Interview: 'Rifftrax Lives' Kevin Murphy Talks 'Night of the Living Dead' and MST3K

MST3K star Kevin Murphy talks Rifftrax's Night of the Living Dead live show!
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Audiences may be unfamiliar with actor Kevin Murphy’s face, but if you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 you can’t forget his voice in the character of the wisecracking robot, Tom Servo.  After MST3K ended its run in 1999, the trio of alums Murphy, Michael J. Nelson, and Bill Corbett started RifftraxRifftrax’s goal is simply “We don’t make movies…we make movies funnier,” and they do!  Any movie is up for lampooning, and they’ve tapped into a market with old fans of MST3K continuing to love their shtick, and new fans enjoying their skewering of popular fare.

In honor of Halloween, Rifftrax is performing their popular live show with the 1968 George Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead.  I was able to sit down with Kevin Murphy, Mr. Tom Servo himself, and ask him what fans can expect in the way of laughs and scares, as well as thoughts on the art of “riffing” itself.

You’ve done several of these before and I’ve watched almost all of them; they’re hilarious!

Well, thank you!

I’m a huge fan of the track for House on Haunted Hill, which was my favorite!  What is it about Night of the Living Dead that makes it worthy of taking on?

A lot of people remember the film as a pioneer of this kind of film - veritae, black and white, jarring, gruesome, very stark - and when you go back and see it in the context of today’s world of imaging and torture porn, it seems almost innocent and kind of corny, so it’s fun to go back and look at it.  I think the film still is a ground-breaking film, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun with it.  

It’s an expected the unexpected thing with the live events so what can fans expect from the presentation and the performance?  I’m a big fan of the songs you guys come up with.  Any chance we’ll hear a new one?

We did do some songs for our Kickstarter and those will be playing before the show during the slide show we do as a warm-up thirty minutes before.  That slideshow has become a big part of the entertainment; people actually show up early so they can see the slideshow because it’s gotten so damn funny and I attribute that to our writers Conor Lastowka and Sean Thomason who are the ones largely in charge in putting that together, and it’s hysterical.

Do you guys have a preference between doing the Rifftrax Live or sitting together for a DVD?  Is there a difference in how it’s presented?  Do you prefer one over the other?

That’s a good question!  They’re both so different from each other; it’s hard to compare because the Rifftrax Live shows are quite nerve-wracking because they are live and anything could go wrong at anytime when we’re doing it; so we do our best to prevent that.  There’s always a bit of an anxious edge, but that also fuels what we do because we’re sitting in front of an audience, and we get feedback from them and that just gives us a whole lot of energy and raises the performance for us.  We sort of rise to the challenge of entertaining the audience and we always have great audiences.  It’s terrific to do that, but I couldn’t do that all the time, I’d have an ulcer. 

It’s also fun to go into the studio and chum around with Bill [Corbett] and Mike [Nelson] and it’s more like a jam session; it’s a little more relaxed.  They’re just as funny, but in a different way.  We tailor it to a TV-watching crowd rather than a live crowd when we do the videos on-demand and the MP3 commentaries, but the live are a high-wire act and I love doing them.

Is there a dream movie that you’d love to a live riff on?  Is there one that you ended up doing that you didn’t want to do?

Well, I hate Manos!  I hate that film with a white-hot rage; I just think it should never be seen again, but we had to do it because when we’d ask our fans, “Is there anything out there from our past that you’d want us to do” everyone would come back and say, “Do Manos!  Do Manos!  Do Manos!”  We did it and it was great fun; it was a very successful show and I’m happy because I don’t have to ever look at that damn film again.  On the other hand, we did a Kickstarter last year trying to get Twilight and that didn’t work out, and I think that’s the one film, in a dream world, I would have loved us to get for riffing, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen - I won’t say never.  

It deserves it.

Oh, boy it would be so much fun.  And Starship Troopers was a great success for us and the studio, I think, were okay with what we did.  So who knows, maybe people will be a little bit more willing in the future to let us do some of these bigger movies.

Do you have a favorite movie you did?  Or is a favorite still out there somewhere?

It changes all the time because we keep getting new movies.  As far as Mystery Science Theater goes…that’s also really hard.  

Speaking of that show, there are so many shows confined to their time period that younger generations can’t watch them because they come off as boring or dated.  Do you think Mystery Science Theater 3000 has that timeless quality to it because the movies are so different?

It seems to, and I think that’s the key that we didn’t stick to any single period.  I think the only thing we never did on Mystery Science Theater was a silent movie.  We did all genres, all time periods, and I think maybe that’s it; a lot of the films we get, and even today in Rifftrax, are pure curiosities.  Here’s one of my favorites from Rifftrax, Guy from Harlem.  

I didn’t see that one.

Oh, it’s just wonderful!

I’m assuming it’s a '70s movie?

It’s playing off of the movie Shaft.  It’s a soul brother/cop/detective action film.  From Mystery Science Theater, I have to say Space Mutinies is one of my favorites.

Is there a particular genre made for making fun of?  Is it easier to poke fun at horror films, sci-fi, blockbusters?  Or is it the movie itself that’s important?

For us it’s sort of proven that genre films - sci-fi, fantasy, horror (as long as they’re not too horrific horror) - work really well for us; especially when, like Twilight, they take themselves so seriously.  Whatever humor they have is very minimal and they’re trying to tell this very important story, and they’re also ham-fisted in doing it, so those are perfect films for us.

I know the Twilight thing didn’t work out, but are there any plans for future Rifftrax?  Anything you guys are hoping to do in the future?

We’re still going to do live shows because they’re so much fun, so look for more of those.  We would love to do a live show next year with a Hollywood title; we have no idea what that would be right now but we’re going to do our damndest to get one.  And we’ve continued to find these films - they keep crawling out from under rocks, Hollywood has made so many we’re never going to run short on material.  We have a film coming out today that I think is going to be quite fun called Supersonic Man.  It’s sort of a South American/American combination space alien/superhero film.  It’s so cheesy.  

That sounds intriguing yet weird all at the same time.

We’ve been saying to people who are fans of Mystery Science Theater, if you liked the Mystery Science Theater movie Puma Man, then you will like Supersonic Man.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if there’s any future for Mystery Science Theater to come back in some form.

I don’t think so.  I’ve sort of grown out that.  It was a wonderful time in my life, but I’ve graduated from that school and onto other things, so to go back to that now would be sort of weird; for us and for you, the audience.  It just wouldn’t be the same.  It had its time in my life, and it’s not a place I think I could go back to.  We’re continuing on, that tradition at least, with three of us on the show at Rifftrax and we seem to be getting a lot more of our old Mystery Science Theater fans to come on and enjoy us.  I’ll be looking forward to that and we’ll always have fond memories, but I really don’t see a revival show coming.

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In the limited time we had left I had to mention my mother’s excitement for the upcoming live show, which Kevin promised would be cross-generational and fun for the whole family!

You can still get tickets to Rifftrax Live: Night of the Living Dead via the Fathom Events website.  The show goes on Thursday, October 24th at 8:00pm ET / 7:00pm CT and taped-delayed to 7:00pm MT/ 8:00pm PT

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