In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Michael J. Nelson’s original claim to fame was as head writer and then host of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and after the show’s (second) cancellation and a stint with comedy group The Film Crew, Nelson started RiffTrax with fellow MST3K alumni Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy as a way to keep spinning comedy gold from cinema trash. Hundreds of riffs later, the group recently launched an app that automatically syncs its “just the jokes” commentary tracks with the movies they’re mocking, and have announced their 21st live event riffing on the kaiju classic Mothra this August. But the big news in MST-ie land is the recent MST3K reunion show, where RiffTrax hosted guests like series creator Joel Hodgson, cast members Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff, and new MST3K host Jonah Ray. (It was broadcast live in theaters on June 29, but if you missed it you can catch the encore showing on July 12.)
Days before the big reunion in Minneapolis, The A.V. Club asked Nelson our 11 Questions, prompting an enlightening discussion on ungulates, Henry Winkler, weird food in little cans, some real-life Forrester mind games in the MST3K writers’ room, and teenage humiliation—something surely no RiffTrax fan would know anything about.
Mike Nelson: I guess… what my favorite ungulate is?
AVC: What’s an ungulate?
MN: Ha, see, you asked! An animal with, I believe, three stomachs.
AVC: So what’s your favorite?
MN: Well, I haven’t decided yet. But thank you for asking.
AVC: Are there a lot of ungulates out there?
MN: Yeah, let me look up how many ungulates there are, and then I’ll ask you what your favorite is based off of this. Well, we have the lesser kudu, we have the eland, the mountain nyala, which I’ve never even heard of. The bongo, the okapi. There are a lot of ungulates I didn’t know about. The giraffe is an ungulate.
AVC: So do you have a favorite, then, off that list?
MN: I think a good mule is a nice animal. Just a solid, solid animal. I’m going to go with that.
AVC: I’m going to go with bongo.
MN: Bongo for you, mule for me.
AVC: I’m glad we got that resolved.
MN: That was a thorny issue. I’m glad we were able to work through it.
MN: Oh, I suppose a bluejay.
AVC: Why a bluejay?
MN: Well, they’re cool, and they make a loud noise, so I think it would get all the traffic out of the way in the air. Because I assume other people would be riding their favorite giant animal to work. I feel like it could just clear traffic away for me.
AVC: Strike fear into the hearts of your enemies, maybe.
AVC: That’s a very specific answer. I like that.
MN: Probably Casablanca.
AVC: How many times have you seen it?
MN: 20 to 30, I guess.
AVC: So what is it about that one?
MN: It’s a really engrossing story, and it’s very funny. You forget that until you watch it again, and the dialogue just moves, it just keeps going from one scene to the other. I just love all the quirky characters, and it’s very touching. There’s a lot of very heartfelt stuff in it, but it’s also really funny and snappy.
AVC: You forget about the funny stuff. Everybody just remembers the big romantic ending.
MN: It’s very funny, and Claude Rains is great. But even Humphrey Bogart has a lot of wisecracks in it that are very funny.
MN: I believed that broccoli was a cross between brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
AVC: Who told you that?
MN: I can actually name the person that told me that, although she might not like me saying it. A fellow Mystery Science Theater 3000 cast member, Mary Jo Pehl.
AVC: Really? How did this come up?
MN: I think it was just writing-room chatter—“Hey, did you know?” Just a bit of trivia thrown out there. It sounds good, because the little ends of the broccoli look like tiny brussels sprouts if you look close. So I believed it.
AVC: How did you find out that wasn’t true?
MN: Well, I passed it on to a number of people. Nobody cried foul on me until many years later—because this was a while ago that she said it—somebody stopped me short and said, “What are you talking about? Broccoli’s been around forever.” And I went, “Nu-uh!” And then I looked it up and went, “Ha, sorry, I was wrong about that.”
AVC: So did you confront her about that? Say, “Hey, why’d you tell me this about broccoli?”
MN: You know, I never have. I guess it’s never come up. She might not even remember telling me that, but I’m pretty certain [it was her].
AVC: Well, here’s a follow-up question:
MN: Oh, this came up the other day. Not long after Joel Hodgson left Mystery Science Theater, someone printed a transcript of me screaming at him and throwing him out of the building, because they said they were there and they overheard it. It was a word-for-word transcription, and of course it was utter fiction and made up. But I thought it was so funny that someone would go to such lengths.
AVC: And that they just happened to have a photographic memory and remembered every single word that you said.
MN: Right, right. They hit play on their mental tape recorder immediately.
AVC: Did you say anything to debunk it, or did you just let it go?
MN: Nah, I let it go. It garnered a lot of attention at the time, and I was kind of new to internet rumors, so I didn’t even know what to do. So I didn’t respond or anything. I just kind of laughed at it.
MN: Oh, I know what that is. There are these Korean snacks, these silkworm larvae, in their own juices. Very weird, and by far the most revolting thing I’ve ever had.
AVC: The texture of those must be so weird.
MN: It was deeply disturbing. It was sort of chewy and then the insides were poppy, guts-like, and then it had the flavor of if you just went into a dirt basement in a really, really old decrepit house, picked up a rock, and just ate whatever was under it. That’s what it tasted like.
AVC: So is this something that comes in a sealed bag, and you buy it at the 7-Eleven in Korea?
MN: It was in a Korean grocery store where I used to live in San Diego. There was a pretty big shelf of them in cans, in their own brown juice. It’s very gross.
AVC: You wouldn’t recommend it, then.
MN: I do not recommend it.
MN: I went to see Donny Osmond at the Illinois State Fair.
AVC: How was it?
MN: I was very embarrassed to go. I believe my parents made me go. But I’m counting that as my first concert even though it wasn’t my wish—it was just a family trip with cousins my own age. You know, “We’re going to go see a nice wholesome concert!” And we saw Donny Osmond. I must have been 9 years old.
AVC: I don’t think it gets much more wholesome than Donny Osmond.
MN: Yeah, and so embarrassing, because, you know, I was a guy. You only went to see Donny Osmond if you had a crush on him. You don’t go to see him if you’re a dude.
AVC: So were you standing in a sea of screaming teenage girls, feeling mortified?
MN: Yes! Exactly!
MN: Oh geez, I mean, everything about my work has given me opportunities. Just the opportunity to be in front of people making them laugh is pretty interesting. Not many people get to do that.
MN: Well, in high school—this phase was sort of forced on me. My parents were sick of me breaking my glasses, so they would buy me these Sears heavy-duty chunky glasses that were guaranteed to make me look like an utter and complete nerd. They were thick, and weighed about 7 pounds. [My parents] were just like, “Those are your glasses for life. If you break them, we’re not buying you any new ones.” So it was a phase of me looking like someone in a police blotter, like you did not want to be alone with me, at all. It gave me a creepy look.
AVC: How old were you?
MN: Oh, like, sophomore in high school. So right in the prime spot where you’re trying to look nice and cool. And it was not possible.
AVC: So, glasses aside, were you cool in high school?
MN: Oh, no, no. I took steps to make sure that was not going to happen. I was in band—I played the double bass in band. The ladies do not come running for that kind of stuff.
AVC: I was in the band, too. The marching band. Whenever we had a pep rally, I would hide behind my instrument, because I didn’t want the cool kids to see me in the marching band.
MN: Yeah, yeah. I had this similar thing. I joined the orchestra—because I did want to study music—and my band teacher said to learn another instrument, because I played piano. So I joined the band, and I didn’t even realize it was mandatory to be in the marching band if you were in the concert band. So all of a sudden, a couple months into it, my uniform was handed to me with a big giant cotton-swab hat, and I was like, “No! This can’t be!”
AVC: Did you have to wear those really hot, scratchy wool uniforms?
MN: Oh, absolutely. We’d go play at an amusement park like an hour away, and it was always 95, and 95 percent humidity, and you didn’t want to be there in the first place, and you nearly melted under the sun. Ugh, it was the worst.
AVC: Did you stay in band until you were a senior?
MN: I didn’t. I couldn’t take the marching band thing. I just said, “I’m just going to do the piano, and that’s it.”
AVC: Do you still play the piano?
MN: I don’t have one at home, but every chance I get, I do play it. We’ve moved a little bit, and I didn’t want to move a piano. But I’ve got to get a keyboard set up, because I miss it a lot.
MN: I have. I confess it now. When I was a kid, I shoplifted Pop-Tarts, and I got caught doing it.
AVC: That’s a big box.
MN: Yeah, it is. It was probably not a good stealth move to have a giant box in my shirt.
AVC: Did you put it under your shirt and just walk out?
MN: Yep, and I got grabbed right away, and brought up to the manager’s office. My mom was crying, “We raised a thief”—it was all just awful. It was just the worst.
AVC: Do you remember the flavor?
MN: There was a flavor that was just brown sugar. It was just something [like that] on the inside, and another brown sugar coating on the outside.
AVC: I think I’ve had those before. So did you still eat Pop-Tarts after that, or did you have a negative association [with them]?
MN: I actually did not eat them. I don’t know if I’ve had one since then.
MN: Yeah, I know. It was traumatic enough to put me off of Pop-Tarts.
MN: I’ve met a lot of famous people. Probably Henry Winkler, just because he’s been in show business for so long and is sort of an icon. I met him and spent a little bit of time with him. It’s one of my fondest memories. Everybody talks about how nice he is, and it’s actually true. So that was cool.
AVC: So he lived up to your expectations?
MN: He did. Most celebrities—we used to go to the Emmys, and were by far the least famous people standing around—and if you initiate conversations with a celebrity, you always go away disappointed. It’s understandable, because they don’t know who you are, and they don’t want to be bothered. But you always go, “Yeah, I used to like that jerk, and then he blew me off at the Emmys.” After a few of those, we realized, just don’t even try to talk to them. Just go about your business.
12. Bonus 12th question from Nick Kroll: What is something that you thought was a big deal in your life that turned out not to be?
MN: That’s funny that it should come up. I was just talking about it. I think that would be the Emmys. I thought it would be really cool. I mean, who doesn’t want to go to the Emmys? But it ends up just being really boring. I think after the second one, we would go until our award and slip out right away, and go do something interesting. It really wears off on you almost immediately, the idea of, “This is going to be so cool!” And then it’s just really not.
AVC: So what would you guys do afterwards?
MN: I’d go eat and have a martini. It’s much more fun.
AVC: No parties?
MN: We went to the official Emmy parties, and realized that if you’re at that, you’re a loser. We didn’t get to go to any of the private cool parties.
AVC: What question do you want to ask the next person who’s going to do this interview, not knowing who it is?
MN: I would ask them to make their best soda out of three separate brands of soda. Give me your best soda.
AVC: Well, what’s yours?
MN: I would keep it in the lemon-lime family myself, with 7Up, and maybe ginger ale, and then—what’s the grapefruit one? Squirt? And then see what that does.
AVC: You’ve never tried it?
MN: I’ve never tried it. But doesn’t it sound good?