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ROBOT ROLL CALL!
Jon Kilgannon, creator of Mystery Anime Theater 3000
Skulking through the Baltimore Convention Center early Friday morning, I got the chance to have a short conversation with Jon Kilgannon, creator of Otakon's amazingly funny Mystery Anime Theater 3000. At the same time an homage to a cultural icon of a television show, and very competently done live theater, MAT3K provides a much needed shot in the arm to anime convention programming. Jon was gracious enough to give me some time before the day's con programming got started, before the mantle of Security Chief of the convention took his attention away. Mystery Anime Theater this year performed to an estimated crowd of 1,400 at Otakon '99.
"We didn't do any animated movies because we just thought it was too bizarre having puppets make fun of cartoons." - Frank Conniff, TV's Frank from Mystery Science Theater 3000
How did MAT3K first come about?
The way Mystery Anime Theater (MAT) started was back in like 91 or so, I'd just gotten into anime, and the phrase 'Mystery Anime Theater' popped into my head one day, and I said, "You know, that would be something to do. We just need a genlock, an Amiga, and a TV, and about $9 Million worth of hardware. Crap." Cause I thought about having little animated bitmaps of anime characters down at the bottom. I was going to use like Briareos and Deunan and one of the big bruiser-bots from Appleseed and I thought that would be perfect, cause you've got 'Crow', 'Tom' and you've got a 'Joel. (and) I just realized it was well beyond our technical capabilities or our wallets at that time. So I just shelved the entire project until Bernhard (Warg, Anime's Frank) just showed up with Tom and Crow (replicas of the MST3K puppets), he'd just finished them and went "Look what I've got, guys!" I said "Those are perfect!" He said "yeah". and I said "No. You don't understand" , and I decided we were going to do Mystery Anime Theater for Otakon. I think Bernhard had been building them for a couple of years at that point. That was 1996, and we did our first MAT in 1997.
Before we get started, could you go over who some of the cast and bizarre crew are of MAT3K?
Well the original crew...Well I started out with the idea and with getting Bernhard and all that. Bernhard is our prop wrangler and he's also plays Anime's Frank. I'm the producer, director, head writer, and the general guy who has to watch the movie the most times, (shudder) and I do Tom Servo. Mark Sacks(sp) is Joel (Joel Saotome), and one of the writers. Joe F?(sp), another one of the chief writers, does Crow. Matt Pyson does Dr. Forrest Clay, and he has a wonderful evil laugh , and looks good in a grease paint mustache. Well it was sort of just that, the five of us, and anyone else we could drag in. At this point, I've managed to pull in probably around fifteen writers. We've got Sue and Carl Monroe, my fiancee Ivy Martin, Donna Eulen, geez lots of people. I have the entire list at home. Anyone we could drag in basically, um, Chris Ochs, Mike Ryan, John Atchison. Basically, something on the order of probably around 15% of the convention committee has written for me at some point (laugh).
Yeah, people like 'Here, I've got a good joke for there"
Yeah, basically, they'll give me a couple jokes. The people who do a lot of the writing, most of the writing, are myself, Mark (Sacks), Joe Foring, Matt, John Atchison. And this year Chris Ochs put in a lot of work, a lot of good lines.
What were the production levels like when you first started?
In 1997, we had a video theater, and I think that was the year that we seated around 800, and it was standing room only. I was running live programming at that time, basically in charge of any programming that wasn't video. Something that you didn't just sit on your ass and watch. We said, "we'll try MAT as an experiment. We'll take the time slot nobody wants, Friday at midnight:" No one wants Friday at midnight, we'll try it. and it was standing room only Friday at midnight. It looked pretty good, the bots looked really good, the anime was atrocious, M.D. Geist (shudder). One of our writers still if you go up and say 'Geist!', he goes "AH!" The costumes looked really good. Bernhard does a really good job on the costumes and, you know, props. We had the problem that getting the mix between the movie and the speech, the riffing, is really hard. Especially the bad movies, because they are really really really really badly done (really?). The volume just wanders up and down, the FX and the voice of the actors are at the wrong levels. Lensman, we were sitting there watching the levels on Lensman while doing it, and like Buskirk, who's the big bison guy, his levels are about 10% above normal, and Kim, the whiny 'hero', is about 20% below normal, so we're saying how are you going to raise up Kim's voice so you can hear it and not have Buskirk's voice blowing out the ears of everyone in the front row? Um, you don't. It's a very bad movie and there's nothing you can do about it, so it sounded kind of crappy. Looked great, though.
Have you been basically been using the same formula of recording the riffing on tape and miming the puppet's actions on stage?
That was actually an experiment this year. The way we did it for 97 and 98, we just popped in the movie, hit play, and riffed it live. We had a script, I mean the script was like 60 pages long, and we practice over and over...basically what we do is sit down, and have about a dozen writing sessions, with whatever writers I can get together. I'm normally present for those, which is why I've seen the movie the most of everyone. We riff the heck out of it, get all the lines down, try to write cues and then I take this wad of paper about two inches thick of everyone's gags, and I sit down with a laptop and watch the movie over and over and over again getting things timed out; making sure that our riffs aren't on top of anyone's line on screen, making sure there isn't an explosion going on while we're trying to talk so you can't hear us, making sure the gags are in the right place because occasionally, we're riffing so fast, (the writers) forget to write down cues. So I'm going "this is a great line! Where does it go? I have no clue!". So we come in with a script, as I un-digress, having rehearsed the living hell out of it, and we riff it live, that was 97 and 98, for (M.D.) Geist and (Battle Arena) Toshinden. This year, because the sound on Geist was really bad, (we got it a little better on Toshinden but it was still kind of bad) so I decided to try an experiment this year, and what I did was I went out and bought a mixing board that was about as expensive as a car payment on my Jeep, and we mixed it, played the tape, and riffed it in-studio, and it worked a little better. We're going to have to do a post-mortem on it and see if we want to do it again next year, cause it's a question of, you've got the script memorized so you could have done it live and realize 'Oh, I just came up with an ad-lib.' I'd really want to do it but I have my microphone turned off.
That's the big disadvantage of that approach...
The problem with the live, is that if you're riffing in the studio, I can have the mixing board in front of me and go 'Oh, Buskirk's about to talk, pot it down a little bit'. I didn't do much of that but occasionally we had a line that had to be over an explosion, so we could look for the level to drop and then be able to do the line. So you could get the lines in when you could hear them.
Dr. Clay: "I'm a naughty boy! Naughty! Naughty!"
|Did you ever consider doing any setup where you don't have everybody up on stage live, perhaps use a backstage set to portray something more elaborate with Frank and Dr. Clay?
That's not really worth it. Part of the reason why the host segments work is that it's up on stage. When you saw this weekend when we flubbed a line, Matt just flubbed a line as Dr. F, and I said 'This is live guys, remember it's live!" I wasn't talking to the players, I was talking to the audience. I'll say "guys, remember this is live. You're allowed to laugh at the flubs." And that doesn't work on camera. Part of the charm of live theater is the spontaneity of it, and you lose that at one remove (from stage), even when doing it live (backstage).
What did you feel about this year's experiment, going to the longer form (a movie)?
We went to the longer form because out of all the movies we looked at, Lensman was probably the crappiest. Well, no, actually there were two worse. We watched Starchaser: Legend of Orin. We watched, and I looked at the VCR, 27 minutes and 40 seconds of it, and then we hit stop, looked at each other and said we shall never speak of this again. Because it was such an atrociously bad movie, and I'm glad we didn't do it because shortly thereafter I found out that it was actually written by an American and animated in japan, so I said "This isn't even anime, no wonder it looks like crap." But yeah, we will just take movies, we'll watch them, and riff it while we're watching. The first run through it's usually me, Mark, Joe, Matt, a couple of the main writers will sit down and just bust on the movie the first time watching it through.
Do you use any kind of recording device while writing?
No, we just have pads of paper, and we write it down, and half of the watching is just yelling 'Hey! That was good, write that down!" Writing each other's lines down as others need to take a rest room break. Lensman was just the best movie we had. We realized that it was atrociously bad, it wasn't nearly as talkie as some other movies we had. One problem we have with movies is..take Legend of Nolandia (Dirty Pair: Affair on Nolandia). Legend of Nolandia is a bad dub, a really bad dub. The problem is, is that they never shut up. THEY NEVER SHUT UP! It was a perfect movie for us. It was an hour long, it had characters that everyone loves, badly dubbed (it takes TWO cops to play 'good cop, bad cop'). I mean it's just a really bad movie, but we just couldn't do it cause there seemed to be about 10-15 seconds of silence in the entire movie.
And there's no rumbling battle fleets going by..
Yeah, you need ships lumbering through space, or fighting characters sitting there, bouncing back and forth going, 'I must use the Gummi Bear Fuku Technique!" Because then you've got these long awkward pauses, these long, painful, Manos-like2 awkward pauses that you can just riff in, and a lot of anime, the way it's dubbed, especially with the voice-fit system they use, it's just 'blahblahblahblah', next character 'blahblahblahblah'. You're like 'hello..breathe. Breathe. Breathe damnit!" This is not natural. And Lensman, as we were doing it, we did it in pieces. There's a first segment, second segment, third segment, and we wouldn't do all of them in one long stretch.
I like the idea of going back and finding that what today would be considered more of the obscure anime. There was just a glut of 1985-87 OAVS that would be just gluttons for punishment.
There is an entire pool of basically just remakes of Iczer-1, etc, that are just festering underneath anime that we have not yet tapped. One of the things we like don't want to do is get in a rut. We did (M.D.) Geist, which was a big heavy-metal, doom and death and horror and if-you're-fifteen-you'll-like-it movie. And people would come up to us and say "You know, they made a sequel." and we reply "Oh yes, we know, we know." We don't want to see it. Then we did Toshinden, which was a fighting game, and with Toshinden it's not so much a horrible movie as it is aggressively there. It takes away an hour of your life and doesn't give it back. Then this year we did Lensman, which was, it was anime by Ed Wood. My fiancee's a big fan of E.E. "Doc" Smith, and we had her sit in on a couple of the scripting sessions, and
she sat there watching the movie in incredulity and pain.
Cutting the 'Flying Through Pipes' scenes probably could have saved one or two segments!
Oh yes, the 50 minutes of flying through pipes! Who's ideas was this?! Actually we had one segment where we were originally going to do the entire Star Wars trench thing but we went 'Nah, no one's ever going to laugh at this.'
You guys reminded me of how bad that movie was, I hadn't seen it in 10 years, and even subtitled, that movie is really bad.
We actually got a group to watch the subtitles, and that's where the 'credits-are-louder-in-Japanese' gag came from. Actually we cut the credits being louder gag, never mind. It's so bad, and I think the consensus at this point is that we'll go back to hour-long anime. It's grueling. Grueling for us to do something that is 50% longer, and it's grueling on the audience.
So after your 33rd watching of the film, have you figured out what the lens actually does?
I have a construct I use whenever I can't understand something in anime. I call it the Plot Device-O Ray. Basically the lens is a portable plot device you carry around on your hand. What it really does (though) is allow the whiny hero to be even whinier for approximately an hour.
'I'm the hero, cause I'm the whiniest!'
God, that was painful. BAD MOVIE, BAD MOVIE! Ugh.
Yeah, I noticed it kind of took a bit of a toll on the audience, especially when you announced 'rool part 3 of the movie'
And the audience was like 'NOOOooo...' Basically, if you look at the first two, (97 & 98) we actually had some fairly lengthy host segments and a lot more commercials, and the reason for it was that the film's only an hour long. We had one commercial break. We had an opening host segment, a middle host segment, and a close host segment. This year we deliberately kept the host segments and the commercials short. The ending sketch, you'll note, was about 2 minutes long, the opening sketch was about five, and the middle sketch was maybe three (minutes), the idea was that I didn't want people confined to the theater for that long a time. We actually went back and tried to figure out is there any way to cut this without it being bloody obvious that there's been a cut, and I watched it three times and realized, no, there's no way to cut stuff out. The problem is that there's loud music going on, characters talk through the ends of scenes, horrible, so we couldn't cut anything out. I really would have liked to cut out about twenty minutes. I thought, 'the pipes, I can cut out the pipes!', then no, people talked in the beginning and ends of scenes, loud music would continue and not change with scene changes, and a couple things are mentioned that are actually important to understanding the ending, such as it is.
I mean you know, MST3K can get away with it (2 hour movies) because they've got like seven commercial breaks. You can go off to the bathroom real fast, you can go off and get yourself a coke. You've got two or three commercial breaks in MAT, 40 minutes of anime and then a break and the anime is bad, is just too long. So I think we're going to go back to the hour format.
Look! It's the MAT3K crew during a break in the action.
|Do you have a particular person that cobbles together the Invention Exchanges, or is it a group thing?
If you mean physically building them, Bernhard builds every single one of our props. He built the bots, he made the costumes, and makes all the props for the invention exchange.
And he does a great Frank...
Oh he does a wonderful Frank. He IS Frank.
He's was great in his guest appearance at the game show...
When the guy that does the game show came up to me and said they were going to have a category called "Anime's Frank Sez", I just busted out laughing and I realized that, yes, my creation had legs. I mean it still gets me now, I mean this was a throw-off idea I had in 1991, it was not supposed to have 1400 people in a theater watching it.
What are your comedic influences?
Me, personally, the greats like Shakespeare, I love Shakespeare's comedies. The greats like Monty Python. Some of the more recent stuff, the early seasons of Red Dwarf are really good. I HATE American sitcoms. I try to write the OPPOSITE of American sitcoms. See an American sitcom do something? Do the exact opposite, it'll only be funny.
That attitude gives you the almost dead-on Tom Servo persona :)
Thank you :) If I could just get the voice right. I'd need to lower it about twelve octaves :). Let's see (back to the question at hand), early Robin Williams, Saturday Night Live, early Jonathan Winters, if you've ever heard any of his stuff, it's hilarious. Basically part of it comes from finding comedy everywhere in life. Comedy is not a discrete part of life. It's not something that fills up a half hour block in your life with two commercial breaks and starting and end credits. That's not comedy. Comedy is going through life and realizing that you know, what just happened was really mind-numbingly stupid, and the only real response you can have to it is to laugh at yourself. You know, what I did was just so dumb, I have to laugh at myself. A big chunk of comedy is not being afraid of being laughed AT, because when you do comedy you are deliberately putting yourself into a position where the audience is laughing AT you, not just WITH you. You're doing really dumb things, putting on a silly persona, for a purpose.
And you do it hiding behind a little box :)
I have the advantage that Mark and Bernhard and Matt don't have, in that I get to duck down behind a desk and I get to work the puppet. Nobody sees me.
Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Actually when we gave out parts, what I did was, I sat back and I said, "I've got (the characters) Anime's Frank, Dr. Forrest Clay, Tom, Crow, and Joel Saotome. Who do I have that can pretend to act, and would be good at this part?" And I sat down and said "We've got our Joel." Mark is Joel. Mark's had people come up to him and actually ask if he is really the Joel Robinson. I had to have Joe Foring for Crow, he does a dead on Crow. Matt Pyson has the perfect evil laugh, so he had to be Dr Forrest Clay. And quite honestly, Bernhard of course in real life IS Anime's Frank. He can drop into that persona instantly. That's his goofy otaku persona when he wants to do a joke, that's him.
With his mannerisms and bearing, you can tell...that's him.
Well, it's not the way he is normally.
Well, you can tell he doesn't have to act too hard at least.
Yeah, he's a very natural actor...And I pulled on Tom (Servo) because I can do Tom ad-lib. Part of the reason I picked the people I did was that they can ad-lib in character.
How long do you foresee yourself doing this? How far do you want to take it?
I don't think any of us want to pull out yet. We're having too much fun. It's one of the things we look forward to at the convention. We walk into there, and our hearts are hammering in our chests. We're about to go out in front of one-thousand, four-hundred people who've been waiting in line for an hour.
At least you only have to worry about having to do one a year.
Yeah. Actually I had I think Mark Mandiola from Katsucon, after 97 ask if we could do one for Katsucon. I said that would be a lot of fun if it weren't for the fact that it takes us about 5 months to recover from doing it once :) It really is a yearlong process. Right after we leave the convention, probably during the drive home, or at dinner tonight, we're going to be talking about what we should be doing next year. and then we're going to start screening stuff about a month after we recover, and then start writing the script, and then start rehearsing. I mean it takes a year. We could do two of these a year, or more, but I think it would become such an imposition on our time that we'd burn ourselves out.
Exactly. I brought this up since I do game shows, and I've done two a year. I'd just recover from one and think 'Man, I have to do another one in two months!, Ugh."...
Well part of it is, all of us have very demanding jobs. The youngest of us is 26, we're all getting towards the peak of our careers. We have nice jobs, we have very demanding schedules. I'm getting married in a month. So we're all sitting here with these busy schedules, and I think if I asked these guys to do another one of these, they'd probably strap me to the side of a white whale and I'd just disappear over the horizon as Mr. Christian sailed the ship into the distance.
Thanks for the time and can't wait to see what comes around next year.