SHHHH! Corbett, Murphy, and Nelson have brought the MST3K spirit to RiffTrax.
There's a triumphant irony to how the gang from Mystery Science Theater 3000 forged one of the most beloved television shows of its time by watching (and mocking) some of the most unbearable movies of all time. MST3K took its curtain call in 1999 after 10 years on cable, but the show's end ultimately liberated host Mike Nelson and the revolving cast of cinematic satirists. These days, instead of exclusively riffing on films with very affordable licensing rights, they can riff on basically anything that comes out on DVD. Individuals with a fondness for parody can venture to rifftrax.com and purchase MP3s to play alongside any of the laundry list of titles the RiffTrax contingent has smeared. Nelson and MST3K alums Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett will gather in Nashville on August 16 to endure a spectacularly failed experiment in pulp horror that beget one of the most memorable MST3K episodes: Manos: The Hands of Fate. Manos and the riffers' corresponding hijinks will be simulcast to more than 500 theaters nationwide, including Boston's Fenway 13 and Revere Showcase Cinemas. Nelson called me from San Francisco, and Murphy (the former voice of bubble-gum-machine-headed jokester-bot Tom Servo) rang earlier in the afternoon. I have edited and compiled their responses.
MST3K WAS PRE–SOUTH PARK COMEDY CENTRAL AND PRE-INTERNET EVERYTHING. DO YOU THINK THAT MAKES IT A MORE "AUTHENTIC" CULT CLASSIC? [MURPHY] Um, maybe. If it was found by people who were actually handing tapes to each other, I guess there's something to that, as opposed to it just going viral on YouTube. There was a little bit more intent. People had to get together physically in order to pass the show from person to person. [NELSON] It was always a slow-growth thing. That was neat because we were essentially in the middle of nowhere, in a studio in a suburb of Minneapolis, making these shows and sending them out, and we had no idea. They didn't give us ratings. I'm not even sure if they had accurate ratings to start with. So we'd get fan letters, and the first couple of weeks we'd get one, or we'd get one that was like, "Why are you talking over this movie?" Then, all of a sudden, we started to get bags of mail, and it was cool to see that. This was how it was spreading, just through people discovering it and not through anyone alerting them to it.
DO YOU FEEL ANY SENSE OF OWNERSHIP OVER FILMS LIKE MANOS? THE CREATORS KIND OF MADE IT AND THREW IT AWAY. IT WAS LIKE AN ORPHAN. BUT WE'RE TALKING ABOUT IT BECAUSE OF A MST3K EPISODE FROM '93. [NELSON] There's a certain sense of fun to being the curator to these movies. I remember distinctly — at the time of picking Manos — we felt like there was no way we were going to use it for an episode. It was just too bad. But we just kept watching it, even though it was technically wasting time because we weren't going to do it. But we watched it all the way though, and it occurred to us that if we couldn't stop watching it, we had to expose it to the world, even if it was just to make sure we weren't hallucinating.
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