By Dan Brooks
As a writer and star of the classic "Mystery Science Theater 3000" television series, Bill Corbett helped popularize and perfect a unique comedy art-form: movie riffing. And while the show may be missed, Corbett, along with fellow "MST3K" alumni Michael J. Nelson and Kevin Murphy, has continued taking movies to task with RiffTrax. But unlike "MST3K," which found itself beholden to low-rent B-movies, RiffTrax offers a huge catalog of downloadable commentaries for a wide array of films, ranging from "worst-movie-ever" contenders like "The Room" to modern classics like "The Fellowship of the Ring" to, yes, super hero fare from "Iron Man" to "Fantastic Four."
In this second installment of our two-part interview with Corbett (check out part one here), we talk the crossover between RiffTrax and comic fans, "MST3K" mythology and much more.
Marvel.com: Have any comic book fans, either in person or online, kind of got on you guys for doing super hero movies?
Bill Corbett: [Laughs] Well, yeah. That happens for surprising movies, that people just take issue with the fact that we're riffing it. And my reaction to that is always, well look, we're not proposing that every movie we riff is an absolute piece of dookie. That's not our way. And we actually have stepped forward with a couple of movies we like a lot. We did what we called the RiffTrax Challenge earlier this year, which was to riff one of the great movies; we riffed "Casablanca," and I thought it was surprisingly successful. Not everybody's cup of tea of course, but it forces you to make jokes that are not about how crappy the movie is. We did "Jaws," which we all like. We did "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which we're all old fans of.
But yeah, often times, somebody just says, "Hey, don't do this! Come on man, not this one! Leave this one alone!" Any my reaction is usually, "Hey, I'm not saying it's terrible." We may disagree among ourselves on how good or bad it is, but that's not a part of the formula here. Although we do ones that we all think are terrible and sort of acknowledge that we think that. But I can see why people are confused about that.
Marvel.com: Now, you played the inept bad guy, Observer, a.k.a. Brain Guy, on "MST3K," who had telepathic powers but had to carry his brain around in a tray, and was almost always screwing something up. Can you talk a bit about how he was created and how you developed him? He seems to be very much a send-up of classic comic book/sci-fi villains.
Bill Corbett: Oh, absolutely. The first appearance of Brain Guy was with two colleagues [of his], and they were a trio. A couple of things were going on there. One was definitely "Star Trek"-inspired, where they would go to a world of hyper mental people. I think we even stole some lines, or paraphrased them, from the 60's "Star Trek" about being "pure intellect" and "pure mental energy." [Laughs] I think there was a "Star Trek" too where they were just encountering brains that were glowing, so we kind of melded these [influences]. These guys actually had achieved something transcendent, but they were just dopes on another level, because they made it so that they actually had to tote their brains around rather than keep them in their heads.
Marvel.com: Which is pretty inconvenient.
Bill Corbett: [Laughs] Yeah, supremely inconvenient and subject to much more danger. But definitely another thing was going on, especially as the character evolved once he was separated from his colleagues and became a regular villain. For me, it was a lot about actors who played roles like that in cheesy sci-fi and who might have even been really good actors on stage. You know, they weren't bad actors and they had some good stuff on their resumes, but they were just trapped in these turkeys and they were trying to pay some bills, and they had to put on funny costumes and makeup.
Marvel.com: The latest live event was a Christmas-themed special. I went to the "Plan 9" special, and I was amazed at how well it worked in a live setting, because "MST3K" and RiffTrax are relatively quiet experiences. But it was so much fun in the theater. Is this going to become a regular thing?
Bill Corbett: Well, thank you. I love doing live stuff. And yeah, I don't know if this is official or not yet, but it's looking like we're gonna do a bunch of these next year. At least three, I think, after the Christmas thing. The first show was really successful. We were very pleased.
Marvel.com: There seems to be a lot of overlap between comic book fans and fans of "MST3K" and RiffTrax. Why do you think that is?
San Diego Comic-Con International
Bill Corbett: You know, I think it's just the geek world now. There's a whole bunch of different subsets of it, and there's a bunch of people who appreciate the geek stuff itself, like sci-fi, gaming, computers, I guess, and comic books, and also kind of have a sense of humor about it too. Our fans have always been in both camps. They like sci-fi, they know a lot about it, they'll go to San Diego Comic-Con unironically to see their favorite artists, but they come see us too-people who generally make fun of it. I think it speaks well of geeks in general that they like to see their own stuff parodied, because, you know, they do it themselves, I'm sure.
Marvel.com: You mentioned San Diego Comic-Con. The RiffTrax crew has been a regular there the last few years. What do you make of the Comic-Con experience?
Bill Corbett: It's kind of fun! I mean, now that we've learned how to navigate it a little bit, and have accepted the fact that it's a big, crushing, in-your-face thing, and that it's been sort of commandeered by the movie studios of the world, it can be really fun. I love going there and meeting people who like what we do, and it's really a pleasure. It's certainly an ego boost too, but we have such nice fans.
But it's really fun, and we did a live performance there last year too. In lieu of a panel, we riffed a short live called "Shake Hands With Danger," which is an old 70s safety film with sort of a trucker soundtrack. And then we had people pick our next movie to riff.
Marvel.com: And what is the weirdest thing you've seen at San Diego Comic-Con?
Bill Corbett: I don't know if this is the weirdest, but the one that sticks in my mind the most is Pink Darth Vader. Just absolutely pastel pink, like my young daughter loves.
Marvel.com: Did you ever find out what the point of that was?
Bill Corbett: No, I actually didn't find out what the point was! [Laughs] There may not have been a point, who knows. I like it when people approach it with that sense of humor.
Marvel.com: You've written for television, plays, and now RiffTrax, which is kind of a new form. What do you think of comics as a storytelling vehicle?
Bill Corbett: I think it's a great storytelling vehicle. It's evolved so much. The way that people use space; not to get too pretentious, but there's that book "Understanding Comics," which I read, and it kind of explained to me what smart comic book artists do, and I thought it was really cool to know a little bit about the craft of it all. How to use panels, and time passing or not, and how you can speed things up or slow them down. It is a great, great medium, and you can use it well or you can use it poorly like any medium. But it definitely works at its best.
Marvel.com: Finally, let's say the X-Men take on The Mads. In a battle of the telepaths, who wins: Brain Guy or Professor X?
Bill Corbett: [Laughs] Brain Guy thinks he wins, but he winds up working for Professor X as a janitor.
Marvel.com: How does he do that while carrying his brain around?
Bill Corbett: [Laughs] He probably puts it in one of those little baby carriers.
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