Joel Hodgson and Jonah Ray on Reviving Mystery Science Theater 3000, Acting With Puppets, and Their Favorite Bad Movies

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Photo: Darren Michaels, SMPSP/Netflix

When you sit down with Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson and the show’s new host Jonah Ray, you feel like you’re in the presence of a comfortable buddy duo. Although the two comedians have known each other for only a few years, they’ve quickly translated their instant rapport into Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, Netflix’s much-anticipated (and Kickstarted) revival of the beloved cult hit.

Despite that comfortable chemistry, Ray and Hodgson are not of the same age: Ray is 35, while Hodgson just turned 57. That difference is striking, given how much time has passed since Hodgson hosted MST3K, and the fact that Ray grew up watching his show on Comedy Central. Ahead of MST3K: The Return’s premiere on April 14, Vulture talked with Hodgson and Ray about what it’s like to write jokes, work with (ro)bot puppets, and make fun of really bad movies together.

What’s your collaborative process like? How do you two work together on jokes?
Jonah Ray: It starts off as a silly aside.

Joel Hodgson: Yeah, it’s just playful. You have to have a real buoyant attitude because it’s not actual fun to mechanically write. It’s mostly playfulness, and goofing around, and thinking something will come of it. The whole point is to amuse each other.

Ray: And mutual massages.

Jonah, what kind of advice did Joel give you before the MST3K Rifftrax reunion?
Hodgson: I think we had already made the show already, hadn’t we?

Ray: No, we hadn’t. We were still writing at that time. I had done live riffing before with Doug Benson, but that’s not the same. This was in the context of being with everybody from the original show. I was getting really nervous, and Joel’s response to me was, “Hey man, re-lax. It’s Minneapolis, people are gonna love it.”

Joel, what was it like to work on concepts for this new season?
Hogdson: One of the big things that happened — and I couldn’t have anticipated this happening — is how many feelings came out after putting Jonah in that situation rather than me. Long story short, I started to realize that I had a lot of unresolved feelings about how hosting the show felt. Nobody really gets how hard it is other than Jonah, and Mike, and myself. It’s way different when you don’t have other roles in the show.

Ray: It wasn’t just saying the right lines, it was knowing a sleight-of-hand magic trick, how to work a prop we had.

Photo: Darren Michaels/Satellite of Love/Netflix

In an interview with Jonah, you said that you once built props in a Minneapolis warehouse that you shared with Hüsker Dü. There’s gotta be a story there, right?
Hodgson: Yeah. I had warehouse space in the Rossmor building in St. Paul. That is the warehouse from the Warehouse: Songs and Stories album. So I’d see those guys around, coming and going.

Ray: Didn’t you go to one of the record release shows with [comedian] Dana Gould?

Hodgson: Yeah. It’s one of the memories I am most proud of because this is a picture of Dana Gould and I when we were in our 20s. For whatever reason, we decided that we were gonna play air guitar and try to upstage Hüsker Dü. We were on the ground and they were up on the stage with lights. But we were doing it so big, trying to upstage them, as silly as that sounds.

Let’s talk about the bots. How did those guys end up being the mainstays? As the show has changed, they’ve remained the same.
Hodgson: We transitioned piece-by-piece as the show rolled over. Josh Weinstein was the first Tom Servo and Gypsy. He left after the first, so [Kevin Murphy] came in and did Servo, and Jim Mallon did Gypsy. [Puppeteer] Trace Beaulieu stayed on as Crow. Then I left and Mike picked things up. Kevin and Trace were still Servo and Crow. Then Trace left, and [Bill Corbett] came in. So it was a piece-by-piece transition. The roles are always the same, but there’s always three different people. There’s three different hosts, three different Servos, three different Crows, and four different Gypsies.

Ray: Was there a reason for keeping the bots as they are, do you think? The humans can escape, or become a ball of energy, but the bots are just gonna stay on that satellite.

Hodgson: I didn’t put too much thought into it, obviously.

Ray: Should we really just relax?

Hodgson: Yes. But it’s also because of Star Wars. I thought I was making Servo look like R2-D2, but I was misremembering since I thought he was red and white, not blue and white. You couldn’t go online 30 years ago and search, “What color is R2-D2?” I was just going, “Well, I guess he’s red and white.”

Photo: Darren Michaels/Photo by Darren Michaels, SMPSP / TM & © 2016 Satellite of Love, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Jonah, how much MST3K did you watch when you were a kid? How devout a fan were you?
Ray: I was pretty avid. I caught it randomly one night on Comedy Central. I remember coming home late one night after seeing a movie, and I turned it on and thought, “Ugh, they’re just replaying old movies? This is dumb!” I was about to turn the channel until I saw the characters’ silhouettes. Then I heard the voices, and I was like, “This is nuts!” There was Joel, this dude I recognized from Letterman. And robots. I was pretty much hooked. I remember trying to describe it to my friends at school the next day, and I remember sounding like a madman.

I watched it every time I could. I taped it, I got my friends into it. I had three different Mystery Science Theater shirts. So yes, I was obsessed with the show. Watching Mystery Science Theater was like watching movies with my friends. Growing up, I made fun of movies with Mystery Science Theater, and I made fun of music with Weird Al Yankovic.

How did you watch the types of movies that appear on MST3K?
Hodgson: I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, so there were three TV channels. It was really a great moment when any kind of fantasy or horror or monster movie was on TV. It was like winning the lottery. So to me, all these movies were really special when they came on. There were local monster movie shows in Green Bay, where I grew up, and that was really important to me. It spoke to me like an invitation: “You could do that, if you wanted to. You could figure out a way.

Ray: I grew up with cable, so they were there. But when I first got HBO, it was just nonstop horror movies and crappy sci-fi movies. I got really interested in Bela Lugosi. I was 12 when I saw Ed Wood. That flipped me out. I learned everything I could about Ed Wood and Tor Johnson, and it kind of coincided with my obsession with Mystery Science Theater. I would go to the library and check out books about horror movies, or books about movies in general. I’d read about it in a book, and then just go to Blockbuster or Video Joe.

How are you selecting your films this time around?
Hodgson: I don’t want to talk about it too much, since we’re not revealing what the movies we’ve chosen are. But it’s a similar process. The main difference is that the movies are now in widescreen. The biggest problem is finding good prints. They’re still not great movies, but we have to live with them so much that you don’t really want a movie that’s hard to look at. We really do spend a lot of time with them, so we try not to spend time with a movie that’s just physically ugly.

Ray: Without giving too much away, it feels the same. The sound and the vibe, just the feel of these movies — it could have been from any time in the show’s run.

Rifftrax deals with more contemporary titles, but MST3K rarely does. Will you steer clear of riffing on recent films?
Hodgson: What I wanted to do with this series is try to create a certain tone again. That’s a hard one to answer, because I don’t want to give away too much about where we’re going. But I guess —

Ray: Star Wars. Every single Star Wars. And because there’s only eight of ’em, we just repeat some of them.

Hodgson: We’re doing Pixar movies this time. Pixar, and the new Star Wars.

Ray: You haven’t seen Up the way we deliver it.

Photo: Darren Michaels/Satellite of Love/Netflix

Is there a gap in pop-culture references between you two?
Hodgson: I’ve noticed the younger generation not only knows all of the stuff that I know, but a whole lot more.

Ray: As I’m finding with the stuff that we’re writing, [head writer] Elliott Kalan has a certain perspective of our current pop culture, and there’s what I have, and [comedian Hampton Yount] has this innate ability to know about the Kardashians. Not that there are Kardashian jokes, but he just knows about that stuff. [Puppeteer] Baron Vaughn brings another perspective, too. There will be a reference to a ’70s TV-show character, and I’ll throw in a reference to Hot Fuzz. It’s a great spectrum of time.

Hodgson: When you’re a kid, so much of what you see, you don’t know. But you still identify with it; you still learn from it. It’s about what you assign meaning to, and that’s how you learn about new things. Somebody pitched a popcorn GIF during one of the shows. And I go, “What’s a popcorn GIF?” That’s where people are fighting online, and you put up a popcorn GIF to show that we’re really enjoying this fight. That’s one of the riffs, but I didn’t know what it was.

What’s Jonah’s character like? What’s his relationship to the bots?
Ray: Joel was the father figure of the bots — he built them. Mike was kind of an older brother. There was a bit more equality between ’em. I’m like the younger brother of the kid next door. They don’t like me, and I hope they do. I’m just trying to keep them happy so they don’t resent me too much.

Hodgson: He’s new. The thinking is that they’ve always been there, and he’s just coming into it.

Ray: When I try to belong too much, they scoff at me. There’s a joke where Tom goes, “We don’t know you!” And I say, “I’ve been here for two months!” So they won’t let it go.

Hodgson: I think their attitude is also: If something happens to him, they’ll just put another one up. They’re not getting too attached.

Ray: Which is generally how I feel on the show anyway.

Photo: Darren Michaels/Satellite of Love/Netflix

What’s the greatest challenge of acting alongside puppets?
Ray: When we did the host segments, I would almost try to stay in the scene with the bots. Joel would have to say, “Don’t forget, there’s an audience out there and you gotta connect with them.” You have to keep a connection with the audience at home. I had to remember that, because I just wanted to have a conversation with the robots.

Hodgson: Somebody I really trust said that a lot of the success of the show is just looking into the camera and talking to people. There’s not many shows that do that. It’s a holdout from a kids’ show like Blue’s Clues, even though MST is before Blue’s Clues. But there’s that kind of directness that they used to do on kids’ show, where I’m talking to you, and looking at you. It’s direct.

Does the fact that you’re shooting digital affect the number of takes you do?
Hodgson: It’s always been on video, so we never did film. My impression is we always do three takes. In the past, we would usually use the third take. If things are more complicated, we’ll do more.

Ray: It’s funny, because with so many of the other things I do sketch-wise, you can do as many takes as you need to do and you also have other angles. So if you have four takes and none of them are perfect, you can still cut together a perfect scene. If you’re going through [MST3K] and it’s going great — you get your lines, you did the sleight-of-hand magic trick, you made the prop work — and then you mess up a line toward the end, it’s best to just try to recover and keep going.

How can you tell if a riff is working? What’s the veto process like in the writers’ room?
Hodgson: One of the secrets of MST is that we never edited in the room. When you write, your job is just to extrude as many riffs as possible. The editing process is done at another time in another room. And that’s based on my understanding of how creativity works. It’s what allowed us to have a writing staff of eight people in Minneapolis, where every two weeks, we’d write a new show. The way we were able to do that is that we never edited in front of each other. We never said, “Eh, I’m not gonna use your joke. I want you to come up with a better joke.” That’s forbidden, because it makes you feel bad. It makes you not feel trust.

Ray: And then you’ll be too scared to say another joke.

Hodgson: My job is to just produce, not edit. That’s the secret — to produce as much as possible. If someone were to edit in front of me in the writing room, they probably wouldn’t be working for me very long. I know a lot of writing rooms that do work that way. In L.A., it’s really that way.

Ray: I’ve been in that situation, where you’re in the writer’s room and you’ve got to stop yourself. When someone’s getting an idea, you just kinda go, “Ah, well…”

Hodgson: You don’t come back from that, as a creative person. You can’t defend a joke. A joke is frail. If someone were to say, “Prove to me that joke’s funny,” I’d go, “Fuck you!” I can’t. It’s impossible. It’s either funny, or it’s not. I think people get trapped into that. I can’t tell if it’s a cultural thing, or what. But no creative idea can withstand scrutiny, I feel.

Ray: Insult them behind closed doors. When he gets into his ivory tower and starts tearing apart riffs…

Hodgson: Oh boy, here he goes.

Ray: “Begone, reference to Fresh Prince of Bel Air, begone!”

This is a heavily scripted show. Do you improv jokes at all?
Hodgson: We call that vamping. Vamping is creating the illusion that it’s spontaneous, but it’s written. To me, it’s like music — you have to know who says what or you’re gonna crash into each other. At the same time, it’s a living, breathing thing. There is room in there to have those moments. But I’ll say one thing: We didn’t put any fake laughs in. The only laughs that are in there are genuine laughs. And I think back in the day there are some fake laughs.

This may be a dumb question, but do you riff when you watch movies at home?
Ray: I turn it off. I feel like my wife turned it on a lot more than she used to once we started. Or maybe I just noticed it because I don’t make fun of movies as much out loud.

Hodgson: When it’s your job, you don’t want to do it. When I go to a movie — especially going to a theater — you’re just like everyone else, you want to get taken into the movie. You want that mysterious, magical thing that allows you to sign off on the movie and just get into it. I always worry about that thing where people are so cynical, assuming they’re gonna riff on a movie. People need movies. We need movies that are good. It’s been part of our culture for over 120 years. To be too cynical about new movies, it worries me.

Ray: Sometimes, though, Rob Schrab will have people over. He’s got all these crazy obscure movies, so we go and that’s really fun. It’s nice when it’s low stakes like that.

Hodgson: I agree.

What are your MST3K favorites? Any underappreciated picks?
Hodgson: There are certain ones that I think are really great. Everybody loves Space Mutiny, which is awesome; Final Sacrifice; Werewolf; Mitchell.

Ray: Zombie Nightmare comes up a bunch.

Hodgson: Pod People comes up. Eegah comes up. And I Accuse My Parents! That one’s super-strong, and I didn’t really remember it being particularly good. But one day, Drew Carey told me he really liked Mystery Science Theater. I go, “Which one?” And he goes, “I Accuse My Parents is the best one.” I looked at him and go, “You know, he could be right.”

Ray: Nobody ever brings up the movie when they talk about their favorite episodes.

Hodgson: That’s a really strong riff. The sketches are eh. But the movie riff is strong! In some ways, parts of MST — the new MST — are more like the movie than the old show, because it’s widescreen and we put a little more time into writing them. It might be a closer relative to that.

Ray: And that movie was made with a notes process.

Hodgson: Oh, really?

Ray: They were getting notes back from the studio on the riffs, so I think they had to go through a studio system of riffs from execs who didn’t know the show. To think it went through that process, and it’s still as strong as it is. I was talking to Kevin Murphy about it, and he said it was awful. He said they started to doubt themselves and wonder, “Are we wrong?” But it turned out great.

Hodgson: It’s really hard to defend jokes. If someone questions you, you go, “Let’s just write something else. Because I don’t want to sit and defend this. You’ve completely taken the fun out of it.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Joel Hodgson and Jonah Ray on Netflix’s MST3K Revival