|by U.J. Lessing
Satirist, television performer, and author, Michael J. Nelson is undergoing some pretty serious life changes. He’s presently moving from Minneapolis to San Diego. Legend Films hired him to be their new Chief Content Producer, a new collection of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes is slated for an August release, and his new project, Rifftrax.com, lets him make fun of any movie without having to worry about film rights or availability. It’s enough to make any Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan drool. For me, it was an opportunity to talk with one of my favorite sardonic heroes. Mike talked about these exciting developments over the telephone from his office at Legend Films.
"The ocean, it’s right there. It’s all big and stuff!"
U.J. Lessing: Because of recent developments in your career, you’ve moved out the Midwest for the first time. How does it feel to leave your old stomping grounds for San Diego?
Mike Nelson: It’s very strange. I’ve spent a lot of time out here, but actually living here is a different thing. I’ve been magnetically attracted to the Midwest. I moved a number of times, but never left the Midwest. So this is odd. I’ve decided to buy a pair of Jams and thongs and just tramp around on the beach and not do anything.
UL: I grew up in Illinois, went to school in Indiana, and now I live outside Kansas City. As one Midwesterner to another, what does the ocean look like?
MN: I walked down there the other night. My family is not out here yet, so I’m kind of in a house--camping in my own house--which is a weird experience, and just decided to walk to the beach, and for a Midwesterner that is just bizarre. The ocean, it’s right there. It’s all big and stuff!
UL: And you’ll probably never have to deal with a snowstorm ever again.
MN: No. You know what? There was a significant milestone. I had my snow tires in my garage and my wife called me up and said, “Can I throw them away?” and I said, “Well, I guess so. Yeah!” It was very strange.
"I’m also not writing for puppets obviously"
UL:Legend Films has appointed you Chief Content Producer. What is that job going to entail?
MN: Well, they have a lot of access to films and material and it’s kind of just figuring out how to do my commentaries and other things, whether it be making ‘Best of Sci-fi’ disks or just kind of figuring out what will sell and what can I add to it. I’m just on board now and trying to figure out where that goes. A lot of the work has been to this Rifftrax, which is produced by Legend Films too. So that’s been the main focus.
UL: How did you first get involved with these guys?
MN: The CEO is a friend of a friend, and he was starting this Legend Films, and then somebody else mentioned to him, “Hey, Mike has a lot of experience with films”, and he wasn’t that familiar with the show (Mystery Science Theater 3000) or anything, and then he watched it and said, “Holy cow! He could do this on our films.” So he called me up, and I’ve been doing it for years with them.
UL: Is it different putting together a Legend commentary than writing “Mystery Science Theater 3000” commentary?
MN: It is. First of all, here at Legend I’ve had a choice of better films, and also I’m not a character. I’m just myself making funny comments. It changes the nature of how you write it.
But as far as the intensity of it, it’s very difficult to do. It takes many hours because you see a moment that needs a comment or a joke and you just have to gut it out until you find one. It’s not just sitting down and improvising stuff. It’s really writing every moment, and that ends up being around 500 (jokes) every film.
So in that sense it’s a lot the same, but I’m also not writing for puppets obviously.
UL: You’re also doing it alone whereas in the past you worked with a team, right?
MN: Yeah, and that changes the nature of it. It would be bizarre if I was too over-the-top goofy sitting by myself in a booth cracking myself up.
"I’ve been closely connected to 'Road House' for whatever reason, and that’s probably not a good statement to make about my life."
UL: You certainly cracked up my wife and me with your commentary track from rifftrax.com. We were both in tears watching “Road House.”
MN: That’s great.
UL: It wasn’t available for rental in my area so I actually had to purchase it for $19.95.
MN: (laughing) I’m so sorry.
UL: Well, I’m not worried about the money. I’m worried about my soul. Am I going to hell for supporting this movie?
MN: I think I can confidently say, yes.
UL: Was “Road House” always in mind when you picked an inaugural commentary for this?
MN: I’ve been closely connected to “Road House,” for whatever reason, and that’s probably not a good statement to make about my life, but there it is. I had a friend, who was over in the Gulf War, and he watched “Road House” endlessly, because it was the only movie they had, so it was this big room of all these soldiers and pilots and everything watching “Road House.” So it was something that we could talk about together: throwing lines back and forth, because I had seen it. I don’t know why. I would always go see the worst movie.
And then I wrote a song called, “Patrick Swayze Christmas” about “Road House” and I had Crow sing it, and it was a memorable moment, and then when I wrote a book about bad movies that was my standard. If the movie is going to be entertaining and bad it has to live up to that “Road House” standard of good/bad movie. So I always had a soft spot for it.
UL: This was the first time I heard you do commentary alongside an unedited “R” rated movie. Was it strange riffing on a film with nudity and, as you describe it, hot bouncer on doctor action?
MN: It was, and you can probably tell that I’m not entirely comfortable. “Road House” is about as far as I’d like to go. I’m not a big fan of raunchy films, and everything I’ve done has been pretty much family-friendly. This is not… But “Road House” is fairly innocuous. I use the narrator to steer away from those moments. I really wish they weren’t there, because without them, it’s almost perfect, but you’ve got to take the bad with the good.
UL: That’s right. Have you now, or ever had, feathered hair, a mullet or even a pompadour?
MN: I admit that, I think for a short time in High School, I had feathered hair, but the effect was really made good by a pair of smoked glasses that I had that were coke bottle thick. It was a dynamic pair.
UL: I tried to get my hair to look like Bruce Willis’s, but I have thick, Jewish, curly hair and ended up with a big Afro all through my High School years.
MN: That must have been sweet!
UL: Watching that film brought back a lot of memories.
MN: It was the last sweet gasp of the 80s. It was 1989. So you saw a lot of those tapered jackets, the Zorro hats I particularly liked. I don’t know what people were thinking back then but, yeah, really kind of the last of it.
UL: It’s so strange that Sam Elliott’s hair would come in style a few years later: the grungy look.
MN: He’s kind of like Sampson or something. His hair is his whole acting power in that film. He leads with his hair, as they used to say in the theatre.
UL: Have you selected future projects for Rifftrax yet?
MN: Yeah, we’ve got a poll up there, and people are voting, and there’s a list, and I have selected a few that I think are going to be pretty good. There’s “XXX” with Vin Diesel. He could be the newer, balder Patrick Swayze, and “Point Break”: back to Swayze, but also the dynamic duo of Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze.
UL: Powerhouse acting!
MN: Yeah, and that was (with) the finest line by Keanu Reeves. I’m sure it was what sold the movie was he said, “You mean the FBI’s going to train me to surf?” That was so perfect.
UL:I thought that “Batman and Robin” would be a good choice, because in “Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese” you not only referred to it as the worst movie ever but the worst thing that we as human beings have produced in recorded history.
MN: A little bit of hyperbole maybe, but not much. It was dreadful. Now do I have it right, is that the one with Poison Ivy and Schwarzenegger?
UL: That’s right. The one where Schwarzenegger can’t stop saying ‘ice’ and ‘freeze’ repeatedly.
MN: Right, and where he can’t even pronounce Batman’s name. He calls him “Bass-mon”
UL: At least George Clooney has sort of taken responsibility for it.
MN: Yeah, he’s got some self-awareness.
"The rewards are low and the work is just so high."
UL: That brings me to your books. Tell me about how writing a book is different than writing pieces that you perform.
MN: You know it’s not a whole lot different, at least the way I write. I try to make every sentence have some entertainment value even if it’s a setup for the next thing. So a lot of the pieces that I wrote in there…when I do speeches at colleges, I will take one out and read it, because it works well. It’s a lot of jokes and it’s an excuse to write humor. But, yeah it’s different. You’re not writing for a character, but the pressure is on. I mean I feel the pressure to make it funny as possibly can be.
UL: I found your writing very similar to S.J. Perelman’s because the humor is very dense and satirical. Are there authors who you enjoy reading that affect your work?
MN: Well, that’s a high compliment and in fact, yeah, Perelman would be an influence, and (Robert) Benchley I just love, and (P.G.) Wodehouse too. I think he’s one of the greatest writers in the English language. He just pulls off stuff that makes you jealous as a writer. It’s so effortless it seems, and so sublime. So I just adore him.
UL: It is strange that, apart from Stephen Fry, I just haven’t seen that many people try to follow in their footsteps with writing, which is why both of your books stood out so much for me.
MN: Well, thank you. I think the reason that nobody does… I think the appreciation is kind of lost. The rewards are low and the work is just so high. It’s so hard to write it. Obviously, when you look at Wodehouse’s stuff or any of the old humorists, the work that went into it, it’s not just a bunch of anecdotes strung together and a couple of jokes tying those together or anything. The prose is just so dense, as you say, and that’s so hard to do.
UL: I truly believe that that type of satire is needed though in a world that produces so much crap, both written and produced. Do you ever get frustrated seeing so many horrible films being produced?
MN: I used to get maybe more frustrated than I should, and now I’ve just come to peace with it. Entertainment means a lot to me because it’s my business and I tend to be really overly critical, but to a lot of other people it doesn’t mean as much. So I’ve learned to calm down. If people want to watch crappy movies, it doesn’t mean that they think it’s high art. It’s something to pass the time and help them relax. So I’ve calmed down a great deal about that, and I’m not at all bitter about it, because I know a lot of people that are. It just drives them nuts. I have so many comedian friends, and they tend to be just hair-trigger about that kind of stuff. “That was the WORST MOVIE EVER!” They’re very angry about it. I’ve learned to relax.
UL: Well, for me, it always means I’m going to get a good review out of it, because it’s something to tear to shreds, but after a while it gets a little exhausting.
MN: I’m sure, but every reviewer likes to write a bad review I think. I mean don’t you prefer to do that?
UL: Either a really negative review or a really, really good review, the middle ground is tough.
MN: Yeah, that’s right.
"I swear, but I laughed out loud and I did not mean to when I saw Kelsey Grammer dressed up as Elmo in the White House."
UL: Have you seen any of the summer movies that have come out?
MN: I haven’t. In May, I was up in LA, and I had a lot free time, and I was watching movies then. But since then I’ve been a little too busy to see any of the summer things.
UL: Did you see “X-Men 3”?
MN: I did, and my review of it is that it’s the loudest damn thing I’ve ever seen. It couldn’t be heard in the theater, I swear, but I laughed out loud and I did not mean to when I saw Kelsey Grammer dressed up as Elmo in the White House. This is supposed to be taken seriously, like everyone’s just walking past this giant blue Elmo. I thought that was the silliest moment I had ever seen in a film.
UL: It always seems that the vision that’s on the paper in the comic books can never quite translate onto the screen.
MN: Yeah, I’m not a comic book fan, but I’ve always asked comic book fans, “What’s the best translation ever to the screen?” and they often say that there really hasn’t been one yet.
UL: That film in particular seemed like a giant contract negotiations process throughout the film. We can’t afford this actor. This one will sign on for the next film.
MN: Yeah, exactly. And I noticed this. I noticed it first-in on one of the dreadful “Star Wars”-things that I went to see, just to see if they were really as bad as I remembered, and they simply crank the film up hoping, I think, to crush you to the back of your seat. You’re dealing with the physical pain, so you don’t have time to notice that the movie is bad.
UL: How did George Lucas ever get a date? I still don’t understand that. One of his characters compares a woman to sand. If I compared my wife to sand I’d be sleeping on the couch.
MN: (laughing) I know.
He was really kind of bummed, and we had to say, “What did you think we were going to do? You know what the show is!”
UL: Let’s talk about the older Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes that are being released on DVD in August. “The Teen-age Strangler” was the second one you were ever in as a main performer.
MN: Yeah. There’s this weird thing that happens with bad films that you have been so close to. It’s kind of like childbirth or something. You forget what it was like to do it. I have no memory of “Teen-age Strangler.” I’m thinking, “What? There’s a film called ‘Teenage Strangler?’” I haven’t watched that one. I’d love to refresh my memory.
UL: The other one is “The Giant Spider Invasion.”
MN: Now that one, yes, I know, because I’ve seen that recently. I went to a festival of his films, the director (Bill Rebane). But he had a big film ranch in Wisconsin, and he cranked out ads and stuff, and in his spare time he would finagle actors that he knew into these bad drive-in films. He’s a very charming guy, and that was his whole shtick. People just loved to spend time with him and hang out in this beautiful part of Wisconsin and make these bad movies.
UL: Are you going to be doing introductions to the films like you did in prior box sets?
MN: No, there’s none on this unless they filmed me in my sleep, which…they might have.
UL: I was watching the “Time Chasers” episode, and I loved your introduction, and I’d love you tell me more of the story about what happened with the group of people that made that film.
MN: Yeah, it was pretty interesting because they were thrilled. We did a little conference call with all the writers, because this guy heard that the film had sold, and he knew exactly where it sold to. It wasn’t like it was owned by a studio. It was owned by them. So he called up and he said, “Oh, This is so exciting. We’re big fans.”
And (we say), “Oh great! It’s going to be on at this time.”
We didn’t hear back from him. He said, “I’m going to call you when it’s over. We’re going to have a big party.” So we called him back, and we get (in a sullen voice) “Hello?”
“Yeah, hey. How’d you like the show?”
“Oh..Yeah… It was good.”
He was really kind of bummed, and we had to say, “What did you think we were going to do? You know what the show is!”
They couldn’t see ahead to the personal element of it. We’re going to be making fun of your head and your hair, and that threw them off. There was one guy who was, I guess, kind of the set cut-up. Everybody knew him and loved him, and he had a small role, and we scissored him completely out of the film. He was really bummed. This was going to be his moment of glory, but he was just too convenient to cut.
UL: It’s as if they thought you’d be laughing with them and not at them.
MN: Yeah, I think they thought they could pull back from it, and really just enjoy it, but it’s got to be tough to do. You put so much of your life into that film.
UL: Do you still stay in close contact with Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, the Film Crew?
MN: I do. Yeah. I just talked them both in fact.
UL: Any chance of them coming out and doing some commentary tracks with you?
MN: I hope so. I know they’re all busy on their own stuff, but we always manage to get back together again and collaborate on stuff, and so yeah, I’m hoping to get them out.
UL: Excellent! I have a final question for you, and I’m bastardizing James Lipton here. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear Patrick Swayze say about your commentary track if you met him at the pearly gates?
MN: Oh, that’s easy. “Pain don’t hurt.”
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originally posted: 07/28/06 17:59:30
last updated: 11/25/07 10:08:22