When riffers take over, every movie becomes comedy

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Scenes of Tom Cruise filled the big screen, but the moviegoers packed inside a Missouri theater focused their attention on the action playing out away from the film: Three local actors and comics cracking jokes about the star’s height, his fervent belief in Scientology and some of his cinematic shortcomings.

When it comes to movie theater etiquette, talking back to the screen is right up there with glowing and ringing cellphones and crying babies as no-nos. But now, some comedy crews inspired by the 1990s cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” are making the heckles acceptable — provided the movie is cringeworthy and the jokes nonstop.

The focus of the jokes at Kansas City’s Screenland Slams on this particular Saturday night was Mr. Cruise’s turn in 1985’s “Legend,” a Ridley Scott-directed romantic fantasy starring a young Mr. Cruise as a forest dweller battling the Lord of Darkness and his goblin henchmen.

“It’s one of those movies that have really high aspirations. And there are some things in it that are great — it has really great cinematography,” said Tom Lancaster, founder of the Kansas City comedy troupe. “But at the end of a day, it’s about a unicorn. It’s like it was made by a 7-year-old girl. So that’s perfect.”

More than a decade after the cancellation of the smart-alecky “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” a generation of “Misties” weaned on the show is embracing its movie-riffing plot and taking it to theaters, comedy clubs and even sports arenas. The show’s creator and original host Joel Hodgson, along with other former writers and cast members, tours theaters with the popular live show “Cinematic Titanic,” firing jokes as schlocky horror and sci-fi movies play in the background.

Another group of “Mystery Science Theater” alums, the San Diego-based RiffTrax, performs its own live shows that are simulcast at multiplexes nationwide, including a Thursday night show of the not-so-classic horror film “Manos: The Hands of Fate.” The RiffTrax collective also creates online audio commentaries that can be purchased, sans movie, but played back at the user’s convenience in perfect sync with the flick.

Comedy clubs and cinemas from Kansas City to Los Angeles and Seattle host their own sanctioned shoutfests, starring performers both well-known (stand-up comic Doug Benson’s Movie Interruption at a Hollywood theater) and obscure (Kansas City has two movie-riff comedy troupes).

Audience participation also is valued: Theaters in Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, now offer Hecklevision, in which audience members are encouraged to send text messages on their cellphones while their jokes flash on the screen.

“It’s very peculiar, but something has changed,” said Mr. Hodgson, who created “Mystery Science Theater” in 1988 at a local UHF TV station in Minnesota before it was picked up by the Comedy Channel, which later became Comedy Central.

“People have accepted it as its own comedic art form,” he added. “It’s one of the things on the menu if you want to be funny.”

That wasn’t the case early on for Mr. Hodgson, a former stand-up comic from Wisconsin whose early-career sabbatical as a toy and prop designer led to the creation of the robot puppets that became central to his show’s plot. The puppets were held captive on a spaceship along with their human pal and forced to endure excruciatingly bad B-movies.

The plot allowed the “Mystery Science Theater” crew to riff away on forgettable films such as “Teenage Cave Man” and “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.”

The show and other Hodgson projects use scripted jokes, while crews such as Mr. Lancaster’s Kansas City troupe are more improvisational in their movie riff performances.

Fans of the comedic form can buy riff videos on demand from RiffTrax. Customers also can make and sell own commentaries via iRiffs.

“I always thought it could adapt and go on to other things,” said RiffTrax’s Michael J. Nelson, a former “Mystery Science Theater” writer who succeeded Mr. Hodgson as the show’s host.

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