Everyone knows talking in a movie theater is totally obnoxious. We go to the movies to get lost in a good story, not to listen to some rude d-bag yapping at the screen like these guys, right? That’s usually the idea. But with ticket sales declining in the past few years, some theater owners have discovered that sometimes letting people yell at the movie screen might actually not be such a terrible idea—and in some cases, might even enhance the experience. “I’m always cracking jokes when I watch movies, either with friends or alone, so why not do both with an audience?” says comedian Doug Benson (left), who hosts regular Movie Interruption screenings in which he and a handful of fellow comics lob jokes and put-downs at the screen while a movie is playing. “It makes it more fun for them and me, I hope.”
Around the country, officially sanctioned movie heckling is on the rise—and in the latest issue of EW, we look at this increasingly popular phenomenon. In addition to Benson’s Movie Interruptions (which have featured guests like Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, and Ed Helms), the comedy troupe Master Pancake Theater puts on a live movie-riffing show at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, and Atlanta has a similar group called Cineprov. Original cast members of the cult TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000—which pioneered the art of movie riffing more than 20 years ago—are touring the country with a live movie-mocking show called Cinematic Titanic. And for people who want to get in on the action themselves, some theaters have even started offering special HeckleVision screenings, in which audience members can text their own jokes straight from their phones directly onto the screen, Pop Up Video style. “I feel like everybody has that kind of muscle,” says MST3K co-founder Joel Hodgson. “I think it comes from most of us growing up in front of a TV. One day you just snap and go, ‘Hey, I can say stuff back—and it feels really good!’ “
Needless to say, unless you enjoy incurring the wrath of your fellow moviegoers and getting booted from the theater, heckling should be restricted to special events where it’s permitted—and is best left to the professionals. But for anyone interested in movie-mocking outside of the privacy of their own living rooms, here are a few principles:
1. Some movies are more riff-ready than others. “Comedies don’t work—it’s not as good to joke about jokes,” says Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse. “Usually the best [movies to heckle] are ones that take themselves very seriously yet have either some air of unintended comedy or tragedy to them.” Cinematic Titanic runs old grade-Z shlockfests like War of the Insects and The Oozing Skull, while Benson favors more recent horror and action films (this week, he’s hosting an Interruption of Battleship) and the Twilight series is a particular specialty of Master Pancake Theater.
2. Try not to drown out the movie’s dialogue. “I like the movie to get a chance to play on its own terms,” says Benson. “I want the audience to understand what’s going on, even if it’s a crappy movie. Sometimes we’ll go five or ten minutes at a stretch, not jumping in with anything, because the movie is actually entertaining without our help.”
3. Plan ahead. Unless you’re a master improviser, timing your riffs exactly right takes a lot of preparation. “I think it’s like music,” says Hodgson. “You’ve got to write it out and arrange it.”
4. If possible, have beer on hand. “For me, there’s nothing better than sitting with a group of 180 folks in a sold-out theater with booze, doing jokes and getting that communal response,” says Master Pancake’s John Erler. “That’s where the magic comes from.”
5. Brevity is the soul of wit. One of the best heckles Benson ever heard consisted of just two words: “When I did the movie Road House last January, Patrick Swayze walked into a scene wearing what looked like a karate shirt tucked into jeans. Comedian Jonah Ray said two words that brought the house down: ‘Karate casual.’ “