“Making fun of weird animal stuff” pretty much describes a lot of what we do here on Geekosystem, but when we heard that RiffTrax was doing it on TV on National Geographic Channel, we were a bit surprised. So I talked to Kevin Murphy, former voice of Tom Servo and RiffTrax cast member, to find out more.
The event is called Total Riff Off, and it starts Tuesday, April 1st at 8PM. It is most assuredly not a weird April Fools’ prank. Former Mystery Science Theater 3000 cast members Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, who now poke fun at movies as the stars of RiffTrax, will take over National Geographic for three hour-long episodes of weird animals, garbage houses, and cadaver dogs.
That all sounds just a bit confusing, so Kevin Murphy helped me out by explaining just where the idea for Total Riff Off came from and more about the MST3K cast’s return to television for the first time in about 15 years. Here’s what we managed to talk about while I mitigated a near fanboy-meldown. What? You try having a legitimate conversation when the voice on the other end of your phone is Tom Servo.
So whose idea was it for you guys to mock nature shows?
[Laughs] Well, honestly, I think it was one of the folks at Nat Geo called us first or emailed us, and said, “Would you guys, uhhh… what would you think about making fun of some of our programming?” And I think I was the first one who started drooling at the prospect, and then we all started drooling, and we said, “Hell yes, we’d love to do that.” And, you know, I get the feeling that National Geographic channel is trying to present itself a little bit less seriously than it has in the past.
I know we got in touch with them because they were doing something with Cosmos, I believe? Which is more serious, but… [they did send our own Victoria McNally to Space Camp, for example.]
Yeah, it’s a really good company to be in.
Yeah, they seem like they’re doing some interesting stuff lately. So, you guys kind of talked about what you’re going to be doing on the RiffTrax Live announcement today. My notes from that kind of sound like gibberish, but I’m not sure that’s because of my note-taking skills. You guys were talking about stuff like “cadaver dogs” and “men living in garbage houses”?
Uh, yes, there’s an Irish man who falls in love with a seal and he lives in a garbage house.
…In love with a seal.
I’m not making this up. [Laughs]
Is [what you're riffing] stuff that has aired on National Geographic in the past?
I believe it is. This is programming that they had in their catalog that, by their grace, they allowed us to make fun of for the evening.
So how did you guys pick which shows to make fun of? Did they have selections for you, or did you have some ideas?
Well, they were great at making suggestions for us and sending us a lot of material for us to look over, and then we sort of went back and forth and thought, “What would be the best stuff for us to riff?” And you know, that’s a combination of elements that make that happen, and what they were comfortable with us making fun of, and what they were excited for us to make fun of.
And, of course a lot of it came down to animals. There’s a lot of weird things, and sort of horrifying things, that animals do that make great fodder for us. We’ve got this one show, which is one of my favorites, which is this sort of explorer who just has this long luxurious hair and he keeps pulling it back and telling us how dangerous things are when it’s obvious he’s not in any danger whatsoever.
That one was great fun, and it really is the animals who sell it. One of the first things that they showed us, and we sort of did a trial piece for them, was a bunch of footage of honey badgers. I don’t know if you know anything about honey badgers, but you never want to run into a honey badger, let me tell you that much.
Yeah, the Internet is kind of into them lately, so I’ve… uh, I’ve seen them around.
[Laughs] They will mess you up, man; They are serious. They’re like the Danny DeVitos of the animal world.
You’re doing three separate episodes, right?
Yes we are. The one about the explorer who’s hunting for this demon bat, we loved so much that we ended up just making fun of one entire episode—just one entire episode of him hunting for the bat. And then, the others are just kind of chunkcs from different programs that we put into themes. You’ve got the Irish guy who falls in love with the seal, and also in that one, there’s a guy from LA who falls in love with a goose in Echo Park.
So, there’s a common theme running through there. There’s men loving animals, and that’s, well, I don’t necessarily think it’s a healthy thing, but it makes for great fodder for us. And then this series of profiles of animals that’s called “Badass Animals” that we had a lot of fun with.
There’s a shrimp that punches other fish, and then there’s the famous honey badger, and there’s koalas, which is frightening, because koalas truly do unspeakable things, and I never knew that before. So, not only did I have a laugh, I learned something, and I can’t unlearn it, Dan. I can’t unlearn it.
Are you doing any framing of the footage like back in the day when you were on Mystery Science Theater there were the robots and the Satellite of Love storyline, but with RiffTrax, you guys have gotten away from that; it’s just the audio tracks. Does the National Geographic stuff have any set up?
It does have a little bit of set up, and it’s great because we start the whole thing with a disclaimer that’s a very funny disclaimer, and for a network it’s great to see that sort of sense of humor. The shows each sort of have an introduction that very quickly describes what we’re going to be doing over the course of the next hour of programming.
Each hour is divided into a separate show, so when you go along and the new hour starts, you hear the explanation over again for those who have just tuned in. [The RiffTrax logo] is on there, and our little theme song is on there, so it makes it very easy for people who are just tuning in to figure out just what the heck we’re doing when they tune in.
Right, because it’s April Fools’, and I was wondering if anyone would tune in and be confused.
Boy I hope so.
Yeah, that would probably actually be great.
I mean, I’m easily confused, so, you know, it could happen to me.
Is there anything else that’s different about doing the show for TV as opposed to just the audio recordings?
Well, there’s a lot more commercials, I’ll tell you that much. Of course, I’m being silly, we don’t have any commercials on the audio things. It is interesting to go back to commercial television again, because things have a different sort of rhythm than what we’re used to doing. It actually, I think, gives people a little breathing room to sort of relax and, you know, watch a commercial about pizza or deodorant, and then come back to us. So, it gives you a little palate cleanser in between all of our goofiness.
Not that deodorant’s a good palate cleanser. I didn’t mean to imply that. People don’t eat deodorant, OK? I don’t want people in your audience suddenly eating deodorant because of me, because then they’re going to send tweets, and then I’m going to be in the same kind of trouble as Stephen Colbert is in right now.
[We took a short break here to discuss a current Twitter feud involving Patton Oswalt, the Colbert Report Twitter account, and Salon, and Kevin Murphy said he loves when Patton Oswalt gets fired up about things, because, “He is like a honey badger.” You’re welcome, Internet. Tom Servo called Patton Oswalt a honey badger.]
When you’re writing jokes for the show— and again, I’m a big Mystery Science Theater fan, so I keep using that as a frame of reference— your personalities came through the robots a lot. Do you find that you write specific lines [on RiffTrax] for specific cast members to deliver?
I think we sort of tune things, when we do it, to the way that Bill might say a line or I might, but we really don’t write jokes specifically for certain cast members, because when we edit our script before we record it, a lot of things change. So, unless there’s something specific, like if they need someone to sing in an operatic voice, I’m the go-to guy for that. When we need a good British voice, then we often go to Bill, who has a great voice and a good ear for reading verse.
We had this really creepy hillbilly guy— I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say hillbilly— cracker, is that better? Is that a better term? Who was leering outside the window of a woman who was changing her clothes, and we wrote a sonnet for him to say, and Bill was definitely the go-to guy for that.
And Mike we go to when we need Nick Nolte’s voice. Oh, and Bill also does a great Crocodile Dundee, by the way.
So I’ve gotta ask, do you guys have any plans to do any more TV stuff in the future?
Well, you know, we’ll see how this goes. This is sort of an experiment, I think for both National Geographic and for us, and it’s been a really fun experience so far, so it would be great if we could. I guess we’ll just see how this pans out, and if people actually tune in and watch, then I think that will speak well of us to the network, and we’ll just take it from there.
That would be great. I think I can speak for everybody and say that we would love it if you guys came back to TV and made fun of some more movies for us.
Well that’s very nice, and we’re going to do it in a way that you’re going to mostly hear our voices, so you are spared our faces.
Also today, you announced that you’re going to be doing Sharknado live.
Yeah, it’s a week of news for us. We released a record— an album of our music— and we’re doing the Nat Geo thing, and now we announced Sharknado. It’s been a really big week for us.
I read a really interesting piece about that from one of your other writers who was talking about how people assume that Sharknado isn’t really the kind of movie for you guys to riff on, because it’s kind of a joke in itself. Then, he basically went into how Avengers was a lot like Sharknado.
Yeah, it’s true. With better production values— it is kind of true. Hollywood movies have tried to— especially action films—have tried to protect themselves from criticism by making themselves seem sort of cheeky and self referencing. I don’t buy it. If you’re not a good filmmaker, then you’re not going to make a good film. That’s just the bottom line there.
All you have to do is just, even if you’re just like a freshman film student, you look at the continuity in the movie Sharknado, and you’re going to think, “OK, somebody just sort of threw all these clips up into the air, and then just put them together. They actually tried to avoid showing the action in it, and that’s wonderful cannon fodder for us.
There’s a certain group of people who love cheesy movies, and I think Sharknado just absolutely fits that bill. We did The Room, and we did Birdemic, and we did Starship Troopers. Now, I think that Sharknado is going to be a breeze in comparison to some of those.
If you had anything else that you wanted to say about what you’re doing with Total Riff Off that I didn’t touch on, what would it be?
You will see things come out of a koala that you never wanted to see before in your life, or ever again. You can put that in your headline.
If you want these guys back on TV on the regular as much as I do, make sure you’re watching Nat Geo at 8:00PM tomorrow, or at least make sure your DVR is set. We all need more RiffTrax in our lives, and if you don’t, I will find you. (Or at least I will be very bummed out.)
(thanks to Kevin Murphy and Nat Geo, images via National Geographic Channel)
- Even in the RiffTrax Live announcement, the RiffTrax guys are hilarious
- Here’s the rest of what we know about Total Riff Off
- Mystery Science Theater 3,000 creator Joel Hodgson did an AMA on Reddit