PBJ Q&A: Michael J. Nelson

A new feature here at Professor Barnhardt’s Journal, the PBJ Q&A. Short interviews, just a half dozen questions and no more: five serious (ish) and one completely random.

First up: Mike Nelson of Rifftrax and Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. Mike is an old friend of PBJ. He’s given us his words of wisdom, listed his favorite TV shows, and even written a short story for us. Today, before the Rifftrax gang’s live riffing of Sharknado at a theater near you on July 10 (with an encore on July 15!), Mike answers 6 random questions. Thanks Mike!


So you’re doing Sharknado Live. Do you have to approach a movie like this differently when you riff it, because the filmmakers themselves/Syfy obviously know how absurd it is and are in on the joke and may even be doing things on purpose in the movie to make it jokey/get people talking about it on social media, etc?

Short answer, yes. You have to acknowledge the filmmaker’s awareness of its own cheekiness and not “punish” them for that, which would be cheating and I think would not work comedically. However, the movie itself does go for pure action and family drama along with some throwaway snark; so it’s firmly in the B-action movie genre with which we’re very familiar.

Longer answer: It’s really not dissimilar from a lot of movies we’ve done in the past including The Killer Shrews, Night of the Lepus, Attack of the Puppet People, Amazing Colossal Man, etc. — all those films that play off a cheeky title but try to score with some action and a coherent plot.

But I’d note that we’re doing Godzilla and Anaconda this year (along with our personal favorite, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny) and they all tried to accomplish roughly the same thing. They only lacked the extensive social media awareness. To extend my dry answer even further, I think it’s much closer to the early Schwarzenegger films in tone, which I think works well for us.

Is riffing with Rifftrax different than with MST3K? Because at MST3K you always did at the very least B, maybe C, low-budget movies. You do those movies at Rifftrax too but you also do bigger movies that most people would say are “good” (Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, etc). Do you have to approach the really “good” movies differently?

It is different, because for the most part I did not particularly like the movies we did on MST. Like a lot of people I had affection towards them but I did not admire them and I still refuse to give credit for effort, or perhaps more accurately, more credit than is warranted. To explain: there’s a vein of criticism that goes like this: “Hey, this B-movie maker, he went out on his own, he didn’t have a lot of money, he didn’t have a lot of talent, he wasn’t able to rent lights or write a very good script but dang it he had HEART and this is the movie he made and we should RESPECT that!”

I utterly reject this, and I think with a moment’s thought so would any reasonable person. Imagine this: “You know, this restaurant owner, he didn’t have a lot of talent, he bought poor quality food, some of it may have even been rotten, I may spend a long time in the bathroom, it tasted terrible and was poorly presented but dang it he had HEART and we should RESPECT that!”

Given that, I still think the general tone of our humor at MST was pretty gentle because it’s simply not fun or funny to watch a bunch of angry bitter jerks rip on some terrible film. And we carry the same spirit into the good films we do. You also have to be a lot more clever when doing a good movie because, well, it’s good! So the source of your humor has to come from somewhere other than its inadequacies and that’s where you can get more creative.

But don’t you think it makes more sense to like, say, an Ed Wood film, more than an Adam Sandler or Michael Bay film where they DO have all the money/resources/cast in the world yet they still come up with stuff that isn’t very good (most people would say anyway)?

Yes! And that’s what I mean when I say I have affection for them. For Adam Sandler and Michael Bay I have neither affection nor admiration.

Is there a movie you haven’t riffed yet that you’d love to do? Is there a movie or type of movie that just isn’t riffable for one reason or another?

We’ve talked about doing The Godfather, not because it’s not a great movie, but because it’s just so familiar to people with so many famous moments that it might be fun a thing to explore.

As for film we wouldn’t do I think it just amounts to content, i.e., something about which you just shouldn’t be making jokes, or just those things we just find too tasteless or crude.

Isn’t riffing live sort of terrifying?

Yes. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things that could go wrong. And when it’s time and the satellite is going live to 650 theaters, I feel more than a bit of heat under the collar. Luckily, if something go wrong when I mess up at my job the worst that can happen is that someone won’t laugh at something in a shark movie, so that helps to stanch the terror.

OK, last question, but possibly the most important: what’s your favorite type of pickle? Defend your answer.

Oo, tough question. In the whole of the wider pickled universe I tend towards the Eastern European thing, pickled fish, beets, cabbage,etc. But I also like Japanese pickles.

But I’ll assume you meant the narrower pickled cucumber definition and in that case I’m gonna have to go with Claussen. I have sympathy for those who demand only lacto-fermented homemade, or old style deli pickles (the ones they leave out on the table) but Claussen doesn’t lie, they make a nice crunchy vinegar pickle.

My defense: I say this as someone who makes his own lacto-fermented pickles regularly.

You can follow Mike at his tumblr, on Facebook, and even Twitter!


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