-by Ken Plume
When not plying his skills as an acclaimed playwright, Bill Corbett has been known to manipulate a gold robot and walk around, pasty-faced, with his brain in a glass dish.
Okay, so the pasty-facedness of the previous statement actually applies to the character of The Observer that Bill played for 3 seasons during Mystery Science Theater 3000’s run on the Sci-Fi Channel. As if that weren’t enough, in addition to his writing duties for the series (and his roll as the pasty-faced Observer - BOY was he pasty!), he also took over from Trace Beaulieu as the voice and puppeteer of Crow T. Robot.
His post-MST life has seen him continue to write plays, but he’s also re-teamed with fellow Satellite of Love refugees Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy as the B-movie quipping Film Crew, plus he’s been a frequent guest-riffer on Mike Nelson & Legend Films’ RiffTrax commentaries (you can check out their full catalog here).
Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, I was able to communicate via telephone with Bill, who was firmly entrenched in his Midwestern stronghold.
KEN PLUME: So, did you get a chance to look at some of our other interview disasters?
BILL CORBETT: I did, yeah. Wow. What were you thinking? They’re very nice and they’re very thorough.
KP: Hopefully nothing was enough to scare you off of this…
CORBETT: No, it’s just more… you know, I get worried that my life is just not as interesting as these dudes.
KP: Yeah, but the good thing is that most of what you tell me could be lies and I’d never know the difference.
KP: So, about your time in the RAF…
CORBETT: Damn Gerries! We have them on the run!
KP: We go back as far as we can… It’s either we start with that, or I can just ask you - Pinter, Miller, Simon and you, cage match, who wins?
CORBETT: (laughs) I think Pinter does. He’s an angry old limey at this point. He’s loaded for bear.
KP: Is that who you pick as your tag team partner?
CORBETT: Who are the other choices?
KP: Miller and Simon.
CORBETT: Miller and Simon. Well, Miller’s dead, so he might be a little tough, but I guess I could throw Miller at somebody. Simon, I don’t know. He married Marsha Mason at one point, so he might be pretty used to rumbling.
KP: The calluses alone should mean that he’d be able to stay in the fight for much longer than you expect.
CORBETT: Swinging Arthur Miller at us, yeah.
KP: You never really thought about this. This could happen.
CORBETT: Thank God I do interviews so I can think of the right hypotheticals for my life! (laughing)
KP: If there really were literary cage matches, imagine who it might bring to literature? You might finally capture the youth that have been disenchanted by reading.
CORBETT: I do think that WWE wrestler Mankind…
KP: Mick Foley…
CORBETT: Mick Foley is now a respected New York Times’ bestseller. He’s writing tender paeans to childhood.
KP: Having read both of his books, they’re actually remarkably well written - to give the man some kind of props…
CORBETT: Well, I live in a state where the governor was one of those guys, so I believe anything at this point.
KP: In Minnesota, anything could happen. You could have an ex-SNL pundit as your senator…
CORBETT: It’s quite amazing.
KP: And don’t forget that’ll make the state film Stuart Saves his Family.
CORBETT: I tell you, we’re the new California here. It’s where crackpot ideas get a dry run.
KP: Well, you have to have some kind of California in the middle, don’t you?
CORBETT: It’s true.
KP: I think there’s a per state rule, you can only have a buffer of three or four states before you have to hit an oddball.
CORBETT: Yeah, that’s true, and the Dakotas aren’t going to pick up the challenge anytime soon.
KP: Really, it’s for eccentrics who don’t like the coasts.
CORBETT: Well, this state will tell you that we have more coastline than California. It’s an actual bragging point, I think, of the tourist board. If you actually just took all the lakes and stretched them out like a big rubber band into a line…
KP: Yeah, but for a landlocked area of the country, that strikes me as the equivalent of a fat man saying he’s big boned.
CORBETT: Yeah, I think that’s dead on. The lakes are wonderful, but…
KP: It’s not the coast.
CORBETT: No, come now.
KP: It’s not the Riviera of the Midwest.
CORBETT: Where are you?
KP: I’m in North Carolina, on the coast.
CORBETT: An actual coast.
KP: One with an ocean. Not just something where they say, “Well, it has the same systems and waves as an ocean…”
CORBETT: Well, water meets land at some point.
KP: Yeah, “We have the world’s largest miniature ocean.”
CORBETT: Parceled out in ten thousand little droplets.
KP: Isn’t the Midwest where the euphemism was born?
CORBETT: What euphemism?
KP: Just euphemisms in general.
CORBETT: Yeah, probably. Wow, that’s heavy.
KP: What brought a native of New York, Brooklyn if I remember correctly…
KP: … to the Midwest?
CORBETT: Well, in 1990 I came out here after grad school. I was invited to do a playwriting fellowship out here through a place called the Playwright Center - which makes sense for a playwriting fellowship. It’s a place that kind of gave out money and grants to writers if they would basically hang around for a year and teach a few classes. I had no better offer since. And I was sort of aware of it as a place that had kind of launched August Wilson, the playwright. But I’d never been to the Midwest before. I really only planned on staying a year.
KP: At that time, how did you view the idea of the Midwest, as a New Yorker?
CORBETT: My idea of the Midwest was Ohio. And I thought, “Well, it’s all kind of…” it was a bit of New York snobbery - or idiocy, depending on your point of view - where I really thought, “Oh, you can get anywhere in the Midwest from a couple of miles away.” And Ohio, because my parents had moved out there to Columbus some years before, even though I didn’t go with them, so that to me was the Midwest. There was a vast, vast expanse beyond that and below that and above that.
KP: So it’s not just WKRP.
CORBETT: No. (laughs) I was curious. I was aware of Minneapolis as a great cultural scene… a music scene, like The Replacements and Prince, of course, and all that. And I knew that it had some great theater here. The Guthrie theater, famously one of the best and biggest theaters in the country. And a bunch of other stuff. So I was anxious to spend a year out here, but we’re a little over a year now.
KP: It’s stretched a bit longer than you thought…
CORBETT: Quite a bit. For the first couple of years I was sort of doing double citizenship between New York and here. But I just kept getting work here and I kept enjoying it. The winters are the classic thing that people complain about here, but I don’t even mind that. Until February. I like a little bit of bracing cold and some seasons, but it just goes on too darn long.
KP: You would think that you would miss some of the cultural aspects of New York.
CORBETT: Yeah, I do, but I have to say I lived there until I was 26 years old. I get back there enough and I usually tend to cram a lot of my little cultural joneses in one trip. These days I’m missing it because my wife and I have a young kid and another on the way, so I’m anticipating that the traveling isn’t going to be as frequent.
KP: Not unless they start wondering who their dad is.
CORBETT: Right, right.
KP: “Who is that guy?” As your wife puts them to bed with RiffTrax playing in their ears.
CORBETT: Oh, that would make them so twisted.
KP: It’s better than seeing half the work you did on MST…
CORBETT: That’s true. “That guy with the white, hideous…”
KP: “That ghostly demon is my dad.”
CORBETT: “God help you.”
KP: You’ve left them quite a legacy.
CORBETT: I know.
KP: At least with the new project, with the Film Crew, they’ll be able to at least know your face…
KP: Unadorned by makeup…
CORBETT: Hopefully they’ll concentrate more on RiffTrax…
KP: Oh no, they’ll get exposed to the rest. That’s what classmates are for. How early did you begin to get a sense that writing was a creative expression that you gravitated towards?
CORBETT: Pretty early, I guess. I had a couple of good teachers along the way in grade school. I remember one who had us writing little skits and things, and they were really a blast to do. I would actually do the homework, which was kind of a minor miracle. I remember one thing he had us do was write a skit involving dialects. He was teaching us regional dialects. All these little kids in Brooklyn trying to put on Southern accents. He would give us creative writing topics. I realized I liked it then, and I never stopped liking it.
KP: What would be the first piece of writing that you can actively remember?
CORBETT: Gosh, let me think. It was probably a total rip off of something else, because I think it’s only last year that I finally started writing anything remotely original that wasn’t influenced heavily…
KP: Usually writers don’t admit that until they’re in their 60s or 70s.
CORBETT: Yeah. The first piece of writing was probably a skit in Mr. Scotto’s class where I think I had Archie Bunker meeting some southern guy, little TV brained kid that I was, and that was the extent of it. And they could barely understand each other because of their dialects.
KP: That’s exactly the kind of character that you’d hope a grade school kid would latch onto.
CORBETT: Yes, exactly. A bigoted New Yorker. That was pretty much everybody who lived on my block. The Irish Catholic version of Archie Bunker.
KP: So you were essentially a pint-sized Norman Lear.
KP: But it’s good that you were already thinking of social issues at such a young age.
CORBETT: I don’t know that I was. I just thought he was funny because he called people “meathead” and “dingbat”. That’s all I knew.
KP: Words you use to this day.
CORBETT: Oh yeah.
KP: What kind of writing style developed during that period?
CORBETT: I think all through my young ‘un days, for some reason I gravitated towards dialogue - plays, for lack of a better word. Anything that can be acted out. So I was getting interested in theater and theatricality at the same time. I had written a few plays, and whatever was available.
KP: Did the acting appeal to you as much as the writing?
CORBETT: It did, actually. I was a… I hesitate to call it a serious actor, but for a while I did a fair amount of it. I just think that when it comes down to it I don’t really have the stomach for an actor’s life, for a performer’s life. I love doing things that are handed to me. I deeply detest having to audition and prepare monologues and things like that. Maybe some combination of laziness and who knows what… inferiority complex. Probably laziness, when it comes right down to it. That can explain a lot about me.
KP: How have you reacted to rejection over the years?
CORBETT: I don’t really bristle at it and stamp my feet. It’s more that I shrug and get kind of an Eyeore, “Oh, what’s the point.” And when it comes to acting it’s a real tough road, psychologically. It’s great if you’re doing well for a while. It just feels like you’re on top of the world… So I hear… But boy, even people who’ve had a measure of success… and I know a lot of actors, and some of them are really smart people… and it’s tough. I did a lot of stage acting at school. I acted in the Guthrie Theater Company for a while as just a plain old member of the company doing Shakespeare and everything. It’s a lot of fun if you can get into a company and have a season of four or five plays. I have to say that, beyond just the feeling of powerlessness of getting the jobs, I’m also like a lot of actors - I don’t want to do what I don’t want to do. That’s not an option sometimes. If I don’t like the part or I don’t think it’s fun enough, I just want to walk away - and that’s not the old team spirit.
KP: Not really… Where everyone’s going, “Where’s Bill?”
CORBETT: Yeah… “He’s supposed to come in with a spear, and he’s not here.” No, you’ve got to be a good soldier.
KP: But it’s got to be the best thing in the world to be cast as your understudy.
CORBETT: I actually did some understudy work at the Guthrie when I first got there. I had, at some point, 20 smallish Shakespeare parts that I was supposed to have ready to go. I went up a few times onstage when somebody got sick, and it’s terrifying. It’s the most terrifying thing in the world. And if you can get through it without killing somebody and actually blurting out a line or two, you get such credit from the stage manager. I managed to.
KP: It’s good to know that, with you, death is always an option.
CORBETT: They should know that.
KP: “You never know when Bill’s just gonna lose it…”
CORBETT: The funny part is, at one point I was in Henry IV. I was understudying this very minor character, but he’s a crazy Scotsman who helps attack Henry IV’s army. The fight choreographer gave him an axe and a broad sword, and I had to do this part, because the guy was sick. They run you through the fight choreography at the beginning and they say, “We’ll go at half speed or go at quarter speed.” I was just terrified I was going to take off the choregorapher’s head. And it just looked like I was doing it through Elmer’s glue or something.
KP: You were exaggeratedly cautious…
CORBETT: Yeah. What a warrior!
KP: “Slowly he strikes.”
CORBETT: That’s deliberation!
KP: What would you say has been the acting part that you’ve been most comfortable in, or had the most enjoyment from?
CORBETT: I don’t know. I did a lot of crazy experimental stuff in grad school. I was there for playwriting and screenwriting, but I wound up acting a lot. It was fun to act in them. Whether it was fun to see them or not is a whole other matter.
KP: That’s not your concern.
CORBETT: Right, it’s not my problem, it’s the director’s. Like those old German expressionists. Back in the late 80s or early 90s I just liked being in stuff that was kind of crazy and extreme.
KP: Was it just your experimental nature, or the fact that you’re presenting something that audiences had no idea how to deal with it?
CORBETT: Probably the latter. And I like to try to make it somewhat emotionally coherent for them. But I don’t know, once you’ve done that for a while it loses its sting a little bit. It loses its appeal, to me at least. Then I was more into wanting to make people laugh. It’s really the most satisfying reaction you can get, and actually it’s the most palpable outside of getting a tomato thrown at you. I did some cabaret type stand-up and characters. It’s been done a lot now. Doing lots of character and solo shows. But I had my little flirtation with it.
KP: What was the material that you would present?
CORBETT: One of them was, I worked two summers as a door man on the Upper East Side, and then was promoted to concierge at one point. I did a bunch of characters in the lobby, for example. Because some of the doormen I worked with were really quite fascinating characters. One guy was a soldier of fortune who was just as polite as could be.
KP: Just fell on hard times?
CORBETT: Yeah, (laughs) I guess. Yeah, soldier of not so much fortune. Soldier of minimum wage.
KP: But I guess every mission must be a spectacular adventure for him.
CORBETT: I think he just went on them so he could bend people’s ear in the lobby. He was very polite to the people in the building. And this was a pretty snooty building. Keith Richards lived there, and a bunch of people from the UN, ambassadors, lived there. So he would be very deferential, because you could get pretty good tips at Christmas. Then afterwards he would just say the foulest things about people.
KP: Is he thinking, “Oh, I could snap his neck like a twig…”?
CORBETT: Oh, he wasn’t even thinking it, he was saying it! “I could rig a light bulb so that when he turned it on…”
KP: Did you ever dare him to show you this light bulb?
CORBETT: I should have. He’s probably rotting in a jail right now.
KP: Call him on it. “You’re not a soldier of fortune, you’re a doorman.”
CORBETT: “You’re not even a very good doorman. Your technique is lousy!”
KP: What would be the oddest request you got during this period as a doorman?
CORBETT: I think, as expensive New York apartments went, it was pretty tame.
KP: You never had to dispose of a body.
CORBETT: Oh god no! (laughs) To my great disappointment, no.
KP: Keith never asked you to take delivery of a package…
CORBETT: I never worked there long enough to get anything that smelled like Peruvian marching powder. I would have known, believe me.
KP: Or his father…
CORBETT: I tell you, Keith was a very incoherent man. That may surprise you. I wouldn’t have known what he was saying to me.
KP: Was he at least polite in his incoherence?
CORBETT: Yeah. His wife was very nice. I forget her name…
KP: So does he.
CORBETT: A model… yeah, right! (laughs) Good one, good one. (does Keith) “Yeah that… err… lady over there…” He seemed like he just had his blood transfused every day.
KP: Just sort of gliding through life…
CORBETT: Well, he’s about to hit the big screen in Pirates of the Caribbean.
KP: Yes, his big screen debut as himself…
CORBETT: Keithmania is about it reignite itself.
KP: That’s not the only thing that’s ignited itself.
KP: What period were you working this job? In your early 20s?
CORBETT: The doorman’s job was right before I went to go back to school, which was in the late 80s.
KP: So you were what, 21, 22?
CORBETT: No, mid 20s. I’m 46 now. I’m an old codger.
KP: No, there are people who are far older than you.
CORBETT: (laughs) So I hear. I don’t believe them.
KP: Look at that old man, Kevin.
CORBETT: That’s true. But he’s got a timeless quality. I don’t.
KP: Yes, he does have a timeless quality And the beard.
CORBETT: He has a great beard, that man.
KP: A true midwestern beard. You should envy his beard.
CORBETT: I’ve tried a beard. I had a beard for a while. I usually get a little fringe around the chin.
KP: So nowhere near the lumberjack quality that Kevin has…
CORBETT: No, not lumberjack, it’s more like weak Amish quality. They probably wouldn’t even let me into their club…
KP: So very much an Irish beard…
CORBETT: I guess so. I never thought of it that way.
KP: A nice, wispy, elfin quality to it.
CORBETT: (laughs) Leprechaunian.
KP: Is that a word? It is now.
CORBETT: It is now. It’s yours.
KP: Had you ever acted in one of your own plays?
CORBETT: Yeah, I did quite a bit of that in grad school. I did some kind of off-off-off-Broadway in New York, basically in the Hudson River. I’ve done a little bit here, like the Minnesota Fringe, and a couple of other theaters here in Minneapolis.
KP: Have you ever put something up that you’ve written and thought, just from an actor’s perspective, “I really need to change this…”?
CORBETT: Oh yeah. It’s tough to do both things well at once, and I’m not sure that I have. But that didn’t stop the raging ego! More seriously, I would say that since I’ve gotten a little older and wiser I make sure that if I do that - and I really haven’t done that in a while, and I don’t plan to do that again probably anytime soon - I have to have a director or somebody who can call me on the bullshit. I’ve never really gone out there with a three hour BILL! BILL! BILL!: The Show.
KP: It’d be a great marquee.
CORBETT: Yeah, “Bill Bill Bill what?” I like to work with other actors. It’s just too lonely up there. I did a little bit of standup, the tiniest little bit in New York, and it never really appealed to me. Probably because I wasn’t very good.
KP: When you say a little bit…
CORBETT: I’m talking about a handful of times. I got this bee in my bonnet that I wanted to give it a try when I was really young, like 20 years old, and I tried a few…
KP: So this would be during the early part of the comedy boom.
CORBETT: I guess so. That’s probably why I was suckered into it. Everyone was doing it. And I think more to the point there were a whole bunch of comedy clubs popping up all over the place and they were just rallying people in for open mic nights. I think I had an alright act. I have zero technique, though, and I didn’t know my way around a microphone. The guy who was hosting the first open mic I went to was a tall, stretchy guy, probably like six four or five, and my main first act was battling with the microphone and trying to get it down to my level. I gave up at some point and just sort of stepped on my tippy toes and did my act into it. My friend who was in the audience said the effect was, like, you would hear every fourth or fifth word really loudly and then it would go pretty much silent.
KP: You could have made it your own prop comedy moment.
CORBETT: Yeah, or I could have made it sort of anti-comedy.
KP: Is it something that you felt, if circumstances had been slightly different, you could have made a stronger go at?
CORBETT: I’m guessing if I was interested enough, I’m egotistical enough to believe that if I really went for it I would have gotten better at it. Because I have an okay sense of humor. It’s really more about the nerves and standing up there. I don’t really suffer from stage fright. I don’t have the good sense to. I don’t know whether I would have been a good comedian, but I probably could have chugged along for a while until somebody noticed and told me to go away. I just really didn’t have the interest after those first couple of experiences, I guess. I also tended to write a little too thick. I didn’t really know how to get to the joke, and that’s a very bad thing.
KP: So, essentially, you were presenting plays to them.
CORBETT: Yeah, that’s one way of looking at it. It was all set up and very little punch line. (laughs) Premise, premise, premise, premise, premise, premise, bit!
KP: You could have been the premise guy.
CORBETT: The premise guy!
KP: What has been the worst reaction to criticism you’ve had over the years? What stung you the most?
CORBETT: Let me think… When I first started writing plays and having them produced, it takes a while to get the thick skin you really need if your work is going to be reviewed regularly. I think the first time I got a not-so-good review it just felt like a punch in the solar plexus.
KP: Do you remember that review?
CORBETT: I remember sending it to friends of mine saying basically, “Is this true?” And them basically saying, “Deal with it.” (laughs) “Get over it!”
KP: In retrospect, do you feel the assessment was true of the material at that time?
CORBETT: Yes, it was. And it wasn’t even that unkind. I’ve had much more brutal reviews since then. That’s the way it is with criticism. If you’re going to invest in the good you have to allow for the bad, as well. And it’s probably best to ignore most of any of it and just go along with your work. I’ve gotten a good education from critics over the years, because even though it stings for a second, if you can string it together with past reviews you do sort of sense a pattern. You can write off anybody you want, and if someone is just grinding an axe you think is unfair it’s your right to dismiss it. But I do think that it’s made me a little sharper about storytelling. Because a lot of the times I got the reaction of, “Seems to be wandering as a story. It’s got some good lines and characters but the story goes nowhere.” Eventually that hopefully sinks in.
KP: What would you say is your Achilles heel as a writer?
CORBETT: My Achilles heel as I writer… I think it’s changed over the years. I think at present it’s… hmm. Damn you, sir! Damn you and you making me reflect on myself!
KP: That’s what these things are for…
CORBETT: Yeah, truly. I’d say right now my Achilles heel - which I share with, I think, a lot of writers - is telling a good story… still the toughest thing, without it becoming too much of a cliché. Finding a good spin on something. Because I do feel like there’s a lot of great dialogue writers out there. There’s a lot of funny people. But telling a story with it seeming just a little bit original is a difficult one.
KP: Do you think in this pop culture saturated age it’s harder to avoid clichés?
CORBETT: Yeah, I do. I think it’s hard to avoid clichés. It also depends on the medium. It’s really, really hard to avoid - for stage and film, especially when you’re working with producers or… and I’m not talking about anybody in particular, but the culture of Hollywood is that they are screaming for you to give them clichés. But then they’ll be the first people to say, “That’s a cliché.” “I know! You asked for it!” In theater the problem, to my mind right now, is more that… the way theater is now it’s always on the cusp of irrelevance because it’s hard to produce. Just the economics of it don’t work in this country for reasons that are… smarter people than me are trying to figure out. It seems that theater now leads with theme and topic and usually it’s a political or social something or other. Which I like writing about, but I lead more with humor and a humorous treatment of something that seems kind of sensitive or political or social is not always appreciated.
KP: It seems to be a rarity in theater, comparatively, people writing humorous or just out-and-out comedies for presentation.
CORBETT: You sort of leap across this great chasm and then you have the world of Neil Simon. He’s got real talents, and he was apparently a great wrestler, too. Then you leap into this whole world of lite, L-I-T-E - of Broadway musicals and all that. I don’t cotton much to that, either, although who knows, I might if I gave it a try. So I don’t know, theater’s a tough thing to do in this day and age and it’s why it’s not all I do. Probably if things had been a little more satisfying only with that, say 15 years ago, I’d be doing only that.
KP: It seems it has a similarity to the world of independent film, where it’s very rare that you see an independent comedy. You’ll see a coming of age story or a deadly serious drama, but to have a small, intimate comedy is a rarity.
CORBETT: I think you’re right there. Yeah. Comedy tends to be bigger and splashier and dumber. I am all for that on some level, but I do like to keep myself interested and I like to miniaturize and be a little bit more out on the edge here and there. That’s not where I want to live all the time, necessarily.
KP: Do you think it’s more difficult to write comedy than to be serious?
CORBETT: To me no, it isn’t. But I do think that failing in comedy is just such a more obvious failure. (laughs) It’s a subjective reaction, of course, what’s funny and what isn’t. But boy, in that live experience, if something isn’t getting laughs, that just means it’s not funny and it means you failed, whereas an awed silence sounds a lot like an awed boredom.
KP: Do you think it’s easy to fake drama? Like the fake orgasm of theater?
CORBETT: (laughs) Oh, King Lear! I think it shouldn’t be easy to fake drama, but this is maybe where I’m doing the airing of the grievances here, theatrical grievances. I do think it’s too easy to fake it, in theater, at least in this day and age, if you have an important theme that you kind of corral into your play, or if you have an important scene that you treat. And that’s pretty much my problem with theater right now, at least as it exists in the US. It’s not that interesting to me to see a play about something that I could read an essay about, and probably be better informed.
KP: If you’re sitting in another person’s production, and are bored to tears, do you feel that the uninteresting writing is often passed off as a serious literary exercise that should be taken seriously, and not critiqued as an incomprehensible maudlin mess because of how much leeway is given to dramatic presentations?
CORBETT: If I follow what your saying… that was a long sentence, my friend…
KP: I’ve got a flow chart I can send over to you.
CORBETT: (laughs) But I think I get what you’re saying. Yeah, I have felt that way at times, but lest I just sound like a bitter old pill, I’d say that there’s stuff that knocks me off my feet at times, and there are writers that are so very good that I just know that I’m not capable of doing what they do. Especially when there’s a poetic or lyrical dimension. That’s not my strong suit. That may well be my Achilles heel.
KP: How would you describe a poetical or lyrical dimension to something?
CORBETT: Elevated language, language that takes you… there’s a lot of ways of looking at that. There’s Shakespeare, of course, but there’s also George Bernard Shaw and his elevated, very incredibly clever dialectical style. But even David Mamet and his kind of tough guy, fuck you dialogue actually achieves a kind of poetry there.
KP: Would you say it’s a transcendent point that’s difficult to achieve?
CORBETT: Yeah. I think that’s a real skill, and probably not my strong suit.
KP: What do you feel has come close to that, that you’ve written?
CORBETT: Probably nothing… well, I’m sure nothing most people have ever heard of. I wrote a play called Motorcade that I actually performed in myself a bunch of times. For me and another actor, whoever that other actor happened to be. I just didn’t want to be up there alone. I get lonely! It was about a small town in Ohio that was a steel town that was kind of dying out, and set in the 70s and Gerald Ford was coming through the town. It was kind of a cracked comedy on one level, but I do think as close as I’ve come to a poetic sense here. Even in the story structure being a little more freeform and jazz like. Usually I’m a little more conventional. It was fun. I may do it again.
KP: Would you say that was a more or less difficult piece to write than your average piece?
CORBETT: It was… good question. It felt like it was a challenge at the time, but it was one I really enjoyed. Sometimes you just have to do what you think you’re going to enjoy, and if you stop engaging in it, it starts to feel like you’re grinding a gear. Just stop, because it’s probably not going to be very good.
KP: How often would you say that you’ve abandoned a piece?
CORBETT: Oh, I do it all the time. As I’ve gotten a little more experienced I abandon them earlier because I have a better gut check, I think, about whether this is going anywhere, whether I feel any excitement about it. Especially if something is a play or something that’s just on spec - like, no one is paying me to do it or asking me to do it. You might as well do what excites you and gives you a little bit of joy and is challenging in the right way. Because if not, it’s just drudgery.
KP: Are there any pieces that you’ve abandoned but keep coming back to?
CORBETT: Probably not at this point. There was a pretty conscious clearing out, like, two years ago - I just decided to list all my projects and either consign them to the drawer and give up the ghost on them, or see what else is there. The one or two that I decided to pursue, I’m pursuing.
KP: How big would you say your ghost pile is?
CORBETT: Oh, vast. Most of them are ones that I knew were kind of over a while back. I think they were just kind of journeyman efforts in writing… Learning how to write and just a necessary apprenticeship, even if nobody ever sees it.
KP: What do you think has been the easiest piece for you to write?
CORBETT: I’ve written in a whole bunch of different worlds and genres now. I guess I could say that it’s easy, on some level, to work with Kevin and Mike and write a script with them. Because we just kind of know the feeling that we’re going for, we know the type of humor that we all enjoy. It’s exciting to write thinking that we’re all going to get together and top each other and all that. So there’s a real enjoyment to that. But as far as an individual piece, probably the play that has been most successful is called The Big Slam, which has gotten around the U.S. a lot. It came pretty easy. I was working with a really great director when I did it. She was excellent at guiding me to the best instincts of it.
KP: How do you feel - as a writer and as someone who would perform these widely distributed plays when you were in high school - that your productions are now becoming some of those go-to productions for high schools and students?
CORBETT: I don’t think that’s true of me. I think I have one piece that I wrote with a writing partner called Hate Mail which was a pretty silly piece that I wrote in correspondence with a writer named Kira Obolensky. Mike Nelson actually did the premier of it as an actor. He and Mo Collins, who was a Mad TV person eventually. That has a surprising sort of subsequent life in high schools and colleges and all that. Sometimes I cringe a little, because it’s a little naughty in places and I think, “Hmm, do I want a 16 year old saying that?” Not really! Not if it’s my 16 year old!
KP: It’s your own Vagina Monologues.
CORBETT: (laughs) Bill Corbett’s Vagina Monologues.
KP: That could be lucrative for ya!
CORBETT: I tell ya…”Who even knew that Bill Corbett had a…”
KP: I’m not even gonna touch that…
CORBETT: Please don’t…
KP: But Mike did play the female part…
CORBETT: (laughs) Yes, I’m very big into the world of cross-gender casting…
KP: Looking back, what do you think has been the most difficult thing for you to write that you never felt would work but in the end it turned itself around?
CORBETT: I wrote - and it’s only been produced a few times - a play called The Book of Time. It was a really weird meditative piece that slipped in and out of time, oddly enough, and it was about this old woman who used to be kind of a political lefty in the 30s, and her daughter’s coming to visit her. It was stuff I had no business knowing anything about, and really didn’t. It was kind of a researched piece and it took a while to make the people real and have them be real personalities, and make the slipping out of time structure work a little bit. But in the end I thought it did pretty well. It was sort of a little jewel box piece and just was done in a few theaters here and there. Not the kind of thing that you make a ton of dough on. (laughs) Actors like doing it. That’s sometimes the greatest compliment or feeling is when actors really enjoy doing something.
KP: Are you someone who enjoys working outside their comfort zone?
CORBETT: I don’t know where my comfort zone is at this point. I’d say the answer to that is probably that it’s easy to get bored. I think boredom is just the enemy of creativity. I always like to be stretching myself in one way or another. It’s not always going to a further edge of aesthetic craziness. My most recent… (laughs) experience of the last couple of years have been writing a commercial screenplay, and trying to work within that world and see if I can live with myself, and see if I can survive, keep getting the job back, without feeling like I’m doing something awful.
KP: Have you succeeded in that so far?
CORBETT: So far. I’m going at the end of the week to be on set for a while, to watch them film it. I’ll get back to you after that.
KP: Do you have the fear that, in a year’s time, Mike’s going to call you up and say, “I’m thinking of doing Starship Dave on the next RiffTrax.”
CORBETT: I think it would be great, actually. I really do. I think it would be a whole other level of… it would be like the Russian doll, finding new levels out of it. If I could rank out my own writing it would be just delightful.
KP: Yeah, some kind of meta nesting exercise. Maybe it’s time to do a RiffTrax of one of your plays.
CORBETT: Oh, man. A RiffTrax of one of my plays. I don’t know how that would be done.
KP: Just being you, Mike & Kevin sitting in a theater. Can you imagine such a thing?
CORBETT: That would be kind of fun, actually, except I would pity the poor actors who had to put up with us idiots in the front row. It’s kind of great not to feel precious about old stuff that I’ve written. I don’t know about RiffTrax, but if someone did it I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.
KP: Is there anything you’ve written that you wish would just disappear?
CORBETT: (laughs) Well yeah, a lot of stuff has disappeared, so it took care of itself. Nothing made such a great mark. Luckily it rose to its level of quality and went away.
KP: So that’s the stuff that you pawn off on that other Bill Corbett…
CORBETT: Yes. An impossible man.
KP: When exactly did the connections with the guys at Best Brains start to happen?
CORBETT: It started to happen probably in the mid to early 90s. I just started to become pals with a few of them. I’m trying to think exactly how it happened. I got to know Mike and Bridget (Jones) and Mary Jo (Pehl) first, and I think it was mostly through… there’s kind of a tight theater and comedy scene here in Minneapolis. I was writing comic plays. I was teaching some classes, and Mary Jo took a playwriting class of mine, and so did Paul Chaplin.
KP: What kind of students were they?
CORBETT: They totally brown-nosed me. No, they were great. Boy, but some of the other critters in the class.
KP: Now we have to spend a little time on this class…
CORBETT: It wasn’t at the same time. I didn’t have Mary Jo and Paul in the same class.
KP: The two of them would have been problem students.
CORBETT: They would have been fighting in the back, throwing erasers at each other.
KP: With a class like that, there’s really nowhere to send students like that.
CORBETT: No, (laughs) It’s basically adult ed, so you have to either hit them with a mallet or they have to stay.
KP: Knowing that they paid their money…
CORBETT: Yes, pretty much.
KP: Do you almost get the sense, in teaching a course like that, that you’re half dealing with students and half dealing with customers?
CORBETT: Yes. I’ve had some really great students, and then I’ve had students that really should have been in therapy, not in my class.
KP: Do you think that’s what they were treating the class as?
CORBETT: Yeah, kind of. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there were people who had some deep invested need to be a writer. They were finally doing it, and it was just so tremulous. Some of them had their one opus about their life that they’d been saving up, and I’m sad for them, but I was scared to criticize them. Genuinely scared on one level.
KP: Just for fear they would snap?
CORBETT: Yeah. “HOW DARE YOU CRITICIZE MY PAIN!” “I’m just saying that act was a little slow!” “MY FATHER IS YOU!!”
KP: So you didn’t leave anyone huddled in the fetal position in the corner is what you’re saying…
CORBETT: No, that was me huddled in the fetal position. That would have been me. “Make the bad go away!”
KP: For that sort of thing, did you ever feel a difficulty being as intensely critical as you felt you should have been as an instructor to make them better writers?
CORBETT: I don’t see that there’s any point, especially with beginning writers, to being intensely critical. A lot of people just need some gentle encouragement of what they’re doing right, and a very gentle approach to what they might do to improve it. I don’t see the point in the boot camp approach. It usually doesn’t keep people writing. There’s no need for it.
KP: Did you enjoy teaching?
CORBETT: Yeah, I enjoyed teaching, and I still do enjoy it. I haven’t done much in a while. This last fall I did kind of a thing for the Minneapolis children’s theater company here because I like to teach kids. It was semi-volunteer. I got paid a little bit. It mostly gets me out of the room, out of the writing room. I like teaching high school aged kids and college kids a lot. Adults maybe not as much at times, because like I said…
KP: Do you think they have too much baggage?
CORBETT: Too much baggage, yeah. But I do like teaching. I’ve taught college. It’s a little bit of a trap for a writer. I know that’s a cliché, too, because there are plenty of people who do and teach. But I’m a lazy person, so doing and teaching well is sort of out of the question.
KP: At that point, having Mary Jo and Paul in the classes and knowing Mike and Bridget, what was the initial entre into, “Hey, would you like to do some writing for us?”
CORBETT: I think I’m sort of social friends with Bridget and Mike and Mary Jo. My ex-wife, who was a stand-up comedian with some of those guys, was already friends with Bridget and Mike to some degree. So at one point I went with her to a Best Brains party before I even really knew of Mystery Science Theater. It was a couple of years before I worked there, and I was just this guy wandering the hall and wondering what this crazy thing was. I didn’t have cable, I didn’t know about the show. I really didn’t have a clue. But as I got to know those guys a little bit, there was just one point where I watched a Turkey Day marathon with some other friends and I just loved it so much that at one point I worked up the nerve to ask Mike if he needed any help with writing. At that point they actually did. The process was that you were sort of informally auditioning. You would just sort of hang around the writing room and blurt out with them for a while with more established writers.
KP: Do you remember what your first blurt was?
CORBETT: It was probably a fart joke. Comprised about 90% of my work since then, so it stands to reason.
KP: It’s good that you had a hook.
CORBETT: (laughs) Yeah, really! Because no one was taking care of that whole brand of humor.
KP: Until you came along, it was this verboten territory that they feared to tread…
CORBETT: I know… It was all literary references…
KP: And you brought the power of lowbrow…
CORBETT: (laughing) The power of lowbrow! Don’t underestimate me! I really don’t really remember my first comment. I remember the first movie I wrote on was Angel’s Revenge in season six. It was basically about this bunch of hicks who… it was kind of a Charlie’s Angels. Trace was still around and Frank was still around, and I just was kind of writing. I wrote on a few shows at the end of season six, and then season seven was this really stripped down version of MST where… I don’t know the business of it totally, but I think they were just getting through and seeing if they could squeeze out a few more shows with Comedy Central.
KP: Did you feel that change was in the air?
CORBETT: Well, I was never there long enough to know the changes. I was aware that Frank was leaving in the last show, which was disappointing. Frank is just a hilarious character to write for, I mean a hilarious guy. In season seven they just went with a stripped down staff, so I didn’t write for them at all. And I moved to LA at that time and decided to start trying my best in the biz, and then I got a call from Mike at some point asking if I wanted to come and write on season eight. “Well, I’m out in LA and trying to write for TV, but hey - you’re TV, and you’re back in Minneapolis.” So I went back there and then started season eight on Sci-Fi.
KP: What was your initial take on Mike, when you first met him?
CORBETT: Just a very nice, sweet guy. Very funny. Kind of low key. That’s pretty much how he still is… (laughs)
KP: So your first impression of Mike was the impression that you’ve kept to this day.
CORBETT: Yeah. I’ve learned, of course, that he’s incredibly funny, and that his humor has a real dark side to it. For this big all-American looking guy he’s got a real dark side to his humor. But god, he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
KP: Yeah, he tends to pass off his dark side onto other people.
CORBETT: Yeah, (laughs) like me.
KP: Assigning those dark side quips to anyone else but him so he can maintain his squeaky-clean reputation.
CORBETT: Hey, I’ll take a bullet for him.
KP: The sixth season was them at the end of a very long, solid, comfortable run…
KP: At least toward the beginning of that, that they were loved and respected by the network.
CORBETT: Oh yeah. Those were, in some ways, the end of the real fat days where I think they had just this incredibly generous contract, if I remember it. I came with the lean years.
KP: Within the room setting, the writing session, what was your impression of… let’s start with Frank. What was your impression of the kinds of things that he would say in the room?
CORBETT: Well, it needs to be said that really… I’m talking like literally three shows toward the end of six that I got to overlap with some of those guys. I never overlapped with Joel until he came back to do his…
KP: His guest appearance…
CORBETT: Yeah. Well, I was pretty star struck, really, because I had seen the show, and to me Trace and Frank were like a classic comedy duo. I was pretty star struck. And they were all such nice guys that eventually I would have gotten over it, I think, if I had worked there a bit longer. But I’m not sure that I ever got over that for Frank and Trace, at least. They were gone by the time I got back.
KP: So your initial impression…
CORBETT: My initial impression was that everybody was pretty goddamn funny. And with Frank, he had… there was something… as I recall, I was aware that he was a fellow New Yorker, even though he was a Manhattan boy, and I was more bridge and tunnel trash. He had kind of a snideness and a sarcasm that I liked. And he was also really game. I remember that somebody wrote a skit for one of those shows at the end of six where he’s playing Auntie McFrank or something, and he was the owner of a bed & breakfast. I hope I’m not making this up.
KP: No, no. He looked very similar to Jonathan Winters.
CORBETT: (laughs) Yes, yes, very much so. And as I recall - and if I’m making this up, I’m sorry Frank, if you ever read this - but I think he just accepted it without batting an eye. It’s like, “Oh sure, I’ll be Auntie McFrank. Sure, that’s what I do.” Whereas someone like me might have gone, “Oh, do I really want to be in a dress?”
KP: This from a guy who wore a nurse’s uniform for half a season.
CORBETT: Yeah, I got over that pretty quick. After you worked at Best Brains for awhile, you realized you had to abandon your vanity. You’re going to have funny stuff put on you…
KP: Whereas Kevin seemed to revel in it.
CORBETT: Well, you didn’t know his private life. Mike and I realized at one point that we actually worked actively to get Kevin in a dress whenever we can in our skits. I think he finally caught on. He’s just a big, burly, barrel-chested guy with a beard. Put him in a cocktail dress.
KP: Though I have to admit, in seeing Mike’s various turns, particularly his turn as Janeway in the final season seven episode, that Mike seemed to enjoy it a little too much…
CORBETT: Boy, I don’t know. That was scary. He had her down pat. A slight Katherine Hepburn quality there. He had it!
KP: That stern intensity.
KP: I think he probably would have wanted to live that life a little bit longer. So what was your impression of… I’ve often heard - and in talking to Trace I’ve also found it to be true - that he seems to be quite soft-spoken, but when he does say something, it tends to be quite a cutting remark.
CORBETT: Well, I begin with the caveat that we’re talking like two or three shows. I want to say that those guys were in production or post-production on the movie, which I’m pretty sure is one of the reasons I was hired. They had a television show to take care of. It was all the same guys making the movie and the television show, and I think they were just a little bit burned out. They needed a couple more people collaborating with them. Yeah, Trace - very sweet, very soft-spoken guy, but I remember laughing out loud at a few things he said. He’s a precision guy. Unlike me, in the law of averages I blurt out ten things and one of them just seems to be ready. Mike’s kind of like that, too. Probably in pure tonnage of jokes he wouldn’t be up there with some of the rest of us, but it was always pretty spot on. Wait and pounce! (laughs)
KP: Belying that nice Midwestern aura that you would think he would have…
CORBETT: I know. It’s like… well, I was like the sunny Brooklyn guy. I really don’t think anyone would describe me that way.
KP: Who would be the most verbose in the room?
CORBETT: Oh, I’m right up there.
KP: Second to you.
CORBETT: Second to me… well, I think probably myself, Paul and Kevin. This is just from recall of six or seven years ago. Maybe Mary Jo, too, tended to just dump a lot out there and be willing to kind of use it as… the way the writing worked in the room a lot, as I’m sure other people have told you, is sometimes you just kind of… you went with a bad joke just to get it out there, and then you’re kind of serving it up, and then someone like Mike or Trace or whoever - even, god forbid, me - would come along and just make it a better joke. You’re kind of like suggesting an area for the joke and then someone improves on it. So that was a real function, too.
KP: So you blurt out the first draft and it’s quickly revised…
CORBETT: Yeah, there were all levels… the first draft or second draft of any Mystery Science Theater script was all blurty anyway. And in the end it would just be a big bunch of lines and time codes, and then Mary Jo and Paul and I would winnow it down and do what we called “line assigning”, which was just making sure that each character got a line here and there and choosing the jokes and making them better. But even after that there’d be a couple of other levels of work.
KP: In that process I’m assuming that some consideration will be taken into, “Well, this seems more like a Mike line or a Tom line…”
CORBETT: Surprisingly little, I have to say. I say that even as I was the only one writing at that point who was assigning to myself. It was really more just like a round robin, with a few exceptions. If I knew that there was a song, I would usually give it to Kevin because he’s got a great voice. If it was an imitation that Mike did particularly well, you give it to him, of course.
KP: So how did you get all the angry rants?
CORBETT: (laughs) I don’t know! I really don’t! They were regular lines and they just sounded like an angry rant!
KP: One of the people pointed out that the major difference between your Crow and Trace’s Crow was that yours was very angry.
CORBETT: Well… it could very well be.
KP: Do you think you worked out any demons with the puppet?
CORBETT: I was advised by my hypnotist to work through my demons with my puppet. I think that’s very helpful.
KP: Do you still do that?
CORBETT: I don’t. I don’t have a Crow, I just have a tiny little mockup Crow that Patrick Bransteg did for… I think it was when we did the Gumby short, and he had to make a little miniature Crow and a little miniature Tom. I have him, so I make him talk and rant and yell about taxes and stuff.
KP: Do you ever miss the character?
CORBETT: Oh sure. The bots were so much fun because they were just these tabula rasas, you know? They could be as smart and funny as you want, and they could unlearn it all the next episode, and no one ever questioned it. It’s kinda a rule of comedy, and it’s true of The Simpsons, too, but the more cartoony the characters are, the less real logic there has to be to them. Maybe that’s… it could just be a quality of my voice. I do think that there was a little more collective anger in the Sci-Fi scripts if I compare to some of the early Comedy Centrals. Which was funny because we were all getting along just dandy in the room at that time. I don’t know why that is.
KP: Do you think there was a level of hatred after so many years of viewing these horrible films that you took the gloves off…
CORBETT: I don’t know. I can’t claim I had that excuse. (laughs)
KP: You could say, if you watch the early seasons, that a lot of it was informed by Joel’s sensibility, which was much more easygoing and, I would say, almost an affectionate approach to these corny films.
KP: And that period with Mike towards the latter part of the Comedy Central-era seemed to be informed largely by that, but it tended to get a little bit sharper in its humor.
CORBETT: That would make a lot of sense to me. Not having been there for the Joel years. People have asked me about the angry Crow before, and I kinda shrug. I was mostly just trying not to mess up. Trying not to destroy the character. It started probably with a little bit too much of an imitation of Trace, and then Kevin and Mike just said, “Don’t worry about that. Relax a little bit and make it your own.” It could just be a quality of my voice combined with the writing that it changed a little bit, collectively, in the Sci-Fi era. Who knows.
KP: Do you ever feel weird to be in the situation that you’re suddenly living “The Two Darrens, The Two Fred Flintstones”?
CORBETT: (laughs) I’ve gotten over that. I think, really, classic Mystery Science Theater Crow is Trace. He was there before me, he invented the character, he was great. If I could keep the show going a couple more years and not totally sabotage it, that’s enough for me.
KP: Well, you certainly didn’t sabotage it.
CORBETT: Well shucks, thanks.
KP: So your initial call from Mike was to come back out and write for season eight, right?
KP: So you had no idea at that point that Trace was leaving.
CORBETT: I think they did know that, but as I recall it was all happening pretty quickly because they were getting used to the new network.
KP: You were at the convention when the official announcement came.
CORBETT: Right. And I think at that point I do remember that I didn’t know… I mean, I was just going to be the new writer at that point. I think what was going on - and I wasn’t privy to much of this - but I think Mike and Kevin and Jim and everyone were just getting used to what Sci-Fi expected to be different and not, and all that. I think they had a real question to deal with, like, “What are we going to do now that Trace is going?” At that convention, Trace did get a send-off, as I recall.
KP: I saw video of what seemed like a rather awkward panel with you all on it, and you’re seated down at the very end, kind of a silent with that “What am I doing here?” kind of look on your face…
CORBETT: Glowering. Disturbing presence. Well, I didn’t have much to say at that point! I’d worked on a couple of shows in season six as a writer, and it was nice of them to ask me up there as a writer, but on some level, really, yeah, it wasn’t my show at that point.
KP: But, of course, all the conjecture started happening at that point that you were the replacement, but you at that point didn’t know that you were the replacement?
CORBETT: No, I really didn’t. Because I think that still under consideration was the question, “Do you keep the character of Crow at all? Is it too awkward and is it kind of disrespectful, and frankly would it be unpopular to keep Crow going without Trace?” I think that was a good question.
KP: At what point was it presented to you as, “This is what we’re thinking…”?
CORBETT: When they started auditioning people. Because they did audition people, including me. Local actors, mostly.
KP: Were you privy to any of the other people that came in and auditioned?
CORBETT: I knew some of them. I didn’t get to see their auditions. That would have been interesting. I can only conjecture that being on the inside didn’t hurt, because they kind of knew my sense of humor by then, and frankly they didn’t have to cut another paycheck to anybody. (laughs) I do remember that I was just pathetic with the puppet in the audition. And for the first couple of shows. So they weren’t going by puppetry skills, god knows.
KP: Did they give you some material from an old show, or did they give you some newly written piece to try?
CORBETT: I think it was from an old show. Maybe even part of the movie. I forget.
KP: What was the difficulty when you first held the puppet?
CORBETT: It’s an awkward little bugger. I don’t think in those terms now because I got so used to it, but kind of top heavy. Heavier than I thought.
KP: Comparatively, it seems, Kevin had it easy.
CORBETT: Yeah, Servo’s a little bit of an easier puppet. Smaller, a little more usable. It doesn’t have quite as many moving parts. Less prone to breaking. Crow was sort of a Rube Goldberg-like construction. When he broke, he could really break. If you’ve ever seen a Poopie Tape, he was alawyas waiting to exploe! (laughs)
KP: I can just imagine you down in the hole waiting for what piece would come raining down on you.
CORBETT: Oh, boy. There was those eyes. Those dreaded eyes! Yeah, but, you know, it was strange to audition. I thought they were going to hire an actor - and I would have been fine if I hadn’t gotten it, but boy, it really was great fun eventually.
KP: Did you feel good coming out of the audition?
CORBETT: No, I didn’t, because I just thought my puppetry was horrible, and I assumed that they would see better. I don’t know how they could see worse! (laughs)
KP: So how long after that audition did they give you the news? And who gave you the news?
CORBETT: Real soon, because they… as is so often the case with Best Brains, I think it was such a difficult decision that nobody wanted to make it. But then when they absolutely had to, they had to and then it went really quick. It was like, “Alright, you got the part. Here, take Crow home for the weekend, we’re going to start filming Monday.” It was almost that quick. So I was on my kitchen counter trying to make Crow work, scaring the crap out of my dog..
KP: Laying down on the floor?
CORBETT: Yeah. So I was really, really unprepared for the first couple of shows. And I say that not as an excuse - it’s just pretty obvious if you look at the first few shows.
KP: Did you get any words of encouragement from Kevin, who had to go through the same thing years before?
CORBETT: Oh, yeah. I mean, everyone was great and I got nothing but pats on the back. But still, looking back, it showed what it showed, and I was used to seeing Trace move the puppet around from my experience on the show, and I knew that was not what it looked like.
KP: Did it look like you gave Crow a stroke?
CORBETT: Yeah, that’s absolutely what it looked like. It looked like this thing that used to have such life and verve, suddenly it was this hunk of matter.
KP: I’m sure you’ve heard about Kevin’s “I Hate Tom Servo’s New Voice” banner…
CORBETT: Oh yes. He kept it up in his office all those years. I think it crossed the top of his wall.
KP: But you never got one of those.
CORBETT: I got a self-conscious parody of it from somebody who said, “Just to make you feel welcome…” You know, if I ever got… I’m sure there were people who were pissed and disappointed. I think Best Brains was very gentle on me in shielding me from that stuff, and I didn’t seek it out particularly, either.
KP: Did you ever talk to Trace at all?
CORBETT: Not much, really. Because when he left for California, he was gone, and he was busy.
KP: Have you talked to him since?
CORBETT: I haven’t. I really haven’t talked to him since the convention.
KP: So, in a bare-knuckle fight…
CORBETT: He’d take me. He’s got the reach.
KP: And the manipulation skills.
CORBETT: (laughs) Right. “My nose! You’re making it do very funny things!”
KP: You have a very similar vocal quality to Trace, so it wasn’t as jarring as if some basso profundo guy came in…
CORBETT: Right. I think that Mike and Kevin and Jim were aware of that even if I wasn’t. That helped me, no question about it.
KP: I can tell you, without a doubt, you did not destroy the show.
CORBETT: Oh, thank you. It haunts me to this day.
KP: (laughs) Yes, I’m sure it does…
CORBETT: No, it really doesn’t, because I think it’s… I still think the core of the show… Trace was incredibly missed, I think especially as Dr. F. Actually, both characters, but that’s one you couldn’t replace with just a voice. But the core of the show being the movie segment, really the writing was hopefully as sharp and that was not as hard for me as the host segments, because you’re just kind of sitting there with a guy doing the Shadowrama.
KP: You look at that Shadowrama setup and it looks profoundly uncomfortable to sit and shoot…
CORBETT: It wasn’t the coziest! (laughs) But it really wasn’t that horrible. Kevin and I were just in these….
KP: It looks like by that time you had nice ergonomic chairs to sit in. You look at the earlier stuff and it looks like they’re sitting in beach chairs.
CORBETT: (laughs) No, it was just like… they were plenty comfortable, actually. There were just some awkward moments trying to keep my head out of the shot and move Crow around a little bit just to give him some life. Trying not to be seen. “How not to be seen!”
KP: Some of the rough cuts of some of your episodes have leaked out.
CORBETT: Oh, really?
KP: Some of the rough cuts of the shadow segment, so the banter between you all is still intact.
CORBETT: Oh, really…
KP: Yes, there’s a lot of interesting moments.
CORBETT: Where does one find it?
KP: It’s on the internet.
CORBETT: Oh dear god.
KP: I guess there was a mistake, if I understand correctly, when they had the big sell-off, the auction at the offices - not the eBay auction - that they accidentally sold off what they thought was a box of blank tapes…
KP: … which happened to have all these rough cuts on them.
CORBETT: Wow. How incriminating.
KP: The wonderful thing is that the last episode’s on there. So it’s got you guys talking back and forth about the cancellation.
CORBETT: Oh boy…
KP: And being all, “Boy, yeah, I guess everything went to hell since they cancelled us. We really must have gone downhill.”
CORBETT: That’s hilarious!
KP: And there’s a couple of breakdowns. One episode had a 20 minute breakdown of the footage, so it’s you guys… I forget what song you all were ripping on. Oh, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
CORBETT: Oh Jesus.
KP: There’s an entire 10 minute segment of you guys doing that and riffing on it. Doing “Homer of the Odyssey, much better than Homer of the Iliad…”
CORBETT: We would get collective Tourette’s Syndrome frequently there. The poor people who worked with us. We could beat something into the ground. It really was odd at times, but we had a lot of fun.
KP: I love the glee that you, and particularly Kevin, showed when I guess whoever… who would be the one who was cueing up the film for you?
CORBETT: Peter (Rudrud).
KP: He threw on “Owner of a Lonely Heart”…
CORBETT: Oh yeah! (laughs)
KP: … and you guys just went giddy.
CORBETT: There was one point I think we realized… most of America probably doesn’t enjoy sort of obscure riffings on 80s music the way we do. We may want to watch it… As we wrote our seventh skit based on an 80s song! (laughs) The hyper-literal parsing of an 80s song… (laughs)
KP: The other thing that was quite disturbing is you guys riffing on… I guess you had just seen, but hadn’t recorded yet or written fully yet, the short about a world without springs, Spring Fever…
CORBETT: Yeah, we beat that into the ground. Coilie. (whistles)
KP: And you guys coming up with riffs that are increasingly more… let’s say “poo-related”…
CORBETT: Yes. That was the nature of all things.
KP: Mike came up with the phrase - and this was while you guys were messing around - “I’m going to go blow some mud.”
KP: Which, to your credit, both you and Kevin were disgusted by.
CORBETT: We were not! We must have been aware a camera was on.
KP: This is just you guys venting…
KP: You going to Mike, “I’ve never heard that, and that’s just completely disgusting, sir.”
CORBETT: Bear in mind who’s talking there. If I’ve never heard of it, it’s really beyond the pale.
KP: Definitely one gets the sense of the camaraderie the three of you developed over the course of those seasons.
CORBETT: It was great fun. It really was. What’s not to like about it?
KP: And also, you got the chance to play another role within the series.
KP: How different was it shooting the “mads” segments?
CORBETT: Well, we did them on different days, as you probably know. They each tended to be events in themselves. It was a little less claustrophobic. I wasn’t down in the hole there, in the trenches with Kevin.
KP: Did you ever feel, if there was ever an emergency, no one would help you out of the hole?
CORBETT: (laughs) It could happen a few times. No, it was all fun, it really was. Different challenges for different sequences. I actually had to memorize Brain Guy’s stuff, whereas with Crow I could kinda tape a script up on the bottom and just concentrate on not breaking the puppet.
KP: Was it a surprise that you were going to be featured in the other segments?
CORBETT: Yeah, it was. It seemed as random - and maybe it’s just my mind is random so I don’t remember these key events as sharply as I should - but it just seemed like it drifted into the idea, “Yeah, we should probably have one of the observers be another character. I don’t know. Bill you want to do it?”
KP: And your response was?
CORBETT: “Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know.”
KP: “Only if I get to wear a nurse’s uniform at some point.”
CORBETT: Well, it’s in my contract as a writer. “If I’m going to do this I must wear a hideous nurse’s costume at some point.”
KP: Nothing seemed to match the enthusiasm that Kevin seemed to have.
CORBETT: No, he’s without peer when it comes for his enthusiasm for dresses.
KP: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen his KTMA watermelon drop footage.
CORBETT: (laughs) No, I haven’t.
KP: You know what the watermelon drop is?
CORBETT: I know it’s like Letterman and all that.
KP: I guess KTMA, being a station with no money, and Jim and Kevin desperate to get their own stuff off the ground - this would have been ‘87, ‘88 - they both decided that their New Year’s ritual would be to drop a watermelon off the top of the building. Their version of the ball dropping. So they built up this mythology that it was 25 years old, an annual tradition. So he hosted it as a reporter named Bob Bagadonuts, who was straight out of the SCTV school.
KP: Exactly. It is pure SCTV Melonville, with fake commercials and news segments and build up to the melon drops. A couple of tapes exist of him as Bob Bagadonuts.
CORBETT: That’s hilarious. He’s an incredibly multi-talented guy, and I think if he had just decided to become a performer or just an actor or even just a singer he’d be very successful. But he’s got that level of talent in a whole bunch of different areas. Renaissance man.
KP: Going through that period, how would you describe those years on the show, if you were to describe the arc of it?
CORBETT: I’d say from nervousness and a bit of fear at first, to fun and joy. It really was a lot of show.
KP: What show or period did you feel you hit your groove?
CORBETT: I don’t know that I ever did.
KP: Well, there must have been a period when you stopped being a deer in the headlights.
CORBETT: Yeah. I think it was probably midway through season eight where I just start to feel like, “All right, Crow’s alive again. He’s recovered from his stroke. I’m having fun.” It was more gradual, just being in the writing room for a while and writing enough sketches and doing enough movies, just relaxed into it. It’s all about silliness. It was all about inspired, hopefully somewhat clever, intelligent silliness on that show. And to realize that it’s not curing world hunger or anything like that, it’s just puppets and laughs. I used to really look forward to going to work. Now I sit at home and write, and I like that too, once I’m coffeed up.
KP: Do you miss the camaraderie?
CORBETT: Yeah, I do. I get it now and again with Mike and Kevin, and I write with other people here and there. I’m busy being a dad these days, too, so it would be a little harder to do that now.
KP: If I understand it correctly, one of the unique things about the way they established the office is that you were on a daily schedule… You left at 6:00 like an office job, right?
CORBETT: Yeah, and I don’t think that ever was a matter of regimentation, it just that tended to be most people’s preference there.
KP: My understanding is that during the first season, it wasn’t like that. And it sort of got to a crisis point, and then Joel and Jim went off to sort of like a business therapy thing, and one of the things that came out of that was like, “You know what, we’re going to make this a regular work day and our lives are not about this.”
CORBETT: Well, you know what, that’s entirely possible. I’m surprisingly ignorant about a lot of that stuff. I got the benefit of it, though! I kind of walked into a very sane workplace.
KP: Did you get the feeling that it was a very sane way to do that sort of thing?
CORBETT: Yeah, I did. Because first of all, the system was a pretty well-oiled machine by the time I got there. They basically knew how much time they needed for each kind of stretch of work. And you know there were exceptions to the… (laughs) really, as much as we say it was a nine to five or nine to six job, I do recall that during the time I was there poor Patrick Bransteg and Beez McKeever often were working a lot more hours.
KP: You eventually drove her out of the country…
CORBETT: I know, the poor thing. They worked so hard. They really should have been like five or six people doing what they did. And they worked so hard and did such amazing work… so that was a little… they probably had the hardest job on some level, in terms of just man hours.
KP: While you, the egalitarian aristocratic artiste…
CORBETT: I know, it was a little awful…
KP: Leave the poor plebes behind to toil away…
CORBETT: (laughs) I know. “Build my set! I’m going.” I think it was particularly brutal in the first part of season eight. The strange negotiations with Sci-Fi channel were “Well, how do you make this more sci fi?” and they liked the idea of Mary Jo and company going to different planets. But it was really unsustainable. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Best Brains set…
KP: No, but I understand it was one of the most economical uses of spaces one could ever see.
CORBETT: Yeah. I’ve since seen other television studios and I realize that’s a little more… I mean, everything looks bigger… that kind of compression is pretty typical. But it really was a small, all self-contained space. And these guys had to make a new world of it every couple of weeks, with new costumes and often new characters. So the first part of season eight was just brutal on everybody, but especially Patrick and Beez, I think.
KP: Did you ever say, “You can all have a free day. Go see the sun, little ones…”?
CORBETT: I said that, but my word didn’t mean anything. “You’re a big talk, Bill, but you have no authority here.”
KP: I’m curious regarding Joel’s guest appearance. I was wondering what that was like, and the sort of vibe that was around the office knowing that he was coming back.
CORBETT: It was pretty cool, because… I think it was something that a lot of us were, you know, thinking would be a neat thing someday. But had pretty much put to bed any possibility that would happen. I liked the fact that it sort of connected the later years of the show to the founding fathers a little more. I wish we could have had more time to write it and Frank and Joel could have been there a little longer. But again, they were pretty busy out in L.A., and we squeezed them into a pretty short session. The fun of having them there I hope translated to the screen, but with more time it probably would have been better.
KP: How did you feel interacting with them?
CORBETT: Fine. I didn’t have a lot… it was kind of fun to have both of the meat puppets, Joel and Mike, up there at once. It was a little crowded up there. It was cool. And Frank, I didn’t have much to do with. We were just in the one sketch together. But it was a lot of fun to have them hang around and hear about the old days a little bit.
KP: What did you hear about the old days?
CORBETT: That it was a meaningless nightmare of suffering. Woody Allen. I don’t know, I was just kind of listening to the other guys catch up. They all knew each other a little better.
KP: How would you feel if someone organized or funded a return to MST, but they said, “We want Trace back as Crow…”?
CORBETT: Like an eccentric millionaire, and he brings us to an island in the South Pacific for a martial arts tournament and then MST? If they had some guy I’d never heard of who I didn’t think was very talented, that might miff me. But if it’s Trace, he’s the original, so I could hardly take offense. I might feel personal disappointment to not be included if it seemed like a fun project.
KP: What if they said you could still be Brain Guy and write - would that be a consolation?
CORBETT: I don’t know. We’re into hyper-hypothetical now. If they paid me a million dollars a year I could get over it! (laughs)
KP: The way pop culture is now, anything’s possible… Someone could say, “We’re going to do a 20th anniversary thing…”
CORBETT: Well, I think Trace has first dibs on Crow at any time. But I don’t know. I certainly feel awkward being the pale, effeminate alien with his brain in a dish. (laughs) Lucky me!
KP: We know you saved that costume.
CORBETT: I’m sitting in it right now. A brain and everything. (laughs)
KP: There’s been talk of Trace doing a RiffTrax, which I’m assuming is a completely different kind of thing as far as how that vibe would be, since it’s just you guys sitting down and putting those together.
CORBETT: Yeah. And really, I’ve only been peripherally and sort of guest star involved here and there with RiffTrax. I’ve been busy with other stuff, and with a young kid and all that. I love doing the live shows. Thankfully we have a few of those coming up. And I hope to keep doing those. I think RiffTrax is trying to find its place right now, seeing if this model will work over the long haul.
KP: What is the writing process like for RiffTrax?
CORBETT: It’s been a little more segmented. In the movies I’ve done, I only did two movies with Mike solo, and I did a few with Mike and Kevin. And we usually just split the script up and write half of it or write a third of it, and then we mash it together during rehearsal and consider each line. So it’s essentially the same process, just a little bit more solo work and not as many levels of peer review. Just not enough time…
KP: So you’re saying that more fart jokes get in…
CORBETT: Well yeah, that’s the good part.
KP: Although I have to admit, it seems like there’s been a lot of anger from the Bill Corbett character in the RiffTrax…
CORBETT: Really? What’s wrong with that guy?
KP: I’m thinking in particular there’s a nice healthy rant in Battlefield Earth that they had to talk you down from. How much of that is you playing into the pre-established expectations? There’s got to be a point where you’re sitting down with a film that Mike’s chosen, going, “You know, I actually kinda like this movie.”
CORBETT: It hasn’t happened yet. (laughs)
KP: Kevin professed to liking the first Lord of the Rings film.
CORBETT: I think Mike and Kevin both really like the Lord of the Rings film. I think that was a challenge in riffing something that they like.
KP: Do you think it’s a difference, going from writing really positively dreadful movies for MST to movies that aren’t nearly the level of incompetence? Although I’ll admit there’s nothing but incompetence in something like Battlefield Earth. It just looks shinier.
KP: And has more Dutch angles.
CORBETT: Oh dear god, that was vertigo inducing. I think riffing is pretty malleable, so you can do stuff that is almost a good movie, that has good qualities to it, and you can do stuff that’s dreadful. And some people like watching the Plan 9 from Outer Space or the Manos stuff more, and I think some people like to tackle something that is maybe technically slick like Top Gun, which was just sort of ridiculous at the core. And I don’t know which one I like writing better. Mixing it up is fine by me. I don’t think that I’ve ever done a movie I genuinely liked a lot. If I had done the first Lord of the Rings with those guys it would have been a bit of a challenge, because I’m a fan of that movie.
KP: Are there any films that, for you, are untouchable?
CORBETT: No, not untouchable, just things that I wouldn’t bother trying because I don’t think I would be funny doing them.
KP: Would you tell Mike, “I’ve got to pass on this…” ?
CORBETT: No, I think we’re pretty simpatico in terms of what… the range of stuff we think is horrible… (laughs)
KP: What is a film that, if they were to present, you’d go, “Are you crazy?”
CORBETT: Hmm. Schindler’s List. Or Hotel Rwanda, or something like that. Trying to make something out of… a good movie about a harrowing and real situation would seem to go even beyond my skills…
KP: So, the Holocaust is off limits.
CORBETT: That’s big of me, isn’t it?
KP: It’s really not RiffTraxable.
CORBETT: That’s interesting. I’m sure there are others too. I’ve never seen Life Is Beautiful, so I don’t know. I mean, if it was like The Day the Clown Cried - Jerry Lewis… you know, that legendary movie that I think is in a vault somewhere, which is basically the same premise I think as Life Is Beautiful, then that might be worth looking into. I remember we actually had a little bit in X Men…
KP: The concentration camp scene at the beginning…
CORBETT: Yeah, it’s the concentration camp scene, and Mike wrote something for it that I thought worked pretty well, where I thought we were going to see this shiny superhero movie and suddenly we’re at Dachau, and I’m complaining. It sort of depends on where you focus your humor, and at that moment, you know I’m complaining to him for choosing the movie - then it’s a different sense of humor.
KP: Instead of critiquing the scene or riffing off the scene itself.
KP: (laughing) So it comes down to a skill in doing these things…
CORBETT: (laughing) Imagine that…
KP: I never would have thought.
CORBETT: I don’t know that it’s an infinitely flexible skill, you can just do anything. But I think we… there are times we wanted to try. A lot of people didn’t like this and I can understand why, but when we did Hamlet in season nine or ten, first of all it was a pretty dreadful, dreary version of Hamlet, but that was what we were trying. It’s just like, “Let’s do the best thing ever in terms of drama, Hamlet.” But it was undercut a lot by the fact that it was this dreary German television version.
KP: So some things are unriffable because they’re just so horrible in tone.
CORBETT: Yeah. It’s a whole bunch of different points of entry and I don’t know… you know, if we sat here and talked about them I might become conscious of our approaches. A little more conscious. I’m not sure that I am totally until we get there. It’s like, “How do you solve this problem?”
KP: Like Maria.
CORBETT: (laughs) That’s one I’d like to do.
KP: As MST was drawing to a close, when was the writing on the wall that Sci-Fi had lost interest in the show?
CORBETT: Ironically enough, it was when they seemed to gain a lot of interest in micromanaging our writing.
KP: When they started asking for scripts…
CORBETT: Yeah, it was a little weird. After years of not having much script problem at all - and even the first part of Sci-Fi, I think, some standards & practices person would look through and make sure we didn’t get too naughty, and then we even learned to preempt those and just not go there in the first place. But suddenly we were on the phone to, like, these two people at Sci-Fi who didn’t seem to have enough to do. They would keep us in these meetings discussing, “Guys, could you just maybe tweak that joke?” It’s like, “Are you kidding? These guys have been doing this for a decade and you’re 22 years old.” But I think it was more… I would confess to being spectacularly clueless about a lot of what was going on in terms of the business, even in Best Brains…
KP: Somewhat intentionally so?
CORBETT: Yeah, somewhat intentionally so, because it… you know, it didn’t do me any good to know some of that stuff, and I didn’t know what to make of it anyway. And certainly at Sci-Fi and USA channels. When a little corporate movement happens it just ripples down, and I think that’s ultimately what engulfed us. I think it wasn’t a bad time to leave anyway, frankly. It would have been nice to have a couple more seasons for me, because I felt like I had just gotten there a few years ago. But clearly there was a pretty healthy body of work.
KP: Did you feel a sense from the others that it felt like a good point to put it aside?
CORBETT: Yeah. Everyone was a little sad, but I also think there was a little feeling of, like, it was a good time to rest for some of the guys who’d been at it for the better part of a decade. So yeah, it wasn’t a happy occasion, but I think every season you’re kind of on borrowed time, anyway. So when we finally learned, we had gotten enough hints about it already.
KP: So what did you walk away with? Everyone took something…
CORBETT: A pencil.
KP: Just a pencil?
CORBETT: No, I walked away with… not much. I mean, because they were being earmarked for eBay. In fact, I went away from the office for a week and was going to come back, and… I can’t remember exactly why, but I came back just to get my final couple of boxes there. Because I think I was moving at the same time, in a masterpiece of great timing. Losing a job and moving at the same time. So I left a couple things in the office and when I came back this little couch that I had actually trucked in there had a tag on it for eBay. (laughs) “This is too much!”
KP: I have visions of Jim (Mallon) walking around with stickers and a marker.
CORBETT: Well yeah, if I’d been in the corner I would have had one on my forehead. I got a couple little things from Patrick, like some drawings that he did and some artwork. And it’s really nice. I wouldn’t mind having a Crow, but those are pretty precious.
KP: I’m sure you read my interview with Trace and saw his thoughts on having a Crow in the house…
CORBETT: Yeah, I thought that was funny. He does have big expressive eyes, Crow, and they do tend to follow you no matter where you are in the room.
KP: I’ll get you a velvet painting of Crow where the eyes follow you…
CORBETT: (laughs) That would be great.
KP: Now that I’ve said it and it’s going to be in print, I will bet you that some fan will do it for you.
CORBETT: Well, thank you in advance, fan.
KP: Was Timmy Big Hands the first post-cancellation project?
CORBETT: Yeah, during those heady days of the internet boom. Yeah, that was a funny time, because we rented this office, Kevin and Mike and I, and we were just kind of hanging around, thinking of stuff to do, and we just started amusing each other with little bits of writing and graphics and all that, and then it became a website.
KP: Whose idea was it to do the website?
CORBETT: I think Paul (Chaplain) was big in pushing it. He said he had the finances of the internets figured out. He didn’t, because nobody did! We had a lot of fun - it’s just the financial model of it was unsustainable. And we actually didn’t do bad, as it goes. We made a little bit of money, but we were spending as much just kind of keeping ourselves going.
KP: Was it just an intense desire to keep the group together doing something?
CORBETT: I think that’s what it was, more than anything.
KP: Sort of separation anxiety?
CORBETT: (laughs) Yeah. It’s like my dog when I leave for work.
KP: Who was suffering the most empty nest syndrome of you guys?
CORBETT: Oh, I don’t know if it was any one of us more than the other. And we took a lot of time off after the last show and we had a summer, and we hung around with our family. We didn’t want to seem to desperate…
KP: Someone must have cried.
CORBETT: Okay it was me! You bastard!
KP: I knew I’d break you!
CORBETT: I’m just a soft touch! (laughing)
KP: When Timmy Big Hands went away, at what point did the Film Crew come up as a seemingly more valid alternative to that?
CORBETT: I think it was… well, it’s been a while now, and we’ve kind of gone our merry ways at times and just kind of come back together again.
KP: You really can’t get away from each other is what it comes down to.
CORBETT: I know, it’s sad. I think the thing we did after Timmy Big Hands was pitched some shows out in California. And we got plenty of meetings but nothing ever really came of it. We all hate pitching shows. It’s a total…
KP: If you could describe the worst type of executive, the worst meeting that you had, what would you say was the most disastrous…
CORBETT: Well, here’s the thing - at least in our meetings, I don’t think we ever met anyone who wasn’t pleasant to us and wasn’t at least, on the outside, welcoming. But you just get… every now and then you’d just be like, “Oh, the life has gone from that person’s eyes and they’re no longer listening.” I’ve run into more people in Hollywood who are more the cliché - just these soulless automatons. But for the most part, if people wanted to hear something from the MST guys, they at least have heard of us and got us a little bit. But it was just watching an executive try to hammer it into something that he or she understood that was always distressing.
KP: Do you ever wish you had puppets with you at that point?
CORBETT: (laughs) Yeah, we could cast other people as ourselves to go in there. I think we always went in with a little bit of a… it wasn’t really a chip on our shoulders, but it was like, “Eh, we’ll try this only so far and so much, but…”
KP: Do you think you still latched on to that sort of Midwestern distance from Hollywood?
CORBETT: I suppose.
KP: It seemed like a point of pride amongst most of the guys that, “We didn’t have to do this in Hollywood or New York, we did it outside the system…”
CORBETT: We did it outside the system working for USA Network.
KP: Isn’t that always what happens with people who say they’re working in an anti-establishment art movement? Everyone needs a patron…
CORBETT: Well, yes. That’s the truth of the matter, is that it was always within the system, just on the fringes of the system. It wasn’t like… being really outside the system was the KTMA days.
KP: Yeah, but even that…
CORBETT: That was *a* system. *The* system, maybe not.
KP: You were still being paid by the man…
KP: Otherwise it would have been cable access.
CORBETT: Yeah. And eventually porn. Such is the way of all cable access. Porn or religion.
KP: I can see you doing Brain Guy porn.
CORBETT: Stop it! (laughing)
KP: The Shout Factory project seems almost borderline MST…
CORBETT: We just talked to the people at… it was originally at Rhino, which releases all the MST tapes, and we produced them through them. They just kind of signed up and went on board. But at some point the lawyers - or marketers, probably more accurately - just decided it wasn’t the direction they were comfortable going. But a bunch of former Rhino people started Shout Factory, and they took it over there.
KP: The concept seems closer to doing proxy MST…
CORBETT: Yeah, it’s closer.
KP: Even the Film Crew has a conceit whereby they’re forced to watch these films…
CORBETT: Yeah, it’s a pretty thin rule, though. We just wanted to… as low concept as MST was, this had to be even lower.
KP: Were there any worries of the specter of Jim Mallon descending on the project?
CORBETT: Well, there was more than a worry. And I can’t get into it too much, but that’s ultimately why it’s Shout Factory.
KP: So there was a concern that was dealt with.
CORBETT: There was a concern that was dealt with, as they say in the Jersey mob.
KP: There’s an on-camera host component to Film Crew…
KP: Someone made the comment that they had trouble getting into RiffTrax as opposed to MST because they felt like you could sort of distance the comments made when they were coming through characters like Crow, Tom and Mike, who were being forced to watch these movies by a mad scientist, as opposed to real people.
CORBETT: That’s an interesting point.
KP: That detachment, they felt, made it seem less mean-spirited… That it seemed more hurtful and sort of vindictive when it was actually coming from real people, even though you are playing slight characters of yourselves in RiffTrax…
CORBETT: Yeah, when we’re guys in our 40s jumping around like fools.
KP: But it’s still Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett and Mike Nelson making these comments and making them, particularly with RiffTrax, of their own accord. Whereas you could always say that no matter how hurtful MST would get, it’s characters being forced to watch these films…
CORBETT: Yeah. I think those are interesting observations. All I can do - and I like working on this stuff - is be aware of it and question what that means.
KP: Have you ever made a comment that you thought afterwards, “Gosh, I really went after them with knives sharpened… was I too brutal?”
CORBETT: You mean in RiffTrax?
KP: In RiffTrax or even MST.
CORBETT: There are a few in there. I do think it’s possible to just be purely mean without being particularly funny. And I think that’s really worth avoiding. The best MST really rode that pretty well. And never sunk into pure meanness for too long. And I think when we were at our weakest, we were just in that kind of too nasty a gear for too long.
KP: Do you feel that you normally would catch those kind of things on the rewrite process, and say, “Let’s change this to something that’s funny instead of hurtful?”
CORBETT: Well, it’s live and learn to some degree. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re being hurtful until two years later. And with RiffTrax that’s a whole new thing and I really don’t have a great body of experience with it yet. The process is faster so you do have to watch it, probably. There aren’t as many levels of review to catch stuff like that. You have to write it a little more carefully to begin with, I’d say.
KP: You’re obviously dealing with a far higher level of power as far as the creators and producers…
CORBETT: That too.
KP: Particularly since you’re dipping your toes more fully into Hollywood. With RiffTrax, it’s “Bill Corbett” saying these things…
CORBETT: I know, it could happen. I could have one side of my career fighting the other.
KP: All of a sudden you run into Ben Affleck at a party and…
CORBETT: I know… “Hey, dick! You think I’m going to do your next movie, dick?” You accept that. And I kind of feel like, look, if I’m going to work with people who are absolutely offended by that, then so be it. And it’s incumbent on me not just to be a jerk when doing these movie commentaries, either. But you watch Jon Stewart, and he jokes and rips on all kinds of people who come on his show later, and to some degree they have to pay him tribute just to hawk their books and all that, and no one’s ever going to have to pay me tribute. But I guess the feeling is I’ll work with the people who are a good fit with me, and that’ll take care of itself, to some degree.
KP: If you had your druthers as far as a film you’d like to choose, are there any in particular that you wish you could tackle?
CORBETT: Well, this goes back to my childhood. I was a fan of the Billy Jack series. It’s a funny little portrait of myself as a boy that I really liked that. So I would kind of like to go back to those and just see if those would be riffable. I know that they got really outlandish and absurd by the third in the series or so. The Trial of Billy Jack.
KP: That’s when they brought the monkey in.
CORBETT: (laughs) I remember thinking he was so cool when I was a kid. It’s like, “He’s a half breed Indian and he doesn’t want to fight anybody, but man they make him! And then he does it with karate! For peace!” There’s one that I’ve never seen called Billy Jack Goes to Washington which is a take on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which I understand is really bizarro.
KP: How could you miss that?
CORBETT: Because I think it was just released very limited, in very limited quantities.
KP: Yeah, but in this day and age, everything’s available.
CORBETT: That’s true, everything’s available. The great part of that whole premise is that you have to believe that a guy who has slaughtered with his bare hands dozens of characters by the time he gets to that movie, and shot as many more, is tapped to go to the Senate. (laughs)
KP: How implausible is that, really? I want to see the collection Billy Jack: A Look Back. If they could treat it that serious, then that’s something that needs to be seen.
CORBETT: Yeah. Anything that’s self-important is usually a pretty good start for our little treatment.
KP: How are you feeling so far about the progress of Starship Dave?
CORBETT: Pretty good. It was rough for a while there. It never started out as anything but kind of a silly commercial script, hopefully done with some modicum of dignity. And we’re sort of geared towards kids, although that’s just come and gone here and there. The challenge is working in Hollywood. I’m not going to say everybody we worked with there was venal and horrible, because mostly people were pleasant and kissed our asses up and down about the script, but it’s just such committee work. There’s so many people, especially when it’s a big budget movie like this. There’s so many people who want their input in there because there’s millions of dollars about to be spent, and some of it is good, some of it is awful. Writers are not that powerful in movies. They are more in TV. My partner is a guy who has worked mostly in TV and he was a little shocked just being the low guy on the totem pole. And yeah, you do reach absurdities and you reach the cliché stuff that you see in all the movies about Hollywood. All the satire. But that being said, we did get our shot at the last draft of it before it was filmed.
KP: That’s a rarity.
CORBETT: It is a rarity. We kind of survived the process. I may be deluded. I’d be the first to admit that I’ve lost the forest for the trees here.
KP: But you’re not Barton Fink yet.
CORBETT: No. (laughs) It doesn’t have that Barton Fink feeling.
KP: Do you ever see yourself making the move out to California?
CORBETT: I’ve lived there for chunks at a time, and I actually lived there last year for a while when I was working on Starship Dave.
KP: But on a more permanent basis…
CORBETT: On a more permanent basis, not right now. We moved back because my wife and I learned we were having another kid, and her parents live here and it’s just so easy. And we wanted to buy a house. So I spent a lot of time flying there and back again, and that’s the trade-off we made. I like it there. I like visiting. I didn’t love living there, but it’s mostly because life with young kids and really no family in the area. It’s just a lot easier.
KP: Mike was always adamant, Bridget more so, about never leaving Minnesota…
CORBETT: I know, how about that, huh?
KP: That was a shock…
CORBETT: The sick part is we, within like the same week or two, basically we left messages with each other, and mine was, “Coming back to Minnesota Mike,” and his was, “We’re about to move to San Diego.” So we were really ships that passed in the night, unfortunately.
KP: How do you view the San Diego area?
CORBETT: I knew it a little bit before doing some stuff with Mike out there. I’ve always kind of liked it. I knew the more downtown parts. Mike lives and works a little more in the suburbs, and it’s very nice. The Pacific Ocean is beautiful. It’s pleasant.
KP: So never say never?
CORBETT: Never say never. But do say probably not soon, since we just bought the house and my wife will strangle me if we move again any time within the next two years.
KP: I don’t know, stranger things have happened.
CORBETT: Oh yeah. Many strange things have happened.
KP: Although I never see Kevin leaving his cabin in the woods.
CORBETT: (lauhging) He doesn’t have a cabin in the woods!
KP: That nice idyllic location that he has…
CORBETT: Oh yeah. Have you ever been there?
KP: No, I’ve just heard stories about it through Kevin and Mike…
CORBETT: It’s a lovely house, yeah.
KP: That it’s the kind of place where you can tell he’s never leaving.
CORBETT: But he and his wife travel so much, and they don’t have children, and they are good and experienced travelers and they really know how to get a good deal. So they expatriate to Mexico for like two or three weeks at a time, and you can’t get in touch with them. So they really know how to balance it.
KP: You know who’s in Minnesota now? Now would be your time to meet him…
KP: Meet up with him and discuss all the horrible time you’ve had with this interviewer named Ken Plume…
KP: I guess he bought a house on the river, next to Jeff Stonehouse…
CORBETT: That’s what I heard from Stoney. That’s great.
KP: Hey, there’s a fishing cabin with your name on it…
CORBETT: The walleyes are bitin’!
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