It should come as no surprise to learn that funnyman Bill Corbett has a soft spot in his heart for genre films. He voiced Crow T. Robot on Mystery Science Theater 3000 during the SciFi years and recently he's reteamed with MST3K vets Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo) and Mike Nelson to form RiffTrax. Fan of MST3K but you’ve never heard of RiffTrax? Simply put, RiffTrax is unabashed MST3K style movie mockery sans intermission skits and robots. No movie is safe from their clutches, including titles like Night of the Living Dead, Jaws, Twilight and even Casablanca? Hit the jump for our full, exclusive interview with Bill Corbett.
How did RiffTrax come about?
I wasn't there at the very start, which I seem to specialize in (laughs). It was Mike Nelson former host and head writer of MST3K who went out to Legend Films in San Diego, I don't think intending to start RiffTrax. I may be wrong on that but it didn't start right away, he was mostly out there to provide commentary on some of their older titles like Reefer Madness, some of the stuff that they had colorized, public domain stuff. I think Kevin Murphy had talked about the idea of doing commentary on more recent movies we never could have gotten the rights for at Mystery Science Theater.
We did a couple of things during the Sci-Fi years, we did these blockbuster specials and Oscar specials where we used the electronic press kit for movies in theaters and 'riffed' them like we did the cheesy 50's stuff. We really had a great time and it was really popular with people who kept saying why don't you do Titanic? And you know you can't just grab Titanic (laughs) you'll get a visit from a phalanx of lawyers with blood in their eyes, so it was a way of working around that to begin with but it's evolved considerably into a whole bunch of different things. We do the MP3 downloadable commentary for the newer releases but we're also doing some older stuff and a lot of shorts like we used to do on Mystery Science Theater, which are some of my favorite things to do, probably because my attention span is about 15 minutes in general.
Why mostly cult, horror, monster and superhero movies though?
I think part of it is just that's how it got started. When MST3K got started it was in the tradition of the hosted movie show. Local cheesy shows that had production values that made MST3K look pretty sophisticated. Often they [showed] Sci-Fi or horror movies, there's such a treasure trove of cheesy movies to look at especially with people trying effects in the 40's and 50's with big rubber heads and stuff like that. There's a real sense of ridiculousness about them because when you get really earnest about silly looking monsters that's really comedy gold right there.
Like an uncle picking on a nephew?
(laughs) Yeah...I mean, I definitely have a soft spot for them, I used to love them as a kid. And there were some really good ones, but we tend to go for the low hanging fruit (laughs) the one's that were obviously done without a whole lot of thought or budget. There were funny conventions that we saw in a lot of the 50's movies. There was always a guy who was ostensibly the hero. He was a big square-jawed American guy type like a Mad Magazine drawing by Dave Berg, but these guys rarely did anything (laughs) the most ineffectual heroes. These movie makers forgot that the hero really has to do something.
How do you find working with modern movies differs from the cult and horror flicks of the past?
I find them a little harder, although I've kind of gotten into the swing of 'em now. There are a couple of things, for one they are longer, as a rule. Just maintaining the level of writing quality is a little more difficult. There are go to areas for jokes in any movie but by hour three of any of these movies it's like, ‘Oh man, we've commented on this thing like a hundred times already.’
They tend to be edited quicker too. If you look at movies from the 40's and 50's they're just slow in the way that they were cut but now our attention span is just so ‘bang, bang bang’ that getting a hold of any visual information to riff is getting harder. Especially when u get to act three of any given movie, especially if it's an action adventure movie the camera just doesn't linger for very long. On the other hand, it is fun to comment on stuff that is a part of our world now. It's a mixed bag, I do like the older stuff for almost its anthropological value and seeing what people were thinking back then but it's fun to play around with your own culture.
What's the writing process like for you?
The process has changed since we were writing on the show together for MST3K. We had one central office and we were in the same city which helped. Right now, I'm in Minnesota and so is Kevin Murphy while Mike and Connor work out of the RiffTrax offices. Back in the days of MST3K we would have one person at the computer typing as much as they could get down of what people were blurting out in this mass Tourette syndrome. With RiffTrax it’s not as much fun but we get it done a lot quicker. We basically just divide the movie into 3 or 4 parts depending on how many people are writing and then we all just do our best to give it a first run through. It's an endurance test (laughs). The writing is the hard part, performing is a blast.
Speaking of performing was there any hesitation in taking over for the voice of Crow T Robot back in the MST3K days?
Oh sure, Trace was so great, he invented the character and the actual puppet. He was the guy that always stood out for me, it was pretty daunting. I would never look back at my first couple of shows now. I literally got the job days before because Best Brains had not decided until the last minute whether Crow was going to stay or if they would slap a new puppet together. Getting someone new to do the voice won out but I had never really worked a puppet before and it really shows in my first few days.
What's coming up for RiffTrax?
We never get too far ahead, which is a blessing and a curse. We try to mix it up and do a combination of newer and older stuff. Hopefully we're going to work on an occasional 80's title [since] we all have a fondness for that era when we grew up. We have a title coming out that's gonna surprise people because it's one of the classics of all time, it was a challenge to us. I guess I can tell you, we're doing Casablanca. It's a challenge and a bit of a stunt for us to take on a film that we all love and we think is a great movie. Maybe the movie will overpower us and kick our ass, we'll see. We're gonna develop more live online shows, figuring out the best way with a live audience and webcasting it.
If you could pick any modern horror film to Riff on that you haven’t yet, which would you choose?
Good question. I might want to try The Ring. I only saw it once and it was slightly confusing (laughs) but it took itself so seriously and that's when we do our best work. The fact that we can riff a movie doesn't mean it's bad, we often riff movies we really like. Like Jaws, we did that a few months ago, and we're all fans. There are some things in there that haven't aged as well, but still it's a great movie. But because it's pretty serious, we found a way in I think.
What's your biggest fear?
I have so many, like being a kid in a candy store. I have, and this was tough for me when I was out in CA, but I'm afraid of earthquakes, I don't know if there is a name for that, I'm sure there is. ‘Seismo’ something or other. I've experienced a few quakes and didn't find them all that terrifying like the big one would be, but it's more the potential. My pals in CA are like, You live in the mid west there are tornados, ice storms, all kinds of shit going on’ but there's something about earthquakes that gives me the heebie-jeebies. It's mostly an abstract fear of the ground crumbling beneath me. There's a real downer of an interview ender for you!