Features and Columns

Fund This Film: ‘RiffLife’ Celebrates Movie Riffing and the Legacy of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’

By  · Published on February 1st, 2014

What is movie riffing? It’s the practice of talking back to a movie with witty remarks, usually to lampoon or criticize (and in a way, celebrate) something of low or cheap quality. The best way to define the term is to just present, as Exhibit A, Mystery Science Theater 3000. The long-running TV show, which began as a local Minneapolis program and went on to cult popularity on Comedy Central then the Sci-Fi Channel, popularized if not originated the concept of watching a bad film through the viewership of a couple of funny characters who make fun of that film.

As MST3K writer/producer/director/voice of Tom Servo Kevin Murphy points out in his introduction to the book In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000, this sort of riffing goes all the way back at least to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, namely the scene in which the Athenians vocally ridicule the actors performing Pyramus and Thisbe. He also references Mel Brooks’s Oscar-winning 1963 short The Critic as being a precursor to the MST3K show.

Hopefully that background and influence will be explored in a new documentary in the works titled RiffLife: An Exploration of the Movie Riffing Phenomenon. So far, it seems the film is going to be starting from MST3K and moving forward, not backward, to show the legacy of the program with unofficial spin-offs like Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax, each of which is hosted by one of the main MST3K riffers, and many amateur endeavors, including at least one by the documentary’s director, Dave Chadwick.

RiffLife is currently campaigning for crowdfunding via Kickstarter with a $50K goal. Chadwick hopes to get interviews with the major personalities from MST3K and its offshoots, but he can’t guarantee them. If he doesn’t get them, this will entirely be a fandom movie. He also states that they need this budget because as we know from the kinds of movies most often put through the riff grinder, those made for little money are truly awful.

I don’t know if I totally agree with that claim – not all bad movies are low budget and not all low budget movies are bad – but I’m now actually interested in the idea of the doc actually being terrible in order for us to riff on it. After all, how often are bad docs put through this sort of fun scrutiny? Well, MST3K took on a few educational and instructional films, including What to Do on a Date and Body Care and Grooming, but I don’t think anyone’s doing it with new docs the way RiffTrax is covering new movies.

So we have good reason to help RiffLife get made, as it’s going to be worth something whether it’s good or bad. Personally, I’d prefer it be good. For that, it really needs to address the phenomenon with academic perspective on what it’s all about culturally. I’d also love to see some representation from the other side of the practice. What do the makers of those films MST3K has lovingly ripped to shreds thing about riffing? And get people whose films gained new prominence through the show.

There have already been documentaries about MST3K. One was done more than 20 years ago for Comedy Central hosted by Penn Jillette (it’s called This is MST3K, and you can find it on YouTube). Another is a making-of doc included in the new 25th anniversary box set of the series. Those are a very different sort of doc than RiffLife, but their existence still means that RiffLife has to go the distance and be something not only unique but quality.

If it ends up sucking, how about this magical ending to the story: only one of the offshoot hosts, either Joel Hodges or Mike Nelson, does an interview for the movie, and then the other does an official riff of it. Or what if neither appears in the doc but they do a commentary track on the DVD that’s all riffing? Like I said, there are so many worthwhile opportunities for RiffLife regardless of how it turns out.

Check out Chadwick acting just a bit on edge in the Kickstarter video below.

Do you want to see this film? Enough to help fund it?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.