Any long time movie fan can tell you a story of how they’ve endured many of the less-than-stellar genre films that have graced late-night cable stations and the dusty hallows of the VHS-littered shelves of video rental stores. Often times, we survive by mocking the varying degrees of insanity gracing the screen, a concept that was brought to mainstream television audiences in the late eighties by Joel Hodgson and the cast and crew of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Over ten seasons, they garnered a legendary cult status that persists to this day.
Since then, “riffing” has spread throughout video and online cultures, and now has been brought to live theatre in Vancouver by The Gentlemen Hecklers. Comedians Eric Fell, Patrick Maliha and Shaun Stewart take centre stage – or rather, the centre of the front row – at The Rio Theatre. Dressed in their classiest duds, the trio hurls jokes-a-plenty at the screen for the entertainment of the audience in attendance. With six shows under their belt (including such classics as Megaforce, Star Crash and Yor: The Hunter From The Future) and audiences growing with each outing, The Gentlemen Hecklers are proving to be a must-see while watching the shouldn’t-see.
I bribed the trio with coffee and asked them a few questions on a patio on Granville Island. After sifting through a number of hilarious tangents and one-liners, I managed to garner a few points of interest from these fine Gentlemen. Their comedic chemistry was obvious throughout, so plant your tongues in cheek and let’s go:
Where and when did the idea of the Gentlemen Hecklers come together?
PATRICK: Well I remember I called up Eric and Shaun and said I have an amazing idea—not at all. This is Eric’s.
ERIC: Shaun and I are fans of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and RiffTrax and we had actually riffed a couple of short films a few years back. We always thought it was a great idea and thanks to the success of The Critical Hit Show, I was able to pitch this idea to [The Rio Theatre] of Shaun and I riffing movies. And then we thought to ourselves, ‘we don’t like actually talking,’ so we called Patrick.
SHAUN: ‘Who’s good for filler?’
PATRICK: ‘We need someone who’s like those white things you find in the McDonald’s burger. Somebody who pads it but nobody knows why its there and without it falls apart!’
ERIC: Patrick is our sawdust and mealworms.
PATRICK: There you go!
ERIC: No, but we thought it would be best with the three of us. So we called Patrick and asked what he thought of the idea.
PATRICK: And I thought it was a great idea because I’m a big fan of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 […] and I realized that it was something that nobody in the city was doing and the first rule of business is that if you’re first, you rule the business. I thought ‘if we don’t do this, someone else is gonna do it.’ […] I knew that it would be successful with these two guys.
What do you feel sets The Gentlemen Hecklers apart from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and other contemporaries?
ERIC: Well, there’s no puppets.
PATRICK: I think that what we do is different that Mystery Science Theatre 3000 because I think [they] were all about the movie and what I gathered about what Shaun and Eric wanted to do was all about the entertainment. I think with these two guys being in improv this is the best thing that possible: two parts improv, one part stand-up.
SHAUN: I think one of the big things is, when you have [Mystery Science Theatre 3000, etc.] that are released widely like that – this going to make us sound lazy but – those are really tightly written and everybody knows exactly what everyone else is going to say at every moment.
ERIC: Yes there is very little to no improv in [those].
SHAUN: And ours we keep it open for improv. We do write our own stuff–
PATRICK: A lot.
SHAUN: –and we do meet with each other ahead of time […] but when we’re going I think for all of us our favourite things end up being improvised.
PATRICK: I truly and honestly believe that Shaun and Eric, because of their approach to improv – and this is probably going to sound weird – but they have a very fresh and fun approach to things. I think what they bring to the table plus their knowledge of B and C grade movies, for myself, is fantastic. With Mystery Science Theatre 3000, I feel like whenever you watch it, you have the very same sense of humour going throughout and its very, very, very funny, but I think with us, I dunno, I think we’re willing to take risks. I think that’s the biggest thing[…] We’re not afraid to experiment.
ERIC: Yeah, because we’re not being immortalized on tape and there are no censors.
PATRICK: Yes, it’s completely uncensored. But we still don’t… maybe…
SHAUN: It’s mostly clean. At least until I find logical flaws and have to shout about it.
ERIC: And that’s the other great thing is that three of us each have different ways to approach the writing process and different ways we watch the movie. Shaun is just so good at pointing out the logical flaws.
PATRICK: But in a hilarious way. Like, it’s so well done. And with Eric, Eric says that he tends to overwrite, but he has all these little jokes and pop culture references. Like I love that he’s throwing in Game of Thrones and Doctor Who references.
ERIC: Then we leave the quiet bits for Patrick.
SHAUN: It is amazing having Patrick because I know that if I run out of things to say, Patrick will jump in.
PATRICK: And in a short time we really embraced the live aspect of the show.
ERIC: And we take advantage of that. In Megaforce, I gave up on the movie, got up, got a drink and came back. In Hard Ticket To Hawaii, Patrick got on stage and chose someone from the audience to slow dance with during this terrible ballad.
PATRICK: You know, I say this exceptionally rarely in my life, but I truly, honestly think that what we have is something special.
What are your thoughts on the art of movie riffing and what is some of your approach to it?
PATRICK: I think that with anything that becomes successful, it has to be something that seemingly anybody can do but when you get to a certain level you realize you need a certain level of expertise to be more entertaining than the average person. Hence the popularity of Peanuts and Garfield. Hence the popularity of any singer/songwriter, because the guitar is the one instrument that almost anybody on the planet can play, but very few can play well. Just like singing: anybody can sing, very few can sing well. Just like acting: anybody can act, very few can act well. When it comes to riffing movies: anybody can make fun of a movie–
SHAUN: Only we can do it well!
PATRICK: –no, but to do it so it’s a constant wall of humour. I think subconsciously we made a very good choice in that we chose not to be rude and to make it accessible.
ERIC: We don’t want to be assholes.
ERIC: We’re gentlemen, for crying out loud!
PATRICK: We’re not the Gentlemen Assholes.
SHAUN: There are a lot of things about it that I think that all of us just draw from our experience doing live shows. You realize that certain types of jokes may work once… it’s like just talking down to the movie, that’s what most people who would [riff movies] would end up doing. You kinda realize that you have to give it some tough love. A tender caress.
ERIC: Part of the conceit, too, is our tag-line: ‘Hilarious commentary for the best bad movies.’ So it’s not at the best bad movies, it’s for the best bad movies. We’re playing with it. We’re re-purposing an existing thing, this movie, and we’re playing with the negative space to make it into a new thing. People who go to this understand that the movie is bad. They already know this is a bad movie. They don’t need us to go ‘This is a bad movie!’ That’s why we joke with the movie. We play.
How do you go about selecting movies for the show? What makes a film prime for riffing? What makes a good bad movie?
SHAUN: Well, there’s actually two different things there. There are movies that are entertaining to watch because they’re so bad but that are not necessarily going to be good movies to riff.
PATRICK: We’re never going to riff on Showgirls. It’s a bad movie, but its a well-loved bad movie.
ERIC: And you can’t riff The Room because the experience of going and seeing The Room is having everyone yelling at the movie anyways. What makes something [good for the show], first off it has to be watchable. The movie has to have good enough audio and video that the audience can see and hear it.
SHAUN: And there’s a balance of how much dialogue there has to be. If you have too much then there’s no room for us to say anything. If there’s too little, there’s nothing for us to say.
ERIC: I would have a hard time riffing a more modern film because all of the editing is so tight and fast. Even the most incompetent of modern action cinema is loud explosions with super quick cuts and rapid-fire dialogue and that’s kinda hard to do. I find older movies a little easier to riff.
SHAUN: I’m still on the side of trying it.
ERIC: Oh, I wouldn’t mind trying it, but, I mean, on the whole I think something that’s thrown out of the seventies or eighties… there’s a sincerity about the bad movies of that era.
PATRICK: That’s the thing, too. Movies from the seventies and the eighties and the early nineties, because of the advent of VHS, you have these movies that were made where they were like ‘Who’s the demographic for this?’ ‘People with VCRs.’ Whereas today you have films like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus–
ERIC: Or Sharktopus. Or Sharknado. That’s a tornado of sharks. It’s already winking at us!
PATRICK: It’s winking and you can’t make fun of a movie that’s already making fun of itself. When they’re being self-riff-erantial (hey hey!) it becomes very difficult.
Any parting thoughts?
ERIC: We do need to give props to They Live Video (www.theylivevideo.com), where we’ve actually gotten some of our movies from. They’re really great about… y’know… movies.
PATRICK: We should also most definitely say, if it’s possible, that without the support of The Rio Theatre (www.riotheater.ca) this would not exist.
ERIC: If it wasn’t for the support of The Rio Theatre, nothing I do that matters would exist!
PATRICK: Because [The Rio Theatre] ate a ton of red ink for us for the first three shows.
ERIC: It’s true. We had very few people out to the first few shows, but the staff [saw] that this has legs.
PATRICK: The only other thing, and I’ve jokingly said this [before] but the honest truth about this is the only reason that this exists is because people like and have told their friends, they’ve brought their friends, they’ve come back. That’s the only reason.
ERIC: It’s seriously so immensely gratifying […] to have people show up and want more.
PATRICK: For myself, I’ve done a lot and a lot of stuff and this is the one of the first times that I’ve been a part of something where I said this is something that can grow and be huge. So put that in there: Thank the fans!
The Gentlemen Hecklers return to The Rio Theatre on Thursday, June 20th with the 1979 made-for-TV Captain American II: Death Too Soon, starring Reb Brown as the titular Cap and the legendary Christopher Lee filling the villain role.