I don’t think anything would break my heart as much as finding out that the production of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs was some slick, polished affair, infested with exacting stylists, fussy handlers, and other glossy signifiers of “big-time production.” Anyone who’s seen and loved the show wants to believe that it just organically crops up from the earth, a naturally-occurring event at which Shudder’s cameras happen to be pointed.
And while the series which returned the man to his pulpit and to our screens in 2018 doesn’t quite do THAT, this week’s visit to the set was a reassuring confirmation that Joe Bob and the small army of mutants dedicated to bringing you his show do indeed walk the walk. Before you even step on set, it’s evident right there at the craft services table - no non-GMO veggies, no quinoa-based material masquerading as something more fun to eat – just proper SNACKS, chips and treats and delicious empty carbs in primary color packaging befitting a drive-in double feature. It’s a good sign. I pop a Fun Size Hershey’s in my mouth and step into the darkened filming space.
The northern New Jersey studio – The Last Drive-In’s home since the start of COVID – houses a handful of permanent sets, the kind which would see frequent use from local commercial shoots, PSAs, cooking shows, etc. So it’s a fun bit of cognitive dissonance to see Joe Bob’s non-traveling circus hermit crab its way into the homey, docile space. What looks like a working kitchen (the fridge is in fact stocked) houses the show’s video village, where crew members observe the action on monitors and make notes. A second-floor sports bar/mancave-type room is where the production eats lunch. A cozy living room that you’ve definitely seen on TV before hosts a producer tapping on a laptop, oblivious to the sight one foot away of Diana Prince (aka Darcy the Mail Girl) being strapped into her form-fitting cosplay for the episode.
Ernie the Bearded Dragon is right where one expects him to be, unbothered and very zen.
The whole building has a pretty chill vibe, unsurprising given that the machine has been humming along for four years and a hundred movies now. But as executive producer Matt Manjourides explains, this iteration of Joe Bob tipping beer and spilling wisdom began to gestate much earlier than 2018. “The idea for The Last Drive-In actually happened over 12 years ago. MonsterVision (Briggs’ long-running TNT series) had been off the air for 10 years. I emailed JB and took him to lunch at the UNO's that used to be in the Village. We talked about a show and what it could be, but nothing ever came of it because at the time there really was no outlet for a show like his. 10 years later when Shudder first came around, I managed to meet Sam Zimmerman at Fantasia, I pitched him the idea and within two months we were in development.”
Soon Manjourides, Justin Martell (his producing partner at production company Not the Funeral Home), and director Austin Jennings were in a tiny studio (borrowed from Ink Master) in Newark, and cameras rolled on what Briggs was declaring “the last time I’ll ever do this.” The production knew immediately they needed Briggs to reconsider that claim. “Sitting there watching on monitor as Joe Bob just dove right into the show like it hadn't been almost 20 years since he did it last,” Manjourides remembers. “That's when everyone knew we had something.”
The rest is internet-breaking history, as The Last Drive-In set unrivaled viewership records for Shudder, and Briggs & Co. were tasked with making The Last Drive-In more than a popular one-off. They’ve spent the past four years doing just that, with series, specials, charity telethons and live events that have seen the Joe Bob brand become bigger than it’s ever been. Jennings is not surprised. “I had faith that Joe Bob and the new show would find its audience, because I WAS the target audience. It was something I’d been wanting to see since I was fifteen and TNT stopped running MonsterVision – and I knew I wasn’t the only one. Even if I didn’t MAKE the show, it’d still be appointment television for me.”
Joe Bob Briggs is standing in the hallway, dressed in a powdered wig, breeches, knee socks, and a pink taffeta satin frock coat. Speechless, I turn to wardrobe supervisor Jolene Richardson with a bit of a “WTF” expression. She explains this is very much tied into this week’s double feature of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre. "Joe Bob and Darcy have chosen to represent what each guest was asked to wear to the premiere of Nosferatu in 1922, following the traditional Biedermeier aesthetic. The film was set in the Biedermeier period in Germany, a time of simplicity and religious piety, which was in stark contrast to the German Expressionism cinema of the 1920s. Even 100 years ago moviegoers loved a good cosplay!" Hey, fair enough, though it must be said that Briggs has gone a bit… interpretive with his look, adding his trademark bolo tie and what Darcy deems “pimp shoes.”
Off to the side, musical director/production manager John Brennan stands in a blousy shirt and short pants, holding a violin. I don’t ask.
Briggs presents a little differently in private than on camera, and not just because he at the moment looks like some sort of deranged Mozart. He speaks with a writer’s contemplation – not hesitantly, but with the mindfulness of a man who’s spent decades choosing just the right words in print and on screen. We chat about this season, and about four years of doing something he initially thought was a one-and-done. Is this still fun?
He assures me it is. “What excites me after a hundred films is still the films themselves – every one of them is a deep dive into a particular part of our shared cultural history. Sometimes I think films preserve our history better than historians do,” Briggs says. And the whores-and-old-buildings type of respectability some of these titles have attained is a source of amusement for the host. “It still amazes me that films considered trash when I first reviewed them are now revered by college professors. It makes you think we don't understand ourselves.”
No trash on the menu tonight, however. In presenting the Nosferatwo-fer, the taping is a first for the show in several ways: the 1922 classic is the first silent film Briggs has ever presented; it’s the first “original + remake” double feature under the production’s belt; and judging from fan reactions online, it’s the first time much of The Last Drive-In’s audience has ever seen either film.
It’s an exciting indoctrination for those folks (and the HD transfers obtained by Shudder’s Sam Zimmerman present these films looking better than they ever have), but for fans who've seen these films already, the breaks are the real treat, as Briggs can sometimes veer into wildly unexpected but relevant context, providing scholarly cultural and historical perspective that threatens to betray his good ol’ boy veneer. “My approach to what I say in the breaks is intuitive,” he says. “Sometimes we talk about the filmmakers… sometimes the production history creates a narrative. Some of the better movies are analyzed in a traditional way, looking at the semiotics.”
Shudder has wisely picked up on that value, and now offers a “Just Joe Bob” option for many titles, providing viewers with all the on-set insight and fun without having to ingest the full three-hour episode. That viewers would ever tune in JUST for his segments was initially a surprise to Briggs, but something the show now leans into.
“The show has grown and evolved toward longer, denser commentary. This is something I resisted at first – nobody wants to listen to a droning film critic – but the hunger for context is seemingly unlimited,” he observes. “When fans exist who can name the sixth-billed victim in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives by both character name and actor name, there's obviously something going on.” These walking Wikipedia pages among fandom keep Briggs on his toes. “This is another thing that has reversed entirely since I started reviewing. The traditional wisdom was that you never let the public peek behind the camera – it destroys the 'movie magic' – but today you're expected to reveal every magician's trick and every decision made by the studio, the producer, and the special effects makeup artist. You have to treat every audience member like a filmmaker.”
Nothing delights fanbases more than feeling “seen” in 2022, and the Joe Bob crew have channeled their “mutant fam” community into a loyal audience, a powerful social media presence, as well as an engine for robust live events. This year sees not only a rolling roadshow of screenings from the host, but will mark the second “Joe Bob’s Jamboree,” a multi-day fest full of screenings, guest speakers and performances. “It sort of combines all my passions in one place,” Briggs says. “And one of the great things about it is that the fans don't necessarily show up for the programming – although I try to make the programming first rate – they show up to meet one another.”
Briggs says this year’s Jamboree promises something Last Drive-In fans (and Darcy) have long clamored for. “It’s at the Malco Summer Drive-In in Memphis, and we've added an indoor fan convention to the mix. Friday night is me being forced to re-watch Halloween III under the judgmental eyes of Darcy, Tom Atkins, Stacy Nelkin and Tommy Lee Wallace – it's four against one – and then Saturday night is the regular Last Drive-In format, two features with guests. We also have celebrity musical acts in the lead-up to the show.” In addition, Jonah Ray Rodrigues (Mystery Science Theater 3000) will be presenting the cinematic bane of Briggs’ existence, the Joe Bob-co-starring Hogzilla. But lest anyone think it’s just old titles being screened, Briggs and his team have added an indie film fest to the proceedings. “Sunday night is the World Drive-In Movie Festival, where we show the 12 winning films on the big outdoor screen and award the Hubbie (engraved on a Chevy hubcap). Films entered in the festival are required to be made outside the traditional financing systems of L.A., New York and London.”
Back in the studio, Darcy is swapping outfits for the evening’s second feature, serving her best Isabelle Adjani. Briggs is on fire tonight, taking his audience to school with an expansive yet accessible rundown of nothing less than the history of German cinema and Werner Herzog's reclamation of its legacy. Director Jennings casually walks from camera to camera, gently indicating which lens Briggs should be directing his missives and leading the crew in a chorus of offscreen chuckles. “I always encourage the crew to never let a good laugh go to waste. I’m all about the seams of the show – at least, certain ones – hanging loose on the periphery,” Jennings says. It’s a comfort level that, on a modestly-budgeted television production, can’t be forced or faked and, according to Jennings, “it happened naturally, for both me and Joe Bob. We’ve learned to rely on each other’s strengths, which is a nice way of saying that we both fumble awkwardly towards our creative goals until we need an assist from one another. I think that kind of improvised teamwork, between us and the whole crew, is tangible in the final product, and is in fact a pretty important element. We prepare as much as possible, of course, but once we’re rolling, we tend to look at any hiccups in the process as fodder for a joke.”
One might think a hundred such tapings would start to bleed together, but the crew does have favorites. “I’m particularly proud of the SOV night with Things and Sledgehammer, which happens to be the single most-watched episode of the entire show,” Manjourides shares. When asked where he wants the show to go from here, Manjourides has an instant guest wishlist in his back pocket: “John Carpenter, Stephen King, Chuck Norris and Dario Argento.”
But mostly the producer is focused on maintaining the show’s proven recipe. “We want to keep the fans happy, which always means bringing it back to just Joe Bob in the chair, giving you the drive-in totals. That's the heart and soul of the show,” Manjourides says. “You need that Shakespearean fool to come in and bring everyone back down to reality and explain things on a level that everyone can get.” Director Jennings thinks they’ve perfected the recipe. “There’s a sweet spot, I think, and the Platonic ideal is 90% the core Joe Bob experience – a man, a chair, a beer, a movie, and twenty-too-many-words to describe a gothic castle or zombie outbreak – and the remaining 10% are subversions of that format to keep things fresh and exciting.”
This particular episode’s 10% of subversion includes a note-perfect send-up of a Herzog film, with Briggs and Darcy staring off contemplatively as stock footage of the universe, nature, beer, and a younger Joe Bob collide on screen while Jennings’ Herzog impression intones flat existential observations. Jennings, who not only directs the show but writes these bits with Briggs and oversees the edits of such sequences, says “we want The Last Drive-In to be a show you can always expect certain qualities from, a certain familiar experience of shared, communal cinema, but also get totally blindsided by the way we contextualize a film or use it as a fulcrum for a more esoteric gag.”
As out there as the skits and bits can get, everyone on the crew credits the movies themselves as the core appeal. I wonder out loud if the whole reason there’s a community of fans around The Last Drive-In is some kind of instinctual, collective certainty that there’s a person picking these films and guiding this experience. In an era when algorithms increasingly dictate audience expectations and taste, deciding what hits and what gets buried, there’s something comforting and maybe even essential about the village elder (sorry, JB) gathering everyone around the fire and telling a story. Does Briggs agree?
Sort of. “I think what's going on with streaming is that we're discovering that films are not books. You can't simply deliver it to the viewer. Film is by its nature interactive – it evolves from the theater, not the printing press. And because of that, the streaming experience is incomplete.” Briggs looks down the road and sees a fork coming. “We're going to end up with a bifurcated film industry. The studios (what's left of them) and the streaming services will be releasing the equivalent of Las Vegas casino shows – those spectacles that have an extremely simple narrative, easily identifiable icons, and don't require you to know any particular language – because those will be very streamable. You can watch those on an airplane with the sound off and they'll still make sense,” he predicts. “The other part of the industry will be films that tell stories, and when you tell stories, people have to discuss the stories. They have to watch as part of a group. For the kinds of movies I promote, streaming without curation will always be unsatisfying. And actually we know that, when people discover interesting narrative films online, they either find curators or they invent their own in the form of watchalongs, discussion groups, etc. Content is not enough. There's a human need to applaud, criticize, discuss, and relate the work of art to other works of art and to one another. The algorithm won't be able to provide the community for that.”
If that sounds like something special, consider the fact that there’s essentially one person on the planet doing it at the moment on any sort of global scale. Beyond the communal Friday night watchalongs, touring shows and convention appearances, The Last Drive-In represents the calling of a man that might have no analogue in this space. Curator, critic, horror host, essayist, evangelist… no one label seems sufficient for the show’s master of ceremonies. A redneck unicorn on a singular quest.
As essentially the co-navigator of Joe Bob’s ongoing mission, director Jennings says Briggs doesn’t like to think about such things, but self-reflection can show up in unexpected places. “One memory that has really stayed with me was the rehearsal right before we shot the Season 2 finale – Hell Comes to Frogtown. The bit we’d come up with was for him to sing a throaty blues song about – well, Frogtown – and he’d then segue into a kind of meta-recitation of the show’s theme song at half-tempo. But when sung BY him, in the context of a farewell, it took on a different, more complicated, meaning. Would Joe Bob ever be 'back in town'? Does his voice believe he’s 'the world’s greatest host'? It’s the kind of thing that only makes sense given the show’s format and his history as a writer and performer.
“So we’re rehearsing this thing in his dressing room, John Brennan playing acoustic guitar, and Joe Bob’s singing softly, reading the lyrics from his phone. As I’d hoped he would, he starts discovering as we’re rehearsing how each line would hit, and noticing how it hit HIM. It was uniquely sad and beautiful. I’ve got it saved on my phone as a video, and kinda revisit from time to time, to make sure I didn’t just dream it,” Jennings adds. “But I think that moment captures one of the unique things about Joe Bob (and his sometimes-alias John Bloom), which is how he generally doesn’t value introspection about the character. It’s a job he’s done forever. He writes a sentence, performs it, and it returns back to the universe from where he plucked it. But this means he can find himself in these completely real, sincere moments of self-realization IN character, sometimes while on camera, and for a moment he’s both men at once. It’s unlike anything else.”
Back on set, Joe Bob is wrapping up his presentation of Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, remarking on the final shot of Bruno Ganz’ Harker riding a horse toward the horizon “on an errand into infinity.” Four years after sitting down “for the last time,” Joe Bob’s own task seems similarly endless, or at least – thankfully – indefinite.