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Movie Riffing: The Pros and the Comedy - A How-to Guide
Looking Back at MST3K
Who was your favorite character?
"Let's all go to the looooobby! Let's all go to the looooobby! Let's all go to the looooobby, to get ourselves a treat!" On the grainy theater screen the chocolate bar, popcorn, candy, and soda cup danced along singing those hypnotic words. Many a poor sap found himself overpowered by the catchy tune and was soon dancing up the aisle to the nearest pimple-faced teen to demand a tray full of overpriced concessions on which to gorge himself. On the other hand, as this theater trailer played it's spellbinding song, several kids in the audience were snickering amongst themselves as they passed each other zip bags of peanut M&M's, trail mix, pre-popped popcorn, cookies, and other treats they snuck into the theater in their backpack, pocket, or purse.
Yes, I was one of those cunning nonconformists. While neighboring moviegoers scoffed or gave a pious look of disgust we would just smile and enjoy the fruits of our forethought. As delighted as I was to play my part in defying the concession obsession, nothing brought me more joy than my flagrant disobedience to the next pre-movie standard. As the slide took form on the enormous white backdrop I would laugh to myself at the absurd suggestion it presented: 'Silence is golden! Please do not talk during the movie.' "YEAH RIGHT!!!!" I would yell before the image had even faded away. A rousing blast of, "SHHHHHHHHHHH!!!" from the crowd around me only increased my amusement.
You see, from an early age I have often viewed things objectively. In the case of movie pop-culture I am not one to follow the whims and wonderment of movie critics who's stereotypical reviews include phrases such as 'The best film you will see this year!' .....Honestly? The best film I will see all year? It's MARCH! What crack-pot came up with that ridiculous claim? Even more maddening was when a friend or family member would quote this movie critic's words in an attempt to sway others to accompany them to the show.
I, of course, had a different motivation for going to the movies. To make fun of them! A good comedy can often stand on it's own. However, many comedy fans are missing out on the true humor hidden in poorly executed dramas or old sci-fi films riddled with absurd dialog ripe for the riffing.
Not A New Concept
Some may be wondering, "What is 'riffing'?" Essentially it's providing personal commentary in which you point out the flaws, heckle, and wisecrack about what you are viewing or listening to. In recent years it has been more specifically identified with providing such commentary during a film, however it has broader origins.
There is a thin line between riffing and being annoying. Often this is determined, not by what is said, but by the mood and viewpoint of the one who's listening. In what way? Well, if you think about it, stand-up comics are really just 'riffers of life'. They take the ordinary things of life, magnify an aspect of its flaws, and spin a joke or two about it. When performed by true artists, even somber subjects can be chronicled in a way that leaves the audience roaring with laughter. However, the same joke, outside of the comedy hall, may be met with scorn and displeasure. Again, the mood and frame of mind of the listener are key.
Are stand-up comics the only ancestors to the art of riffing? By no means. Riffing has been a part of life for eons. I say confidently that during millions of conversations and speeches throughout history men have made their own poignant comments, if not verbally, then in their hearts. The art of cracking wise at poorly executed or ridiculous dialogue has been carried on from ages long past by the truly humorous at heart who enjoy discovering and magnifying the quirky aspects of every day life. Look even at the works of Shakespeare, the prime example being the play Henry VI Part 2 : Act IV : Scene II. Here we find the rebel Jack Cade trying to convince the masses to join his rebellion against the British throne by putting on airs and elevating himself in their eyes. While trying to prove before the crowd he was of noble birth and married a woman of nobility, one of his own men, Dick the Butcher, unabashedly carried on a riffing out of the corner of his mouth with his companion, Smith the Weaver. It went like this. Note that the word 'aside' in brackets indicates talking, not to the crowd, but only to Smith the Weaver:
This, my friends, is a prime example of riffing. Though some of the humor may be obscured by the Anglo-Saxon tongue, you can clearly see the key elements. Smith and Dick wittily take the words that are spoken in all seriousness and turn them into the old-timey equivalent of 'mamma jokes', and 'burns'. And these little zingers were mostly fit very neatly within the pauses of Cade's speech. (While we'll discuss that tactic more later, note that this is a talent that separates the masters from the amateurs.) Personally, I find this banter to be way more entertaining and comical than the famous joke found just a few lines down:
Moving forward a few centuries, riffing made a huge splash into the world of theater during the time of vaudeville, the predecessor to movie theaters. Riffers could occasionally be found in other seating areas, but mainly were the patrons of 'the peanut gallery', so named due to their being the cheapest seats who's occupants would mainly consume the cheapest fare offered, peanuts. This section would often get loud and rowdy, flinging their salty snacks at sub-par performers accompanied by long strings of clever sarcasm. The commonness of this behavior from the cheap seats gave birth to such opening phrases as, "No comments from the peanut gallery!", an ominously familiar precursor to my pet peeve, "Silence is golden! Please don't talk during the movie."
Why, though, were the cheap seats so often the base of operations for the unmerciful talkers of smack? My theory is this: It all comes down to brain power. The more intellectually articulate, the greater the odds they would buy a ticket in the peanut gallery. Why? Because they were too smart to just follow the prevailing opinion of the masses and accept sub-par acts as quality entertainment. They could see through the rouse of 'pop-culture' and ascertain their own opinion of a show or act. (Yes pop-culture existed in the days of vaudeville. In fact it has always existed but simply was not given that name until our modern era.) As they did, flaws would be readily evident and so they could do one of two things. 1) Get irritated. 2) Make fun. The well rounded, jovial individual would view this as an opportunity to exercise the mind instead of being bored out of it and come up with one snappy one-liner after another. Yet, the shrewd riffer would also know there would eventually be consequences. How long do you think you could sound your sass without attracting the rage of the serious and straight-laced patrons? Sooner or later, you could expect an early escort out to the street by a not-so-friendly usher. That being the case why would anyone pay more than the minimum for a show they expected to be disappointed in and, eventually, thrown out of? Therefore, I hold to the theory. The astutely clever would pay no more than base price for a rousing evening where they would, in fact, be the most entertaining portion of the show.
Yes, riffing has been an underlying feature of world culture for years, though many stick-bums would turn their nose up at such a suggestion. Despite the efforts of the morbidly solemn, it will remain a mainstay of independent culture.
Riffing - It Does A Body Good
Would you believe me if I told you that riffing brings benefits to your brain? It's true! Scientists have produced several reports on the benefits of laughing, creating jokes, and meditating - all of which are essential for great riffing. Helpguide.org reports that "Laughter is good for the brain." It continues,
"You've heard that laughter is the best medicine, and that holds true for the brain as well as the body. Unlike emotional responses, which are limited to specific areas of the brain, laughter involves multiple regions across the whole brain.
"Furthermore, listening to jokes and working out punch lines activates areas of the brain vital to learning and creativity.As psychologist Daniel Goleman notes in his book Emotional Intelligence, 'laughter…seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely.'"
In addition to these intriguing facts, the report commented on the benefits of meditation as well. If you expect to riff well you have to spend a bit of time meditating on your subject, pondering over how one part relates to another as well as associating it with something humorous. The report states,
"Meditation works its 'magic' by changing the actual brain. Brain images show that regular meditators have more activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with feelings of joy and equanimity. Meditation also increases the thickness of the cerebral cortex and encourages more connections between brain cells—all of which increases mental sharpness and memory ability."
Note the portion 'encourages more connections between brain cells'. This is often a major road block that prevents people from riffing. The most common excuse I hear is, "I'm just not quick and witty enough. You think of stuff to say right away, but I don't think of things until minutes even hours later."
In a way, they are right. At present they may not be quick enough because they haven't 'paved the way' between certain brain cells. It's as if they are driving in a car and the street comes to an abrupt dead end, yet another 100 yards ahead of them they can see their destination. The fastest way would be to drive straight ahead, but there is no road. If they insist on moving ahead they will have quite a bumpy ride and possibly get stuck. The more modest decide to turn around and backtrack to the main road to reach their destination which takes several extra minutes.
That's sort of how our brain works. Until we associate two things that we are familiar with we cannot 'drive' directly from one thought to the next. We have to first make the connection. Until then we can only follow a pathway of thinking that has been previously laid. If we try to make the connection on the fly, it's like driving on unpaved ground. Bland riffs and poorly articulated commentary are the results of this type of forced thinking. Meditation, however, is our chance to blaze new paths of thinking and close the gaps of understanding as to how things interrelate. Afterward we have new roadways, smoothly paved, just waiting to transport thoughts from one point to the next instantaneously.
Thus comes the seemingly 'quick witted' quality that is greatly envied and mistakenly attibuted to a blessing of birth. Really, it's only those who neglect meditation that find themselves deficient of speedy wit.
How to Do It
So far we have examined the what, why, when, and even where of riffing, but we still haven't talked expressly about what you probably are most interested in: How do you riff a movie? What are the techniques? Which methods only draw crickets and which will have your audience choking on their Cracker Jacks with laughter?
First of all, if you are not prepared to spend a serious amount of time and effort on your project, the results will be mediocre at best. Notable also is the fact that you will have to develop a cast-iron stomach for poor quality entertainment. The average riffer has to plod through a nauseatingly dull film anywhere from half to several dozen times along the journey from pre-production to, "That's a wrap!".
Taking that into account, if you're still up for the challenge here are some key tactics to riffing. Take note of the comic box below. The essential ingredients for great riffing are all there. You will note that, as we discussed earlier, you will need to spend some time meditating on an idea to see what farcical gems are hiding inside. Root around for the humor. You'll find it if you explore beyond just the surface thought or statement.
Not to be underestimated is the concept introduced in the lower right corner of the image below. Stay with a thought or statement for a while and see where else it leads. Often the funniest jokes have several degrees of separation from the initial subject. This is also the nest in which running gags are born, valued as 'golden eggs' within the riffing community.
So did you follow those clear-cut instructions? If you are staring blankly at this screen right now do yourself a favor. Walk into the bathroom and flush your head in the toilet a few times. Don't worry about the stench. Seeing that you have such a large deficiency of humor it's not likely you have any valuable friends, except for the one who's willing to give you a voluntary swirly.
Now that you're a bit more alert try reading the instructions again. If you still don't get it then throw your TV and computer out the window along with your brain since all three are being sadly under utilized and only taking up precious space.
As for the rest of my audience, congratulations! You have taken your first step into a larger world of laughter. You are in the company of great wit like that of Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and more recently, Mike Nelson, and Joel Hodgson.
Of course, like any other comedian you now have the undertaking of developing a bit of your own style. The worst choice would be to adopt someone else's style, especially that of a famous comedian. First of all, that's just cheap and second, only the very best impersonator would be able to pull it off......and then it would still be cheap. Just be yourself and tell the jokes like you would to a niece or nephew. The key is confidence. If you deliver a line like it's the most comical phrase you've heard in years, then you may just convince your audience to feel that way, too.
As far as what's funny and what's not......well it's still going to be a matter of your listener's opinion. You might think to yourself, "This is my funniest joke of the whole movie!" but your audience could fail to see the humor. Don't get discouraged. Even the pro's get that response occasionally. Take, for example, Frank Conniff, the actor who played "TV's Frank" in the hit series Mystery Science Theater 3000 . Now working on the project Cinematic Titanic , note his experience:
At one point in “Doomsday Machine,” one of the astronauts says, “Remember those solar panels on the outside of the spaceship?” I responded with this riff: “…that we used to love so much when we were kids.”
I can’t explain why, but I thought this was one hilarious riff. When we rehearsed the movie, I could never say the line out loud because I was always laughing. When we recorded the DVD, I had to rerecord that line several times until I got it right because I always blew the take from laughing so hard.
Therefore, it must be a funny line, right? I mean, after all, I've been working professionally in the comedy business for almost twenty-five years, so I bring a great deal of authority to the science of what is and isn't funny, right?
Well, on a hot, muggy night last summer, Cinematic Titanic riffed “Doomsday Machine” in front of a live audience at the outdoor John Anson Ford amphitheater, right across the 101 from the Hollywood Bowl. This was a very special night for me, an all-time highlight of my career in live performance.
The audience was incredible. They sent waves of unconditional love across the footlights. They laughed at everything. Everything! They laughed at the sounds our scripts made as we turned the pages. They laughed when we cleared our throats. They laughed at our bottled water. And hey laughed at every riff we made in the course of a two-hour evening.
Well, almost every riff.
When the moment in the movie where the astronaut said, “Remember those solar panels on the outside of the spaceship” approached, I prepared myself. I didn't want to blow the line like I always did so I really focused my energy so that I wouldn't laugh and thus trip over the line that I knew would just slaughter the audience. And at exactly the right beat, with perfect comedic timing and clear articulation, I precisely delivered the line, “…that we used to love so much when we were kids…”
And the tumultuous response from the audience was…
Complete and utter silence.
Not a single human being sitting under the stars that night laughed at the line that I thought was one of the funniest in the script. And this was a crowd that had thus far shown a willingness to respond with joyful guffaws to everything we said.
Except for that one line. My favorite in the script.
As the years pass, I find that the more I learn about comedy, the more I find out how little I know. I don’t know if I've properly articulated how poorly that riff did on the night of that show last summer. To really experience how badly that joke bombed, you had to be there.
Source: Cinematic Titanic - http://www.cinematictitanic.com/showguide.php?showname=Doomsday_Machine
One area that could give you trouble is the timing of a joke. You may have the funniest line of our modern era, yet if it grinds against the grain of comedic timing you will be committing the greatest crime since Enron. The average Joe will blindly sit there staring at the screen and after a long pause say, "...................................What?" Fellow riffing artists observing your train-wreck will sweep their hand over their face with a ghastly sigh of pain.
To avoid this Chernobyl-level melt-down, here is a common rule followed by the best riffers. If the joke doesn't fit in a pause in the dialog, don't say it. There are some exceptions where the dialog following has no crucial value and the listener will not care if they hear it or not, however, leave that call to the professionals! Gain some experience first, watch a lot of other riffer's work, and eventually you will see what is 'culturally' acceptable in this regard.
Now, though, let's break it down to the simple basics of movie riffing 'how to'. Here are 10 steps:
- Select a movie that you can't take seriously even though the director is trying to be. You don't want your audience to be too interested in the movie. Then again, if it's exceptionally boring they may not feel your heckling outweighs the pain of watching this horrible flick. Movie selection is a key first step in determining your riffing career's success or failure.
- Get a friend or two to join your riffing group. Solo riffs are simply not as funny. However, you will need to take into account who you ask. Be sure they are committed to the cause, or you could find yourself alone and depressed in your basement with only half a movie riffed.
- Watch the movie several times looking for potential riffing opportunities. When are there pauses in the dialogue? Does the movie drag with long periods of silence or just background music? At what points are there absolutely retarded events or statements?
- Take notes. When you find a part that's dull or dumb and you think of a good riff write it down. Many fantastic jokes have been lost due to simple laziness. You may think you will remember the joke, but you probably won't. Write it down!
- Pause the movie and meditate on an idea. If you see potential for a good riff but it's just not coming to you right away, pause the movie. This is like the proverbial 'trembling stick' when searching for subterranean water. You've felt something. Now you need to stop, kneel down, and dig for it. So think about what was just said (or done) in the movie, even rewinding and watching the clip several times. What makes the thought funny? Possibly nothing, but could there be a related matter that is? [For more on this tactic re-read the comic box above.]
- Come up with several types of jokes. Don't make them all one-liners. Sing a tune that has laughable connotations. Banter between you and another riffer, in a sense spring boarding off of each other's jokes. Some of your lines should directly relate to the film while others can be so obscure that only the elite in your audience will laugh as their friends whine, "Heeeeeey, I don't get it....."
- When you have all of your jokes assembled in at least a roughly drafted script, prepare to record your riff-track (your commentary audio file). I suggest using a laptop or PC to ensure good quality and easy post-production compilation. If possible, listen to the movie on your computer with headphones and a separate microphone. This will allow you to record your jokes in perfect time to the film without hearing the movie as background noise in your riff-track.
- Using purchased or preloaded recording software capture your riff-track. Make sure to test your microphone and the quality of your recording before wasting minutes or hours of your precious time only to find your final product is unusable. Remember, you don't have to record it perfectly in one take. You can edit the soundtrack later and re-sync it to the movie.
- Compile your finished product using a 'movie maker' type program. While the free programs may do the job, there are some nice extras that you will have to sacrifice if you don't purchase a more advanced program.
- Upload your film to a web-site or burn a hard copy. Don't forget, there are strict copyright regulations. You cannot distribute or sell altered versions of any copyright protected material. Therefore, unless the film or clip you are riffing is open source, or 'public domain', it is usually smart to offer the riff-track on it's own. The end user can then sync the sound file with their own copy of the movie. Believe it or not, in this case copyright says, "No harm, no foul."
Is Riffing for You?
Like any new hobby, it will take a bit of time to test whether you really enjoy riffing or not. Hundreds have entered into the riffing arena simply to fade out with the ending credits of their first film. However, a growing cult following has spurred on hundreds more to stick with this unique form of comedy and expand their reputation as household names among fans of the genre.
What claim will you stake in this flourishing field of funny? Perhaps one day your name will be housed in the yet-to-be-constructed 'Riffing Hall of Fame' next to the greats, Mike Nelson and Joel Hodgson. In the interim, keep me updated with your progress and feel free to use the comments section below as a sounding board for your riffing questions, ideas, and escapades.