Few can riff as well — or as lucratively — as the alumni of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” the 1990s cult TV show about a human and his robot buddies skewering B-movies while stuck in space.
And former host Michael J. Nelson, aka Mike Nelson, should be applauded for taking clever commentary to a place where it had never successfully gone before: crowd-funding site Kickstarter. A campaign seeking financial help from strangers ended Wednesday, raising nearly $264,860, about five times its goal.
But it may be Nelson’s move to give power to the people that really encouraged riffing to thrive. Nelson moved to San Diego and created RiffTrax in 2006 as an outlet to offer fans his quirky commentary on movies. A few years later, he opened the system to anyone, with iRiffs, which enables people to create and sell their own movie commentaries.
“I’d say the market definitely exists and is fairly strong,” said Jim Hanson, an Ohio resident who resurrected his old Cinematic For The People riffing troupe in 2010 to take advantage of the resurgence of riffing. RiffTrax’s iRiff platform has, he said, “raised the visibility of the ‘riffing community’ on the whole, making it accessible for people who would never have known that this sort of thing was going on otherwise.”
For those just tuning in, let’s rewind a bit. “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” affectionately abbreviated as “MST3K,” was hard to miss in the 1990s. The show featured three silhouettes superimposed on the bottom of a movie screen jabbering away as a cinematic stinker played on the big screen. The wisecracking commentators were two robots named Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, and Nelson, who replaced the show’s creator Joel Hodgson as host in 1993. Nelson had been head writer since 1989, the second year of “MST3K,” when Comedy Central picked it up.
While the show ended its 11-year run in 1999, “MST3K” lived on through reruns, the MSTie’s (its fans) and eventually, alumni efforts like Nelson’s RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic, a movie-riffing project headed by Hodgson. While Hodgson’s troupe stuck to the B-movie genre, RiffTrax expanded to blockbusters and respected movies like “Lord of the Rings,” “Casablanca” and “Star Wars.”
“I moved to San Diego with this in the back of my mind,” said Nelson, who created RiffTrax while working for Legend Films in San Diego. “I had a couple of ideas, but it was just the notion that there had to be a way to riff on blockbuster films.”
RiffTrax, which soon added “MST3K” alums Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, skipped the hassle of negotiating film rights. Instead, it mainly sold its riffs as downloadable MP3 files and offered free syncing software. Users needed to buy the DVD separately and sync the movie to the RiffTrax. For a few movies, the combined riff and video were available as a DVD or download.