Synopsis: Watch Mike, Bill, Kevin, and an all-star crew of hilarious guest riffers take on seven classic less-than-educational shorts, filmed LIVE onstage at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre in January of 2013, in all its gritty, low-light, shakey-cam glory!
eyelights: Mike, Bill and Kevin. its guest riffers.
eyesores: its rudimentary presentation. its technical.
“‘Welcome Back Norman’ was filmed in front of an indifferent audience.”
The SF Sketchfest is a comedy festival that has been showcasing a great range of performers since 2002. On January 24, 2013, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin J. Murphy and Bill Corbett made their fourth appearance at The Castro Theatre.
Billed as “Rifftrax Presents: Night of the Shorts 4: Riffizens on Patrol”, they presented a series of seven 10-11 minute films, over which they served up their infamous commentary – with the help of a series of friends and comic legends.
The 97-minute film is the first of their SF Sketchfest shows that’s available on home video.
The presentation is rudimentary: after being introduced by the SF Sketchfest host, Mike, Kevin and Bill climb onto the stage and thank the audience (though Bill is confused, thinking he’s in Los Angeles). Then they introduce their shorts.
1. Welcome Back Norman: At 7-minutes long, this repeat of a short that Mike, Kevin and Bill had riffed to great effect during the ‘Manos‘ show in 2012 is the odd one out. They begin by introducing it, and then Bill gets everyone to do the Norman groan. The short consists of the pasty loser arriving at the airport and trying to find his car – to a lame country ballad. It’s very ’70s, and quite funny (in a pathetic sort of way). Our trio frequently comment on not knowing who he is or where he is and Bill encapsulates it well: “Norman is in a Hell realm of despair”. 8.0
2. Perc! Pop! Sprinkle!: For this 1969 educational short, designed to get kids to have fun moving, the RiffTrax gang are joined by Janet Varney and Cole Stratton, co-founders of SF Sketchfest. Watch kids lying on asphalt, rolling about, and other kids moving as though they were emulating the movement of household appliances. WTF. It’s so ridiculous to watch: their movements don’t resemble the examples provided at all. As Kevin commented: “Actual fun, not depicted”. And Mike makes a good point: “Meanwhile, Chinese first graders are mastering algebra and physics”. Sadly, Varney and Stratton aren’t very funny. Was it their material? Or their shoddy delivery? Or both? 7.5
3. Choking: To Save a Life: For this one, The Kids In The Hall’s Kevin MacDonald joined them. This 1977 short is apparently a safety film – for adults. It starts with a bunch of people and animals eating in lots of yucky close-ups. The narrator claims that choking is the seventh highest form of accidental death (So basically, if you consider intentional deaths, this probably shouldn’t even register! Um… why bother, then?). Anyway, they show us how choking might happen, leading me to scream at my screen: “Just chew your food, for God’s sake!”. Urgh. Meanwhile, Kevin MacDonald landed the best line with: “Honey, not another chest burster, dammit!”. The short proceeds to show us techniques for helping choking victims. It’s pretty aggressive. And the self-administered technique consists of guy thrusting himself brusquely against a chair. Classic. 7.5
4. Cooking Terms and What They Mean: This 1949 b&w instructional film shows a newlywed trying to cook for the first time. She has no understanding of basic terms, which leads the narrator to chastise her condescendingly. Mike disapproves: “Hey, keep it clean, you perv”. And Bill comments on the appetizing offerings: “Mmmm… delicious grey food”. It’s a repetitive bit, but it serves up a few great laughs. 7.5
5. More Dangerous Than Dynamite: In 2010, the RiffTrax gang riffed this short for their ‘Reefer Madness‘ live show. Released in 1941, this b&w educational film warns housewives about the dangers of washing their clothes in gasoline. Seriously. This leads guest riffer Adam Savage from ‘Mythbusters’ to comment: “Hank loves it when my negligee reeks of diesel”. Personally, I love the ending with the housewife running out screaming with animated fire on her. Adam adds to this “frightful” scene: “Still, my shirts better be ready by Monday”. Ha! 7.75
6. The Self Image Film (If Mirrors Could Speak): Kristen Schaal from ’30 Rock’ and ‘Flight of the Conchords’ joins the gang for this surreal 1976 short showing us how asocial some kids unknowingly are. These kids are all in weird clown make-up, leading Mike to shout: “Argh! Pennywise!” and Kirsten to later add: “I’m a Juggalo, and I’m proud of it!”. Nice. Anyway, we’re shown how kids can strip themselves of their clown faces. Yay, conformism! 7.5
7. At Your Fingertips: Cylinders: Paul F Tompkins, comedian, joins the crew for the final short, the 1970 classic ‘At Your Fingertips: Cylinders’. Tompkins begins by recounting an incident on his flight to San Fran. It’s mildly amusing. As for the short itself, after watching kids play on large pipes, the narrator tells us what a cylinder is. Watch kids glue cardboard on cylinder, join cylinders together, …etc. Bill had the best line with: “Our engineers, hard at work making a brand new Saturn”. Ha! At one point, the narrator stops midway, leading Kevin to suggest that he went out for a smoke and got locked out. At another point, a girl stares at us, and Bill says, all creepily: “I made you something”. Nice. 7.75
After a few abrupt farewells, that was it for ‘SF Sketchfest 2013’.
As has become the standard, my main grievance with this “RiffTrax Live” show is that it lacks showmanship: the guys just show up, riff and leave. It’s more fun when they make a event of it (admittedly, perhaps Sketchfest may not have made it possible).
It was fun, however, to have guest riffers join them; that peppered the pot somewhat – though they weren’t all stellar. Sometimes it felt as though they were just handed their scripts and told when to show up, that there was no pre-show practice.
Or maybe it just illustrates clearly the difference between the chaff and the wheat.
On a technical level, the recording was edited between the bits, perhaps to tighten the presentation. Though, as a purist, I always much prefer to see a whole show, including missteps and wait times, than feeling like I’m missing something.
The audio could possibly drive an audiophile mad: the volume of the participants’ voices varied frequently, sometimes being soft and then suddenly shouting. And I found that not hearing the audience laughing along diminished the experience.
Still, ‘RiffTrax Live: Night of the Shorts – SF Sketchfest 2013’ is an enjoyable diversion. It has some terrific moments along the way, and it’s fun to watch our classic trio mix it up with guests; sometimes it’s magic, sometimes it’s a bit plain.
But it adds diversity. And that’s nice.
Date of viewing: September 11, 2017