< Movie Riffing in the Internet Age

Transcript

Friday, January 06, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, what if rather than having a TV network add canned laughter to your program, you yourself could choose to add an additional layer of ruthless funny commentary to a movie you're watching at home? This week, New York Times tech columnist David Pogue reminded us of a website that offers precisely such a service.

RiffTrax is the creation of three guys who have made a career of ridiculing bad movies [LAUGHS] in real time — originally on TV and now on the web through audio commentary you download and sync to the movie you're watching. You may recognize Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett as the voices of Tom Servo and Crow, the robot companions of human front man Mike Nelson on the trio's original TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. Kevin and Bill, welcome to the show.

KEVIN MURPHY:

Hey, Bob, it's wonderful to talk to you.

BILL CORBETT:

Hi, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:

Listen, before we get to talking about RiffTrax, I apologize. You know, I'm sure Jimmy Buffett doesn't like to sing Margaritaville over and over and over and over but, you know, he does.

[LAUGHTER]

And I have to ask you to explain for the untutored exactly what Mystery Science Theater 3000 was. Go.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Well, Mystery Science Theater was in part a puppet show and in part a science fiction adventure show, but mostly it was an opportunity for a bunch of us to get together and make fun of cheesy old movies.

What people remember from the show is a row of theater seats on your TV screen and an awful movie playing and three creatures sitting there watching that movie, throwing all sorts of comments at the film.

That silhouette was the thing that people remember about it and the riffing when we would make commentary over the movie is what people sort of carried forward from there.

BOB GARFIELD:

And that riffing sounded approximately like this.

[CLIP]:

COMMENTARY:

You know, the silliest moments of Three Stooges never reached this level of indignity.

[MUSIC]

COMMENTARY:

You know a lot of people have compared the scene of the climactic chariot scene in Ben Hur. Yeah, you know, they usually say Ben Hur was really good. This movie totally sucks.

[VOICES/LAUGHTER]

[END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:

But that show no longer exists.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Yeah. We had been on Comedy Central for seven years, did very well. They decided to change their whole programming philosophy and go with obscene color forms and now that's what South Park is.

[BOB LAUGHS]

And then we went to the Syfy Channel, and the Syfy Channel also decided that they wanted to veer away from things that were funny. So there we went.

BOB GARFIELD:

Okay, but wasn't there another production issue of there being a limited number of cheesy movies for you to make fun of? It's a little more expensive to get the rights to Dances With Wolves than some obscure Japanese space alien movie from 1964.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Yeah, well there - there was never a shortage of bad movies and never will be, God willing. But the challenge at Mystery Science Theater was always that we had to make some sort of arrangements for rights, and for things like Dances With Wolves, to use your example or Titanic, we just couldn't get our hands on them. But now with RiffTrax, we sort of solved that problem by recording our commentary as a separate track and then people can kind of roll it together.

[CLIP]:

GIRL:

Yeah, this is where we first met.

MAN:

It was a lot more horizontal then though. I press you into my cheek, madam, I press you into my cheek.

[END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:

All right Bill, how does this work? What's the user experience?

BILL CORBETT:

The user experience is to rent the movie, the one other place you can do that, Netflix, and then separately you download our commentary as an MP3.

KEVIN MURPHY:

At a very affordable price –

[LAUGHTER]

BOB GARFIELD:

What is the very attractive affordable, easy- to-grip price?

KEVIN MURPHY:

For the commentaries, anywhere from 99 cents to 3.99, tops.

BOB GARFIELD:

Okay, so I rented the movie and downloaded your commentary, and I sync that up somehow on my computer or my TV?

BILL CORBETT:

We've actually made it very easy. You can have either an iPad or a boom box or something that you can hear to riff through, and we also have the movie that's there on your TV screen. So we give you instructions on how to start and when to start, say Lord of the Rings. When the New Line logo fades out, we tell you to start the podcast.

[CLIP]:

ELROND:

The Ring was made in the fires of Mount Doom. Only there can it be unmade. One of you must do this.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Oh boy, I gotta go. Look at the time, everybody -

[OVERTALK]

[END CLIP]

KEVIN OR BILL:

And we also have a very helpful robotic voice that we call Disembodio, who reads a line of dialogue occasionally while you're watching the film, so that you can make sure that you are in sync with the movie. And then if it isn't, you can pause one or the other just for usually a moment or two.

KEVIN OR BILL:

And the other thing we've recently developed though is a RiffTrax player to be played on the computer.

KEVIN OR BILL:

So if this is too hard for the technologically-disinclined, Bob?

KEVIN OR BILL:

Like me?

KEVIN OR BILL:

Then [LAUGHS], then you can actually just get your rented movie and your RiffTrax commentary track and put 'em in the RiffTrax player, and it works surprisingly well.

BOB GARFIELD:

Yeah, all right, Now, here's a scene from X Men that has been RiffTraxed.

[CLIP]:

STU [WHISPERING]:

I know what you are.

WOLVERINE:

You lost your money. You keep this up you'll somethin' else.

COMMENTARY:

Like your keys or the little plastic thing that keeps the bread bag closed.

VOICE:

Look out.

[SOUNDS]

COMMENTARY:

Ah, so he has retractable metal claws that punch through his flesh, just like a real wolverine.

COMMENTARY:

[LAUGHS] Right, just - just like a real wolverine.

[END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:

I want to ask you about the rights issue, okay. No, you don't actually take possession of a Hollywood film, you're just selling the riff track. Have you not gotten any kind of cease-and-desist correspondence from the studios or the distributors saying, integral to your comedy is our intellectual property and you're selling them as part of a kit?

KEVIN OR BILL:

I don't even know if we register on their gigantic radar, for one thing.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Number one.

KEVIN OR BILL:

The second thing is if anybody ever did get in a bit of a snit over it, I'm guessing they went to a lawyer and the lawyer just said no, there's nothin' we can do here.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Yeah, we're not actually using their material. We're encouraging people to actually go out and buy or rent their material, and then augment it with our RiffTrax. Believe me, there are a lot of teenage boys who would not have watched any of the Twilight movies, if it weren't for RiffTrax.

BOB GARFIELD:

[LAUGHING]

KEVIN OR BILL:

That's true.

BOB GARFIELD:

You had your way with the Twilight movies?

[LAUGHTER]

KEVIN OR BILL:

Oh, and have we.

KEVIN OR BILL:

We ravished it thusly, yes.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Yes, indeed.

[CLIP]:

ACTRESS:

And this will be a good thing.

COMMENTARY:

Like Hot Topic.

ACTRESS:

I think.

COMMENTARY:

But what do I know? I'm just your typically abnormally confident, world-weary 16-year-old female protagonist.

[LAUGH]

[END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:

I didn't raise the issue of intellectual property for no reason. I have come to be aware of an organization that has absolutely taken wholesale, your silhouettes riffing concept and is applying it to political advertising, in something that they equally unashamedly call Media Scrutiny Theater 3000.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Wow!

KEVIN OR BILL:

Total coincidence, I'm sure.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Wow!

BOB GARFIELD:

Yeah, well anyway, it's us. It's On The Media [LAUGHS] that's doing this.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Well, thanks for telling us. I'll get the lawyer's on the phone right now. I'm gonna conference them in.

KEVIN OR BILL:

Draw up the papers.

BOB GARFIELD:

Instead of litigating the question, you could just give us some pointers. What is the secret for playing off of what's on the screen, without getting in the way?

KEVIN OR BILL:

Don't think that every line is a setup line for a joke. Just find the ones that are the best ones, the best set-up lines for the joke.

KEVIN OR BILL:

My first advice is get a puppet.

[LAUGHTER]

KEVIN OR BILL:

Getting a puppet is good, yeah.

[BOB LAUGHING]

Puppets help, it's true, for this, and in general.

BOB GARFIELD:

I don't have one but Brooke has, you know, me.

KEVIN OR BILL:

[LAUGHS] There you go.

BOB GARFIELD:

Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, thank you very much.

KEVIN MURPHY:

Our pleasure, Bob.

BILL CORBETT:

Thanks Bob, it was great.

BOB GARFIELD:

Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, with Mike Nelson, are the voices of RiffTrax. By the way in a few weeks, OTM is indeed relaunching Media Scrutiny Theater 3000, in which Brooke and Bob silhouettes dish on the latest political ads.

If you want to see the previous batch, just go to our website, onthemedia.org. Here is a clip where we were riffing over an ad from Republican Rick Barber.

[CLIP]:

RICK BARBER:

You gentlemen revolted over —

BOB GARFIELD:

This guy is inciting armed rebellion.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Don't be silly. It's not as though he's gathering an army.

[DRUM ROLL/UP AND UNDER]

MAN [DEEP-VOICED]:

Gather your armies.

BOB GARFIELD:

Do you have the number for the FBI.

[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD:

That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Doug Anderson, with more help from Liyna Anwar and Hannah Sheehan. Our senior producer is Katya Rogers, and our show was edited this week – by – Katya and me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was John DeLore.

Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.

[FUNDING CREDITS]