The Return of Statler & Waldorf

08-Jan-07 12:23 PM by
Filed under Films, Television; 7 comments.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was perhaps the most ingenious television program ever aired. It took old B-movies and "completed" them, as some might say; that is, it introduced entertainment where, despite good intentions, none previously existed. By adding an audio commentary track, MST3K lampooned the film, pop culture, and themselves more quickly and effectively than an average viewer could irritate his audiencemates with his own jokes.

Even constrained by copyrights and other legalities, the show trashed enough duds to last ten memorable years. It's now been eight years that we've been without MST3K. Mike Nelson's Movie Megacheese and Kevin Murphy's A Year at the Movies were great books — but they still left me wistful for the days of yesteryear.

Fortunately, the Best Brains crew reunited in 2006 to launch RiffTrax. For $3/pop, they'll sell you an MP3 to play alongside a DVD that you provide. Since RiffTrax isn't selling the actual movies, there's no licensing fees, thus opening a trove of previously untouchable titles for them to mock.

This was how I recently watched X-Men (click for sample) and The Matrix. My DVD's audio output piped into 5.1 surround sound, and iTunes connected to the normally-silent TV speakers. There was an occasional syncing issue (the movie and MP3 must be started at the same time; the MP3 provides regular cues to verify this synchronicity) — some my fault, some not — but otherwise, the setup was easy to establish.

The concept behind it all, however, could potentially be flawed: these are not necessarily bad films the expatriates of the Satellite of Love are now targetting. Despite having seen both films multiple times, I was more drawn to the actions of the X-Men than I was the verbiage of the peanut gallery. If we were watching Manos, Hand of Fate, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, or X-Men 3, I'd not be terribly vested in the cinematic travesty to which I would otherwise never expose myself. But the original?

Fortunately, I had far fewer compunctions in watching The Matrix. This extremely entertaining film is, like Independence Day, best watched with the brain turned off. And who can't laugh at Keanu Reeves and his string of bombs? Were I not hesitant to disrupt the timing between the MP3 and DVD, I would've paused to provide enough time to finish laughing before the next witticism was unerringly delivered.

RiffTrax is not MST3K: it has the same potential, but in a completely new medium. Please do check them out; new MP3s are released on a regular basis.

Incidentally, TeeVee.org, a blog and podcast, has an audio interview with Mike Nelson (also available in transcript form), in which Mike talks about MST3K, RiffTrax, and more. I was pleasantly surprised that one of his own admissions could've come from my own mouth:

I don't have TV, and I haven't had TV for years… But I do watch TV in that all the good stuff — and a lot of bad stuff — is available on DVD… I'm on, like, a large time delay, where people are excited and talking about a certain show, and then two years later I'll go, "Hey, have you seen this show?" Because I'm just now watching it on DVD… I'm on an extreme-delayed TiVo system, is basically how I look at it.

I ask you: could I be in better company?

7 Responses to “The Return of Statler & Waldorf”

  1. peterw adds:

    LOL! I read this entry yesterday, but I only just caught on to the title today! :-D

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  2. Ken Gagne adds:

    When I was researching the movie Russian Ark, set in the Hermitage museum, I came across an invaluable online resource — a museum of another type: the Kermitage. Very handy – and fun!

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  3. Ken Gagne adds:

    Speaking of being in good company, this CNN.com article bemoans the guilt and commitment involved in watching a TV show on DVD nowadays.

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  4. a2history adds:

    Re: Rifftrax —

    My family and I tried out RiffTrax last weekend, by renting The Matrix and purchasing the RiffTrax MP3 for that movie. It was actually very well done, and the commentary was very funny. My comments on the process are that it was difficult to keep the movie and MP3 in sync with each other. Not only did the telephone ring several times during the movie, requiring both being re-synchronized, but there is some drift that seems to happen anyway. The script notes that were included with the MP3 gave clock times for both the MP3 and the DVD to allow re-sync, and where there was a 2 minute 10 second difference between the times at the start of the movie (2 minutes used on the MP3 to introduce the movie and give instructions), by the end of the movie it was a 2 minute and 13-14 second gap. So even if there had NOT been any interruptions, I would have had to resync anyway.

    Despite this annoyance, it was still enjoyable. I am considering listening to his commentary on The Fellowship Of The Ring in the near future (since I already own that movie).

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  5. Ken Gagne adds:

    a2history: Thanks for sharing your experience! I'm glad someone else has decided to try RiffTrax.

    I found, as you did, that a 3-4 second drift introduced itself around the time Neo visited the Oracle. I had synced the film and commentary perfectly at the beginning of the film and had not paused either, so it's definitely an inherent flaw in this particular track.

    My movie buddy and I didn't pause either X-Men or The Matrix, be it for phone or bathroom breaks, mostly because we didn't want to re-sync. :-) He owns Daredevil on DVD (I'm not sure what version — the RiffTrax works only with the non-director's cut), which we saw in theaters when it came out four years ago next month, so we may spring next for that commentary — which has the distinction of being the first RiffTrax to simultaneously feature all three alumni of MST3K!

    BTW, what was your audio hardware setup for watching The Matrix?

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  6. Ken Gagne adds:

    RiffTrax now has a YouTube profile, with dozens of free samples. Check them out at

    http://www.youtube.com/user/RiffTrax

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  7. Ken Gagne adds:

    Steve:

    I've watched the Matrix RiffTrax several times with my DVD player providing the video and my iPod or MacBook Pro providing the audio. Each time, the riff becomes out of sync at the same point.

    Last night, I watched this riff again, but this time using a combination of my MacBook's DVD player and iTunes. This time, no desyncing occurred.

    Maybe the flaw lies instead in my DVD player, an early model Panasonic A120?

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