Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Rifftrax crew on going online and Upside Down during the pandemic

Illustration for article titled The Rifftrax crew on going online and Upside Down during the pandemic
Graphic: Rifftrax

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage in the United States, leaving the nation’s movie theaters either shuttered or operating at limited capacity. But at the Minneapolis-area home of Rifftrax’s Kevin Murphy, the cinema is alive, well, and safely socially distanced.

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“I bought a portable projector and a theater screen and we’ve been sort of doing a repertory on our patio,” Murphy said. So far, the programming has included Stand By Me and a night with the Marx Brothers, Wallace And Gromit, Bugs Bunny, and the families of his Rifftrax colleagues and fellow Mystery Science Theater 3000 alums Bill Corbett and Mike Nelson.

“I have to say, that was the highlight of our summer,” Corbett said. “Finally: some summer joy!”

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It’s the closest the seasoned movie riffers will get to a theater anytime soon: The novel coronavirus has already led to the postponement of their first live performance of 2020, with a second—set for October—currently up in the air. Their usual venues are closed, and the number of people who come out to see Rifftrax probably exceeds the capacity of Murphy’s patio, so they’re taking the show online—to the watch party app Scener, which they’ll use to take on the premiere episode of Stranger Things this Wednesday, July 22 at 8:30 p.m. ET.

“We tested it out, and it seems to work remarkably well,” Murphy said. “The fact that it accesses Netflix means we have a lot of different titles that we can have fun with.” The first hour of the supernatural thriller will play side-by-side with video feeds of Corbett, Murphy, and Nelson as they make jokes in real time.

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“It will be absolutely live, and we’ll be playing without a net,” Murphy said.

Rifftrax was working remotely well before the pandemic: They’ve been simulcasting performances to movie theaters through Fathom Events since 2009, and video-conferencing was already a regular part of their creative process. “We come together once a week as a company on Zoom,” Corbett said. “And we found a pretty good way to rehearse remotely through Zoom. So, of course, some Chinese company has all our data,” he joked. “But, you know: My data’s not very great, so they can have it.”

The Stranger Things riff is an encore of one originally recorded in 2018. None of the cast had watched the Netflix series before then—“maybe one of our writers, Sean Thomason or Conor Lastowka had,” Corbett said—but its period setting has long provided them with comedic fodder. “If you want an encyclopedia of ’80s references, I think between the five of us, we’ve got them,” Murphy said.

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Does Wednesday’s show point to the future of live Rifftrax events? Corbett and Murphy didn’t rule out the possibility of bringing their planned Hobgoblins and Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes riffs to movie theaters this fall, but they also acknowledged the ongoing obstacle of COVID-19. “We don’t want to put anybody at all in a dangerous situation,” Corbett said. “So that is first and foremost. But we also want to try to honor the momentum of what we set out to do this year if we can.”

While discussing Hobgoblins—a fan-favorite from the ninth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000—Murphy went into the fraught relationship he and the rest of the Rifftrax crew have developed with the shoddy Gremlins knockoff. “I think we kind of hate the film, because it’s dumb and it’s also boring,” he said. “But it’s perfect for what we do because it’s dumb, and it’s also boring. We can’t make it less dumb, but we can certainly make it less boring.”

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You could say the same thing about online events like the Stranger Things riff during times like these. Rifftrax can’t make this pandemic less dumb, but they can make it less boring.

Managing editor, The A.V. Club

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