Apr 27, 2018
The Best of RiffTrax Shorts, Volume 1 (2009)
SUMMARY: Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett take aim at nine of those educational shorts we all remember from school, when the teacher just wanted a few minutes of peace.
One of the best aspects of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was that they used to regularly throw a short film in front of their main feature. These were often even funnier than the riffing done on the movie itself, and thankfully, the RiffTrax guys have carried the tradition over with two collections that came out last June (as well as a few more that came out in January).
For those of you unfamiliar with RiffTrax, here’s a quick primer. it’s a series of downloadable DVD commentaries from Mike Nelson and assorted others, and those assorted others are usually Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. Some of these commentaries have been collected on DVD, and they’re quite affordable and hilarious. And no, I’m not just doing a RiffTrax article because the Agony Booth has ads for them.
Yep, that’s me. One hundred percent independent, and not willing to shill a product just to get the site a few extra bucks. Well, I do hope this article and further ones inspire folks to seek out RiffTrax and be as entertained as I’ve been, but that’s all a complete coincidence, swear to God.
Oh, who am I kidding? I am a cog in the vast corporate machine that rules us all. Bow down before me and tremble, but not before buying some RiffTrax! Kneel before me and spend! I am the future!
And now, our feature presentation: the nine shorts that make up The Best of RiffTrax Shorts, Volume 1.
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Down and Out! (1971)
Implied message of short: Safety in the workplace is very important.
Actual message of short: Danger is everywhere and you must be extra cautious at all times. Things like intelligence and common sense are unimportant. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
We begin with a short from the National Safety Council, lecturing us on how to avoid workplace injuries. The narrator voices over footage of some poor stuntman (I hope) in a brown jumpsuit as he takes pretty much every single type of fall imaginable. Slipping on things, falling off ladders, tripping over things, this guy really earns his pay.
This short is a prime example of why these shorts are viewed more as hilariously funny than actual useful sources of information. Mike, Kevin, and Bill have a field day lobbing riffs at the overblown nature of the stunts and how the dangers are presented, as well as the oversized props our accident prone friend uses at one point.
On the downside, the short is a bit on the dry side, and repetitive, so the guys really don’t have all that much to work with. My rating: 7/10.
Implied message of short: Anything can be patriotic.
Actual message of short: We just happened to have a shit load of random stock footage lying around collecting dust, and were able to get Bob Crane away from taping himself having sex long enough to do a voiceover to tie it all together as loosely as humanly possible under the title Patriotism. Enjoy!
Next up is a stodgy, ambiguous—Um, I mean, a stirring bit of patriotic encouragement narrated by creepy sex addict—sorry, star of Hogan’s Heroes, Bob Crane. And yes, the riffers have a field day with him, so I don’t have to. Thanks, guys. You’ve made my job a little less icky… sort of.
Onto the short itself. It’s from Oxford Films and is about as vague on what constitutes patriotism as you could possibly imagine. Planting trees can be patriotic, as can pretty much any other positive thing the cameraman was able to get a shot of. Essentially, anything that helps the country be a better place is patriotic.
Or, as the film shows, anything that can be construed as moderately positive is patriotic, even if it’s just setting the table for dinner, washing your hands, letting your friend borrow your baseball glove, or even putting books back on the shelf. Needless to say, this film has a very broad definition of the term.
So, just remember, if you do a courtesy flush so the guy in the next stall doesn’t pass out, according to this short you are performing a beautiful and noble act of patriotism.
The message of the short is fine (as they tend to be), but the narration is just plain goofy, with one passage that I honestly cannot make any sense of. Neither can the riffers for that matter, so I’d guess Bob was a little… distracted during taping. You may take a moment to shudder at the implications of that sentence.
It culminates in a bunch of kids fixing up a fence and giving it new coat of paint. After this, the kids get a guy on the city council to put up a stop sign on a corner, and honestly, this is closer to addressing public safety than anything else. Like I said, the definition of patriotism in this thing is pretty damn broad.
It rambles on for a while longer until finally coming to an end, and all I can say is that the blasting I just gave this short has filled me with a sense of… wanting to knock some more shorts.
It’s a very solid bit of riffing. My rating: 9/10.
Home Management: Buying Food (1950)
Implied message of short: Womenfolk need to learn how to buy food, because we guys just can’t hack it. After all, it is their womanly duty.
Actual message of short: In the ‘50s, it was generally assumed that fully functioning adults with reasonable educations were incapable of doing a simple thing like shopping. So, we made this film to show all you mental defectives how to do it right. Bunch of mouth breathing Neanderthals. You probably don’t like Ike either, you damn commies!
This is a ten minute primer on how to shop efficiently and economically. Don’t ask me why it was thought that adults wouldn’t be able to figure this shit out for themselves, but then we are talking a generation that listened to Pat Boone willingly.
According to this short, impulse buying is to be avoided, and it’s suggested that one should make a list before shopping. The short builds on this even further, by showing us a rather dopey husband who evidently will just pick up anything that looks even remotely edible and shove it in his mouth.
Buying smartly is also discussed, using the most obvious, patronizing terms possible. Mike and the gang have a good time with this, making fun of the blindingly obvious advice the narrator doles out. The only drawback is that the short is rather dull (much like the decade it was produced in), and that does have an effect on the riffing quality. My rating: 7/10.
Skipper Learns a Lesson (1952)
Implied message of short: Racism is bad.
Actual message of short: We felt that was a little too heavy for the kids, so we put in puppies.
This is an oddity, a short from the ‘50s promoting racial tolerance. Of course, being the ‘50s, the short is done in the most white bread, stiff, and affected manner possible. Narration plays out over kids playing, the new kid in town and her apparently virulently racist dog Skipper, other dogs running around barking, and Skipper getting covered in poster paint before he learns his lesson.
Yeah, this was more than likely intended to be shown in an elementary school classroom, where you can dumb down stuff with impunity, but it’s still a goofy as hell way to make your point!
Mike and the guys get in some choice riffs though, having fun at the expense of the kids and their low-key small town idea of a good time (digging in a vacant lot for fun, a sign that you’re a kid in the 1950s). It’s actually quite impressive that the guys can manage to riff as solidly as they do here without diminishing the message the short is imparting. My rating: 9/10.
Right or Wrong? (Making Moral Decisions) (1951)
Implied message of short: Vandalism is bad. So is not thinking about the consequences of your actions. Basically, it’s the “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” principle done up as a tale about a juvenile delinquent.
Actual message of short: Thinking about the consequences of a mistake for a longer period of time than it took you to actually make the mistake can turn you into a dull, boring white man. Either that, or a narrator for an educational short who is probably a dull, boring white man.
Like the short above, this was most likely meant for classrooms, as it tells the story of a kid and his dilemma when his friends vandalize a warehouse and he’s the only one spotted by the night watchman. The decisions of every person involved in the case—from the night watchman at the warehouse, to the kid’s mother who turns him in to the cops, to the cop himself—is scrutinized by the narrator in a manner that would make Jack Webb nod in approval. But the narrator never makes any judgments, since that was what the ensuing classroom discussion was for.
It has an open ending, obviously so the teacher could talk about it with the class afterwards, so there’s an understandable lack of completeness to the piece.
The gang has a good time riffing on this one; shots are taken at everyone and everything imaginable. The riffing on the internal monologues is quite good, as is the ribbing they give the cop. Overall, a solid bit of riffing. My rating: 8/10.
Drugs Are Like That (1979)
Implied message of short: Drugs are bad and have many similarities to other things in the world that are not necessarily drug-related.
Actual message of short: We’re so high we can’t even contemplate reality right now, let alone remember what the point of this thing was. We wrote this while tripping on some amyl nitrate, weed, and enough cocaine to kill a small horse.
Have you ever seen an anti-drug campaign where the people behind it obviously have had no firsthand experience with drugs? Ever wonder what would happen if such a campaign was launched by folks who not only had firsthand experience, but possibly were stoned off their ass while making a short film on the subject? Well, look no further than this horrific short from 1979.
This sixteen minute glimpse into the yawning maw of vague, nonsensical bullshit is from the good folks at the Community Television Foundation of South Florida, Incorporated. It focuses on two remarkably dense kids whose faces are better off unseen (their gene pool was evidently more of a shallow puddle), as they build a highly complex Lego contraption while having a rambling conversation about drugs.
Repetitive questions are asked, horrible comparisons are made, and then we learn that the bad reputation that music from the ‘70s has these days was well and truly earned, when a horrific song by a group called Thy Changing Image (ah, Christian folk, the armpit rash of the music world) is played to scenarios that supposedly impart the short’s message.
In a nutshell (you should thank me for this, because every sentence one kid utters is repeated by the other at least twice before getting to the point), drugs are like the following:
- A baby’s need for a pacifier. Which is the first sign that the people who made this thing were well and truly fucked up in some way, and should probably be sent back to rehab.
- Playing the “step on a crack” game well into your late forties, nearly getting hit by a car, and taking a two-by-four to the throat due to not paying attention, which I think are all signs of severe mental retardation rather than anything related to drug use.
- Playing on a swing before the big baseball game.
- A little kid getting into the cookie jar when she shouldn’t, though the short could really be knocking the kid’s mother, who just stands there tapping her foot in annoyance as her daughter looks up in agony, before no doubt losing consciousness from the massive spinal injury she just suffered, ending up crippled and bitter before getting revenge on her cruel, heartless bitch of a mother by crushing her throat with her wheelchair! Sorry, just had to vent there a bit. I’m fine now, really.
- And finally, diving into a rather refreshing looking stream.
All of these things are given mildly negative connotations in a vague effort to make a point, but it just comes off as remarkably wrongheaded at best, and downright sadistic at worst.
Needless to say, the RiffTrax crew tees off on this short like world champions. I don’t even want to give away anything. Just seek this one out ASAP. My rating: 10/10.
The Trouble with Women (1959)
Implied message of short: Equality in the workplace is important.
Actual message of short: I honestly have no idea. It’s probably the same as the implied message, but given the lean material we’re given, it could be that stodgy white guys should be ignored at all times.
This short is a very basic training film. It’s just six minutes of a really unlikable, woman-hating supervisor being told off by his superior. Mike and Company do what they can, but given the shortish nature of the piece, and the very basic premise, there isn’t a whole lot to work with. Still, they make a fun ride out of it. My rating: 7/10.
It Must Be the Neighbors (1966)
Implied message of short: Keeping our neighborhood clean is everyone’s responsibility.
Actual message of short: Pretty much the same thing, only nowhere near as succinct.
This short is from the Public Health Service, and made at some place called the Communicable Disease Center. It’s a long treatise on proper upkeep of one’s trash cans and yards in order to stave off parasites and disease. The focus is on two sets of neighbors, who are having a disagreement over who’s really to blame for the potential public health emergency the neighborhood is building up to. The kids in the neighborhood end up doing most of the work, and in the end, everybody comes away wiser and less likely to cause the town to be covered up by one of those giant fumigation tents.
The guys have a field day with this one, tossing off barbs at the dads, the kids, and life in the mid-‘60s in general. It’s pretty funny stuff. My rating: 9/10.
Shake Hands with Danger (1970)
Implied message of short: Safety in the workplace is important.
Actual message of short: Country music and people being horribly mangled do not a happy couple make.
This is a rather odd one, not in terms of the short, but in how the riffing is presented. The RiffTrax guys are animated with CG (Mike is himself, Kevin is a bag of popcorn, and Bill is a parrot) and they sit in front of the short as they riff. It’s a strange experiment, and I can see why they only did it once.
As for the short itself, it’s your standard industrial safety film. Construction workers who are too stupid to live are either horribly injured or have close calls, while their co-workers and the narrator note how their sorry fates could have been avoided. This is punctuated with a cheesy country music song performed by the narrator, which bears the same title as the short. Mike and the guys have a good time with this, and it’s well worth the investment. My rating: 8/10.
Overall, this is a great disc to begin the RiffTrax experience with. It’s affordable and packed to the brim with some really funny stuff. And the best thing is that there are plenty more RiffTrax discs where this came from!