If mantis shrimp could understand the documentaries about them, no tv presenter would be safe.
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Photo by Roy L. Caldwell, PD-USGOV.
If mantis shrimp could understand the documentaries about them, no tv presenter would be safe.

RiffTrax Roasts NatGeo TV

Tonight, three stars from the classic comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000 are going to do something I never thought possible – they’re going to make terrible natural history television watchable.

In celebration of April Fools’ Day, the National Geographic Channel has offered up some of their shows to the fearsome riffing abilities of Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. Just think of the trio as comedic Deinonychus, pinning down prey with jokes instead of switchblade-like claws. (No apologies for any nightmares induced by that last sentence.)

I was ecstatic when I heard the news. My Saturday mornings weren’t complete without watching these guys punch up b-movie cheese like The Blood Waters of Dr. Z and Track of the Moon Beast, and I’ve avidly followed the trio as they’ve joked their way through modern Hollywood sludge like Transformers and Twilight at RiffTrax. And given that Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett have already warmed up with shorts on baby moose and the reproductive lives of pigs – I still can’t hear the word “parturition” without letting out a brief scream – I couldn’t wait to watch their take at some of the National Geographic Channel’s less-than-stellar recent programming.

I’ve only been able to see a small sample of what’s going to air tonight – a mixtape featuring everything from venomous snails to dogs who can’t stop eating underwear – but the Total Riff Off will leave MST3K and RiffTrax fans in stitches. (In a good way. Not in an ill-advised bar fight kind of way.) That’s because the National Geographic Channel clips make it easy for Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett.

The shows featured tonight aren’t classic National Geographic fare, but newer entries that run the mind-numbing range of sensationalist to inane. All the riffers have to do is point out the obvious absurdities, over-the-top presenters, and strange reenactments. I don’t think anyone – anyone – needed to see a program about a hyper little canine with lingerie stuck in her anus, much less detailed reenactments of the pooch’s visit to the vet in order to solve the mystery of “What’s in my dog’s butt now?” Also: please, please don’t ever let that become a show.

In fact, I’m a little surprised that the National Geographic Channel cleared this special event. I truly hope that it’s because they’re aware of how their programming has contributed to intense dumbing down of science and nature television, a trend underscored this week when the hyped Nazi War Diggers got canceled before airing because of serious ethical concerns raised by professional archaeologists. The channel’s programmers really should be laughing along as the RiffTrax crew skewer the overwrought description of “badass” animals and the absurdly monstrous depiction of vampire bats, saying to themselves “Wow, yeah, we’re not going to do that again.”

I hope Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett can do even more of these shows. There’s no better way to highlight how gonzo “science” television has become, with the added benefit that the hilarious commentary is as sharply-honed as a cone snail’s harpoon. Not that I’d wish endless episodes of Showdown of the Unbeatables or Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout? on anyone, though. There’s only so much punishment even experienced riffers can take.

The RiffTrax Total Riff Off airs tonight.