Diving into RiffTrax, Minnesota’s Own Mystery Science Theater
Zoe Plait, contributor
Picture this: it’s Saturday night and you and your friends are about to hang out and watch Netflix. You’ve already seen all the good titles, so you cue up a movie you’ve never heard of, and it’s just… bad. Like, you can’t even imagine how it got made. You and your buddies start talking back to the screen and making fun of the characters. “Someone should make fun of movies professionally,” you think.
Well, someone has. Talking back at movies is the premise behind the Minnesotan television phenomenon “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K). Made in Eden Prairie, MST3K stars local comedians who riff terrible films. They started broadcasting in 1988 on a humble Twin Cities television station, KTMA-TV23, and became globally renowned as national channels picked them up.
After MST3K’s cancelation a decade later, many of its comedians reconvened to form RiffTrax. Now on the web instead of on cable, RiffTrax.com offers jokes for over 800 films, including popular titles like “Twilight” and “The Room.” They’re able to tackle copyrighted blockbusters by providing just the commentary track, which syncs up with your copy of the movie. To simplify the process, the new RiffTrax app auto-syncs many of the riffs in their catalog.
All of the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” cast members who work at RiffTrax still live in the Minneapolis area, so their comedy retains the special flavor that makes movie riffing so uniquely Minnesotan.
“There’s a natural self-deprecation that comes from being a Twin Citian, and that is essential to comedy,” RiffTrax’s founder and co-star, Mike Nelson, tells “The Echo.” “Plus we’re so remote from the heart of the show-biz industry that we have very little reverence for it, so it’s much easier to take jabs.”
Longtime, die-hard viewers of MST3K have shown overwhelming support for this movie riffing venture. “Having that cast continue to make riffs… has been absolutely wonderful,” fan Dan Maxfield tells “The Echo.” Viewer Joseph Fisher adds, “RiffTrax continues the great experiment that is MST3K.”
RiffTrax, which celebrates its 15th birthday in June, offers an easy and fun way to support local entertainers. Bridget Nelson, full-time RiffTrax writer and performer, says “When I was a kid, a very Minnesotan thing to say about anything from a fancy speed boat to an edgy production at the Guthrie was ‘Well now that’s real different.’ I’ve always tried to be funny without anyone saying that about me! Which I think is probably very Minnesotan.”
RiffTrax.com offers other goodies as well, including recordings of their live shows, classic episodes of MST3K, an iRiff forum where fans can upload their own movie commentaries and notable guest riffers like “Weird Al” Yankovic and Neil Patrick Harris. All of RiffTrax’s content is available on their website and many of their projects can be viewed on free streaming services such as Twitch, Pluto TV and Tubi.tv.