Last night was the live event I’ve been waiting all year for: RiffTrax Live. For those that don’t know RiffTrax is the next generation of the cult show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. For those that don’t know MST3K, it was a show that was on Comedy Central and moved to Sci-Fi Channel about a man and some robots who were forced to watch bad movies and they made fun of them. “Manos: The Hands of Fate”, “Mitchell”, “Space Mutiny”, “Prince of Space”, all terrible old movies, all movies riffed on by the show. I grew up with the show and while I didn’t get all of the jokes, I loved every minute.
The show has been off the air for over ten years now, and four years ago several of the members got together and started riffing on more recent movies, which they called RiffTrax. They release the riffs as MP3s that you sync up with your DVD of the movie and listen along. It’s just as funny as the original show, but the movies are more familiar. Bad movies like “The Happening”, mediocre movies like “Twilight”, and even good movies like “Casablanca”, anything is possible. They’ve even gotten to the point where they can release Riffs the day before a movie comes out on DVD!
Last year they started something new: RiffTrax Live. They perform their jokes during whatever movie to a live audience, which is then broadcast live to theaters around the country. We went to the first one, “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, but somehow missed the Christmas Special (with special guest Weird Al). I decided to make up for it by going to see the stoner classic “Reefer Madness.”
“Reefer Madness” is a quaint little movie that is all about how “marihuana” will addict you instantly and drive you insane to the point of homicide. It’s so over-the-top that its funny on its own (we had already seen it with a couple friends), that we were very excited to see what the RiffTrax guys could do with it. Turns out, a lot.
RiffTrax Live allows the guys (Mike, Kevin, and Bill) to do a lot of things that I miss about MST3K. They showed a few short films before Reefer, just like they did on the show if a movie couldn’t fill their whole time slot. The shorts were hilarious. It was the best of what short films have to offer riffing. One short fit in the “did people actually do this?” genre (housewives shouldn’t wash their clothes in gasoline), another into the “what situation would you need to watch this?” genre (things you can do with grass, like decorating gift boxes and making art), and the last into the “what on earth were they thinking?” genre (an animation about cartoon animals going to the north pole and being killed by bear things). They had me cracking up. The “Grasses” one was so ridiculous on its own that I was literally crying from laughter. The perfect riff for me comes from a balance of the movie already being ridiculous enough to laugh at and is further enhanced by the riffing. Each short and Reefer Madness itself fit the bill perfectly.
Another thing I miss about MST3K is watching the host and the robots interact with the screen (they were shown in silhouette along the bottom of the screen like you were sitting behind them). RiffTrax Live does it one better by sometimes pushing the 4:3 movie to the side and having little windows next to it where you can watch the guys watch the movie and joke with one another. Sometimes their expressions enhanced the jokes in ways the audio-only could not. Part of my wishes they would show the whole movie like that, but I could see where it would get distracting, because sometimes if you don’t pay attention to the movie, you get lost and the jokes don’t make much sense.
(Speaking of the jokes, this has to be hard for them. They spent 10 years on TV just throwing jokes out there with no feedback, then do the same on the internet. Doing it live lets them see how an audience reacts to a joke, and lets them play off of the funny ones and gloss over the ones that didn’t work. And seeing their expression when a joke didn’t go over was funny too.)
Finally, something I could never get from MST3K or RiffTrax.com is camaraderie. Sometimes you go to the theater and don’t know what to think of the people next to you. There is something about knowing what you’re in for that gives you a sense of friendship with those around you. When you see RiffTrax Live, you know exactly what it’s going to be, and you know its going to be hilarious. Laughing out loud with a theater full of people is a fun experience. Laughing out loud with a theater full of people and hearing a theater full of people on the screen also laughing makes it better. Knowing that all around the country there are hundreds of theaters with people in them watching the same thing and laughing at the same parts makes it more than “going to the movies.” It makes it an experience.
Sure our theater (Bloomington, IN) had technical difficulties, but even then we in the audience were making jokes ourselves, riffing on the lack of movie. Because we knew what we were there for, and knew it would be worth it.
October 28th there will be a Halloween RiffTrax Live, where they will do the original “House on Haunted Hill”. I’ll be there, my wife will be there, and I’m sure that everyone that was in my theater will be there, joining in with hundreds of others around the country in a truly unique experience. “Join us, won’t you?”