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The Bomb Squad: How RiffTrax Revives Bad Movies

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RiffTrax

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.

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20 Things You Might Not Know About Mr. Show
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HBO

You never need an excuse to look back at Mr. Show with Bob and David, but given that today is co-creator Bob Odenkirk's 55th birthday, now seems to be as good a time as any.

1. BOB ODENKIRK AND DAVID CROSS’S FIRST MEETING DID NOT GO VERY WELL.

Following four years of writing on Saturday Night Live, Odenkirk was in Los Angeles in 1992 as a writer for the Chris Elliott Fox cult classic Get a Life. David Cross was a comedian in L.A. after performing for years in Boston. One boring afternoon, Cross asked friend and fellow stand-up Janeane Garofalo if she knew anybody that played basketball. The two went to Odenkirk’s house, and Garofalo introduced David to Bob and then asked if he wanted to play basketball. He said no.

2. ODENKIRK AND CROSS FIRST WORKED TOGETHER ON THE BEN STILLER SHOW.

Despite their inauspicious beginning, the two ended up having numerous fruitful collaborations, starting with their work on The Ben Stiller Show. Odenkirk was a writer/performer on the short-lived but Emmy award-winning sketch show with Garofalo, Stiller, and Andy Dick. Cross was brought in in the middle of the show’s 13-episode run as a writer.

3. THE CO-STARS FIRST PERFORMED ON STAGE TOGETHER AS "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ."

Odenkirk and Cross performed sketch comedy together at the Diamond Club in Los Angeles, with a third improviser that, the joke went, would either be deceased or out elsewhere getting high.

4. "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ' WAS ALMOST THE TITLE OF MR. SHOW

Odenkirk also pitched the title Grand National Championships, but David Cross was never a fan of it.

5. JACK BLACK, SARAH SILVERMAN, AND OTHER FUTURE STARS APPEARED ON THE SHOW BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS.

Black was in four episodes of Mr. Show, starring in the classic Jesus Christ Superstar parody “Jeepers Creepers.” Silverman was a performer in 10 episodes. Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known as Chloe on 24, was a featured actress in the first two years. Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, was a series regular for a majority of the run. Scott Adsit, a.k.a. 30 Rock’s Pete Hornberger, was in six episodes.

6. PATTON OSWALT WARMED UP THE MR. SHOW CROWD.

In addition to performing stand-up before tapings and keeping the studio audience interested in between scenes, Oswalt played Famous Mortimer in the episode “Operation: Hell on Earth” (but was credited as “Patton Oswald.”)

7. HOMELESS PEOPLE WERE NOT KIND TO THE ORIGINAL SETS.

Because the pilot episode was shot at a “down and dirty,” small Central Hollywood club, the sets had to be placed outside, where homeless people defecated on them.

8. YOU MIGHT ALSO RECOGNIZE SOME OF THE WRITING STAFF.

Dino Stamatopoulos was already on the original writing staff of Late Night with Conan O’Brien and had written for David Letterman before writing for Cross and Odenkirk. He would later create three shows and play Starburns on Community. Writer/performer Scott Aukerman co-created and executive produces Between Two Ferns, and created and stars on Comedy Bang! Bang!. Writer/performer Paul F. Tompkins hosted VH-1’s Best Week Ever! and currently hosts the satirical debate show No, You Shut Up!, where he moderates discussions by a panel full of puppets. Bob Odenkirk’s brother Bill has written ten episodes of The Simpsons.

9. THE DIRECTORS OF LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE LEARNED HOW TO DIRECT COMEDY FROM MR. SHOW.

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton were known for directing music videos like The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing,” and decided to direct two Mr. Show episodes to expand their filming vocabulary. The husband and wife team were behind the camera for the classic sketch “Monk Academy.”

10. ONE SKETCH WAS INFLUENCED BY LOUIS C.K.

One of the first sketches in the show’s history involved Odenkirk playing a priest forced to do rather unpleasant and un-priestly things. The idea sprang from a conversation David Cross had with fellow young Boston comic Louis C.K., where Louis talked about annoying people that try to claim a prize on a bet that their friends never agreed to in the first place.

11. HBO ONLY CENSORED THE SHOW ONCE.

Throughout four years and 30 episodes, the lone note Odenkirk and Cross got from HBO was to get rid of a line where one character tells another to have sex with a baby. Odenkirk admitted that being told to edit it out “wasn’t too much to ask.”

12. THEY ONLY RECEIVED ONE VIEWER COMPLAINT.

The only angry letter that Odenkirk and Cross were ever made aware of was from a military veteran who was offended by the sketch in “Who Let You In?” where Cross’s performance artist character attempts to defecate on the American flag. The two stars actually called the viewer and discovered that he didn’t watch the entire sketch, and therefore never realized that Cross’ character was never able to actually go through with it.

13. ONE SKETCH WAS CUT FROM THE SHOW SIX TIMES AND NEVER MADE IT TO AIR.

A sketch called “Party Car,” a joke on old, low-quality shows filled with '70s celebrities was cut from half a dozen scripts and never filmed. It would have featured Nipsey Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, (or reasonable facsimiles), and a baby in a balloon-filled car.

14. BOB ODENKIRK GOT IN TROUBLE FOR USING A PICTURE OF HIS DEAD GRANDFATHER.

Because the sketch “Old Man In House” needed a photo of an old man, and the elderly gentleman was not the butt of the joke, Odenkirk thought it would be fine. Instead, some Odenkirks were “very upset.”

15. CROSS WAS PAYING OFF HIS STUDENT LOAN DEBTS THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE SERIES.

David Cross and Amber Tamblyn
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Despite executive producing and co-creating a series on television, Cross had trouble paying off his student loan debts from his time at Emerson College. Figuring that the person calling from the bill collection agency wouldn’t believe that he couldn’t pay if he knew his job status, Cross pretended that he worked at Mr. Show as a messenger.

16. ONE PERSON WAS GIVEN A "SPECIAL THANKS" IN THE CLOSING CREDITS OF EVERY EPISODE AS A JOKE.

As Cross once explained, Rick Dees was thanked in the credits of the pilot episode, even though he was “certainly nobody we would ever thank, or be in a position to thank.” Some personalities that were thanked for no discernable reason were Greg Maddux, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Gabe Kaplan, and Howard Zinn.

17. HBO CHANGED THE TIME SLOT FOR ITS FINAL SEASON, AND IT WAS "DEMORALIZING."

After airing Fridays at midnight for the first three seasons, HBO moved the show to Mondays at the same time, confusing some loyal viewers, and the ratings decreased as a result. Bob Odenkirk told a reporter that, after 30 episodes, HBO was still treating the cast and crew as “second-class citizens,” and that they were “demoralized” by the slot shift.

18. BOB AND DAVID TOLD A STUDIO AUDIENCE THAT THEY HAD JUST WITNESSED THE FINAL EPISODE, AND THEY WEREN'T JOKING.

“Patriotism, Pepper, and Professionalism,” the 40th and final episode of Mr. Show, was taped on November 21, 1998. After the final sketch was filmed, Odenkirk and Cross made their announcement, although the show’s cancellation wasn’t made official for another few months.

19. THERE WAS A MR. SHOW MOVIE THAT WENT STRAIGHT TO VIDEO.

Run Ronnie Run focused on David Cross’s redneck criminal character Ronnie Dobbs. It was filmed in 2001, but never made it to theaters. Bob Odenkirk admitted that the movie wasn’t perfect, but he blamed the poor quality on director Troy Miller, for not allowing himself and Cross to edit the movie.

20. THE TWO HAVE REUNITED A FEW OTHER TIMES.

David Cross and Bob Odenkirk star in 'W/ Bob and David'
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

In 2002, Bob, David, and Mr. Show writer/performers Brian Posehn, John Ennis, and Stephanie Courtney (Flo in the Progressive commercials) toured the country to perform some of the show’s sketches and material from their unproduced screenplay Mr. Show: Hooray For America! The next year, Odenkirk guest starred as Dr. Phil Gunty on a season one episode of Arrested Development, alongside Cross’ character Tobias Fünke.

In 2012, Odenkirk, Cross, and Posehn went on a six-city tour to promote their book filled with more unproduced material. Bob and David appeared briefly together the next year on an episode of Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! In 2015, 20 years after Mr. Show's debut, Netflix premiered W/ Bob and David, a five-episode sketch comedy show created by and starring the duo.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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