"RiffTrax Live!" gets sketchy
HELLA SKETCHY Stop acting like you don't love bad movies. Me, I'll go to the mat for Point Break or Reign of Fire any day of the week. This is why I feel a kinship with Michael J. Nelson, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and currently of RiffTrax.com, which peddles Nelson's downloadable commentaries for more than 50 snarkworthy movies and TV shows. A past favorite at SF Sketchfest, "RiffTrax Live!" invades the Castro Theatre as part of this year's fest, with MST3K vets Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett taking on the notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space. I got Nelson on the phone for a pre-grave-robbin'-aliens chat.
SFBG You're showing the colorized version of Plan 9, whose DVD has your commentary track. Will the live show have different jokes? And how many times have you seen the movie?
MICHAEL J. NELSON Some of the [jokes] will remain the same, but most of [them] will change. I've probably only seen [the movie] all the way through about 10 times, but each time through, it takes hours and hours, so it adds up to 100 times or something.
SFBG Don't you get sick of it?
MJN The craft of the joke writing is what I love and what energizes me. Also, when you become so familiar with a movie it's weird it's almost like seeing the movie at a different level. There are some movies that I couldn't take that with bad movies that are just bad and boring. And Plan 9 is one of those that's obviously stood the test of time because it's funny-bad. Most bad movies are not funny-bad. They're just bad grinding, horrible bad.
SFBG How would you define a good-bad movie?
MJN It has to be sincere. It has to take itself seriously, and then it just has to fail in some really silly ways, rather than failing in some really boring ways goofy elements [like] ridiculous costumes or dialogue [that makes] you just wonder, how could they have possibly written that?
SFBG Is it ever hard for you to watch a movie and not make fun of it?
MJN No, it's pretty easy. I think if you're in the business you do tend to be more critical there are people who watch movies, just, [like,] "I don't really care. I enjoyed it. I don't look at it critically." I've gotten to the point where I respect that view. I just happen not to be one of those people. I watch and I'm hypercritical. But when the movie is good I have no problem enjoying it.
SFBG Do you think MST3K influenced audiences to heckle the screen?
MJN I think it encouraged people in what they already did, which was get together in groups and watch these cultish movies. Or to interact when things like Batman and Robin come along, where your only recourse is to shout back at the screen. In general, though, I think people did it in a party atmosphere we always said, "Don't go to the theater and do it!"
SFBG What are the elements of newer good-bad movies, like recent Rifftrax.com selection 300?
MJN I think the excesses of modern movies have become the funny thing the thing that makes you laugh is the way that they calculate how they think they can get a reaction from you. It's sort of a cynical act: "Let's figure out exactly what the average guy would like, and let's just give it to him in giant doses." They try to entertain the living hell out of you, and when they fail it's kind of funny.
Jan. 17, 9 p.m., $25
429 Castro, SF
See Web site for program info