So... where to start? Without giving away anything?
Probably some background. I’m a geek track director at a convention called Frolicon. No need to look it up, it’s not safe for work. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, we have a large geeky contingent. And I’m one of the directors for said geeky track, which we’re bringing back.
My wife and I, along with two good friends have been riffing movies under the name, The Motion Picture Mayhem Society. We’ve done Zardoz. We did Hawk the Slayer last year, finishing our script JUST as the Rifftrax guys did theirs. This year, we’re doing the Corman ripoff of the Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars. It’s been a lot of fun. We actually hope to RECORD some of the riff scripts we’ve done and make them available for people, a-la Rifftrax in the not too distant future.
And when we got started, it was a learning process. We sat ourselves down with the movie and watched it. Pausing and backing up freely. Typing in time stamps for where the lines ought to be delivered. We’d debate some. We’d drop ones that wouldn’t fly today. Stuff that only might have flown back in the early 90's when Joel and the Bots were doing it on ‘The Comedy Channel”. Permissiveness is a two-way street really. Lots of taboos aren’t taboo anymore. Lots of things are now more widely recognized as offensive than there used to be. And there’s a learning curve to that.
We started to streamline a little bit. We all logged in on our own machines in Google Docs with everyone having editing rights. Now we could all take a hand in the typing duties. We’d switch off while brainstorming and throwing riffs at the wall to see what sticks. If something rubbed someone the wrong way, or someone didn’t feel right about a joke, it got dumped. Often times, like with the answers to riddles in Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, when the right answer or riff was found, you tend to know it’s the right one. There’s a feeling to that. Other writers here will agree when it comes to sentences like that.
Often times, there was an urge there to want to fill up every available pause with riffing. And we had to police each other about that. Sometimes, you leave some space. You let your audience hear important dialogue from your movie’s characters. (Such as it is.) You leave a moment for your people to laugh. If you get a long laugh out of a thing, it’s okay to drop a line or two you wrote. Drop it through a trapdoor, Joe Straczynski might say. Leave yourself and your opportunities to just enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s going to suck. And not suck in the good way.
Sometimes you had to mine for it. You saw an opportunity that BEGGED to be made fun of and you feel a tickle in the back of your brain. Your instincts tell you, “Something goes there.” But you don’t know what... yet. You have to dig for it, I later heard Frank Conniff mention in an interview. And if you were patient with it, it would come to you. Sometimes, we’d lose 1/2 an hour on a thing and get frustrated cos a scene wasn’t hitting us right, or our brains weren’t giving up the goods. We’d table that moment and move on. Something might occur later. Invariably it did in later run-throughs. TV’s Frank was right. Sometimes you had to dig.
Later on, we watched the old Comedy Central special, narrated by Penn Jillette called “THIS IS MST3K” where you got to see the creative process behind episodes getting created. And we were astonished to find that we’d been doing it mostly like the professionals do. They all sat down in a room with a TV and a VCR.
They appeared to be having a grand time just sitting around. Watching. Pausing. Rewinding. Joking about with one another while Mike, or whomever had Typing Duty entered it all into a script they could use later. They chucked things they weren’t unanimous about. And while it was a process, they found their stride and made something special. Something that endured.
This was nearly 30 years ago. Feel old yet, MST-ies?
It was a vindicating feeling, knowing we’d keyed into a process that had been taken before. Really, it just seemed the thing to do at the time. It’s too bad there’s not a grant for that kind of thing. I think any one of us would do this for a living if we could. At least, between my wife and friends in the Mayhem Society. I have a framed and autographed photo of Dr. Forrester and Frank in the hall where our previous movie posters hang. It’s a bit inspiring actually. If scientists can say they stand on the shoulders of giants in scientific discovery. Mads and Riffers can kinda say the same.
We just put the finishing touches on the script for Battle Beyond the Stars yesterday. We’ve been rehearsing a bit for our performance 4 days from now. The last weeks have been hectic. Lots of emerging issues to deal with in real life. Differing work schedules. Work outages. Sicknesses. Etc. But we’ve got our patter down and I think we’re ready. I’m going to be printing the poster and the scripts tomorrow morning so we can get one more rehearsal in tomorrow night.
But we didn’t just do that yesterday. There was something important to do first.
The old show lasted 10 seasons. It took the Doctor Who route when it came to longevity in that respect. When Josh Weinstein left the show, Kevin Murphy took over as Tom Servo. When Joel parted ways with the original show, they wrote him out of the show and wrote head writer Mike Nelson into his role as a new test subject. When Trace left, Bill Corbett took over for Crow. When Frank left, Mary Jo Pehl was written in as Dr. Forrester’s Mother, and later took over as primary Mad Scientist in Trace’s stead. Everyone was replace-able eventually. The experiment endured.
Fast forward to today.
In one of the most successful Kickstarters ever, the fans of the show wildly overfunded an effort by series creator Joel Hodgson to bring the series back for a new generation of viewers. There’d be new mad scientists, played by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt. There’d be Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount voicing Tom Servo and Crow T Robot. There’d also be Jonah Ray from The Nerdist as our experiment-ee. There’d be movies in widescreen format, chosen for the new digital distribution vector for film quality. Ones Joel had always wanted to do and ones fans had always wanted to see riffed. Hell, they even managed in the end to get one of the ones we at the Mayhem Society had on our bucket list. We may still do Starcrash someday. But we have another Caroline Munro we can do instead.
And yesterday was almost the culmination of that effort. All the high dollar backers got to see the first episode of the new 11th season earlier than yesterday at live events. And Joel’s been effusively grateful for the positive feeling. The biggest fear seems to have been rejection by the fanbase of a show percieved to be contrived. Or a money grab. Or yet another mining of an IP well past its relevance.
Any one of us who’ve clamored for this for literal decades could have soothed those fears I think. We had faith. And yesterday my faith, and my own meager 10.00 contribution to the Kickstarter was rewarded. Netflix let us watch the first episode in a Sunday Only preview.
In all the Kickstarter updates, Joel asked us not to spoil anything. And I mean not to. I wanted to comment from my vantage point. Someone who’s watched since the show became available outside of KTMA. Someone who uses the old show as background noise to sleep to most nights. Puts it on for comfort food when down, or working on other things. Someone who’s got a BIT of a background in riffing as well.
First, you should really just relax. It was awesome.
There’s things that have been made public and things that haven’t yet. Joel, Jonah and company have kept a tight lid on what’s coming. They don’t want to spoil the surprise. And believe me, neither do I.
The movie they picked is eminently deserving of the treatment it gets. This is one I didn’t even know about. But they managed to get an EXCELLENT copy of it.
If you remember the feeling of seeing the cinematic release of Mystery Science Theater, you remember the feeling of ‘much bigger-ness’ that came with it. The DIY feel of everything felt a bit more polished and professional. Their game had been noticably and appreciably upped. Since they were doing ‘This Island Earth’ they’d had a great copy to work from. The theater was now in wide screen instead of merely 4:3 TV shaped. I mention the old film because while there’s a return to the DIY feel of the old show, it feels at the same time as though the game has been upped again. The bar has been moved up again in regards to what is now a professional riffing production.
And there are so many surprises and things I hadn’t been expecting. The design of the sets and the logistics of how our new characters move and interact with Jonah on screen have been thoughtfully updated and considered. You can see the shorthand in the design from sources as diverse as Jerry Anderson’s UFO / Space 1999, Star Trek, and even bits of movies they’ve riffed before.
The actors clearly know what they’re doing. You can feel how much they want to be here doing exactly what they’re doing with each frame. And if you don’t think I’m envious, or that I wouldn’t have auditioned for this in a heartbeat, I cannot tell you how wrong you’d be. The excitement and the earnestness that comes from them is a palpable thing. You hear people say things like, “I’m really excited to be here.” when they make public appearances in front of their fans. These folks say it without saying it in every expression and word.
It comes a bit fast at times. And I wrestled with saying this. I don’t want to give you ANY negative impression of what’s coming. And really, that’d be my only bone to pick. It sometimes felt as though they had so much to prove and were so excited that there were moments they shoved as many riffs as they possibly could into a given moment. So much so that jokes and concepts were machine-gunning past you at warp speed. Where if you stopped to laugh for a thing, you missed three concepts.
This is not entirely a bad thing. There’s still sometimes I watch an older show and understand or hear a riff I hadn’t noticed before. The show is literally the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve got the feeling they’ll find their pace eventually. They’re a new crew. A new production. And while their own ‘great bird of the galaxy/riffing’ is present and his stamp can be very much felt, they’ll hit their stride soon enough, I think. ST:TNG took a few seasons to hit theirs with Roddenberry present too. And I’d say this is a show made by people just as passionate as the Trekkies were in 1989.
I suppose what I’m saying in my lengthy way is that all you MST-ies out there who’ve been hoping that the new show doesn’t suck badly have nothing to worry about. The cheesy movie sucked. But it sucked gloriously and hilariously. And the folks making fun of it all the way through handled it like old pros. This is undoubtedly Mystery Science Theater 3000. And you’re in for a treat, in the not too distant future. Turn down your lights where necessary...