Tonight, the Rifftrax gang will be presenting their Rifftrax Live: Summer Shorts Beach Party, broadcasting live from Nashville, Tennessee, the “Beach Party Capital Of The South.” Longtime friends and Rifftrax collaborators Bridget Nelson and Mary Jo Pehl will join Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy on stage; also joining them will be their Mystery Science Theater 3000 cohorts Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff as the gang takes on a curated collection of educational shorts.
“There were a couple movies that didn’t fill out [the full running time], and early on we realized that these shorts were gold,” Nelson says, explaining how these educational shorts became part of the MST3K lexicon. “It gave the show the feel of an old-time movie show by starting with the short films,” adds Murphy. “I have a really terrible attention span, so the shorts are just made for me,” jokes Corbett.
These shorts may have even been the spark that eventually lit the flame for MST3K and Rifftrax, as a young Kevin Murphy was sent to the principal’s office for pursuing what would eventually become his career. “The first time I got sent to the principal’s office in grade school was for making comments during the showing of an educational short film,” recalls Murphy. “I earned my reputation.”
The youth of today have quite possibly never been in the presence of an 8mm projector, much less seen one rolled into their classroom on an afternoon when their teacher simply wants the room dark and relatively quiet. “That was the time when the teachers would leave the room, sneak out the back door and think that you wouldn’t notice that they were out smoking,” Nelson remembers. “They’d come back reeking of tobacco and asking, ‘do you have any questions about that?’”
“We have some from the ‘60s and ‘70s, which theoretically would have been the time I would have seen them as a kid,” adds Corbett, “but our school was so far behind that the older, creakier black-and-white ones were the ones we got. Those are little more familiar to me, those postwar, very sincere instructions on how to live as a good civic American. How to fall in love, how to comb your hair, clean your toes. I love those because they’re so sincere and they give us so much fodder. They’re like little archeological digs, in a way, into the culture of that time.”
Those films went on to become fan favorites with names such as Alphabet Antics, Mr. B Natural, and The Home Economics Story. So what do the guys look for when they go through the boxes and boxes of beat up 8mm reels that they unearth on eBay? “There was one that we did a long time ago, a safety short where these kids are on bikes and they wear monkey masks,” explains Nelson. “One of the comments on the video was someone recalling seeing it as a kid and having nightmares for years. They said, ’thank you for posting this so I know it was true.’” Then it was just a pile on of people going “me too, I can’t believe this actually happened.” “It was like a mass exorcism for our fans,” adds Corbett.
“I like when they take away an essential commodity and the world falls apart around it,” explains Murphy. “We did one with an anthropomorphic paper bag. This child is imbued with the power to take paper away from the world and we see how the world operates without paper and of course the world falls apart.
“I am very fond of anything that has a anthropomorphized character lecturing human beings,” Corbett adds. “I’m particularly fond of Coily the spring sprite, an all-powerful anthropomorphized spring who can make matter and time bend to his will all in the service of teaching people to appreciate springs. It seems like a piddling ambition for an all-powerful being, but so be it.”
Nelson recalls a moment in the MST3K writer’s room while they were riffing on the 1956 short Keeping Clean And Neat: “As we were writing for one of the hygiene ones there was a cry of rage from Frank [Conniff] in the writer’s room. The short explained that after you shower is the time to trim your toenails, never attempt to do it at any other time or something like that. And Frank just went, “why, why the fuck do you care?’”
Conniff will join the core riffers for tonight’s performance, along with the one and only Dr. Clayton Forrester and his mother, Pearl. “It’s always great to see them in this context because we all obviously still enjoy this,” Nelson says. “It’s fun. You get together with people that you’ve always done comedy with and you still laugh. We’ve been doing it all these years and we still love it.”
Also joining the team on stage fot tonight’s performance is comedian and writer Paul F. Tompkins. “We took Paul F. Tompkins up from our farm team after good showings at San Francisco’s Sketch Fest,” jokes Corbett. “He’s got the goods. Paul is brilliant and fun, he’s a great guy to spend time with it.” “He’s really fun to perform with because he’s very light on his feet,” adds Murphy. “He’s an amazing improviser. Nothing ruffles him on stage, which I love. Everything ruffles me when I’m on stage.”
“There’s probably more improv at this show more than any other because we have people who aren’t on our team,” explains Nelson. “We’re used to scripting and making it sound improvised, which I enjoy, but we have people who are a little more “improvy” in this show and it tends to be a little looser so you’ll hear some things that were never scripted which is also fun. The majority of it is scripted and planned. We just get to relax and perform it.”
“When you do it in front of a live audience as we do in Nashville, sometimes you get thrown for a loop,” adds Corbett. “Something that you think was a big laugh turns out to be a silent reaction or vice versa when something you thought was a throwaway brings the house down. I like riding those waves and figuring out what to do. We will switch things around and throw things in, but we have a really good bedrock with the script. We take some care with it so that we’re never standing up there just staring out trying to think of something, because we’re not that smart.”
Tickets for tonight’s RiffTrax Live: Summer Shorts Beach Party can be purchased through the Fathom Events website. There will be an encore showing June 20.