It isn’t just the obvious: the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” the “Honey Boo-Boos” and the “Real Housewives of [pick your location poison].” If you’re watching Nancy Grace blow a gasket over some red-handed defendant, or CNN go 24/7 after a cruise ship with backed-up toilets, or even a National Geographic animal show where the beasts of the forests/jungles live in a relentless state of predator/prey, you’ve found yourself shouting back at the screen, mocking the naked inanity and raging at the lowest-common-denominator talking points.
At moments like that most of us sound more like crazy uncle Karl, raging in a vacuum, than Algonquin-quality pundits. So it’s a valuable service that Tom Servo and the robots of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” are providing as they step in where American culture has its greatest need — the unapologetic ridicule of cable television.
For the past eight years Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett have put up almost 500 “MST3K” bits on the website Rifftrax.com, ripping away at blockbusters, cheesy C-movie exploitation junk and the occasional (very) odd “educational” film. (For $1.99 you can sit in as they vivisect the 30-minute infomercial, “This is Hormel”).
They’ve also got a deal going that beams their running commentaries on pulp classics like “Starship Troopers” simultaneously to 600 theaters around the country. And if you were connected to their Twitter feed you could have enjoyed the last Oscarcast a lot more than you did … until they blew past the maximum allowable 1,000 tweets in 24 hours. (Who knew?)
Bloomington’s Kevin Murphy, aka Tom Servo, says the call from National Geographic “Came truly out of the blue.” But the gig was real. The Fox co-owned channel was offering three hours on April Fool’s Day night for Tom and the gang to rip away at NatGeo’s primetime programming, including “Honey Badgers,” “Unlikely Animal Friends,” “Man v. Monster,” “Swamp Men,” “Alpha Dogs,” and others. For the purpose of coherence, (I guess), the three hours, under the heading of “Total Riffoff,” have been divided into hourlong blocs, titled, “Killer Shrimp N’ Friends,” “Demon Bat” and “Guy and a Goose.”
“I think they’re a network that’s trying to break out of the mold they’ve had for a while,” says Murphy. “Like a lot of these channels they’ve gone from what they started with to a lot of shows about Chunky Guys with Dangerous Jobs. But this is sort of an odd privilege. It’s like walking into the Smithsonian and making fun of dinosaurs.”
Curious about this and Murphy’s views on our ever more vast media wasteland, we met up at a Caribou off Normandale Ave.
Kevin Murphy: Precious little. I consume very little local TV anymore. I pretty much stay in my [cultural] neighborhood. But when I do go local I go micro-local and watch cable access. But almost everything I watch I pre-record. Because it works. I’m a Netflix junkie and an Apple TV junkie. Streaming works. The only appointment television I do are things I think are fun to see on an episodic level. “Cosmos,” I’m really liking. The BBC “Sherlock.” “Game of Thrones.” “Downtown Abbey.” But I don’t binge. That’s sick. That’s like eating a whole pizza all at once. I did it on that political porn thing on Netflix, “House of Cards.” I watched six episodes one after another. But when it got to the one where he has a three-way with his bodyguard I said, “OK, I’m going to push away from the table. I’m full now.”
MP: So is there anything you like on local TV?
KM: I really don’t know. I was involved with “Wits” for a while, the radio show. I listen to a lot more radio than I do television. Radio just seems more alive now. Podcasts I think have brought radio back to life. A lot of really good radio shows have attendant podcasts. I would never have found out about WFMU in New York if it weren’t for podcasts. I doubt many people would have heard about “Wits” if it wasn’t for podcasts. Television, at least network and cable, hasn’t been resuscitated in the same way.
Although I do love Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns.” There are real-life reactions there. It’s like what Martin Short did with Jiminy Glick. I loved Jiminy Glick! But I don’t listen to commercial radio at all. And you want to know why? It’s the [bleeping] commercials! A half hour of programming is 20 minutes of commercials. It drives me crazy.
MinnPost: When I heard that you guys were doing this bit on cable television my reaction was, “It’s about time.” Almost everything on cable is ripe for satire, and so few do anything with it. [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert sure, but there’s so much more beyond FoxNews and CNN.
I remember Bill McKibben’s book “The Age of Missing Information” where he watched 24 hours of cable TV off some station in D.C. and then contrasted it with the real world outside his cabin in upstate New York. In reality the animals were running around eating berries, drinking in the creek and napping in the sun. But on cable … it was constant chase and kill and slaughter.
KM: No kidding. It’s mayhem. Everything is more toxic and more dangerous, sexier and more atrocious than you could ever see in your real life. But it’s the formula of so much of it that drives me up wall. For example: A person does something. Then that person talks about what they just did. Then they talk about what they’re going to do. Then they do the thing and talk about what they just did.
You do your life, then you talk about your life and they edit the two together as though they’re both happening in real time. “Survivor” is guilty of that. I can’t watch that stuff anymore. Even The History Channel, which was the Rock of Gibralter for the longest time. Nazis! In black and white! It was the all-Hitler channel.
Way back, Jim Allen and I pitched a show to them. Fake history. And they said, “Oh no. We can’t do that. People depend on us to give them the truth.” Now enter, “Ancient Aliens.” The guy with the bad hair and the thick tie and the funny accent saying, “Could George Washington’s wooden teeth be the result of … aliens?”
MP: What do you think accounts for the popularity of what I’ll charitably call all the “hillbilly TV” series?
KM: I have no idea. But I think it’s become such an isolated and limited part of the population that it’s a curiosity. In Japan these would be the WWII soldiers still living up in the hills who don’t know the war is over.
We’ve always had this perverse fascination with “people who are not us, and thank god for that.” But conversely there’s this satisfaction in seeing people like that who have always been looked down on who are now successful. “Duck Dynasty.” They were millionaires before they came on TV. Sure, they wear camouflage tuxedos … but they’re wearing … tuxedos.
But yeah, they’re all over the place. There are at least a dozen. Plus the really peripheral channels. One reason is they’re so cheap to do. It’s two camera crews and an editor who can work fast. HGTV does the same thing with home renovation. It’s “Do it and talk about it.”
Has there been one of those set in a morgue? “Corpse[bleepers]”! Excuse me, I have to make a note to myself. I know a guy at the Discovery Channel.
MP: What sort of rules have you guys set for yourselves in terms of how dark or nasty you’ll get with the stuff you go after?
KM: I kind of operate on the same standard Jerry Seinfeld uses. He’s said, “I’m not going to do anything I wouldn’t want my mother to hear.” That’s the way I think, too. And Seinfeld’s done OK.
We try to stay PG-13, because we want young people to like our stuff. Simply because we liked this kind of thing when we were 12 and 13. Also because, let’s be real, Hollywood is totally tailored to the 12 year-old boy.
But then there are some movies we’d never do, because they just wouldn’t work. We wouldn’t do “Amistad.” We wouldn’t do “Schindler’s List.” It just wouldn’t work. But we did do “Casablanca.”
Basically, though, we try not to personally insult a person … unless it’s totally unavoidable. For example, we pick on Nick Nolte because … he asks for it.
If you’re caught waking up under the seats at an airport … you’re asking for it. Living down and out in Beverly Hills will get you that treatment. But basically we try not to pick on people who can’t take it. We do have to catch ourselves sometimes, though.
But really, what Hollywood gives us doesn’t require a dark take. The stuff is funny as it is.
I mean, the “Twilight” movies. Those have been gold for us. Gold! They are our Holy Grail, our Golden Fleece. They are our Margaret Dumont. They take themselves so seriously, and they present themselves in such a stentorian fashion, it’s impossible for me to take a minute of those things seriously. We started with the first one and, well, they were like candy. We couldn’t stop.”