A Conversation With Tammy Golden, Movie Riffer Extraordinaire

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Hello dear friends! I hope you’re all doing well. Today I’d like to bring you an introduction to one of the people behind the scenes of MST3K who make things so dang funny.

I first met Tammy Golden on set during production for season 11 of MST3K back in 2016, and I feel fully qualified to note that she is an absolute delight of a human being, not to mention one of MST3K’s most prolific writers. We talked about the excitement of getting to work on the show, as well as the ways in which movie riffing is its own unique form of writing, and what kind of movie makes the best MST3K episode.

Lesley: Tell me about how you got started writing for MST3K. 

Tammy: I was a huge fan from the early days of MST3K and always thought, man, THAT’S the dream job. But as far as getting the gig, it kinda started in 2000. Yes, it took me nearly 20 years to get this job. At the time I was a comedy producer in NYC, and decided to attempt an MST3K cast reunion. I was sure Joel wouldn’t do it. He didn’t do these sorts of things. When he said yes, it felt like getting J.D. Salinger. It was a great evening, fans came from all over. After the show, Joel told me “you know, I might want to do something like this again.” I like to think the event kinda sparked something in him, seeing how much MST still meant to people. Who knows? I could ask him, but why deny myself a little mystery in this life?

The lovely and talented Tammy Golden.

Anyway, fast-forward nearly 20 years. When the reboot started up, Patton Oswalt, who knew my love of sci-fi, puns, and too-vintage pop-culture references, championed me to write on it. Finally, my sensibilities could be a feature, not a bug. He pitched me to Joel, not knowing I’d worked with Joel before, so it was a nice concurrence. Jonah is also an old friend (he used to call me his Fake Manager in his early standup days. Still owes me 20% fake commission). It was great to have familiar faces around from the start. Writing the reboot was daunting. We’re all superfans, and getting it right meant everything. When critics and original fans gave it their seal of approval, that was a gigantic relief. And hearing that the old fans were now introducing it to their own kids was especially gratifying. And yes, it was every bit the dream job that I’d thought it would be.

I love this story! I didn’t know you’d worked with Joel in the long ago.

What’s your riff-writing process? Do you self-edit a lot, or does everything you think of go on the page? Do you watch the film straight through a few times, do you work in more methodical chunks, does a benevolent spirit possess your body and guide you to ever higher levels of comedy?

Tammy: Elliot Kalan (the best head writer ever) generally tried to keep us writing 15-20 minute chunks every day to keep the process streamlined and not melt our brains. Although they were short sections, it meant watching that same 15-20 minutes repeatedly for hours, just to see what knocked loose after the umpteenth viewing. It really was a case of throwing absolutely everything at the wall to see what would stick. We all wrote literally hundreds of jokes per movie, and it was always fun to see how differently everyone’s mind worked, even though we were all looking at exactly the same thing. 

Elliot, Jonah, Joel and you had the unenviable task of filtering everyone’s lines to see which ones worked best and what fit in the limited time between dialogue. Or vast time between dialogue — you get those older films where the scene consists of a guy walking down an entire hallway, or dialing a full number on a rotary phone because editors didn’t think we’d grok how one event led to the next otherwise. 

The first time I watch a movie, whether it’s a section or the whole enchilada, I just plow through in a frenzy, typing absolutely everything that pops into my mind. Nothing’s too stupid or surreal. No editing or filters. Then I incubate for a little, and I watch again with my trigger finger on the pause button to focus on the timing of the jokes, sometimes rewinding the same 3 seconds again and again and again before editing down. Saying the lines out loud helps. I know every single frame of these films now, the way some people know The Godfather. 

Little known fact: for season 11, Elliot and Jonah chose and edited the riffs for half the episodes, and for the other half, I did this task with Joel, who calls it “riff producing.” And it’s exactly what you describe, going over a joke repeatedly, saying it out loud in different ways, trying to make it work, for HOURS. 

I did this on top of writing in the usual way and yeah, I know so many minute details of these films now, stuff you’d never notice on a regular viewing. I have particularly vivid memories of riff producing on “Cry Wilderness” and finishing a four hour stretch in which Joel and I had gotten through seven minutes of film and literally feeling like I was going to cry from the exhaustion of it. This is not a complaint! I absolutely loved doing it. But some days it really felt like the movie was trying to hurt you. Avalanche was like that too. When I watch these episodes now, I’m always stunned at how short the movies seem when watched at regular speed!

We both wrote on the two new shorts currently in production — was this a different experience for you than writing on the movies of The Return and The Gauntlet? I feel like there is an earnestness to these kinds of short films that you don’t find as much in the movies we’ve done, and it’s an interesting dynamic to write around.

It’s fun writing in the voice of those chipper narrators, in that tone of voice that implies that nothing has or ever will go wrong. And unlike the feature films we do, which are generally one guy’s really weird idea that somehow got filmed, these 1950s shorts actually show snippets of a bygone era that we now find horrifying or laughable. It’s baffling that anyone thought these “educational” films could be of practical use to anyone. I suspect the production of these films was actually a money laundering scheme.  

Agreed. These shorts tend to portray a strangely poreless world of benign adults and well behaved children that probably never actually existed. I find them really dark!

Which film, of the whole reboot catalog so far, was the hardest to write riffs for?

Oof. The hardest film, for me, was CARNIVAL MAGIC. It was inherently just so sad and grimy. The film didn’t even know what it was. Talking animal comedy? Coming-of-age love story? Mysterious-drifter-with-a-tragic-backstory drama? Chimp-centric Sling Blade? It was all and therefore none of these. Plus it had this sleazy vibe throughout, like at any moment it might just turn into porn. Even the scientist’s lab was clearly a cheap hotel room, complete with dresser. You know, a science dresser. It felt like a sort of time-share set: the moment the CARNIVAL MAGIC film crew finished for the day, a porn film crew showed up to start their filming day. It was a squirmy shudderfest of awkwardness and discomfort. The only way to get through Carnival Magic riffing was to get into a Stockholm Syndrome mindset. You should hate the film, but you must learn to love the film! Make friends with it!  

What makes a film eminently riffable, in your experience? For example, I know some folks love the queasiness of a Carnival Magic type film, but I’m more partial to try-hards like Wizards of the Lost Kingdom or Mac and Me. Does a movie have to take itself seriously to be riffed on?

I actually really enjoyed riffing AVALANCHE. It had all the ingredients of a good disaster film, a-la THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, with a decent budget, big names in the cast like Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow — but they forgot one thing, which was not to make it suck. Just pure hubris. When “WE’VE GOT A MAJOR BLOCKBUSTER ON OUR HANDS!” meets the Icarus factor of “OH NO YOU DON’T,” that’s always fun. It was strange watching actors who’ve proven that they can knock it out of the park just barely phone it in.

I wasn’t as big on MAC & ME, simply because it’s a known factor. I preferred the uncharted territory. I especially loved working on the dubbed stuff  — REPTILICUS (Denmark) and YONGARY (South Korea), because you’re not only dealing with a bad film, you’re dealing with a bad film from a completely different culture. Bad is bad, but getting to play with another culture’s sense of worldview, politics, pacing, plot, fashion, comedy — that’s a whole new universe of riffing potential. Oh god, I just thought of a line NOW that I wished I’d written for the Reptilicus action scenes: “I-KE-A!” Like, “HI-KEEBA,” but…you know..Scandanavian…ugh. You know what? Forget it. Just forget it. I SAID FORGET IT. 

This is the obvious question, but it’s one everyone always wants to ask—what movie would you LOVE to see MST3K riff on? The more unlikely the better.

I think it’s time we took on the Merchant Ivory catalogue. Slow moving, so much silence between dialogue to get in plenty of riffs, and they’re such serious art films. An absolute goldmine of opportunity. So I say we start with THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. Let’s bring a little sunshine into that bleak, stifled world!

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