The Bomb Squad: How RiffTrax Revives Bad Movies


Mike Nelson remembers the goat movie. It came toward the end of a long day spent screening film prints in an attempt to curate material for RiffTrax, a venture he started in 2006 to provide mocking commentary tracks for movies too insufferable to sit through on their own.

There is not a high rate of return on the piles of reels found in garages or on eBay. Most are worse than bad—they’re boring and inert, offering nothing to satirize. This appeared to be the case for Zlateh the Goat, a strange 1970s short about a small boy who braves a snowstorm with the family goat in an attempt to sell it in the town market.

“It was grim,” Nelson tells mental_floss. “The family is starving. They send the kid out in the snow with the goat.”

There is endless footage of the boy collapsing in the snow, goat in tow. (“Cormac McCarthy added a few more laughs to this story and called it The Road,” the cast later observed.) Nelson was prepared to get out the scissors—a tool used to symbolically detach the RiffTrax crew from excruciating films by snipping them in half—when he looked up and saw the boy, delirious with hunger, drinking milk from the goat’s teat.

This, Nelson says, is what’s known at RiffTrax headquarters as “magic time,” a moment when a movie or short film proves its value as something riff-worthy without any sense of self-awareness. Some of the writers began to stand up and cheer.

“He was squeezing those teats,” Nelson recalls. “It was a great reward.”

The end of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1999 created a chasm in the business of mocking bad movies. For 10 seasons, the cable series created by comedian Joel Hodgson riffed on long-forgotten genre films like The Incredible Melting Man and Space Mutiny. The screenings were ostensibly because Hodgson (playing a janitor named Joel Robinson) had been shot into space by mad scientists and was forced to endure them. To keep himself company, he built two sarcastic robots with a vast database of pop culture references.

Hodgson left midway through its run; Nelson, the show’s head writer, became its host, playing a genial space refugee named Mike Nelson. Fans debated who was better. (It was eventually decided both were about equally adept at talk therapy for crap movies.)

The show was a cult hit, nourishing one of the internet’s earliest and most devoted online fan communities, but never reached the summit of commercial success. When the SyFy channel declined to pick the show up for another season, lifelong Minnesota native Nelson headed to Los Angeles.

“It was like going over a cliff,” he says. “It just ended. I’m not a guy with a lot of foresight or vision. I just knew I liked the very specific kind of comedy writing we were doing.”

Nelson shot a pilot for AMC titled Movie Trailer: he drove around in a camper and visited the sites of classic film locations. “It was just a hosting gig. I think we went to where Bill Murray shot Groundhog Day. It was fun and I was sad when it didn’t go anywhere, but 99 percent of pilots don’t.”

He busied himself writing books (Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese) and columns for TV Guide and Home Theater magazine. Around 2003, he decided to investigate the possibility of recording commentaries for mainstream movies and allowing viewers to sync up a compact disc with the film. It was an attempt to bring the MST3K treatment to major Hollywood productions, which are often as deserving of ridicule as any of the B movies Nelson and the 'bots had screened in the past.

At the time, Nelson had been working with a restoration and colorization company called Legend Films, providing alternate tracks for some of their more obscure titles. The relationship led to the formation of RiffTrax in 2006, with MP3s replacing the fading CD format as the delivery system. “We did a lot of testing with the syncing, and I was surprised at how well it worked,” Nelson says.

Choosing a film for RiffTrax’s debut proved uncomplicated. Nelson was fond of Patrick Swayze’s output, particularly his 1989 action-drama Road House. Swayze stars as Dalton, a philosophical bouncer who cleans up a rowdy highway saloon with balletic grace. “God knows why, but I had written a couple of songs about it on MST,” he says. “I have some kind of connection to it. A friend was in the Gulf War and we sort of communicated through Road House. It was the only movie in his command tent.”

The Road House track was welcomed by MST3K fans, although there was something missing: Nelson recorded the track solo and absent of any of the framework that gave his character motivation to endure cinematic Ipecac. “You sound like a madman making jokes to yourself. But if you have a couple of guys, you’re trying to make each other laugh.”

Nelson had already produced several installments of a project titled The Film Crew with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, two writers on MST3K. (Murphy also voiced Tom Servo, the gumball machine-shaped robot.) With that venture tied down in legal complications, he pitched them on coming aboard RiffTrax. Soon, the trio were scoffing at titles like Battlefield: Earth and Batman and Robin while remaining loyal to B titles like Rollergator.

The popularity of titles, Nelson learned, often correlated with the movies people were most likely to have sitting on their DVD shelves. A Lord of the Rings riff would be downloaded often; a track for the barely-seen Charlize Theron vehicle Aeon Flux would go ignored.

While a portion of potential customers avoided riffs because of syncing requirements (“Some people just didn’t want to figure it out,” Nelson says), the model became ideal for movies that would never be made available for ridicule. Since RiffTrax only sells a recording of people talking about a movie (priced at $3.99), there are few legal hassles.

Mostly. When Nelson released a track for the famously awful The Room in 2009, he got a call from director and star Tommy Wiseau. “He thought we were just taking his stuff,” Nelson says. “We actually wanted to get in touch with him and couldn’t, so it wound up being great for us.”

Nelson took the opportunity to ask Wiseau if they could riff on his movie during a live show. “He said, ‘Never, never, never,’” Nelson remembers. “Six years later, he said, ‘Okay.’”

While Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy remain the principal performers for RiffTrax, the process of deconstructing a bad movie requires a larger net of comedians. The company currently employs two additional full-time writers, Conor Lastowka and Sean Thomason, and three part-timers to help with the riffing.

The group is scattered throughout the country, Nelson having returned to Minneapolis and Lastowka in Vermont. Once a movie has been targeted, it’s given a time code—to match the jokes with the correct millisecond of on-camera action—and broken up into 15- or 20-minute chunks that are assigned to individual writers.

“I try to break it down to a couple minutes at a time,” Lastowka says. “People assume we watch it in real time. We don’t. It’s the same moments, and we just sit and think about the weird choices being made.”

Once the writers have pieced together a fractured riff, Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy go through a rehearsal with the assembled sections. A movie may only be watched once or twice in its entirety before recording, though an assigned chunk could be viewed until catatonia sets in. “It’s probably 10 business days of slogging through it,” Nelson says, resulting in an average of one joke every 10 seconds.

Some of the most popular riffs, like the Harry Potter series, can become a challenge of sameness. “You wind up watching Hagrid for 17 hours,” Nelson says. “You’ve said everything there is to say.” Another killer: bloated action movies with minimal dialogue and a grim determination to render viewers numb. “We get requests to do The Dark Knight Rises or Man of Steel and the running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes,” Lastowka says. “No one can muster the enthusiasm.”

That tedium appears to be broken whenever someone discovers something as abhorrent as Zlateh the Goat. Uncovering obscure films made in earnest and introducing them to the world appears, at least to Lastowka, to be more satisfying than sifting through The Matrix sequels. “When we found Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny,” he says, “it was February, and we knew we were going to release it closer to Christmas. And it was just, ‘My God, the world needs to see this now.’ It’s like an ugly baby.”

In August 2009, RiffTrax presented their first live show. The film was the royalty-free Ed Wood disaster Plan 9 From Outer Space. Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett had a live audience in Nashville and beamed the riff into theaters around the country through Fathom Events, a distributor that also arranges theatrical simulcasts of operas.

“That was kind of our pivot point,” Nelson says. “The live shows were a way to reach out and get outside of the internet business. And [all of us] came from live performance.”

After several successful engagements with Fathom, RiffTrax decided to hunt bigger game: a live take on the 2008 film Twilight, adapted from the Stephenie Meyer series of novels about brooding vampires that still stands as the company’s best-selling MP3. Before approaching the film’s studio, Summit Entertainment, with an offer to license the movie, RiffTrax raised capital via Kickstarter. They garnered nearly $265,000 in a little over a month.

Summit was ultimately too wary of letting their lucrative Kristen Stewart-led franchise be mocked, which led to RiffTrax approaching Sony with a sack full of crowdsourced funds for 1997’s bug disaster movie Starship Troopers. “Sony surprised us,” Nelson says. “We sent them a sample of what we do and said, ‘Whatever you’re thinking we’ll do to your movie will not come to pass.’ It’s not dark [criticism]. And they got it.”

The August 2013 showing of Starship Troopers led to other Sony and Kickstarter-funded shows, including Anaconda and Godzilla. While the taped riffs remain their core business, RiffTrax CEO David Martin says the live events (over 20 to date) have been a tremendous success. “We’ll hit a million [tickets sold] by the end of the year,” he says. Through October 2015, RiffTrax has netted over $8 million in revenue for the live engagements.

The Sony arrangement is also likely to lead to more cooperation in the future. “What you can expect,” Martin says, “are bigger titles from more studio partners.”

Their next live show, however, won’t be dependent on misguided filmmaking. On June 28, the RiffTrax performers will join their former colleagues at Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a reunion show that will precede a Kickstarter-funded revival of the original—produced by Hodgson—that’s due in 2017.

“Joel is coming,” Nelson says. “Along with all of my old pals Trace [Beaulieu], Frank [Conniff], Mary Jo [Pehl] and Bridget [Nelson], who is not an old pal but my wife.”  

Nelson calls it a “low pressure” evening intended to give everyone involved a good luck send-off in their respective ventures. For RiffTrax, that includes a new app that will listen for a sound cue in a riffed movie and automatically sync the commentary without the user having to do it manually. “That’s been in development since day one,” he says.

There are few holy grails of content left, although Nelson bemoans stationary targets like Over the Top remain just out of reach for live riffs. “Sylvester Stallone would have to personally sign off on it, and who wants to make that call?”   

Instead, RiffTrax’s expansion efforts are likely to involve new methods of distribution, not necessarily new mediums—although they have gotten offers for private performances.

“Someone,” he says, “wanted us to riff their wedding video.”

All images courtesy of RiffTrax.

Mad Magazine
12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledgling publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: The envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.


MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.


But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.


From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, MAD finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.


Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’s other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by MAD’s New York offices and submitted his work; his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.


Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with MAD almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.


With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: A 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; MAD parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.


MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, MAD also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.


In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.


In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

Colleen Hayes, NBC
10 Forking Facts About The Good Place
Colleen Hayes, NBC
Colleen Hayes, NBC

On September 19, 2016, NBC started airing the comedy The Good Place, an unusual sitcom about dead people who have been sent to the heaven-like The Good Place. Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor, who should be in The Bad Place (hell) but mistakenly got sent to the former. Michael (Ted Danson) is the architect of The Good Place, and his job is to pit (and torture) some of the members against one other, including the namedropping Tahani (Jameela Jamil), the at-first silent monk Jianyu, who’s later revealed to be a dimwitted DJ named Jason (Manny Jacinto), the indecisive ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), and the Siri-esque Janet (D’Arcy Carden).

[Spoiler alert!] The season one finale dropped a bombshell on the audience—Eleanor and company had been living in The Bad Place all this time. Season two showed the characters grappling with the situation and trying to become better people so that they can eventually end up in the real Good Place. Showrunner Michael Schur—who co-created Parks and Recreationtold The Hollywood Reporter the show isn’t about one religion’s interpretation of the afterlife; he said it’s about ethics. “It is very flatly stated that this is not any one religion,” he said. “Spiritual and ethical is how I thought of it.” Academics Todd May and Pamela Hieronymi consult on the show, like on “The Trolley Problem” episode.

As you await the arrival of season three later this year, here are 10 forking facts about the enlightened sitcom.


In an interview with Marketplace, Schur said after Parks and Recreaction finished he found himself driving around L.A. and observing “a lot of annoying behavior, as you do.” He saw people rudely cutting others off in traffic and people littering. Disgusted, he created a game he’d play with himself, based on points. “Like if anyone was keeping score—‘What you did right there, sir, cutting me off in traffic, you just lost eight points,’” Schur said. “And I started thinking about a world where actions have actual point values that can be measured and analyzed and broken down, and that led me to the afterlife. And I thought what if it’s a game and the people with high scores get into the good place and people with the lowest scores get into the bad place.”


Schur admitted The Leftovers impressed him so much that he coerced his agent to set up a meeting for him with Damon Lindelof, one of the creators of Leftovers and Lost. Over breakfast, Schur asked Lindelof if his pitch for The Good Place was anything good. “Damon Lindelof saying, ‘This is something’ is the reason that show exists,” Schur told Vulture. “So thank him, if you like it.”

Schur told Lindelof about the season one twist, and Lindelof helped Schur with the scenarios. “I needed a person who is conversant in the language of science fiction or genre writing, which I am not, to say to me, ‘Here are some things that are gonna happen that are dangerous. Here’s what’s gonna happen, here’s how to avoid it.’ So that was a huge part of how I operated going forward.” Schur paid homage to Lindelof to the point that the show is littered with Easter eggs, including a photo labeled October 14, 1972—October 14th is the date of the departure in The Leftovers.


Ted Danson and D'Arcy Carden in 'The Good Place'
Colleen Hayes, NBC

D'Arcy Carden, a member of sketch comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade, had wanted to work for Schur. So when she got the email for the audition, she prepared. She didn’t think she’d get the part, though, and had even considered quitting acting. She was intimidated to audition in front of Schur and executive-producer Drew Goddard. “But for some reason, the second I walked in, they were calm and smiling and laughing and it felt very comfortable,” Carden told GQ. “It felt too comfortable, because I was expecting, I don’t know, snobby a**hole Hollywood dudes? But they were very cool. I walked out feeling, ‘Sh*t, that was actually the best.’”

A 16-year-old boy also auditioned for the part of Janet. “So they really didn’t know what they wanted,” Carden said. “A 16-year-old boy! Who, by the way, is a genius. When I saw him, I remember texting a friend who had done a movie with him and I was like, ‘I’m auditioning after him. Why am I even here? He’s of course going to get it.’” But Carden got cast as Janet, a role she said is “shocking to me that it was so difficult” to play, because Carden doesn’t have emotions or much to react to.


When Schur wrote the pilot he didn’t know what to name Ted Danson’s character, so he wrote in “Ted.” However, while taking a tour of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, he discovered the archangel Michael, “the angel who weighs people’s souls and decides whether their souls are good or bad,” Schur told Vulture. “I was like, ‘What’s the name of that archangel?’ And the tour guide said, ‘That’s archangel Michael.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s the answer.’ The answer is that he’s named Michael because in the world of the afterlife that makes perfect sense.” Schur said people commented on how the character is also his name. “Immediately, everybody was like, ‘Oh this is an interesting meta-commentary on the creative process because the main character has the same name as the guy who created the show,’” Schur said. At first he thought it was a silly assumption but later realized “maybe they’re right.”


Vulture asked Manny Jacinto if he thought “Jason subverts stereotypes” and Jacinto said he thought so. “I think when they were coming up with Jason/Jianyu, they were trying to figure out something different and one of the things that popped up was that you don’t really see a lot of dumb Asian guys on mainstream television,” he said. “He’s usually intelligent or the model minority. I’m not saying playing Jason is pioneering, but it’s so great for me to do because it’s not a stereotype.” Jacinto liked the fact his characters weren’t just the IT guy. “And I’ve had my fair share of those, so I guess you just have to go through the ranks before you get to be Jason Mendoza.”


Kristen Bell in 'The Good Place'
Colleen Hayes, NBC

“The subject matter is ethics, all the things we need to fix,” Bell told the Los Angeles Times. “Earth’s current bad mood—it’s all in this show.” She explained she takes lessons taught in The Good Place and adapts them in her conversations. “Everyone is debating something nowadays, and now, I can actually say at a dinner party: ‘Well, I disagree with that because, you know in moral particularism, cited by [British philosopher] Jonathan Dancy’—like, I actually have a sound argument as to why I believe certain things.”


Manny Jacinto told Vulture an on-set story of a time Danson ate Swedish Fish in an unconventional manner. “I don’t know if this was a party trick or if it just came to him on the spot, but he was able to eat the Swedish Fish through his mouth, take a piece of it, and then snort it through his nose like a booger,” Jacinto said. “Witnessing that moment right there was like, ‘Oh my goodness, if anything, Ted Danson is Jason Mendoza. He’s just the biggest child out of all of us.’ I just remember that, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment, Ted Danson taking a booger out of his nose.”


Jameela Jamil, William Jackson Harper, Kristen Bell, and Manny Jacinto in 'The Good Place'
Colleen Hayes, NBC

Jamil—a TV host in England who hadn’t acted much before she landed The Good Place—told Vulture she didn’t think Tahani deserved to be in The Bad Place, but instead maybe “a Passive Aggressive Narcissistic Place.” She described Tahani as “a nightmare. I could never be friends with someone like Tahani, but that makes her all the more fun to try and love. I’ve grown to love her over season two. I couldn’t stand her in season one—I love playing her, but couldn’t stand her. But in season two, I’m warming to her, and that’s the power of Mike and the writers.”


In the season two episode “Dance Dance Resolution,” which aired in September 2017, Michael tried to reboot The Bad Place hundreds of times, so restaurant names kept changing. The pun-loving Amram conceived restaurants like From Schmear to Eternity, Biscotti Pippen, Sushi and the Banshees, and Hot Dog on a Stick on a Stick. Schur told Vulture the script contained six to seven pages of puns. “Partially she was doing it to lean into her stereotype as a person who loves puns,” he said. “But also, it was just straight-up impressive.” On Twitter, Amram shared her abridged list of eatery puns, including Miso-Gyny and Polenta to Go Around.


From the beginning of the series, the only actors who knew about the season one twist were Danson and Bell. Danson explained to Entertainment Weekly that when he told his friends the plot of the show—“it’s about the afterlife and I play a middle management person there, and someone gets in there on a clerical error and everything goes nutty”—he could see their eyes glaze over with boredom. “And I could just see that flicker in their eyes and it pissed me off, so I immediately told them the twist ending and they were totally impressed,” he said. “But to tell you the truth, I was wracked with guilt, but luckily the people I told, I called them and said, ‘Please, dear God, [don’t tell anyone],’ but all of my friends are so self-obsessed that they’d probably forgotten already what I had told them.”


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