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." When Cyclops utters his infamous line defending the team's black leather suits in "X-Men," "What would you prefer, yellow spandex," Corbett remarks, "Marvel Comics fans everywhere just doubled their heart rates."
On December 16th, RiffTrax heads to movie theaters with "RiffTrax Live! Christmas Shorts-Stravaganza," featuring guest "Weird Al" Yankovic and a live riff-a-thon of awful Christmas-themed shorts. In part one of our interview with Corbett-an avid reader of comics while growing up in Brooklyn, New York-the voice of Crow T. Robot discusses his favorite characters, riffing comic book movies and one superstar Marvel writer's favorite RiffTrax.
Marvel.com: So, we'll start at the beginning. How did you discover comics?
Bill Corbett: Comics always seemed inevitable to me as a kid. The stores I frequented as a kid in Brooklyn, the candy stores and the drug stores, they usually had a rack out there just kind of right at kid-eye level. And they're bright and shiny and colorful and have a lot of action. [Laughs] You know, it was never a question to me of not picking up a comic book and seeing what was in it. And then I just got kind of hooked. I got hooked on the drama and the fantastic-ness of it. It was probably my first introduction to anything like the idea of sci-fi. And they were great fun. And probably one of my first consistent reading experiences too, which I'm sure is true of a lot of people.
Marvel.com: And did that influence you in terms of the movies you became of fan of or the type of books you would read? Do you think that comics affected your sensibilities?
Bill Corbett: It's entirely possible. I tended to like big stories, almost melodramatic. And it was kind of a nice [transition] from some of that into stuff like "Treasure Island." Classic books like that. And it wasn't until later on that some teachers pointed me towards them, that I got the idea that characters could be a little quieter. They don't always have to run around and have adventures to make a good book. [Laughs] But that seems like a natural evolution for a young reader.
Marvel.com: Did you have any favorite comics or characters that you followed?
Bill Corbett: Yeah. Marvel was a little more complex. They were the first to bring a little bit of psychological dimension [to comics]. I loved Spider-Man. I loved the X-Men. I think there's a reason why they endure and are so popular. They have a great story running through them.
Marvel.com: You mention Marvel bringing a psychological dimension to comics. Is that what attracted you to, say, Spider-Man?
Bill Corbett: Yeah, and actually, I think it fit the evolution of my reading comics too. I was kind of ready for very one-dimensional characters as a younger guy. But then I had a slightly older friend who was always trying to get me to read Marvel, and eventually I gave in. It started with Spider-Man and kind of just kept going. It was just the right timing. As
Marvel.com: And what did comics mean to you then? Why were they important to you?
Bill Corbett: [Super heroes] are kind of our American gods on some level. Our myths. Not to rip off Neil Gaiman here with "American Gods," but I think that's effectively what they've become. I think they kind of explore stuff. And what they meant to me is probably what they meant to a lot of kids. It was a way of exploring values of right and wrong, and power and lack of power. All that stuff on a very basic, myth-like level. I didn't know it at the time of course. [Laughs] And if somebody had told me that, I probably wouldn't have understood it, but I think that's probably what was going on. And they were entertaining, and I liked when big good guys punched big bad guys, when you come right down to it. [Laughs]
Marvel.com: Spider-Man was always making quips, mid-fight. Do you think that the somewhat irreverent tone of a lot of the classic comics that you were probably reading influenced you as a writer and performer?
Bill Corbett: Yeah, it probably did; that and the fact that I was a stage actor for awhile. I had to actually sort of bring my performances down to microphone level when I first started on "Mystery Science Theater," because I was used to trying to play to the back seats. But in terms of comics, yeah, it's a big, operatic world. And I think with Spider-Man, I saw that the hero can actually be kind of aware of the silliness of a situation, too. Even though he's in a bit of a dire situation, he can just have a moment of needing a little bit of relief from it with a joke. That was kind of new. Before that, there were plenty of silly situations in comic books that I encountered. But this is the first time it seemed like the hero was aware of the absurdity.
Marvel.com: With RiffTrax you've done a ton of comic book movies, both the good ones and the bad ones. What do you think makes them such good fodder for movie riffing?
And you know, it can help and hurt us that people know these characters. We can pull in references that people will get related to [a character], or other heroes like it. But if we wind up doing sequels, it's like, "Wow, all our go-to jokes have already been told. What are we going to do now?"
Marvel.com: So, as super hero movies have gotten more and more popular, are there any that you really liked?
Bill Corbett: Yeah, I rather liked "Iron Man." You have to suspend your disbelief for all these, of course, but I thought that worked fairly well. It just found a good mix of tones. I've liked parts of a lot of them. I liked the first "X-Men." That seemed to come together really well. We riffed both of those movies, and it was fun doing that too. I don't feel reverent, and those movies are not trying to be reverent. [Laughs] I almost wish that they had been a little more so; it would have been easier to riff them.
I mean, I like our riff of "Iron Man," but in the parts where it's aware of its own humor or cheekiness, that gets harder for us. Because, what do you do with that? Try to out-funny them or say that they're not funny? Which is kind of a crude way of approaching what we do. [Laughs]
Bill Corbett: [Laughs] I was pretty pleased that Brian Michael Bendis tweeted me once that that was his favorite RiffTrax.
Be sure to come back to Marvel.com later this week for part two of our interview with Bill Corbett!
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