RiffTrax's Kevin Murphy on Birdemic and Mystery Science Theater 3000's legacy

birdemic still 2.jpg
A still from Birdemic.
One of the big differences between the MST3K days and now, at RiffTrax, is you've really broadened the pool of movies you can do and you do some blockbusters now. Is there a difference in approach between doing some of these cheaply made bad movies and a modern blockbuster?

Well, the modern blockbusters that we do commentary for are harder to do than these old films. First of all, they're a lot longer. Second of all, they're a lot more rapidly edited. I don't necessarily think that the process of filmmaking has gotten any better due to the fact that things have become digitized and special effects have become easier. I think that's obvious by films like, oh, say, Twilight. There harder to do in some ways, because they are longer, they're more rapidly edited, it seems like they are made for people who have shorter attention spans, and yet they go on for two and half hours. Whereas the old films are usually pretty compact, they don't linger too long. A lot of them are no more than ninety minutes, so you get a good solid ninety minutes of entertainment out of it.

They're harder also because they're a little bit more current. They're of our time, so we want to be as contemporary as possible, and when you're like me and you're getting old, it's difficult to be contemporary.

It does. I'm actually finding this myself. It gets harder every year.

[Laughs] It does. I mean, there's still some things that I look into, but clothing, music, tabletop games, social networking... it tends to leave you behind even when you're in your thirties. Suddenly you feel old. It's hard to stay current.

I think our audience, in some ways it's getting younger and in some ways it's getting older. A lot of people who watched us with MST is still downloading and buying RiffTrax. And we're getting a whole new audience, which sometimes are kids of our older audience, which I think is kind of cool.

I was wondering if you'd met any second generation fans. My daughter has been watching MST tapes since she was a little girl. Now she's grown up and she's your new target audience.

[Laughs] I think it's pretty wonderful that what we do has hung around that long. I always wanted to do something that was sort of like a pajama show, that you'd watch on Saturday morning with your kids, or on Friday night with your kids, sort of like a creature-feature thing, or a Saturday morning cartoon slot. I think we are that, which is wonderful. It's what I aspired to even in college, thinking of going into TV. So I'm delighted about that.

When you started this all those years ago, could you imagine that you'd still be doing it at this point, and doing it on this scale, broadcasting live to 550 theaters?

No. No. Absolutely not. We definitely tapped into something that people find they have in common, which is the urge to talk back to their media, and not just let it be jammed down our throats before we swallow it. So we tried to help them out in that way.

Along the same lines, you guys allow people to do their own RiffTrax and distribute via your site, right?

Yes, we do, iRiffs is what it's called and people can put up their own. There's a whole community of people who do this who have sprung up around it. Nobody does it thinking they're going to make a whole lot of money. They mostly do it because it's a lot of fun to do. It's hard, but they sure have a lot of fun doing it.

I know there are also some similar group doing movie riffing, including a group here in Denver and maybe one in Austin. Does that feel good to see people taking it and going with it, or is that weird?

Oh yeah! We're experts on it, we're not owners of it. People were doing it even before we started doing it on TV -- they were talking back to their TV sets. My dad used to yell at the TV screen. This isn't something we can own a patent on, it's what people do naturally. We just try to make it as funny as possible and I think we've succeeded and carved out our own little niche. In an odd way we've become the experts at a very narrow field of expertise.

Do you even have a rough idea of how many movies you've done over the years?

[Laughs] No. I lost track. I know that there were almost, what, 175 episodes of Mystery Science Theater? And I was involved in all of the episodes, from the time the show started at the UHF station in Minneapolis. Then, I'd have to go on the RiffTrax site and count, but I think, I guess, I'm upwards of, if you include the shorts, it's been 350 films I've been involved with doing this. And to get there I've had to screen and preview probably ten times as many films. So I've been exposed to a lot of bad culture.

That's pretty incredible. Do you feel that's warped your brain at all? It would almost have to, right?

[Laughs] Well, I've developed a lot of scar tissue. It's pretty easy to see what will work for us, and what is simply bad and unwatchable. It usually doesn't take long to figure that out. So I think I have a more sensitive filter for it, for really bad-bad, rather than promising-bad, and a pretty high bullshit detector when it comes to actually watching current movies and understanding whether they're going to be good or not in a very short period of time.

Does watching that many bad movies change your appreciation or understanding of what makes a good movie, then?

I have less tolerance for being pandered to by a motion picture. So yeah, I'm a bit of a movie snob, but I've always been a bit of a movie snob. I don't think that's changed. Perhaps my tolerance level has gotten lower. I don't tolerate as much mediocrity when I go to the movie theater any more.

Speaking of you tolerating mediocrity at the movie theater, tell us a bit about your book, A Year at the Movies.

It's actually -- it came out in 2002, so it's now ten years old. I wish there was some way to do a new version of it, but I don't know if that's worth it. It was a great exercise. I wanted to survey what the American movie-going experience was in 2001, so I promised to go to a theater and see a movie every day of the year, for the entire year. I just barely managed to do that, but I also got to travel while I did it, so I got to survey the theater going experience of a lot of different countries. It was great! It was terrific, but it was also harrowing and a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. I learned a lot about how I watched movies, how people watch movies, and the fact that it's simultaneously better and worse. I think that holds true today.

Is there anything else you wanted to talk about before we wrap this up?

At the Birdemic show, we're going to do another short film, which is one of our audience's favorite things for us to do. It's Halloween time, so we'll have a few surprises as we go along. It's going to be a fun show. It'll be even more joyous than our Manos show was, because the film doesn't make you want to die.

Along those lines, for people who've been a fan of the show but have never seen you do it live, is there something you can tell those people that will convince them to come out and see it live?

What I've always found is the live version of this, in a theater, exponentially increases the fun, because when you see a really funny thing in a roomful of people who are laughing, it makes it even more fun. As much fun as it is to sit and watch at home, it's just that much more fun to go to a theater and see it live with us on stage.

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