The Timeless Formula of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ Goes Live

New host Jonah Ray discusses tour, honorable riffs, and nerd fan acceptance

The toxicity of nerd culture these days often leads to a this is why we can’t have nice things result. If projects touching on any semblance of nerd nostalgia don’t align with rigid expectations (often totally misguided ones), then fans attempt to stage online revolts. Thankfully, somehow the KickStarter-to-Netflix reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was able to overcome any initial backlash to recapture the original’s riffing-with-robot-puppets-over-B-movies magic while garnering universal acclaim (seriously, you can’t top 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). With MST3K creator and original host Joel Hodgson overseeing things, a fresh comedic cast led by Jonah Ray as new host Jonah Heston unleashed an unrelenting barrage of geeky jokes that made it feel like the show had never left.

Mystery Science Theater now heads out on tour to celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary. For the live shows, Hodgson joins Ray and the bots on stage for riffing mayhem. The tour swings into town on Sunday, Nov. 11, with the double feature of The Brain (matinee) and Deathstalker II (night screening) at The Moore.

We caught up with Jonah Ray to discuss the tour, honorable riffs, and nerd fan acceptance.

What about the Mystery Science Theater 3000 formula makes it timeless in a way that people still enjoy it, but flexible enough to change the cast and not miss a beat?

Joel has kind of felt that way about the show: that it would always be a revolving set of characters in the same world—that kind of Dr. Who thing, where you can change up everything, but it’s still the same spirit of the show. It’s a comedy/variety show: it’s SNL, it’s Your Show of Shows. The idea and the jokes that people like are still there.

People might like certain eras better. When I was 12 to 14, SNL was Phil Hartman and Chris Farley and Mike Myers and stuff like that, so that’s why I’m like, “Oh, that was the best era!” But it’s only because that’s my era. And it just proves that shows like this can just kind of have this life and this renewal. It’s just time-honored tradition of people making fun of other people’s art.

How does preparing a MST3K live show differ from putting together an episode?

The nature of the show, the way it’s made, it’s so kind of live-to-tape that there’s no real difference. But the once we start doing the show, that’s when it starts to take another [life]. You start to hear what’s working. You’re like, “Oh, these jokes are a little too close together,” because this riff happens and people laugh, but then they’re laughing over the next line in the movie, so they’re not gonna hear the set-up for the joke that comes after. So we just take out the joke that comes after. You’re also like, “Oh, that joke’s not working, but we need something here,” and then you start rewriting and punching up. So the show has more of a live show frenetic energy during the sketches.

You toured MST3K when the reboot first came out, but how has this tour been different with the addition of Joel being onstage?

The way we set it up, me and the bots come out, and within the first scene, Joel is introduced and runs out. And hearing how excited the audience is to see him, and see him next to the bots, and see him in the jumpsuit, I get excited. Because I would’ve been screaming in the audience as well.

Also, just having another human to goof off with [is great]. The bots are fun, but someone who can move around with me onstage is kinda nice, you know?

If rights weren’t an issue, do you have a dream movie to do for MST3K?

Joel’s go-to is always Happy Feet. He hates that movie so much. [Laughs] I really pushed for Maximum Overdrive. I think it’d just be so fun, and it’d work so well right now because we’re kind of in a Stephen King renaissance.

I’m trying to think of a movie that I really just hate. But I’m such a sucker for movies that I don’t really hate that many movies. I always try to find something I enjoy about any of them.

It really would be something like Dawn of the Dead, where I know it and love it so much that I would really take the time to make it an honorable riff.

Just hanging with friends, a lot of the times the best riffing happens with movies that everyone knows, like a Star Wars. People are less upset about a movie being joked over when they are familiar with where the plot is going, like I’m pretty sure they’re gonna try to blow up the Death Star.

That’s the thing about riffing: to be able to sustain jokes that long, you have to let the movie show itself and let the characters show themselves, so you have stuff to riff off of. You’ll see it—especially with the live shows—where when you get toward the end of the movie, some of the jokes aren’t crazy-solid jokes, but they’re character-based, because everyone knows the characters now. You can make subtler jokes that people really connect with and laugh hard at. So it’s really important to let the movie reveal itself and not get in the way too much.

One of my favorite MST3K joke forms is when a character has been established just making up dumb lines or replies for y’all to say as them.

Yeah, that’s one of my favorite things too. It’s bestowing added character traits that’s based off the character that’s already there.

How many times do you have to watch a film when putting together a MST3K episode?

It’s hard to say, because the way you do it, you break it into 12-minute [chunks] a day. That’s the level before you break into insane fits of rage. That takes a good amount of your day doing 12 minutes. So you sit and write your jokes, and then the next day you bring those jokes to the [writers’] room. And then you watch it with the room and pitch your jokes. Then me and head writer Elliott Kalan—or whoever is riff-producing—will sit down and we have a spreadsheet with all the timecodes and we start to put in jokes that work. This is where it starts getting weird. You don’t know how many times you see the entire movie, but you see certain parts of the movie over and over and over again because you’re trying to figure out what to do in that moment. Sometimes you’re like, “We need something here. No one wrote anything for this section because it was kind of boring, no one was talking.” Everybody dropped the ball. So then it becomes the job of the riff producers to go, “OK, well what can we do here?” And that’s where the hard work happens. “OK, rewind it. Let’s look at it again.” There are certain aspects of certain movies that you’ve seen 30 times to try to get it right.

How has the overall fan reaction been to you taking over hosting duties? How has it compared to what you expected?

When Joel picked me and was getting ready to announce it, I was dreading it. I was really, really dreading it. I know the wrath of nerd culture, and I know how I’d feel if someone just got announced as the new host of this show that I cared so much about. So I was really ready to just kind of stay offline to protect my heart.

I was announced, and it was a little bit of everything. I just started getting all these tweets saying, “Hey, you’re going to ruin my favorite show!” “I can’t believe they got a hipster!” “You know who they should’ve got?” Stuff like that. And I would respond here and there. To people who were like “You’re going to ruin my favorite show,” I’d be like, “Well, I’m going to try not to, because it’s my favorite show.” Why would I do that? It’s not like I wasn’t a fan, and wasn’t an outward fan. I was very vocal about my love for the show. I mean, I have two comedy records that were named after lines from Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.

But there was this thing that happened with the guy who was running the KickStarter, Ivan Askwith. He was like, “Hey, I see you responding to some of the negative people.” And that’s the Internet for you, that’s your gut reaction — to defend. And he was like, “Try this trick: I see a lot of people responding kindly to you, and you’re not responding to any of them. So what you should do is respond to those people. And then once you do three of those, feel free to respond to a negative person.” And what I realized is because I had just been positive three times in a row, I could respond to anyone being negative in a kinder, less defensive, more forgiving way. And I felt a change. It felt like maybe I showed people that I wasn’t just some dick.

There was also this writeup on Birth Movies Death, where this guy kind of said, “Hey, I know some people are complaining about this guy, but here’s why I think he’s a good fit.” And that really changed people’s opinions.

Long story long, I was scared and people were very hesitant, but I understand it completely, because I would’ve been too.

But since it’s come out, I’ve really, for the most part, have only noticed positive things. And also just seeing people coming to the live shows dressing up in the yellow jumpsuit with the Heston name tag and going to comicons and seeing people dressed up as my character, that feels good. I’m not gonna be a lot of people’s favorite, but if I did anything to the Mystery Science Theater world, I finally united the Joel versus Mike crew.

Anything else you’d like to add about the live show?

It’s a big fun live comedy show. It goes off the rails a lot because Joel and I get goofy with each other. We’re also introducing a character that’s in the next season on these live shows. It’s a character called Dr. Donna St. Phibes, she’s a B-movie monster conservationist, and it’s played by Deanna Rooney. It’s kind of a sneak peak into the next season if you come and see the show.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live

Sunday, Nov. 11, at 3 and 7 p.m | The Moore | $37–$50 |

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