INTERVIEW: Michael J. Nelson gets ready to riff ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for Fathom Events

Michael J. Nelson from RiffTrax Live — Photo courtesy of RiffTrax Live
Michael J. Nelson from RiffTrax Live — Photo courtesy of RiffTrax Live

Michael J. Nelson, star of TV’s Mystery Science Theater 3000, has been finding success lately with RiffTrax Live, a unique experience where alumni from MST3K get together and offer funny commentary on popular films. Their crazed shenanigans have been broadcast live in movie theaters around the United States thanks to Fathom Events. From Starship Troopers to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy take their riffing quite seriously.

Their newest event is Night of the Living Dead, the seminal zombie film from director George A. Romero. Broadcasts of RiffTrax Live will air in movie theaters Thursday, Oct. 24.

“Yeah, I’ve seen it quite a few times actually,” Nelson said recently during a phone interview. “So yeah it’s something that I’m pretty familiar with, and you know who could have imagined that all these years later like zombies are still like white hot. And all of the conventions of it and everything really came from this movie. So I think it should be fun to kind of revisit that and play with all those ideas.”

Nelson said the trio works back and forth in the rehearsal process, attempting to write the best one-liners for the commentary event. Eventually, they each take sections of the film and work on the humor themselves. Of course, with live events, there is plenty of room for improvisation and unexpected laughs.

“We kind of made a shift from the Mystery Science days,” Nelson said of the TV show, which lambasted sub-par films. “We found that with movies that we liked or at least were fond of, it’s a different approach to it. … You know some guy sitting there complaining about something for two hours isn’t all that amusing. So it’s sort of a mixture of commenting along with it, and the parts that obviously deserve a little bit more ridicule, you get that from it.”

RiffTrax Live allows Nelson and company to “crawl” out from their offices and interact with actual people. He said he appreciates the opportunity to make that connection.

Courtesy of RiffTrax
Courtesy of RiffTrax

“I mean we’d always loved to do the live shows, but as the online business started to grow, and it really took our attention, we wanted to still be able to have this live experience,” he said. “So hooking up with Fathom for this thing was the best thing ever because it satisfies that need for us to kind of crawl out of our little writing room closets and actually interact with humans and field test our jokes. And it really makes a kind of party environment for the people that go to it. We hear that all the time, that you know they go to the theater and they see kind of the same people. They get to know people who love the same thing. So it’s really fun for us.”

According to Nelson, RiffTrax fans are so enthused about the screenings that they don’t look at the event as “throwaway entertainment.” It’s more of a melding of theater, cinema and stand-up comedy — usually for less than $15.

“In the live environment, we always leave a little more room for improv,” he said. “One of the fun things about it, and keeps you on your toes, is the audience will laugh at something that has never occurred to us. Through all the times we had screened this movie, we just didn’t see something. And so suddenly we’re like, oh well this is a thing that they noticed and found really funny. And so you kind of find yourself having to look ahead at what you’ve got coming up and trying to alter jokes or ideas that you have, or just kind of change things around, or even project a different kind of energy about the movie.”

Sometimes the jokes can become so riotous that the audience messes up the next joke waiting in line, but Nelson said he can’t be “greedy.”

“It is funny how as a writer you’re always thinking like, man, I remember spending like 15 minutes writing that joke that we had to throw over the side. But, of course, the audience does not care about that.”

After a RiffTrax, Nelson still appreciates the film, although he’s ready to take a break from repeat viewing. “It is a very close look at something. It’s kind of like looking at your wife from like an inch away. You know, I love you honey, but I’m a little too close right now. So you do need some distance, but you can’t ever let that bleed into obviously your performance or how you feel about it. And ultimately any movie that I’ve done, that I’ve liked before I’ve riffed on it, I still like it after because you tend to forget all the work. It kind of goes away. Like we did just as an experiment, we did the movie Casablanca as a RiffTrax, which you know was one of my favorite movies of all time. And having done that and looked at it so closely and thought about it so much, it hasn’t affected my enjoyment of it at all. I still love it.”

The art of riffing, which is practiced by many groups throughout the nation, has become more mainstream in Nelson’s eyes, and that’s a positive development for the comedian. He said he doesn’t like being the weirdo performing some eclectic show. “People don’t have to feel like I’m creeping off to this weird entertainment that I can’t explain to my in-laws or something,” he said. “It’s a little more mainstream, and I think that’s ultimately good for us.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Click here for more information on RiffTrax Live.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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