated room to do the whole thing.
Can you recommend some particular make or model of USB mic?
I can, in fact. It’s not in my office and I don’t have it on-hand, but I’d be happy to email you.
That’d be great, thank you. Continuing with equipment, what kind of computer and software do you use for final production?
We’re using a Mac system with Pro Tools. And occasionally we’ll record remotely where Kevin and Bill will actually record in Minnesota and I’ll record in San Diego and we just have two different Pro Tools setups and we’ll merge them together. It works pretty well. It’s not our preferred method because it’s obviously more fun, and it’s a better performance if we’re all together.
I notice you occasionally do sound effects, kind of like radio foley. The “Disembaudio” voice, for instance? Is that done in software?
Yes, that is just a very simple pitch shift.
How is your open distribution model working out? I know you don’t use or believe in DRM. I notice the “donate” link on your website for people who find themselves “in possession of a RiffTrax that you didn’t pay for…”
It can be a bit frustrating to know that obviously a way-too-high percentage of your stuff is probably being stolen — there’s no way to obviously quantify that. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, we knew that going in – that’s sort of built into the model. And we rely on the good graces of our fans, and most people are honest and trustworthy. And there’s just something about the DRM, sort of locks it up and accuses a person of being a criminal before he’s done anything. And we wanted it to just be, “Yeah, you take this and you can use it anywhere. Anywhere that you like.”
Any general advice that occurs to you for people who were just getting started and wanted to experiment with doing this on their own?
Well, I mean, there’s two aspects to it. I think people should sit down and try to write the thing first. Solve that. And see if it’s of any interest to you because it is extremely difficult – most people watch a movie and they say, “This would be so funny to make jokes on this,” but really they maybe only have a dozen jokes in mind. When you actually sit down and have to cover every minute of the movie, you realize what an enormous task it is, so that would be my first bit of advice. Just take a section of a movie and try to write it and see if it’s anything that you enjoy at all. It’s very, very intensive.
If you’ve got the riffing bug, too, a great place to start planning is RiffTrax’ Tips for a successful iRiff page, with advice on selecting video, writing, recording, producing, and promoting your work.
Heartfelt thanks to RiffTrax’ Josh Gemma for his help in arranging and preparing this interview.