Interview: Jonah Ray Talks MST3K 30th Anniversary Tour, St. Louis Show 10/30
MST3K is back on tour!
Hot off the heels of the 11th season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix and their 2017 tour, the gang is hitting the road once again in honor of the show’s 30th anniversary. And for the first time in 25 years, MST3K’s creator Joel Hodgson is putting on his red jumpsuit and joining in on the riffs!
The tour kicked off at the beginning of October, with the new host of MST3K Jonah Ray alongside Joel and, of course, the bots. They’re hitting 29 cities to perform 42 shows, each playing one of two films: The Brain, described as “a Canadian science fiction suburban nightmare,” or Deathstalker, “a fun sword and sandal epic with a horrible monster.”
Ahead of their stop in St. Louis at the Stifel Theatre on Tuesday, October 30th, we had the pleasure of talking with Jonah Ray about the tour, the new season of the show, and the show which inspired him to become a comedian.
30th Anniversary Tour
How has the atmosphere been so far during the tour?
“It’s been really, really great. It’s fun because it’s just as exciting as it was last year for the most part – when we did the ‘Watch Out For Snakes’ Tour. Just seeing people dressed up, and hearing people singing along to the theme song in the beginning. But the extra added fun for me is getting to hear when Joel walks out for the first time in the show, in the red jumpsuit. It’s like seeing people react as I would probably be reacting if I were at the show as a fan. That’s been really cool to see and feel that. And people reacting to the characters too – when Gypsy pops up and hearing them be so excited. That stuff has really been the best part of it.”
What has it been like working with Joel?
“He’s the showrunner and co-director of the show, so we write together. And doing that stuff has been really awesome and rewarding as a fan of his. To not only work well together, but to get along as friends is just mindblowing. Now getting to perform with him is such a different thing. I’m overwhelmed by it, for the most part, to be on stage with one of my comedy heroes who inspired me to get into comedy. It’s me and him on stage, on his show, goofing off. It’s incredible.”
MST3K is riffing on two movies on this tour. The one that will be shown in St. Louis is THE BRAIN (1988). What is the process for choosing the movie you riff?
“You want something that is kind of just fun to watch, that’s kind of silly, especially with an audience. You want a movie that can kind of almost entertain on its own. It’s got funny visuals, silly moments, and moves along at a nice pace. It actually has to be kind of good to be used for the live show. Last year we did ARGOMAN [THE FANTASTIC SUPERMAN], which this incredibly goofy Italian movie about an American superhero who is also an international spy. But he loses his powers for two hours after he has sex – it’s just the silliest movie, that was made in the ’60s.
[ARGOMAN] was visually fun and goofy – and that’s kind of why we picked THE BRAIN. It has some great puppetry, and great effects. And it’s just kind of silly. But it’s also one of those movies that’s kind of a rip-off, a little bit, of THEY LIVE and THE THING. You have to have a movie that’s fun to watch with people without the riffs – and then it’s just an added bonus.
Sometimes there are lines in the movie that we just let happen because they’re funny enough on their own. They don’t need any commentary from us.”
If you haven’t already lost track, how many times have you watched THE BRAIN now?
“Too many, man. Too many times at this point. And what’s so funny is when we’re making the TV show, we don’t watch the movies this much. Just because I have to keep on doing it. You find little things to enjoy about it as you go through it. But now, from the writing process and the rehearsals – and now doing the show – that’s the craziest part… It’s a movie that I’m fine with, but after this tour, I’m going to have seen THE BRAIN more times that movies that I love. And that’s wrong!
When I get back home, I’m just going to have to watch BREAKING AWAY a bunch of times to get the ratios back to normal.”
Growing Up With MST3K
Were you a fan of the show growing up?
“I was obsessed with it. I had shirts with Crow and Servo on them, I had the logo shirt, I had a poster on my wall. I watched it and taped the episodes. When I was visiting my uncle once in Reno, I forced him to take me when the Mystery Science Theater movie was in theaters. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to see it back where I was from in Hawaii… So I was obsessed. Even when my two comedy albums came out – a seven-inch record and a ten-inch record of standup – they’re both names lifted from Mystery Science Theater. One’s called, ‘This Is Crazy Mixed Up Plumbing,’ and the other is, ‘Hello, Mr. Magic Plane Person, Hello.’ Both are lines from the Mystery Science Theater movie. So to say I was an avid fan is an understatement.”
I’m sure your love of the show helped you to be accepted into the Mystery Science Theater family, so-to-speak.
“It’s hard to be in comedy without being at least a little bit of a fan of the show. For everyone in my generation of comedy, it was on Comedy Central all the time. You couldn’t really get away from it. It is funny to me because when I was watching it, I didn’t really think it was a nerdy show. I just thought it was a funny show. And a lot of comics feel the same way. To us it’s a comedy show; it’s got tons of jokes, and funny sketches, and prop comedy.
It really takes all the different aspects of comedy and fills it to this one show. So to be a fan – and same with all the other people that work on it – like Felicia Day who plays Kinga. She and her brother were obsessed with it growing up. Patton was a little older when it came out, but he was still a big fan of it. And the head writer, Elliott Kalan, was the head writer of ‘The Daily Show With Jon Stewart’ for a while. He was obsessed with it too. So, we were inspired by it early on as young performers, or young people who might want to get into comedy, but we still went out and struck out and did our own stuff. Created our own voices, and our own styles.
One of the reasons I’m in comedy is Mystery Science Theater, and now I’m on it. It’s a neat little, ‘time is a flat circle,’ time-travel thing. We’re on it because of this, and that’s really cool.”
Have you always been the type of person who would watch bad movies for fun with your friends?
“Oh yeah! I grew up doing that. And that’s what was so cool when I found Mystery Science Theater, it was right when I started also getting into old Sci-Fi movies, and old bad movies. It’s around the time that it started playing on Comedy Central in the early 90s, and movies like ‘Matinee’ – which was Joe Dante’s ode to William Castle movies – starring John Goodman was coming out. In ’94 ‘Ed Wood’ came out, and you get into ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space.’ It was this thing where I was getting into these old bad movies that my friends and I would watch – especially the slasher, horror movies because that’s what was on TV all the time. We’d get together and have jokes, so it’s always been a passion of mine.
I try to get around saying ‘bad movies.’ I always just say ‘fun movies.”
To Riff, or Not to Riff… Is That Even a Question?
Is there a line you draw between having fun with a movie and getting what could be considered too mean?
“You have to dance on that line. You do want to call out something that they did wrong. But the thing is, it’s really hard to make a movie. It’s hard to make anything. And these people are doing their best, and sometimes it’s a big swing and a miss. They’re shooting for the stars, they’re hitting the moon – and the moon is made of cheese. It can be mean, but you try to collaborate with the movie as much as you can. That’s the important thing, to play along with the movie – not always crapping on it. But play with it.”
Often times MST3K riffs on older movies, but sometimes they are within the last few decades. Do you ever hear feedback from any of the filmmakers?
“I haven’t personally. I know this guy Daniel Griffith, who does a lot of documentary work in the Mystery Science Theater world, one interviewed Joe Don Baker who was in the movie MITCHELL. That was a great, classic episode of Mystery Science Theater. And he seemed upset, but he said the reason he was upset was, ‘They weren’t making fun of Mitchell – they used my name!’ They called me Joe Don Baker, that’s not right!’
I have a lot of filmmaker friends that are always pitching their movies. My friend Joe Lynch is like, ‘Oh, you should do my movie WRONG TURN 2!’ There’s always something like that going on.
I did a podcast recently, called Trailers From Hell, with Josh Olson and Joe Dante – one of my favorite filmmakers. He loves that world, and came up in that world. He was one of those guys who Roger Corman helped out a bunch. I got on, and it turns out that Joe Dante doesn’t dislike Mystery Science Theater 3000 – he hates it! He thinks it’s offensive, and he thinks it’s mean. And I understood because he kind of straddled that generational gap where he knew a lot of those guys in that world. He loves them, and he’s done multiple love letters to that style. I tried to tell him there are a lot of movies that I got into because of this show. When I saw the movie THIS ISLAND EARTH when Mystery Science Theater did it, I wanted to go check it out. Now I want to know more about Ed Wood, and all these people. Now I know these movies, where I wouldn’t have before.”
New MST3K This Thanksgiving
The new season of MST3K comes out on Netflix this Thanksgiving. What did you learn while making the last season that carried over to this one?
“We took what some people said into consideration. If you’re going to listen to what people are saying about something creative you’ve made, you have to listen to the good and the bad. If you’re going to believe any of it. It’s important to take them both at face value – you can’t just listen to one and not the other.
The stuff that people were concerned about last season, it’s just stuff that would happen. Of course, the show was established, it was around for ten seasons. But then there was also about twenty years between that and this. And it wasn’t all the same people working on it. Everyone kind of had to learn how to make the show, and make it close enough to how people remembered it. And it’s tough to make a show, and it’s hard to get everyone to gel. And it’s hard to go into it with the speed and intensity that we went into this with… I think everyone just learned how to do it a lot better. I think it’s just from having done that, and also having us out on the road. We figured out how to do the show better; We figured out our characters. We figured out how we like to do impressions and voices and riffs.
My writing for the riffs changed after the tour, because I wanted to mimic the style that worked the best on the road. These kinds of shorter, punchier jokes that are a bit more evenly paced. There’s a lot of stuff we learned. Watching the episodes of the new season, which I’m really, really proud of, is a much more consistent season. Every episode reminds me of our better episodes from last season for sure. Like YONGARY, and CRY WILDERNESS, and THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN. Real solid riffs, and I think we really feel good and are excited about it. Watching them, everyone is doing everything with a little more confidence.”
Any projects coming up in the near future, outside of MST3K? Any word on HIDDEN AMERICA season 3?
“I would love to do a season 3 of HIDDEN AMERICA. I’m trying to find a new distribution for that. I’ve been working with a couple companies in London about doing a show that I’m going to be writing with Ian Morris – the guy who created THE INBETWEENERS. That’s kind of the next thing, and I’m working on a project with Nora Kirkpatrick – who was the accordion player in Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros and now she’s a very accomplished TV writer. So I’m working on that project as well.
See Jonah, Joel, and the bots when they come to St. Louis on Tuesday, October 30. Tickets are available via TicketMaster. For more information about the show, visit the Stifel Theatre website. For a complete list of tour dates visit mst3k.com.