Synopsis: Mike, Kevin and Bill were joined on stage by their MST3K colleagues at the State Theatre in Minneapolis to bring it back to their roots in an MST3K cast reunion the likes of which have never been seen before!
Joining the guys are their old cohorts Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank), Trace Beaulieu (Crow, Dr. Forrestor), Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester), Bridget Nelson (Nuveena, Mr. B), as well as Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, AND the host of the revived MST, Jonah Ray, for a hilarious night of riffing for RiffTrax’s 20th Live event.
Taking turns in various permutations to riff on a slew of old-timey shorts, the show culminates in a Super Riff-A-Palooza finale with all nine riffers on stage at once!
eyelights: its Riffapalooza. Joel and Jonah’s dynamic duo.
eyesores: its verbal missteps. its minimalistic presentation.
“My two favourite Crows together” – Kevin Murphy
On June 28, 2016, the creative madmen behind RiffTrax celebrated their 10th anniversary by doing a live extravaganza at The State Theater in Minneapolis. For the occasion, they drew deep into their roots and brought forth most of their former compatriots from ‘Mystery Science Theatre 3000’.
So, for two hours and twenty one minutes, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett shared the stage with Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Joel Hodgson, Bridget Nelson, Mary Jo Pehl and Jonah Ray (host of the upcoming ‘MST3K’ revival) before eager fans at State and across U.S. cinemas.
Dang… I wish I could have been there.
However, since it wasn’t broadcast outside the ol’ U.S. of A, I had to wait until its release on home video to see it. But patience has its virtues: a blu-ray holds the advantage of not having the signal drop-outs I’d experienced at previous broadcasts and the added bonus of a few special features.
For this special presentation, the group split up into small teams (i.e. the more organic writing partners), with each of them taking turns riffing on different short films. They then came together for a giant finale, which Kevin called a Riff-a-Palooza, doing a short film together – as well as an encore.
The broadcast began with a countdown of the first 19 RiffTrax Live! shows along with brief clips before rolling the RiffTrax cartoon credits. To me, it felt epic until the credits, which I’ve never warmed up to. Then Mike, Kevin and Bill introduced the evening, showing us the others backstage.
And proceeded to the business at hand.
1. The Talking Car (Bill, Kevin and Mike): Released in 1969, this 16-minute entry finds Jimmy almost getting hit by a passing car, and then receiving a talking to by his dad. That night he dreams of three cars, who have animated faces painted on them. They proceed to teaching him the rules of “see and be seen”. Oh, and he gets berated by one of them, leading Bill to ask: “Who hurt you, old jalopy?”. It’s an educational short that sort of misses its mark, but the RiffTrax crew didn’t. 7.75
2. Word to the Wives (Mary Jo and Bridget): Released in 1955, this 12-minute black-and-white advertainment finds two housewives discussing the ups and downs of their lives. Alice shows Jane all the great modern gadgetry she has that Jane doesn’t, then we see George, Jane’s spouse, trying to do all the chores in her absence. Haha… whatta putz! Anyway, Alice’s spouse, Don, arrives at their show and tell: “What’s going on here?”, he asks. “Consumerism!”, to brilliantly retort Mary Jo. I found Bridget a bit hesitant, and both of their timings was a smidge off, but Mary Jo got good laughs. 7.5
3. More Dates for Kay (Frank and Trace): This 10-minute 1952 short finds Mary despairing about her lovelife. Thankfully, her older sister tells her about Kay, a friend who mastered dating. Watch plain-looking Kay work the room at school, leading Frank to wonder “Kay, why did you just give me a condom?”. The riffs were okay, but it was the best short yet, getting a lot of laughs on its own. 7.75
4. Shake Hands with Danger (Bill, Kevin and Mike): This 16-minute corporate-sponsored educational short from 1980 is a classic from the RiffTrax catalogue. It’s, as Mike puts it, “a safety short if it were made by Sam Elliott”: It takes us to a construction site with a bunch of heavy machinery, gives us a narrator with a Western drawl and then backs it by a country soundtrack. Basically, we get to watch a bunch of hicks make bad judgement calls with dangerous machinery. Again, the laughs were mostly about the short, not the riffs. 7.5
5. Americans at Work: Barbers (Jonah and Joel): This 1959 educational short is essentially a quick history of 6000 years of hair dressing. Wow… there’s so much sexism between the male and female perspectives. The riffs were okay but Jonah and Joel played off of each other very nicely, even scheduling an “impromptu” podium switch midway (Nice. Joel was always a bit goofy). Jonah stumbles a bit in his debut but he got the best laugh: “I want you to give me the Chris Tucker from ‘The Fifth Element'”. 7.5
6. Highlights reel from the last 10 years, featuring footage from ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Santa Clause’, ‘Revenge of the Sith’, …etc.
7. Stamp Day for Superman (Frank, Trace, Jonah, Bridget, Joel, Mary Jo, Bill, Mike, Kevin): This 18-minute, US government-sponsored, short film was released in 1954 as a promotional tool for U.S. Savings Bonds. Filmed by the same crew behind the classic ‘Adventures of Superman’ TV series, it stars George Reeves, Christopher‘s father (no, not really) and the rest of the show’s cast.
It begins with Lois and Clark seeing a robbery in progress and Clark running off to change into his superhero tights, leading Kevin to exclaim: “This is the closest thing to coming out in the ’50s”. Then Jimmy, Lois and Clark discuss investments and buying bonds and stamps. Then Lois gets kidnapped by a contact. After sitting around for a while, Supes comes to the rescue: “Sitting quietly while people make phone calls: Action Comics”, jokes Mary Jo. Then Supes tells kids about saving money: “Stamp Day rules! Bite me, Christmas!” screams Joel in a childlike voice. What was cool about the Riff-A-Palooza was that the nine of them were on the bottom of the screen. But there were too many voices at once for my taste; it was overwhelming. 7.5
8. At Your Fingertips: Grasses (Frank, Trace, Jonah, Bridget, Joel, Mary Jo, Bill, Mike, Kevin): Another RiffTrax classic, this 10-minute 1970 ditty purports to show kids the many artisanal uses for grass – and the results are both hilarious and horrific: “This is just one lawnmower away from a snuff film”, aptly remarks Frank. Seriously, you’d have to be high to think these arts and crafts were aesthetically pleasing – or normal. So when the film showed us kids wearing the creepy headdress they made, it only made sense for Mike to comment that “It’s a great way to get out of jury duty”. Ultimately, Trace reflected that “This is a film for the patients nurses won’t give scissors to”. So true. This short was the best short of the bunch and it had the best riffs. 8.0
One of my biggest gripes with the more recent ‘RiffTrax’ Live shows has been the presentation: Mike, Kevin and Bill have been mostly content to just show up, perform a short, plug some other shows, do the main feature and then call it a night – whereas the early shows had much more variety.
The same could be said about this one: each RiffTeam essentially took turns coming on, riffed their short film and then the next team took the stage. There was little that was truly celebratory about the fact that nearly everyone from ‘MST3K’ had been brought back together again after so long.
Sure, there was some banter between the Riffers (Mike was “surprised” to discover that he’d been married to Bridget all these years), and there was an introduction to the new host, Jonah (or “new meat”, as per Kevin), and the RiffTrax writers and crew. But, otherwise, it was business as usual.
And then it was all over.
After the original show and live broadcast, I’d read that it had been merely okay but that fans would appreciate it. Maybe it’s because I’m a die-hard fan but I thought this was a stellar show – not because of the hilarity of the riffs, the uniqueness of the shorts or the creativity of the presentation.
It’s just that, as a whole, it was a terrific time. Separately, the shorts and performances were sometimes serviceable, but seeing all of these people perform together, each bringing their unique style and flavour of humour to the proceedings, made the end result greater than the sum of its parts.
So I’m glad that they did it, and I’m glad that I could finally see it (as if they wouldn’t make this available on home video post-haste!). Yes, I wish there had been more care put into it, but maybe that’s something that they could consider for the 20th or 25th anniversary. It gives them plenty of time.
One thing for sure, I’ll be tuning in if they do.
Date of viewing: January 16, 2017