Exclusive 1-on-1: Baron Vaughn talks playing Tom Servo on the new MST3K
Today is a banner day for fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, as Netflix has dropped all 14 episodes of the new revival season for you to devour right now! To celebrate, ComingSoon.net had the chance to talk to the new voice of Tom Servo, comedian and actor Baron Vaughn (Grace and Frankie), for a cool exclusive interview. We talk to Vaughn about being a fan of the show, the process of writing riffs on bad movies, and which movie in the new season might be the worst!
Be sure to check out the gallery below for behind-the-scenes pics from the new season of MST3K, and a listing of all the new bad movies that are riffed this season! Also watch a new clip of the cast riffing hilariously on Netflix’s Stranger Things!
ComingSoon.net: To start, I have to say I remember you from Boston University. I think one of the most surreal parts of my life in retrospect is getting late night dining food from you and then going back up to my dorm room to watch “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” It’s like, “That was future Tom Servo!”
Baron Vaughn: (Laughs) Oh my goodness. So you lived in West Campus?
CS: I did live in West Campus. Yes.
Vaughn: Oh my—I worked in the late night café and I was cooking stir fry and quesadillas and stuff.
CS: Well, but let’s be honest, you were also performing.
Vaughn: Hell yeah, that was my open mic, man. That was before I actually started doing stand-up, which probably happened maybe two years after that. So yeah, wow, foreshadowing.
CS: Yeah, foreshadowing, exactly. You were always on. You were always performing, even sometimes I would pass you on the street and you would just be outside of the College of Fine Arts building, just like, performing for a friend or something, or trying to impress a girl. But you were always on. And you were always cracking wise. So is it fair to say this is a dream job, “Mystery Science Theater”?
Vaughn: Oh yeah. I mean, back then at BU, I was always living with the idea of being a street performer for a little bit, and having it be something that I could experiment with and have a form of comedy and a form of theater. So being at that late night café and just interacting with people, you know, just trying to figure out how to make people who weren’t expecting to laugh to laugh, as a street performer would have to. So I guess I was kind of experimenting with that at that time. But yeah, in “MST3K” is… first of all, just to work with my good friends Hampton and Jonah. I think they’re very funny gentlemen as well, and we’re all having to bounce off of each other. It’s just fun. I think one of the things that will be captured in the show is how much fun we’re having. It’s exactly how it felt with the old show, how much fun you’re having with your buddy that you’re hanging out with watching this whole movie. I even think that’s why people are resistant to the new cast, because they’re like, “I know, my friends. Why did Felicity change her haircut? I knew these people and now you’re telling me they have different voices? Nooooo!!!”
CS: Well, obviously when it changed from Joel to Mike, there was that whole divide back in the day. Now it’s Jonah.
Vaughn: Yeah, people did take a lot of it to adjust from Joel to Mike, but Mike was also Joel’s guy, he was always working on the show.
CS: Right. He was the head writer, and he’d made appearances and stuff.
Vaughn: Right. And we have Joel at the helm, you know? So and then Jonah and Hampton and myself were all fans of the show. We’re not just people who took something over that we had no idea what it was before we got there.
CS: You’re my age, so you probably remember watching the show on the Comedy Channel and then Comedy Central and then Sci-Fi Channel. What did it mean to you back then?
Vaughn: Yes, I do remember that. Well, what it meant to me back then is, you know, I think I had the same experience as a lot of people, which is that I was flipping channels and then I saw these people at the bottom of the screen telling jokes. But then, of course, it became not only something I loved, but a calling card, in a way, to connect with the kids at my school who were familiar with the show, that you could only implant those into our everyday conversations. We would reference the show and we would “be writing” our own material as well. That’s another thing that happens in the show, is that you come up with your own jokes as you’re watching it. Sometimes, you have the satisfaction of having people be like, “Oh, that’s exactly how I saw them,” like the ideas you have kind of happen at the same time. But yeah, it was very formative on me, especially in terms of all of the different references that were being made. With “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “The Simpsons,” which are constantly making references to other things, it is a little bit of an education, because I would either go look up something to see what the heck they were talking about, or at some point, I would see or read or experience the things that were being referenced and be like, “Oh, this is what I saw in the scene.”
CS: You’re actually on the writing staff as well. Can you talk a little bit about what that’s like, who orchestrates the madness, how many times you have to watch a film, what’s the staff’s preferred takeout food, all that stuff?
Vaughn: Well, I probably watched each film two times because the writing is done in a really fascinating way, which is, it’s kind of hard to explain, but mostly it’s done remotely. No one is really in the same room, although there were a couple of times that me and Hampton and Jonah got together to watch something and riff, recorded it and then listened to it later to kind of write down the joke that he was saying. Any given episode has the same people writing on it, you know? Jonah, Hampton and I, and also Joel and also Elliott Kalan, who is the head writer of the show. Anyone working remotely inserts their jokes into a master document, and as far as I understand, doesn’t say who wrote what joke. So it’s just a pool of jokes that it’s taken out of. I kind of like the idea of that, that’s neutral, because nobody gets more important than anybody else’s jokes. It’s always whatever the funniest kind of sticks out to you on the page is what you go with. So all of us, you know, writing the jokes is torturous. You essentially have the exact experience of the characters of the show, where you’re like, “Make it stop. Why? Why do I have to watch this?” But if you’re lucky to get through that, there’s a good pool of jokes to pull from. The other piece of it is that once Hampton and Jonah and I got to a recording booth, essentially to place all the different riffs where they need to go while watching the movie, we were writing again. We’re rewriting jokes, we’re improvising again. It’s sort of like you’re in the mind of the show, so all these things are coming out. And Joel and Elliott are there to kind of steer it. Everyone is still coming up with things in the room, or there’s a reference to a commercial that that played during your younger years in New Jersey, a very specific theme song. And we’re all like, “What the heck is this?” And it’s like, “Well, everyone I grew up with still loves this. Trust me.”
CS: So it still has that specificity that the other show had.
Vaughn: Oh yeah, definitely. A lot of people ask me, “Are there going to be a lot of references to the midwest?” And I’ve spoken to people who are not from the midwest. So it’s not only going to be those, because obviously, that’s where Joel is from and where the show was born out of. But there’s going to be references to Jersey. There’s going to be references to Virginia. There’s going to be references to Honolulu and Las Vegas, like all the different places that we all grew up.
CS: The first episode, “Reptilicus” was very good. Like, it definitely felt like “Mystery Science Theater,” like it tasted and smelled like “Mystery Science Theater.” I saw the second episode “Cry Wilderness” too. There was a kind of a quantum leap from the first episode to the second episode in terms of how the jokes were firing and you guys felt a little more comfortable and the movie itself “Cry Wilderness” was pretty crazy. Can you just talk a little bit about going from episode one to episode two and what the learning curve was?
Vaughn: Yeah, well, to be honest, the other thing is that we didn’t record those episodes in the order that they’re going to come out. So there is a mix in exactly what order we recorded things in. But in the post process, Joel and Elliott decided which episodes would go where. Everybody has a different idea of what their favorite episode is, which is also part of the tradition of the show, because you get together and people are always asking, “So what’s your favorite episode? What are your top three? What’s your top five?” Even in the new season, Jonah has a favorite, I have a favorite, Hampton has a favorite. Joel has favorites. We disagree on which are the strongest episodes, even. But once that is done, all the sketches are written of all the episodes I love. I think that they rearranged the episodes and then wrote the sketches according to which episode they wanted to go in what order. That said, there was a bit of a learning curve, because we’re being thrown into a situation. Joel was encouraging us to not try to sound like Kevin or Josh or Trace or Bill or Tim or Mike.
CS: No, you sound like you.
Vaughn: Yeah. And so, he wanted to do our own version of it. But we’re moving at this breakneck speed, once we’re actually in production, trying to get everything done. As it went along, we got better. We had a better flow. We were like, “Oh, we could do this three days in a row, 12 hours a day.” I think that it’s a wise thing to kind of mix batches of different episodes, so that way it builds.
CS: For me, the seminal moment on the show back in the day was “Manos.” I already loved the show, but when “Manos” came on, me and my friends, we kind of felt scarred. It was one of those movies that if you’re only exposed to mainstream movies, it sort of reshapes your conception of what a bad movie is. Which films from the new season do you think have the potential for being a new “Manos,” like just a legendarily bad movie?
Vaughn: Wow. That’s a hard one. It’s a hard one because, I mean, geez, “Manos” is singular. Just the way it looks and the acting and the weird voice dubbing, you know? You just think it can’t get any worse or it can’t get any stranger, and it does. In a way, you just can’t predict a perfect movie for “MST3K.” Now out of the movies that we did this year, I personally feel like one of the weirder movies that we did is probably this movie called “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom.” It’s a low grade fantasy film, but the special effects are so bad. They’re so bad. And you know, I think it’s true with sci-fi and fantasy that there are a lot of made-up worlds and a lot of made-up land names and a lot of made-up things that people say when they’re doing magic. They’re always inventing technology and terminology. Sometimes you’re like, “Why, of all things, is that the thing you decided to change, that you’re going to cast a spell? Or that’s the name of the alcoholic drink you have in this world?” I always like seeing when those things go off the rails. Another movie that’s a little in that vein, I think that Joel thinks this one is kind of “Manos”-style, or not “Manos”-style, but “Manos”-level, is called “Carnival Magic.”
CS: “Carnival Magic”?
Vaughn: Yes, “Carnival Magic.” It’s a very strange movie, and the lead in the film had this intensity that he acts with that belonged in a completely different movie. It is ridiculous. And I think that that’s the kind of movie that could leave you like, “What the heck is happening here?” People might think maybe more “Carnival Magic” than “Wizards” could be like a “Manos”-level.
CS: So just as a longtime fan, as a diehard fan, I think this feels like “MST3K.” I think it’s back and I think the fans are going to really dig it. And your Tom Servo is great.
Vaughn: Thank you. I appreciate it. Yeah, I’m excited to see how people feel about it. I made the mistake of looking at the YouTube comments in the trailer, and I had nightmares last night. So hopefully a wide release of the show will help assuage those feelings.
CS: Honestly, the only thing that feels different about the show is it’s widescreen. That is the only difference. In tone and feel it’s the same show. It feels like its just been going since the ’80s and it never stopped.
Vaughn: Yeah, exactly. And that’s part of Joel’s plan, you know? Because he didn’t understand why the show got canceled. It’s something that could’ve been going on and on and on like “Saturday Night Live,” where there’s new jokes and new cast and there’s new interpretations of these characters and sketches that reflect the time it’s being done in. So hopefully, even after this cast has now, there’ll be another cast and another one.