RiffTrax's Kevin Murphy on Birdemic and Mystery Science Theater 3000's legacy
As the voice of wise-cracking robot Tom Servo and one of the original brains behind the cult sensation Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- known affectionately to fans as MTS3K -- Kevin Murphy helped elevate the act of jeering at shitty movies to an art form, leaving an indelible mark on pop culture in the process. These days, Murphy is still making fun of movies with former MST3K compatriots Michael J. Nelson (second host Mike) and Bill Corbett (the second voice of Crow) in RiffTrax. The base formula is the same -- bad movies made bearable via the addition of well-placed jokes -- but the group has embraced the Internet, making downloadable "riffs" for movies both obscure and popular, and branched out into live performance. Tomorrow, October 25 at Pavilions 15 and several other area theaters, RiffTrax Live will present Birdemic, an incredibly terrible movie about global warming and birds, as part of a live, 550-theater simulcast.
A still from Birdemic.
Before the show, we caught up with Murphy to talk about RiffTrax Live, his legacy and the effects of watching bad movies for a living.
Westword: I've seen Birdemic, and my first question is, why Birdemic? How did that happen?
Kevin Murphy: The question is, more to the point, what the hell?
Yeah, that would be another way to put it.
Well, we sort of fell in love with it, just because, first of all, it's a great example of really inept filmmaking, between the cast and the script and the story. And at the same time, it's so well intentioned, and it's so earnest, you can't help but sort of like it. Unlike movies like Manos [Hands of Fate], which, you know, I don't really like Manos. It's goofy but it has the little creepy elements to it. Whereas Birdemic, you're kinda rooting for the film, and then it just falls down and it doesn't get back up, and you're rooting for it again and it falls down again. It's a little crazy making by the end because it's so repetitive, but it's hard not to admire it at least for trying.
It's definitely very earnest. He has a message, even if he doesn't communicate it very well.
The message that's hits you over the head is "STOP GLOBAL WARMING! Stop it! Otherwise the planet's going to kill us!"
With birds! So, that ends up being the overwhelming and repetitive message we're pounded over the head with.
Speaking of Manos and some of the other really painful movies you've watched over the years, how does Birdemic rank? You said you wanted to root for it, which has to count for something.
That's true. All these films, our challenge is to make them fun for an audience that doesn't necessarily like bad films -- they sort of like the whole thing we've put together. We've had a lot of fans who are abd film lovers, but there are actually quite a few of the films we do that I think would be really hard to sit through without us helping along, or people doing at home what we try to do.
That's our job is to just sort of guide people through these things. The challenge comes when the film gets bogged down in driving scenes ... driving scenes... We always have to come up with fun and creative ways to make those funny. In the end [of Birdemic], I won't put out any spoilers out there, but the same thing happens for a really long time, and we have to find a way of making that fun for people to watch, because really nothing is happening on the screen.
I've watched a lot of the films you've done, both with and without your commentary and some of them are pretty hard to get through. Manos is a great example of the ones that's nearly impossible.
I've learned through this process [that] I'm really not a bad film aficionado. I really don't like to watch them for the sake of their badness. I try to make it better somehow. I think the whole point of riffing is to improve the experience for people, and transform it from something that would otherwise be dismal or dreadful into something that's really fun.
So for this Birdemic show, you guys are in a theater doing it live. Is there an audience with you in the theater, or is it just you and the the crew?
We're at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, which is a great old movie place and also a concert venue. It's great to do it in Nashville because the crowds there are really fun and just come to the show to have a good time. It's a great town to put on a show. The theater is just the right size -- between three and four hundred seats -- so it feels really intimate and we can really connect with the audience. I think when it uplinks and then beams down to the 550-odd theaters across the country, people sort of plug into that intimacy we're feeling there with the audience in the Belcourt. So it surprisingly so captured that live feeling, of being in a theater, live, with us, at the same time, there in the Belcourt Theatre.
Doing it live, in front of an audience in particular, has to be different than back in the MST3K days or recording for RiffTrax, right?
Oh yeah, it's a high-wire act. It's an adrenaline producing sort of experience, because a million things could go wrong and even one thing going wrong can put the whole thing off the rails. We have to really have our chops down and then rehearse it well and be ready for any sort of odd contingency to keep the show moving, to keep it entertaining. Once the trains starts rolling, there's no stopping it with a live show. It's great fun, and it's great fun because we react off each other, and we react off the audience, and they off of us. There's nothing rote about what we're doing there, even though we work off a script. It ends up being a lot of really spontaneous moments in the live show, and that's what makes it fun for me.