That sense of bad kids laughing and lobbing verbal balloons from the back of the classroom permeates the educational films assembled on Rifftrax Shorts Volume 2. The nine shorts (totaling nearly two hours) run the gambit of expected topics, from safety to hygiene to manners to social interaction, and they represent some of the strongest material that the Mystery Science Theater alums have yet produced; while some of the Rifftrax commentaries have been hit and miss, these shorts hold their own (along with some of their better features, like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 From Outer Space) against the best episodes of MST3K. (For a more detailed examination of the progression from MST to Rifftrax to the 10 stand-alone Rifftrax DVDs being released this month, see my Reefer Madness review.)
The collection gets off to a strong (if peculiar) start with “One Got Fat,” a truly strange bicycle safety short where a group of kids, made up with creepy ape faces and tails (“a bicycle safety film where apes evolve from man?”) , take a bike trip for a picnic and are, well, presumably killed along the way for various infractions of bicycling rules. The riffing is strong in this weird, weird, weird short; Bill Corbett refers to the goofy narrator as “fractured fairy tale guy,” there’s a good running joke about Kevin’s insistence on multiple poo-throwing jokes, and when the film arrives at its morbid conclusion, Mike (correctly) sums it ups with the thesis, “Remember, safe bicycling leads to morbid obesity.”
The next film (from Coronet’s “Beginning Responsibility” series) is “Lunchroom Manners,” in which a group of school kids view a Punch-and-Judy-style puppet show and allow its vulgarian villain, “Mr. Bungle,” to make them thoroughly paranoid about their hygiene and behavior at lunchtime. The stifling conformity encouraged by these kinds of shorts always provides fertile comedic fodder for the crew, and this short provides many instances of what Murphy described to me as shorts being “the perfect straight men,” because their narrators will solemnly intone their points and then leave long pauses for the guys to crack wise. That same kind of rhythm is present in the next film, “Every Child Is Different”—at one point, the narrator notes, “Dad knows his son has trouble reading,” and their response is, “His co-workers remind him every day.” This short, presumably geared towards teachers (it’s hard to tell) is an epic (over 15 minutes) tale of five kids in a classroom and the (mostly depressing) lives that they lead outside of school. Favorite riff here: “Ruth’s classmates voted her Most Likely to Inspire the Book Carrie.”
The befuddling “Why Doesn’t Cathy Eat Breakfast?” has been a favorite of mine since its appearance on one of those "Educational Archives” DVDs; they get some good one-liners off (some by giving voice to young Cathy), and can’t make any more sense out of its non-conclusion than I could (Mike protests, “No Country for Old Men had better closure!”). “Cathy” is paired with the equally perplexing “Petaluma Chicken,” a film so strange (“I see they’re following David Lynch’s omlet recipe”) and ineptly assembled (the chunky sound cuts cause them to surmise that it was “edited by Rosemary Woods”), so odd and nonsensical, that it becomes one of their funniest achievements.
In “Act Your Age (Emotional Maturity),” a young man commits the unpardonable sin of carving his initials into his desk (“Sorry, son, we’re going to have to hang you”); the short then explores the idea of shaming young people into maturity. Some good throwaway laughs here (Narrator: “You’ve seen the girl who always has to win an argument…” Bill: “Tucker Carlson?”), though it does highlight the crew’s occasional tendency to ride a weak joke too hard (there’s way too many lines about the principal’s mustache). Without question, the goofiest short of the bunch is “Safety: Harm Hides At Home,” in which a crossing guard/“free-lance architect” (kudos for the Art Vandelay reference) is made into a lame, Mylar-suited superhero (“Guardiana, the Safety Woman”) by aliens. Yes, you read that right. Enjoy the odd editing (“Did you enjoy the poster I beamed into your mind, Miss Kingsley?”), the strange writing, and the peculiar characterizations (“She’s like a browbeating, joyless Santa Claus”).
“Coffee House Rendezvous” is some kind of a low-budget documentary about coffee-house culture, which provides the opportunity for merciless send-ups from the guys; they mock the bad musicians and square sixties look of the groups (dubbing one The Charles Grodin Trio), while coming to the conclusion that “If this is what coffee does to people, I’m glad this generation discovered acid.” Shorts that advise the youth on how to interact with each other are always a hoot, and “Are You Popular?” is no exception; of the title, Mike notes, “The answer, if you’re watching this film, is no.” As with many of these films, the teens are played by hopelessly over-aged actors (“I’m 47, I’ve pretty much done it all”); the best part comes at the end, as they provide play-by-play for the film’s dramatization of a particularly goofy date. The final short, “Good Health Practices,” is a particularly detailed health and hygiene short. I might complain about the amount of gross-out humor in this one, but the short brings it on itself; in addition to “good eating practices,” “good cleaning practices,” and “good rest practices,” the jive narration includes multiple references to, God help us, “good toilet practices.” So all bets are off at that point.
Rifftrax Shorts Volume 2 offers plenty of big laughs and the chance to watch Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett doing what they do best—unsparing mocking of really terrible films, replete with smart-ass humor and countless pop culture references. The uneven quality of the video transfer is disappointing, but that blemish is minor when weighed against the pleasures to be found here.
"Rifftrax Shorts Volume 2," and several other Rifftrax DVDs, hit shelves on Tuesday, June 16th.