Once upon a time, there was a thing called the “Cable Ace Awards.” It was basically the Emmys for cable TV. They stopped giving them out about the same time HBO started winning all of the real Emmys, at which point they realized there was no longer any reason for the Ace Awards to exist, showing the sort of self-awareness the MPAA can only dream of. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one lasting contribution the Ace Awards made to modern society: they’re responsible for my introduction to Mystery Science Theater 3000. One year, whichever network was broadcasting the awards showed a bunch of the nominated shows over a weekend, including an episode of MST3K. As my parents’ cable provider did not, at that time, carry Comedy Central, I’d never seen an episode before. I stumbled upon the image of a guy and two robots in a darkened theater cracking jokes about a terrible 50s-era monster movie, the sort that local TV channels still showed all weekend even then. I was instantly mesmerized, but it would be about two years before our local cable got Comedy Central and I was given my real entryway into becoming a hardcore MSTie for life.
MST3K went away many years ago, of course, but it has its spiritual successors, my favorite of which is RiffTrax. The RiffTrax crew consists of Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy – essentially the second cast of MST3K. They’re doing the same job as before, making fun of movies, but now they do it through video on demand you can download from their website or buy on DVD, MP3 commentary riffs for blockbuster movies that you can synch and watch on your own, and a few times a year, live riffs of movies they perform in front of an audience and broadcast to movie theaters across America. Last night, I went to the first RiffTrax Live event I’ve had the chance to attend – a Kickstarter-fueled riffing of director Paul Verhoven’s laughably bad sci-fi “satire” Starship Troopers. The riff was great, picking apart the movie mercilessly. Even several cast members, including Casper Van Dien, Clancy Brown, Jake Busey, and Neil Patrick Harris (who has joined Mike Nelson for riffs in the past) spread the word about the riffing, none of which particularly spared them from the crew’s jokes… although it should be noted that Denise Richards undoubtedly got the worst of their jabs, and she didn’t seem to have anything to do with promoting the riffing.
I’m not here to sell you on the riff, though – you can go to their website and download any of their riffs if you need convincing. What I loved about this, more than anything else, was the actual experience of watching the film. I went with my friends Kenny, Daniel and Lauren, all of whom have gone to RiffTrax Live shows before, and therefore knew a bit more about what to expect than I did. As we sat down, the screen rolled with what appeared to be the usual pre-movie spiel you get in any multiplex in America… but soon, the resounding laughter would make it clear even to the blind that this wasn’t just your ordinary stuff. Instead, it was RiffTrax-generated jokes. Anagrams that poked fun at recent summer blockbusters, “Movie Mistakes” gags that invariably turned into jokes about Casper Van Dien’s post-Troopers career, and so on. With each change of the scene there’d be quiet, then laughter.
In-between the new screens, though, the atmosphere was nothing like a usual movie theater, where disinterested strangers sit around chomping down their popcorn at best or yammering on their phone at worst. Instead, it was a sort of carnival atmosphere, full of people who came not just to watch a movie, but to have a good time. People roamed around, talking, chatting to strangers. There was a sort of unspoken promise that the general volume level would drop to read the preshow cards (even though there was no technical reason for it to do so), and a bizarre feeling of community. It was like everybody in the room was in on a joke that we knew the people wandering in and out of whatever Tyler Perry joint was soiling the adjacent theater would never understand.
Once the movie started, the conversation stopped, but not the noise. People laughed, people cheered, people applauded their favorite riffs. I don’t usually clap even in the best of movies, because it’s not like the actors can hear me. But when Mike Nelson dropped a fairly obvious gag at the expense of AT&T, it hit a sort of universal chord that made the theater almost explode with energy, and I found myself pounding my hands together along with everybody else.
Because I wasn’t just “at the movies,” like I am any other time, even when the best movies are on the screen. Years ago, the MST3K commercials included a line that was something like, “It’s like watching cheesy movies with three of your funniest friends.” Last night, I felt like I was in an entire theater full of friends who wanted to have a good time together.
They’re going to rebroadcast the Starship Troopers show on September 12, again in theaters across America. Then they’re coming back on October 24 to riff the granddaddy of the modern zombie film, Night of the Living Dead. I can’t wait to see that one too, and I intend to go to as many of these as I can from now on. In a world where even movie theaters are so often dens of misery, it’s great to know that for just a little while, you can stop in for some pure, untarnished fun.