RW: This week we are interviewing Timothy Tompkins, host and creator of the iRiff show Ghosts on the Big Brown Couch, one of the more unique creations in the riffing community. So, let's get this started. Tell us a bit about yourself, where you come from and what you're doing with your life.TT: I’m an East Coast riffer now, residing in New Jersey. Originally, though, I’m from the Midwest; I spent the first three or so decades of my life in Indiana. It’s that Midwest influence that is mainly responsible for my more laid-back riffing style; there’s a lot of Joel Hodgson in my delivery.
I’m a writer in a variety of fields, with a lengthy background in entertainment journalism. My biggest long-term gig was as a weekly columnist for the Toronto-based genre entertainment website HardcoreNerdity.com, which sadly shut down at the end of 2012.
RW: Do you have a vivid recollection of how you first came to know about Mystery Science Theater 3000?TT: Very vivid. I caught my first episode of MST3K hanging out in a hospital in Indianapolis in 1990, waiting for my father to get out of triple heart bypass surgery. I’d watched several hours of Comedy Channel programming, and the DIY nature of the whole channel appealed to me (I’m one of few people who actually has fond memories of Higgins Boys and Gruber), but obviously it was Mystery Science Theater 3000 that really caught my eye. The episode was 111 – Moon Zero Two, and although things would get a lot better, at the time I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.
Anyway, at the time I didn’t have cable or satellite, so it was a couple of years before I was seeing the show regularly. Then my Dad got cancer (I’d already lost my mother to the same thing), so in late ‘95 I moved back home to take care of him, and brought a satellite dish with me. Since my father was the original riffer (when I was a kid we sat around making fun of old movies, before riffing had a name), he absolutely loved MST3K. We caught every episode we could, new or rerun, until Dad passed on in December of 1997. And that solidified the “sentimentality factor” between myself and MST3K.
[At this point I’d like to assure the readers that in spite of this apparently downer opening, I will be answering all of the following questions without referencing DEATH.]
RW: Same question, only with RiffTrax.TT: Well, I never really lost track of any of the former MST3K writers/castmembers; I kept up with all of their little side projects after the show went off the air, such as the humor website that Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy briefly attempted, or the animated web series The Adventures of Edward the Less. It was only natural, then, that when RiffTrax was announced I immediately was right on top of it.
Okay, maybe not immediately. I mean, unlike MST3K, RiffTrax costs actual money to watch. So although I knew about it when the site went up, I didn’t talk myself into diving in until they did X-Men. Wikipedia informs me that it was the ninth release, and came out on September 22, 2006; DAMN, internet, is there anything you CAN’T do?
RW: What was it that first compelled you to try your hand at riffing yourself?
TT: It was always just a matter of time, really. I write film reviews; I write humor. As an ethical critic there is a certain “smart ass” line that I won’t cross. So there’s always been a little smart ass guy inside me, who has things he wants to say about particularly awful films, but who hasn’t had an appropriate outlet in which to say them.
When the iRiff program was first announced I knew right away that I wanted to get involved. But I hung back for a bit while I put together a concept that seemed original. In the meantime I bought a lot of the early iRiffs. I learned a lot from the good ones, and learned even more from the really god-awful ones. In those first days there were unfortunately a lot of people who thought you could literally just record variations of “Man, this movie sucks!” for 90 minutes, and then expect people to buy your “riff” and somehow not be pissed off by your minimal effort.
RW: Let's talk about GOTTBC more in depth. How did the idea for a bunch of ghosts, as opposed to robots or just regular ol' people, come about?TT: No robots, because my first priority was to make sure that my iRiff group was not an MST3K knock-off. Also, ICWXP was doing a great job with its own robots, and I figured compared to that, anything I’d do with my little GoAnimate project might look like some, I dunno, cowtown puppet show.
Ghosts, on the other hand, made perfect sense for the show, because it was always my intention to concentrate mainly on horror and sci-fi films. Another important reason for ghosts: Like I said, I didn’t want to imitate MST3K. I did, however, see what had worked on that show, and one of the big things was the character dynamic between the human Joel and the three robots. I wanted a similar setup, where you had one guy who was kind of an outsider (Johnny, the only living guy in our group), and then the three literally “free spirits”: Dori, Becky, and Babs.
RW: How did you recruit your cast members? Did you have a group of people you wanted to be in it, or did you have to go outside your social circle to find people who would better fit your vision?TT: My wife Charlene Cavalcante plays Babs, the most level-headed of the ghosts. She was easy to select, not just because, well, she’s my wife, but also because she used to be a stage actress, before she moved on to become a high school teacher.
Dori and Becky are played by Dori Fleischmann and Catherine Wacha. They’re a couple in real life (I know, shocking!) who have been friends of mine for almost as long as I’ve been on the East Coast. They were very easy to cast, because when I was putting the project together I deliberately wrote the characters around their real-life personalities. Dori in the real world is just as much of a smart ass as Dori the ghost. Catherine is NOT as goofy as Becky, but she does make “WTF” remarks when discussing movies, and I just exaggerate that quality when writing for her character.
Most importantly, Dori and Catherine absolutely can’t sit on a couch together without winding up slapping at each other; they do not share a space well. So one day when they were visiting my house and we were all watching some old horror movie, I looked over at the two of them, kicking and punching the hell out of each other, and I thought to myself, “You know, I could totally see those two flipping over the couch and falling out of the window to their deaths”. And so the concept of Ghosts On The Big Brown Couch was born.
As for me, I got the role of Johnny mainly because I knew how I wanted the part played; Johnny is the hapless schmuck, the guy who’s constantly asking himself “How the hell did I get in this situation?” Like I said earlier, when riffing he leans toward the Joel Hodgson style, but in his daily life he’s much more like Charlie Brown; the only reason he doesn’t shout “Good grief!” is that he’s doesn’t want Dori to know that she’s getting to him (and also because we’d probably get sued by United Feature Syndicate).
RW: The process of riffing a movie differs from group to group. Let's start with film selection. How do you go about choosing what movies are riffed on GOTTBC? Is there a criteria for film selection? Are the other cast members involved in the decision process, or are you a benevolent dictator?TT: I tend to choose the movies, but I do so from years of watching a LOT of genre movies with the other castmembers, and discussing tons more. If I can find something to riff that everyone likes (or hates), then I go for it. For example, I chose Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things specifically because my wife really enjoys the film, and I really hate it.
I also look for a good mix of Public Domain films and bigger titles that we can do audio riffs for. I never wanted to go all Video On Demand, as some of the iRiff groups have. VOD has been a solid business direction for RiffTrax, because Mike Nelson and Co. can afford to buy the rights to a lot of low-budget dogs. We poor iRiffers, though, don’t have that luxury. So for us to do worthy, enjoyable entries such as Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, we have no choice but to occasionally go the audio riff route.
RW: How do you go about writing riffs? Is it a collaborative process? And if so, how do you put everybody's ideas together?
TT: I’m the only real writer for the riffs, but during the rehearsal for each performance I get a lot of suggestions, and we change things where needed. There are many riffs that are funny, but unfortunately just get caught in some of the riffers’ throats *coughDoricough*. So we adjust accordingly. After all, it can’t be funny if someone can’t say it.
Also, sometimes Charli encourages me do “dumb down” a few of my riffs. I’m afraid I’m the Steely Dan of riff writers; too many “egghead” obscure references. On the other hand, an episode isn’t likely to pass without a reference to how some White Castles have shot through Johnny’s system, either. So it’s not like we’re the freaking Algonquin Round Table...
RW: One of the most unique aspects of GOTBBC are the animated wraparounds and the continuing storyline, the latter being an extreme rarity among riffing shows. How long does it take to conceive, write and produce them?TT: I have the ongoing story roughly mapped out well in advance, so when I start each episode the main question is, “How far forward do we want to go this time?” The answer doesn’t involve plot, really, so much as time; I’ve found that anything more than 7-8 minutes in the intro, and then 5-6 in the epilogue (not counting credits), and viewers get bored. After the first couple of episodes (which kind of had to run longer, as they were introducing the characters), I started being careful with the clock.
There isn’t a lot of story in Ghosts On The Big Brown Couch, of course. It all just revolves around Dori and Becky causing trouble, Johnny and Babs slowly falling for each other, and Johnny never noticing that Dori and Becky are girlfriends (although he makes pretty sophisticated riffs, in the “real” world Johnny is about as sophisticated as that Amish kid in Witness).
[By the way, this raises a point that I’m proud of: Not only are we one of very few iRiffs featuring some openly gay castmembers (or maybe the only, I dunno), but we’re also not GayRiffs; we don’t make a big deal about it. It’s just there. Our lesbian characters are like, “We’re here, we’re queer, meh.”]
Oh, and I assure the readers that we don’t take the plot stuff too seriously; it’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek. But the little bits in each episode do a nice job of establishing the characters, so when they go off to riff, they aren’t just a bunch of strangers making fun of a movie. You feel like you actually know them.
So the short answer (TOO LATE!) is that I can I can whip out the script for each wraparound in about two days, record the main cast bits in about an hour, and do the GoAnimate animation for them in two or three days. I do tend to start on the wraparounds before the riffs, though, because we also like to have a lot of guest performers, and it takes a while to send the scripts out and then get the guest recordings back for mixing.
Our guest voices are one of my favorite aspects of Ghosts On The Big Brown Couch. To date we have featured, in no particular order:
Jonathan Llyr - Author, former Space (the Canadian SyFy Channel) host, and actor (most recently featured in a recurring role on Murdoch Mysteries). Guest announcer in Episode 1.
Nicholas Koontz – Voice performer and off-Broadway actor – Our regular announcer.
Joseph O’Brien – Co-screenwriter of Robocop: Prime Directives, writer and director of Devil’s Mile. Introduced the character of the Grim Reaper in Episode 2 (which I have since taken over, due to Mr. O’Brien’s busy schedule).
Scott Zee – Star of the awesome iRiff, The Turkey Shoot. Performed as the Paranormal Investigator in Episode 6.
And there are more guests to come, including one who will be very familiar to readers of this Wiki.
RW: Do you have any riffs in your catalog that you think are underrated?
TT: Well, there’s no doubt that the quality has gone up with each episode; the last three episodes (4-6) have definitely been the most tightly-written. Still, I have a soft spot in my heart for Episode 3, Air Collision. Asylum movies provide a lot of material (for those who don’t know, The Asylum is also the production company behind Sharknado), plus Air Collision is a disaster movie, and that genre is a treasure trove for riffing. As a result, our Air Collision riff has some of our best moments, including my favorite line ever: “If you look to the right, you’ll see the historic Business District; if you look down you’ll see that you’ve shit your pants.”
RW: What can we expect from GOTBCC in the future or near-future? Anything exciting on the horizon?
TT: There are some twists coming up. There will be some cast changes, sadly, but before that happens it will be preceded by three or four episodes full of surprises. There are only a couple of rules involved with Ghosts On The Big Brown Couch: Only Johnny can see the Ghosts, and the Ghosts can’t leave the apartment. But we’re about to break both of those rules.
RW: I'm gonna ask you to make some "picks" here. 3 of your own riffs, 3 full length RiffTrax, 3 episodes of MST3K and 3 iRiffs other than your own.TT: GOTBBC – Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (long intro, but great riffs), Count Dracula and His Vampire Brides (good riffs, and our first intermission bit), Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (great riffs, great wraparound and guest star).
MST3K – Attack of the Eye Creatures, Night of the Blood Beast (either version, really), The Final Sacrifice (that pick’s for Charli; “The Canada Song” almost killed her)
iRiffers – There are a lot of good groups out there, so I narrowed it down to ones who have had a pretty big (and solid) output: Horr-RIFF-ic – Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, The Turkey Shoot with Scott Zee – Death Rage, Toast and Rice – Sisters of Death (seriously, it’s funnier than the later RiffTrax riff). And just because it isn’t technically an iRiff so much as a tribute group, and I just love breaking the rules: MFT3K – Starcrash; their stuff is almost as good as the real deal (heck, it’s better than some Season One MST3K).
RW: And lastly, we always like to ask what movie you'd like to see get the RiffTrax treatment. So if you could pick any movie for Mike, Kevin and Bill to riff, what would it be and why?TT: As I’ve made clear, I’m a big horror fan. But RiffTrax should stay away from the classics. No more Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, etc. They should go for truly deserving targets, the real cheese, like, oh... Ah, got it! Night of the Bloody Apes, 1969. Really bad, and bad in a good way. It’s another Mexican import (and those always seem to be popular), with a little gore, a little cheesecake, and a LOT of bad acting. It would be a perfect addition to the RiffTrax Video On Demand library.
RW: Thanks so much for talking to us today. If there's anything else you'd like to say that we didn't cover, the floor is yours.
TT: What, are you kidding me? This is a freaking novel. If I say any more at this point people will come after me with torches!