RiffTrax: Making bad films funny since 2006

Art & Lit Screen

Have you ever watched a film and seriously contemplated suicide? Have you ever sat and wept for Casablanca, for the golden days of cinema? Have you ever wished you could write your own exquisitely banterous dialogue? Then look no further than RiffTrax.com, the panacea to your film-related grievances. They don’t make movies. They make them funny.

RiffTrax — the combined brilliance of Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy — are audio commentaries that heckle films. They’re designed to be played in sync with the existing audio, creating the verisimilar impression that there are three middle-aged American men in the room with you, sharing your ordeal. These professional wise guys take no prisoners when it comes to bad cinema. From the Oscars to the Razzies, few films escape the gavel of their wit.

A revolution, my friends, has come. Gone are the days when we were forced to watch in silence. RiffTrax are legal, cheap and delivered via downloads — and best of all, there are clips all over YouTube. Let the procrastination banquet begin.

It all kicked off with Michael J. Nelson, a prodigious waiter at T.G.I. Friday’s. In 1990 he became head writer for Mystery Science Theater 3000, a cult TV series in which a man and his robot sidekicks are forced to watch a stream of terrible films. To preserve their sanity, they ridicule each one. Of course, this couldn’t last forever: getting hold of the rights was increasingly difficult. But even after the show was cancelled, Nelson recognised the need for a peanut gallery in Tinseltown. He came up with a fresh idea: selling DVDs with commentaries included. Upon asking a lawyer whether this would be possible, he was told: “Sure, but you, by that time, will have been sued out of existence. You would actually be sued to where there was no matter left. You would be a black hole of humanity and your family would no longer exist either by extension”.

But Mike Nelson was not to be stopped. He soon spotted a loophole in the law: if the commentaries were sold separately, he would never fall prey to copyright. Recruiting two of his fellow Mystery Science alumni — Corbett and Murphy — he set to work riffing every film he could. In 2006, RiffTrax was born. You supply the film; they supply the japes. “It’s commentaries à la MST that you can play along with movies of my choosing,” Nelson explained in an interview with TeeVee. “An ‘A’ title as opposed to the ‘Z’ titles we got on Mystery Science”. With MP3, the rights problem was solved. And so began the odyssey of our time: making bad films watchable again.

If you’re a serious filmgoer who can’t bear the crunch of popcorn, these bargain buckets of wit are not for you. But if you’re the kind of person who can laugh even at your favourite film, you might be just one click away from the greatest adventure of your life. Not convinced? I’ll end with a personal favourite:

“And we’re back with Avatar, the film that broke amazing new ground in the field of giant director egos. Yes, James Cameron’s ego is now recognised by the UN as a sovereign country of its own, with full trading rights and war-making powers.”