The year was 1985, and I was suffering through a screening of “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” I find violence and gore to be extremely unsettling, and this movie didn’t skimp on either. I don’t remember the plot details, but there came a scene where Sylvester Stallone’s superhuman Vietnam War vet stabbed another character in the stomach. I found it unnerving until the guy behind me yelled out, “Wow! Looks like he got the point!”
The entire theater erupted in laughter.
This was my first public exposure to the concept of “riffing,” wherein audience members make a bad movie better by cracking jokes to relieve the tedium. I have made several attempts to do this sort of thing both in public and private.
We usually make it a family affair. My twin sons found that riffing was the only way to survive watching “Mission Impossible II.” I think they’re better at this than I am. I’m usually OK at producing material with some advance preparation, but I can’t seem to find the perfectly pithy thing to say in the heat of the moment. That’s why, as I’ve grown older, I’ve decided to leave this sort of thing to the professionals.
And yes, there are professionals. The best ones can be found in “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” the long-running comedy series that was recently revived in Netflix.
If you're not familiar with this show, my explanation will make it sound much more complicated than it really is. The premise is that it in the “not-too-distant future,” evil mad scientists trap a guy in a satellite and force him to watch cheesy movies in order to monitor his mind. The victim is accompanied by an ensemble of robots who were built from the parts necessary to control when the movies begin or end.
You learn all that in the theme song over the opening credits. The setup is really just an excuse to show a guy and his two robot buddies watching bad movies and making wise cracks. The movies are broken up by a series of sketches, which are usually based on the movie being watched. The whole thing is deliberately designed to look as cheap as possible, likely as a reference to the quality of the films the stars are forced to endure.
Series creator Joel Hodgson, who played the first victim of mad scientist ire for several seasons, has been on a quest to revive the series for years, and the new Netflix iteration represents the successful culmination of his efforts. The new show is very much like the old one, except the riffs come much more quickly than they did back in the day.
For me, that took some getting used to.
When watching the original shows, you could operate under the illusion that these people were just making comments off the top of their heads. When the jokes come at a rapid-fire pace, it’s impossible to hide the fact that the whole thing is carefully scripted in advance. This erodes some of the show’s charm, and it initially makes it feel as if everyone’s trying just a little too hard.
After awhile, though, it’s easy to adapt to the new rhythm, and the jokes land more often than not. Many of them are truly inspired. There’s even something for Utah audiences. As the group watches the movie “The Time Travelers,” the characters in the film are transported to a college campus.
“Everything looks so strange,” one of them says. “So dead.”
“Like BYU?” asks one of the riffing robots.
Ouch. Looks like Brigham Young University got the point.