The Master Would Approve: The Cast of MST3K on the Surreal Joys of its Return

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The Master Would Approve: The Cast of MST3K on the Surreal Joys of its Return

As April 14 approaches, it only seems more surreal. The facts of the matter remain unchanged: We will soon live in a world with brand new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, streaming for the whole world to see on Netflix. It finally happened. “The not-too-distant future” has become today.

No one was more surprised by this turn of events than Jonah Ray. The host of the revived MST3K, known to geeks primarily as a member of the Nerdist podcast alongside Chris Hardwick, can’t help but reflect at the long, twisting series of influences, coincidences and good fortune that led him to this moment. He’s about to take the reins of his favorite childhood TV show, but every step along the way, he always doubted it could ever truly happen.

“I have talked about this in a lot of interviews of course, but I still haven’t found a way to put into words how insane it is to me that the thing I wanted to do as a kid is now what I get to do,” says Ray, with a certain sense of humility in his voice. “When [series creator Joel Hodgson] first brought up the possibility of me being the host, I honestly figured he would probably change his mind, that he would find someone else. I never counted on it. Something was going to go wrong. It’s just that, in the entertainment industry you learn not to get your hopes up. And then when the Kickstarter to bring back MST3K started, I thought maybe we’d get enough for three episodes. And at the same time, because they didn’t reveal I was the new host at the beginning, I thought ‘Well, if this thing makes tons and tons of money, they’ll be able to go out and afford anyone other than me!’”

Suffice to say, “tons of money” is a bit of an understatement for what actually happened with the show’s Kickstarter. With more than $6 million when all was said and done, it blew past the previous record holder (the Veronica Mars feature film) to become the biggest crowdfunded video project in the history of the internet. That’s a historic moment not just for this TV show, but for the entire medium of crowdfunding. All that, for a show built around making fun of bad movies.

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MST3K has always inspired this kind of devotion amongst its fan base. When the show was first canceled by Comedy Central in 1996 after the abbreviated season 7, a fan write-in campaign was enough to convince the Sci Fi Channel to pick it up for another three seasons. When it was again canceled in 1999, fans were so despondent that they took out a full-page ad in Variety begging for someone to keep it alive. Here at Paste, we’ve written countless lists and features about the show over the years, including a recent, 47,000-word ranking of all 177 original episodes. It’s safe to say that MST3K is an obsession. And it certainly began that way for Jonah Ray as well, as a young, profoundly geeky young man growing up in Hawaii. One need look no farther than the titles of his two comedy albums, This is Crazy Mixed-Up Plumbing and Hello, Mr. Magic Plane Person, Hello, which both happen to be inspired by riffs in MST3K: The Movie.

“I remember one time getting home, turning on the TV and thinking it’s just like any other channel when they show dumb old movies at night,” he recalls. “Then I saw the silhouettes and the voices, and I’m thinking my TV is somehow broken, like I’m seeing two channels at once. I remember going to school the next day and trying to describe what I watched to my friends, and I sounded like a madman.”

Advances in mad science

That’s the thing about the new MST3K cast—they all have this same story, more or less. Unlike the motley crew of souls that came together to form the original Best Brains in Minneapolis, every single person involved in the new show happens to have one thing in common at the very least: They’re all MST3K superfans. That goes for Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn, the new voices of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo respectively, and it also goes for geek icon Felicia Day, who is stepping into the role of new “head mad” Kinga Forrester. Paste was able to speak with all three in the days leading up to the new show’s public unveiling, and the passion is obvious.

“When I was 9 or 10, it’s safe to say that MST3K was the highlight of my week,” says Day, who has been promoting the show in the wake of giving birth to her first child. “My brother and I loved Joel more than anything, and this was literally the only thing my brother and I could agree on. We would fight so fiercely over what to watch, but MST3K was like the one thing we had in common. We just loved the fact that they were talking to us and doing what we would do, talking to the screen. They acknowledged that there were kids like us watching, with stuff like the letters from viewers. Even though the humor was smart, it also appealed to everyone.”

This is likely something that any kid who grew up watching MST3K could understand. I myself think back to watching the show at perhaps age 10, and wonder—what was I even laughing at, really? Obscure local commercial references from rural Wisconsin? Observations on filmmaking I couldn’t hope to understand without a proper education? Musical jokes about Talking Heads songs I’d never heard? And yet MST3K still spoke to these viewers somehow. Even ill-equipped as I was to understand it, the show was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.

Day understands this feeling much better than most. After building her web series The Guild into a phenomenon that paved the way for crowdfunded video projects of the future—including MST3K—she’s appeared in series after series that are defined by rabid fanbases such as Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She likely knows as much about the concept of “fandom” itself as anyone else in entertainment today. But even for her, joining a project that generated more than $6 million on Kickstarter offered some new lessons.

“It’s an interesting demographic, the MST fans,” she says. “Everyone seems to be very smart, that’s the first thing you notice. I saw an article online the other day suggesting that people who enjoy bad movies are smarter than the average, which makes me happy, because that’s what I want to be watching. When I get Oscar screeners, I’m like ‘Meh, I guess I should watch this thing,’ but then I’m delighted when I get some terrible kung fu movie in the mail. I always felt some kind of secret shame about liking those movies, but in the world of MST3K those movies are revered.”

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As Kinga Forrester, Day is playing the daughter of Trace Beaulieu’s original Dr. Clayton Forrester (and granddaughter of Pearl Forrester), flanked by comic luminary Patton Oswalt as “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank,” the apparent heir to Frank Conniff’s beloved second banana character. Examining her character’s motivations for reopening the MST3K experiment, she suggests that the evil apple didn’t fall far from the evil tree.

“There’s definitely some genetic component, but underneath it all Kinga might have an inferiority complex and need to prove herself to her heritage,” Day says. “She also has some seriously megalomaniacal and narcissistic tendencies that make her want to be the queen of all media. She aims very high and always falls short, but she isn’t at all self aware about it. Pearl is a great character as well, and Mary Jo actually makes an appearance this season, but I think Kinga is much more insecure than Pearl is, so as a result she probably takes after Dr. Forrester more.”

Robot roll call

Of all the on-screen roles in the new show, it’s arguable that the two comedians voicing the primary Bots, Tom and Crow, are stepping into the most difficult jobs. Unlike Jonah Ray, who the average fan would no doubt be expecting to bring his own personality to the new host character, Tom and Crow are characters with some well-developed traits and personalities. Although both had multiple voice actors on the original series, there are certain aspects of their characters that feel more ingrained and expected. Tom Servo, for instance, has always been presented as the more literate, sophisticated and worldly of the two, while Crow typically manifested a sort of childlike innocence and propensity for identity crises that developed into a harder, more cynical edge when Bill Corbett began voicing the character in season 8. Speaking with Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount about the nature of the characters, they acknowledge the shoes they’re filling while suggesting the ways they might differ.

“We’re not going to do it the exact same as the gentlemen who voiced them before, but in the same sense I think it’s recognizable because we know these characters already, and we as fans identify with their qualities,” says Vaughn, who plays Servo. “We’re standing on their shoulders, but of course we’re going to put our own spin on it.”

“That’s right,” chimes in Yount. “In order to take on the characters of the Bots we already had to have some of their qualities inside us. They’ve influenced us for decades.”

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This directly mirrors how Ray describes his own influences from the previous hosts of MST3k. In effect, it was unnecessary for him to consciously incorporate elements of Joel or Mike’s performances, because he too has already been doing it ever since he was in high school.

“There are times when I can hear Joel’s droll voice or Mike’s admonishment of the Bots in myself without even meaning to do it,” he says. “I hear it in myself all the time anyway, because it’s been with me ever since I started watching the show.”

One can primarily thank Ray for the Bot castings, as he saw the potential within several of his comedian acquaintances to become the new Bots and suggested them to Joel. Casting was decidedly nontraditional, and mostly consisted of the comedians meeting with Joel and Jonah to discuss the parts and seek an elusive sort of mental chemistry. When that rapport surfaced, MST3K had its new robot stars.

Significantly, this reboot will mark the first time when the Bots aren’t being primarily operated/puppeteered by the voice actors themselves. Vaughn and Yount instead take a position where they can observe the movement of the robots and operate their mouths to synch with their dialog. It’s a unique style of comedy to adjust to as a performer, but one that becomes second nature with enough time and practice.

“It’s almost like a trance to me,” says Vaughn. “When I’m watching Tom Servo, I don’t feel like I’m in my own body; I’m just reacting and saying what the character in front of me would say.”

Vaughn’s background is particularly interesting, with several ties to MST3K-appropriate venues. For instance, he appears prominently in the opening of the uproarious 2009 blaxploitation parody Black Dynamite, a film with many of MST3K’s comic sensibilities. Additionally, Vaughn has appeared for a few years in a movies podcast alongside none other than film critic Leonard Maltin, who memorably appeared in the episode Gorgo to give the film his dubious blessing. Even the credits of the Laserblast episode were dedicated to some of Maltin’s more questionable star ratings, which didn’t escape Vaughn’s attention.

“We actually have talked about Leonard’s MST3K connection, yes,” he says. “This whole process has been surreal for me. From the moment that Hampton and I were sitting down with Joel and Jonah for the first time, I was thinking ‘Is this real? Is this really happening?’ I was still doing the podcast with Leonard at that point, and he’s always been a big fan of MST3K, so he’s like ‘Well, I’m available if you guys ever need me!’”

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What makes a riffable movie?

No secret has been more closely guided since the shooting of the new MST3K season than the question of which movies the new Satellite of Love crew will be watching. The full list hasn’t been shared with any media, and the few screeners that have been distributed are only the first two episodes, which we can’t divulge here. However, there is one point of agreement that every member of the cast brought forth independently in their interviews: These movies are bad. Like really, really bad.

“It must be said that there are some terrible, terrible films this season,” said Felicia Day. “Especially the four I wrote on, which are all from different decades. It gave me a chance to peruse badness from every era.”

Baron Vaughn echoed these same sentiments: “These movies are seriously so bad; we were not prepared for this. I like that part of the culture of MST3K is this constant dialog on what movies could be done, and what movies should be done. I’ve seen plenty of bad movies and walked out afterward thinking ‘That would have been perfect for MST3K.’”

In Day’s eyes, the quality they all tend to share is earnestness. As has been observed by many writers who examine the culture of bad movies, a sincere failure is almost always funnier than a purposefully constructed one. It’s the factor that tends to keep films such as Sharknado out of the conversation as far as MST3K is concerned, because the best movies featured on the show are usually the ones created by directors who believed (incorrectly) that they were doing truly important or artistically valid work.

“You can’t have people winking at the camera, because you’re the one winking at it,” she says. “And I think people taking really big leaps helps make the perfect riffable movie. Any bad movie has taken a bold step in maybe the wrong direction, but someone was bold enough to take that step. That’s something I love about this show; Joel himself is never shaming anyone. He loves these movies so much. It really is an alternative to the constant negging and put-down humor that is more common now.”

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Of course, one of the biggest hurdles to clear in replicating that type of MST3K humor is the presence of a very large, diverse array of writers. The original run of the show was largely defined by the depth and eclecticism of the references, which could just as easily reference popular sports as obscure noise rock music or local Minneapolis commercials. The reboot has attempted to recapture this feel by employing a very large pool of writers and guest writers, including quite a few famous names that will appear over the course of the season. For the riffers, it turns every episode into an adventure and learning experience.

“It almost goes without saying that there are often jokes where Baron and I have no idea what the reference is all about,” says Hampton Yount. “That’s true for every cast member, but it’s fun to have the writer explain it to you because you get to learn a bit of their world. We definitely learned a lot about ads and commercials from across the country, I can tell you that. As a writer, it’s fun to write something specific to your childhood and have the faith that ‘Someone in the audience probably knows what I’m talking about.’ And even if you don’t get the specific reference, you understand the spirit and tone of it.”

And if you still are left scratching your head from one reference, Vaughn assures you it’s no big deal: “There’s about to be 10 more jokes in the next minute, anyway.”

Facing the fandom

Last month, the new MST3K had its private coming-out party. Premiering with a series of three sold-out theater shows in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, it was the first chance for Hodgson and the new cast to see a genuine public reaction to the first couple of new MST3K episodes. To call the experience nerve-wracking for the show’s new creative team would be an understatement of massive proportions.

“It was immeasurable, the release of tension that I think all of us felt,” says Ray. “Baron, Hampton and I, we liked the new show, but you’re in a bubble. You have no idea how other people would react. Sitting in a room with tons of people laughing, even at jokes we weren’t sure about, felt so good.”

In fact, according to Yount, many of the fans who introduced themselves after the preview screenings all had the same thing to say: Their initial worries about the new series were now a thing of the past.

“They’re a very optimistic group of fans,” Yount observes. “The show itself is a lot more about positive feelings than negative ones, and that carries over to the fans. The response to it has been so overwhelmingly positive that we were taken aback.”

In general, simply listening to each member of the cast talk about the new show is a treat, because they all sound so alike in their giddiness and “I am living the dream” optimism. They all go on at length about their aspirations in charming fashion—Day, for instance, hopes to find herself in the theater as a silhouette someday. Ray discusses the differences in his character’s relationship to the Bots compared to Joel or Mike, describing himself as something like this show’s version of Cousin Oliver, “like the little kid next door who just wants to come over and hang out with the Bots all the time because he thinks they’re really cool.” All of the cast members have no doubt given countless interviews on the subject already, but none of them seem tired of discussing it in the least. If anything, the excitement is building to a fever pitch now, only days before the full season hits Netflix.

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In the end, it’s Ray who will be the heart and soul; the face of a new generation of bad movie riffing. Although the fan in him actually misses the fact that he won’t be able to “complain about the new guy,” he mostly finds himself reflecting on his gratitude for being in this position. More than anything, he hopes that kids who find the show today will look at it like he did as a youth in Hawaii.

“I hope this won’t sound too pretentious, but the show was, in a lot of moments of my life, my closest group of friends,” he says. “There are some young, nerdy kids out there today who like sci-fi and comedy, but they’ve never seen MST3K. What I really hope is that they’ll see the show, and feel not as alone in the things they like. I hope that the confidence the show gave me is the same as some kid might get from watching it now.”

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident MST3K obsessive. You can follow him on Twitter.

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