For the first season of their podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back, RiffTrax head honcho Michael J. Nelson and writer Conor Lastowka decided to lay off of riffing on movies for a bit and focus on the local library by taking on Ernest Cline’s 2011 sci-fi ode to ‘80s pop culture and all things geeky, Ready Player One.
The show, now in its second season, continues to put Cline through the wringer by riffing on his 2015 follow up Armada. Now that Ready Player One has been adapted by Steven Spielberg for the big screen, Nelson and Lastowka chatted with The A.V. Club about why they chose to pick apart the popular novel, mediocre books that were turned into better movies, and what Nelson would have done if the Satellite Of Love showed up in Ready Player One’s VR world.
The A.V. Club: Conor, how long have you been a part of the RiffTrax empire?
Conor Lastowka: I was there from day zero. I was working for Legend Films, and Mike would come in and do funny DVD commentaries for these movies. I had been working there for two or three months and when Mike decided to move to town and asked me if I wanted to help record these things, to sync the voices to the movies. I was like “sure, I can do that, why not?” At some point I was like, “hey I’m funny, let me try writing these things,” and Mike was willing to let it happen.
AVC: Whose idea was it to do a podcast?
CL: This was back in October of September, right before our last live show. That’s when the first teaser for the adaptation of Ready Player One came out [and] people started sharing infamous passages from the book. It had been on my radar when it came out, but I hadn’t thought about it since then. Then I saw these passages, I thought, “boy, these are terriblem and of everyone I know, Mike would recoil from this the most.” This proved to be true and Mike took the risk.
AVC: Mike, were you aware of Ready Player One before Conor brought it to your attention? You and the rest of the RiffTrax team stay impressively abreast of pop culture.
Michael Nelson: There are plenty of gaps—which detractors of our podcast are more than willing to point out to us—that we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about, which is fair enough. Ready Player One had not crossed my path at all. When Conor sent me that passage, I said, “this is not from a book, someone wrote this down as a joke.” It still remains the same after having read the book. I’m still not convinced that it’s from a book.
AVC: Is there anything else outside of the nostalgia and the prose that confounds you about the following this book has?
CL: It’s the repetition, I think, that drove Mike and I nuts. He runs out of ways to describe things so everything is just a “classic.” He would endlessly list things. James Halliday was obsessed with video games, science fiction, and ‘80s pop culture, and he would work that phrase in around every corner.
MN: I just can’t get into art where the prose is bad, or where the art itself is bad. I enjoy reading because I enjoy savoring the sentences and the writing itself as well as the ideas. The fact that people love it, I get it—it’s referencing stuff that you grew up on and hold dear. But to me it would be like looking at that stuff through a window smeared with feces. I cannot see what you are seeing because the prose is so bad. Again, the fan fiction is an improvement on what he does. That’s what drove me crazy.
CL: In the last part of Armada, Cline uses the phrase “he blushed visibly.” The book was littered with things like that. It’s easier to focus on the big targets, but those are the things that really delight you as you’re reading it on a close level. There’s also no explanation for the apocalypse: We’re told that an apocalypse happened, but everything the character needs for his rig is delivered to his door via Amazon Prime. The entire economy seems to exist to support this massive VR world and it only inconveniences it when it needs to.
AVC: Did you read the whole book before starting the podcast, or were you reading it as you went along?
CL: We would go into each week blind. The only way we would know what was coming if someone submitted us a passage from later in the book trying to trick us into thinking it was fan fiction. You’d read these things thinking they were fan fiction, then 150 pages later, you’d come across it in the book and be like, “that’s how that relates to this entire thing? That’s how he wedged that Brady Bunch reference in there?” My God.
AVC: How were you able to differentiate the fan fiction from the actual book?
MN: It’s impossible. We’ve tested each other week by week and it’s a coin flip. I’ve failed every time.
CL: They should create a new Turing test with this process. For Ready Player One there was a lot of fan fiction. For Armada, there was a damning critique of the book but no fan fiction. We got listeners to write us fan fiction, and they started learning and adapting as this went on. They used to just write stuff like “this was just like the classic sci-fi flick Star Wars,” and we learned to sniff that stuff out. They had to integrate more subtle Cline-ian details into their writing.
AVC: You guys are the grandmasters of making fun of things. How did you decide to do a book? Was it simply that you wanted to make fun of Ready Player One?
MN: I think if any book [is ripe for riffing], that one is a good one. Conor was right. It didn’t take much convincing with me once I looked it up and saw that it had a wide reach. After the fact, we enjoyed it a lot...
AVC: You enjoyed the book?
MN: No! I enjoyed taking apart the book. I enjoyed the process of talking about and critiquing the book, such as it is. But what we discovered was that a bunch of people I knew came out of the woodwork and said, “hey, I heard your podcast and I’m a big fan of that book.” It was this bizarre phenomenon where I had never heard of it, but once I started ripping on it a little bit suddenly old friends and new came a-calling.
AVC: You guys seem to be doing this in relatively good fun. Do these friends get bent out of shape because they hold this book dear to their hearts and you’re making fun of it?
MN: I haven’t experienced that, no. They all do it in good humor and I think that anyone who has not heard [the podcast] can just listen to it, and you’ll get our tone quickly. It’s like the RiffTrax tone. We’re not bitter people who are not having fun, we’re having fun and inviting other people to have fun with it. Who wants to listen to a bunch of bitter idiots ripping on something they hate?
AVC: You can go on Twitter for that.
CL: Bitter Idiots Ripping On Something They Hate is one of my favorite podcasts. I think that the fans of Ready Player One—it sold however many millions of copies, and it seemed to be a book that a lot of people casually read, but didn’t get really invested in like Star Wars or Steven Universe. I’m puzzled by it, because there don’t seem to be as many superfans of it. I think a lot of people realized at the same time we did that this is not very good, and there’s a lot to poke fun at.
AVC: Do you think this is peak Spielberg, where he’s making a movie about people who grew up with his movies?
MN: It could be a black hole of pop culture at some point, because surely a bunch of his movies would be included in Cline’s fandom. Obviously, this this is Steven Spielberg so it won’t be an utter piece of trash; it’s all going to be very well done. Frankly, there are many bad books that have become decent movies, and I suspect that’s what’s going to happen here. It would delight me if that weren’t the case, but I suspect given the pedigree that it will turn out just fine.
CL: I’m worried that it’s going to do some revisionist history with the quality of the book, but I can’t see it being anything other than a passable popcorn flick. Honestly, it lends itself to a visual medium than it does listening to Ernest Cline describe something as classic for the four dozenth time.
AVC: You mentioned some mediocre books that became great movies. What would you put on that list?
MN: The Godfather is the famous one, and I’d say this is on a similar fame path. The Bridges Of Madison County. The movie’s not great, but it’s way better than the book. It becomes a lyrical movie that’s a piece of cotton candy, but the book? The prose is just awful. I’m just saying that that’s an upgrade, I’m not calling that a good movie, for the record.
CL: I think some of Stephen King’s books work that way too. The Shawshank Redemption is not a bad book, but it didn’t have the same impact before the movie came out.
AVC: There are lots of ‘80s nods in Ready Player One. Mike, we’re at a point now where Mystery Science Theater 3000 is nostalgia. Are you weirded out by being a part of that?
MN: No, it was an amusing thing we included in the podcast. We kept waiting [for a MST3K reference]. I don’t really think of us as a sci-fi geek thing, although we are certainly lumped into that. I always thought of us as straight comedy, but I’d be an idiot if I didn’t think that the sci-fi element puts it in that genre. I was turning the pages rather nervously waiting for it. Thank goodness it’s not part of his “classic” stuff. I’m just fine with that.
CL: If you had flipped to a page where the character had to navigate Crow kissing Tom Servo in some sort of off planet VR world, it might have been the end of the podcast then and there.
MN: Yeah, while talking about the several discreet openings in his VR suit. I would have had to get out of there.
AVC: So what’s up next, some V.C. Andrews?
MN: We’re taking suggestions, but before that, we’re doing a live version of the podcast at Sisyphus Brewing in Minneapolis on April 11. We’ve got a comedy room in a brewery and we’re going to take on the movie. We don’t know how it’s going to go, we’re going to watch the movie together and then talk about it live with an audience the next day. It’ll be a lot of fun.
CL: People have suggested Dan Brown. I kind of want to do something that’s regarded as a great book that nobody ever reads, like Ulysses.
MN: I’m fatigued over the “classic” ‘80s myself.
CL: We could probably devote a whole season to [Cline’s] poem Nerd Porn Auteur, however.
AVC: How about Sean Penn’s new book?
MN: That’s hilarious. With poetry like, “so rattled, addled and saddled / our entitlement is recklessly embattled” I don’t know how we could go wrong.
CL: I’ve held a grudge against Penn ever since he brutally attacked Steve Dallas in a 1986 Bloom County comic strip, so it delighted me to see how terrible the excerpts [of his book] that made the rounds were. It was kind of like if you took Ready Player One and replaced all the “geeky references” with “really terrible bullshit.” Dozens of people sent them to us asking the same question, and honestly, we launched the Ready Player One podcast based on seeing the same thing: terrible excerpts circulating virally. So we’ll certainly consider it! I suspect we’d be the only two people to actually read it all the way though.
AVC: Will you be riffing on the movie Ready Player One once it hits home video?
CL: It was our stretch goal in our Kickstarter that finished over the weekend, so it’s on the schedule. We gotta make it happen.
MN: We’re not done with this yet.
Tickets are now available for 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back & Like Trees Walking Live! on April 11 at Sisyphus Brewing in Minneapolis. Both seasons of the podcast are currently available on iTunes.