A Riff in the Dark--An Interview with Michael J. Nelson

If you’ve followed our Kickstarter Weekly posts and our interviews, you might have noticed that we sometimes talk about topics that aren’t directly related to the tabletop gaming world. We’ve featured a campaign for a documentary on Dr. Demento, interviewed movie directors, and had a chat with one of our personal heroes of comedy and culture, Mike Nelson of MST3K and RiffTrax fame.

Inexplicably, Mike agreed to come back to Theology of Games for another chat--perhaps because Rifftrax has just launched another Kickstarter Campaign.

Mike, thanks so much for being here!

Delighted, thanks!

You’ve just launched a campaign to fund this coming year’s Rifftrax: Live events. In the past you’ve had (seemingly) successful events without going to Kickstarter for funding. What made you decide to crowdfund the whole year?

Well, as it happens these live events are our riskiest endeavors. We're really a very small company so anything big, like these Fathom events, are beyond our reach. So essentially our Kickstarters are a way to presell and fund the things that we, and presumably our audience, want to see. They'd be impossible otherwise so we're very grateful that people have enough interest to make them happen.

The four movies you guys have selected for this year are all, really, really, really awful, and famous because of their awfulness; where do you think the line is drawn between unwatchably terrible and super-entertaining train wreck?

I'm a terrible judge of terrible, if that makes sense. That is, the stuff that makes me laugh I have no defense for. I genuinely find these movies fun but I have no leg to stand on.

Movies that are bad anger me in other situations, so I frankly cannot settle on a standard. Maybe someday when I'm old and wise.

The Room has quickly climbed to a high status in the cult of the ridiculously entertaining bad. It’s also pretty laden with nudity. Do you guys plan on cleverly editing/censoring any of that during the live show, or is this one the parents should leave the kids at home for?

Funny you should ask: That was one of our first concerns about the film, and we're still working on a creative solution. But even if we solve it perfectly I would suggest children stay away. It's Tommy Wiseau, he's not for kids.

In our last interview you mentioned how you’re always working. But what do you do when you’re not working?

Oh, it's so spectacularly uninteresting that I daren't even write it down for fear of killing everyone in a large radius with concentrated boredom.

Can you give us some insight into the process of Riffing a movie? Do you each sit down alone and write out a series of jokes, and then come together to compare them and pick the funniest line for the scene? Do you divide up the movie? Do you all sit together and write jokes in real-time?

Yes! That is, a combination of those elements.

We each take a chunk of the movie and do the first draft of jokes, then we stitch them together, edit them in a writing room situation, then all writers and performers get together and continue to refine up until the recording.

It's really the best combination of solo and collaborative writing that I've ever between in involved in.

You’ve spent much of your life dealing with and thinking about terrible movies. What are some of your favorite movies--not favorite bad movies, but favorite good ones?

I'll admit I'm pretty unsophisticated when it comes to film. What I mean is I don't have a very thought out justification for what I like.

Some of my favorites:

  • Casablanca
  • Love Affair (Charles Boyer /Irene Dunne)
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • Eroica (great film about the first performance of Beethoven's 3rd)
  • My Favorite Year
  • Scrooge (With Albert Finney) [composer Leslie Bricusse, so brilliant]
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Master and Commander
  • Local Hero
  • Duck Soup

You also said in our last interview that you became a Christian in your mid-30s. Would you be willing to share a little about your journey to belief?


I suppose you could say that I, to borrow C.S. Lewis’ language, was “brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.” I’d been an atheist all of my adulthood but a personal crisis caused me to question my frankly lazy beliefs. Over the course of a few years I read extensively, spoke to believers, came up with -- and later rejected -- my own weird theories until one day it seemed inescapable and I came to accept basic orthodoxy; i.e., that Jesus Christ is who he claims to be and his version of the universe and the state of Man is the correct version. So I took his offer.

It sounds dry, I suppose, but I am of course, leaving out details that were quite dramatic, so the reader should please imagine everything I just said as a really cool action sequence with lots of battles and explosions.

If someone asked you to give them your single best piece of parenting advice, what would you say?

I have two boys, so my advice is necessarily limited: Pound on them with pillows for years, make up games where you only get points for slamming Nerf balls off the big screen TV, roll them up tightly in blankets and time their escapes, pretend to be a dragon who is only dangerous if they say a secret word, and do all of this out of the sight and knowledge of their mother.

Has the Crew planned anything out beyond this large Kickstarter project?

By itself it’s a big project to get all these done, but in the meantime we continue to crank out releases on the RiffTrax site.  For instance, we just did a miniseries of Lash LaRue movies from the 80’s (he’s a cowboy star from the 40’s, so I think we caught him at the right time in his career.)

It’s time for the Lightning Round! We ask 5 quick questions and you give us 5 quick answers.

Favorite sports team?

*sigh* Minnesota Twins.

What would you choose for your death-row meal?

Bullet fruit with a gun sauce. Side of knives.

Best vacation you’ve taken?

Probably France / Belgium / The Netherlands a few years back with some fellow history enthusiasts, with a special full day tour of Normandy and teaching on D-Day.

Favorite MST3K sketch?

Too tough to answer quickly -- I loved writing for and directing really talented people so my experience is colored by that.

Name one movie so sacred you would never riff.

Adam Sandler’s magnum opus “Jack and Jill”.

We'd like to thank Mike for joining us, and you for reading.