Kansas City, Missouri. Scenes of Tom Cruise filled the big screen, but the moviegoers packed inside a Missouri theater focused their attention on the action playing out away from the film: Three local actors and comics cracking jokes about the star’s height, his fervent belief in Scientology and some of his cinematic shortcomings.
Talking back to movies used to attract annoyed stares or the glare of an usher’s flashlight, but now audiences in US theaters, comedy clubs and even sports arenas are lining up to hear the heckles.
The focus of the jokes at Kansas City’s Screenland Slams on this particular Saturday night was the actor’s turn in 1985’s “Legend,” a Ridley Scott-directed romantic fantasy starring a young Cruise as a forest dweller battling the Lord of Darkness and his goblin henchmen.
“It’s one of those movies that have really high aspirations. And there are some things in it that are great — it has really great cinematography,” said Tom Lancaster, founder of the Kansas City comedy troupe. “But at the end of a day, it’s about a unicorn. It’s like it was made by a 7-year-old girl. So that’s perfect.”
More than a decade after the cancellation of smart-alecky 90’s cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” a generation of “Misties” weaned on the show is embracing the movie riff as its own comedic form. The show’s creator and original host Joel Hodgson, along with other former writers and cast members, tours theaters with the popular live show “Cinematic Titanic,” firing jokes as schlocky horror and sci-fi movies play in the background.
Another group of “Mystery Science Theater” alums, the San Diego-based RiffTrax, performs its own live shows that are simulcast at multiplexes nationwide, including a Thursday night show of the not-so-classic horror film, “Manos: The Hands of Fate.” The RiffTrax collective also creates online audio commentaries that can be purchased, sans movie, but played back at the user’s convenience in perfect sync with the flick.
And comedy clubs and cinemas from Kansas City to Los Angeles and Seattle host their own sanctioned shout-fests, starring performers both well-known (stand-up comic Doug Benson’s Movie Interruption at a Hollywood theater) and obscure (Kansas City has two movie-riff comedy troupes).
Audience participation also is valued: Theaters in Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, now offer Hecklevision, in which audience members are encouraged to send text messages on their cellphones while their jokes flash onscreen.
“It’s very peculiar, but something has changed,” said Hodgson, who created “Mystery Science Theater” in 1988 at a local UHF TV station in Minnesota before it was picked up by the Comedy Channel, which later became Comedy Central.
“People have accepted it as its own comedic art form,” he added. “It’s one of the things on the menu if you want to be funny.”
That wasn’t the case early on for Hodgson, a former stand-up comic from Wisconsin whose early-career sabbatical as a toy and prop designer led to the creation of the robot puppets that became central to his show’s plot. The puppets were held captive on a spaceship along with their human pal and forced to endure excruciatingly bad B-movies.
The plot allowed the “Mystery Science Theater” crew to riff away on forgettable films like “Teenage Cave Man” and “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.”
The show and other Hodgson projects since it use scripted jokes, while crews such as Lancaster’s Kansas City troupe are more improvisational in their movie riff performances.
Fans of the comedic form can now buy riff videos on demand from RiffTrax. Customers also can make and sell their own commentaries via iRiffs.
“I always thought it could adapt and go on to other things,” said RiffTrax’s Michael J. Nelson, a former “Mystery Science Theater” writer who succeeded Hodgson as the show’s host.
After a series of unsuccessful post-”Mystery Science Theater” pitches in Hollywood, “We just said, ‘let’s just make something on the Internet and put it out there,” Nelson said. “It was essentially just waiting for technology to catch up and be the delivery system.”
For Hodgson, the success of his show and its more recent iterations is simple: The performances are simply more structured versions of one-way conversations found in most living rooms.
“From the time we are little kids, we grow up watching the screen,” he said. “There’s a certain point where you realize you can say stuff back. That impulse is always going to be there.”
And as Hollywood continues to churn out remakes and sequels, movie riffers are confident there will be plenty more material to mock.