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Bill talks about how he discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000, the upcoming RiffTrax Live Godzilla show, playing a robot vs playing himself, MP3 riffs vs VOD riffs, how Meet Dave affected the way he saw movies, the ethics of riffing, Super Powered Revenge Christmas, and more
David: Bill, it is a pleasure to speak with you!
Bill: Thanks, David! You too!
David: Obviously, Mystery Science Theater continues to be one of the most beloved shows of all time, with an immensely passionate fan base, and if I’m not mistaken, you yourself were a fan before you joined the team, correct?
Bill: Yeah, I was. I was a little bit late to the game comparatively, probably to people who were there from the get-go, but little by little, I just realized that a lot of people I knew in the Twin Cities, like in the writing and comedy communities here, were sort of involved with this show, or knew about it, and I got invited just by chance to a party at Best Brains Studios through a mutual friend, and that’s when I really–the first time I really knew for real about the show, was just going around the studio of MST3K, which is kind of a weird way to find out about it. But after that…I sat down and watched a bunch of episodes actually in the studio, you know, they were just sort of running during the party, and I couldn’t get enough of it, so…the next Turkey Day I just sort of parked myself in front of the TV and watched most of it, and from there I just loved it.
David: And of course, now you and Mike and Kevin are with Rifftrax, and I saw earlier this year that there are now more feature-length Rifftrax than there are episodes of MST3K, so congratulations on the milestone!
Bill: [chuckles] Thank you, I guess! “Volume, volume, volume!”
David: Yes. Quantity is what matters!
David: Now, Rifftrax has its next big live event on August 14, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, starring Matthew Broderick and half the cast of The Simpsons.
Bill: [chuckles] That is so true. It’s weird to see, you know, Simpsons actors who I love just sort of tooling around in this weirdo not-very-good Godzilla.
Bill: [laughs] We hope so! Yeah, we asked Jonathan to do the song, and luckily he said yes! I think it’s so great, and we’ve been sitting on it for a while; we have a little snippet of it, you know, sort of leading into some of our stuff now, just sort of a little bit of the verse, and we have for months. But then we decided we’d like to premiere it with a little animated cartoon, and those take some time, especially the way Harry does them, and especially at the level of quality he does them, so we’ve been sitting on it, sort of anxiously hoping to get it out there as soon as possible, and I’m so excited it’s finally gonna premiere, and be out in the world.
David: Wonderful, I’m looking forward to seeing that. Now, your work on RiffTrax is obviously very similar to your work on Mystery Science Theater, but there are a few contextual differences…on MST3K, you know, you had a robot puppet, obviously…
David: Clear difference. And your characters on the show were being forced to watch these movies, the riffing was a form of self defense. With RiffTrax, there’s no such backstory; you’re going out of your way to watch these films and joke about them. How does the shift in context influence the approach to joking about these movies?
Bill: Well, I think you’re absolutely right the way you frame it. I think we’ve only sort of figured that out stumblingly as we went, that even though the Bots could sort of do or say anything ultimately, because they were these blank slates for comedy, always rediscovering the world and wiping it out again. It doesn’t quite work when you have three guys who are playing themselves, that have been around for a while. We’re not like Mork coming to Earth or anything. So I think the main effect has been to…maybe over time just stop the sniping at the movie, or feeling…that sort of, you know, complaining that you have to be there as much, which is probably a bad comic instinct anyway, because a little of it goes a long way, and it’s not very funny. I think the other thing is, here and there we’ve alluded to ourselves more, and made ourselves the butt of our own jokes, like sort of running things…we did a joke the other day that…usually one of us will say something weird about our past, and the other two will act shocked, but it’s always a rotating weirdness about how bad our years in school were, or how torturous and horrible our marriage is…none of which are true, but it’s sort of filling in a little bit of a narrative at our own expense. But I think beyond that, outside of the way that we write them, which is not as much of a writing room anymore until we’re all together, it’s not all that different.
David: Another key difference in the movies you’re selecting, on Mystery Science Theater, most of your audience hadn’t seen the movies you were riffing before the episodes came out.
David: You could play up the element of discovering these weird old films. You can still do that a bit with your VODs, but when you’re doing an MP3 riff of, say, The Avengers, everybody watching already owns the film, they’ve seen it already, is there any difference in approaching the joke writing of a film the audience is already familiar with vs a film they’ve probably never heard of?
Bill: Yes! Yes, good question. I mean, yeah, we still…at this point, going into our eighth year here, our main business really is the Video On Demand and the shorts, those are the things we put out the most, but we still do these tentpole things, which started out to be, like, most of what we did on RiffTrax, but we little by little realized that, you know, people wanted to get the whole movie, too, and that we could still do these B-movies if we bought rights or if they were in public domain. But yeah, when you see something like The Avengers or Jaws or any of the Star Wars, you have to certainly keep in mind that people know this. And some of it, like any of the Star Wars stuff, has been raked over so often, that you can seem really hackish if you do jokes that have been done a lot in pop culture, so we do try to keep aware of that. Like, we did Wizard of Oz as a…sort of a vent/stunt riff recently, and we were really aware of how much ground has been trod over the years with Wizard of Oz, and tried to research it when possible, and you know, try to make it a newish thing when we could. But you’re right, with the older movies it’s almost like an act of curation of not-very-great stuff, and it always has been. And that was one of the aspects of it that people liked as much as anything. “We found this, and here it is. We’re gonna make jokes about it, but this is now in your sights here after we dug it out from some vault somewhere.” Occasionally, we do still have movies like that, like Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, which we found a couple of years ago. It wasn’t entirely unknown, but obscure enough so that none of us had heard of it, and then one of our fans just said, “Hey, look at this thing here,” and we couldn’t quite believe it. I mean, it’s as bad as anything we ever…bad in its own way, at least, as anything we ever did before.
David: You do have firsthand experience with Hollywood. And I apologize to pick at old wounds, but you did co-write the first draft of what eventually became Meet Dave, so you have seen how far off the rails a production can go from its original idea. Does that give you any more empathy towards anybody involved in, say, a Transformers or some similar terrible film?
Bill: Yeah, it does, in a word. [chuckles] Yeah, I mean, the experience with the Eddie Murphy movie, which ultimately became Meet Dave, was telling. And I hate to be too sour about it, I mean, I got a lot of money out of it, which was nice for my family at the time. But the cost of making money in Hollywood usually is sort of giving up a lot of your artistic control, and having it be tooled for what a corporation thinks is going to make the most money, so you have to kind of accept that. And I’m more sympathetic or empathetic toward actors or even writers who get caught up in that, and just are trying to do a bill-paying movie or two to get back to their real thing, or they think it’s good and then it just gets off the rails. There’s a lot of factors that are involved, and it sometimes shocks me that there’s anything good at all coming through Hollywood. And there are some good things here and there, or partially good at least, even if Meet Dave was not particularly one of them.
David: Now, some of the people in films you’ve riffed seem to be fans of yours. Several cast members from Starship Troopers and Birdemic attended those live shows. Does that ever make you self conscious about your jokes, or do you just trust that if they’re at the show, they have a sense of humor about themselves?
Bill: [chuckles] It does make us a little self-conscious, I must admit! It wasn’t really much of an issue back in the MST3K days, and even when we were doing the big blockbusters more in the early days of RiffTrax, you know, we were fairly certain that Hollywood was not paying attention to us, we’re just too small, and that they’ll just sort of flick us off like flies. I mean, they get so much feedback on their movies and their performances that it just wasn’t on their radar. But now that we’re doing these things as events, with movies and actors that maybe were…they’re still alive and kicking, and they’re still fairly young, but maybe it was ten years ago or more, like with Starship Troopers, more like fifteen years ago, or Birdemic which was really just a couple of years ago and has risen from being this obscure little find to kind of some part of pop culture, or The Room…yeah, suddenly I’m like…I don’t want these people to hear me abusing them! And it’s not a bad thing to keep in mind I think, you know, don’t be a jerk. You can have fun, but don’t be a jerk. The people from Starship Troopers by and large were real sports about it, and ditto with Birdemic, but still, yeah, it’s worth keeping in mind.
David: Now, are there any movies you’d really like to riff, but you just haven’t been able to convince the others that they’re riff-worthy?
Bill: [chuckles] Well, there’s two things going on with that. One is, I think there’s movies we would all like to riff, but there’s a bunch of movies that kind of don’t fit for how we do things, just because of the economic model. And I’m talking about, like, Stallone movies of the 80s. We tried that arm-wrestling movie, Over The Top, in the early days of RiffTrax. We even did it as a live show for Sketchfest in San Francisco. But it didn’t sell at all, and it wound up losing money. And we realized, well, those movies that people…you know, the MP3 part of the RiffTrax business has to be either something that people have or can get easily. Something like that, more obscure 80s titles that we can’t get the rights to, that people aren’t going to have really did badly, so we tend to avoid those, and that disappoints us all, so we’re hoping for a way out of that eventually. The other part of it is, stuff that I like that the other guys are not into, I’ve always wanted to do one of my favorite movies of all time, Billy Jack. 1970s classic about a half-breed Indian guy who knows karate and saves a bunch of hippies because they can’t kick ass themselves. It was a movie that I really loved growing up when I was a kid, and thought it was just so meaningful and good, and then I looked at it later on as an adult, and went “Oh my God, that’s not very good at all, is it?” So, yeah. That’s one for me, but those guys have not really bit. It might also be one of those ones where we would try to do it, and it wouldn’t sell, and we couldn’t get the rights to anyway. But I’d like to make the effort.
David: I also want to just quickly mention a non-RiffTrax project of yours, your comic book Super Powered Revenge Christmas.
David: I was a Kickstarter backer, so I’ve read the PDF…
Bill: Bless you!
David: It’s a wonderful, spot-on parody of dark and gritty reboots, wrapped inside a nice little touching Christmas story.
Bill: [chuckles] Well, thank you, David! I appreciate it! I just sent out the physical books literally yesterday, so I’m really…it’s been slow, and my Kickstarter backers like you have been incredibly good and patient, but now it’s a real thing and I’m excited to start putting it out there more.
David: That’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to seeing the physical…to being able to hold it in my hands.
Bill: Yeah! It was really thrilling, I have to say! I geeked out at having my own graphic novel in my hands.
David: Wonderful. So you’ve got that coming up, you’ve got RiffTrax Live on Godzilla on August , after that, you’ll have Anaconda. Is there anything else you’d like to plug that’s coming up?
Bill: I don’t think so. The comic book and RiffTrax are kinda what’s going on right now. I think we will also do a Christmas show, but we don’t have a title yet. We’re looking for something that is seasonal, but we haven’t exactly chosen yet. But that’s it.
David: Excellent. Well, we look forward to seeing those. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me!
Bill: Thank you, David! It was a pleasure!
Dave sits down in the Manga library with Janet, who talks about becoming part of Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise, creating San Francisco Sketchfest, writing and performing for RiffTrax, developing a puppet show with Neil Patrick Harris, hosting her podcast The JV Club, and acting in everything from Burning Love to How I Met Your Mother.
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