Misties have known and loved him for two decades, from his earliest riffs and rants as space-faring, movie-bashing ‘bot Tom Servo to his Sci-Fi incarnation as smelly, hairy ape guy Professor Bobo to his more recent post-MST forays with the Film Crew and now RiffTrax.
He’s Kevin Murphy, of course, and I caught up with him recently to dish on the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XVI boxed set DVDs due Dec. 1 from Shout! Factory, among other things. You can join our visit below in the form of a Q and A between me, Bruce Westbrook, and Kevin. Enjoy!
B. So, Kevin, are you still living in Minneapolis (where MST was produced)?
K. Yes I am.
B. RiffTrax is based in San Diego. Ever do the RiffTrax tapings at home?
K. No, generally we travel. It’s just easier for us when we do the actual recording. And it’s a better product if we (along with Bill Corbett and Mike Nelson) can all sit together and play off each other. It’s just a lot more fun. It’s a great excuse to get together and play, too.
B. I’ve just screened the new MST DVD box set. Among the extras, the Turkey Day sketches are great to see again, and the new retrospective of the film Santa Claus is fantastic.
K. I know. I met the guy who put that together, and he did a heck of a job. He’s a huge fan of (Santa Claus director) K. Gordon Murray and really knows his stuff. And boy, what a film that thing is.
B. Hell plays a big role in this Santa movie, and it now occurs to me: Santa has the same letters as Satan. Scary!
K. I know. Something’s going on there. We’ve ruined Christmas for many people, I’m afraid.
B. You have some great lines in the retrospective, including: “Nobody wants to see a working monkey ass in the middle of a Santa Claus movie.” Was that off the top of your head?
K. Whenever we did anything in the theater it was generally very tightly scripted. Whenever I do an interview (as with that — shot in Minneapolis), it’s whatever comes out of my mouth. Sometimes it’s blather. Sometimes I drop a bomb and it’s nice.
B. Another great observation you made was: “Color so stark it’s like getting hit in the face by a clown.”
K. I remember we were watching the film and we had to stop because it was giving us headaches. The color was so bright.
B. But that was then, this is now, and now, via RiffTrax, you and Mike and Bill seem busier than ever doing MST-style riffs.
K. We are, and it’s been great fun. We’ve been able to do not only films we could never have gotten our mitts on at MST — Twilight has turned out to be one of the most popular riffs we’ve ever done — but we also get to do shorts and we get to do some of the old chestnuts that we never did at Mystery Science Theater. And we’re still digging up some new old stuff, all the time. We’ve got another RiffTrax Live Nationwide show coming up on Dec. 16. It’s gonna be an all-shorts showcase for the evening, and it’s gonna be great fun.
B. That reminds me: Another thing you’ve ruined for me is riding a bicycle. That RiffTrax short of the kids on bicycles wearing ape masks was truly creepy.
K. Yes, it was One Got Fat, narrated by Edward Everett Horton and featuring a disturbing nightmare.
B. Whatever the case, the format of slinging barbs at the screen lives on.
K. Well, you know, people like to talk back to movies, and I’ve been encouraging people to do it for most of my adult life. Talk back to your culture, because otherwise it’s just gonna keep pounding you down. It’s sort of liberating for people to be able to have that sort of catharsis where they no longer have to feel that they’re being spoon-fed everything. They can actually fight back a little bit. Certainly, keep your mouth shut when you’re in the theater. No, pay to see us do it. We’re the professionals. And do it at home all you want.
B. But though the process lives on since MST‘s run, I greatly miss some things, including Professor Bobo, your additional character for MST‘s final three seasons.
K. Yes, but I don’t miss the makeup. That was hard. I had the first migraine of my life, wearing that makeup all day long, and then we did a photo shoot for four hours. I was in that makeup for 16 hours total, and went home and collapsed with a migraine. It sure was fun to do, but I don’t miss the makeup.
B. Well, Kevin, sometimes you have to suffer for your art.
K. Yes, and I agree that the Sci-Fi years were great. It was the most fun I had in the whole run of the series, because we really knew what we were doing. The whole group we’d put together was really tight as writers and enjoyed each other’s work. We were a very well oiled machine at that time. It was just sheer fun to do.
B. Did you ever grapple with burnout?
K. We were really smart about the way we’d schedule the thing. During our production cycle we’d do six weeks of work on, and a week off. And quite often we’d take two weeks at Christmas. We did have enough down time that people could recover and do other things in their lives. And that was really important for something with that long of a life.
B. Now RiffTrax is catching up. You’ve done upwards of 75 titles on RiffTrax, I believe.
K. Yes,and counting the shorts, we really have a lot of material available.
B. There were about 170-something MST movies, or episodes.
K. Yes, so we’re approaching about half the number of movies on RiffTrax that we did on MST. It makes me realize I’ve been spoending the last 20 years talking back to a TV set. But doing RiffTrax isn’t bad. We’re fortunate that the production part of it is much simpler than putting on a TV show. Even to assemble a (RiffTrax) DVD the way we’re doing, we don’t have much in–studio stuff. We’re really relying on the film to be the star of the thing and our riffing to be what people want to get with it.
B. What’s your mission, then, with RiffTrax?
K. We have concentrated on making sure these things are as funny as they can be, and picking the right films to do. We want to keep it interesting for ourselves and for our audience. And the beauty now is that we don’t have to look good or hurry up and wait. We can go to the studio, get right to the funny, and get out in time for a beer in the afternoon.
B. Is this basically a full-time gig?
K. It’s been full time recently. It’s been so dang successful it’s become my No. 1 occupation. There are always a couple of other things I work on. I do music whenever I can, but some of that has been with Mike and Bill for what we call the RiffTones. So I’ve kept my hand in music and learning about new music digital production, which is very rewarding. And I’ve been drafting my first attempt at a comic book. I don’t know when it’s coming out. I was thinking of writing a film and thought, ‘Well, the best way to visualize this first would be to find a really good comic book artist and have them put it down in comic book form,’ and then that started taking a life of its own. We’ll see how that goes.
B. Since there are a finite number of MST episodes available for DVD, and many already are on DVD, and getting the DVD rights to films which are not public domain can be tricky, are we nearing the end of the line?
K. Well, the rights do get difficult for a lot of these films. But the folks at Shout! Factory have worked really hard to get these rights cleared and get these collections together. And they do a great job of packaging the things. It’s been fun to watch them come out.
Like any distributor, they (Shout! Factory) have relationships with a lot of other distributors — film distributors –so a lot of these things are in place. But it does take a lot of finesse and skill. Since MST became successful, a lot of the films’ original distributors are not going to offer the same deal as they did the first time around. So it does take some skill to do it. I’m glad it’s something I don’t have to do, because I’d have an ulcer by now if I did.
B. How has the MST fan base changed over the years?
K. It’s astonishing. When I do live shows or conventions or college appearances or film festivals, the audience is getting younger. I get approached by as many teenagers and college students as I do people my age. So I think that’s really cool. It’s sort of being passed down. The show has gone from being cool to being underground to being cool again.
B. “Keep circulating the tapes.”
B. So new MST fans have discovered it via DVD?
K. Many have, yes. Having them on DVD — and particularly the way Shout has put out these most recent collections — has really re-energized the whole thing. And having it available in ways that younger people are finding it in media helps, too. On NetFlix, online and on iTunes, those things are really helpful to get us to a younger audience.
B. So with new MST fans, and separate RiffTrax fans, you have different audiences that are merging?
K. Yes, the MST and RiffTrax audiences blend and merge. A lot of people came to RiffTrax first and then went on to MST, which I find really cool. It means we’ve accomplished what we wanted to, which was to do something fresh and new beyond MST and not try to recreate what we’d already done. Because MST’s been done. We wanted to riff, but we didn’t want to depend on that attachment to MST. And I think that’s happened.
B. Not that you’ve abandoned your creaky-old-movie MST roots by doing so many new and current films on RiffTrax, right?
K. Right. We did do Plan 9 and Reefer Madness, so there’s a little bit of that. And there’s an affection doing that, because those kinds of films in comparison are so fun and easy to do. It’s really great to go back to those and have some fun with them. It’s a way of saying to MST fans, ‘Yes, we can still do this stuff. We can still do old school.’
B. The new DVD set comes with a small model of your character, Tom Servo. What do you think of it?
K. I think it’s pretty cool. I think it turned out well. Some larger collectables were done awhile back, and I got sent one of those because it was my character, and it fell to pieces in a very short period of time. It was very fragile, and my nieces and nephews made quick work of it. I’m glad to have the smaller one.
B. How many Servos do you have lying around the house?
K. I have that new small one, and I have a small pewter Tom Servo. And that’s it. I never wanted to actually have a copy of the puppet at home, because that was just a little too freaky. That was work.
B. I visited Best Brains while you were in production, and I saw that you had several Servos on the premises.
K. Yes, we had a hero model, the most beat up, and various stunt Servos in various stages of disrepair. Sometimes we actually had to have two Servos when he appeared and disappeared quickly. We had Servos for flying on a wire above, Servos for blowing up because they were pre-wired. We had quite a few Servos around.
B. And, of course, Servos in drag. That had to be your creative influence, right?
K. Well, Servo was great for dressing up, because he could fit into an American girl’s skirt really well. I remember when we dressed him as a hillbilly grandma — as Granny Clampett, in fact. It doesn’t get much better than that!