Mike Nelson would like to ride a raptor to work

An interview set in the not-too-distant future. Er, past. We got carried away there.

Years ago, I loved to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 every Sunday night. Something about watching people heckle bad movies soothed me. While MST3K no longer airs new episodes, some of the show's most brilliant talent still exists as RiffTrax. Sure, there's no vacuum-cleaner-looking character or one that evokes either an antique embalming machine or bubble gum machine (Google it; they're disturbingly similar), but RiffTrax has the voices and snark I love. Stands to reason I jumped (not literally) at the chance to interview MST3K's former head writer and present-day riffer, Mike Nelson. We had 15 minutes. This is what he told me.

Do you feel famous?

I can go anywhere and do anything without every being troubled by anyone; it's glorious.

How did you get invited to join the writer's room with MST3K?

I was doing stand up comedy at the time and I was friends wth Josh Weinstein at the time, who was on the show already... He recommended me and I took some time off from the lucrative world of making salads at TGI Fridays.

What's your favorite film to riff?

Part of it is a technical aspect. We did one [of the Twilight films] ... and people just loved it. People will say a ridiculous line, and then they'll pause for five seconds. Those make it easy, almost a call and response. Right now we're doing Roadhouse, the Patrick Swayze movie. 

What's the process? Do you guys grab some beers and watch a movie and make fun of it?

We don't get to have the beers until after we're done. We split it up among writers... then we meet, we do the read-throughs... and then we'll do that several times before we get on stage and actually perform it. Once you're up there, it's the spontaneity that makes it fun... You can play with it; you can see a line's not going to work... that's where your standup, the instincts of being a standup comedian come in: You can read the crowd and know, 'Man, I've go to do something different.'

Any chance of a tour, of taking RiffTrax performances to different theaters?

We do it in a mini way. Doing the Fathom [Fathom Events] thing was kind of the way to answer that: We can hit 600 theaters in one night. The tour would be a rigorous thing. Every year we do the San Fransisco Sketch Fest — up in San Fransisco, as you might imagine. 

What's the permission process for a Riff?

Surprisingly, it's all over the map. The movies that you think, we should get five dollars and we'll be overpaying for it, you'll run into a person who thinks [the film is worth a lot of money]. With the smaller movies you always get a dose of — let's just say there are challenges with an individual. Someday we'll be able to publish the book of the stories of acquiring our movies.

What did you think you wanted to do when you were a kid?

I kind of thought I would be a music professor. I wanted to make almost no money and bike around campus and wear tweeds. I was an odd child.

What's the film that got away — one you would like to riff, but for whatever reason, you haven't or can't?

Yeah, there's been a few. Most of them that have fallen through have been a little less exciting then the ones we did end up getting. The one that did fall through was the Twilight film itself. We did a Kickstarter, we reached our goal, we reached out to Summit... we went through the channels and they said no. But it was close. They didn't laugh us out of there, so I guess it was a victory.

Have you decided on a favorite ungulate yet?

I've have to look at the list again. I was seeing a show the other day and I don't know if they fall in the category, and I do like the gnu. That is a fine animal.

In that same interview, you said you'd like to ride a giant blue jay to work every day. What's up with that?

Well, your moods change. I would like to ride a raptor as it plucked a human being in its claws and I was along for the ride. That would be kind of fun.

Would you ever riff a political debate?

Maybe not live. We experimented with political stuff in the early days, but it was mostly political advertisements and things. It's probably not smart to tick off half your audience. Maybe if we did it in a goofy way, but it's always fraught. You have to be very careful.


RiffTrax Live: Mothra

Aug. 18, 8 p.m. with an Aug. 23, 7:30 p.m. rebroadcast

Sundial 19 & IMAX, 151 2nd Ave. N., St. Pete. fathomevents.com.




About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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