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The Riff is Back

For me, midnight is the cruelest hour.

At midnight, the wife and daughter have already been asleep for a couple of hours, and a decidedly peaceful mood has settled over the house. Not a creature stirs, not even the morbidly obese cat splayed out immodestly at my feet, and I am free to sit and absorb the silence in solitude. All is calm, and then... gradually, into that quiet reflection creeps the uncomfortable feeling that something is missing. And my mind invariably turns to remembrances of my wilder, younger days.

Ah, the bachelor years. The blatant disregard for liver health and personal hygiene! The carefree liberty of the squalid rental unit, coated in a quarter-inch thick layer of dust and filled with the delightful aroma of socks 'n' flatulence! The bountiful cornucopia of the hand-me-down refrigerator, filled to brimming with Jeno's Pizza Rolls and half-empty pouches of Buddig shaved lunch meats! The ever-present and totally undelivered-upon promise of wanton sex with assorted, nubile bachelorettes, most of whom were still bachelorettes for very good reasons!

Yeah, well, I don't miss any of that. Miserable cesspit of an existence, that was. I'd sooner staple my scrotum to a barrel cactus than think back fondly on that horrible, horrible time.

Except at midnight, when I miss Mystery Science Theater 3000.

For the daily midnight airing of MST3K was as constant and beloved a presence during my college years as the mysterious thing in the orange Tupperware container at the back of the fridge that had once been an enchilada but had since grown gills and was rapidly attaining sentience.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was ostensibly a show about a stoned guy and two very cheap looking robots who are marooned in space and forced to endure terrible B-movies as part of a mad scientist's experiment. On a deeper level, it was really about the dark, frozen winters of Minnesota, and how the geeks of that great state occupy those months when they don't care much for Vikings football. These particular geeks evidently chose to watch a lot of very bad movies and make fun of them vocally, and they became so very, very good at it that somebody gave them their own two hour slice of airtime with which to despoil crappy films for a national audience.

The show was funnier than hell, and unexpectedly popular. In fact, MST3K was largely responsible for keep the fledgling Comedy Channel afloat through its early growing pains so that now, as Comedy Central, it may bring you such uproarious fare as Mind of Mencia, episodes of Mad TV from 1996, and this week's seventeenth feature film presentation of "Half-Baked". So strong was MST that it even weathered an eighth-season move to the Sci-Fi Network, where repeated attempts to turn the show awful still could not bring it down to the unwatchable level of the network's other programming.

Like that thing in the refrigerator, MST just disappeared one day. Oh, we hadn't watched either of them for years, but it was somehow comforting to know that they were still around. Then, in the blink of an eye, they were both gone. MST3K vanished from the airwaves, leaving a legacy of ten hilarious seasons worth of great movie riffing. Soon after, the Tupperware thing vanished from the fridge, leaving only a faint medicinal odor and a note reading, "Moving to Bozeman to be with Jeanette. Don't try to follow me." (We didn't.)

So Mystery Science Theater, like those ghastly years that harbored it, is but a distant memory. But while I eventually grew up, met a nice girl, and started wearing pants around the house on a more regular basis, I never got completely over the show's loss. Sometimes, in those quiet spaces in the night, I swear I can still hear a soft "Hi-Keeba!" whispered on the breeze.

Thank goodness, then, that I can now revisit those days of vomitous debauch and great comedy with Mike Nelson's RiffTrax.

Casual fans of MST3K might only recognize Nelson as the guy who took over hosting duties when Joel Hodgson left the show. But even while Joel was around, Mike was always there behind the scenes acting as Head Writer; the "fourth puppeteer," if you will. As a result, Mike has probably spent more time making up funny things to say about dismal movies than anybody else on the planet. And apparently it's either a pretty great gig, or that's his only marketable skill, because he's back at it once again.

Actually, he never really stopped. In the time since MST3K hit the skids, Mike has been retained to do a couple of DVD commentaries, most notably for the recent re-release of "Reefer Madness." The problem is, for some reason certain humorless movie studio executives aren't too keen on paying some guy to eviscerate their films. So Mike decided to work around the issue by releasing his own commentary tracks via the web. This allows him to shift his focus from shaking down important Hollywood types -- which is difficult -- to shaking down common folk such as you and me -- which is both easy and rewarding.

So here's how this thing works. You go to the RiffTrax site and shell out an exceedingly reasonably $1.99 via your PayPal account or major credit card. This enables you to download the MP3 of the commentary track. You then transfer the track to your handy-dandy portable MP3 player, or burn it to a CD, or whatever.

(In my case, I watched the movie with WinDVD, and played the commentary track in Windows Media Player, which worked out nicely because I could use the equalizer in WiMP to change the commentary volume relative to the movie audio. I'm not sure how you Mac people would go about setting things up, but you probably have some built-in, much easier-to-use application that does everything automatically and comes in seven designer pastels. You smug, stylish bastards.)

Finally, you pop your DVD into your player, follow the simple audio instructions to synch the commentary to the DVD, and you're off and running.

Or, if you're an anal obsessive like myself, you're off and spending the next 45 minutes attempting to get an absolutely perfect synch between the two tracks. In order to make them match up properly, Mike tells you to pause the commentary, then unpause it when the MGM lion finishes his first roar. But the inconsiderate lion never goes silent after his first roar, instead dropping to a quiet, rolling belch before launching into the second roar.

There really aren't any places in the commentary where the synch has to be perfectly timed, so this will probably not present a problem for less freakish folk than myself. Because that describes virtually everyone, I will spare you from reading about the machinations I had to go through to re-synch things every time I got up to take a leak. Suffice it to say that OCD-sufferers would do well to invest in a pack of Depends before launching into this endeavor.

The first RiffTrax is a long overdue tongue-lashing of the Patrick Swayze clunker, "Road House". The upside is that this is a truly horrible movie, ripe for the riffing. The downside is that you will have to have a copy of "Road House" in order to enjoy it. Worse still, if you don't already own "Road House" you will have to rent or buy a copy, and there's a good chance you may be seen. Don't think you can avoid embarrassment by renting from NetFlix, either. That stuff all ends up in a big database, you know, only to resurface years later when you try to run for public office.

By the way, if you're wondering where the hell one might buy a copy of an awful 17-year old movie about a legendary bouncer who's bustin' heads and breakin' hearts in a town full of rednecks, I have two words for you: Wal. Mart. In fact, many Wal-Mart locations have a conspicuously placed sign out front, reading either, "Yes, we have Road House!" or, "Next shipment of Road House due in 3 days. Form line here."

As for the commentary track itself, it's suitably hilarious. The riffs are somewhat sparse by late-season MST standards, but that's probably necessary due to the uncertainty of the commentary's timing. It's a definite treat to finally get to enjoy Mike's wit alongside a film that was not edited for television (read: "Boobies!"), just as it's oddly invigorating to finally hear him curse. Overall it's a solid first effort for his new venture, and I expect the tracks will only improve as he figures out what works and doesn't, and comes up with new ideas for the format.

One word of caution: Avoid listening to the commentary track by itself. Apparently Mike bought a pretty sweet microphone, because the thing picks up all of his unsavory mouth sounds, from lip licking to the soft clack of his fillings conking together. If you listen to the commentary in isolation on headphones, you will hear all of this up close and in stereo. It's not unlike having a tiny little man inside your ear, feverishly trying to dig a chunk of spinach out of your cochlea with his tongue. That's not nearly as hot as it sounds.

Apart from that, my only criticism is that it takes a lot of getting used to having just Mike Nelson doing the riffing. In MST3K, the presence of the 'bots allowed for three riffers to play off of each other. This made for lots of funny, sometimes off-the-cuff banter, and it gave the show the feel of a bunch of good friends just sitting around and cracking wise. For this solo commentary, apart from the rare bit of back-and-forth with the "Disembaudio", Mike is entirely on his own, and it initially comes off as a bit strained. In spite of myself, a couple of times in the first few minutes I caught myself thinking, "Is this jackass behind me going to talk through the whole show?" I got over that pretty quickly, but it definitely seems like Mike's commentaries would get a big boost with the addition of another voice or two.

Fortunately, it looks like Mike's already had that idea, since the just-released commentary track for "Star Trek V" also features the vocal stylings of none other than Kevin Murphy, the long-time voice of Tom Servo, himself. Apparently, Mr. Murphy has finished traipsing around the globe watching movies with Bushmen and such. He also apparently is not above making himself available for a mere dollar increase in track price -- nearly 50% less than Nelson charges for his own presence, I might add -- a typically humble move for which I salute him.

(UPDATE: Since posting this review, I have discovered that the cost increase to $2.99 is the result of the site moving out of beta status. So it turns out that Mr. Murphy is being thrown in at no additional cost to you. What a bargain!)

Since I suffered through "Road House", Mike has also recorded tracks for "The Fifth Element" and the aforementioned "Star Trek V", and has made available for download three of the previous tracks that he recorded for DVD releases. This all happened in the space of a couple of weeks, so you can likely expect a vigorous release schedule, assuming that he actually sells a couple of these things.

So whether you're a recovering MST3K addict, or just want to re-connect with your inner drunken slob, I heartily endorse RiffTrax. Sure, you could watch execrable Patrick Swayze films without it, but I wouldn't recommend it.


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