Michael J. Nelson is the former host and writer of the Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award-winning Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the author of the hilarious Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese. His witty commentary on movies is wildly funny but also very clever and perceptive. He spoke to me about his website, RiffTrax, where you can download his commentary to play along with your own or rented DVDs and upload your own to share with everyone else. He was every bit as much fun to talk to as I hoped.
How did you got started being snarky?
It came from watching movies. Midwestern people are almost by their nature snarky. And I came from a snarky family. My brothers and I always did that kind of thing, making smart-alecky comments about what we were watching. A lot of people do that but it falls away as you grow up and mature. My parents were very strict about bedtime, but they would put us to bed and then my dad would wake us up to watch some late night movie. My mom just rolled her eyes.
Did you get in trouble as a kid?
Well, someone once said, “Do you think you can make a living watching TV?” And I did!
What makes a movie a good candidate for comic riffing?
It has to take itself seriously. And it should probably have Keanu Reeves in it!
The main thing is that it is not boring. A lot of people don’t realize that truly bad movies are really boring and no one wants to watch them. There’s only so much that you can elevate with your comments. The baseline of entertainment has to be there. We’re enhancing and hopefully improving what is already there. I would have thought that sci-fi uniquely lends itself to what we do but if you carefully write something and work on it, it can be done on many different kinds of films. There’s subject matter that you can’t do but we’ve done dramas and other genres.
Are there actors you especially enjoy making fun of?
We’re big Patrick Swayze fans. We also give a lot of grief to Hayden Christienson — he didn’t take to the green screen acting very well.
Is there a movie that has such a devoted following that it can’t be riffed?
We did “Twilight!” That has both passionate fans and passionate detractors. A bunch of guys were dragged to it and wanted revenge on it in some way, to have us rescue it for them. The slow pace, and mopey, gothic overtones made it work — it became one of our fan favorites.
Tell me about RiffTrax.
It’s a full service comedy commentary site. We sell separate commentaries, video on demand, and shorts. People are constantly doing it themselves and wanted an outlet so we let people make their own and post them and compete with each other. That makes it possible for us to check out things we’d never do because the movie is too obscure for us. There are people out there who think we’re just picking on the mainstream and so they do films we’ll never get to.
We’ve been doing it for three years and it is growing. It has exceeded my expectations, and I’m especially happy to see so many younger people on the site. A goal would be to get a team of writers, people who want to do this. It is so much work. It takes so much time, we can’t quite keep up with the releases. A goal is to look at the uploaded tracks to see if there are people we can use, maybe get us close to doing all major releases.