The crew of the new MST3K: Jonah Ray (center), Joel Hodgson (second from right)
Joel Hodgson and Jonah Ray on Bringing Back “Mystery Science Theater 3000”
Cult series launches eleventh season on Netflix on April 14
Apr 12, 2017
Few television shows – save for perhaps Doctor Who and Star Trek – have enjoyed as steadfast a cult following as Mystery Science Theater 3000. A charmingly low-budget production about a guy and his robot friends trapped aboard a satellite and forced to watch terrible films, it was the first series to tap into mankind’s natural urge to make fun of cheesy movies. For ten seasons, viewers tuned in to join Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, Joel Hodgson (and later Mike Nelson) as they riffed on some of cinema’s most rank turkeys, from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians to Manos: The Hands of Fate. Debuting at the tail end of the 1980s, the show arrived at a time when the Internet was just coming into its own and led to the appearance of fan-written episode guides, newgroups dedicated to discussing the series, websites selling parts to build your own replica robots at home, and one of the World Wide Web’s earliest (and most heated) flame wars.
Without that dedicated fanbase and their enthusiastic word-of-mouth, it’s unlikely a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 could have survived for as long as it did. It began on a Minneapolis UHF station before being picked up by the HBO-affiliated Comedy Channel in 1989; it survived their transition into Comedy Central before being abruptly canceled and then revived on the fledgling Sci-Fi Channel for its last three seasons. These frequent shifts in scheduling and networks made MST3K a confusing show for the casual fan to follow even while it was on the air. Its devotees had another set of difficulties: due to the obtuse way in which movies were licensed for broadcast, some episodes would air only a couple times before disappearing due to rights issues, living on only in the fond memories of fans and on tapes they recorded with their VCRs. And here lies perhaps the smartest way in which MST3K engaged with its audience: they not only condoned the trading of VHS dubs, but encouraged it at the end of each show. As those old episodes continued to circulate, first on tapes swapped via mail, then in official DVD releases and eventually on YouTube, its cult only grew.
These committed fans are the biggest reason why, after roughly 18 years off the air, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is now returning to our television screens. In 2015, a Kickstarter campaign was launched by the series’ creator (and original host) Joel Hodgson. Across the Internet, MSTies immediately rallied behind the cry of #BringBackMST3K. The team had set out to produce only a handful of new episodes, but Kickstarter records were broken and, by the time all was said and done, they’d raised enough dough to make a full, fourteen episode season.
Although we’re sworn to secrecy until the new season premieres on Netflix on April 14th, we can say that the series more or less picks up right where it left off nearly two decades ago. With a new host (comedian Jonah Ray) and pair of mad scientist villains (Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt), MST3K season 11 offers a fresh look for the show without forgetting the series’ past, or the fans who made it all possible.
We spoke with series creator Joel Hodgson and the Satellite of Love’s new resident human, Jonah Ray, about bringing back the beloved movie-riffing show.
Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Having nearly 50,000 people contribute to a record-setting Kickstarter must have provided a real sense of validation, knowing that many people have connected with what you do. I’m curious, Joel, if there’s a flipside to that. Once you started making the new episodes, was there extra pressure in knowing that you couldn’t let those 50,000 people down?
Joel Hodgson: My partner, [executive producer] Harold Buchholz, was the guy who kind of talked me into doing the Kickstarter. I guess what I was concerned about was, if they invest all this money, how much do I tell them about the creative process while I’m doing it?
Personally, I just feel like it’s really hard to do all of the heavy lifting, creatively, if you feel like you have to keep people updated about it. So we kind of had a period of radio silence while we were working on it. Once we got things squared away we could talk about it, and the backers were really great about that. That was the thing I was really apprehensive about when we started, but Harold assured me that I could kind of set the ground rules of how I wanted to do it. I think that was the biggest thing on my mind, because you do a lot of thinking and questioning and trying different paths, and sometimes they pay off but sometimes they don’t. You don’t want to put ideas in front of people that you can’t sustain, because they get fixated on a certain idea and then you spend so much time explaining why aren’t using it. Long story short, the backers were really great and stayed out of our hair, but were also very supportive. They allowed us to get a lot of the heavy lifting done, and then report back to them what we’d discovered and what we were intending to do.
These new episodes are all about looking forward and blazing new trails for the franchise. But, given the particularly deep connection so many fans have with this series, have you hidden any in-jokes or callbacks in it for the diehard MSTies who’ve seen every episode multiple times?
Jonah Ray: Yeah! Even in the first episode alone there’s a lot of callbacks, just as they always did in the original run of the series. “Watch out for snakes!” comes back pretty often. That stuff isn’t so much fan service for everybody; sometimes there’s just an appropriate time for a callback. That’s just the way a comedy show works. We did our best. The way I feel about the show, is if the show had stayed on the air the whole time, we’d still be where we are with it.
There’s a bonus feature on the latest Shout! Factory DVD set where you, Joel, were talking about some of the concerns you had when Mike was ascending to the host’s role, and how you were ultimately happy with how they differentiated his character from yours. I’m curious how the two of you worked to make sure Jonah’s character was unique from the hosts who came before?
Joel: Well, I think comedy is really different than film, where the director and producers have a lot more involvement in things like the characters. But when it’s comedy, it’s really self-motivated. You bring in the comic, and they kind of just know themselves. You let them have at it. It’s such a big job, with so many riffs, that you can’t shape it. You just have to deploy these performers to do their thing and trust them. I don’t personally feel like I did much of that shaping. I didn’t make any determinations like, “You’re Jonah. You’re a gentle friend of the robots. But not too close! And, you’re grappling with issues from childhood.”
Joel: I think Jonah can answer that better, because it was really his responsibility.
Jonah: When I first got up there and started shooting, it had been something I had been thinking about for most of my life. There were non-purposeful, kind of subconscious influences from Joel and Mike running through me just from my being really into the show. Whether I was doing Meltdown or any of those other things, there were elements of both those guys in my delivery, just because that’s what I grew up watching. And so when I came to do [Mystery Science Theater 3000], I just kind of continued to do it like any other gig I got, and just hoped the tone would be right for the show. From the response so far, I feel like I got pretty close.
It feels like a gig that would be tough to walk into cold. Did you training to gear up for your tenure on the Satellite of Love?
Jonah: Essentially I’ve been training for it since I started doing standup in 2002. Right before we started shooting the season, I’d just wrapped up the season of my other show, Hidden America, and the third season of Meltdown for Comedy Central. And so, I’d been doing a lot of comedy hosting/presenting/performing coming into it. Joel was very adamant about not overthinking it, and just being in the moment with the bots. That would really help the liveliness and the loose feeling of the show a lot. I also ran a ton of obstacle courses. [Laughs]
I know if a movie’s too awful, or self-aware, riffing it doesn’t really work. Is there a secret something that you looked for when picking the movies you’re going to feature on the new season?
Joel: I try to emulate the ‘80s series Night Flight with my movie selection. [Laughs] I’m just kidding. The thing is — and this is kind of inside baseball — but in this new iteration of the show I mostly looked for movies that I thought we could get good prints of, because most people now have widescreen TVs with really good sound, or headphones that they listen on. I was familiar with [our first episode’s movie] but I’d never seen a great print of it. All the prints I’d seen were in really bad shape, but we finally found a great print where the sound was good and it looked nice.
I don’t know if I’m looking for anything more than a nice print where the sound is good, and something you probably haven’t seen – I think that’s a big thing. I guess the only other thing is that you need to have a ratio of dialogue to action. A nice balance so it’s not too talky, and not too many scenes where there’s no talking, because then you have to work a little harder to be present and participate. Because, really, we’re collaborating with the movie, and you need to have an equal ratio so you can do that.
What do you see as the biggest difference between making these new episodes and when you were shooting MST3K 25 years ago?
Joel: The biggest difference, to me, is that we try to let the movie have an equal voice. We don’t talk over the movie, because I feel the audience is processing everything so fast that they want to keep abreast of what’s happening in the movie. In the older episodes, we used to go “Hey, we talk over the movie because we’re the funny guys.” So that’s a style difference, but personally I think it’s a better experience because people are quickly patching together all of the info the movie is giving them with the information we’re giving them. We’re trying to respect the movie and collaborate with the movie more.
We showed the pilot to all of the [Kickstarter] backers in a live video feed, and the responses were really overwhelmingly positive. There were a few people who said it was lot faster and harder to process, but I think that’s because we let the movie show through and we don’t bleed into it as much.
The urge to poke fun at bad movies feels like it’s hardwired into a lot of our DNA, which I feel is one of the reasons that Mystery Science Theater 3000 clicked with so many people back in the day. What are some of your earliest riffing memories?
Joel: I remember when I was a kid, and I was talking to a friend of mine. He was telling me about his dad watching Marcus Welby, M.D., which was a doctor show in the 1970s. He told me his dad would say things to the TV like, “Marcus Welby’d better save this guy because he’s only got two more minutes.” I remember thinking that was hilarious.
When I was kid, another one of the experiences I had was in school. They had 16mm films they would show – they weren’t on videos – and they would actually bring the projector into the classroom, and it was amazing to actually see how movie projectors work. I remember a kid did this amazing thing: one kid’s head was kind of silhouetted and shot onto the screen, and the other kid took these two pencils and put them up behind him so it looked like antennas were growing out of his head. [Laughs] I remember looking at that and thinking, “Wow, that’s really funny.”
Jonah: Growing up, me and my friends had HBO. In the early days of HBO, pretty much all they showed were bad horror movies. My friends and I would watch them religiously – all of the Nightmare on Elm Streets, the Friday the 13ths, Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead – and we were almost obsessive about it. We’d get together to watch them and make jokes, make fun of them and laugh at it. For me, I came up in the era of pay cable and the movies that I enjoyed because they were cheesy were more from the horror side. Those were the movies that were being made at the time for really cheap.
Joel: Fake blood was cheaper than anything – it was just syrup and food coloring. You could film your movie around it, and it looked really good.
Jonah: Meanwhile, Joel grew up in an era where there was an excess of sci-fi.
Joel: Yeah. It’s like genre films were working much harder back then to make money. [Laughs]
The long-awaited eleventh season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will debut on Netflix on Friday, April 14th. For more information, head over to the series’ website.
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