The Doctors are in, all five of them — and they’re about to get roasted.
For two nights only, Michael Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, the Peabody-winning funny voices behind Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and now the audio series Rifftrax, will be broadcasting a live audio commentary to The Five Doctors, the famed 20th-anniversary special of sci-fi cultural touchstone Doctor Who, with RiffTrax Live: Doctor Who – The Five Doctors. “When we hooked up with [the] BBC,” writer and performer Bill Corbett explains, “we knew we wanted to connect and possibly do some old Doctor Who, knowing we probably couldn’t do the new stuff. Five Doctors was one of the ones they offered, and I think it was a great choice because it does really cover the waterfront as far as the older guys are concerned.”
While not an avid follower of the TARDIS-traveling Time Lord prior to getting the opportunity to goof on him, the comedy writer credits his daughter with showing him the light of the series. “With the older stuff, I just remember it being something that was on public television when I was a kid — the stuff I would go past wondering what was going on in my search to find Monty Python,” he laughs. “But with the revived series, my daughter started watching it and my wife was a fan, and she started teaching me about the lore of the universe, it was fun. So when Peter Capaldi [joined] the cast as the new Doctor, I was really interested because I loved him from The Thick of It and In The Loop.”
With the “live” renditions of RiffTrax (the boys will be live and in person in Nashville, broadcasting into theaters through Fathom Events), part of the fun for the team is the mashing up of their individual scripts. “We’ve been doing these for a while now, and basically our process to get jokes is simply watch [the film] a bunch of times, dividing it up into four to five sections and writing a first draft," Corbett explains. "Then, we smash the scripts together to see where there is joke overlap, and there’s usually quite a bit because everyone’s gonna call a TARDIS a phone booth or call a Dalek a garbage can.
"So you have to get a little more sophisticated and specific with your jokes, and just make sure we have enough variety," he adds. "That’s how you get the best jokes.”
Despite some initial creative control concerns from Corbett, he says the British broadcaster has been very accommodating. On the topic of keeping die-hard fans content with their ribbings, the performer sighs knowingly.
“This man really guided us to avoid things that might cause fans to take offense," says. "But I have to say it’s not unfamiliar to us because we’ve done things like Star Wars, and even things we really love, like the original Indiana Jones and the Lord of the Rings series. With Rifftrax, our default stuff is usually pretty subpar to awful movies, but we have gotten to do things that are really good and it’s just a gear-shift you have to make, making it a funny soundtrack as opposed to a roasting of the movie itself.
"I say schlock is fine, but my favorite films are when it’s so schlocky it’s almost surreal — stuff like The Room or Birdemic," adds Corbett. "I love asking, ‘What human beings made this and thought it was good?’ But there’s also the categories of misfires, or just stuff that hasn’t aged well. I mean, that was bulk of what we did on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, action pictures from Universal in the '50s where the hero is just a lunk-headed guy with no personality that everyone defers to simply because he’s reasonably good-looking.”
Corbett even admits that having pictures of quality can pose a bit of an artistic challenge for the gang. “Just because we do so much material, it is fun to mix it up and say hey, if we can’t just throw bricks at the movie – how do you make this funny? The first such challenge was when we did Casablanca, which actually came out reasonably well. It had a different feel, because we assumed people knew the movie to a certain degree and we make jokes, [but] nobody is gonna take away its status as a classic because the RiffTrax guys made jokes about it!”
After years of the enduring popularity of his unique medium of comedy, Corbett appears genuinely moved by the continual respect MST3K and RiffTrax has generated among fans and peers. “I am pleasantly surprised, because there was a period for sure where it seemed to be fading a bit, after we were canceled in 1999. We were just like “What’s next?” and we moved on to work together on other projects, but even then we continued to detect a hunger for it – and of course, they were always airing repeats on the network, so it never was gone for too long.”
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After watching so many questionable flicks these many years, Corbett, a screenwriter and self-identified academic of cinema, admits there might be something to the school of bad movies. “I think it’s really educational, because there’s a lot you can learn in the old Polaroid negative sorta way, that just tells you the opposite and point you in the right direction. I used to teach screenwriting and playwriting and man, I feel like I’ve gotten more of an education doing this job than I did with my MFA!" he says.
"You just see people making classic mistakes like not getting their story together or straining credulity or massive explanations right off the top, rather than rolling it out in a dramatic way," adds Corbett. "Plus all the stuff that falls under the craft of moviemaking, a subject I know less about, but stuff like lighting your actors, you can’t just not do that!”
For your education and entertainment, the RiffTrax crew is on the case.
Performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursdays, August 17 and 24, at Edwards Marq*E, 7600 Katy Freeway. 844-462-7342. $13.53. Price varies by location; visit fathomevents.com for participating venues.