In TeeVee Podcast #3 our own Steve Lutz interviewed Michael J. Nelson, of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax.com. If you'd like to listen to the interview, listen to the podcast! If you're not someone who listens to podcasts, however, we've got you covered there too. Here's a transcription of our entire interview with Mike Nelson.
Steve Lutz, TeeVee: Hey, this is Steve Lutz, and welcome to the first ever TeeVee Podcast interview segment. Our guest today is a recent expatriate of the Midwest, and one of my personal heroes. He's living proof that a man can be plucked from the obscurity of waitering at TGI Friday's and become marginally rich and semi-famous simply by being very, very funny. It's Michael J. Nelson. Hey, Mike, how ya doin'?
Michael J. Nelson: Hey, thanks! I'm good, that was a lovely intro.
TeeVee: Tremendous. You ever miss the old days at Friday's, by the way?
MJN: Well, I recently saw -- watched again -- "Office Space", and it's almost eerie how close that is to my own experience there, even down to the character that Mike Judge plays. I had a manager who looked very similar to that; it was very strange. So I get my fix from watching that movie.
TeeVee: Do you ever strap on the old flair when you watch that?
MJN: I don't, but... a funny thing, I was talking, maybe just a year ago, to a guy who worked for a media company, and we both had worked years and years ago for Friday's, and we got talking about that. And we were trading the computer codes for, like, punching in bacon as an extra and stuff, and we still remembered that kind of stuff. So it's kind of like being... it's being imprinted, you know, by the Communists or something where you just never really lose it. I can still remember that avocado is "40" and bacon is "15".
TeeVee: Well I'm sure that comes in handy.
MJN: It does. Whenever I want to hack into the Friday's mainframe and order myself extra bacon.
TeeVee: Most of our listeners probably know Mike from his work on the cult TV sensation Mystery Science Theater 3000, where Mike served as Head Writer for nearly the entire ten-season run, and as host for about half of that. In that show, Mike sat in a theater with two plastic robots and made snide comments about terrible movies. He's recently launched a new venture called RiffTrax, in which Mike sits in your MP3 player, sans robots, presumably also sans pants, and makes snide comments about terrible movies.
TeeVee: First of all, Mike, I want to say thank you for agreeing to this interview. I know we at TeeVee don't have the hipster youth cachet of your local PBS affiliate, so I do appreciate your willingness to slum it a bit. Secondly, while I do have to... I have to confess that, though this interview is nice and all, my original intent was just to buy you a beer, partly because I feel that I owe you that much just for all the laughs over the years, and partly because you're in my top five of people I'd someday like to have a beer with, but, unfortunately...
MJN: So, wait, the bottom line is I lose out on a beer in this arrangement!
TeeVee: Well, yeah, you can talk to your PR people about that.
TeeVee: Apparently they didn't see how having a beer with you would help RiffTrax out.
MJN: Well, let's talk afterwards about how we can fix that.
TeeVee: We'll have... We'll have a little chat about priorities and PR.
MJN: All right.
TeeVee: Before we get to the interview proper, I want to start with just a few warm-up questions, to kind of get an idea of what makes you tick and just kind of limber up for the actual heavy lifting of the real interview. If you could just, for each of these, just let me know which is your preference.
MJN: Please... All right.
TeeVee: First of all, Mike or Michael?
TeeVee: Okay, fish tacos or cheese curds?
MJN: Easily fish tacos.
TeeVee: I'm sorry, the correct answer is "cheese curds."
MJN: Damn it! Can I try again?
TeeVee: No, wait a minute, I...
MJN: Do I get another chance?
TeeVee: I've just been informed there are no wrong answers...
MJN: Oh, okay.
TeeVee: ...so fish tacos is technically correct.
TeeVee: "Manos: Hands of Fate", or "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians"?
MJN: Easily, far and away, "Manos."
TeeVee: I'd agree with you there. This one's for the ladies: Boxers, briefs, or "other"?
MJN: I guess the correct answer would be "other."
TeeVee: Oh, man.
MJN: I don't want to... No, no, no, no, it's not that. I know which way your mind went on that. There is a sort of hybrid, which...
MJN: ...I don't want to get too much into sartorial details.
TeeVee: Yeah, I'd prefer that you didn't, actually. It was really more of a rhetorical question.
MJN: Well, let me just change my answer, then, since we don't have the time to explain it: boxers.
MJN: All right?
TeeVee: All right. A lot of people will rest easier tonight.
MJN: Okay, good.
TeeVee: Including myself, since you didn't describe it.
TeeVee: Tastes great, or less filling?
MJN: Well, less filling.
TeeVee: "I'm Alright", "Footloose", or "Danger Zone"?
MJN: Uh... boy... "Footloose".
TeeVee: All right, that's acceptable. PC or Mac?
MJN: Well... Can I offer explanatory comments?
MJN: I have been forced -- forced! -- by The Man, to have a...
TeeVee: Damn that Man!
MJN: ...to have a PC -- and that guy keeps telling me to do it, too! PCs have... I started on Macs and have always loved them and would love to have them in my house, but everywhere I go, it's PCs, so just to fit in...
TeeVee: It's insidious.
MJN: ...I have to have one.
TeeVee: All right. Lastly, just because I have to ask it: Mike or Joel?
MJN: Ohhh... Uh... I think... It depends on the episode. Can I say that?
TeeVee: Yeah, sure.
MJN: All right.
TeeVee: All right, that idiocy out of the way, let's get serious here. Let's start with just a little bit on MST3K. I'm sure that everybody listening to this is already more than familiar with the show. How long has it been since MST3K was cancelled?
MJN: If you can believe it.
TeeVee: It seems like yesterday.
TeeVee: At that point, were you guys pretty bummed at the news of the cancellation, or were you already pretty much ready to move on to other things?
MJN: I think most people would have still done it, but we also... it was not a surprise at all. There were these sort of hints going around that the new person who came on board wasn't keen on the show and, as we found out... You know, we used to... There's so much gallows humor in entertainment; you always assume you're about to get fired, and most of the time that's correct. But, ah... In the writing room we used to have elaborate details about how the new person came in and was cursing out the staff, saying, "I want that puppet show gone!" And we found out later that was pretty much close to the truth.
MJN: So it was... We laughed so hard when we heard that, like, "Yeah, she hated that show, that's why she cancelled you guys." We're like, "Yes! Sometimes it pays to be pessimistic."
TeeVee: This one my wife wants to know: Where is Tom Servo right now, the actual, physical, plastic robot?
MJN: Well, one of them -- there were several, which she might be disturbed to find out -- one of them, it was sort of like Indiana Jones, where they crate away the ark at the end and put it in the warehouse. We did that with several Tom Servos and Crows with Planet Hollywood, the theme restaurant.
MJN: And they took them, and there was this small dedication where they said, "Thanks," and then they shook our hand, and then they went and served some cheese straws or whatever, and then packed it away in the back. And we never saw them again, so I don't know...
TeeVee: So it's safe to say that Bruce Willis has a gumball machine that looks mighty like Tom Servo at this point?
MJN: I guess so. I don't know where they went.
TeeVee: That's a little creepy.
TeeVee: And the others?
MJN: I think one that was used on the show was auctioned off to someone on eBay, so it's probably being used in a filling station as a gumball machine.
TeeVee: Or in some other, far more sinister way.
MJN: Yeah, let's... Again, let's not think about that. It involves underwear, I'm told. And the others, I don't know. I think, probably, Jim Mallon probably has them still, although I don't know that for sure.
TeeVee: Hey, is science fiction even a favorite genre of yours, or did you just end up stuck with science fiction movies due to the nature of the show?
MJN: Science fiction is not a favorite genre of mine...
TeeVee: I thought that might be the case.
MJN: ...which, to varying degrees, was true of, I think, everyone at Mystery Science. At least, there wasn't a lot of reverence for it. I think, y'know... sort of a fan of Star Trek in that way that most people are a fan of Star Trek, where you found it amusing when you were a kid...
MJN: ...thought it was kind of cool, and then as you got older you realized, "That was fairly lame, but it's still kind of fun." So that's the kind of fan I was.
TeeVee: One of the things that made Mystery Science Theater so unique was that it was really one of the first -- if not the first -- show to have a really sizeable online following.
MJN: Mmm hmm.
TeeVee: How much impact did that have on the show?
MJN: Oh, I think quite a bit... sort of. There was a danger that we... y'know, because people who got online and typed the fastest and most voluminous letters about it, we tended to assume that that's the way the fans thought in general. So we got away from it a little bit and were, y'know... we were a little worried that it was taking over at one point, and we had to sort of distance ourselves, just in terms of the writing and all of that. But no, otherwise it was good. It was always sort of, it was fun to know that you could directly get in touch with these people who liked the show. You got feedback where you don't normally get feedback in TV until much, much later.
TeeVee: Right. Of course, folks that are granted anonymity on the Internet tend to let their worst side run rampant, and this no doubt led to the legendary "Joel vs. Mike Flame War"... not to hammer on this, but... how nerve-wracking was all that as you were preparing to take over the reins of the hosting duties.
MJN: Not much at all, actually. I was, uh... I didn't look at it much. I think Trace, once... On the advice of Trace, where he said, "If you believe the good stuff, you gotta believe the bad, so let's just not read any of it, and we'll get you through this thing." And I said, "That sounds good."
TeeVee: Wise words.
MJN: And uh... yeah, and also it was just pretty busy with family and show and all of that. The one thing that I found out after the fact, that I thought was hilarious, was that there had circulated a, supposedly, a true dialogue of how I had called Joel on the carpet and instigated the coup that got him fired from Best Brains. 'cause this person said that they wandered in for a tour at the moment that I was instigating this coup against Joel. And so this word-for-word dialogue circulated on the Internet, and people started picking it apart. And somebody gave me that, after the fact, and I read it and just laughed and said, "Yup, that sounds like me." It was just absurd, and that's about the only thing I read after that.
TeeVee: Yeah, if there was one thing I always got the impression when watching the show was that you all were invariably at each other's throats.
MJN: Oh, just... yeah...
TeeVee: Tensions were high.
MJN: The punch-outs in the writing room were one a day, at least.
TeeVee: D'you think, if MST3K or something similar to it was to try to launch today... if a show now could become the kind of hit that your show was? Or was the show something that was maybe borne out of cable being such a young medium at the time?
MJN: Yeah, I think that's true. And it also got the chance to sort of grow. It was always on the edge of being cancelled because it wasn't edgy enough or wasn't this enough or wasn't that enough, but it... because cable was new and they needed to fill time, and they also needed to draw attention to themselves, and we always got good reviews -- critics seemed to like us a lot for whatever reason -- so that kept us alive, and not raw ratings, and not the kind of hype that other shows get, y'know, where Queer Eye for the Straight Guy comes on and it's pretty much all you see for, like, months on end. It's just, like, injected directly into your eyeballs, and then it just kind of goes away. So we were saved from that type of a career, which was good... but, yeah, we never had that kind of... And I don't think in today's... where you need instant results, I don't think we could ever survive.
TeeVee: On the other hand, it seems like the Internet at this point has reached the stage where it could launch just such a thing, and that leads us to what you've been up to lately. So what have you been up to lately?
MJN: Well, I've been modifying my underwear drawer to include a new variety of... No! Let's not get back to that.
TeeVee: Thanks for sticking to the theme.
MJN: I've been working on this thing on the Internet -- RiffTrax.com -- which is... You know, I've always believed that at some point there was going to be available an end-around to TV, 'cause it's so hard to get on TV, and it's so... just, it's so painful to take those meetings, and to... I mean, even people who are actually on TV have to confess that the whole thing is pretty much broken but don't know how to fix it. And I always thought there's got to be a way around that, and I think RiffTrax comes close to that, where you can get your product directly out to actually the people who will use it and appreciate it. So, yeah, it's commentaries a la MST that you can play along with the movies of my choosing, but, y'know, any movie basically. An "A" title as opposed to the "Z" titles we got on Mystery Science.
TeeVee: Thus neatly avoiding the whole licensing issue as well.
MJN: Yeah. Years ago, I'd done some research into -- and actually paid a lawyer to say... to answer the question -- could you just do this commentary on a DVD...
MJN: ...call it satire and get away with it. And the answer was, "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 you would eventually win -- perhaps -- but that would be thousands of years down the line.
TeeVee: Right, and millions of dollars.
MJN: Yeah. So the only way to do it would be to somehow make it separate and avoid that. And that was sort of possible at the time I looked into it. I guess you could have... I was thinking of releasing CDs that you could somehow play along. But the new technology makes it vastly easier.
TeeVee: Do you, then, find it a little more or less unbearable sitting through the new horrible movies than you did the old horrible movies?
MJN: It's pretty much the same. It's really...
TeeVee: Horrible is horrible.
MJN: Yeah, and it's really... In order to make it all, to make it fun when you're actually doing it requires a lot of work. And, yeah, it's painful. I mean, I think even if you... If I had to write a RiffTrax to "Casablanca"... which I would, obviously, never do, but let's just say I did. I think by the end of it I would hate "Casablanca" even though it's my favorite movie. It's just the intimacy with which you have to go over it. But with most movies there's some element where they bungled it and they fumbled the ball and they made a fundamental error.
And looking at it so closely, you get so angry about it, like, "Why didn't somebody fix that?!" And that happened so much in the writing room, where suddenly a writer would snap and go running up to the TV and put his middle finger up to the screen and just hold it there and start cursing out the TV. And you'd have to talk him down, like, "It's okay. It was just a little error, you know, it's a bad acting job, it's nothing to get upset about."
TeeVee: All right. So there are some movies, then, that you would consider "untouchables."
MJN: Yeah, I mean, I think there's movies that there's no reason to do it unless you were being provocative. I don't think I would do "Casablanca", I wouldn't do "It's a Wonderful Life" unless there was some vastly different way to do it, or I thought I could improve upon it or... And I think there's also, comedies don't really work, even lame comedies, because what do you say? If their comedy failed, you just say... you just keep pointing out that their comedy failed. It's not funny. So you have to kind of make your own thing, and... A certain earnestness to the film helps and... So yeah that's kind of... You know, I just do it by instinct, and I'm probably not going to do "Casablanca" or something like that.
TeeVee: Sure. So what is your average workday like, these days? Is it just you, locked in a room, watching movies over and over again, or do you have a staff?
MJN: Yeah, there's a staff here that helps me out, does crack work on the web site and this and that, and keeps me on track. Because it's really, when you go into writing it really is like going into another world. It requires so much focus, and it's long, hard hours. Which we sort of did at Mystery Science but it's not as... it's without the fun, unless I'm doing them with Kevin or Bill or both of them, or what have you. Then it's a lot more fun, and so I'm mixing that in a little bit.
TeeVee: Sure. You mentioned having Kevin Murphy, who was the voice of Tom Servo, and also Bill Corbett, who took over as the voice of Crow when Trace Beaulieu left the show. Are there any plans to bring either of them on as a semi-permanent co-contributor to RiffTrax?
MJN: You know, it's something that I'd like to do. We're talking about that, and I think they'd both be interested. We both had a lot of fun, so... "We both?" I guess that... Three people, can you say "we both?"
TeeVee: If you merge the other two together somehow.
MJN: Right. Both... sets... of us, in so... never mind. Uh, yeah, I had fun with both of them when we did this, so yeah, I'd love to do that.
TeeVee: Any plans on bringing in any non-MST3K-related people?
MJN: There is. There's talk of that. There's a certain... certain people who I would love to see, and we're talking with them right now. And, yeah, I would assume that those would sort of be one-time shots. What I'm hoping is you get somebody who, they've always wanted to riff on, say, one of movies that they were in. And you could sit down with them and do a RiffTrax. So that's kind of part of the plan, is to bring in fun and interesting people who would have something else to contribute to us. And hopefully we'll have some news on that soon.
TeeVee: Do you miss being in front of the camera at all, or are you kind of glad that particular aspect of your performing life is over?
MJN: I loved performing with other people, and performing with funny and fun people who, y'know, on a set where you were completely comfortable and even, like, the cameraman is a good friend, and the intern closing the door is a guy that I like and joke around with and go fishing with. And I miss that a lot, I mean it's just, like, play time, even though, y'know, it was good hard work and all of that. I miss that a lot. But I still work with great, fun people, so... I look back on it very fondly.
TeeVee: I know that in doing Mystery Science Theater you somehow managed to tick off some people. I think, notably, Joe Don Baker was not real pleased with you at one point, and Sandy Frank. Have you guys received any nastygrams, or have the cease-and-desists started to flow in yet in response to RiffTrax?
MJN: No, it hasn't, and I assume it's because they realize there's nothing they can do. You know, with Mystery Science, like, you always heard it secondhand, that... Some guy would write in and say, "I worked on a film with so-and-so and he really hated your show."
So it was always kind of rumor, hearsay, but there was only those few times where it was actually confirmed, and Joe Don Baker was one of those. And, you know, it's not like he called us up or anything, it kind of happened kind of a funny way. We joked about it at a critics' convention where we'd heard this rumor, and not realizing, I guess... or not thinking, but... I made some crack about him and then all the critics called him up, like, in the hundreds, called him up afterwards and started asking, "Is this true?" to confirm this quote.
So by the end of being called fifty times, he probably said, "Yes, I do hate them. I do want them dead," or whatever. But anyway, it was confirmed that he wasn't pleased about what we did.
TeeVee: Since I actually work for a TV-related web site, I figure I should throw out some obligatory, TV-related questions at you. Do you ever get the chance to watch much television, or does your work life of watching things all day translate to not wanting to much watch things in the evening?
MJN: Well, here's the dirty secret, and let me explain fully before you cut me off.
TeeVee: I'm all for dirty secrets, so go nuts.
MJN: I don't have TV, and I haven't had TV for years.
MJN: Yeah, I, uh... But I do watch TV in that all the good stuff -- and a lot of bad stuff -- is available on DVD. So that's kind of... I'm on, like, a large time delay, where people are excited and talking about a certain show, and then two years later I'll go, "Hey, have you seen this show?" Because I'm just now watching it on DVD. So, yeah, I...
TeeVee: And you get to watch everything free of reruns and five week delays while ABC gets their schedule in order, so that's a plus.
MJN: Yeah. I'm on an extreme-delayed TiVo system, is basically how I look at it.
TeeVee: Sure. Since you mentioned DVD, and TV on DVD, is there any chance you might get around to doing some riffs on TV?
MJN: Uh, yeah, when I originally thought of this, I thought that's the other thing. It frees us up to do that now that all of this TV stuff is coming out on DVD. And I thought, y'know, immediately Lost came to mind...
TeeVee: Of course.
MJN: ...where it might be fun to sort of follow that series. But there's other stuff out there, and I've noticed that a lot of series from the '70s are coming out. So, it's great, it's seemingly endless, the stuff that I could do.
TeeVee: Sure. Any plans on doing any shorts for old times' sake?
MJN: I looked into that. I thought, y'know, there's some shorts that are available online, and I could do those and sort of just offer them up on the site, and I thought maybe Kevin and I, Bill and I, or all three of us could do some of those. But, as it happens I've just been a little too busy with these... with big titles to focus on that. But hopefully I should get a little time in the future to do that.
TeeVee: I understand from the RiffTrax forums that you're looking into doing something Halloween related for the upcoming holiday. Any hints on what that might be?
MJN: I can't. I can't, because part of the game is that our synthesized voice, DisembAudio, sort of plays a little Twenty Questions with the forum to guess what those films are. And if I spill the beans on that, DisembAudio will have me killed. He has that power.
TeeVee: Right. The power of toasting.
MJN: Yes, he does.
TeeVee: He may toast your hand for you.
MJN: He may. He may drop himself in my bath.
TeeVee: Okay, uh... Yeah, that's pretty much it.
TeeVee: Oh, wait, one last thing. Would you consider having a beer with me if, A) I'm buying, B) you're allowed to bring along your entourage for personal protection, and C) I promise not to slip you a mickey and steal one of your kidneys?
MJN: Sweet! Both of those promises sound good.
TeeVee: All right, Mike, well thanks very much for your time. I appreciate it, and everyone can check out his new venture at www -- I really hope I don't have to say that at this point -- dot RiffTrax dot com. And if you're into the whole fan thing, check out the forums there as well. And a big shout out to the people on those forums for helping me out with the questions for today's interview. Thanks again, Mike.
MJN: It was my pleasure, it was great fun.