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Movie Riffing: The Pros and the Comedy - A How-to Guide

movie-riffing-the-pros-and-the-comedy-a-how-to-guide
movie-riffing-the-pros-and-the-comedy-a-how-to-guide

Looking Back at MST3K

"Let's all go to the looooobby! Let's all go to the looooobby! Let's all go to the looooobby, to get ourselves a treat!" On the grainy theater screen the chocolate bar, popcorn, candy, and soda cup danced along singing those hypnotic words. Many a poor sap found himself overpowered by the catchy tune and was soon dancing up the aisle to the nearest pimple-faced teen to demand a tray full of overpriced concessions on which to gorge himself. On the other hand, as this theater trailer played it's spellbinding song, several kids in the audience were snickering amongst themselves as they passed each other zip bags of peanut M&M's, trail mix, pre-popped popcorn, cookies, and other treats they snuck into the theater in their backpack, pocket, or purse.

Yes, I was one of those cunning nonconformists. While neighboring moviegoers scoffed or gave a pious look of disgust we would just smile and enjoy the fruits of our forethought. As delighted as I was to play my part in defying the concession obsession, nothing brought me more joy than my flagrant disobedience to the next pre-movie standard. As the slide took form on the enormous white backdrop I would laugh to myself at the absurd suggestion it presented: 'Silence is golden! Please do not talk during the movie.' "YEAH RIGHT!!!!" I would yell before the image had even faded away. A rousing blast of, "SHHHHHHHHHHH!!!" from the crowd around me only increased my amusement.

You see, from an early age I have often viewed things objectively. In the case of movie pop-culture I am not one to follow the whims and wonderment of movie critics who's stereotypical reviews include phrases such as 'The best film you will see this year!' .....Honestly? The best film I will see all year? It's MARCH! What crack-pot came up with that ridiculous claim? Even more maddening was when a friend or family member would quote this movie critic's words in an attempt to sway others to accompany them to the show.

I, of course, had a different motivation for going to the movies. To make fun of them! A good comedy can often stand on it's own. However, many comedy fans are missing out on the true humor hidden in poorly executed dramas or old sci-fi films riddled with absurd dialog ripe for the riffing.

 

movie-riffing-the-pros-and-the-comedy-a-how-to-guide

Not A New Concept

Some may be wondering, "What is 'riffing'?" Essentially it's providing personal commentary in which you point out the flaws, heckle, and wisecrack about what you are viewing or listening to. In recent years it has been more specifically identified with providing such commentary during a film, however it has broader origins.

There is a thin line between riffing and being annoying. Often this is determined, not by what is said, but by the mood and viewpoint of the one who's listening. In what way? Well, if you think about it, stand-up comics are really just 'riffers of life'. They take the ordinary things of life, magnify an aspect of its flaws, and spin a joke or two about it. When performed by true artists, even somber subjects can be chronicled in a way that leaves the audience roaring with laughter. However, the same joke, outside of the comedy hall, may be met with scorn and displeasure. Again, the mood and frame of mind of the listener are key.

Are stand-up comics the only ancestors to the art of riffing? By no means. Riffing has been a part of life for eons. I say confidently that during millions of conversations and speeches throughout history men have made their own poignant comments, if not verbally, then in their hearts. The art of cracking wise at poorly executed or ridiculous dialogue has been carried on from ages long past by the truly humorous at heart who enjoy discovering and magnifying the quirky aspects of every day life. Look even at the works of Shakespeare, the prime example being the play Henry VI Part 2 : Act IV : Scene II. Here we find the rebel Jack Cade trying to convince the masses to join his rebellion against the British throne by putting on airs and elevating himself in their eyes. While trying to prove before the crowd he was of noble birth and married a woman of nobility, one of his own men, Dick the Butcher, unabashedly carried on a riffing out of the corner of his mouth with his companion, Smith the Weaver. It went like this. Note that the word 'aside' in brackets indicates talking, not to the crowd, but only to Smith the Weaver:

CADE

We John Cade, so termed of our supposed father,--

DICK

[Aside] Or rather, of stealing a cade of herrings.

CADE

For our enemies shall fall before us, inspired with
the spirit of putting down kings and princes,
--Command silence.

DICK

Silence!

CADE

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My father was a Mortimer,--

DICK

[Aside] He was an honest man, and a good
bricklayer.

CADE

My mother a Plantagenet,--

DICK

[Aside] I knew her well; she was a midwife.

CADE

My wife descended of the Lacies,--

DICK

[Aside] She was, indeed, a pedler's daughter, and
sold many laces.

SMITH

[Aside] But now of late, notable to travel with her
furred pack, she washes bucks here at home.

CADE

Therefore am I of an honourable house.

DICK

[Aside] Ay, by my faith, the field is honourable;
and there was he borne, under a hedge, for his
father had never a house but the cage.

CADE

Valiant I am.

SMITH

[Aside] A' must needs; for beggary is valiant.

CADE

I am able to endure much.

DICK

[Aside] No question of that; for I have seen him
whipped three market-days together.

CADE

I fear neither sword nor fire.

SMITH

[Aside] He need not fear the sword; for his coat is of proof.

DICK

[Aside] But methinks he should stand in fear of
fire, being burnt i' the hand for stealing of sheep.

This, my friends, is a prime example of riffing. Though some of the humor may be obscured by the Anglo-Saxon tongue, you can clearly see the key elements. Smith and Dick wittily take the words that are spoken in all seriousness and turn them into the old-timey equivalent of 'mamma jokes', and 'burns'. And these little zingers were mostly fit very neatly within the pauses of Cade's speech. (While we'll discuss that tactic more later, note that this is a talent that separates the masters from the amateurs.) Personally, I find this banter to be way more entertaining and comical than the famous joke found just a few lines down:

DICK

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

movie-riffing-the-pros-and-the-comedy-a-how-to-guide

Moving forward a few centuries, riffing made a huge splash into the world of theater during the time of vaudeville, the predecessor to movie theaters. Riffers could occasionally be found in other seating areas, but mainly were the patrons of 'the peanut gallery', so named due to their being the cheapest seats who's occupants would mainly consume the cheapest fare offered, peanuts. This section would often get loud and rowdy, flinging their salty snacks at sub-par performers accompanied by long strings of clever sarcasm. The commonness of this behavior from the cheap seats gave birth to such opening phrases as, "No comments from the peanut gallery!", an ominously familiar precursor to my pet peeve, "Silence is golden! Please don't talk during the movie."

Why, though, were the cheap seats so often the base of operations for the unmerciful talkers of smack? My theory is this: It all comes down to brain power. The more intellectually articulate, the greater the odds they would buy a ticket in the peanut gallery. Why? Because they were too smart to just follow the prevailing opinion of the masses and accept sub-par acts as quality entertainment. They could see through the rouse of 'pop-culture' and ascertain their own opinion of a show or act. (Yes pop-culture existed in the days of vaudeville. In fact it has always existed but simply was not given that name until our modern era.) As they did, flaws would be readily evident and so they could do one of two things. 1) Get irritated. 2) Make fun. The well rounded, jovial individual would view this as an opportunity to exercise the mind instead of being bored out of it and come up with one snappy one-liner after another. Yet, the shrewd riffer would also know there would eventually be consequences. How long do you think you could sound your sass without attracting the rage of the serious and straight-laced patrons? Sooner or later, you could expect an early escort out to the street by a not-so-friendly usher. That being the case why would anyone pay more than the minimum for a show they expected to be disappointed in and, eventually, thrown out of? Therefore, I hold to the theory. The astutely clever would pay no more than base price for a rousing evening where they would, in fact, be the most entertaining portion of the show.

Yes, riffing has been an underlying feature of world culture for years, though many stick-bums would turn their nose up at such a suggestion. Despite the efforts of the morbidly solemn, it will remain a mainstay of independent culture.

Riffing - It Does A Body Good

Would you believe me if I told you that riffing brings benefits to your brain? It's true! Scientists have produced several reports on the benefits of laughing, creating jokes, and meditating - all of which are essential for great riffing. Helpguide.org reports that "Laughter is good for the brain." It continues,

"You've heard that laughter is the best medicine, and that holds true for the brain as well as the body. Unlike emotional responses, which are limited to specific areas of the brain, laughter involves multiple regions across the whole brain.

"Furthermore, listening to jokes and working out punch lines activates areas of the brain vital to learning and creativity.As psychologist Daniel Goleman notes in his book Emotional Intelligence, 'laughter…seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely.'"

In addition to these intriguing facts, the report commented on the benefits of meditation as well. If you expect to riff well you have to spend a bit of time meditating on your subject, pondering over how one part relates to another as well as associating it with something humorous. The report states,

"Meditation works its 'magic' by changing the actual brain. Brain images show that regular meditators have more activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with feelings of joy and equanimity. Meditation also increases the thickness of the cerebral cortex and encourages more connections between brain cells—all of which increases mental sharpness and memory ability."

Note the portion 'encourages more connections between brain cells'. This is often a major road block that prevents people from riffing. The most common excuse I hear is, "I'm just not quick and witty enough. You think of stuff to say right away, but I don't think of things until minutes even hours later."

In a way, they are right. At present they may not be quick enough because they haven't 'paved the way' between certain brain cells. It's as if they are driving in a car and the street comes to an abrupt dead end, yet another 100 yards ahead of them they can see their destination. The fastest way would be to drive straight ahead, but there is no road. If they insist on moving ahead they will have quite a bumpy ride and possibly get stuck. The more modest decide to turn around and backtrack to the main road to reach their destination which takes several extra minutes.