Jonah Ray Talks Hosting the New Mystery Science Theater 3000

Exclusive 1-on-1: Jonah Ray talks hosting the new Mystery Science Theater 3000

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, had the chance to talk to the new host, comedian and Nerdist podcaster Jonah Ray, for a fun exclusive interview. We nerd out with Ray about stepping into the shoes of previous hosts Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson, what MST3K meant to him growing up, and which of the new episodes are destined to be classics!

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! So I saw the “Reptilicus” premiere episode and then the “Cry Wilderness” episode. When I talked to Joel he was very insistent, “I want to stress there’s a big uptick in quality from the first episode to the other ones.” And I felt it. The “Cry Wilderness” episode felt like it was stronger, faster, funnier. Can you talk a little bit about the leap from the pilot to the rest of the episodes?

Jonah Ray: Yeah, it’s funny because when we started doing the episodes, I got to this one I really wanted to dub. And I was like, “Joel, we should make this the first episode. This is such a solid episode.” Then Joel, in his shaman-like way, was like, “No, man, you gotta start them off easy, then you progressively get better and better.” And I was like, “Oh okay. I don’t know if viewers work that way anymore, that you’ve got to wow them right off the bat.” But he is wise in his comedic timing, so I do think that we did get exponentially better the more we did it. “Reptilicus” was the first one we wrote and it was the first one we recorded. So we were still trying to find our rhythm, find the voices and get used to it, and also just kind of get over the mind trip of doing it at all. It was overwhelming to just be in that position of like, “Oh, wow, we’re actually doing this. We’re actually doing this. This is crazy,” that we’re getting to make “Mystery Science Theater.” I think there is a bit of that, which I hope people find charming, the way I found early episodes of “MST” charming, but they weren’t perfect. I do think that “Cry Wilderness” is such a great movie, and there’s this Korean monster movie, “Yongary,” which is basically Godzilla with a horn on its nose. When they sent us that one, the completed episode of “Yongary,” I saw it and went, “Oh man, this should be the first episode.” But hopefully people will stick with it and enjoy it as we get better at it and everyone’s more comfortable with the positions.


CS: You were brought in before the Kickstarter launched and they already had the pre-vis of you in your costume. Was there any kind of rehearsal period for you and Baron and Hampton?

Ray: No. No, there never was, but I don’t think we really needed it that much, mainly just Joel had asked me to be the host of it, before he even got the rights. That was probably a year and a half, a year before the Kickstarter was even a thing. We had been talking about it for a while.

CS: And that came out of you doing “The Nerdist” episode with him?

Ray: Basically, yeah. He’d been on “The Nerdist,” but then we met the next day at the Wayne White documentary, “Beauty is Embarrassing.” And then, we met the next night, when I stopped by Meltdown Comics to say hi because they were doing a “Harmontown” and he was there. He kind of was like, “Oh wow. We kind of run in the same circles.” Then, he called me and we just started talking. But yeah, it was all because of meeting him on “The Nerdist” podcast, which I don’t think I impressed him on it, I think it was just a matter of we ended up running into each other a few different times and finding out we had lots of friends in common.

CS: Right. It probably did help to have that dynamic of you being one of three funny guys sort of cracking jokes. There’s sort of the prototype there on “The Nerdist.”

Ray: It’s funny because I thought about it over and over, and I was like, “Oh, is that why you thought about me?” He’s like, “Oh no, man. I didn’t even think about it that way. That’s too funny.” It was like one of those things where we just kind of got along and he looked up my stuff online and started a friendship. It wasn’t really like he was looking for somebody, because it was still just this vague idea in his head about maybe bringing it back. He would come to town and we would hang out and we would just like, talk. “I’m still trying to figure it out, I’ve still got to get the rights back. I don’t know what I would do with it exactly and I’m still trying to figure it out.” I was like, “Well, whatever you need help with, just let me know. It’s my favorite show, so I’ll be involved in every way you want. I’ll write or I’ll produce or anything like that.” And he said, “Yeah, you should be a writer, yeah, you should be a producer or you could direct an episode,” Then he just called me, “I just realized this… You should just be the guy.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And he’s like, “You know, the me, the Mike, the guy.”

'Mystery Science Theater 3000' starring Mark Hamill, Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn, Rebecca Hanson, Tim Blaney, Joel Hodgson, & Elliot Kalan. Photo by Darren Michaels, SMPSP

CS: Ha! “The me.”

Ray: I was like, “Oh.” I didn’t really tell anybody because I don’t know how many times I’ve been told in this industry that, “Oh, you got the gig. Don’t worry about it. They want you.” And then you don’t get it. Or, “They want the show. They’re going to pick up the show.” And they don’t pick up the show. So when he told me that it wasn’t like it was a solid thing. I couldn’t really tell anybody. Then he started talking about doing a Kickstarter, and I said, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” Joel wanted to incubate it, just like he did the original series, on his own without too much outside influence from executives. But during those years in between meeting and the Kickstarter happening, he started to ask me, you know, who I thought would be a good idea for Tom and Crow. I immediately thought of Baron and Hampton. They’re old friends of mine. I’ve been doing comedy with them for 10 years now. So we’re all good friends and from the same comedy community. Hampton’s always reminded me of Crow and Baron’s been such a perfect version of Tom Servo. Hampton has the advantage of already kind of having the same timbre as Crow, that kind of higher timbre.

CS: Yeah, that nasally kind of thing that Trace had.

Ray: Yeah, exactly. But his personality is also perfectly crazy, childlike, nihilistic, you know, psychopath. That’s not how I always thought of Crow. And again, with Baron, they just kind of thought about what Servo was like. Because no one could sound like Kevin Murphy, nobody. That’s one of those things, it’s not Servo’s voice, that’s Kevin Murphy’s voice. That’s just how he talks.

CS: You’re roughly my age, so you probably remember watching the show on The Comedy Channel and then Comedy Central and then Sci-Fi. What did the show mean to you, growing up?

Ray: It meant so much. When I found it, it was really just this confluence of everything I already liked separately. I loved sci-fi and horror movies and genre movies like that. I loved comedy. I watched stand-ups and Letterman and “Saturday Night Live,” I just loved comedy and watched Mel Brooks movies on repeat all the time. Just tuning into that show and having that all kind of come together in this one TV show, it was great. It felt like my friends were all watching bad movies. It meant a lot. Also, after I started watching them, I moved to a new town where I was across the street from a really bad neighborhood. I didn’t go out. I wasn’t playing outside as much, and this show helped in that time to just have some friends to watch movies with because I didn’t have any friends in the neighborhood, so I couldn’t walk over to someone’s house and watch TV and movies. All of the sudden, I now had Joel and Mike or Tom or Crow to watch movies with. It really was a source of comfort for me. I just loved it so much. It was comedy. It was the best.


CS: I used to watch the show religiously, too. The first one I saw was one of the “Gamera” ones. As a kid it just made me and my brother giddy to see these guys cracking wise. It was very silly and childish and fun, but a real seminal moment was when me and a friend watched the “Manos” episode the night it aired. We were permanently scarred, because it is one of those movies where, if you’re only exposed to mainstream movies, it reshapes your conception of what a bad movie is. So, of the crop of new films this season, do you think there’s one that has the potential for being a new “Manos,” like a legendarily bad movie?

Ray: For me, it’s a tossup between “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II” and “Carnival Magic” and “Cry Wilderness.” Those are all really bad movies. “Carnival Magic,” it’s not poorly made, though. That’s the thing. “Cry Wilderness” is poorly made, in terms of it’s dubbed and kinda jumps around. They use out of focus stock footage of animals for almost half the movie. Sasquatch has human hands. Just terribly acted. So I think “Cry Wilderness” has the ability because of how gleeful it is and how poorly it’s made, whereas you’ve got a “Carnival Magic,” which is about a guy that’s taking care of the animals and he has a very smart ape. You could tell that after they finished shooting the movie they decided they wanted the ape to talk as well. So they added the talking ape into it. So, that one. They’re all my terrible babies. It’s hard to pick which one will be reviled the most. But also, “Wizards of The Lost Kingdom I and II” are just god awful movies.

CS: Oh you did 1 AND 2?

Ray: Yeah, we did back to back. Those episodes go right next to each other, Joel  calls them “The Dark Night of the Soul.” He goes, “That’s when the movies take a real dive, man.”

CS: Well, it was funny because Baron mentioned “Carnival Magic” and “The Wizards of the Lost Kingdom” as a particularly bad ones too. After talking to him I went to IMDb and looked up “Carnival Magic” and “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom” and “Cry Wilderness” and they all have only like six reviews. Soon they will have hundreds of reviews. But “MST3K” made me fall in love with obscure trash genre cinema. Do you feel like the show kind of revives a lot of these movies and gives them a new life?

Ray: Well, “Manos” for sure. I mean, people are trying to make a “Manos” sequel right now. I mean, more power to them. I find it to be ill-advised. So I don’t know if any of these movies—they get a second life through the show. The only movie I saw through “Mystery Science Theater” that I wanted to go back and watch on its own was “This Island Earth,” the one they did for the movie, because I was like, “Wait, this movie doesn’t make sense.” Then, remembering that they edited stuff out, I was like, “Oh now I want to go back and see what they edited out to make the running time shorter.” But like, as cool as I think “Diabolik” looks as a movie, I’m never going to go, “Now I’m going to watch this without the fun.” Because if I found those movies on my own I’d dig it, because getting into the show also coincided with me finding out about Ed Wood movies and watching them. And then when the Tim Burton “Ed Wood” movie came out it became my favorite movie. It was very much all coincided with my growing love of genre movies, and even still to this day, every year I go to Austin for Fantastic Fest, which is the Alamo Drafthouse’s genre film festival that has all these crazy obscure movies, which is just fantastic. And being able to go to Cine Family in Los Angeles and the New Bev and all the stuff those types of theaters are doing. It’s still like, a love affair to go and see these kind of obscure, forgotten movies. Not bad movies, just forgotten.


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