3 Valuable Lessons I Learned Attempting to Make a Mystery Science Theater Knockoff

2016-12-04-1480860987-9969080-Scared_to_Death13_410x310.jpgIf you've been tracking my feed, you know my friends -- Andrea Lipinski, Orenthal Hawkins, and Kevin Lauderdale -- and I put out a podcast called Temple of Bad, dedicated to the celebration and evisceration of bad film. That, perhaps naturally, wasn't enough for us, so being across-the-board fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Rifftrax, and their ilk, we decided to try our hand at doing our own riffing show.

(For those of you new to the genre, to riff in this context is to take a film, good or bad, and lay in an additional audio commentary track cracking wise about the on-screen goings on. This is usually presented in the form of a video show, but that doesn't mean it can't be done live as well. Try it at that screening of Loving you're planning to attend this weekend -- it's fun! (We are not responsible for any repercussions you may experience if you try this at that screening of Loving you're planning to attend this weekend).)

After some research, we settled on a suitably execrable (and public domain) candidate: the horror(?) thriller Scared to Death, which just so happens to be Bela Lugosi's only color film, not that it did him much good. Because we're not completely crazy, we decided to test the waters by doing only the first twenty minutes. You can see the results in the player at the bottom of this post.

Can't be denied we had fun living la vida MSTie, but we also learned some valuable lessons:

  • CHOOSE YOUR FILM VERRRRY CAREFULLY

Scared to Death is a gem of a stinker, with inane dialogue, awful acting, and beats that are not so much dramatic as they are incoherent. It also happens to be based on a stage play, and brings with it some distinctive aspects of the theater, to wit: The characters talk, a lot. This is not a problem when you're just sitting there, laughing at the thing, but complicates matters when you're trying to shoehorn a riff into the inanity without running the risk of losing whatever little narrative thread there is. Fortunately, most of the dialogue is as pointless as the film is overall, so we threw caution to the wind and stepped on dialogue where we had to. Next time, though, we'll be looking carefully at the provenance of the script.

  • WRITING RIFFS BE DIFFICULT, YO
  • Any fan of the riffing arts knows that you don't go into a session cold. You can't just sit down, fire up the recorder, and think you're going to drop pearls of wit on a first viewing. It takes multiple viewings to land on just the right riff at the right time. It also takes a lot of thought -- something silly happens on-screen, and your instinct tells you, This must be addressed, but you can't just say, "Heh-heh, that's stoopid," and think your job is done. There are approximately 95 riffs in the twenty minute span of Scared to Death, and that's on the low end of the scale for such efforts. Overall, we feel we nailed it, but languors exist at points, evidence that we were working hard, but not hard enough.

  • THE DIGITAL AGE IS YOUR BEST FRIEND AND YOUR WORST ENEMY
  • We are four people living in four different cities. In theory, we could have recorded our riffs individually and I, as producer, would have used my editing magic to stitch it all together. We decided to go an extra step, and use a Skype conference session, so we could all interact during recording. This was a good call: It was fun session, and the good vibes translated to the audio track. Problem was that, having absolutely no budget to pull this project off, we were at the mercy of whatever technology each person had to hand. This ranged from professional recorders to smart phone recorders to desk mikes. The difference is obvious and, to a small extent, distracting. Bottom line: Find the money, and get everybody's hardware on the same level.

    I suspect we all came out of this with a heightened respect for the work of Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, et al, but also pretty jazzed by our own humble efforts. Check the show out and see if you agree.