August 8th, 1999, was one of the saddest days of your life if you were a geek who was in love with Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was on that day that the show, after 10 seasons and three networks, wrapped up its original run, and Mike and the bots finally left the Satellite of Love. Personally, it made me feel sad that just as I was entering the Real World(tm) after college, MST3K wouldn’t be coming with me.
Or… would it?
The format of comedy writers creating riff-filled commentary on (typically) bad movies was too good to let die — and the fanbase of MST3K was too entrenched to fade away. Since 1999, there have been three major and similar projects that have emerged from MST3K vets: The 2017-18 Netflix revival, Cinematic Titanic (2007-2013), and today’s topic, RiffTrax.
Following the 10th season of MST3K, Michael J. Nelson (Mike), Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo), and Bill Corbett (Crow v2.0) looked for other ways to keep the joke train going. After a short stint riffing on Three Stooges films under the moniker “The Film Crew,” the trio established a new company in 2006 called RiffTrax. The initial idea was simple and kind of ingenious: Instead of riffing on old and public domain movies (as MST3K usually did), this crew would provide audio-only commentary for more modern movies. Fans would then take that commentary and play it over the movie that they owned, thereby circumventing any expensive licensing fees.
Awkward and strange as this sounds, the concept gained traction — again, thanks to Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett’s hilarious jokes and the legion of fans who would follow them anywhere. And apart from the lack of MST3K’s trademark silhouettes and filler host bits, RiffTrax offered virtually the same experience: Jokes, running gags, and shrewd observations from film viewing veterans.
RiffTrax became successful enough to expand into a small company with a dozen or so employees. The concept, too, expanded, as some of the cheaper or free movie licenses got the RiffTrax treatment and then were paired together for DVDs and streaming (which was, in my opinion, far less cumbersome than trying to handle the pairing yourself). It also spawned “RiffTrax Presents,” a spin-off where different sets of riffers would handle the jokes (Mike Nelson isn’t a part of these).
The trio also took to touring as RiffTrax Live, a theater experience where fans got to hang with the jokesters as they heckled the movies in front of a live audience. Sure, everyone there probably had seen these movies and heard these jokes before, but the love for the Riffers and the communal experience made it just as enjoyable.
Over the past few months, I’ve really enjoyed watching through dozens of RiffTrax movies and rediscovering my love for the MST3K format. It is, very much, like MST3K didn’t end, and having those familiar voices travel with me from movie to movie is like bringing friends along for an evening.
And if the laughs and familiarity isn’t enough, I’ve found that RiffTrax has been an excellent source of cult movie discovery. Just as Mutant Reviewers strives to point you toward movies you might have never heard of, nevermind seen, RiffTrax often does the same for me. Through the team, I’ve been exposed to such great films as Space Mutiny, Miami Connection, and No Retreat, No Surrender. For that, if nothing else, they’ve earned my thanks.
While I do miss the old MST3K, I’m glad that the team found a way to stick together and gain freedom and flexibility that they didn’t have before. Here’s hoping that RiffTrax continues for a long while to come!